The Blacks of Mexico

Afro-mexicans2Alexis Okeowo in More Intelligent Life:

The first time I felt deeply uncomfortable being black was when I was a kid. My family had just moved to Alabama, and I was in a car with my father and my brother. A white woman with a harshly lined face and brown frizzy hair yelled out a racial slur as we drove by. Dad immediately put the car in reverse and drove over to her as she pumped gas at a filling station. “What did you say?” he demanded. She glared at him and refused to respond. Shocked into silence, my brother and I didn't say anything for the rest of the drive home.

The second time was in a quaint town in Mexico. I am a journalist living in Mexico City and I had decided to take a trip to Veracruz, where hundreds of thousands of African slaves had been brought by Spanish colonialists five centuries prior. I wanted to visit Yanga, a place that called itself “the first free slave town in the Americas”. The town was named for Gaspar Yanga, a slave who had led a successful rebellion against the Spanish in the 16th century.

I had only just learned about Afro-Mexicans, the isolated descendants of Mexico's original slaves, who reside on the country's rural Pacific and Gulf Coasts. After months of research and a visit to the remote Afro-Mexican community on the Pacific Coast, where most of them live, I felt compelled to visit the Afro-Mexicans in Veracruz on the Gulf Coast. I ended up spending most of my time trying to figure out Yanga.

As I arrived in town, I peered out of my taxi window at the pastel-painted storefronts and the brown-skinned residents walking along the wide streets. “Where are the black Mexicans?” I wondered. A central sign proclaimed Yanga's role as the first Mexican town to be free from slavery, yet the descendants of these former slaves were nowhere to be found. I would later learn that most live in dilapidated settlements outside of town.