A journey of Afro-Mexicans in Mexico
on July 20, 2009
Each country has missing pieces in its history. Japan, my country, for example, never admits that the Nanking Massacre happened, or that residents in Okinawa, near the end of World War II, were forced to kill themselves rather than being taken POWs by U.S. forces.
The African Presence in México: From Yanga to the Present, the current exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California, helps illuminate a missing piece in Mexico’s Afro-Mexican history. The exhibit concentrates on the history of Africans in Mexico from 1519 when Mexicans began bringing over African slaves to work in agriculture and in the silver industry. Eventually, some 250,000 to 300,000 Africans ended up in Mexico as slaves.
The Silver Miner, a lithograph, by Francisco Mora illustrates the lives of the Africans. In his work, Mora depicts the dark, low and unsupported ceiling of a silver mine making it easy to imagine the harsh lives of the slaves bent low to work.
There were constant slave protests and runaways called cimarrones established settlements, in the mountains of Orizaba. Yanga, a runaway slave, led a successful resistance against a special army sent by the Spanish Crown in 1609. After several cimarrón victories, the Spanish gave the slaves land and freedom.
Yanga founded the first free African township, San Lorenzo de los Negros, near Veracruz. Dr. Hermenegildo González Fernándezs Road to Cemetery, is a picture of today’s San Lorenzo de los Negros, which was renamed in Yanga’s honor in the 1930s.
The picture explains why the Spanish army was forced to surrender. Yanga is a jungle like place, an ideal location for cimarrones to hide, and launch guerrilla attacks on the Spanish army.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, mixed marriages made Mexico an interracial society and Mexicans were forced to live under a strict social stratification system called casta, in which the Spanish were the highest in the hierarchy. Mestizos, Spanish and indigenous, mulattoes, Spanish and African, and zambos, African and indigenous, all had limited access to job opportunities and privilege.
Casta Painting, a racial profiling picture, offers an inheritance chart as it illustrates the 16 combinations of castas.
One of the few ways for mixed race Mexicans to break through a casta was to join the military. Celia Calderón’s Jose María Morelos y Pavón, who lead Mexican Independence War, was one of the few honest depictions of him. Morelos has been described as European. However, in the picture, Morelos’ head is covered with a red scarf. David Morrison, a volunteer docent explained that Morelos was ashamed of his black curly hair that showed his African lineage.
Mexico abolished slavery in 1810—55 years before the United States. Later in 1930, Mexicans banned the collection of racial data and officially declared its society homogeneous., but ending racism in Mexican culture proved much more difficult.
The exhibit emphasizes how artists lobbied through art against the government’s position.
It includes numerous photos from Afro-Mexicans such as Tony Gleaton and Arturo Vera Domínguez, who searched for other Afro-Mexicans in Mexico. Domínguez’s photos illustrate daily life such as Afro-Mexicans playing baseball in the sugar cane fields.
Alfred J. Quiroz’s work, La Raza Kozmika, mocks the contradiction of government policy and the reality. La Raza Cosmica refers to mixed people of Latin America. It offers a powerful statement of how governments treat minorities. On both sides of the picture, Quiroz shows the execution of slaves in Mexico and Florida. Quiroz intentionally wrote “cosmica” as “kozmika” to denounce the superficial guise of homogeneity that the government touted.
The exhibition also shows the relationship between Afro-Americans and Afro-Mexicans in the United States as well as the connection that African-Americans have to Mexico.
Daniel Martínez’s The Promised Land shows how African Americans pictured Mexico as a free land, because the Mexican government granted runaway U.S. slaves civil rights and land. Photographs of circles, skeletons and Darwinian evolution, all represent obstacles that African American faced. The blue sky and pasture represent freedom from blatant U.S. discrimination.
The biggest surprise in the exhibit came when I saw the stamps of Martin Luther King, Jr. issued by Mexican government in 1968. This was almost 10 years before the U.S. Post Office issued a King stamp. It illustrates the complexity of Mexico’s racism. The Mexican government, on one hand, denounced discrimination in the north. On the other hand, it ignored the presence of Afro-Mexicans within its borders.
Artists and scholars continued to advocate for Afro-Mexicans until the Mexican government acknowledged Afro-Mexicans as the “Third Root” in 1992—500 years after Mexico’s independence from Spain.
This exhibit offers a great example of how the United States and Mexico can learn from the others’ mistakes. It also offers Oakland and the Bay Area’s other diverse cities and opportunity to reflect on current racial issues.
The exhibit continues through August 23rd from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Oakland Museum of California closes on Mondays and Tuesdays.
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