We generally envision Aztecs and Spanish conquistadors, Day of the Dead celebrations, and Cinco de Mayo when we think of Mexico. Hollywood and history books have created a particular narrative highlighting its indigenous population while overlooking a distinct group whose influence has impacted that region since the early 1500s.
Just as we explored the African influence in Salvador de Bahia, the landscape and identity of millions of people who live in Mexico also have deep connections to the African continent – a connection that, until very recently, has been largely ignored.
In 2015, the Mexican government conducted an interim census that “incorporated African descendants into the categories of race and ethnicity, something that hadn’t been done since the 1830s.” Nearly two million people identified as being of African descent. And finally, in 2020, just two years ago, Afro-Mexicans were acknowledged in the Mexican census.
“Based on your culture and traditions, do you consider yourself Afro-Mexican, black, or Afro-descendant?” It was a simple but powerful question. And long overdue.
Mexico’s history with peoples of African descent is a long one and dates back to the early 1500s, when many were brought over by their Spanish masters. In the beginning, they were used as overseers of the indigenous population, basically doing the dirty work of their captors – but only until the military part of their conquest was complete. Through the 1800s, it is estimated that nearly 200,000 enslaved Africans were kidnapped and brought to Mexico as part of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Over time, many were able to purchase or earn their freedom and achieve the status of vecino (resident), but many remained in servitude and enslavement. In fact, by the 17th century, the number of free Black population outnumbered the enslaved population.
By 1820, the Black population in Mexico was equal to that of the United States. Mexico gradually abolished slavery following their independence from Spain before formally outlawing it in 1829, a full 36 years before the United States. During this period leading up to the emancipation, an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 enslaved people fled south.
So for over 500 years, a significant number of African people have lived and died in Mexico; they are Mexicans of African descent with their own ancestry, traditions, and history. And for years, they were a largely overlooked population. Lumping all Mexicans together, ignoring some of the very obvious differences, can have the effect of making certain groups feel erased.
This is the one community that is not recognised nationally. Indigenous groups are worse off in many ways, but at least they are paid lip service. Mexicans of African descent have no voice, and the government makes no attempt to assess their needs, no effort to even count them. – Bobby Vaughn, African-American anthropologist
This is why the 2020 census is so significant. Afro-Mexicans are finally receiving the distinction and recognition they deserve, allowing them to formally acknowledge an ancestry and heritage that’s vastly different (but also intertwines) with their Indigenous neighbors.