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From Bananas to La Bamba:
The African influence in the United States -- from popular music to President Barack Obama -- is apparent, pervasive, and undeniable. Yet its sizable sway elsewhere in the Americas, particularly just south of the border in Mexico, is routinely dismissed, if not completely ignored.
“The African presence in Mexico is a subject often denied, but people of African descent have influenced every aspect of Mexican life,” writes scholar Jameelah Muhammad in a heritage report published by Minority Rights Group International. Up to 75 percent of Mexicans today have “some African ancestry.” Yet, despite its obvious existence in many bloodlines, African heritage is excluded from official definitions of what constitutes “black” and mestizo, or mixed race.
Hundreds of thousands of slaves, mostly from West Africa, were brought to Mexico between 1519 and 1810. They helped the Spanish explore and exploit the land during colonial times and communicate with indigenous tribes. The forced immigrants and their descendants, many of whom married native Mexicans, also served a major role in the nation’s fight for independence. Along the way, their customs, beliefs, and personal achievements were woven into the fabric of the country.
“Africans made important contributions to Mexican folk tales, religion, medicinal practices, cooking styles, and, most notably, music and dance,” Muhammad observes. She cites as one example the hit folk song “La Bamba,” which dates to the 17th century, when it was sung by members of an Angolan tribe that arrived in the slave port of Veracruz on Mexico's Gulf Coast.
The links between the African continent and Mexico are so widespread—and so ingrained in modern-day Mexican culture—that it would be impossible to discuss them all in a single article. What follows are a few of the best- documented connections.
Perhaps the most widely recognized African contribution to Mexican culture is the telling and singing of folk tales. “La Bamba,” said to be named for Bamba, a town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is a familiar example of the Mexican musical style called son jarocho. The song’s simple, repetitive lyrics and structure allow performers— typically one or more harpists—to improvise on the fly. Atypically, son jarocho credits its African roots: Jarocho in some Spanish usage means “from Veracruz” while in others means “black person.” Either way, observes Rebeca Mauleon of National Geographic , “This Mexican genre of son demonstrates the more African and Creole influences in that part of the country.”
In states to the north and east of Veracruz, storytelling through song can be heard in ballads known as corridos. Performed by all sorts of musicians, from norteño crooners to mariachi bands, corridos are inspired by real events. Among the best known is “La Cucaracha” from Chihuahua, which mixes descriptions of women with acts of social disobedience and served as the marching song for Pancho Villa’s troops during the Mexican Revolution. Like other corridos, La Cucaracha’s lyrics convey a sense of dignity and a longing for freedom.
“Corridos reflect oral traditions inherited from Africa,” explains Luz Maria Martinez Montiel, who shed light on Mexico’s “third root” for the Smithsonian Institution . “The words are improvised, and a corrido that brings applause is apt to be committed to memory, to be sung again and again as an oral chronicle of local life. The lyrics are also rich in symbols, a tradition that may have started when singers among the first slaves invented ‘code words’ to protest the cruelties of their masters.”
Both corrido and son jarocho rhythms inspire dancing. The livelier son jarocho supports regional dances that incorporate moves, such as pelvic circles and shaking, that generally resemble those of central Africa. “Another way of tracing the impact of African culture on Mexican coastal dances is through the references to negritude that are contained within the lyrics of jarocho songs,” explains Anita Gonzalez in her book, Jarocho’s Soul: Cultural Identity and Afro-Mexican Dance . In the mid-1700s, she adds that church authorities associated the style with mostly lower- class Negro and mulatto seamen—and condemned a son called chuchumbé. “The open physical communication of the dancers combined with the articulated torso movements and the open sensuality of the Jarocho lyrics apparently offended Catholic sensibilities.”
The presence of Africans in various regions of Mexico also influenced fine art. Some scholars argue that the facial features in pre-Hispanic Olmec sculptures show that Africans arrived on the continent well before conquistadores brought thousands of African slaves to New Spain . Regardless of when they arrived, Africans contributions to art during and after the Conquest are undeniable. With the surge of black immigrants, Mexicans became fascinated, even preoccupied with, racial mixing. “From colonial painting to Mexican muralists of the twentieth century, there is clear evidence of mixing themes and techniques that characterize all expression of culture in the Hispanic world,” Jorge J. E. Garcia writes in his book, Hispanic/Latino Identity: A Philosophical Perspective .
The casta paintings that emerged in the 1700s are one example. Artists in this genre, including Juan Rodriguez Juárez and Francisco Clapera, painted or drew what they supposed a child of an interracial couple would look like—and thus to which casta, or racial group, he would belong. “Generally, artists made sets of sixteen casta paintings depicting the imagined process of miscegenation, considering all of the parental combinations possible derived from the original European, indigenous, and African lines,” writes Wendy E. Phillips in the Journal of Black Studies . “The combinations were considered in an almost mathematical way.”
In the post-revolutionary period, Phillips notes, Mexican artists turned away from the nation’s African heritage to focus on its indigenous roots. But at least two of Frida Kahlo’s paintings, A Portrait of Eva Frederick (1931) and The Love Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Diego, Me and Señor Xolotl (1949), depict women with African facial features, with the latter representing the Mother Earth archetype.
Mexicans’ use of what comes from the earth, particularly fruits and vegetables, also draws on African influences that date to colonial times. In kitchens along the Gulf Coast and in neighboring states, indigenous cooks were introduced by immigrants to Spanish and African ingredients and cooking techniques. The resulting combination of old and new world flavors led to cocina mestiza, or fusion cuisine. “Peanuts, plaintains, and tropical roots give a unique color— unique in Mexico, unique in the world—to this cuisine,” said chef Zarela Martinez, author of the cookbook Zarela’s Veracruz. . “Like the music and exuberant street life of Veracruz, it derives from the rich cultural heritage of three continents that meet here.”
Peanuts, though native to the Americas, were neither cultivated nor consumed in significant quantity, if at all, by pre- Hispanic civilizations in Mexico. “Peanuts would be on anyone’s list of great African gifts to the Veracruzan kitchen, where they grace everything from sweets to drinks to savory sauces,” Martinez notes. Indeed, peanuts (cacahuates) are essential to making the sugar cane-based liquor toritos from Veracruz and the signature dish of Puebla, mole poblano, often regarded as the mother of all Mexican sauces.
Plantains are also key ingredient of mole, which when combined with burned tortillas make the natural gelatin that forms its base. Zarela says that the banana-like fruit came to Mexico with the Africans and now grow all over Veracruz. Mexicans use every part of the plant, from wrapping meats and tamales in its leaves to frying slices of its fruit for snack chips. “Now as in the early days of the colony, plantains and other starchy tubers, including yucca, malanga, taro, and sweet potatoes recall the comfort food of African slave kitchens. These, as well as some West Indian pumpkins, took the place of the yams the Africans had eaten back home,” Zarela observes. “Now they can be found in kitchens at every level of (Mexican) society.”
During the revolution, Mexicans of African descent rose to the highest levels of authority. Vicente Guerrero, a gunsmith from a village near Acapulco, is a famous example. Like many other enslaved, poor, or working-class citizens, Guerrero joined the revolution against Spain. “Some historians point out that it was the ejército moreno (dark army) of Father Hidalgo that launched the independence struggle,” writes Muhammad of Minority Rights Group International . “One of the reasons why black people were so involved in the War of Independence was because they were fighting not only for national liberation, but also to end the institution of slavery and the caste system which supported ethnic segregation and discrimination.”
Between 1810 and 1821, Guerrero led troops to win several key battles—and outlasted most of his peers. (Other black leaders during the war included José María Alegre, Juan Bautista, Juan del Carmen, Francisco Gómez and José María Morelos.) In 1829, Guerrero was elected as the second president of Mexico. During his presidency, he officially abolished slavery . As the old revolutionaries adopted new nationalist views, they began encouraging Mexicans of all backgrounds to being thinking in terms of nationality and not race, Muhammad says, which began to obscure the nation’s African roots. “Afro-Mexicans moved further away from an African identity, and studies of black life in the post-colonial period suffer from the absence of ethnic identifications.” Nonetheless, the states of Guerrero and Morelos were named for these Afro-Mexican heroes. And Guerrero’s grandson Vicente Riva Palacio— often regarded as the most-read historian in Mexico—in the 1880s published a two-volume history of the nation, Mexico Through the Centuries, which survives in reprint today.
Afro-Mexicans helped shape religion in New Spain, particularly during the 1700s. The Spanish were eager to establish Catholicism in the territories and welcomed the slaves’ interest, particularly in religious organizations called cofradías. These confraternities often served as community centers, places where members could not only worship, but also gossip about political, economic and social issues of the day. Many slaves regarded confraternities first as a means of survival and later as a way to gain acceptance in mainstream society.
“Almost every colonial town and village with an Afromexican population (which includes all major mining and urban centers) founded confraternities that were defined by their moreno or mulato membership,” writes J. Nicole Von Germeten, a Latin America expert at Oregon State University . “Dedicated to the worship of a particular image in a church or monastery and guaranteeing burials and prayers for their members, confraternities dominated the public rituals in every town, with regular processions and celebrations.”
In her book Black Blood Brothers , Von Germeten notes that “a particularly Afromexican baroque religiosity that flourished in the seventeenth century that celebrated the humble, publicly penitent, even slave-like confraternity member, a model that a range of people honored, including the Spanish elite.” Although many Afro-Mexicans lost their direct connections to Africa when the slave trade ended and they began to assimilate, their presence helped to shape what became the Catholic Church in the Americas. According to Von Germeten, “African slaves modified the Spanish institution and marked it with their concepts of gender, religiosity, and sociability. Hispanic authorities recognized that slaves had little status or wealth to lose, and thus they allowed this degree of autonomy to exist and even encouraged it.”
Nonetheless, some Afro-Mexicans clung to other beliefs and rituals or combined their practices with indigenous ones. In the town of Papantla, slaves and Totonaca indians frequently crossed paths. Legend has it that the ceremony that gave rise to today’s “dance of the negritos” was performed after the only child of an African slave was bitten by a snake during a search for firewood . The Totonaca conducted a healing ceremony—dancing, shouting and singing— to help the boy recover.
“The black men and women had a special niche in the history and in the beliefs of the indigenous people of Mexico,” says Gayle Castañeda of Museum of Ethnic Costume in Arizona , adding that the El Negro mask, often used in such dances, takes different forms throughout Mexico. “For me, the negrito masks are among my favorite depictions of humanity because of their sophistication and elegance.”