Black History Month takes place during February in several countries, including Canada; it originated in the United States, where it is also known as African-American History Month. In Mexico, the African influence in its History is incredibly vast and important, considered as “the third root” of national and racial heritage, after Native and European roots. Last year, I talked about how it was as late as 2015 when for the first time, Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) included an option in the census questionnaire for participants to identify themselves as Afro-descendants; the 1,381,853 Mexicans who self-identified as so, accounted for 1.2% of the country’s population at that time. A few were recent migrants from the Caribbean islands and Africa, and many could probably find their origins in the massive capture of West African peoples during Spanish colonial times, mainly by Portuguese slave traders, introduced in Mexico through the port of Veracruz in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as Acapulco on the Pacific coast, while others could be descendants of black conquistadores from Spain, such as Juan Garrido.
There is another group of Afro-Mexicans, small, yet historically very relevant, living in Northern Mexico, called Mascogos; their ancestors escaped slavery in the United States by crossing into Mexico in the mid 1800s, where slavery had been officially abolished in 1829, spearheaded by president Vicente Guerrero, another Afro-Mexican. This is how their stories intertwined:
Vicente Guerrero was born on c. August 10, 1782, in Tixtla (a town now part of the Mexican state of Guerrero, named after him); his lineage is not fully documented, but it is generally acknowledged that he had some black and indigenous ancestry. He joined the insurgent cause since the beginning of the Mexican Independence war in 1810, and was instrumental in its ultimate victory and conclusion, in September of 1821 . After the short-lived monarchy of Agustín de Iturbide, and Guadalupe Victoria’s full four-year term as the first president of the new republic, the election of a successor was dimmed fraudulent, and Guerrero became Mexico’s second president through a coup, in 1829, just to be deposed before the end of the same year, then captured, and executed on February 14, 1831. During his short role as president of Mexico (indeed the first president in North America with black ancestry), he officially abolished slavery in Mexico, in 1829. At that point, Texas was still part of Mexico, and the new abolition law partly prompted slave-holding Texans to fight for independence, achieved in 1836; slavery became legal again there, and it continued to be so after Texas finally joined the U.S. as a state in 1845.
The Underground Railroad was a movement which provided escaped slaves passage outside of the US; it started with a network of African Americans, as well as white people (notably the Quakers), offering shelter and aid to escaped slaves, on their way to Canada. It operated from the late 1700s, until the Civil War, at which point its efforts became more open. Slaves in Texas probably had the hardest time escaping, since they would have to cross several confederate states to reach the border with Canada. Once Mexico abolished slavery, and Texas separated, it made more sense to try to cross the border to the south, and an Underground Railroad effort running now to the south started pronto. It is estimated that several thousand people escaped from bondage into Mexico through this route, although the figure is not precise, since all the operations were clandestine and, understandably, there are very few records.
The Mascogos – Meanwhile, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, many black slaves escaping plantations in Georgia, and the Carolinas (#1, on the map, at the top of this post) had found refuge with native American Seminole groups in Northern Florida (#2), then a Spanish colony, and became known as Black Seminoles. The First Seminole War (c. 1816–1819) was caused by the incursions to the Spanish colony, and attacks to the Seminoles, by American general Andrew Jackson, actions that ultimately forced Spain to give up its colony. Seminole groups (including black Seminoles) were removed from Northern Florida to a reservation in the centre of the Florida peninsula (#3). The Second (1835-1842) and Third Seminole Wars (1855–1858) were the result of the United States unilaterally demanding that all Seminoles relocate to reservations in the state of Oklahoma (#4). Black Seminoles tried to escape re-capture and slavery by migrating further south to then slave-free Mexican Texas (4b), but once Texas became independent in 1836, Black Seminoles had to continue their journey further south, on their own, or through the Southern Underground Railroad. In their pique, slave-holding Texans pressured Mexico to return all escaped slaves, but the Mexican government remained supine to these demands, proclaiming that, once in Mexican territory, all peoples were free.
In 1852, a large group of escaped slaves and native Americans, including Black Seminoles, were allowed to settle in the Mexican state of Coahuila, particularly in the town called “El Nacimiento de los Negros” – “Birth of the Blacks”, which remains to this day as a community in the municipality of Múzquiz; they became known as “los mascogos”, probably from their language, the Muscogee (Creek). Nowadays, there are only a few hundreds of Black Seminole descendants left in El Nacimiento. In 2012, The National Commission for the Development of Indigenous People (Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas), granted the Mascogos official identification as afro-descendants, and in 2017, the then governor of Coahuila, Rubén Moreira, recognized them as an ethnic group within the state, along with the right to freely preserve and enrich their language, heritage and territory.
In particular, Mascogo cuisine paints a clear picture of the assimilation of north-eastern Mexican customs, and their hybridization with African, Seminole, and other indigenous techniques. Some notable kitchen tools are large mortars carved from whole pieces of tree trunks, much as African and native American groups have used since ancient times (example on the photo below, left); other ones, very traditional in northern Mexico and Texas, are iron skillets, often with lid, known as “aceros”, which are used to cook on open fires, stove tops, or covered with charcoal, in lieu of ovens (as shown in the photo below, right):
Some Mascogo foodstuffs may be found in other regions of the state, such as sweet potato empanadas (pictured above, right), or cortadillo (beef or goat meat cooked in a chunky tomato sauce), but two of their most representative dishes are prepared with these tools, and are named from Native American languages: soske – a beverage made from ashes, and corn cracked in the wooden mortars, and tetapún – a sweet potato bread cooked in aceros.