The African ancestry of many of what we know as Latinos is fairly well known. Slaves were taken from different parts of Africa and brought to the “New World,” which could mean they were taken to anywhere from Massachusetts to the Caribbean or South America. But what about Mexico? As cultural anthropologist Dr. Bobby Vaughn said, “If you are like most people, you probably have never heard of Afro-Mexicans and are completely unaware that they exist.”
Just who are the Afro-Mexicans? They are the descendents of African slaves who were brought to Mexico as early as the start of the 16th century. Some of these Africans were also slaves who had escaped from bondage in North America. Like their African-American counterparts, many of today's Afro-Mexicans also have European and indigenous people who populate their family trees.
Vaughn, who is passionate about these forgotten roots, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation, Race and Ethnicity: A Study of Blackness in Mexico, on the subject. While Vaughn was an undergraduate student at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, he spent his junior year studying Spanish in Mexico City. Vaughn’s Mexican immersion started his curiosity about the history and culture of Mexico and its people. He’s been traveling to the country and taking down notes ever since.
On his site, AfroMexico,Vaughn covers the African presence in Mexico extensively. He especially explores the presence of African descendants in Vera Cruz and the Costa Chica region. According to Mexican anthropologist Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran, the black population in colonial Mexico was 20,569 in 1570 and 15,980 in 1742.
According to Vaughn:
The black population in the early colony was by far larger than that of the Spanish. In 1570 we see that the black population is about 3 times that of the Spanish. In 1646, it is about 2.5 times as large, and in 1742, blacks still outnumber the Spanish. It is not until 1810 that Spaniards are more numerous.
But this legacy is not talked about much—not even among historians and anthropologists. “To this day the deep cultural and economic impact that Africans had in Mexico is neither accepted nor acknowledged in the official history of Mexico,” said filmaker Rafael Rebollar Corona who directed the film The Forgotten Root. With his film, Corona meticulously documents this hidden history about Mexico.
Esther Iverem, creator and editor of SeeingBlack.com, says this about the virtual silence among historians regarding the Africans in Mexico:
Like in much of Latin America, a caste system based on race and color was instituted in Mexico. Those who were whiter and more visibly European received more privileges and social mobility, while darker or more visibly African peoples were typecast as servants or menial laborers. Historians have furthered this bias by emphasizing the European aspects of the culture, or by defining the country’s mestizo heritage as a mixture only of White Spaniards and native peoples.
With The Forgotten Root, Corona reminds us of the African roots in music such as son jarocho and other musical forms like marimba and Cuban son. He pays tribute to a culture that is not talked about much but is obvious from the look of those Mexicans (and their children) who have some of that African blood flowing through them.
Read more about this fascinating history here.