Honoring The African Cultural Influence in Mexico

May 5, 2022

Almost two hundred years before Haiti declared its independence from France, the town of San Lorenzo De Los Negros was established in Mexico. In 1923, the town was renamed Yanga after the alleged African prince who fled his enslavers almost as soon as he hit the ground in what was then New Spain in 1573. According to the Pulitzer Center, Yanga would go on to fight colonial Spanish forces for three decades before they finally gave up on efforts to reclaim the town.

That was in 1609. Two hundred and twenty years later, Vincente Guerrero became Mexico’s second president. Less than a century after that, Emiliano Zapato would emerge as one of the central – and most celebrated – figures of the Mexican Revolution. Yet somehow, Mexican history books have left out the fact that both of these historical figures were Black.

For centuries, the Mexican identity has been promoted as being a mix of Spanish and Indigenous ancestry, leaving those who don’t fit that mestizo aesthetic wondering about their heritage and culture. But over the last few decades, self-identifying Afro-Mexicans have fought to reclaim their identity, by delving into their African roots and history. The growing Afro-Mexican movement even succeeded in having Congress officially recognize “negro” as a legal racial designation on the Mexican census and other legal documents in 2015. Yes, seven years ago.

One of the greatest barriers to recognizing African heritage in Mexico has simply been time. An estimated 200,000 enslaved Africans were brought into the former Spanish colony between the 1500s and 1600s. Once Mexico gained its independence in 1821, the slave trade in the country came to an end. When he took office a few years later, Guerrero eliminated both slavery and a race-based caste system – with the unintended consequence that Black Mexicans essentially stopped being Black. Figuratively speaking anyway.

The influence of the early Black settlers and enslaved Africans brought into Mexico can still be felt and seen throughout Mexican culture. It’s in the inclusion of ingredients like peanuts, plantain, cassava, malanga, taro, and sweet potatoes, all incorporated into Mexican food by those who had arrived from The Continent. 

As Culture Trip reports, the biggest African influence in Mexican culture is found through music, “from Veracruz’s son jarocho style of music (of which La Bamba is the most famous example) to the Danza de los Diablos along with the Costa Chica and the use of the typically Afro-Mexican musical instruments guijada (a percussive made from donkey jawbone) and bote (a friction drum).” Ironically, dance and music are the primary ways in which Afro-Mexicans today are reconnecting with their ancestral roots. 

With so much of the history of Black people in Mexico lost to time and the Afro-Mexican identity evolving in recent years, thanks to an influx of the Caribbean and African immigrants, an integral part of the movement has been the work of activists like Daniela Lopez Carreto and organizations like Hulla Negra and México Negro to create an infrastructure that fosters self-discovery and peer-to-peer learning.