From Three Continents: Black-Eyed Peas in Mexico

This morning’s post is for those obessionistas like me who can’t resist digging into the strange and multiple paths along which people have taken plants, in this case the black-eyed pea (aka the cow pea or Vigna unguiculata).

It was first domesticated in West Africa, botanists tell us. A couple of years ago I posted on black-eyed peas in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, suggesting that they were a trace of African presence in the State.  I still think there’s something to that for the reasons I suggest in my earlier post.

Thanks to comments which have been trickling in for the past couple of years and further reading, it seems clear that the history of black-eyed peas in Spanish America, particularly Mexico, is much more complex than in the Anglo parts of the Caribbean and what is now the United States.

In Anglo regions, Africans are the clear candidates.  Judith Carney, in The Shadow of Slavery, quotes a number of English commentators from the eighteenth century who expressed surprise at this bean, novel to them, and suggested it came with slavery (124-25).

In Mexico, it seems likely that the black-eyed pea, which had spread widely in the Old World following its domestication (though not to northern Europe) was brought independently from three continents.  What follows is taken from the comments, and just lightly edited.

African origins

From Nils Bernstein

From what I can find, the earliest mention of them [in Anglo regions] is Jamaica in 1675, more than 100 years after the galleons across the Pacific started.

I was just in Chiapas, where they also have black-eyed peas, and call them (among other things) (and again with the ‘not ours’ concept) “frijol de Castilla” (also what they’re called in parts of South America, I believe), which suggests an Atlantic connection.

It turns out they’re also popular in Yucatán and Campeche, where they go by the Mayan word (or maybe a kinda Mayan/Spanish hybrid word?) “xpelón,” (they have two varieties, both cowpeas but not exactly what we know as black-eyed peas) and are favored by poorer people. I suppose them going by a Mayan(ish) word could suggest very early consumption.

With the African presence in Mexico so  under studied & downplayed (by all involved cultures/countries!), and as you say, they were in Mex from the 16th century, I wouldn’t be surprised if cowpeas came with them quite early, and the fact that ‘official black-eyed pea documentation’ starts with late 17th-century Caribbean, we could just chalk up to a lack of research into the trade and practices of Africans in Mexico in the 16th century.

Iberian origins

From EatNopales.

Both of my parents are from the highlands of Jalisco where Black Eye Peas are also consumed… but for various reasons.

The deeply rooted historical reason is that many “Spanish” families that settled the area in the 18th century are really Portuguese from ancient Lusitania as well as Extremadura. You will find a proliferation of last names such as Reynoso & Fonseca etc., By the 18th century.. Black Eyed Peas would have very much been part of their culinary traditions in Iberia.

A more recent clue comes from my own family oral history. Prior to the Green Revolution in Mexico during the 1960′s… the typical Mexican rural family ate a much greater variety of beans… usually planting about 5 varieties of which Frijol Carita, a Vulgaris which looks like Black Eyed Peas was a prominent bean in the area. However as Green Revolution farming took root the Mexican Pinto proved to be the highest yield / lowest cost bean and consumption became a little more monoculture.

Nonetheless.. most families still longingly idolize & occasional splurge for the special beans of the past… Flor de Mayo, Bayo, Pinquitos etc., As Mexican migrants from Jalisco first made their way to the Southeast U.S. in the 1980′s they encountered the Black Eye Pea, found that it was relatively cheap and started using it as Frijol Carita. Now with NAFTA, Mexico has been flooded with cheap, subsidized US beans and my guess is that the Black Eye Pea is considered a cheap substitute for Frijol Carita or in Guanajuato lingo.. Veronicas (on occasion also referred to as Judias)

And thanks to Adam Balic for pointing out the black-eyed peas in Annibale Carracci’s Beaneater (1580-1590).

The Beaneater by Annibale Carracci (

Filipino Origins

From Nils Bernstein

An inventory from an Acapulco-bound Manila galleon in 1600 had large quantities of “beans and legumes” aboard.

Besides foods being exported, it’s documented that the Acapulco-bound galleons had foods to feed the Asian crew, who didn’t like Spanish foods.

Despite the galleons also being called “nao de china”, Filipinos referred to as “Chinese” (sometimes even to this day, in Mexico), etc. it’s important to note that the Asian crew (and some passengers/slaves) were Filipino, with different culinary practices. One of those being that, unlike elsewhere in Asia, soybeans (which one historian assumed were the ‘beans’ aboard the Mex-bound ships) were NOT commonly used for food/sauces in the Philippines, while cowpeas were.

So, as early as 1600, on Acapulco-bound ships from the Philippines, there would have been beans and legumes that were not garbanzos and favas (Spanish diet, documented as being the beans on Mex-bound ships from Spain), not Phaseolus (those were brought to the Philippines, not vice versa), and not soybeans (not in the Filipino diet, not of large exportation value). Cowpeas, perhaps?!

We also know that many of the Asian crew were recruited to remain in Mexico to cultivate coconut plantations, and also many simply escaped, so fair to assume they would have carried some of those foods with them (esp something so portable and easily propagated as beans/legumes).

Again, they certainly came on Atlantic slave ships as well, though I have to imagine that being a slower process of dissemination, since unlike free Asians on the Manila galleons, it’s not as if slaves got to bring anything, or were able to farm freely upon arrival.

The yorimuni bean of Sonora is Vigna unguicalata. With Sinaloa and Sonora being on the west coast and with close ties to the galleons, and the native people calling them, essentially, ‘white man’s bean’, i thought the connection would be to the galleons rather than people of African origin living there. But as I think about it, “yorimuni” likely just refers to ‘not ours’ – since all other beans (Phaseolus) were indigenous. Yorimuni is a Yaqui word roughly meaning “white man’s bean” (yori is often said to mean simply ‘foreigner’ or ‘white man’, but its meanings point closer to a conquering foreigner to whom money must be paid, as well as traitor…that is, NOT a foreigner of African origin).  It’s very common in India and found widely in the Philippines.

It may have found popularity in Sonora (and to some degree Sinaloa) because it thrives in hot and dry weather, unlike many other beans.

They were growing/eating cowpeas in the Philippines pre-Conquest.

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13 thoughts on “From Three Continents: Black-Eyed Peas in Mexico

  1. Jeremy

    As ever, thrilled by your research (and that of your commenters). I just want to raise a tiny doubt about the identity of the beans in the Carracci painting. There are quite a few varieties of common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) that have a dark patch around the hilum scar, and I wouldn’t be nearly as certain that The Beaneater (Mangiafagioli) is eating cowpeas (fagioli d’occhio).

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks to the commentators, not me, in this case Jeremy. Of course you can raise a doubt, Jeremy. I agree that lots of common beans have spots. But wouldn’t it be early for Phaseolus in Italy? I’m not sure. What work has been done on the diffusion of Phaseolus?

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  3. Kay Curtis

    Nils? would the cowpeas eaten in the Philippines “Pre-Conquest” have arrived via earlier trade with Africa? overland perhaps through India/Asia? or are they indigenous to the Philippines?

  4. Jeremy

    Carracci is 1560-1609. I’m pretty sure there are Phaseolus in the “Raphael” loggia in the Farnesina, which is around 1512, but not sure when I’ll be able to check. With the historic precendents of fava, chickpea, lentils and other pulses, I don’t think it would have taken the Italians long to adopt Phaseolus.

    But of course, I don’t know …

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Yes, I think you are right, Phaseolus appears to be accepted pretty early. My friend Ken Albala’s book on beans has a good bit on it that I’ll try to blog in the next few days.

  5. Dave Wood

    There is a good ecological reason for the two-way movement of beans – cow pea (Vigna) from Africa to Latin America and common bean (Phaseolus) in the other direction. This fits in with a surprising fact: 70% of all crop production in the Americas and also in Sub-Saharan Africa is from crops introduced from another continent.
    The reason seems to be that crossing oceans (and the Spanish were good at this) moves crops away from their co-evolved pests and diseases (which may have taken thousands of years). At least for a start, this gives introduced crops an advantage over indigenous crops. The problem is that introduced crops can encounter new problems (for example, the Latin American Panama disease attacking bananas introduced from the Asia-Pacific) or old problem catching up with them (for example, soyabean rust from Asia on the introduced soyabeans in Brazil).
    A major human problem with post-1492 introduced crops is the lack of knowledge about local culinary uses in their home countries. Take soyabean out of Asia or cassava out of South America to grow elsewhere and most of the delicious original methods of preparation (including fermentation) are lost.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Dear Dave, Thanks for the informed response. Coming at this from the point of view of cuisines (styles of cooking, not just haute styles) I had not considered the ecological advantage. I also hadn’t had a figure on the dominance of foreign crops though when you look at the massive human efforts to move crops around it’s perhaps not surprising. I could not agree more about the problems when food processing techniques do not accompany the foods. In fact one of my areas of interest is figuring out why they sometimes do and why they sometimes don’t.

  6. Esther Katz

    Hello Rachel,
    I collected Vigna unguiculata in a Mixtec village in Oaxaca, in a valley at 800 m of altitude. It was not “black-eyed” but all black. They call it “frijol China” (nuchi China in Mixtec). I refer to it in several of my articles (one of them in the edited book “agricultura indigena: pasado y presente”, edited by Teresa Rojas Rabiela).
    When I brought my collection to the lab of ethnobiology, a student who was doing her Master’s thesis on Vigna unguiculata recognized it and told me it was the first time she saw a sample from the Pacific side. All the other samples she studied were from the Atlantic side.
    So, it would have something to do with the Philippines ?
    Sorry I don’t remember the name of the student, but she wrote a whole botany thesis (between 1985 and 1990) on Vigna unguiculata in Mexico.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks Esther. So much interesting here. The ethnobotany is still primitive but fascinating possibiilites. I am now tracking down work on this bean in Mexico. The bean is not very common but a lot of people seem to have been interested.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Black eyed peas crop up all over Mexico but they do not enter into the cannon of Mexican cooking. Chefs have recently taken an interest in them as part of the general bean revival in the country. I had them in a bean broth in a restaurant specializing in authentic Mexican food. It seemed to me a rather odd combination, not reflecting the very different history of this bean.

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