Africa’s Legacy in Mexico


Oaxaca Diary

Tony Gleaton

In the darkness of early morning, I ready myself to leave. One of two trucks that will take the women to market can be heard in the distance, sounding its horn in short repetitive beeps.

I struggle with my effort to adjust myself to not being asleep, while rolling up my sleeping mat and receiving a cup of coffee from my perpetual host, Dominga Soliz. Seemingly, I pass from one dream state to another in this last hour before dawn. In the near distance the truck that will eventually carry me and my few possessions to town rounds the corner down near the lagoon. Its beams of light slash the darkness, illuminating the figures  struggling with large canastas of fish that will be loaded and sold at market today.

Dominga smiles lovingly at me. In a sense I have become a small part of the village. It has been that way for nearly five years, ever since I came to photograph this area just south of Acapulco, a place I have come to view simply as a presentday reminder of black Africa’s legacy in Mexico. For a long time I felt I was taking pictures of things that mattered to me and no one else. These villagers, who became friends, sustained my quest; their effort to win longsought recognition by Mexican society inspired me to travel many miles to return here time and time again.

Now, as always, everyone is more than helpful when I ask permission to photograph. There is often no question about my repositioning subjects to create an effect, or having fathers embrace sons at my suggestion rather than theirs. The photographs that I create are as much an effort to define my own life, with its heritage encompassing Africa and Europe, as an endeavor to throw open the discourse on the broader aspects of mestizaje ,  the “assimilation” of Asians, Africans, and Europeans with indigenous Americans

The truck now stops before me. Loaders secure my bicycle and backpack to the iron stays that support the canvas roof. I, along with the village women, sit perched on planks suspended over the cargo below.  Huddled in the near darkness, bounding down a rutfilled road, I realize that I am engaged in the same balancing act as my fellow passengers, as we cling to whatever support is available in this journey as well as our lives.


Tony Gleaton began visiting Mexico’s southwest coast in 1986, completing Africa’s Legacy in Mexico in  1991. In 1992  he traveled throughout Central America using  present day descendants of the African diaspora as subjects within his photographic composition.  He soon plans to continue the project in South America.

What Is a Mexican?

Miriám Jimenez Román

Black people in Mexico? The looks of amazement and disbelief on the faces of firsttime viewers of Tony Gleaton’s photographs are eloquent testimony to the significance of these images. Particularly to those who have little or no knowledge about societies beyond the borders of the United States these photographs are a revelation. They force us to rethink many of our preconceptions not only about our southern neighbor but more generally about issues such as race, ethnicity, culture, and national identity.

Not long ago, on a hot and humid July day, I rode with friends to the town of Yanga, in the state of Veracruz on Mexico’s Gulf Coast. In recent years Yanga has received considerable attention as one of the Americas’ earliest “maroon communities,” settlements founded by fugitive slaves. Originally known as San Lorenzo de los Negros, in 1932 the town was renamed for its founder, a rebellious Muslim man from what is now Nigeria. In 1609, after resisting recapture for 38 years, Yanga negotiated with the Spaniards to establish a free black community.

Today a recently erected statue of Yanga stands on the outskirts of the town, more a testimony to the persistence of a few Mexican anthropologists who “rediscovered” the place than to the historical memory of its founders’ descendants. For as I strolled through the area and talked to the residents, and saw the evidence of an African past in their faces, I discovered that they have little more than amused curiosity about the outsiders who express interest in that past. Yanga’s people have quite simply been living their lives as they always have, making the adjustments necessary in a changing world and giving little thought to an aspect of their history for which they are now being celebrated.

The story of Yanga and his followers is remarkable for being so typical: the town’s relative isolation is the reason for its founding and for its continued existence as a predominately black enclave. Fugitive slave communities were commonly established in difficult-to-reach areas in order to secure their inhabitants from recapture.

But their physical isolation has also led to their being ignored. Particularly since the Revolution (191029), the Yangas of Mexico—most found dispersed throughout the states of Veracruz on the Gulf Coast and Oaxaca and Guerrero south of Acapulco—have been out of sight and out of mind, generally considered unworthy of any special attention.  Mexico’s African presence has been relegated to an obscured slave past, pushed aside in the interest of a national identity based on a mixture of indigenous and European cultural mestizaje. In practice, this ideology of “racial democracy” favors the European presence; too often the nation’s glorious indigenous past is reduced to folklore and ceremonial showcasing. But the handling of the African “third root” is even more dismissive. For all intents and purposes the biological, cultural, and material contributions of more than 200,000 ‘Africans and their descendants to the formation of Mexican society do not figure in the equation at all. Because they live as their neighbors live, carry out the same work, eat the same foods, and make the same music, it is assumed that blacks have assimilated into “Mexican” society. The truth of the matter is, they are  Mexican society. The historical record offers compelling evidence that Africans and their descendants contributed enormously to the very formation of Mexican culture.

When Yanga and his followers founded their settlement, the population of Mexico City consisted of approximately 36,000 Africans, 116,000 persons of African ancestry, and only 14,000 Europeans.   Escaped slaves added to the overwhelming numbers in the cities, establishing communities in Oaxaca as early as 1523. But beyond their physical presence, Africans and their descendants interacted with indigenous and European peoples in forging nearly every aspect of society. Indeed, the states of Guerrero and Morelos bear the names of two men of African ancestry, heroes of the war of independence that made possible the founding of the republic of Mexico in 1821.

It is within this context that we must view Tony Gleaton’s photographs. The people in these images, ignored in the past, now run the risk of being exoticized, of being brought forward to applaud their “Africanness” while ignoring their “Mexicanness.” The faces of these children and grandmothers should remind us of the generations that preceded them. But we must not relegate them to history. As always, they remain active participants in their world. To understand the implications of the people of Yanga— and  of Cuajinicuilapa, El Ciruelo, Corralero, and other like communities—we must go beyond physical appearance cease determining the extent of Africa’s influence simply by how much one “looks” African, and go forward to critically examine what indeed is Mexico and who are the Mexicans.

So, yes, there are black people in Mexico. We may marvel at these relatively isolated communities that can still be found along the Pacific and Gulf coasts. But of greater significance is recognizing the myriad forms that mark the African presence in Mexican culture—past and  present—many of which remain to be discovered by people such as Tony Gleaton and ourselves and certainly by the Mexican people.

Miriam Jiménez Román  is a researcher and historian she most recently filled the position  of Research Coordinator for  Exhibitions and Special  Programs at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. She has curated exhibitions on a broad variety of historical and contemporary themes related to Africans and their descendants in the Americas.



1.There are notable exceptions to this lack of attention. The anthropologist Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán’s seminal works (La población negra de Mexico, 15191810, México, D.F.: Ediciones Fuente Cultural, 1946; and Cuijla: esbozo etnográfico de un pueblo negro, Veracruz, México: Universidad Veracruzana, 1989), remain among the most important on the subject. Doubtless influenced by the interest in Africans and their descendants in other parts of the world, during the past decade a small but significant group of Mexican intellectuals have begun focusing on black Mexicans.

2.It is true that the state of Veracruz (and especially the port city of the same name) is generally recognized as having “black” people. In fact there is a widespread tendency to identify  all Mexicans who have distinctively “black” features as coming from Veracruz. In addition to its relatively wellknown history as a major slave port, Veracruz received significant numbers of descendants of Africa from Haiti and Cuba during the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

3.It is impossible to arrive at precise figures on the volume of enslaved Africans brought to Mexico—or the rest of the Americas. Hungry for slaves and eager to avoid payment of duties, traders and buyers often resorted to smuggling. The 200,000 figure is generally recognized as a conservative estimate.

4.The source of these figures is the census of 1646 for México City, as reported by Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán in La poblaci6n negra de México, p. 237. These approximate figures include as persons of African ancestry only those designated as Afromestizos, in accordance with the caste system definitions at the time. The census indicates that there were also over a million indigenous peoples. In fact, such precise definitions were almost impossible to make and it is highly probable that the categories Euromestizos  and Indomestizos  also included persons of African descent.

A Legacy of Slavery

Colin A. Palmer

When I arrived in México about two decades ago to begin research on the early history of Africans and their descendants there, a young student politely told me that I was embarking on a wild goose chase. Mexico had never imported slaves from Africa, he said, fully certain that the nation’s peoples of African descent were relatively recent arrivals. This lack of knowledge about México’s African peoples has not changed much over time. A short while ago a Mexican engineer, himself of African descent, told me adamantly that the country’s blacks were the descendants of escaped slaves from North America and Cuba. These fugitives, he proudly proclaimed, had sought and found sanctuary in a free Mexico.

The historical record, of course, tells another story. In the sixteenth century, New Spain—as Mexico was then called—probably had  more enslaved Africans than any other colony in the western hemisphere. Blacks were present as slaves of the Spaniards as early as the 1520s. Over the approximately three hundred years it lasted, the slave trade brought about 200,000 Africans to the colony. Many blacks were born in Mexico and followed their parents into slavery. Not until 1829 was the institution abolished by the leaders of the newly independent nation.

African labor was vital to the Spanish colonists. As indigenous peoples were killed or died from European diseases, blacks assumed a disproportionate share of the burden of work, particularly in the early colonial period. African slaves labored in the silver mines of Zacatecas, Taxco, Guanajuato, and Pachuca in the northern and central regions; on the sugar plantations of the Valle de Orizaba and Morelos in the south; in the textile factories (obrajes) of Puebla and Oaxaca on the west coast and in Mexico City; and in households everywhere. Others worked in skilled trades or on cattle ranches. Although black slaves were never more than two percent of the total population, their contributions to colonial Mexico were enormous, especially during acute labor shortages. Wherever their numbers permitted, slaves created networks that allowed them to cope with their situation, give expression to their humanity, and maintain a sense of self. These networks flourished in Mexico City, the port city of Veracruz, the major mining centers, and the sugar plantations, allowing Africans to preserve some of their cultural heritage even as they forged new and  dynamic relationships. Although males outnumbered females, many slaves found spouses from their own or other African ethnic groups. Other slaves married or had amorous liaisons with the indigenous peoples and to a lesser extent the Spaniards. In time, a population of mixed bloods emerged, gaining demographic ascendancy by the mideighteenth century. Known as mulattoes, pardos, or zambos, many of them were either born free or in time acquired their liberty.

As in the rest of the Americas, slavery  in Mexico exacted a severe physical and psychological price from its victims. Abuse was a constant part of a slave’s existence; resisting oppression often meant torture, mutilation, whipping, or being put in confinement. Death rates were high, especially for slaves in the silver mines and on the sugar plantations. Yet, for the most part, their spirits were never broken and many fled to establish settlements (palenques) in remote areas of the country.

These fugitives were a constant thorn in the side of slave owners. The most renowned group of “maroons,” as they were called, escaped to the mountains near Veracruz. Unable to defeat these intrepid Africans, the colonists finally recognized their freedom and allowed them to build and administer their own town. Today, their leader, Yanga, remains a symbol of black resistance in Mexico.

Other slaves rebelled or conspired to. The first conspiracy on record took place in 1537, and these assaults on the system grew more frequent as the black population increased. Regardless of the form it took—escape or rebellion—resistance demonstrated an angry defiance of the status quo and the slaves’ desire to reclaim their own lives. As such, black resistance occupies a special place in Mexico’s revolutionary tradition, a tradition that is a source of pride for many Mexicans.

Beyond that, Africans in Mexico left their cultural and genetic imprint everywhere they lived. In states such as Veracruz, Guerrero, and Oaxaca, the descendants of Africa’s children still bear the evidence of their ancestry. No longer do they see themselves as Mandinga, Wolof, Ibo, Bakongo, or members of other African ethnic groups; their selfidentity is Mexican, and they share much with other members of their nation state.

Yet their cultural heritage has not entirely disappeared. Some African traditions survive in song, music, dance, and other ways. But much has changed since slavery ended and it is difficult for a  small minority to maintain its traditions in a constantly changing society.  As their ancestors did, the few remaining persons who are visibly of African descent continue to be productive members of society. But history has not been kind to the achievements of African peoples in Mexico. It is only within recent times that their lives have been studied and their

contributions  to Mexican society illuminated.  Suffice to say, contemporary black Mexicans can claim this proud legacy and draw strength from it, even as they become a shrinking part of their country’s people.

Colin A. Palmer   is the William Rand  Kenan, Jr. Professor of History at the University of North Carolina.  He is the author of Slaves of the White God:  Blacks in Mexico, 1570-1650.  Published by Harvard University Press.

For Further Reading / Para lectura adicional

Aguirre Beltrán, Gonzalo. Cuijla, esbozo etnogadftco de un pueblo negro. Veracruz, México:   Universidad Veracruzana, 1989.

                   .La población negra de México, segunda edición. Ciudad de México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1972.

Carroll, Patrick. Blacks in Colonial Veracruz: Race, Ethnicity, and Regional Development. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1991.

Curtin, Philip D. The Atlantic Slave Trade. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975.

Gutiérrez Avila, Miguel Angel. Corrido y violencia: entre los aftomestizos de la Costa Chica de Guerrero y Oaxaca.   Chilpancingo, Guerrero, México: Universidad Autónoma  de Guerrero, 1988.

Jiménez Román, Miriam. The African Presence in the Americas: Tradition, Transformation and Change  (exhibition catalogue). New York: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 1991.

Klein, Herbert. African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. New York: Oxford University  Press, 1986.

Palmer, Colin. “The Cruelest Commerce.” In National Geographic, vol. 182, no. 3 (Sept. 1992). 

                    .Human Cargoes: the British Slave Trade to Spanish America, 17001739. Urbana, IL: University of  Illinois Press, 1981. 

                    .Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico, 15701650. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Pérez Ferndndez, Rolando Antonio. La múisica afromestiza mexicana.  Xalapa, Veracruz, México:   Editorial UV, 1990.