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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.