Black Mexico: Gaspar Yanga, African warrior
The flight of Africans into the highlands of Veracruz provided the foundation for a famous rebellion led by escaped African slave, Gaspar Yanga, in Mexico in 1571
The Gaspar Yanga statue “Estatua Yanga,” located in Vera Cruz Mexico. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Erasmo Vasquez Lendechy
Gaspar Yanga’s African warrior roots run deep in Mexico’s history; 38 years of rebellion won freedom for the African slaves in Colonial Mexico
This multiple-part series will unravel the little-known history of how Mexico’s 15th-century assimilation of Spaniards, indigenous Indians, and African slaves eventually led to the founding of Los Angeles by Black-Mexicans and Mestizos in the 18th century when California was still 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 because the masses do not frequent libraries and this truth has never been taught as a history lesson in Mexico, much less as historic text in the U.S. To now, this invaluable historic truth has largely 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 — Jarrette Fellows, Jr.
THE FLIGHT OF AFRICANS into the highlands of Veracruz provided the foundation for a famous rebellion led by escaped African slave, Gaspar Yanga, in Mexico in 1571. Believed to be a member of the royal house of Gabon, Africa, Yanga went on to lead the slaves in a successful revolt against their Spanish captors.
In 1609, after 38 years fighting the Spaniards and eluding capture, Yanga ultimately negotiated a treaty with his nemesis and achieved his desired goal of freedom from bondage for his people. Today, the town of Yanga in Veracruz is living testimony to his incredible achievement.
Miriam Jiménez Román is another important contemporary figure whose work to unearth the buried history of Africa’s imprint in the mestizaje has yielded invaluable findings. Her work as a writer, professor, and head of the Afro-Latin@Forum has imparted light into the “black hole” of the Black-Mexican experience and uniquely positioned her as an authority on the subject. Her scholarly work, The Afro-Latin@Reader: History and Culture in the United States, has been critically acclaimed for its diverse portrait of Black Latinos in America.
Román contributed mightily to the Smithsonian’s Tony Gleaton photo exhibit through her travels in Mexico, tracking and back-tracking evidence of the elusive mestizaje. In 1990, she traveled to Yanga in search of undeniable proof that Africans have a deeply shared history in Mexico. Román shared her findings in the essay What Is A Mexican?
Located in the State of Veracruz on Mexico’s Gulf coast, Yanga has received considerable attention as one of the Americas’ earliest “maroon” settlements founded by fugitive slaves. Originally known as San Lorenzo de Los Negros, in 1932 the town was renamed for its founder, a rebellious Muslim man from Nigeria in West Africa.
Behold Gaspar Yanga
Román recalls the first time she beheld the towering statue of Gaspar Yanga.
“Today, a recently erected statue of Yanga stands on the outskirts of the town, more a testimony to the persistence of a few Mexican anthropologists who re-discovered the place, than to the historical memory of its founders’ descendants,” writes Román. “As I strolled through the area and talked to the residents, and saw the evidence of an African past in their faces, I discovered that they have little more than amused curiosity about the outsiders who express interest in that past. Yanga’s people have quite simply been living their lives as they always have, making the adjustments necessary in a changing world and giving little thought to an aspect of their history for which they are now being celebrated.”
The story of Yanga and his followers is remarkable for being so typical, writes Román. “The town’s relative isolation is the reason for its founding and for its continued existence as a predominately Black enclave. Fugitive slave communities were commonly established in difficult-to-reach areas in order to secure their inhabitants from recapture.”
Out of sight and out of mind
But as Román notes, the physical isolation of Yanga has also led to the people and the town being ignored, particularly since the Yangas of Mexico — most found dispersed throughout the states of Veracruz on the gulf coast and Oaxaca and Guerrero south of Acapulco — have been out of sight and out of mind.
“Generally considered unworthy of any special attention, Mexico’s African presence has been relegated to an obscured slave past, pushed aside in the interest of a national identity based on a mixture of Indigenous and European cultural mestizaje,” writes Roman.
“In practice, this ideology of ‘racial democracy’ favors the European presence; too often the nation’s glorious indigenous [Indian] past is reduced to folklore and ceremonial showcasing. But the handling of the African ‘third root’ is even more dismissive. For all intents and purposes the biological, cultural, and material contributions of more than 200,000 Africans and their descendants to the formation of Mexican society do not figure in the equation at all,” she notes, “because they live as their neighbors live, carry out the same work, eat the same foods, and make the same music. It is assumed that Blacks have assimilated into ‘Mexican’ society. The truth of the matter is, they are Mexican society. The historical record offers compelling evidence that Africans and their descendants contributed enormously to the very formation of Mexican culture.”
When Yanga and his followers founded their settlement, the population of Mexico City consisted of approximately 36,000 Africans, 116,000 persons of African ancestry, and only 14,000 Europeans, Roman explains.
“Escaped slaves added to the overwhelming numbers in the cities, establishing communities in Oaxaca as early as 1523. Beyond their physical presence, Africans and their descendants interacted with indigenous and European peoples in forging nearly every aspect of society. Indeed, the states of Guerrero and Morelos bear the names of two men of African ancestry, heroes of the war of independence that made possible the founding of the Republic of Mexico in 1821.”
What indeed is Mexico and who are the Mexicans?
Addressing Gleaton’s images, Román notes, “The people in these images, ignored in the past, now run the risk of being exoticized, of being brought forward to applaud their ‘Africanness’ while ignoring their ‘Mexicanness.’ The faces of these children and grandmothers should remind us of the generations that preceded them.
“But we must not relegate them to history. As always, they remain active participants in their world,” she explains. “To understand the implications of the people of Yanga — and of Cuajinicuilapa, El Ciruelo, Corralero, and other like communities — we must go beyond physical appearance, cease determining the extent of Africa’s influence simply by how much one looks African, and go forward to critically examine what indeed is Mexico and who are the Mexicans.
“So, yes, there are Black people in Mexico,” writes Román. “We may marvel at these relatively isolated communities that can still be found along the Pacific and Gulf coasts. But of greater significance is recognizing the myriad forms that mark the African presence in Mexican culture, past and present, many of which remain to be discovered by [us] and certainly by the Mexican people.”