Racial Amnesia—African Puerto Rico & Mexico By: Ted VincentEmporia State University professor publishes controversial Mexican history
For 150 years, Mexican schoolchildren have learned that their heritage lies in the marriage of Spanish colonial culture and the conquered races of Native America.
But if ESU assistant professor of Spanish Marco Polo Hernández Cuevas has his way, they’ll also begin to think of themselves as African.
Hernández’s new book “African Mexicans and the Discourse on Modern Nation” published this month by University Press of America exposes how Mexican institutions have systematically erased “Africaness” from national memory. Between 55 and 85 percent of Mexicans can trace their family back to Africa, but cultural leaders have actively shunned this identity.
“The knowledge of our ancestors has been erased through education,” he said. “Schools have omitted the fact that we had a large African population throughout the Colonial Period which lasted 300 years.”
“It’s estimated that over 300,000 enslaved Africans were brought to Mexico during the colonial period, producing millions of offspring. Many of the major leaguers of the Mexican liberation movement were black themselves. "The last two top commanders of the movement, José María Morelos and Vicente Guerrero, as well as a significant number of other leaders and troops have now been identified as mulattoes pardos."
Even the Spanish conquistadors brought African heritage with them, as descendants of the Iberians and the Moors of northern Africa who occupied Spain during the medieval era, said Hernández. The modern Spanish language still contains over 4,000 Arabic words.
“We are African on our Spanish side, and African on our African side,” he said. “We are ‘Neo-Africans’ just as much as we are Amerindian or European.”
Hernández finds traces of African culture in many of Mexico’s national traditions – in its food, its music, its cultural icons and its national holidays.
The Black Virgin -- a representation of Virgin Mary with dark skin common throughout Spain, France and Mexico – is one example of African cultural influences. Hernández also points out that the battle commemorated by the national holiday of Cinco de Mayo was fought by African Mexican “maroons.”
His book describes how Mexican cultural leaders have rejected this African heritage, choosing instead to “whiten” Mexican literature, film and popular culture from 1920 to 1968, a period Hernández describes as the “cultural phase of the Mexican Revolution.”
Hernández has gotten the attention of leading scholars in the field of African Latino studies. Richard L. Jackson, professor emeritus at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada writes in the book’s foreword that “his work will contribute greatly to the ongoing discussion of race in the Americans and particularly in Mexico where his research largely stands alone.”
“The interdisciplinary approach he takes exemplifies the pervasive nature of the cult of whiteness and racism and their unfortunate byproducts in a nation that is far from white.”
However, Hernández would like to see his academic research influence identity and behavior throughout general society.
“Mexicans, Hispanics, Latinos and African Americans will recognize one another in our common African heritage and bridge the gap that divides us," he said.
The border agent was bothering an immigrant, and the aggrieved party declared, “You can’t hassle me, I’m Puerto Rican.” The agent replied, “I don’t care what kind of Mexican you are. “
Puerto Rico and Mexico share the dubious honor of being the two Latin American nations that have been forced to send the largest numbers of their citizens to the racist exploitative United States. The light-hued immigrants from each country tend to have money and they pass into the North American mainstream rather easily, leaving the dark Puerto Rican and Mexican to work for starvation wages—and be hassled by “ la migra.” In cities of the mid-west where the two nationalities often share the same neighborhood, the dark Puerto Rican will make introductions with a Mexican neighbor saying, “I am Puerto Rican,” and the dark Mexican will respond, “and I am Mexican.” Neither African nor Indigenous roots will be mentioned. The national pride of the two neighbors cloaks difficulties in both Puerto Rico and Mexico in acknowledging non-white roots.
Puerto Rico and Mexico took different paths to achieve their racial denial. Puerto Rico has denial in an essentially black-white two-race situation. A report in the 1560s said there were 15,000 black slaves and some 500 Spaniards on the island. As Jack D. Forbes has pointed out, Spanish head counts were always inaccurate. In this case, many of the “blacks” were mixed race children or grandchildren of the native Puerto Ricans, and a small handful of the latter still survived in 1560. Mexico has a three-race situation, counting the Indigenous, the whites and the descendants of the estimated 250,000 to 500,000 African slaves brought to colonial Mexico by the Spaniards. And Mexico has a four-race situation if one adds in the descendants of the estimated 100,000 Asian slaves brought to Mexico on the colonial Manila to Acapulco route. Since the law decreed that only Africans could be slaves, and the Spanish wanted more slaves, the Asians were declared Africans. Most were dark, having been captured in parts of Asia where people are dark complexioned, such as Malaysia, New Guinea, and the southern Philippine Islands, including the Island of Negroes, so named because the Negritos lived there.
Puerto Rico gradually acquired white settlers in large numbers, and with consideration that Spanish census counts were inexact, we find that in 1827 in Puerto Rico the 159,527 African people (black and mixed), were only 49% of the total island population. A Spanish census made in Mexico in 1910 on the eve of its independence war showed 634,461 African people (real African and dark Asian). This was 10.2 % of the population. The native Mexicans were 60%, so-called whites were 18% and the rest mixed Indian and white.
Racial amnesia over African roots is common in Latin America, and usually can be traced to the master slave relationship, which even after slavery is abolished leaves a belief among many dark complexioned Latin Americans that a successful life is one in which the children are lighter hued. Mexico puts an unusual twist on the Latin drift toward being white. In Mexico it is o. k. to stop at brown on the way to becoming white. Mexico calls itself “the cosmic race.” A hospital certificate given to parents of new-borns at a large Mexico City hospital says, “Congratulations on your addition to our bronze race.” Notes William Nelson in a 1997 study comparing racial attitudes of Mexico and Brazil, “Although Mexican culture has elements of racism, the concept of mestizaje - the idea of the goodness of being classed as racially mixed” is strong and contrasts sharply with Brazil, “where the population is increasingly collectively desirous of the white label... which points toward an ideal of being light rather than brown.”
In all of Latin America, Mexico is the only country with a national culture. Everyone else has a folk culture. In Cuba and Brazil people get down with the folk through African culture. In Peru and Guatemala people get down with Indigenous culture. In Puerto Rico, there is the Le Lo Lai Festival of folks songs and dances that “showcase the European and Afro Antillean heritage of the island. “ Mexico has MEXICO! It has taken national culture to a higher level. It has its Indigenous “folk dances, “ but it has a commercialized hybrid pop culture on top. Mexico’s “high class” Ballet Company doesn’t do the Nutcracker. It is the Ballet Folklorico that raises, folk into high class “art. “ Mexican dance is women twirling in skirts of beautiful Indigenous color patterns to rhythms of Africa that are stomped out on a “tarima” sound box, that is adapted from the African sound box used by rhythmic dancers there. Mexico is “La Bamba,” which in beat and phrasing defies modern musicologists. This quintesenttial “Mexican” song and dance is too old for their analysis. It is dated to at least 1683 and historians show it was the creation of blacks in Veracruz who came from the town of MBamba in Angola, in that nation’s district of Bamba.
Puerto Rico was held back in terms of cultural originality by the presence of a large white population that was happy with culture dictated from Europe. Mexico had a complex enough racial mix to create a new social synthesis. Africans in Mexico, in general, internalized the colonial master and slave self-depreciation only part way, only far enough to “pass” out of African identity. But they did not become white. They looked around and saw a huge Indian majority. And in a number of regions of Mexico, and under certain conditions that favored black and Indian alliance, there occurred what happened in the climatic scene in the film about the U.S. west, BUCK AND THE PREACHER. The black cowboys Sidney Poitier (Buck) and Harry Bellefonte (the Preacher) have battled the whites the whole movie. They are on the run and outnumbered, and it looks as if the whites will finally win out. Then on the horizon there appears a sea of Indians, friends of Buck and the Preacher. The two black heroes and the Indigenous unite and chase away the whites.
Buck and the Preacher had horses and guns. They were free. One would hope that liberation would overcome self-depreciation, and there would be acceptance of the vibrant plus that being African brings to life. But freedom in our racist world is, apparently, not enough.
Puerto Rico and Mexico are countries where most blacks were free from the shackles of slavery by around 1800. In Puerto Rico in 1827 only 32,000 Africans were in bondage, 21 % of their total. In Mexico in 1810 only 15,000 were in bondage, 2.5% of all Africans. The small number of slaves in Puerto Rico was related to the absence of a large sugar industry - - farms were small. They were effectively handled by free labor, and they produced food for some of the nearby slave islands, where gangs of chattel suffering on agribusiness style plantations marked life. An 1834 appraisal by a Britisher wished Puerto Rico luck in avoiding the profiteers who might turn it into another sugar island.
Slavery declined in Mexico for three main reasons. First, manumission was encouraged by slave rebellions and the ease of slave flight into unconquered Indigenous lands. Second, Africans showed during the first decades of Spanish conquest that they could be quite useful when free. Freedom papers for becoming translators were one case. Africans learned Indigenous languages far easier than did Europeans, said Spanish, English and Dutch reports. And according to a Spanish slave ship captain, slaves allowed on deck during the middle passage would learn Spanish before his ship reached the Americas. (Perhaps African language ability was related to attention to sound structure that came from African emphasis upon music? Perhaps becoming translators was simply a case of the African putting in extra effort so as to obtain a job that wasn’t field labor? Perhaps Africans learned Indian languages more easily than did whites because the Indians preferred to talk to their fellow oppressed and helped the Africans along?
Whatever the reason, someone needs to explain this language knack to those schoolteachers in U.S. public schools who claim that blacks can’t learn). In regard to abilities, the bulk of the slaves brought to Mexico in chains from Africa had seen cows and horses. The Indigenous were unfamiliar with these animals, as they were with the use of the wheel and many European tools, about which African immigrants were often acquainted. The skilled cattle hand from Africa soon won freedom. The slave on horseback tended to be a slave who disappeared. Within a century of the landing of Hernando Cortez and his conquistadors, Afro-Mexicans were a very disproportionately high percentage of the Mexican cowboys, and they practically dominated the all-important mule driving business—which compares to today’s big-rig truck driving business. In the colony’s all-important mining industry, a labor force of free Africans and Indigenous peasants gradually replaced most of the slave labor.
The third reason for the manumission trend in Mexico was related to the second. Mexico was by far the wealthiest of Spain’s colonies. The wealth of the mines and large haciendas supported an elite that was large enough to isolate itself and forego much of the skilled labor needed in the colony, and to leave that labor to others (to free blacks, for instance).
The size of the basically white elite of Mexico influenced how the nations combined majority of Indigenous and Afro-Mexicans related to one another, and in certain areas, and under certain conditions, were able to unite. The Mexican elite had mansions, a university, monasteries, numerous cities to visit in, great governmental buildings to hang out in, and had the bishop’s cloister for social teas and poetry readings. A tight and exclusive circle of wealthy whites and their lackeys hid in the mansions drinking Spanish wine, eating white bread rolls, and practicing the “Minuet.’ Out in the town square, the dark hued people created Mexico, with tequilla, tortillas and La Bamba. When opportunity arose to strike for political independence large numbers of blacks and Indians had a common culture and life-style to fight for. It was a world that the Spanish had tried to repress. Blacks were hardly off the slave boats in Mexico when the Viceroy issued his first edict against black musicians, in 1537. The bans continued, but the party was still going in 1802 when the Viceroy issued a ban on that years hit song, an “Jarabe” that allegedly caused delinquent behavior and exhibited licentious African body movements.
In terms of wealthy whites, colonial Puerto Rico produced little “surplus wealth” around which an elite could function. The whole island developed but one legitimate city, San Juan, which was actually but a small town that was isolated out on a spit of land across from Puerto Rico proper. Puerto Rico did not have a distinct Indian population around which blacks could juxtapose themselves and the whites. After the native Borinquens fought and lost a great battle with the Spaniards in 1510, their men were mostly killed off, or escaped to other islands, while many of their women ended up making families with Black men, or with a conquistador. Without a sizable Indian presence Puerto Rico fell into the standard white master/black subject relationship, even without slavery. The African in Puerto Rico who sought mobility through a skilled labor position had to compete with those within the large white community who wanted those jobs. The wars of the decade of 1810 that brought independence to most of Spanish America left Puerto Rico in Spanish hands. During the 1810 wars great numbers of Spaniards fled the nations that were becoming free. Many thousands in this exodus resettled in Puerto Rico.
The presence of zealous pro-Spain whites on the island dampened prospects for black militancy. And Puerto Rican radicalism was further weakened by a comparatively easy going, almost pre-capitalist way of life on the island, which encouraged intermarriage and a loose attention to caste law, which resulted in children of whites and mulattos being labeled “Espanol” (that is an increase in number of whites). In succeeding decades the notion that the people of the island were Puerto Ricans first, and a given race second, was fostered both by whites of wealth, who used the idea to deflect anger of the basically black peasantry, and by those who wanted Puerto Rico to gets its independence. The leaders of a brief rebellion for independence in 1868 declared that any slave who joined the rebellion was thereby free. The revolt was quickly suppressed, but the1868 effort at national unity for independence frightened the Spaniards into reforms. Slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico in 1873.
The Puerto Rican uprising of 1868 was largely an effort of paternalistically minded whites. In Mexico in 1810, by way of contrast, the masses themselves produced independence leaders. An alliance of Afro-Mexicans, Indigenous and a few white intellectuals launched the war to oust the Spaniards with demands that all slaves be freed immediately, “under penalty of death for non-compliance” by the slave masters. Fear of the “ejercito moreno” (dark army) of Mexican peasants drove the White Mexican elite to rally around the resident Spaniards in defense of Crown and profit. The “ejercito moreno” fought on and eventually won independence. Of three heroes of the Mexican independence war to have states created in their names, two were AfroMexicans—the ex-muleteer turned village- priest Jose Marra Morelos y Pavon, and the muleteer Vicente Guerrero. The third was the white radical, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costillo. At least 10 Afro-Mexican military heroes of the 1810 war have had cities named in their honor.
Slavery was abolished in Mexico in 1829 by decree of the first of at least four Afro-Mexican presidents: Vicente Guerrero. Eight years earlier Guerrero was the Commander-in Chief of the Mexican independence army and led negotiations that created the peace Plan of Iguala of February 24, 1821 that led to independence six months later. As president, Guerrero led a political faction dedicated to throwing out the resident Spaniards. Guerreroistas raised nationalistic slogans, and called themselves “the Aztec,” “Another Aztec,” and “the Commanchie, “ etc. A reactionary critic said that Guerrero’s political activists were but a bunch of “blacks and mulattos” who believed they could get ahead by “passing for Indian.” A look at racial roots of the Guerreroistas, shows that, a few intellectuals aside, the critic was essentially correct. Guerrero only became president because Afro-Mexican military and/or political leaders in six key states and the capital allowed and/or orchestrated street demonstrations and riots that overturned the initial election returns that had declared Guerrero’s conservative opponent Gomez Pedraza the winner. The anti-Spanish campaign of the self-proclaimed “more Mexican” than the opposition Guerreroistas, bore fruit and many Spaniards were expelled, some of them seeking refuge in Puerto Rico.
Mexican history is as much a story of social conflict and revolutions as Puerto Rican history is that of a respite from the traumas of the hemisphere. If “revolution” generates consciousness then Mexico should have much more African consciousness than it has shown. The masses rose up against the Mexican racist elite in 1810-1821, 1830-1831, 1854-1867, and 1910 to around 1920, and in regional form over many more years, including 1994 to the present in the state of Chiapas. Mexicans with African heritage made a disproportionately high contribution during the revolution for independence, and continued in subsequent upheavals. The 1830-1831 fight was over the ouster of Guerrero from the presidency, and his defenders were heavily Afro-Mexican. The 1854-1867 struggles were launched by a half dozen militant commanders who included the old Guerreroistas, Juan Alvarez (the second “Black President” of Mexico) and Gordiano Guzman (for whom Ciudad Guzman is named). In the 1910 revolution, there is substantial evidence that Emiliano Zapata had an African heritage, and a major biography and other data show that the nationalizer of oil, President Lazaro Cardenas came from “mulatto” roots. Today, Cardenas’ son Cuauhtemoc, is the twice presidential candidate of the left-opposition and is mayor of Mexico City, while a great-great-great-great grandson of President Guerrero is a prominent journalist on the left, Raymundo Riva Palacio.
African heritage is being overlooked in Mexico, in part as consequence of the national ideal of an amalgamated “cosmic” or “bronze” race. With the argument, “we are all mestizos,” Mexico overlooks even its obvious Indigenous heritage, except when radicals launch one of their periodic “Indigenismo” movements. The scholar Guillermo Bonfil Batalla pointed out in the late 1980s that since the time of Guerrero, there has been much radical play-acting at being “Indian,” while actual Indian culture and life-style is ignored. Also ignored is the vibrant mix in the world of Mexico that grew in the shadow of the mansion. Recent studies have shown African contributions to Mexican music, dance, cuisine, marriage customs, medical practices, architecture, and language (the Mexican f-verb chingar coming from Angola).
Denial of black roots is conveniently congruent with the Latin American attitude that what is best for the family is children who are lighter than grandma or grandpa. Supposedly, Puerto Rico with its nationalism and Mexico with its “cosmic race” are beyond the mentality of this grangy “pigmentocracy.” But Puerto Rico and Mexico are socially complex, and contradictory ideas can easily exist side by side. Moreover, the flight to the United States by impoverished Puerto Ricans and Mexicans has put them in contact with that virulent puss filled and thoroughly metastasized U.S. cancer: anti-black racism.
In the Name of Almighty God Allah Lord of all the Worlds!
The Color Complex in Puerto Rico
When examining the psyche of original people, we find that they (the majority) have been taken from their original nature and taught to think other than their own selves. This way of thinking is the effect of Yakub’s rules and regulations, which has caused us to think we are all different, thus separating the shades through marital and breeding preferences: both of which are results of conscious and more importantly, subconscious grafting (Eugenics).
It is visible all over the world, especially in the Caribbean island and the lands of Latin America. In Puerto Rico it is popular to be light. As it can be seen on TV, lighter skinned boricuas are shown as the dominant majority. Ideas of Desi Arnez (and a more contemporary Ricky Martin) are the view of what a “true” Latino looks like. I can say that when I went to visit my physical father in Adjuntas, PR. a couple years ago, most of the boricuas I seen were mainly wisdom seeds or darker. Many/most of the darker skinned Puerto Ricans are disregarded and simply silenced under the false idea of “nationalism”.
Many Latin American countries use nationalism to blanket the ever-present African culture present amongst the people. The contribution to music such as Salsa is well known, yet it is “not deemed a proper representation of authentic Puerto Rican culture by government officials”(1). Many boricuas abandon their African identity and even their Indian identity for the sake of being “Puerto Rican”. A major symbol of Puerto Rico is the “jibaro”. The jibaro is the country worker/ mountain man. He is usually portrayed as lighter skinned and takes great pride in their “Spanish” bloodline, even when many of them haven’t any. The elite/politicians in Puerto Rico have mostly been the lighter Power Rules, and even Europeans who have migrated there and married into Puerto Rican families, to carry on a “white” bloodline. However, even the lightest of boricuas were still considered “niggers” when the began to migrate in numbers to the United States to find work as cigar rollers (3); especially to New York (actually to Harlem where the Puerto Rican flag and Cuban flag were drawn up, at the same time to promote the Antillean revolution. The original flag that was to be used for Puerto Rico was the flag of Lares, a town which attempted to up rise against the Spanish colonizers in the late 1800’s but were massacred).
Anthropologists argued that children in the local schools in Puerto Rico should be taught of their African roots (2). It was to an extend successful and in many ways wasn’t. The Spanish managed to kill off most of the native Tainos on the island by the mid 1500’s. Then African slaves were brought (in 1519) to substitute as workers. During the times of Spanish colonization of Puerto Rico, Africans outnumbered, not only the Tainos, but also the Spaniards of the island. The African population reached its zenith between 1530 and 1540 with a ratio of 5 to every 1 Spaniard, while managing to hold fast and even increase until the late 1700’s. Then in the mid 1800’s the Spanish officials brought in more Europeans (French, Italian and Dutch) to try and neutralize the influence that African culture had on the people. Let it also be known that slavery was abolished in 1873 on la isla de Puerto Rico.
The African legacy continues to live on in Puerto Rican culture, although many boricuas take the bulk of their pride in their “indio” bloodline. The fact is, that we as boricuas do have a strong presence of Taino influence in our culture as well as many other tribes within the West Indian region. For when the Tainos were murdered, the Spanish began to import other Indian peoples for labor as well. Amongst those being the Arawaks of South America, the Igneri/ Carib and the Lokono (2). Platanos (plantains), gandules (Congo peas), bacalao and numerous elements of Power Rule la cultura is “African”, specifically from the Yoruba peoples (thus contribution to Santeria, a mix of Roman Catholicism and African Yoruba practiced by many peoples in the Caribbean). Not to mention that a significant amount of Chinese were imported shortly after the Africans to work as slaves as well.
Yet and still it has been a topic ignored. Even though the particular dialect of Spanish is even strikingly different, from other Latin Americans, because of the African linguistic influence, from slaves who spoke bozal Spanish. Bozal Spanish is a blend of Spanish, Portuguese and Congo; it is why many power rules swallow their “s” (Como ta? instead of “Como estas”) and often say “r” like “l”, because in that particular African tongue there is no “s” or “r”. It has come to the point where most people don’t regard Puerto Ricans as “West Indian”, however they are IN the West Indies. Other countries are looked to such as Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, etc.
This is not by choice, for the most part, but because this is the position that many Puerto Ricans move into, trying to be like their white oppressors. The behavior is found in many children and is called “identifying with the aggressor”. The child learns to take on attributes of the person of force that in some way is intimidating to them, in attempts to overcome it. This is done (mostly involuntarily) by our people as a way to combat the oppression placed upon us, as we attempt, not to conquer the opposing force, but to adopt many of it’s attributes and assimilate. Overlooked by us, there wasn’t any space made for us in their society of men, although we shed our identity and the very essence of very being in hopes of standing next to them on the golf course.
This mix of culture in Borinquen is why many other Latin American countries despise Puerto Ricans as being “mutts”. They (other Latin people) predicate their culture and identity on their Spanish and Indian bloodlines, making it look more cleanly cut and pure (closer to the Spaniards). However, just as many, even more, Africans (and Chinese too) were taken to these lands, only to mix in with the indigenous people, creating the culture and people we know today. This, however, is not so for a few of the South American countries where, although they come under the title “Latino”, don’t be fooled Gods and Earths, check their family photos and family trees. In some countries, like Argentina, the Indians were virtually all wiped out and high numbers of Europeans came. Therefore you can be from Argentina and have a pure Italian bloodline. In Mexico for instance, one would think that all Mexicans (for the most part) look alike. The idea is that the majority is Indian and Spanish mixed. However, they, like most other Latin American countries (i.e. Puerto Rico), are so-called “mutts” as well.
During the Spanish occupation of Mexico, numerous amounts of African slaves were brought over to work. According to the University of Vera Cruz professor, Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran, in his 1946 book entitled “The Black Population of Mexico”- the Africans eventually outnumbered the Spanish, even more than in Puerto Rico. The population in 1570 was said to be at 20,569. They too have become victims of “nationalism”. Many will say that since you don’t see many blacks in Mexico, that there probably wasn’t many there to begin with. They didn’t disappear, only mixed in, as shown the many predominate elements in Mexican culture, such as instruments, music and food. There are many knowledge and wisdom seed shade people in Mexico. Many live in communities along the coast of the province of Guerrero to the south and Vera Cruz bordered by the Caribbean Sea. These communities generally keep to themselves, while the rest of Mexico, as in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, people favor “lighter” spouses and children.
There are many notable figures in Latin American history. One of those being Juan Garrido, the first “black” man to touch shores of Puerto Rico in 1509. He was also the first to bring wheat to Mexico. Others include Rafeal Cordero and Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.
More to be revealed...
Peace and Blessings from your righteous brother,
Sha-King Ceh’um Allah
Davila, Arlene “Contending Nationalisms: Culture, Politics, and Corporate Sponsorship in Puerto Rico,” from Francis Negron-Muntaner and Ramon Grosfoguel (eds), “Puerto Rico Jam: Essays on Culture and Politics. Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis, 1997. 2) Rouse, Irving The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus. New Haven: Yale, 1992 3) Vega, Bernardo The Memoirs of Bernardo Vega: A Contribution to the History of the Puerto Rican Community in New York. New York: Monthly, 1984.