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Finding Africa in Veracruz

Posted Aug 3 2009

So, where did all of of the 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. For more background info this trip, click here. For more pics of Veracruz, click here.

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!

Comments

1. Geanie said at August 5, 2009 1:21 pm:

WOW Daniel. This is an excellent write up. I felt as if I was there too.

2. Vince said at August 5, 2009 5:21 pm:

Great article...why wasn't I invited? Let me know when you return there...

3. Daniel said at August 5, 2009 7:28 pm:

Glad you two liked it. Both Vince and Geanie, you two always have an open invitation!

4. Cornelius said at August 5, 2009 10:20 pm:

Hmmm...maybe we need to make it a group outing??? I have a ton of questions about Mexico and identity partially spurred by two recent trips to Mexico City. As an "African American" who, like almost all African Americans, is a blend of African, European, and Native, I still am very much black, so the question of race vs ethnicity vs identity on a national level is intriguing. The huge Catholic Cathedral downtown is built on top of a pyramid and has started leaning a bit over time due to the slope of the underlying structure. The irony and symbolism is not lost on many people there. Your journey sounds fascinating.

5. Evelyn said at August 7, 2009 1:17 pm:

Great article! Veracruz is a wonderful state. Well, I was born there, so how can I not love it? While I was reading, I saw you mentioned something about people carrying objects on their heads, this is very common over there...If you ever go back, and spend more time, you'll notice that many vendors tend to do this, specially in the more indigenous ares.

6. Sevaughn said at August 8, 2009 11:08 am:

Daniel, great write up, links and photos. As you know, I've traveled the world a bit and always look for the African influence wherever I go. I was fortunate enough to see the "African presence in Mexico" exhbit at the Oakland museum last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. Your words and photos make me want to take a visit to Mexico. Thanks for sharing!!!

7. Daniel said at August 9, 2009 11:57 am:

Cornelius, we definitely need to go down. I'm hoping to check out Costa Chica next, although I'm far from done with Veracruz. Like you said, these notions of identity are complex. The older I get, the less I adhere to borders and boundaries. They don't fit our realities. Didn't know about the church in D.F. Makes sense though!

8. Daniel said at August 9, 2009 11:58 am:

Evelyn, Yeah, I'm sold now. I know how much you've talked it up over the years and now I see why. Plus, you have a great family. Who else would've turned me on to fried ants!

9. Daniel said at August 9, 2009 12:12 pm:

Sevaughn, I'm glad you made it there. It's one of my favorite exhibits. I thought about you as I did some of this exploration and again during my time in Taiwan. There's a budding African and Caribbean community here and I heard that there are upwards of 200,000 Africans in China. I even heard of 2nd generation Africans who've grown up in Taiwan who only speak Chinese and Taiwanese. So much to learn!!!

10. Adrianne said at August 17, 2009 12:07 am:

Wow!!! This is such an interesting article. Everything you said in this article is so true. Prior to my trip to Ecuador, I had no idea of the African population that existed there. Once I got there, it was a major culture shock to see people who look so much like me, speak the tongue of another culture. Thank you for sharing this with me. It makes the world seem like a small place after all!

11. Adrianne said at August 17, 2009 12:10 am:

Did writting this article change your opinion as to how humans migrated and formed into distinct cultures?

12. Daniel said at August 20, 2009 12:06 pm:

Adrianne, This article and trip itself didn't change my views, but doing research over the years certainly did. My latest focus has been people of African and Latino descent who've immigrated to Asia over the past few decades.

13. Vidal said at December 12, 2012 1:31 pm:

You might want to get your nationalities straight....Christina Milian is not Cuban. She's Dominican.

14. Vidal said at December 12, 2012 1:31 pm:

You might want to get your nationalities straight....Christina Milian is not Cuban. She's Dominican.

15. Vidal said at December 12, 2012 1:31 pm:

You might want to get your nationalities straight....Christina Milian is not Cuban. She's Dominican.

16. Pedro said at July 5, 2013 9:17 am:

This blog is biased. The sources of information must be mentioned. For example, it is wrong to believe that Olmecs were africans. Totally false. Africans never made it to America, without the "help" of european slave traders. We need real data on DNA. Please, you are not an expert; you are just a curious mind, spreading more lies and posting ignorant comments. Leave that to professionals, who analyze DNA of people and get facts with evidence! Just because you are a descendant of african slaves, cannot say the rest of mexicans are like you.

17. Pedro said at July 5, 2013 9:18 am:

This blog is biased. The sources of information must be mentioned. For example, it is wrong to believe that Olmecs were africans. Totally false. Africans never made it to America, without the "help" of european slave traders. We need real data on DNA. Please, you are not an expert; you are just a curious mind, spreading more lies and posting ignorant comments. Leave that to professionals, who analyze DNA of people and get facts with evidence! Just because you are a descendant of african slaves, cannot say the rest of mexicans are like you.

18. Daniel said at July 7, 2013 8:50 pm:

Vidal, I am not sure of your source but Christina openly identities as Cuban-American. Here is an interview where she says it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tT7_oQzDYMw

19. Daniel said at July 7, 2013 8:58 pm:

Pedro, 1. It was a blog of my observations, not an academic journal. Nowhere did I claim to be an expert. 2. I never said Olmecs were Africans. In fact, here is the exact quote "Some argue that the ancient Olmecs were African, but I have not been convinced yet." I even included a link critiquing shoddy evidence. I am not quite sure why you misinterpreted what I wrote an why you are so angry about the possibility that not all Africans in the Americas were slaves. The irony is that to quote your comment you are spreading "lies and ignorant comments" about me. Please work on your reading comprehension if you are going to initiate unprovoked attacks in a public forum.

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