Modern Mexico has long valorized its fusion of Indigenous American and European heritage. Only recently, however, has the country come to recognize Mexican citizens of African descent. As of 2020, “Black” is now a racial option to select on the national census. In other words, Black Mexicans are becoming more visible to their fellow citizens.
Black Mexicans may make up a small proportion of Mexico’s current population, but they have played a prominent role in the country’s history. They have existed since the Spanish colonial era, at times mingling with other ethnic groups and at others forging their own communities. They can count among their members major leaders, both locally and nationally.
1. Juan Garrido: The First Black Mexican Conquistador
The Spanish invaded Mesoamerica in the early decades of the 16th century. Contrary to common assumptions, however, not all of these conquistadores in early colonial Mexico were European. African troops — some enslaved, others possibly free — accompanied the Spanish expeditionary forces. One of the earliest (and most famous) of these Black Mexican progenitors was Juan Garrido.
Juan Garrido was born during the 1480s in West Africa. As a teenager, Garrido traveled to Portugal and then Spain. While in Europe, he converted to Catholicism. Most other details about his early life are unknown, including his exact homeland. Whether he went to Europe enslaved or as a free man is also up for debate. However, he would ultimately win his freedom.
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Garrido took part in Spain’s most significant New World conquests. Between 1503 and 1533, he served as a conquistador in the Caribbean, Florida, and Mexico. In 1519, he joined Hernán Cortés during the siege of the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán. After the Aztec Empire collapsed, Garrido made his home just outside the newly christened Mexico City. He started a family and established himself as a successful wheat cultivator — the earliest in North America.
Much like his earlier years, the final period of Garrido’s life is difficult to reconstruct. He continued his life as a conquistador until 1533; his petition to King Charles V of Spain in 1538 illustrates this. He died in Mexico City in the late 1540s, survived by his wife and children. Today, Juan Garrido is known not only as the first Black Mexican conquistador, but as an economic innovator.
2. Gaspar Yanga: The Great Liberator
Juan Garrido may have been a free man who reaped the spoils of war, but thousands more Africans in colonial Mexico could not say the same. Slavery spread across Mexico as the 16th century went on. Initial Spanish efforts to enslave indigenous Mesoamericans were halted in the 1540s, only to be replaced by the importation of West African captives. Whether free or enslaved, the earliest Black Mexicans lived tumultuous lives.
This brings us to our second Black Mexican leader: Gaspar Yanga. Although he is now revered by Black Mexicans as a great freedom fighter, he was almost forgotten by the rest of Mexico until relatively modern times. Still, his contributions to Black Mexican history are undeniable and deserve our full attention.
Yanga’s origins are unclear, but he was rumored to be a prince from modern-day Gabon. Enslaved on a sugar plantations near the city of Veracruz, he led a slave uprising in 1570. Amid the chaos that broke out, Yanga gathered his followers and escaped. The Africans formed a fugitive slave community in the southeast, with Yanga as their leader.
Yanga’s community was a huge thorn in the side of Spanish colonial authorities. They repeatedly tried to destroy the fugitives but with no success. In 1607, the Viceroy of New Spain himself decided to negotiate with Gaspar Yanga, in the hopes that Spain would regain control. A Catholic priest named Alonso de Benavides acted as the intermediary.
Yanga was not one to back down in the face of a challenge. In 1608, he demanded that the authorities recognize his community as a free one. In return, he would act as a slave catcher and return anyone who hadn’t escaped before that year to the Spanish. By 1609, any truce the Africans and Spanish may have had was broken. Raids resumed on both sides.
Sometime during the late 1610s, Yanga’s community finally reached a deal with the Spanish. Tensions remained, but the community — known as San Lorenzo de los Negros to the Spanish — did become semi-autonomous. In 1932, the town was renamed Yanga, in honor of the great Black Mexican liberator.
3. Juan Roque: An Exciting Testament
Our next great Black Mexican figure is possibly the most historically elusive. No images of Juan Roque, a prominent member of a Catholic brotherhood in Mexico City, are known to exist. But this doesn’t mean that he was insignificant.
What we do know about Juan Roque is unique in the colonial history of Black Mexicans. He originally came to Mexico enslaved, but by the time of his death in 1623, he was a free man possessing considerable wealth. We also know his specific ethnic background. Records refer to him as a Zape — a member of a people from the modern country of Sierra Leone. His Catholic brotherhood was actually a predominantly Zape one, illustrating how Africans in colonial Mexico forged their own communities.
What makes Juan Roque most interesting, however, is what he left behind: a written will. For Black Mexicans of the era, this was practically unheard of. Its detailed instructions for the brotherhood and his surviving daughter, Ana María, attest to the wealth and influence of Juan Roque. It was in accordance with his will that the Zape brotherhood ultimately won a battle over ownership of his houses in 1634.
4. Juan Correa: Religious Painter Extraordinaire
A folding screen depicts people from across the known world. Indigenous Mesoamericans occupy the far left section, followed to the right by what seems to be an Ottoman Turkish scene. Further right still are the king and queen of Spain with a white horse. The screen’s narrative concludes with African elites on the far right. The screen’s panels could very well illustrate the ethnic diversity of colonial Mexico itself, not just the world.
What you are looking at is one of the earlier known works of Juan Correa, the most prominent Black Mexican painter of the era. Unlike our previous three figures, Juan Correa was never enslaved. His mother was a free Black Mexican woman, while his father was a mixed-race Spaniard. Art historians view him as one of Mexico’s greatest Baroque artists.
Correa specialized in religious painting, although, as the folding screen illustrates, he did indulge in secular artwork as well. Among his patrons was the Catholic Church itself. Two of his most famous paintings were commissioned to be housed in the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City. The painting shown above is the Virgin of the Apocalypse, completed around 1689. The archangel Michael, clad in European-style armor, stands with the Virgin Mary above a menacing hydra-like monster. Two other angels occupy the top of the painting, carrying baby Jesus to God in heaven.
While details of Juan Correa’s life may be hard to come by, his paintings tell their own stories. He died in either 1714 or 1716, establishing himself as an enduring name in the canon of colonial Mexican art.
5. Vicente Guerrero: The First Black Mexican President
Our final Black Mexican leader on this list is nearest to our own time. Vicente Guerrero, one of the greatest leaders of the Mexican War of Independence, is a source of pride not only to Black Mexicans but to Mexicans of all racial backgrounds. His story is one of struggle, triumph, and betrayal all in one.
Vicente Guerrero was born during the summer of 1782 to parents of African and indigenous Mesoamerican ancestry. By this time, Spanish colonial rule in Mexico was becoming tenuous, with many Mexican-born ethnic Spaniards calling for independence. Guerrero joined the rebellion against Spain early, in 1810. Around five years later, he had emerged as one of the most influential leaders on the rebel side. He was a key ally of José María Morelos, the insurgent priest and another national hero of Mexico. The Mexican War of Independence ultimately succeeded; after 1821, the Spanish left. Following a short-lived local emperor’s reign, Mexico became a republic.
In 1829, Guerrero became Mexico’s second President. He only did so, however, after intense battles (both military and political) against his conservative opponents. His enemies, especially General Anastasio Bustamante, resented having a multiracial man leading Mexico. They feared Guerrero’s liberal political leanings could pose a threat to their interests in the new country.
Guerrero’s major claim to fame as President was the abolition of slavery. The Spanish had ended the slave trade years earlier, but Guerrero’s decree brought the ultimate end to Mexican slavery. Unfortunately, his abolitionism also brought him into conflict with slave-owning American settlers in Texas. In 1845, war would break out between Mexico and the United States over control of Texas.
Guerrero’s life did not have a happy ending. Not even three months after he decreed the end of slavery, a coup toppled him from power. Guerrero retreated south with a number of his supporters. Yet someone he met betrayed him to the new authorities. In 1831, Guerrero faced a firing squad.
Although his opponents thwarted his work, Vicente Guerrero seems to have gotten the last laugh. He is remembered in the 21st century as a national hero in Mexico. The state of Guerrero even bears his name. A statue of Guerrero stands tall in Mexico City — an enduring testament to the legacy of the first Black Mexican president.
McKnight, Kathryn Joy, and Leo J. Garofalo, eds. Afro-Latino Voices: Narratives from the Early Modern Ibero-Atlantic World, 1550-1812. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2009.