Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

MEXICO: Black Minority Invisible in Bicentennial Plans

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Oct 2 2009 (IPS) - Mexico has big plans for celebrating its 200th anniversary of independence from Spain next year. But Mexicans of African descent are as invisible in those plans as they are in everyday life.

In the extensive schedule of activities planned by the government of Felipe Calderón, there is no specific event involving Afro-Mexicans, who number between 250,000 and 500,000, according to unofficial estimates, and mainly live in the southern states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, Veracruz in the southeast and Michoacán in the west.

"It looks to us like the Mexican government wants to forget about such a cruel part of the past as slavery. And because of that, the black population does not appear in official documents or textbooks," Israel Reyes, president of the Alliance for the Strengthening of Indigenous Regions and Afro-Mexican Communities (AFRICA), told IPS.

Given the significant decline in the native population as a result of the Spanish Conquista and diseases brought by the European invaders, the Spanish colonialists began importing slaves from Africa in the 16th century.

Historians estimate that between 1580 and 1650, some 250,000 African slaves were brought to Mexico, mainly through the port of Veracruz, to work in the sugarcane fields and on cattle ranches.

"There was a very strong African presence," María Velásquez from the National Institute of Anthropology and History told IPS. "All of those stories that have been handed down in different parts of Mexico (reflecting the influx of Africans) should be made known."

Based on early census data, Mexican anthropologist Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán estimates that the black population in colonial Mexico numbered around 20,500 in 1570, 35,000 in 1646, and nearly 16,000 in 1742.

In other words, according to U.S. anthropologist Bobby Vaughn, blacks far outnumbered the Spanish in early colonial times, with the black population three times that of the Spanish in 1570 and 2.5 times in 1646.

Vaughn, who specialises in studies on Afro-Mexicans, says that not until 1810 did the Spanish outnumber blacks.

Mexicans of African descent had to wait over two centuries to be free of slavery, although before Roman Catholic priests Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos, two of the country's national heroes, abolished slavery in 1810, slaves had already made several attempts at winning freedom.

The first was the rebellion led by Gaspar Yanga, who escaped from a sugar plantation in Veracruz in 1570 and established a "maroon" or "palenque" settlement of escaped slaves. The community became the present-day town of Yanga, in the centre of the state of Veracruz, with a population of nearly 20,000.

Finally, Vicente Guerrero (1783-1831), who came from a poor mixed-race peasant family with a significant African heritage and was one of the first presidents of independent Mexico, signed the last abolitionist decree in 1829.

Non-governmental organisations that work on issues involving Afro-Mexicans have tried in vain to get the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) to include a question about the black population in the 2010 national census.

"We have been informed that, because of the time and resources that would be involved in modifying the census by adding the question, it is not possible to include the issue," said Reyes, who along with two other researchers compiled "De afromexicanos a pueblo negro" (From Afro-Mexicans to Black People) – the record of a forum of the same name held in 2007.

The NGOs want the population of African descent to be recognised in the Mexican constitution. "This idea of recognition must be reflected in our laws, and in the constitution itself," said Reyes, whose network was legally established in 2007.

Although the plans for the central government's celebrations next year make no reference to Afro-Mexicans, the recently created official bicentennial committee in the impoverished southern state of Oaxaca does plan to include activities on black Mexican culture.

And Reyes hopes the same thing will happen in the states of Guerrero, Michoacán and Veracruz.

"An increase in awareness and fair recognition of people of African descent are needed. More information and more studies are necessary," said Velásquez.

Afro-Mexican culture is reflected in dances like the "danza de los negros" (dance of the black people), instruments like the "hand piano," song-stories of slave uprisings, handicrafts, and the paintings of Juan Correa (1646-1716), whose mother was a slave and who was one of Mexico's most important colonial-era artists.

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