Finding Africa in Veracruz
Posted Aug 3 2009
While there is not nearly enough information out there on the contribution of Africans and Afro Mexicans to Mexican culture and history, there are plenty of other sites that go more in-depth in this topic. As such, I’m going to spend less time on history and more on what I was able to find. I also created a photo gallery to complement this writing.
What initially got me interested in finding out more was in college my friend Vince had written a short paper on Black Mexicans. I had never heard of such a thing. Incidentally, I soon became exposed to the photography of Tony Gleaton, and later, the work of Dr. Bobby Vaughn. Over the years I’ve also visited the exhibit by the National Museum of Mexican Art, including its stop over in Oakland, as well as another exhibit at Detroit’s Charles Wright Museum of African American History. But more importantly, I also began to look at my own family differently. Even as a kid I wondered how come some relatives had ‘fros or looked more like African Americans than “Mexicans.” The more I learned about Black history, the more things made sense. In a nutshell, while Mexico is hardly a replica of Africa, one simply cannot separate her Black roots from the more widely acknowledged Spanish and Indigenous influences. While this fact has become more widely accepted as of late, there’s still more work that needs to be done.
Mexicans of African descent have been an integral part of the country since the conquistadores set foot in “the new world” in the late 1400s and Mexico didn’t even exist as a country yet. (Some argue that the ancient Olmecs were African, but I haven’t been convinced yet. I came across this clip that certainly makes an argument against the Olmecs immigrating from Africa.) There were African explorers, soldiers, farmers, and slaves. In fact, different sources say that until the turn of the 19th century, there were actually more Africans than Europeans in “New Spain” and they were involved in everything from fishing to mining and there’s been at least one Mexican presidents of mixed African ancestry.
So, where did all of these Black people in Mexico go? The short answer is nowhere; one needs to know where to look. As I was told by Eric, an American ex pat in Veracruz, “Africa is everywhere and nowhere,” which made sense as I explored and will explain more. In a broader sense, you can still find concentrations of Black Mexicans including the Pacific coast. Historically speaking, port cities, namely Veracruz, have had concentrations of Black people, including many from Cuba and other nearby countries. However, many have also moved away to places such as Zacatecas where mining was a huge industry, and even formed communities in Los Angeles and North Carolina. Parts of Mexico also played a role in the Underground Railroad and Black Seminoles were given land grants in the north. Furthermore, the majority of Mexicans are of mixed ancestry, often with varying mixtures of European, Indigenous, African, and even Asian or Middle Eastern roots. Unfortunately, this “mixing” has often led to attempts by many to “wipe” out the blackness, whether it’s due to ignorance or malice.
When studying Black Mexico, two of the main places people recommend are Veracruz and the Costa Chica region of Oaxaca. While the latter is more rural, it also has a larger concentration of visibly Black communities, as well a museum of Afro Mexican history. My impression is that these communities tend to be more isolated from mainstream Mexican society and have a stronger, distinct Black identity. While anecdotal, many of the Mexicans or Mexican-Americans I've known from coastal states such as Veracruz, Guerrero (which is near Oaxaca) have had noticable African ancestry, even if they themselves didn't acknowledge it. Granted, I don't know a lot of people from these states, but literally the majority have had noticable African influence. However, even in Veracruz I interacted with Mexicans who had visible African features but weren't from either of these two areas, including my own family. I'm not saying that all Mexicans have African ancestry, but definitely a lot more than realize it, and not just in the "Black" areas."
Veracruz is a mid-size city where Black people have been more integrated into society and its location on the Gulf Coast give it a strong Caribbean feel, with particularly strong ties to Cuba. I once heard that Veracruz is like Puerto Rico. I have to disagree. One, the Black presence in Puerto Rico is much more visible. Two, the Indigenous presence in Veracruz is much stronger. Three, there are hardly any Americans in Veracruz, compared to San Juan.
I had a very limited amount of time but fortunately I was able to connect with Cesar, an uncle of a couple of former students of mine. If it hadn’t been for him I definitely would’ve been much more limited in my explorations, particularly in visiting smaller town. Although he’s not a historian, he grew up in the area and his Spanish was obviously much better than mine. However, even with him as a guide, I recognize the inherent limitations of my research as I only had a few days to work with. I shall return!