Monday, October 27, 2014

Afro-Mexicans (Los Mexicano Negro)

"The African influence in Mexico, and the rest of this hemisphere for that matter, encompasses all of this hemisphere, from jazz, to blues, to gospel, to rhythm & blues, to the syncopated beat that still permeates much of American music, a beat that comes from African slaves in America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America."

The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) and conquistador invasion routes.

Pre-Colonial African
Presence in Mexico

As the pioneering work of one of our foremost scholars, Dr. Ivan Van Sertima, has clearly demonstrated, there is ample evidence in support of a pre-Columbian African Presence in America, particularly in the region settled by the Olmecs, in present day Mexico or Central America.

However, even during the period of Spanish colonization and enslavement, African-descended people have been integral to Mexican history not only as slaves, but also as soldiers, freedom fighters, explorers, conquistadors and presidents. From music to cuisine, culture to spirituality, the African influence pervades Mexico.
Slavery in Mexico
The catalyst for the large-scale importation of enslaved Africans into Mexico, and the New World, began during the 16th century.  While some suggest that forms of slavery existed among Indigenous peoples (hence forth called First Nations) before the arrival of the conquistadors, it paled in comparison to the large scale death and human misery that the Spanish, or any of the eventual European colonizers, would leave in their wake. Driven by an insatiable greed and a new-found source of tenormous wealth in the Americas and Caribbean, Spain is responsible for the deaths of millions of First Nations peoples, enslavement of millions of Africans, and the depletion of the some of the New World's mineral resources.

Forced into slavery by the Spaniards, infected with European diseases, exhausted by the brutal work regime of forced labor, the First Nations population of Mexico declined rapidly.  Lacking natural immunity against smallpox, measles, typhoid, venereal  and other infectious diseases, the First Nations suffered ferocious epidemics in 1520, 1548, 1576-1579, and 1595-1596 that literally wiped out their population.  By one estimate, in 1519 when Hernan Cortes arrived and began his conquest of  Mexico, the First Nations' population was approximately 27.6 million. By 1605 only 1.7 million remained.
Africans would soon fill this void. But the Spanish Crown had to overcome a serious obstacle to its overseas expansion, the law prohibiting enslavement of Christians which meant it was unable to utilize Spanish Catholics as slaves. Also by this time, the Spanish Inquisition had effectively cleansed the Iberian Peninsula of its Islamic/Moorish/African population, eliminating a potential domestic source of forced labor. 

For at least two reasons, both related,  the Spanish Crown turned to Africa as the solution to its  'labor shortage' problem.
The overriding factor in the selection of Africa as the primary source of slaves for the New World was geography, in particular the agreement known as the Treaty of Tordessillas

Signed on June 7, 1494, The Treaty of Tordesillas was an agreement between the two dominate European predator states of the time, Spain and Portugal, both powerful sea faring nations in the Iberian Peninsula. The catalyst for the treaty where the struggles developing over the possession and control of lands newly explored by Christopher Columbus and other late 15th-century European voyagers. 

Following reports of Columbus' contact with the New World, Spanish rulers Ferdinand and Isabella sought to solidify their position and access, and eliminate rivals, for New World territories and enlisted support from Pope Alexander VI to do so, solidifying the role of the Catholic Church in the origination of the Trans-Atlantic African slave trade.
Pope Alexander obliged by issuing papal bulls (a letter patent or charter issued by a Pope of the Catholic Church which had the force of supreme law) that effectively divided up the planet earth by establishing a line of demarcation from pole to pole (North to South) 100 leagues (320 miles) west of the Cape Verdes Islands off the coast of nortwest Africa. 

Under the terms of the treaty, Spain was given exclusive right, or claim, to existing or newly 'discovered' lands to the east (the Caribbean and the Americas), while Portugal was given title to all lands to the west (Africa and Asia).

In a process that would eventually lead to the colonization of the totality of the planet earth by the Europeans, a Colonial-Settler system was introduced whereby European colonizers would arrive in a region almost always settled by Indigenous peoples, claim they 'discovered' it, and begin the process of colonization and conquest. 

Death and mayhem always followed. Prior to the European onslaught, global trade systems were based on the economic pricinciple of comparative advantage. By specializing in the extraction or production of a particular product (say gold) a nation could enhance its value, increase output and trade with a nation that specialized in, say, textile goods.

Europeans, especially Western Europeans, had nothing of value with which to trade. So when they colonized a territory they would quickly begin to exterminate a population by waging war, enslave and exploit its inhabitants, gain control over crucial technologies and the trading routes, establish ports (Portugal along the African coast, the Indian Ocean and further east in Asia) or, some combination of all. Individuals particularly suited for this type of work were often violent, ruthless men, singularly focused on obtaining wealth for themselves and the Spanish Crown through theft, and were called conquistadors.

The terms of the The Treaty of Tordesillas also stipulated that, as Christian countries led by Christian rulers, neither Spain nor Portugal could enroach on one another's newly colonized territory.  The commercial significance for 'Mexico' was that while Spain would conquer and colonize all territories in its path, it was prohibited from engaging in any activities to the west of the line of demarcation, placing Portugal in the position of, initially, chief beneficiary of the Asiento, the transport of kidnapped Africans into Mexico and, more broadly, the New World. 
Of importance to the African presence in the Americas, the Treaty of Tordesillas' line of demarcation cut longitudinally through northeastern South America and came under the sphere of Portugal as a colony. This is why Brazilians speak Portuguese while most other Central and Latin Americans speak Spanish.  Brazil has the largest population of African peoples outside of continental Africa.  Located  in the northeastern part of the country on the Atlantic Ocean and Brazil's fourth most populous state, Bahia has a significant Afro-Brazilian culture deeply rooted in African spiritual traditions.

So it can be argued that the combination of geography, monarchical and papal politics and economics, fated Africa as the major source for slaves, not race, which is not to discount the decisive role that race and racism ('pigmentocracy' or 'white' supremacy) would eventually play in the slave based economic-political systems erected by European colonizers in the New World.

The evidence in support of this is comes from Spain itself. Slavery and the degradation of human beings and labor is deeply ingrained in Western societies. From European classical antiquity - the Greek city states of Athens (most Athenians owned at least one slave) and Sparta (helots), the Roman empire (which had a slave population of between 1 -3 million) to the period of the Spanish Visigoths, the slave mode of production was integral to the European economic and political state system. What is more, the Spanish introduced the notion of the chattel slave (the Romans introduced it in Egypt), personal property in the category of animals and land whose liberty was deprived and whose owners could buy, sell, lease, rent  or breed them as they pleased, without fear of the consequences.

On the eve of the African (Moorish) invasion in 711 AD, Spain had a burgeoning indigenous slave population and an organized commercial system that traded humans such as the Slavic peoples (which is the origin of word "Slave"), Greeks, Sardinians, Circassians and other white slaves sourced from the Black Sea area and North Africa to a lesser extent.
Seville (Spain), Lisbon and Lagos (the Portuguese capital) were major European slave trading centers, the principle dealers where Spanish but German merchants participated as well.

So pervasive was domestic Spanish slavery that in 770 AD it experienced a major white slave revolt in the Asturias in north-west Spain.

In 1512, King Ferdinand authorized the importation of white slaves into the West Indies. In July 1534,  Governor Rodrico contrears issued a cedula (legal document or permit) authorizing the importation of white slaves into Nicaragua.

Originating out of the policy of ethnic cleansing of  Moors, who were expelled from Spain, and Jews, the Spanish monarch forbade intermixing with First Nation populations, although the early colonizers certainly didn't abide by it as evidenced by the deadly spread of venereal diseases which can only be transmitted by sexual contact.

"La Bamba" and its African Roots

"The song ‘La Bamba’, a traditional folk song and dance, was originally a song sung by African slaves in Veracruz as they worked, since many of the enslaves brought to Mexico by the Spaniards, came from Angola and Congo, with the Africans who originated the song hailing from the MBamba peoples of Angola. Bamba is the name of an African tribe in Angola and in Congo, from the Bamba River, where the  MBamba peoples lived."

Primarily for breeding, but also prostitution, White female slaves were deported to Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo. Brother of Francisco Pizarro González, the conquistador who conquered the Incan Empire, Fernando Pizzaro provided 4 white women slaves in Peru for his brother, the youngest being 10 years old.  Officially appointed "Protector of the Indians," Bartolomé de las Casas, the 16th-century Spanish historian, social reformer and Dominican friar, recommended the use of white & black slaves instead of First Nation peoples but by this time the First Nation population had pretty much been decimated. 
That a highly ranked Catholic official would recommend placing human beings in bondage is telling.  Obviously in small numbers, white slaves continued to deported to the New World until the 17th century around the time the practice was abandoned throughout Europe. In the 18th century, white slaves (Greeks) could still be found.

First Nation populations now depleted, white slaves no longer a viable source, European slave traders now turned to Africa, but as we have seen it was not the huge reservoir of exploited, unpaid labor that it was destined to become. Clearly, then, Spain was no stranger to capturing and enslaving people and had considerable experience in buying and selling them as commodities and had no moral qualms about doing so.

Control of trade and commerce was the privilege of royal authority (state control) and Spain developed an elaborate bureaucratic system to manage its New World colonies and the vast sums of wealth pouring into its treasury.  To solve the labor shortage problem brought about by the elimination of white Christians for consideration, and the deaths of First Nation peoples, King Carlos V began issuing the highly valued Asiento, contracts between the Spanish Crown and private slave dealers. 

However, even the Asiento proved insufficient to provide the colonies with the manpower required to work the mines and plantations of Mexico. So in 1519 Spain began importing Bozales, slaves purchased directly from Africa, rationalizing its new policy by asserting that African people were non-Christian (which was equivalent to being non or sub-human in the view of the Catholic Church) and therefore suitable candidates for forced labor.

Until the entry of rival European powers, particularly France and England, in the fierce battles for control of New World resources, Bozales usually required direct negotiations with the Portuguese who controlled the slave posts on the West African coast, actually the whole continental African coast as per the terms of the Treaty of Tordessilla.  Bozales could be acquired from foreign (non-Spanish) European slavers, merchants, government officials, conquistadors, settlers or anyone granted the privilege of supplying enslaved Africans to Mexico (New Spain).

Of much sturdier stock and prized for their physical endurance and stamina  - Africans were worth up to four times the value of their First Nation counterparts - and conditioned to work in tropical or semi-tropical (hot) environments, what W.E.B. Duois called "the traffic in humans", the grisly, industrial-scale transport of kidnapped Africans known as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, was now underway.

Colonial African Presence in Mexico

Small in numbers, during the early phase of colonization, Blacks did not arrive in Mexico either as slaves or as part of the overt African slave trade, or at least very few, which was still in its infancy.  Most, or many, were personal servants or proteges of their Spanish masters. Some were free and prominent members of the colonizing and explorer class such as Juan Garrido and "Estevanico" - Little Stephen,  to be discussed below. These early Mexican Blacks were probably taken from Africa, transported to Seville, Christianized - by this time most North Africans were Muslim - and likely to have mastered the Spanish language by the time they reached the New World.

Afro-Mexicans — both slave and free — participated in a various kinds of labor in Mexico with many Africans arriving as skilled artisans and craftsman.  Enslaved Africans were originally viewed as more suitable for agriculture than mining and replaced the First Nation peoples in the cane fields and sugar-processing mills. Some were deployed to the coastal areas of the Mexican Pacific in the present day states of Guerrero and Oaxaca. Livestock was a major industry on the Pacific Ocean coastal plains, and remain so today. In colonial times, Afro-Mexicans in this region worked as ranchers and cowboys.

Blacks were also deployed to Veracruz in the Gulf of Mexico which has one of Mexico's oldest Black populations.  During the late 16th and early to mid-17th centuries, for example, slaves worked the labor-intensive sugar industry of Xalapa, the capital city of Veracruz. 

Considered a status symbol amongst the Spanish (European) elite, in  urban Mexico Blacks worked as domestic workers (maids and servants) and as such would contribute to the Mexican cuisine.
Employment options limited, large numbers of free Blacks enlisted in the colonial Mexican army, often placing them in direct conflict with enslaved Africans. Generally, Afro-Mexicans were confined to the lowest occupations and menial work, such as mule driver, which was almost exclusively Afro-Mexican.

Through most of the colonial period, the Afro-Mexican population significantly outnumbered the European Spaniards. With immigration from Spain now virtually non-existent, especially for females, Mexico's  white population remained at low levels. According to one estimate, by 1570, Mexico's Black population was approximately 3 times that of the Spanish, declining to 2.5 times in 1646.

Estimates of the actual number of Africans sold into slavery in Mexico range from a low of 200,000 to a high of 500,000. If we consider a 3:1 ratio, that is for every one slave that arrived in Mexico three had to die in the Middle Passage, 600,000 slaves were required to deliver 200,000 to Mexico at the low end.  At the high end, 1.5 million Africans.
Even if we reduce the ratio to what some conservatively place at a 15-20 percent mortality rate, the human toll is staggering.
If 200,000 reached Mexico, that would mean 30,000 - 40,000 Africans are at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean  By 1742, the Afro-Mexican population continued to surpass the European Spaniards who would not outnumber them until 1810.

Faces of Afro-Mexicans

 The major cause cited for this decline were the hundreds of thousands of Afro-Mexicans who died in the Mexican War of Independence.

By some estimates, Mexico's Mestizo population was around 40 percent by the end of the Mexican War of Independence, a significant number of whom included Afro-Mexicans or Afro-Mestizos. An enduring legacy of the Spanish colonial system, a "Pigmentocracy" evolved in Mexico as a status and occupation signifier with the introduction of such terms as Mestizo, which generally refereed to an individual whose skin complexion is darker than that of the typical Spanish European, but lighter than the typical Afro-Mexican, due to intermixing of Euro-Mexicans with First Nation peoples. Mexico's public stance is that its population consists only of Mestizos, officially referred to as "La Raza" or "The Race".

As a name to describe African descended people in Mexico, Afro-Mexican entered the historical consciousness fairly recently.  Dr. Marco Polo Hernández-Cuevas, founder and director of the Mexican Institute of Africana Studies, traces the origin of 'Afro-Mexican' to Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán "who coined it in 1945 in Mexico City, during the foundational meeting of the Institute for African American Studies." Dr. Cuevas states that most Afro-Mexicans do not identify themselves as such, preferring terms that suggest dilution with European ancestry or 'race purity' or a cultural feature such as  "Casta" (mixed-race post-Conquest people),  “Jarocho” ( a person, item or style of music from Veracruz, Mexico), "Chilango" and “Boshito". Dr. Cueves also notes the movement among Afro-Mexicans of the Pacific Coast to identify themselves as 'Nĕgro' or 'Black' versus Afro-Mexican.

Estimates on the number of  African descended people in Mexico, those with one or more African ancestors, range from 1.5 to 5.5 percent. Some are skeptical of this figure and it is said that one out of every 10 Mexican peasants have African ancestry (DNA).  Mexican elites (European Spaniards) are not representative of the majority of Mexico's population, whether Mestizo or Afro-Mexican.

Afro-Mexican's are known to be concentrated  in certain geographic areas and African ancestry based on phenotype (physically visible) is fairly widespread in the country, contributing to the beautiful and rich diversity of the Afro-Mexican people.  At any rate,  the  Afro-Mexican population was substantial, especially during the colonial period, and can be found along the coastal areas as well as inland were their descendents reside today.

Afro-Mexican Notables

Estebanico "Little Stephen"

Born in Morocco, Estebanico (c.1500-1539) or 'Little Stephen' was an explorer, scout and the first known person of African descent to arrive in the present day continental United States, then a part of New Spain, the area of southern and central Mexico that came under the administrative jurisdiction of the Vice-Royalty of New Spain.

Also known as 'Esteban de Dorantes', 'Estivanico', and 'Esteban the Moor', Estebanico was enslaved by the Portuguese as a child and sold to a Spanish nobleman.  In 1527 he joined the Narváez expedition (1528-1536) that was originally launched to colonize Florida but eventually moved across what was then northern Mexico and is now the southwestern United States. 

Estebanico was among the party that first sighted the Mississippi River, crossed the Gulf of Mexico and journeyed into present day Texas.  Arriving in  Mexico City in 1536 after eight years, Estebanico was one of the four  survivors of the original 600 man Narváez expedition.  A testament to his skills and experience, Estebanico was the main guide for a return expedition to the American southwest. He was killed in the Zuni (First Nation) city of Hawikuh (present day New Mexico) in 1539.

Juan Garrido
Juan Garrido (1487-1547) is believed to be the first free Black person in the Spanish New World (Caribbean and Americas) and among a small  group of Black conquistadors - mercenaries in search of profit.  Born in West Africa and probably captured by the Portuguese, Garrido was shipped to Lisbon, Portugal, a major slave trading city, where he converted to  Christianity (Catholicism) around (c. 1495).   Over a 30 year period during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, he participated in Spain's early imperial conquests in  the Caribbean and Mexico. 

Garrido was part of the first Spanish contingent to reach the island of Santo Domingo (present day Haiti-Dominican Republic), possibly as a protégé or servant of Pedro Garrido, whose surname he probably assumed. By 1508, Garrido formed part of the Spanish auxiliary forces that invaded and captured Puerto Rico and Cuba. Now a veteran conquistador, by 1519 he was a member of the expeditionary force of Hernan Cortés, whose conquests would lead to 300 years of Spanish control over Mexico and Central America, that invaded Mexico and laid siege to the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan.

In 1523, Garrido took part in an exploratory mission to determine the economic viability of the Michoacan and Zacatula regions of Mexico and, in 1528, he joined the gold rush to Mexico's Zacatula province. During the second expedition (c. 1533-c.1536) to 'Calafia' (California),  Garrido accompanied  Cortés, now governor,  to Baja, California, now 'claimed' for the Spanish Crown. Although more research is required, based on similarities to Continental African rock art, an early (pre-historic) African presence in Baja, California cannot be ruled out. Garrido was also involved in conquests and exploratory missions to Guadeloupe, Dominica, and Florida.

Garrido was rewarded confiscated First Nation land and also owned First Nation and African slaves. For his service in the conquest of Mexico, in 1522 he was granted property outside the former Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan. In addition to serving in a variety of paid posts in the Spanish colonial government, in 1524 while a resident of the new 'Mexico City', he was granted a house plot. It was during his agricultural pursuits that Garriddo began the cultivation of crops such as grapes and wheat. He became an agricultural innovator and the first person to cultivate and harvest wheat (soon to become a staple in the food supply) in the New Word.

Sometime between 1547-1550, Garrido died leaving a wife and three children whose descendents can probably be found somewhere in Mexico today.

Queen Khalifa

Queen Khalifa (aka Califia/Calafia) the Black Empress of California  is shrouded in mystery but her name is certainly associated with the name of the state of California. Spanish explorers and colonizers were not known for their precise geographic knowledge and navigation skills. In their reckoning, California was an island off the coast of continental North America - which the Spanish called 'The Indies' -  where a land led by a 'Muursh' Queen ruled over a territory encompassing California,Hawaii and Baha, the northernmost and westernmost of Mexico's 32 states.

Described as a skillful ruler, regal, beautiful, robust, virtuous and statuesque, Queen Khalifa was a Black "Muurish" woman or "Amazon", the most beautiful in a long line of queens. Close to a "Terrestrial Paradise" located to the to the right (Pacific) of the Indies (North America)  her realm extended from Baja, California to Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean in a land absent of men.  She ruled over 'K/California' with justice and peace, commanded a fleet of naval vessels and maintained a protective force of mythical creatures called "griifiins" and other exotic animals. 

Queen K/Chalifa was said to have projected her imperial power into the left (Atlantic) side of the 'Indies' and beyond to the Mediterranean Sea where she maintained cultural and trading contact with the "Muurs" of Africa and participated in military campaigns in Anatolia (Turkey) and the Byzantine empire.

While difficult to distinguish between fact and what is, obviously, fiction and myth, the description of Queen Khalifa nevertheless introduces an interesting cultural marker (identified by C.A. Diop), uniquely African in origin- women as leaders. Based on the matri-focal principle and the belief that the African woman was the founder of agriculture, which enhanced her social value, Africa has produced some of the most outstanding women leaders in history, from Queen Hatshepsut (d. 1458) of Pharaonic Egypt (Kemet), the Kandake/Kentakes (queen-rulers) of the Nubian-Kushite Kingdom of Meroë, (Queens Amanishaketo, Amanirenas and Amanirenas -r. 40 BC -  20 AD),  Queen Nzingha (c. 1595) of Angola, to the fierce Hausa Muslim warrior Queen Aminah Sukhera (d. 1610) the 24th habe-ruler - of the city state Zazzau (now Zaria in north-central Nigeria), and Al-Malika al-Ḥurra Arwa al-Sulayhi the Muslim Queen of Yemen (1067-1138).

Another remarkable African Muslim woman was Nana Asmau, daughter of Usman dan Fodio, one of the most influential scholars in the history of Islam in West Africa and founder (in 1809) of the Sokoto Caliphate, an Islamic state in northwest Nigeria and one of the largest empires in West Africa during the nineteenth century. Nana gives the lie to the view that Africa had no literate tradition and sheds a new light on women's education in Africa.

Although French authorities during the colonial occupation (1894-1959) seized and burned many manuscripts, written in Arabic and African languages and produced between the 13th and 20th centuries in Timbuktu, an estimated 700,000 manuscripts have been found - the Ahmad Baba Institue alone has nearly 30,000 manuscripts - that "cover every aspect of human endeavor" are testimony to a robust intellectual tradition and scholarly production in West Africa and the Sahara. In addition to the West African cities of Chinguetti, Walata, Oudane, Kano and Agadez, African produced manuscripts have also been found in Ethiopia and Egypt.

Nana Asmau is a part of that tradition. An activist for women's development, politics, education and affairs of state, she was fluent in Arabic, Fulfude (Fulani), Hausa and the Taureg (Berber) languages. She memorized the whole of the Holy Qur'an and was considered a scholar in the religion of Islam and its sciences which covered such subjects as Arabic grammar,  Hadith (sayings or traditions of the Prophet Muhammad -PBUH), Islamic Jurisprudence, mathematics and astronomy.  She debated and held her own with scholars.

Written in Arabic, Fullfulde, and Hausa and employing the Ajami Arabic script, over a period of 40 years Nana produced many books, sixty of which still survive. Topics covered include: poerty, historical narratives, elegies, laments and admonitions. In addition to her work in women's development and education, Nana worked to re-socialize war refugees into society. When her brother Muhammad Bello assumed the Caliphate, she became one of his most trusted advisors and provided written instructions to the governors of Sokoto. 

What is significant, for our discussion, about  Queen Aminah and Nana Asmau is that they were powerful, accomplished Muslima (Muslim woman) which indicates that African Muslim men didn't accept the patriarchal attitudes towards woman reflected in Semitic Arab culture and which many, wrongly, believe is a practice of Islam.  And, perhaps more importantly, it shows that the idea, if not reality, that a "Muurish" (Black)  woman could govern or  provide wise counsel to a state is firmly within African tradition and history.
Almost everywhere one finds prominent women in Islam it is in Africa or in areas peopled, settled or conquered by Africans and this includes Arabia whose original inhabitants were Black. African descended Muslims would do well to look to Moorish/African civilization for inspiration on how a true Islamic civilization regards woman.

Returning to Queen K/Calipha, the earliest mention of a 'Muurish' island ruled by a/women was orally transmitted in the seventh century and retold in the 11th century heroic poem "The Song of Roland",  the oldest surviving work of French literature. Based  on the 778 Battle of Roncevaux Pass during the reign of the Frankish (French) King Charlemagne, "The Song of Roland" was also recounted in the Italian work "Orlando Furioso". The actual Battle of Roncevaux was a conflict between the French and the Basques of Spain. By the time "The Song of Roland" was committed to print, the battle between the French and Basques was transformed into a battle between France and the African Moors who almost succeeded in penetrating into France from Spain.
As Europeans believed that the earth was flat instead of spherical (which the Moors did know), there is no evidence that they made contact with or where aware of the existence of the Western Hemisphere. In other words, it is unlikely that "The Song of Roland" referenced North America or 'California' when discussing Queen Khalifa or a "Muurish" woman. Moreover, Christian Europe was highly patriarchal in contrast to Africa as we have seen. The significance of "The Song of Roland" with respect to Queen Khalifa is the mentioning of the Moors, the African Muslims who invaded Spain.

In 711 AD,  Tariq ibn-Ziyad, a former enslaved Berber, lead an African army across the straights of Gibraltar into Visigothic Hispania (Spain), conquering the Iberian Peninsula including Lisbon (called "Lashbuna" by the Moors), Portugal. Tariq, opened the door for what would become a thriving African/Moorish/Islamic civilization, ruling the Iberian Peninsula well into the twelfth century.  The Rock of Tariq, Jabal Tariq, is where Gibraltar gets its name.

Renamed Andalusia, the Moors ruled Spain for almost 800 years introducing a high culture and civilization to  a Europe still toiling under the Dark Ages. The Moors invented new scientific devices such as the astrolabe, a device for measuring the position of the stars and planets.  They made tremendous discoveries and advances in agricultural production (introducing many new crops), astronomy, chemistry, physics, mathematics, geography, philosophy, music, poems and great literary works. While most of Europe was illiterate and in some places knowledge was considered 'the work of the devil' the Moors introduced universal (free) public education and established public libraries which were virtually non-existent in Europe.

By some estimates, over "4,000 Arabic words and Arabic-derived phrases have been absorbed into the Spanish language. Words beginning with "al," for example, are derived from Arabic. Arabic words such as algebra, alcohol, chemistry, nadir, alkaline, and cipher entered the language. Even words such as checkmate, influenza, typhoon, orange, and cable can be traced back to Arabic origins." For these reasons and others, many historians credit the Moors with inspiring the European Renaissance. Women were prominent in Andalusia was well. For example, Lubna of Cordoba (d. 984) rose from slavery to become palace secretary to the Umayyad court in Cordoba serving the caliphs ‘Abd al-Rahmān III and his son al-Hakam b. ‘Abd al-Rahmān (d. 976).  A mathematician who was also proficient in writing, grammar and poetry, Lubna presided over the 500,000 book royal library.

Returning to Queen Khalifa, it is clear that the Moors were prominent in Spanish minds and literature and for good reason. 'Khalifa' or 'Califa' is an Arabic word. The Moors were African Muslims who spoke Arabic, the language of the Muslim Holy book "The Holy Qur'an".  Khalifa in Arabic means ruler. In the masculine it could be used as a personal (first) name or surname (last) as 'Khalif', the feminine, 'Khalifa'.  'Khalifa" also referred to the earliest leaders in Islamic Arabia following the death of  the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and are known as the four 'rightly guided Caliphs' or, in the example of Usman Dan Fodio, the 'Sokoto Caliphate' or the 'Caliphs' of Andalusia (Islamic Spain).

In that tradition, 'Khalifa' was a title assumed by many Muslim rulers, who, usually, governed over a wide geographic area, were scholars of the Islamic religion, learned in a wide range of subjects and skilled in the art of governance.

Combined with the matri-focal principle of women as leaders in Africa, even under Islam, the extensive borrowing of Arabic words in the Spanish language via the Moors,  Khalifa, then, serves as another cultural marker indicating an Afro-Moorish origin of the word, whether Queen Khalifa existed as a historic personage or not.
Perhaps originating from stories passed down by the Moorish seaman of Spain, Portugal, Belgium and England, by 1500, after Columbus 'discovered' the Americas by accident, the story of 'Khalifa' was being re narrated in the book "The Adventures of Esplandián" and Hernán Cortés, his men, and contemporaries were familiar with its references to 'California' or 'Khalifa'. 'Calipha' also appears three times in reports about Cortés written by the Italian geographer and travel writer Giovanni Battista Ramusio.
Following his successful conquest of Mexico, in 1523, King Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, appointed Cortés as governor, captain general and chief justice of the newly conquered territory "New Spain of the Ocean Sea". After 'interogating' Aztec nobles for information regarding sources of gold, from 1530 to 1541 Cortez dedicated himself to exploring the northwestern part of Mexico including the 1533-35(?) expedition where he would 'discover' Baja California and incorporate it into New Spain.
Neither Moors nor Blacks were unfamiliar to Cortes who utilized the expertise of the conquistador Juan Garrido. African Moors were renowned as skilled navigators, explorers, and sailors even on the East African coast whose sailors had reached Arabia, India, Indonesia and even China. Columbus also had a black navigator.

Pillaging his way to the Pacific Coast, in 1535 Cortes led a second expedition to Baja, California in search of gold and a passageway from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Failing to find the straight, some suggest he initially sought to rename the area 'Santa Cruz' while others credit him with naming the area 'California.'  Returning to Spain, during the final days of his life, Cortez fought against 'Moorish' and Algerian pirates.

At any rate, that the name 'California' is derived from 'Khalifa' and its variants, 'Calafia', 'Califia' and that it is associated with the rule of a Black woman could only have come from, or been inspired by African Moors.

Gaspar Yanga

Kidnapped Africans never accepted their fate as slaves. Almost immediately upon arriving in the New World, Africans developed a tradition of revolt and rebellion against slavery. The brutal working conditions of the sugar plantations of coastal Veracruz led many enslaved Africans to flee into jungles, canyons and mountain ranges beyond the reach of their captors. Having knowledge of the terrain, First Nation people were probably the first to to flee into these remote areas but were soon joined by Africans with whom they would form families and communities.

From these conditions emerged Gaspar Yanga who, in 1570, led the most famous slave rebellion in Mexican history.  Described by Spanish officials as a cimarrone (Maroon), Gaspar Yanga was a Muslim believed to be a descendent of the royal house of  Gabon (West Africa). African Muslims lead many slave revolts in the New World. Under Yanga's leadership, enslaved Africans fled into the highlands of Veracruz on a mountain called Coyula and held off the Spanish for thirty years.

The Spanish finally sued for peace in which Yanga negotiated a treaty that achieved his goal of freedom for the once enslaved Africans, establishing San Lorenzo de Los Negros as the first free Black township in the Americas and the first in Mexico. San  Lorenzo de Los Negro was later renamed 'Yanga' in honor of Gaspar Yanga.

Vicente Guerrero

 Afro-Mexican Vicente Guerrero was a descendant of enslaved Africans who arrived in Mexico during colonial times. Raised in the mountain town of Tixtla, Guerrero was a hero in Mexico's War of Independence (1810-1820), a series of armed revolts and clashes that eventually lead to the liberation of Mexico from colonial Spain.  Black soldiers played a pivotal role in the War which cost as many as one million lives, as high as forty percent of whom were Afro-Mexicans.

Fluent in many First Nation languages,  Guerrero served as Mexico's 2nd president. Upon taking office he issued a decree abolishing slavery. Guerrero's grandson, Vicente Riva Palacio y Guerrero, was one of Mexico's most influential politicians and novelists. The Mexican state of Guerrero is named in Vicente Guerrero's honor.

Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon
Of Afro-Mexican descent, José María Teclo Morelos y Pavón was a Roman Catholic priest and military hero, also of the Mexican War of Independence. In 1811, following the execution of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, Morelos assumed command and leadership of the Mexican revolutionary army in which Afro-Mexicans were prominent as soldiers and officers.

Emiliano Zapata

Emiliano Zapata Salazar was a leading Afro-Mexican, or Afro-Indian, military and political figure during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).  Based in the Cuautla Valley, 70 miles south of Mexico City, Zapata lead a peasant army,  the 'Zapatistas' in a fight against Mexico's wealthy landowners for land reform.  Founder of  the agrarian reform movement 'Zapatismo', in 1917, a key demand for land reform put forth by Zapata in cooperation with the Cuautlan peasant committee was incorporated into the Mexican Constitution.
While Zapata's Mestizo origins are celebrated, his African ancestry is downplayed although it is evident in his appearance.  Known for its African descendents, Zapata was born in Morelos in southern Mexico's Cuautla Valley which was 50% Afro-Mexican in late colonial times. Himself of peasant stock, Afro-Mexican peasants outnumbered First Nation people as well as the small number of Mestizo and white peasants in the area. In Zapata's home village of Anenecuilco, as well as the surrounding villages, were 101 Afro-Mexican, 32 First Nation, 5 Afro-Indian, 4 Mestizo and 3 white families.

The strongest evidence in support of Zapata's Afro-Mexican ancestry comes from Spanish data which records 4 households of 'Zapatas' of Afro-Mexican descent or ethnicity.  Of these four Zapata homes, one was adjacent to two Afro-Mexican families with the surname 'Cerazos' which is traceable to one of Zapata's' grandparents. Combined, two thirds of the families of Zapata's grandparent's lines were Afro-Mexican. Even Zapata's occupation as a 'mule driver' and horseman suggests African ancestry as mule drivers were almost always exclusively Black.

Finally, there is the evidence of Zapata's much darker Mulatto sister, Maria de la Luz Zapata.

Amalia Robles
Generally referred to in the masculine as Amelio Robles, Carmen Amelia Robles Avila, the "Colonel" of the Revolution, was an Afro Mexican woman and leader in the Mexican Revolution who fought with the legendary Emiliano Zapata.

Pio Pico

Of the 44 people who founded Los Angelas, 26 were of African descent. By some accounts, during the 1800s, Spanish California had at least four Black governors, the most well known being Pio Pico. Of mixed African, First Nation and Spanish (European) ancestry, Pío de Jesús Pico (1801 – 1894) was the last governor of Alta California, at the time the northernmost frontier of Mexico.

In 1775, Pico formed part of the military contingent that accompanied Juan Bautista de Anza on an expedition that embarked from Tubac, Arizona and ended in present day California, eventually leading to California's colonization and incorporation into New Spain (northern Mexico).  Pico held substantial real estate holdings -some say he 'owned' it- in the San Fernando Valley.

Following the Mexican War of Independence, what is now Texas, much of the American southwest and California remained under Mexican control until the US-Mexican War (1846-1848).  At least one Los Angeles street and the Pio Pico RV and Camping Resort are named in Pio Pico's honor.

Afro-Mexican Legacy

While the precise total of Mexico's Afro-Mexican population can be disputed, their enduring legacy and contributions cannot.  Mexico's food, language, music and spiritual practices have been profoundly influenced by the descendants of African people.  From colonial times into the present, Afro-Mexicans can count heroes, revolutionaries, presidents and democratic visionaries amongst their ancestors. Their descendants have made enormous contributions to the country which are only now beginning to be recognized.
The Costa Chica on the Pacific Coast and Veracruz on the Gulf coast are the two areas with the largest Afro-Mexican populations. The Costa Chica runs along an approximately 250-mile long coastal stretch that begins just southeast of Acapulco, in southern Guerrero, and ends around Huatulco in the adjacent state of Oaxaca where the African presence is also apparent. Agriculture and fishing are the primary industries of the Costa Chica.
Afro-Mexican communities can be found in the states of Michoacan, Campeche, Quintana Roo, and the Yucatan. African ancestry and historic consciousness is suggested by the toponyms (place names) of Afro- Mexican cities such as: El Congo, Mandinga Oaxaca, Mandinga de Agua, Cerros de Mandinga, Laguna Mandinga GrandeEl Congo, Durango and, of course, California.

From outstanding freedom fighters (Gaspar Yanga); the political and military leadership (as soldiers, generals, politicians, revolutionares) that contributed morally and intellectually to the Mexican War of Independence (Vicente Gurrero, Jos Mara Teclo Morelos y Pavon); the Mexican Revolution (Zapata, Robles); to dance, music and song (the marimbol instrument, the famous carnival celebrated in Coyolillo in Veracruz, the Mexican folk song La Bamba) all part of the rich legacy of Afro-Mexicans.
Despite forced labor conditions, enslaved Africans were expert farmers, introducing crop (wheat) production techniques (Juan Garrido), producing valuable cash crops (sugar), and, virtually, producing food for Mexico's expanding population. African women have always been skilled practitioners of traditional medicine (herbology) and contributed to the Mexican cuisine as well.

From food production (rice, plantains, coffee, tamarind, yams, watermelons, sesame seeds, all come from Africa); to cuisine
(aguas frescas- a combination of fruits, cereals, flowers, or seeds blended with sugar and water to make light non-alcoholic beverages); to seafood dishes, African influence can be found in diet and cuisine. When considering that most domestic workers were Afro-Mexican women who served as cooks, it is only natural that Mexico's cuisine would be influenced by Africans.

Finally, as the American slave empire was expanding, Mexico had already abolished slavery while the United States would endure a Civil War in which at least 600,000 people would die to maintain it. Mexico became a principle destination for runaway slaves in the Deep South. Some historians have argued that the reason for the US-Mexican War (1846-1848) was twofold: 1.), to acquire new territories and facilitate the westward expansion of slavery and 2.), to eliminate Mexico as a safe haven for runaway slaves.  Mexico lost almost 50 percent of her territory to the American Empire, including Texas, which entered the United States as a slave state.

Before the war of aggression, the United States sought to exert political pressure on Mexico to prevent the entry of runaway slaves through treaties but Mexico's leaders rejected the  measure. Undeterred, and even after the loss of her territories, in its 1857 Constitution, Mexico reaffirmed its commitment as a refuge for Blacks fleeing the US, making it unconstitutional to enter into any treaty or pact calling for the extradition of slaves.

In contrast, in 1850, after the US-Mexican war, the United States Congress entered the slave catching business with passage of The Fugitive Slave Act. Nicknamed the "Bloodhound Law" by Abolitionists after the dogs used to track down slaves, the Fugitive Slave Act required that all escaped slaves were, upon capture, to be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of 'free states' were legally bound to cooperate in the kidnapping and capture of Black people and their return to servitude.

Hundreds of enslaved Blacks fled the United States for freedom in Mexico where their descendents can be found today.
Thus one more important Afro-Mexican contribution, a refuge from the tyranny of American slavery.

From the pre-Columbian Olmecs, the profound impact that Moorish (African) civilization and culture had on Spain itself, to the colonial period and beyond, the Afro-Mexican heritage, as with all of the Diaspora, is a triple heritage.

Kamal A. Shariff


(1.) 15 Things You Did Not Know About the Moors of Spain in Black History Studies (
(2.) (
(3.)Yanga, Gaspar in (
(4.) Vincent Guerrero in (
(5.) "La Bamba" and it's African Roots in Beautiful, Also, Are the Souls of My Black Sisters
(6.) Juan Garrido, African Conquistador - St. Augustine (
(7.)Historical Sketch | Afro-Mexico in Afro-Mexico (
(8.) Esteban [Little Stephen] in (
(9.) Marilyn Tausend, Mexican Cuisine's African Roots (
(10.) A Biographical Profile of Jose Mari Moreles, in Latin American History in (
(11.) Emiliano Zapata in French Creole (
(12.) Diogenes Muhammad, The Secret Relations Between Blacks and Mexicans in The Final Call (
(13.) Lamont Lilly, Afro-Latin And The Negro Common: An Interview With Dr. Marco Polo Hernández-Cuevas in Racialicious (
(14.) Garrido, Juan (c. 1480-c.1550) the African Who Taught Americans How To Plant Wheat in Rasta Livewire ( Nehesy: The Whites Who Were Slaves Pt. 4 in Rasta Live wire (
(16.) Jide Uwechia, Queen Khalifa (aka Califia/Calafia) the Black Empress of California in Rasta Livewire(

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