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Black Mexico: Unearthing the ‘Third Root’

Spaniards, African slaves, and indigenous Indians in Colonial Mexico forged a unique ethnic blend known as 'Black Mexico'

Compton Herald | Black Mexico
Painting: “from a Black male and female Spaniard, comes a Mulatto” Author: Anonymous. From the Collección Malu y Alejandra Escandon, Ciudad de México. Public domain.

Spaniards, Indigenous natives, and African slaves in Colonial Mexico forged a unique ethnic infusion known as ‘Black Mexicans’

Compton Herald | Black Mexico: Unearthing the Third RootThis multiple-part series will unravel the little-known history of how Mexico’s 15th-century assimilation of Spaniards, indigenous Indians, and African slaves into “Black Mexico,” 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.

Compton Herald | Black Mexico

“Estatua Yanga,” located in Vera Cruz Mexico. Gaspar Yanga is the African slave who led a revolt against his Spanish captors. They agreed to a peace treaty with Yanga after 38 years of fighting. The town of Yanga is named after the freedom fighter. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Erasmo Vasquez Lendechy

THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLE of ancient Spanish America were the Aztecs, Mayans, Olmecs, Toltecs, Zapotecs and the Mixtecs. They inhabited a geographical area encompassing present-day Florida and much of what is now the Western United States, Mexico, and parts of the Caribbean. These ancient peoples comprised the pre-Columbian Indigenous civilizations before the arrival of all-conquering Spain as a colonizer of the region prior to the 16th century. These Indigenous natives constituted modern-day Mexico’s ethnic “First Root.”

Years following Spain’s conquest and colonization of the region — which included Central America, and the northern rim of South America, according to scholar/historians, the Indigenous population was all but decimated by previously unknown diseases from Europe, brought there by Spaniards from Spain — the “Second Root.”

Over time, the Spaniards assimilated with the Indigenous culture, producing a mixed race called mestizos, which eventually evolved as the most influential culture in the nation, dominating every facet of Mexican society in business and government to the present day.

Mexico’s race mixing did not end there with the Spanish and Indigenous infusion. Though scant historical records exist about the acculturation of Africans in Mexico, the introduction of hundreds of thousands of African slaves — the ethnic “Third Root” into Mexico in the 14th and 15th centuries cannot be denied. This process of interracial mixing in Mexico became known as mestizaje.

Shadow History

A homogenous race of any significant Indigenous stock, which began to disappear as Mexico’s majority between the 17th and 21st centuries, morphed into a cross-section of the three roots — Indigenous, Spaniard, and African. But due to the suppressive efforts of the mestizo-dominant government through an inexact census, little is known of Mexico’s Third Root, or African ancestry as scholar/historians have come to identify Mexico’s African slave imprint, hence, Black Mexico.

The inter-marriage of Spaniards and African slaves yielded the mulattos in Mexican culture, better known as Black-Mexicans, who have faced discrimination and been largely ignored by the ruling mestizos — a display of both classism and racism. Mulattos represent Mexico’s “Shadow History,” which is only now being exposed by scholarly curiosity, meddling, and probing historians.

Compton Herald | Black Mexico

Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña was one of the leading revolutionary generals of the Mexican War of Independence. He fought against Spain for independence in the early 19th century, and later served as the first Black and indigenous president of Mexico. Of Afro-Mestizo descent, he was the grandfather of the Mexican politician and intellectual Vicente Riva Palacio. Photo: Wikipedia

Vicente Ramón Guerrero was one of the leading revolutionary generals of the Mexican War of Independence. He was one of the first impactful figures to emerge from Mexico’s shadow history. Guerrero fought against Spain for independence in the early 19th century, and later served as the first Black/Indigenous president of Mexico. Of Afro-Mestizo descent, he was the grandfather of the Mexican politician and intellectual Vicente Riva Palacio.

To a lesser degree, Black-Mexicans also include zambanos, a mix of Africans and Indigenous natives — more acculturation with scant documentation by the Mexican government due to the lack of investigative intrusion, analysis, and archiving.

Like America, where White colonialists from England spearheaded the direction of the nation, the European colonial influence of Spain dictated the political and economic direction of the country with African and Indigenous inroads minimal at best. The major difference is White settlers from England did not infuse with America’s Indigenous natives and African slaves who would come later, whereas the opposite was true in colonial Mexico.

Pictorial glympse

The aforementioned history came painstakingly through the efforts of researchers and historians who traveled to the inner reaches of Mexico to locate the regions there bearing indelible imprints originating from across the Atlantic to West Africa.

The late photographer Tony Gleaton photographed visual evidence in a stunning photo essay of Black Mexicans titled, “Africa’s Legacy In Mexico.” Images of the present day descendants of the African slaves brought to New Spain between 1500 and 1700 — are on display in the Smithsonian Museum as part of an exhibit titled, “Migrations in History,” which explores the nature and complexity of the movement of peoples, cultures, ideas, and objects.

Compton Herald | Black Mexico

“My Father, My Son,” Corralero, Oaxaca, Mexico, 1991 From the collection of Tony Gleaton. Images of the present day descendants of the African slaves brought to New Spain between 1500 and 1700 — are on display in the Smithsonian Museum as part of an exhibit titled, “Migrations in History.”

From 1982 through 1988, Gleaton traveled extensively in Mexico, eventually befriending the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico where he came and went for nearly two years before traveling to Guerrero and Oaxaca, photographing the people there, whose darkened faces, Gleaton said “quietly testified of their African past.”

RELATED:  Tony Gleaton, Africa’s Legacy In Mexico Part 1 of 3 [VIDEO]

“The photographs are as much an effort to define my own life, with its heritage encompassing Africa and Europe,” Gleaton wrote in an essay, “as it is an endeavor to throw open the discourse on the broader aspects of ‘mestizaje,’ — the assimilation of Africans and Europeans with indigenous [Mexicans]. I came to photograph this area just south of Acapulco, a place I have come to view simply as a present-day reminder of Black Africa’s legacy in Mexico.”

Bobby Vaughn, professor of anthropology at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif. has amassed a photo collection as part of his studies of Black-Mexicans of the Costa Chica regions of Guerrero, Mexico and Oaxaca, Mexico. Both areas have significant populations of Black-Mexicans, who settled in the area as escaped slaves. Vaughn’s Web site and photo galleries report his extensive studies on the culture, history, and unique experience of Mexicans of African descent. He writes on his website: “One of the research questions that most interests me is ‘How do Black people in Mexico understand and live their Black identity — assuming they have a Black identity at all?'”

Delving deeper into history

The history of Black Mexico is both illuminating and mysterious. Scholars have long been acquainted with the history of slavery in Mexico. In fact, long before the first Spanish galleons appeared on the horizon, the practice of slavery was common among several Indigenous tribes in Mexico. So while it may be said that the Spanish did not originate slavery, they nonetheless relied upon it to expand their empire and to increase their enormous wealth.

Compton Herald | Black Mexico

Pío de Jesús Pico, the last governor of Alta California (now the State of California) under Mexican rule. His paternal grandmother, María Jacinta de la Bastida, was listed in the 1790 census as mulatta. His paternal grandfather, Santiago de la Cruz Pico, was described as a mestizo. Photo: Wikipedia

As the colonial period in Mexico unfolded, in particular during the 16th and 17th centuries, the indigenous population, weakened and reduced in number by disease, could no longer carry the heavy load of labor. That would induce Spain to introduce African slaves to Mexico to replace them, toiling in sugar fields and in underground silver mines. African slaves proved to be superior to their Indigenous counterparts and they were highly prized for their physical endurance and stamina in the debilitating hot tropical sun.

The Spaniards were cruel taskmasters and drove the African slaves to work under horrendous conditions on the sugar plantations of coastal Veracruz. Attempting escape from their captors was the only viable option for the enslaved Africans. Successful escapees fled to the high country where jungle and canyons could conceal them. Indigenous natives also fled to these remote areas and joined forces with the escaped African slaves, which led to inter-mixing and the seed of the zambano culture.

Part II of “Black Mexico: Unearthing the ‘Third Root,’” continues HERE

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.

  • George Boone January 12, 2018

    When you see Mary Pena embrace the African American part of their history this is indeed a rarity. Most Hispanics shun or disassociate the Black part of Mexico’s history due to envy, racism, and jealousy. G.B Cal-Northridge. I pray that God will deliver them from racism one day. Never forget Vincente Guerrero after all that he did for them he was unjustifiably killed by them, the whole state was in shock and the reason primarily because of his heritage. But when they see the times change they will quickly pretend that they never held such prejudices. And dont forget modern day Vicente Foxx derogatory comments about Black People. A leopard does not change it’s spots. Be wise.

  • erika November 24, 2015

    History of slavery in all of countries in Latin America is similar.
    To say that all blacks are mulatto is a mistaken because there are families composed by blacks since long time and talking like this it seems people want to bleach them.
    What some historians talk about inter-marriage, It is a romanticized vision. Miscegenation happened largely because of too much sexual abuse against slaves and Indigenous. Colonies were place for people with social problem in Europe, They were kicked until here and they were free to do anything here.
    Term mulatto is used in my country too. It is Portuguese with slave (sexual abuse romantically called inter-marriage)

  • Mary Pena August 24, 2015

    This is so interesting. I love history and I believe if we all took to it in a more accepting way, we would find that we are all part of the same family.

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