The African Presence in New Spain, c. 1528-1700
By Dr. Rhonda M. Gonzales
Associate Professor of History
University of Texas at San Antonio
The ubiquitous border that represents the boundary between the United States of America and Mexico has been
the physical meeting point of histories important both to nation-state interests as well as to the histories of
generations of people who have made their homes within the lands of that area.
In this section, we are interested in the latter, beginning with the first half of the sixteenth century, a pivotal era
for the region. It was then that the nascent, shifting, and fluid milieus of New Spain became the geographic
crucible in which the earliest generations of eventual Mexicans and Americans, whose descendants form the core
of the two nation’s citizenry today, rooted themselves. The people involved in that rooting process were diverse,
and hailed from many different areas of the world. Besides those who came from distant lands, key among the
actors implicit in this historical period included many peoples whose ancestors were long indigenous to the areas
that the Spanish Empire claimed for itself.
The diverse languages and cultures of those indigenous populations had for millennia before 1528 unfolded
within this landscape. Their histories are only part of the period’s historical narrative that will be discussed here.
In 1519, a fundamental change began in what is now known as southern and central Mexico. That change
started when foreigners arriving from great distances across the Atlantic Ocean intruded upon indigenous
populations living in the regions of the Yucatán and Veracruz. From the start, newly arriving immigrants were
heterogeneous in their lands of origin, languages, and cultures. Some of them hailed from places that spanned the
Iberian world, in the lands of then emerging Spanish and Portuguese Empires. In addition to Iberians, many of
the newcomers arrived from the west and west-central shores and hinterland regions of the African continent.
The native histories of each of these “Old World” regions and peoples are as multifaceted as any. However,
those who ended up in “New World” lands found historical experiences unlike any they could have had in their
homelands. Upon their arrival in the New World, they were likely viewed by their indigenous hosts simply and
collectively as newcomers, without much regard, at least initially, for their diverse backgrounds and their motives
for visiting. Likewise, the newcomer views of the indigenous people was apt to be comparably monolithic. In
their respective minds, however, none of these populations likely saw themselves in such simplistic terms.
The Iberian and African immigrant populations developed along historical trajectories in New Spain, throughout
the Americas, and neighboring islands, spawning diverse experiences. However, much about their particular
histories in those lands, especially in the earliest periods, are not evenly represented in historical texts.
Specifically, we are interested in charting the broad histories of populations of African ancestry – those whom we
will collectively term Afro-Mexicanos – who traversed and lived within the broad region that today encompasses
Southern Texas and Mexico between the years 1528 and 1700, when the entire region was under the domain of
New Spain (colonial Mexico). We do this to address gaps in historical narratives that commonly underplay, or
overlook entirely, the presence and the roles people from Africa and their eventual American born descendants
played in the histories of both Mexico and the United States during those nations’ formative years. But to do this,
we must first establish a background.
In the Beginning: Spanish Expansion to the Americas
In the late fifteenth century, when Spain expanded its efforts to grow an empire under its dominion, their plan
was not the result of an impulsive idea. For more than seven hundred years, the Iberian world had been engaged
in attempts to throwback Muslim populations whose forebears had seized the Iberian Peninsula’s southern
regions in the eighth century. Beyond that, they also strove to establish a direct hand in the long-distance trade
that Muslim merchants had long held in northern Africa and Asia. Thus, since that period’s inception, regional
Iberian governments strategized to regain control on these fronts. As evidence of that effort, such fortified
kingdoms as Aragon, Castile, and Portugal, among others, maneuvered to recapture the regions by establishing
the government’s stronghold, but for years had little success. Their failures had less to do with inability than it
did with the reality that by the twelfth century, the expansive North African Almoravid Dynasty had established
solid roots in Andalusia and Granada. Their dominion guaranteed a formidable and enduring Muslim presence.
Iberian Christian governments, never abandoning their desire to expunge the Muslim presence, made eventual
headway. In 1469, Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon married, and their union resulted in
the unification of their respective kingdoms. Once together, they moved forward with their efforts to consolidate
extant regional kingdoms. More than twenty years later, in 1492, at a battle in Granada, they successfully
flattened Muslim dominance in the long-contested southern areas. That defining moment witnessed the eventual
annexation of the southern Iberian Peninsula to the nascent Spanish Empire.
The same year as the Muslim defeat at Granada, 1492, marked the year that Spain commissioned Christopher
Columbus to seek out and bring into consideration new lands for the Empire and for the Catholic Church. While
their original goal was to land in Asia, by forging a westward navigation route that would curtail the need to
circumvent Africa or pass eastward overland, the planned route did not manifest as they had envisioned. With a
certain level of unanticipated fortune, however, Columbus’s voyage managed to pave the way for worldwide
interconnections and realignments among people who originally belonged to both the Old and New Worlds. That
happened when he landed in what he called the Indies, because he believed that he had landed in India.
Once it was learned that in fact they had not reached India, they explored the region to determine what of value,
particularly gold and other mineral wealth, they might find. Over the long haul, the ultimate and long-ranging
effects of those developments led to both increased material wealth for Spain and her New World
representatives, but the negative outcome was subjugation and death for Indigenous peoples and enslaved
African populations. The enduring implications have been the intertwined histories shared among Europe, Africa,
and the Americas that have continued until the present.
By 1516, Spanish successes remained limited in the Indies. They fell far short in the agricultural production of
sugar cane or other items that would generate meaningful wealth. They also increasingly came to understand that
they had not arrived in Asia at all, yet they held on to hopes that they might eventually find an overland route
that would reach the Far East continent. To do this, they initiated multi-pronged expeditions into the interior
hoping that such efforts might lead them to riches in gold and more along the way. In 1517, Cuba’s governor,
Diego Velazquez, sent expeditions to find and enslave Indians for work on the islands. Some of the expeditions
led explorers along the coasts of Florida, Central America, and South America.
One explorer, Francisco Hernandez de Cordóba discovered the Yucatan Peninsula, where he and his men battled
Mayan Indians who defended their lands. A wounded Cordóba returned to Cuba and, before dying from his
injuries, reported to Velazquez that there was gold, silver, and cotton cloth, along with other sources of wealth
among the populations he encountered. Because Spaniards had not found signs of such abundance in more than
twenty-five years in the Indies, this information renewed their enthusiasm and inspired new efforts to move
farther into the mainland.
Two years later, in 1519, following Cordóba’s news, Velázquez commissioned Hernán Cortes to undertake
further explorations. Cortes assembled a diverse party of sailors and soldiers that included Spaniards, Indigenous
Cubans, and Africans totaling approximately 550 men organized into eleven companies. His eventual objective
was to conquer the wealthy Aztec empire. After engaging in protracted battles and strategy building, the fall of
Tenochtitlán, the seat of the empire, came to pass on August 13, 1521. In that decisive episode, at least six black
men were among Spain’s forces.
One identifiable by name was African born -- likely from Morocco -- Juan Garrido. Garrido was enslaved and
fought in the Caribbean as early as 1503, but when he participated in Spain’s founding of New Spain he did so
as a free man. Among his accomplishments as a contingent in the conquest, he is credited with being the first
person to grow wheat in New Spain. Later in his life, Garrido established a family and lived in Mexico City.
An additional instance of an early African presence in the conquest period is found in the story of Juan Valiente,
a slave in Mexico City, who in 1533 negotiated with his owner for permission to participate in wars of conquest
south of New Spain on the condition that he share any wealth he amassed with his owner. Valiente eventually
traveled to Guatemala, Peru, and Chile, successfully earning a position of captaincy and an encomienda, a
Spanish grant that provided him access to native labor and paid tribute to him.
Afro-Mexican conquistadors continued to be part of Spanish companies in New Spain, but their participation
after conquest was typically done as dependents and auxiliaries whose status was marked by their attachments to
Spaniards. And although they were often promised rewards for their service, the reality was they experienced
many disappointments, and after conquest were often prevented from continued duty and the rewards that came
with being part of the military. Some of them, however, did manage to shift from the status of enslaved to free
status through their military service. But the precedent of African participation in the conquest had later
implications in New Spain.
By the late sixteenth and early seventeen centuries their involvement in the military was significant, especially
during emergencies and when the stability of the state was at risk. In this way, they played an integral role in the
sustainability and structure of the Spanish Empire.
The Rise of African Enslavement in New Spain
The consequences of Old World and New World populations intermingling were devastating to Indigenous
communities. Biologically, because indigenous populations had not previously been exposed to the communicable
diseases transported by Europeans and Africans, the Indigenous people endured tremendous casualties because
of their inability to recover from contracting the newly imported diseases. This situation was compounded by the
harsh conditions and treatment they withstood at the hands of Spaniards. Combined, those conditions led to an
abysmal decline in the Indigenous population, thought, at the time of conquest to number 5-10 million. However,
it is estimated that only 1 million Indigenous persons remained within one hundred years of Spanish arrival.
Even with such tremendous human loss, the Indigenous population remained the demographic majority
throughout the colonial era. Yet, the decrease in their populations did lead to labor shortages for the agricultural,
domestic, mining, and transportation jobs needed to grow and sustain Spain’s budding colony.
Iberians and West Africans already had well-established relationships when the demand for an imported labor
force arose in New Spain. By the early sixteenth century, an Iberian presence along the West African coast had
life. The relationships among West African and West Central African populations and Iberian peoples had
initiated in the late fifteenth century, when Iberians, backed by new navigation technologies, looked to curtail the
power held by Trans-Saharan African Muslim traders. The Iberians sought to establish a foothold in trade that
stemmed from the Gold Coast, home to the lucrative West African gold fields that fed into inter-continental
economies. With that objective, Iberians had begun, with the cooperation of African traders along the coast, to
service the diverse demands along the coast between what is today Angola and northern Africa.
Among the various products traded included the trafficking of human bodies between various West African
communities, who themselves used slave labor. This became an aspect of commercial relations between Africans
and Iberians. Eventually, Iberians began to use African slave labor for sugar production on Sao Tome and
Principe, islands off the shores of West Africa, a move that inspired the eventual transport of enslaved African
people to New Spain. Essentially, that expanded system of human trade grew from an already established system.
In the period of African enslavement most concerning New Spain, it is apparent that African populations were
largely taken from homelands located in West and West Central Africa, a vast region comprised of a great
diversity of populations. The majority of those people likely originated from the areas of modern day Senegal,
Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau in the sixteenth century, while in the seventeenth century the majority of enslaved
peoples likely came from West Central Africa, primarily from the regions of modern-day Angola.
Enslaved African laborers were present in New Spain by 1521. From the inception, mixtures of African
descended, Indigenous, and Spanish citizens formed intimate unions that resulted in mixed children. The
emerging complexity of racial mixtures within New Spain was almost immediate. Based on historical records,
the Afro-Mexicano population in 1570 stood at 24,235, while those deemed African (that is, having parents who
were both singularly identified as African) is estimated to have been 20,569. If we compare the African
descended population with that of Spaniards, by 1570, the African population and their descendants comprised
approximately 0.67 percent of the population, while Spaniards accounted for only 0.2 percent. When we
examine a delimited period in the sixteenth century, between 1521 and 1594, the data indicates that
approximately 36,500 Africans had been brought to New Spain.
If we turn only to urban areas, according to a 1595 census, Afro-Mexicans outnumbered Spanish and Mestizos
(persons of Indian and Spanish mixed-descent) in urban towns. By 1646, the numbers increased to 116,529 for
Afro-Mexicans and 35,089 for those African identified. It is clear that the number of children from mixed unions
accounted for the much of the growth. African descended populations thus comprised 8.8 percent, compared to
Spaniards and their descendents, who comprised 0.8 percent in 1646.
During the seventeenth century the number of people of African ancestry who had been born in Africa and lived
in New Spain had reached 110,000 people. Taken as a whole, the late sixteenth century through the late
seventeenth was the clear high point of New Spain’s involvement in the slave trade to the colony. By the
midpoint of the seventeenth century, the majority of Afro-Mexicans had been either born in New Spain or
originated from the circum-Caribbean world, but by the end of the century the number from Africa declined
significantly. During the seventeenth century, New Spain was home to the second highest number of slaves and
largest free African-descended populations in the Americas. Examining the available numbers of Afro-Mexican
populations recovers a narrative of the clear presence they had in New Spain. But those populations cannot be
reduced to mere numbers. They lived their lives in New Spain.
Afro-Mexicans Work and Communities
African people enslaved during the conquest established roots in New Spain, but they did so in diverse locales
and with some variation in status. The majority of Africans arrived at the start of the colonial period and lived as
slaves, though over the course of their lives, some of them managed to attain the status of “free” persons. A
number of possibilities paved the path for this outcome. For instance, some of them found a way to pay their
owners for their freedom, while in other cases, owners sometimes manumitted free status. This commonly
happened upon an owner’s death when such instructions were noted in the deceased’s wills.
Another possibility for holding free status occurred when a child was born to a mother whose status was free. By
law, this happened even if the child’s biological father was himself enslaved. At the same time, even though free
status may have been accorded them, Africans, like Indigenous populations, were always subject to hegemonic
Spanish institutions, government and ecclesiastical entities, as well. So, free status did not equal absolute liberty.
For the most part, the largest concentration of Africans and their descendants were heavily represented in urban
areas because Spanish culture was entrenched with a preference for urban living, and that inclination was carried
over to New Spain. By one estimate, in 1574 approximately 18,000 or 30% of the colony’s Spanish population
lived in Mexico City. The African presence in the city was inseparable from the Spanish presence because a
hefty part of the successful Spaniards’ image included the presence of a few domestic slaves in one’s home. But
Afro-Mexicanos also played other labor roles throughout New Spain. Outside of urban areas, Africans were
represented, and perhaps best known for, their skilled work in mining -- especially gold, but also silver -- in
ranching, and in small factories. Additionally, a good number of Afro-Mexicanos lived in free settlements,
(cimarrones or palenques) established by renegade slaves.
Far and away the most detail known about how Afro-Mexicanos lived and worked in the aforementioned milieus
come from government records describing life in urban zones. In those spaces, Africans and Spaniards typically
lived in close quarters within the traza, the city center, which comprised thirteen square blocks in Mexico City. It
was common, for example, for Africans to live on the ground floors of multi-storied buildings, while Spaniards
lived on upper floors, away from the foul odors that characterized cities where dense populations and the lack of
effective sanitation systems were everyday realities. Indigenous people, because of laws that required them to
live in regions of distinct populations, usually lived in areas on the perimeter and beyond, away from Spanish and
African residents. Such rules of segregation were also common to workplaces and hospitals, though as previously
noted, the restrictions were largely ineffective in preventing intimate unions among Spaniards and Africans.
In the city, the typical Afro-Mexicano was enslaved for domestic purposes. As domestic laborers they were
subject to the whims of their owners within spaces that were typically private, but their work often required a
mobility that did not confine them to the indoors. Afro-Mexicanos and Spaniards lived and socialized in the midst
of a bustling, constricted urban setting. Indeed, some have suggested that in such situations Afro-Mexicanos held
a limited degree of control over their lives and labor. In navigating the city streets, Afro-Mexicano vendors
peddled goods associated with elite Spanish populations, especially the Calle de San Francisco. Many worked in
skilled jobs as leatherworkers, weavers, tailors, carpenters, and candlemakers. While seemingly adept at these
jobs and no doubt more, Afro-Mexicans were often systematically excluded from participation in such trades.
For example, in 1570, they were prevented from practicing the prestigious skilled craft of silk weaving and
joining the associated guilds. This was, perhaps, because Spanish guilds feared competition from Afro-
But Afro-Mexicanos lives involved more than work, they also included time for developing social, political, and
cultural networks. To do this they carved out niches, usually against the will of Spanish officials, where they
could self-determine their relationships with one another, even across racial categories. In fact, many Afro-
Mexicanos, in an effort to gain access to perceived advantages associated with identification in another ethnic
category, may have changed their identities after marriage across race. For instance, Indian women who married
either Mestizos or free people of African ancestry often refused to pay taxes due to native chiefs on the grounds
that they had acquired new identities, and they often pointed to new styles of dress as evidence.
But a Spanish law attempted to curtail this possibility if marriage did not justify it. For instance, women of
various castas (social class) were not permitted to wear Indigenous styled dress unless they were married to an
Indian man. If a woman’s dress was deemed inappropriate her items could be confiscated. However, regardless
of government attempts to keep Africans, Indigenous, and Spanish populations separated, relationships across
these distinctions were prevalent throughout the seventeenth century. By then, the capital was particularly
However, because of the often-precarious nature of their social gatherings, the associations they developed were
typically kept quiet since much of what was undertaken might be interpreted as plots to contest or weaken
Spanish political authority by nurturing solidarity. Some of the most prevalent places they met and socialized
included taverns, city markets, servants’ quarters, and cofradias (mutual aid societies).
Cofradias were important among the community networks Afro-Mexicanos created and sustained. Such
organizations had been characteristic of cultural life in Seville, Spain, and the tradition was brought to the colony.
Furthermore, the formation of black cofradias in Spain before their presence in New Spain paved the way for
their expression among Afro-Mexican communities in New Spain. Interestingly, because the cofradia had been
an institution associated with the church, it was uniquely viewed in positive terms by Spanish elites -- when Afro-
Mexicanos established them -- as their attempts to participate in church life.
However they were perceived and received, they served as niches in which Afro-Mexicanos could exchange
information and offer one another support. For example, the cofradia was the first place they turned to for help
in arranging burials or for contesting violent situations they encountered under their masters’ dominion. Also
important in the history of city life is that these societies were also thought to be places where Africans organized
themselves politically. Reportedly, among their agendas were sometimes strategies for overthrowing or overruling
the political institutions in places like Mexico City. For instance, in Mexico City as early as 1537 there were
allegations of a plotted slave revolt, and then again in 1540, leading to two uprisings.
Later, in 1609 and 1612, authorities became concerned when cofradias elected their own kings and queens to
represent them and their attempts to overthrow the government. In the seventeenth century, the number of
cofradias in New Spain reached a high point, with participation found in such cities as Taxco, Zacatecas, San
Luis Potosí, Veracruz, Mexico City, and Michoacan. Cofradias members collected alms to support one another,
performed ritual ceremonies, public penance processions, lavish processions, parties, and more. There is little
doubt that the cofradia was a platform from which Afro-Mexican people could express their cultures entwined
Afro-Mexicano political organizing, while sometimes embedded within the robes of the church held sway and
made for unease among New Spain officials. And because of the groups’ effectiveness, Spanish officials often
responded with violence and intimidation as a means of quashing resistance and attempts to overthrow the
government. One such purported effort, in 1612, led to the execution of thirty-five Afro-Mexicans. Another case
occurred in 1611 when 1,500 Afro-Mexicans schemed to hold a demonstration in front of the viceregal palace
and the Office of the Inquisition in response to what they charged was the death of an African woman that
resulted from abuse by her owner. In an act of dissension, they carried her body in a solemn procession in front
of both the palace and Inquisition office.
Attempts to diminish their ability to protest also came with the creation of laws, which were usually ignored until
incidents occurred. Such laws included: forbidding the carrying of arms, curfews between 8pm and 5am,
requiring Afro-Mexicans to live with “known masters” who were imbued with the power to give permission for
their travel, and the banning of gatherings of more than four people. While Spanish attempts to control and
intimidate were real, they were likely inefficient in milieus that relied on the mobility of their servants, which
inherently led to opportunities to intermingle in the city.
Outside of the city, gold and silver mines throughout New Spain were primary locations in which Afro-
Mexicanos, free and enslaved, lived and worked alongside Indigenous populations. At major mining sites, Afro-
Mexicanos typically did not comprise more than 15% of the population. There is far less detail about the day-to-
day lives of those who toiled in the mines, which were scattered far from urban centers and created a wide
dispersal of Afro-Mexicanos throughout expansive areas of New Spain. As early as 1540, in Zacatecas, which
lay about 150 miles northwest of Mexico City, Spaniards – largely cattlemen and miners – had started businesses
and settled in the region. The height of Zacatecas mining would come between 1550-1650.
By 1550, there was silver mining in Guanajuato, Parral, and Zacatecas, where slave labor was needed. In 1560,
Guanajuato Viceroy Don Luis de Velasco claimed lawless Afro-Mexicans roamed the hillsides. In 1569, Taxco
mines employed 800 African slaves, who worked along side Indigenous laborers. A mid-seventeenth century
example is instructive of an individual’s journey to the mines. Apparently, Juan de Moraga, the teenage son of a
Spanish priest and an African woman, was sold to an accountant in Mexico City, who then sold him to a mine
owner for work in Zacatecas. Indeed, the great demand for laborers created a level of competition among the
owners. As a consequence, though many of the mine workers were not enslaved, the great majority ended up
permanent residents after incurring debts as a result of taking advances of food, clothing, and shelter.
A reason for the desire of an Afro-Mexican presence in the mining efforts in the sixteenth century New World,
beyond the need for laborers generally, might well have had to do with an understanding that many of the
regions of West Africa from which they originated would have been home to abundant gold mines that fed the
economies of the time. Possibly, some of the African slaves in New Spain were descendants of West African
lands and may have had direct or indirect mining skills and knowledge that transferred with them to New Spain.
Likewise, the same may have been true when it came to textile production, for which Africans in Cholula were
Another area that saw the predominance of Africans was agriculture production. The African knowledge of and
skills in agriculture was anchored in generations of knowledge their forebears handed down. In West Africa,
many people would have had adept knowledge and practice in rice and yam cultivation, both of which had been
staples in diets of the region. In fact, the ability of African farmers to produce topnotch crops in New Spain
(wheat, sugar) and raise Euro livestock was at times a matter of concern to Indigenous populations who
sometimes brought complaints to the Spanish courts because their produce was often overlooked for that which
Afro-Mexicans brought to market or, alternatively, that Spanish citizens often went searching in Afro-Mexican
vicinities for particular items.
Tied to African knowledge in agricultural skills was their ability to, from time to time, escape the confines of
enslavement, climb remote terrain, and establish sustainable cimarron communities that challenged and
circumvented Spanish authority. Highlighted in the literature on such communities throughout the Americas was
their ability to evade and defend themselves from capture. Legendary in Mexico is an African known as Yanga,
who founded a cimarron community that was reported to have attained autonomy within the mountainous
regions of Veracruz, and turned into the establishment of what is thought to be the first free black town in the
Americas in 1609, known as San Lorenzo de los Negros. This town still exists, but in 1932 was renamed
In addition to its longevity, it is the location of festivals that celebrate this determined man’s savvy at interacting
with and getting colonial officials to agree to his demands that the people in his settlement be declared free and
that the town be given an official charter. Although in the end Yanga negotiated with New Spain’s government, it
was in part due to his and others’ military defense skills that paved the way for that possibility.
But Afro-Mexicano involvement in resistance efforts in urban milieus and cimarron communities were not limited
to New Spain’s valley regions. From early times, and increasingly so as time passed, Afro-Mexicanos and their
descendants also moved north, away from the areas nearest the seat of the Spanish Viceroy, and this posed
additional worries for Spanish officials. The threat of African movement toward the north, where the Spanish
administration was weakest, was particularly worrisome to the government because they feared, and rightfully
so, that cimarrones in central Mexico were particularly inclined to form alliances with Indigenous peoples, as well
as non-Catholic Europeans who eventually settled the frontier zones.
The Northern Frontier: The Eventual US/Mexico Border and the African Presence
Mexico’s valley region was far and away the most densely populated of New Spain. Nevertheless, the northern
frontier zones of the empire – the lands that later became known as Northern Mexico and the American
Southwest – had their share of newcomers, who moved into areas where long-rooted indigenous populations
already lived. The most ambitious of early newcomers to New Spain's northern zones arrived early in the
sixteenth century and continued to found new settlements in the seventeenth century, though never on a grand or
In the earliest periods, the expansion of Spanish and African presence resulted from moves made by ambitious,
private individuals, who made enterprising decisions to explore new lands in hopes of procuring lands and
mineral wealth for themselves. Those moves were often spawned by rumors of such wealth throughout the
sixteenth century. In fact, early on, many of the men who ventured out (sailors and soldiers) to claim lands are
said to have deserted their companies the first chance they had in order to capture a piece of land for private
gain. These individuals were often viewed as rogues by elite Spaniards, for many of them did not uphold the
same standards of social distance elites thought beneficial; in contrast, they often intermingled with populations
of Mestizos and mulattoes.
This sort of individual land acquisition changed in the latter seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the
Spanish government carried out efforts to ensure the security of its empire through efforts to draw Spanish
settlers to the northern frontier zones. Key among their desires, too, included the hopes that lucrative mineral
deposits would be found. The result was that over time the arid, rugged northern frontier maintained regular
though sparse settlements of populations who participated in mining and ranching until the eighteenth century.
Detailed accounts of the Africans who settled the frontier zones are rare, but like the original conquest, there is
every indication that among the earliest people in the northern zones included, at minimum, an African man –
Esteban, a Moroccan slave who was a member of the disasterous 1528 Pánfilo de Narvaez expedition to Florida
that eventually led to the exploration of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Esteban accompanied Alvar Núñez
Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso Castillo Maldonado, and is thought to be the first black
man to set foot in Texas and the Southwest. However, there are few direct references to specific African
populations and individuals who inhabited the eventual Mexico/Texas border areas throughout the sixteenth and
By the last quarter of the seventeenth century, areas of Southern and Southwestern Chihuahua were beginning to
see civilian populations move in, along with greater administrative control. One historian writes, “miners,
ranchers, farmers, Spaniards, and Mestizos, more or less tamed Indians, and a sprinkling of Africans, [were]
introduced for some of the heavier work in the mines.”
In 1691 an Afro-Mexican bugler accompanied Domingo Teran as part of the second Spanish missionary
expedition to visit the Indigenous populations of East Texas. Then, in the eighteenth century Afro-Mexicans were
among the garrisons forming permanent settlements.
The Spanish found New Spain -- from the valley of Mexico to the Spanish borderlands -- as a unique zone, full
of complex identities, government presences, and cultural milieus. Between 1528 and 1700, this complexity was
on a steady march northward. On the borderlands could be found a hodgepodge of people -- black slaves,
Mestizos, mulattos -- who fled oppressive institutions and used the borderlands to become roving miners,
peddlers, and even participating in criminal activities as horse and cattle thieves, murderers, and otherwise violent
There, rather than racial enclaves, they formed mixed societies who gathered in cimarrones, as a means of
resisting oppressive circumstances as social persons who shared common aspirations. Indeed, there has long
been a presence of Afro-Mexicanos along the Mexico and Texas borders.
|“Africans in Mexico left their cultural and genetic imprint
everywhere they lived. In states such as Veracruz,
Guerrero, and Oaxaca, the descendants of Africa's
children still bear the evidence of their ancestry. No
longer do they see themselves as Mandinga, Wolof,
Ibo, Bakongo, or members of other African ethnic
groups; their self identity is Mexican, and they share
much with other members of their nation-state.”
– Historian Colin Palmer, “A Legacy of Slavery”
|Texas Black History Preservation Project
Documenting the Complete African American Experience in Texas -- "Know your history, know yourself"