Beep. Beep. Beep. Beeeeeeeeeep.
My ride was here.
As I gathered my small duffel bag from the living room floor, my first thought was man Armando better lay off the horn, he’s going to wake everybody in the neighborhood.
It was early morning as I stepped out into the cool summer breeze.
The sun was about to break the horizon. It was right at the moment when it’s night one moment but you blink and the sun is up.
Armando, the designated driver, stepped out of his car.
Q-vo ya listo? Apurale que son 6 horas hasta Juarez.
Espero que tengas hambre porque vamos a llegar almorzando, he said as he opened the trunk.
I nodded as I threw my bag in the trunk.
He motioned for me to get in the back driver’s side door since we had an extra passenger sitting on the other side.
Va ir mi primo con nosotros, he said.
Armando was going to visit family in Ciudad Juarez Chihuahua and I was just along for the ride.
I got into the car and said hello to his wife in the front passenger seat. She’s always super nice.
He turned and quickly went through the motions and introduced me to his cousin – Miguel— sitting beside me.
As I shook Miguel’s hand, I was about to say Buenos dias como amanecio but in a split second changed to Good morning, how are you, in English.
Because he was Black!
I didn’t know that Armando had black family members, I thought to myself.
Wanting to make conversation, I asked Miguel if he was excited to go to Juarez.
He smiled and nodded, so I took that as a yes.
Amused and sure that I was missing something; Armando turned laughingly and said Ey porque les estas hablando en Ingles? El no habla Ingles!
Embarrassed I switched to Spanish, Ok, pues disculpe compa yo pense que era de aqui.
Judging by his demeanor, I could assume it wasn’t the first time people go up to him and talk to him in a language he couldn’t understand.
A Black Mexican!? What? Is That Even Possible?
Looking back, I realize my ignorance but I’d never seen a Black Mexican never mind one that spoke Spanish.
Except maybe for Cirilo from Carrusel de Niños on tv, he was definitely black and spoke Spanish.
At that moment, I remembered something — Los Negros de Mexico!
It was the title of a talk I’d attended while in college. The 30 minute talk covered the social and anthropological influence of black culture in Mexico.
Other than the title, I don’t remember much else.
I was so curious but couldn’t bring myself to ask Miguel any questions especially after that awkward first impression anyway.
It wasn’t until years later that I remembered Miguel and began to research the Black culture in Mexico.
Los Negros de Mexico
Differing sources claim that there are between half a Million to 1 Million Mexicans of black ancestry but a recent 2015 internal survey that the number was closer to 1.5 Million.
The common regions with large Afro Mexican communities are Veracruz, Costa Chica of Oaxaca and Guerrero.
Yes that’s the same Guerrero named after Vicente Guerrero, the first Black Mexican president, often times called El Negro.
A Black Mexican president?, you say. Yes, yes indeed.
(Here’s what it may or may not have looked like when Vicente Guerrero became president back in the day. Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Black Sheriff scene.)
So How Exactly Did Most Black People Get to Mexico?
It’s believed that over 200,000 slaves, mostly from sub-Saharan African, were brought to Mexico during the slave trade in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s.
Vicente Guerrero’s mother was of African descent and mostly likely a product of this era as are most modern day Black Mexicans living in Mexico.
The Story of Gaspar Yanga
Did you know? Mexico actually had the first free Black colony of the Americas.
It sure did.
It’s called Yanga named after Gaspar Yanga, the African born slave from Veracruz.
The town of Yanga previously known as San Lorenzo de Los Negros became the first free black community of the Americas in the early 1600’s.
According to local lore, Gaspar Yanga was descended from African royalty whose name means “pride” or “royalty” according to various accounts.
The inscription under Gaspar Yanga’s statue reads: “Negro Africano precusor de la libertao de los negros esclavos fundo este pueblo de san lorenzo de cerralvo (hoy yanga) por acordado del virrey de nueva espana Don Rodrigo Osorio Marzuez de cerralvo el dia tres de octubre del ano de 1631 por mandato del virrey trazo el pueblo el Capitan Hernando de Castro Espinosa H. Ayuntamento Constl. 1973-1976″. English translation: African Black liberator and precursor of the black slaves who founded the town of San Lorenzo de Cerralvo (now Yanga) by agreement of the viceroy of New Spain, Rodrigo Pacheco, on the third day of October 1631 by order of the viceroy’s pen.Village Captain Hernando of Castro Espinosa H. Ayuntamento Constl. 1973-1976.”
Gaspar Yanga, is known as the First Liberator of The Americas as he was the leader of one of colonial Mexico’s first successful slave uprising in 1570.
In early 1630’s, Gaspar Yanga’s negotiated with Rodrigo Pacheco, the then viceroy of New Spain(Mexico) which eventually led to an agreement where he recognized San Lorenzo de Los Negros as an autonomous region.
Today, El Carnaval de la Negritud is celebrated in Yanga every August 10th in reverence to its black history. It’s also a time to celebrate the history of a people who rose from slavery to make their own way in a new world.
Mascogas from el Nacimiento de Los Negros, Coahuila
Did you know there are Black Mexicans in Northern Mexico as well?
Their story, however, is more closely tied to U.S. Slavery than the southern Black Mexicans.
In Coahuila Mexico, there’s a small town known as El Nacimiento de Los Negros.
El Nacimiento is home to Los Mascogos(Black Seminoles), the Mascogos tribe is possibly name derived from Muskogee due to their Seminole Indian heritage.
El Nacimiento had its beginnings in Florida since the first Black Seminoles descended from free Florida blacks and escaped slaves (also called maroons).
From 1835 to 1842, the Second Seminole War in Florida decimated the factions of Seminoles and Blacks, collectively known as Black Seminoles.
After the war was over, still their future always remained uncertain since Blacks living among the Seminoles were again falling victim to re-enslavement. So they made the decision to leave their territory.
Spearheaded by Juan Caballo, a Black Seminole, they set their sights on a free Mexico where legal slavery was abolished and because Mexico granted them over 7,000 acres of land in Northern Mexico.
The land came at a price; however, the people had to serve as a de facto army protecting Northern Mexico from invading northern Indios bravos(Apaches y Comanches) from Texas.
Despite bouts with waring Indians, they quickly adjusted to their new environment planting local crops and replanting their life on Mexican soil.
El Nacimiento Today
On June 19th, also known as Juneteenth, los Mascogos still celebrate the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas complete with Mexican Asado rojo, Tepatun, atole Soske and Indian Fry Bread.
When you hear them sing in English, one can only imagine the long and uncertain journey their ancestors must have endured.
I mean it’s hard enough to blend into your own culture let alone three. But somehow they’ve managed to survive and thrive which can be seen in the harmony and cohesion in their three distinct cultures – African, Native American and Mexican.
An Uncertain Future
Many of the younger generations have left El Nacimiento for the United States while others made their way to bigger cities in Mexico in search for a better life.
As is with most cultures in transition, the older generation stays behind and can only pray that the traditions and values they imparted will be passed on to future generations as way to keep their rich history alive.
In a world that expects assimilation, however, I wonder if they’ll be able to maintain their traditions and their identity as a distinctly African, Native American and Mexican but only time will tell.
Things Aren’t Always What They Seem
I later found out through a mutual friend that my friend Armando had a Black Mexican grandfather on his father’s side.
He never talked about it and I never asked.
It almost seemed like he didn’t want to talk about it or was somehow embarrassed by it.
Meeting Miguel, however, I learned that many things are not what they seem on the outside.
And now I wish I would have asked more questions.
I should have tried to get to know more of Miguel’s story because now I’m left to wonder where his story began.
Actually, as I think about it maybe that doesn’t really matter, maybe what really matters is how his story will end.