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African ‘Third Root’ unearthed for future generations

The research, soul immersion, writing, and the engaging feedback received from numerous readers made this series one of the most rewarding journalistic endeavors of my life

Compton Herald | Black Mexico

Black Mexico series leaves an indelible impression; a fascinating story of intrigue, endurance, and survival

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 X: “Black Mexico: Unearthing the ‘Third Root’”

THIS TENTH AND FINAL INSTALLMENT of “Black Mexico: Unearthing the ‘Third Root,’” concludes the series.

I reserved Part X to offer reflection on why I wrote this multiple-part feature and the deep personal satisfaction I gained from the experience. The research, soul immersion, writing, and the engaging feedback received from numerous readers made this series one of the most rewarding journalistic endeavors of my life. Metaphorically speaking, “Black Mexico” has been like a griot imparting an age-old story — detailing a long-buried history of people a pernicious government endeavored to forget, remanding them to the shadows of obscurity. In spite of the evil intentions, Black-Mexicans have always laid claim to the company of mankind. They were never ghosts or figments of an uncertain past. Their forebears — Africans, Indigenous natives, and their Spanish enslavers assimilated in colonial Mexico for 500 years.

For nearly all of my life, this historical fact was unknown. Often, I had seen dark-skinned Mexican people and was intrigued by the degree of melanin in their skin, which struck me as odd. My curiosity never extended beyond that — not until I came upon a magazine story about the egregious plight of a specific population of Black people in Western Mexico dispersed throughout Guerrero State, Veracruz, Oaxaca, and The Costa Chica on the fringes of the Pacific Ocean. These people had been pushed into a state of irrelevance by a government that wanted them to disappear.

Whispers of shame

I wanted to know more about these peculiar people and began to research them. The more I read about them, the more I yearned to know. When I learned they were known as Black-Mexicans linked to human servitude, seized from their African homeland in the 16th century, something powerful stirred within me. I understood why they were obscured; why they were denied national recognition by their own government, shunned, unloved, mentioned only in whispers of shame.

Stunning portraits of them by the late photographer Tony Gleaton, revealed confusion and resentment, apparent in their eyes, in their countenance. Bearing a distinct Africanness, the government and mainstream masses recognized these darker-hued “Mexicans” were a peculiar people, maligned and ostracized them, denied them acknowledgment in the National Census, effectively relegating them to an invisible people.

With a scant understanding of their personal history, many Black Mexicans have never understood their unique place in Mexican society and who they are as a people.

Awash in squalor, bound in chains

That’s what churned in my soul. I felt compelled to tell their story — a fascinating story of intrigue, endurance, and survival. I felt the unction of God to immerse myself in the shadow history to gain a deeper understanding to expand awareness of the Black-Mexican ethnos to an American audience. It is clear that African-Americans have a shared history with Black-Mexicans. The truth resonates that these are our blood cousins joined at the hip.

We have a painful shared history. Our forebears were stolen to the shores of America and New Spain, subjugated and dehumanized in the dank, putrid holes of Spanish slave ships awash in squalor, bound in chains.

Though slavery long ago was abolished in America and Mexico, an apparent oppression still rages silently in Mexico — Spain’s awful colonial caste system still dictates a tiered ethnic policy. Indigenous descendants and Black-Mexicans are relegated to the bottom of Mexican society in the 21st century with the ruling class largely comprised of the descendants of Spanish slave masters and white-privileged Criollos born in Mexico.

Fervor to share the truth

A fervor swirled within me, that these people need not be alone in their struggle. The little-known story of Black-Mexicans begged exposure; the truth of what occurred in Mexico from the Second Millennium to 2017.

The “Third Root” from Africa to Mexico contains volumes from the rape of Africa, voyage through the Middle Passage, the toil for sugar and silver in colonial Mexico, all the way through liberation and the founding of Los Angeles in 1781 by the amazing, original 44 pobladores, the majority of whom were Black-Mexicans. This truth had been documented by a succession of American and Mexican scholars, but the story needs re-telling and re-telling to both old and new generations.

The pervasive lie that maligned Black-Mexicans and encrusted Mexican society in deception for more than 500 years must be completely chiseled away and replaced by the truth.

Astonishingly, just weeks into the “Black Mexico” series, the Mexican government decreed that Black-Mexicans, alas, would be counted in the National Census. That was a seminal moment in Mexican history. Even though it was an enormous leap for Black-Mexicans, they have an arduous road ahead of them.

In view of our own Black/White racial disparities in America in 2017 — even though slavery was abolished 154 years ago — in many ways Black-Mexicans only now are taking the first steps to equality in Mexico. The year 2017 for them is just the beginning — their own “1863 emancipation.” Mexican institutions from government, media, historical societies, universities, libraries, and formative schools, must now integrate Black-Mexicans into the mainstream of society recognizing them for who they are, their culture, and uniqueness.

A hint of my mission

Two years ago a Latina friend and I were discussing the volatile relationship between Black and Latino students at local high schools that erupt into violence during each culture’s ethnic celebrations of Black History Month and Cinco de Mayo. Due mainly to ignorance, young people have sought to disrespect one another’s cultural observance, resulting in violence and injury. It is not known what precipitated this or exactly when it began, but some believe the discord is rooted in tensions between incarcerated Black and Latino gang factions.

My Latina friend suggested that if both groups recognized their commonalities, there could be ethnic détente. I took “commonalities” to mean shared urban experience — victims of racial discrimination, unemployment, poverty, and common health maladies like diabetes and hypertension. She agreed but noted a more compelling link that largely remains a taboo among Mexican- and Latino-Americans.

At the time, I had no inkling what that could be.

She divulged that many Mexicans possess “Black blood,” something of which many are in great denial and never discuss. She didn’t elaborate because, as I would come to learn, the issue was beyond her understanding. She simply passed on information that had been passed on to her — but did not understand its genesis centuries ago.

Initially, I was flabbergasted having never heard such, even though the information had been viewed as unsubstantiated by the general populace in Mexico and America for centuries, even though historians have weighed in with corroborated evidence about widespread assimilation in Mexico.

Still, many reject the “Black blood” theorem. As I penned the series I could see that given the overwhelming evidence, many Mexicans simply are in denial. This may change quickly as more Black-Mexicans emerge from obscurity in the wake of new government census tracts that will now tabulate their numbers. Greater acceptance of Black-Mexicans is not afar off, as the embrace of Afro-Latinos outside of Mexico in the Caribbean, Central America, and Brazil is becoming the norm.

When I learned the truth about the Transatlantic slave trade involving Spain, and the enormous presence of African slaves in colonial Mexico, I wanted others to know this truth. Prior to that, the reality of Black-Mexicans wasn’t in my sphere of understanding. That all changed over the course of 20 weeks penning this series.

Giants in Western history

The original pobladores who founded Los Angeles, the pioneering entrepreneur Pio Pico, and Mexico’s first Black president Vincente Guerrero, are no longer just names without significance. These are giant figures in Western history that left indelible imprints along the timeline. I have learned much researching colonial Mexico’s indigenous and African slaves, Gaspar Yanga, Vincente Guerrero, Jose Moreno, Luis Quintero, Rita Valdez, Pio Pico, and others. I feel as though I have personally met them, that I have stood in their presence.

Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles is no longer just a busy thoroughfare. The City of Pico Rivera now resonates with historical significance, and the venerable Pico House — once the tallest building in Los Angeles, built by one of the richest persons in city history — no longer is an obscure part of the cityscape.

I no longer simply drive past the Pico House when I’m in the northeast part of the city. I must stop and behold the first “skyscraper” in Los Angeles, financed and built by Pio Pico, a man with African roots.

And I exhale. It all is something of which I am deeply proud.

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.

  • Dr. Carlos Munoz, Jr. February 18, 2016

    I have been teaching about the African & multiracial roots of Mexican culture for 15 years in my summer Study Abroad class. I started teaching it in Veracruz and had the pleasure of having Professor Sagrario Cruz, one of Beltran’s top students, be our guide to visits to the historic sites where the African presence was first visible in Mexican history. Sites included the city of Yanga, named after the leader of the first African slave rebellion in the Americas.

  • Roberto Cintli Rodriguez February 18, 2016

    Awesome. In the early 1990s, I worked for Black Issues in Higher Education in Fairfax VA, while living in DC. When I moved to Mexico City in 1992, I interviewed Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran, the pioneer in this work for Black Issues. I have never doubted that I have some African blood… don’t know how much, but I don’t dispute that at all… in part through my grandfather on my mother’s side who in his photos as a young man, looked Afro-Indigenous… great article… and yes, it would be great if the Black and Brown peoples of this country understood each other’s histories…

    • Compton Herald
      Compton Herald February 18, 2016

      Thanks for the comment Roberto, and thanks for reading!

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