AFRICANGLOBE – The nationalistic call to assimilate into La Raza Cósmica (The Cosmic Race) obscures a rich cultural and historical legacy of Afro-Mexicans in a homogenizing quest toward a dominant mestizo culture. The Mexican slave trade reached its peak between 1580 and 1640, when nearly two out of every three African slaves bound for Spanish holdings in the Americas disembarked in Mexico (Gates, Jr., 2011).
The scale of the importation of Africans is evident in demographic figures that show Spanish outnumbered by Blacks until 1810 (Vaughn, 2001). The experiences of slavery and the rigid caste-system, coupled with a prevalent ideology of whitening among the lower class, have all worked to suppress a significant component of the Mexican people.
Notwithstanding the historical forces against any sense of racial pride, the contributions of Afro-Mexicans have been recently reappraised by scholars, who focus on two regions in Mexico that have significant Black populations today, the state of Veracruz on the Gulf coast, and the Costa Chica, an almost 250-mile long region on the Pacific coast in the state of Oaxaca. On the plains of the Costa Chica, livestock provided economic sustenance, and Blacks of the colonial period worked principally as ranchers, while in Veracruz, enslaved Blacks were taken to work in mines, sugarcane fields and wealthy homes.
African retentions are clearly present in the danza de los diablos, a stomping, syncopated dance performed in the Costa Chica on Todos Santos (All Saints’ Day):
By early 17th century, at least 10% of the Africans in New Spain had run away to form palenque (maroon societies).
The most well known of these was founded by Gaspar Yanga, who led a slave rebellion near Veracruz in 1570 and organized a self-sustaining maroon colony that eventually won its freedom to establish what is regarded as the first town founded by free Blacks in the post-Colombian Americas.
The music of Veracruz reveals a strong African influence, especially in the elements of the local fandango celebrations that use the traditional music style of the son jarocho, a harp music that is improvisational, repetitive, and percussive. The son jarocho features a call-and-response song structure and uses a number of instruments, the most African of which is a thumb piano known as the marimbol. The most widely known son jarocho is “La Bamba,” although its African roots are not widely recognized.
Gates Jr., H.L., 2011. Black in Latin America, PBS.
Vasconcelos, J., 1997. The Cosmic Race / La raza cosmica, The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Vaughn, B., 2001. Mexico in the Context of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Diálogo, 5, p.14-19.