Rachel Laudan

African Traces in Central Mexico

 

Children in fancy dress in Guanajuato

Afro-Mexican Children in Guanajuato, 1910. Romualdo García

About a hundred years ago Romualdo García was the photographer of choice in Guanajuato [GWAN-A-WHA-TOE], a wealthy mining town on the high central plateau of Mexico. As these images show, many of his subjects clearly had some African ancestry.

Clara P. Flores, Guanajuato ca. 1860, photographer unknown.

Clara P. Flores, Guanajuato ca. 1860, photographer unknown.

Usually Afro-mexicans are associated with the two coasts of Mexico. But they were never limited to the coasts.  In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they were brought to Guanajuato as slaves.

Map of Guanajuato, Mexico

Location of the state and city of Guanajuato, Mexico

At that time, the area around Guanajuato was then the “Wild West” of New Spain, at the border between the great pre-hispanic civilizations of the center of Mesoamerica and the desert country of the nomads.

One of the richest silver veins in the world ran below the mountain ridges surrounding the town. Already it was pecked with mines.  In the river valley below, the silver ore was crushed and refined, to be taken by mule to Veracruz on the east coast for shipment to Europe and to Acapulco on the west coast for shipment to Asia. On the hillsides, cowboys herded cattle, valuable as much for their hides which were turned into leather sacks to transport the ore as for their meat. And in the rich lower areas, huge haciendas were set up to grow the maize that fed the city and to breed horses and mules.

Afro-Mexican Young Man in Guanajuato, 1945, Hermanos Garcia

Afro-Mexican Young Man in Guanajuato, 1945, Hermanos Garcia

At once the end of the world and a central node in the world economy, at once rural and industrial, Guanajuato was a place settled by migrants from all over.

Fortune seekers–Spaniards, particularly Basques and Castellanos, Portuguese (possibly crypto jews), and French, and the odd German from the silver mining areas of Saxony–made their way to the area.

They were desperate for men to work the haciendas, mines and refineries, to be cowboys and muleteers, and for women to grind the maize that was the dietary staple.

Nahuas, Michoacanos, Otomis, and Chichimecas were brought from other parts of Mesoamerica.  And they were joined by African slaves.

Afro Mexican Couple in Guanajuato, 1910, Romualado Garcia

Afro Mexican Couple in Guanajuato, 1910, Romualdo García

According to a document that appears to date from the 1580s, in the mining area of Guanajuato there were 400 Spanish, 500 horses, 800 mules and 800 slaves.

Although slavery was not officially abolished in Mexico until 1829, many Africans gained freedom much earlier. Some were freed by their owners, some bought their own freedom, and other simply escaped to the rough country around the Cañada de Negroes (Valley of Blacks).

Afro-Mexican Child, Guanajuato, 1910. Romualdo García

Afro-Mexican Child, Guanajuato, 1910. Romualdo García

In these rough frontier conditions, there was much mixing of the different groups. By the late eighteenth century when the Spanish crown ordered one of its periodic censuses, the priest in charge of filling out the forms for Marfil, a suburb of Guanajuato dominated by refineries, simply threw up his hands. It was just impossible to assign the local population to neatly divided racial categories.

Afro-Mexican Young Woman, Guanajuato, 1910, Romualdo García

Afro-Mexican Young Woman, Guanajuato, 1910, Romualdo García

It was equally impossible to make neat equations between race and class as these images make clear. María Elisa Velázquez who selected these and more from the archives in the Museo Alhóndiga de Granaditas in Guanajuato, points out that their clothes and bearing show them to have been “workers, hacendados, entrepreneurs, nurses, rancheros, servants, housewives, bureaucrats” of different social levels.

Book of images of Afromexicans

Title Page of La huella negra en Guanajuato by María Elisa Velázquez (Guanajuato: Ediciones La Rana, 2007)

The research on Afro-mexicans in Guanajuato was pioneered by I Maria Guevara Sanguines who published her conclusions on the their long, tangled history there in her book, Guanajuato diverso. I was hugely privileged to attend her marvelous graduate seminar on colonial Guanajuato when I lived there.

Afro-Mexican Young Woman, Guanajuato, 1910, Romualdo García

Afro-Mexican Young Woman, Guanajuato, 1910, Romualdo García

I’m posting these images simply because I like them and readers are always so interested in the topic of Afro-Mexicans. But this is supposed to be a food blog, so what about their food? Maria always wanted to pursue this but I don’t think she ever had the opportunity.

And it’s really difficult to do so.  The intermixing is one reason. Another is that the Africans would have found the long dry winters and brief rainy summers of this plateau at 7000 feet very different from the humid forests or grasslands of their homelands. Unlike the Africans who ended up on the coasts of Veracruz, this was not a climate hospitable to root crops or even to rice.

One possible trace of African food that has always intrigued me and that I have posted about before is the use of black eyed peas in areas close to the Cañada de Negros . True, black eyed peas could have been introduced from Spain or the Philippines as well as from Africa.  But wherever they came from, it’s at least possible that their popularity in this particular area is one trace of African heritage since they are not widely used in Mexico.

Chiefly, though, enjoy these lovely images.

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26 thoughts on “African Traces in Central Mexico

  1. Bala

    Rachel,

    I enjoyed the history, and the sense of reality that these lovely images bring to them.

    I remember eating black-eyed peas since I was a little boy growing up in India – eating them as “sundal” (cooked in water, and seasoned with mustard seeds and grated coconut) and as “kozhambu” (a sauce). Your post makes me wonder how these peas came to be popular in Madras/Chennai, India.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Bala, they spread everywhere. By the sixteenth century, they were across Asia as far as the Philippines, across southern Europe (still popular in Spain), as well as in Africa. That’s why we are not sure by which or how many routes they reached the Americas.

      1. Vikram

        One of the things I have started realising from your book, and from other writers like Gary Paul Nabhan, is the extent to which Mexico and in general the border lands between Mexico and the USA was a melting pot for communities from across the world.

        Apart from the Africans you talk about here, and the Arabs that Nabhan writes about, there is also the story of the Punjabi Mexicans. Dr.Karen Leonard at Irvine did the basic work on them and I drew on it for this piece which I wrote. Food comes in briefly – the similarity between tortillas and rotis certainly helped the interaction:
        http://blogs.economictimes.indiatimes.com/onmyplate/how-sikhs-migrated-to-us-fought-prejudice-and-built-a-community/

        And in response to Bala’s comment about black eyed peas, this piece might be of interest, though it doesn’t really shed more light on their progress through India:
        http://blogs.economictimes.indiatimes.com/onmyplate/little-luxuries-soul-food/

        1. Rachel Laudan Post author

          Vikram,

          Sorry to be so long getting back to you. I would say the borderlands are late into this story. And I would also use caution with Nabhan. There are essentially no Arabs (if by that you mean Muslims from Arabia and its vicinity) in Mexico. There are a lot of Christians and some Jews from Lebanon/Syria who are (or were) Arabic-speaking who arrived at the beginning of the twentieth century with the break up of the Ottoman empire. And then there was an earlier Islamic influence since so many of the earlier settlers in the sixteenth century were from al-Anadalus, only recently taken by the Spanish, a group that undoubtedly including crypto Muslims as well as crypto Jews but that was probably more Berber or “Spanish” than Arab.

          Yes, the Sikh story is a great one. And thanks for the black eyed peas information.

        2. Bala

          Vikram,
          Thank you for the link to your interesting post on black-eyed peas. Now, I’ll try to look for the fresh version of these beans.

  2. Donzetta Seals

    Interesting. I did not know about the African presence in this state. I have visited the Afro-Mexicans in Oaxaca. Another interesting thing is that my hostess in the city of Oaxaca was originally from this state but she never mentioned the African presence there though she knew I had an interest in Afro-Mexicans.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      That may be because there is essentially no trace of Afro-Mexicans in Guanajuato today. They have simply blended in with the rest of the population. They could still be detected a hundred years ago but were already (indeed probably had been for a couple of hundred years) very mixed.

  3. Ramon Morales

    Hello Rachel, I love your blog and the history you shared. I am from Guanajuato and for the longest I had suspected the African roots in Guanajuato because on my father’s side. All of his family have African features like the people in the pictures but they don’t want to believe it. This has helped me a lot in my research of my family roots and going to buy the books you mentioned. What got you to do research of the African presence in Guanajuato?

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Ramon, how interesting. I did not myself do research on the African presence in Guanajuato. But when I lived there I was fortunate enough to be invited to join a graduate seminar on Guanajuato colonial history led by the excellent historian Maria Guevara. I went for several years whenever I could and learned a huge amount.

  4. Erika

    Hi Rachel:

    Thank you for posting this. I am from Leon Guanajuato and I didn’t even know this book existed. I now teach Spanish in the U.S. and I am trying to educate Americans and Hispanics about our third root. Do you know who I could contact to use the pictures in a class book? I don’t want to violate any copyright laws. I believe these pictures are powerful enough to continue informing others of our African ancestry.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      The photographs are housed, I believe, in the Museo Regional de Guanajuato. I have selected just a few. I suspect you could use them without violating copyright laws if you are using them for educational purposes.

  5. Cruzita Reyes Ramos

    For over 40 yrs of my folkloric studies of Mexico (culinary, dance, Costume, & tradition) I taught the afro-Mexican music & dance. It happens to be from Veracruz, called Jarocho..songs as the legendary “La Bamba”, Tilingo-Lingo, Huateque & many more.Their famous cuisine is mainly seafood & more. I have cooked some foods from their neighboring states in the Yucatan Peninsula. The marimba music, is said to have originated from the African slaves whom pirates sold as slaves. In Africa the marimba was made from bones, in Mexico it evolved to
    wood, but does sound like bones, thus for my current planning in full swing I feature marimba music & I have my dancers in skeleton suits for Dia De Los Muertos Expo, here in California. Rachel, your vintage photos help me tremendously because you reveal what I need in designing the costumes of the Catrinas Garbanceras . Gracias Amiga !.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Phil, Good to hear from you. And the answer is, yes, I do know them, and I find them very interesting.

  6. Mauricio Javier Gonzalez

    Interesting piece. I recently researched my father’s ancestry in the state of Guanajuato and wrote a book about it, Tracing my Roots in Guanajuato, León, and Silao’s Haciendas and Ranchos. Although I did not address race in my book, I found out that several of my ancestors were described as “mulatos.” This was a little confusing to me because my DNA test showed only 3% African ancestry. Perhaps, these few ancestors were not “mulatos” but just dark-skinned Indians or Mestizos.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Fascinating. I’ve just ordered your book and wish I had had it in Guanajuato, though it will be equally interesting now that I am in Texas and following out early Bajío-Texas connections. Goodness knows about ancestry. A friend working in the archives in Marfil had the following story. When the Spanish were doing their last big survey of New Spain in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century they wrote to the padre there asking him to give the racial origins of his parishioners. He wrote back essentially saying “everyone is so mixed up how can I possibly do that?” So yes, it may be just dark skinned.

  7. Mauricio Javier Gonzalez

    I can see how the padre at Marfil had trouble sorting out the different castas. When I traced my paternal line in Leon all the way back to 1734, I discovered that members of the same family line were described as mestizos, mulatos, and moriscos (moorish). This even occurred with siblings. It just goes to show you how mixed the people of Mexico are. Fascinating! Oh, and thank you for purchasing my book.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      I have a friend in Mexico City who is working on a history of the successive efforts over the centuries and down to the present to define/identify the castas/races/ethnic groups in Mexico. As you suggest, it’s pretty much hopeless. Love your example of how one family line might be identified as mestizo, mulato, or morisco.

  8. Mauricio Javier Gonzalez

    I’d like to add that it’s an honor to have you, a historian with great credentials, who’s lived in Guanajuato, read my book. Thanks!!!

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      I’ve already learned much from our interchange and I look forward to learning more when your book arrives!

  9. Stanton

    Interesting account of a hidden history in plain sight!
    One of my first trips to Mexico (other than Tijuana) was Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo and on my first day, the fist peoples I saw were Mexicans of Afro dscent playing in the beach area and this was in late 1970s. The insular nature of Mexican culture society is such that the refusal to acknowledge the ‘raices’ if the nation is a shock. Even today, the student massacre of a few years ago is part of parcel of deliberate attempts to erase those communities who transcend the stereotypes and create their own institutions or parrallels one to go forward intothe future. Also, the Chiapas incident shows how a conscious people can force dialogue to better the whole society as a measure of its value and direction of said institutions

  10. SMS

    WOW!!! we are everywhere. I saw an exhibit in San Antonio years ago about the African presence in Mecico


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