African-descended people have been a part of Mexican history from the very beginnings of the colony. People often assume that there couldn’t have been more than a handful of blacks living in Mexico at any given time. It’s easy to assume that because if you travel to Mexico or tune into Mexican media you don’t see black people at all. It’s easy to think that if there aren’t many blacks in Mexico, now, there never were. As we will see, this is not entirely true.
One of the earliest Africans brought to Mexico is said to be Juan Garrido, a free man who probably took part in the “Conquest” led by Hernán Cortés in 1519. Another of these early arrivals was Estebanico, a slave who took part in various expeditions in the 1520s and 1530s, including treks through what is now Florida, Texas, and New Mexico.
These early blacks (slave or free) were essentially personal servants of their Spanish masters. They were most likely taken from Africa, then transported to Seville, where they were Christianized and they probably spoke Spanish by the time they reached the New World. These slaves didn’t come over on slave ships as part of an overt slave trade.
The slave trade that changed the demographic face of Mexico began when King Carlos V began issuing more and moreasientos, or contracts between the Crown and private slavers, in order to expedite the trans-atlantic trade. At this point, after 1519, the New World received bozales, or slaves brought directly from Africa without being Christianized. The Spanish Crown would issue these contracts to foreign slavers, who would then make deals with the Portuguese, for they c
ontrolled the slave posts on the West African coast. In addition, the Crown would grant slaving licenses to merchants, government officials, conquistadores, and settlers who requested the privilege of importing slaves to the Americas.
The numerical significance of these figures becomes clear when we compare the African and Afro-Mestizo (mixed) population to the Spanish population. In the early colonial period, European immigration was extremely small–and for good reason. There were great risks and many uncertainties in the Americas. Few families were willing to immigrate until some assurance of stability was demonstrated. Therefore, very few European women immigrated, thus preventing the natural growth of the Spanish population.
The point that must be made here is the fact that the black population in the early colony was by far larger than that of the Spanish. In 1570 we see that the black population is about 3 times that of the Spanish. In 1646, it is about 2.5 times as large, and in 1742, blacks still outnumber the Spanish. It is not until 1810 that Spaniards are more numerous.
Afro-Mexicans — both slave and free — participated in a various kinds of labor in Mexico. The majority worked in the silver mine centers and large numbers worked in urban centers largely as domestic workers (having a black servant or maid was quite the status symbol for elites). Also in urban centers, blacks – both slave and free — worked as artisans, peddlers, and craftsmen. Africans were also deployed to rural coastal areas, such as Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico, and what are now the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca on the Pacific Coast. Interestingly, free blacks also participated in large numbers in military service during the colonial period.
In Veracruz, black slaves were used primarily in the labor-intensive sugar industry of Xalapa in the late 16th, and early and mid-17th century. In these sugar-processing mills, and cane fields, African slaves were imported specifically to replace Indian laborers.
On the Pacific coastal plains, blacks worked mainly as ranchers and cowboys. Livestock was the primary economic activity of that region in the colonial period, and continues to be important to this day. So the point here is that historically Afro-Mexicans were found throughout the country, and not only in the coastal areas where their descendents live today.
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