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Black Mexico: Melding of Amerindian, African creates Zambo ethnic group

Zambo is a term of Spanish origin describing Latin Americans of mixed African and Amerindian racial descent.

Compton Herald | Zambo
Friends at Punta Maldonada, Cuajinicuilapa, Guerrero. Photo: Wikipedia/Alejandro Linares Garcia

Zambos emerged from African, Indigenous intermingling; endured centuries of oppression from Spanish ruling class

Compton Herald | Black MexicoThis multiple-part series unravels the little-known history of how Mexico’s 15th-century assimilation of Spaniards, Indigenous natives, and African slaves gave rise to “Black Mexico,” and eventually led to the founding of Los Angeles by Black Mexicans and Mestizos in the 18th century when California still was under the rule of Mexico. Even though the Black imprint in Mexico is unraveling more and more as time moves on, the reality of the truth is still largely mired in a Shadow History and the truth has never been taught as a history lesson in Mexico, much less as historic text in America. Until now, this historic truth largely has been available as scholarly works. The Compton Herald sought out this history, scaled down its volume from multiple scholarly sources, and now present it in nine parts for public consumption — the editor.

Part VIII — “Black Mexico: Unearthing the ‘Third Root’”

IN THE WAKE OF MEXICO’S OFFICIAL nod to recognize Black-Mexicans in the National Census in December 2015, further attention must now focus on these unique people to help them fully understand who they are as they emerge from the shadows of obscurity.

Many falsehoods about the story of African assimilation into colonial Mexico history persist in 2017, lies infused by the racist caste system under Spanish-ruled colonial Mexico.

The most blatant of the story-telling is the whitewashing of African interaction with Amerindians – indigenous natives specific to Mexico — something rarely addressed. Historians have long identified progeny produced by race-mixing between African slaves, indigenous Indians, and their Spanish enslavers as mulattos, or mestizos.

The interaction between the Spanish and the indigenous population yielded mestizos, as earlier installments in the Black Mexico series have examined. Indigenous forebears to mestizos included the Nahua, Mayan, Zapotec, Mixtec, Zacatec, Mazatec, Coahuiltec, Tamaulipec, and Yaqui people, among others — the original or First Root in Mexico.

Spanish assimilation with the indigenous people burrowed the Second Root in Mexico.

The Third Root is the sub-Saharan Africans. The Black presence in Mexico dates back to the beginnings of colonization where Blacks were brought as enslaved soldiers. Later during the colonial era, they were imported from Africa to ports in southeastern Mexico to serve as slave laborers. These slaves were distributed to work in Veracruz, Tabasco, Tlaxcala, Guerrero, and Oaxaca. Most mixed with Mexicans or other races because if one parent was free their offspring could be legally free.

Origin of Zambo

In a short span of time, the Black slave population of Mexico decreased and many Black-Mexicans became known in the ethnic lexicon as zambos and mulattos. The racial classification zambo originated from the inter-marriage of Africans and indigenous natives, also known as Indians or Amerindians. Many of these Black-Mexicans were among the first settlers in modern-day northern Mexico and the Southwestern U.S., as documented by the arrival of the original pobladores in Alta California.

In the official records of the pobladores, the majority of the settlers are identified as mulatto, which attests to their African ancestry. But a closer examination of the records from Seville, Spain, yields that the settlers — or at least, some of them — were zambos. The only pobladore listed as African or Black was Luis Quintero.

In the past, zambos formed a sizeable minority in Mexico, where they are called lobos. Culturally, Mexican lobos merged Amerindian traditions with African influences, notably in music and food.

The first zambos were initially the offspring of escaping shipwrecked slaves, as well as plantation escapees who ventured into the Mexican highlands like Gaspar Yanga. Some zambos sought refuge from colonial authorities in remote Amerindian communities of Central America, South America, and the Caribbean jungles. In the Caribbean on the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), escaped slaves encountered the few remaining Tainos – indigenous people – on the island.

Racial mixing occurred on the island. The Amerindians — themselves under threat from encroaching European colonizers — were sympathetic to the plight of the fleeing slaves. The natives welcomed the slaves into their communities, offering them food and sanctuary.

As in the U.S. during slavery, there are instances in Mexican and Latin American history of Africans and Amerindians joining together and forming renegade encampments to fight their Spanish colonizers and slaveholders. In Latin America, these primarily African settlements of runaways, or Maroons, were called Quilombos.

The most famous of all Quilombos is the legendary Palmares in Brazil. At its height, the city boasted a population of more than 30,000. The African ancestry of the Garifuna is usually attributed to escaping shipwrecked slaves; escaping slaves are ancestors of the zambos of north-western South America, the lobos of Mexico and most other zambos.

Compton Herald | zambo painting

A representation of an infant zambo, in an 18th-century “Pintura de Castas” from New Spain. The painting illustrates “From a Black man and an Amerindian woman, a Lobo is begotten”, where lobo is a synonym for zambo. Source: circa 1780 English Wikipedia author unknown

Black Mexicans originating from the Costa Chica

The prevailing theory of how Black-Mexicans arrived in the Costa Chica is underscored by the saga of 16th-century African freedom fighter, Gaspar Yanga. It makes sense that runaway slaves taking refuge within Mexico’s hills and mountains in 1570 would have settled and remained there through today.

Yanga, Mexico (a municipality renamed in 1932 from San Lorenzo de los Negros) is located in the southern area of the state of Veracruz 50 miles from the state capital of Xalapa. Yanga was established by Africans and Amerindians escaping their enslavement under the Spanish empire, a history often over-looked in scholastic accounts. There has been more than a tendency to omit certain truths, such as suppressing or minimizing the confluence between Africans and Amerindians and induce cover-ups of their assimilation and acculturation — even today.

Central, South American, and African slave populations

Some 200,000 (some estimates by historians are as high as 500,000) slaves were brought to Mexico, compared to 450,000 in the U.S., and 4.5 million to Brazil. In the 1742 and 1793 censuses, the Black population of Mexico was roughly 10 percent.

According to the scholarly work, The History of Mexico: From Pre-Conquest to Present, by Phillip L. Russell, which traces the last 500 years — from the indigenous empires that were devastated by the Spanish conquest through the 2006 election — 20,569 (0.6 percent) Blacks were recorded in the 1570 census, and 2,435 (0.1 percent) mulattos were counted.

The book offers a straightforward chronological survey of Mexican history from the pre-colonial times to the present, and documents census tracts for Blacks and mulattos in 1646, 1742, and 1793.

Documented figures for Blacks and mulattos in 1646 are: 35,089 (2 percent), and 116,529 (6.8 percent), respectively; 1742, 20,131 (0.8 percent), and 266,196 (10.7 percent), respectively; 1793, 6,100 (0.2 percent), and 369,790 (9.7 percent), respectively.

That equates to an influx of Black-Mexicans into colonial Mexico between 1570 and 1793, if one embraces the “one-drop” Black blood edict.

Truth of Zambos in Mexico

Indigenous and Black-Mexican are not exclusive categories. People who consider themselves both Black-Mexican and Amerindian, or zambo outnumber those who consider themselves to be solely Black-Mexican.

The truth is, the Spaniards skewed the truth. Mixed babies, they wrongly assumed, perhaps deliberately, were of Spanish blood.

But if more accurate scripting of Mexico’s history, such as fugitive slave Gaspar Yanga’s escape into the hills and mountains of colonial Mexico can be used as a gauge, then the broad definition of mulatto for Mexicans with African ancestry has to be called into question.

An undetermined number of Amerindian slaves fled with Yanga to freedom, as well. Centuries of assimilation between former African and Amerindian slaves produced offspring who were neither full-blood African nor Amerindian, but a people with both distinct African and Amerindian features. Clearly, these ethnic Mexicans cannot possibly be mulatto due to the absence of Spanish blood.

But rarely has much attention been given to the assimilation of Africans and Amerindians, both enslaved under Spanish rule and subjected to a class wholly sub-standard to Spaniards, including criollos, or those of Spanish ancestry born in Mexico.

The dearth of attention to zambos has major implications to the current day. Zambos are still obscure in contemporary Mexico and the U.S., as well. With Mexico’s official recognition of Black-Mexicans, that may now change as all people of Mexico will be recognized and embraced for who they are. This will have a great impact in the U.S. as zambos surely were inclusive in the original group of pobladores to Mission de Los Angeles, and those settlers that arrived in increasing numbers from Mexico to Alta California.

Today, large numbers of Black Mexicans — zambo and mulatto — make their home in Los Angeles. Many have embraced the racial designation, Blaxican.

In Mexico, where zambos have not been fully embraced, concentrations of them may only be apparent in tiny communities scattered around the southern coastal states of Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Yucatán, and Veracruz.

Interestingly, Mexico’s second president, Vicente Guerrero, who ended slavery for Africans and Amerindians, long-held to be mulatto, was actually zambo, according to the book, The Legacy of Vicente Guerrero: Mexico’s First Black-Indian President by Theodore G. Vincent.

The book asserts that most Black-Mexicans are not mulatto, but rather zambo and that the Spanish hierarchy from colonial Mexico to the present has had a tendency to “homogenize” people under the caste system.

In Latin America, zambo is a term of Spanish origin describing Latin Americans of mixed African and Amerindian racial descent. The feminine form is zamba. During this era, a myriad of terms was in use to denote other individuals of African/Amerindian ancestry in ratios smaller or greater than the 50/50 of zambos: “Cambujo” (zambo/Amerindian mix) for example. Today, in Latin America, zambo refers to all people with significant amounts of both African and Amerindian ancestry.

In Latin America, these populations of Amerindian and African mixed ancestry are generally marginalized and discriminated against, with color bias being pervasive throughout much of the region. Beyond the pockets of these specifically identified ethnic communities, in Latin American nations with large populations of people of African descent, the percentage of those with Hispanic ancestry is relatively high (though not as a ratio of the make-up of the individuals).

Zambos in Central and South America

A cultural and psychological change also took place in Bolivia. The Afro-Bolivian community absorbed and retained many aspects of Amerindian cultural influences, such as dress and use of the Aymara language. These communities of Afro-Bolivians reside in the yungas (a stretch of forest along the eastern slope of the Andes Mountains from Peru, Bolivia, and northern Argentina) of the Bolivian capital of La Paz.

Marital and non-marital unions described as producing zambos took place all throughout the Spanish colonial empire, following the pattern established in Hispaniola; and the group was generally classified among those people who were not of European ancestry. In the 18th century, the Spanish began producing systematic racial classifications, and zambo was defined in its final meaning. Such is the case in nations such as Nicaragua, and Panama, or in the case of Brazil, persons of primarily African descent who also have Portuguese ancestors.

Some famous zambo groups were created by runaway or rebel Africans who mixed with or took over indigenous communities. In the unconquered regions of Esmeraldes, in what would become Ecuador, for example, a small group of shipwrecked former slaves managed to win control of the indigenous communities, eventually representing them before Spanish authorities in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Another famous group of zambos was the Misquito zambos, who originated around 1640 when a group of African slaves revolted on a slave ship, took it over and wrecked it at Cape Gracias a Dios at the border of Honduras and Nicaragua. They united with the indigenous Miskito people, and by the early 18th century, dominated the kingdom, leading it on many extensive slave raids. Their alliance with and protection of English merchants and settlers in the area helped England found the colony of British Honduras, known today following independence, as Belize.

Zambos in 2017

Long-standing race and class discrimination of varying degrees in Latin America confront Latin Americans of African and Amerindian ancestry. The severity depends on their membership in or identification with a specific Afro-Amerindian ethnic group, or the degree to which ancestry manifests in physical characteristics. Dark skinned and curly haired people tend to be among the region’s poorest and most disenfranchised. In 1998, when Hurricane Mitch battered the northeast coast of Honduras, the Garifuna communities were among the hardest hit.

Today Black-Indians make up a small percentage of the populations of both Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Officially, in South America, zambos represent small minorities in the northwestern countries of Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. A small but noticeable number of zambos resulting from recent unions of Amerindian women to Afro-Ecuadorian men are not uncommon in major coastal cities of Ecuador.

Before the rural-to-urban migration, the Amerindians were mostly constrained to the Andes region and the Afro-Ecuadorian ethnicities to the province of Esmeraldas. The communities that exist mainly along the northwestern region of Brazil are known as Cafuzos. In Honduras, they are known as Garifunas.

While Zambos can also be found in the Dominican Republic, Belize, and in Nicaragua, their history and origins are not linked to the Garifuna.

Mexico’s Black population today

In Mexico, where zambos/lobos have not been fully embraced, the great majority have now been absorbed into the much larger Mexican mestizo population. Greater concentrations can only be found in tiny hamlets scattered around the southern coastal states, including Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Yucatán, and Veracruz, where the country’s Black-Mexicans reside. Today, Black-Mexicans — mulatto and zambo — are believed to form about 1 percent of Mexico’s population and are limited to villages along the coasts of eastern and southwestern Mexico. The total population breakdown is estimated to be:

  • Mestizo: 65-70 percent
  • White European: 15-20 percent
  • Amerindian: 10-14 percent
  • Black/Mulatto/Zambo: 1 percent

The Black/Mulatto/Zambo figure could be much higher since the Mexican National Census is only now officially recognizing this population and people articulate their self-identity.

The 2015 population survey marked the first time since the 19th century that the Mexican government included a distinct category for people of Black-Mexican descent. As of 2015, the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (in Spanish, Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía or INEGI) found that 1,973,555 persons or 1.7 percent of the population self-identified as Black-Mexican or partially Black-Mexican (1.2 percent of the population excluding people who self-identified as only partially Black-Mexican).

The percentage of the population that self-identifies as Black-Mexican at the municipal level tend to live in the Costa Chica of the state of Guerrero and Oaxaca, and Veracruz. This is no surprise since the isolated mountainous geography of the Costa Chica served as a natural barrier between the Black-Mexican community and the rest of Mexico. The highest percentage of Black-Mexicans live in this mountainous region.

Jarrette Fellows, Jr. is Publisher and Editor of Compton Herald. He attended junior and senior high school in Compton, and is an alumnus of California State University, Los Angeles.

3 COMMENTS
  • Eric Smallwood February 21, 2016

    Jarrette, thank you for researching and writing about this forgotten segment of our peoples. I didn’t know that the offspring of a Black slave and a free parent were free in Mexico – I suspect this must have been the key driver of the effective assimilation of Blacks into Mexico’s racial pool. My maternal grandfather was a Black Mexican and my grandmother was a mestiza (her great-grandparents were a Spaniard and a Mixteca-Zapoteca from Oaxaca), and I proudly claim that part of my heritage. Also, I grew up in Brazil, which had for decades claimed to be colorblind and free of discrimination, but I lived firsthand the fact that this was not true. I am encouraged by Mexico’s recent addition of a racial category for Afro-Mexicans for their next census, and by Brazil having also recently acknowledged the deeply entrenched colorism and racial based inequality that continues to exist. Again, thank you!

  • Silence January 21, 2016

    Whoever wrote this article erroneously stated that Mexicans of Indigenous/African blood in the Los Angeles area embrace the term Blaxican instead of Zambo or Mulato… A Blaxican is a person of Mexican/ American and African /American blood (totally different from Afro Mexicans) Another error is in his or her definition of the terms Zambo, Mulato, Cambujo, and so on…. First of all, everyone of these terms are of a derogatory nature… The actual English translation of the term “Zambo” is ” Baboon”… The spanish had different terms for the Indigenous/ African mix during colonial Mexico based on birthplace… Example : those of Indigenous/African mix born in the state of Veracruz were called ” Jarochos ” which literally translated means filthy pig, this same mix born in Puebla were called “Chinacos” which is from yhe spanish word; “Cochino” which is another way of saying ” dirty pig” , if this same mix was born in Michoacan, the term used was “Cambujo” if born in what is now known as Mexico City, the term used for the Indigenous/African mix was “Chilango”… In today’s Mexico, Mexicans born in Veracruz proudly call themselves “Jarochos” even if they are white Mexicans. .. Those from Mexico City also proudly refer to themselves as “Chilangos” and people born in Puebla still call themselves “Chinacos”… No matter what color they are Mexicans still use the terms Jarocho, Chilango, Chinaco… The terms Zambo and Cambujo aren’t commonly used today… The term Mulato was derived from spanish word Mula which means mule…. All of these terms were the spanish equivalent for the English term “Nigger” Nothing good about any of them… They were all used to denigrate people of that particular mix and each term also served as an identifier of birth place….

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