Afro-Mexicans And the MLK Holiday
There are citizens of Mexico who identify themselves as Afro-Mexican. However, they have never been able to recognize themselves as such in Mexico’s census— until now. Starting with the 2020 census, some 1.4 million Mexican citizens will finally be able to check the box “Afro-Mexican.” What has this to do with our celebration of Dr. King?
Central to Dr. King’s teachings was how interconnected we all are. It was important to him and critical to the success of the civil rights movement that people of all ethnicities, all colors, and all religions participated. That is why the celebration of the life and the accomplishments of Dr. King is a celebration of humankind. And this is why it is important to know about the connection between African Americans and our Mexican sisters and brothers.
In the late 1500’s, Mexico was a Spanish colony called “New Spain.” It had an estimated 20,000 Africans who had been brought there by the Spanish as slaves. By 1600, the number of Africans in Mexico outnumbered the Spaniards. (It was not until 19 years later, in 1619, that the first slaves were brought to America.)
In the state of Vera Cruz in Mexico is the town of Yanga, named for Mexico’s most famous runaway slave. Gaspar Yanga was an enslaved West African. In 1570, he escaped and formed a community of runaway slaves in the nearby mountains. His community survived by raiding Spanish convoys and nearby ranches for supplies.
By 1609, almost 40 years after Yanga formed his settlement, the Spanish rulers had had enough. They mounted a major assault. However, Yanga and his comrades successfully defended themselves and then negotiated a peace treaty with the Spanish.
They had 11 demands that included freedom for all of the runaway slaves in the settlement, official recognition of their town, including the right of Yanga and his heirs to become governors, and exclusion from the town of the Spanish, except on market days.
In 1609, after they successfully resisted the Spanish, Yanga and his followers established the town of San Lorenzo de los Negros that eventually became known as simply Yanga; it was formally recognized by the Spanish in 1618. The town of Yanga exists to this day in the state of Veracruz, where a huge statute of Gaspar Yanga stands.
Who knew that the first Black town in North America was in Mexico?*
As Maya Angelou famously wrote, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike. We are more alike, may friends than we are unalike.”
*Source: 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.