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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

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Monday, September 21, 2009

El Dorado Gold Star Mine

Did you know that... African Americans from Los Angeles were investors in the El Dorado Gold Star Mine located in Nelson, Nevada between the towns of Las Vegas and Searchlight from 1909-33?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Uncovering the Long History of Blacks in Mexico - Part I
Alva Moore Stevenson

My Afro-Mexican roots can be traced back to my grandfather Daniel Thornton. Born in Texas, he migrated to Mexico to escape the racism of the United States around the dawn of the 20st century. There he married my grandmother, Tráncito Pérez de Ruíz, in 1914.
Lots of Afro-Mexicans have similar family histories. But many Black people arrived in Mexico centuries before my grandfather.

Scholars such as Ivan Van Sertima, author of “They Came Before Columbus,” tell us that Egyptians and Nubians came to Mexico in the Pre-Columbian period, around1200 B.C. The Olmec civilization may be descended from or have had contact with Africans. He cites as evidence the African facial features of the Olmec heads in La Venta, Tabasco, and San Lorenzo, Veracruz. Van Sertima’s research is controversial and not widely accepted by mainstream historians.

It is generally believed that Blacks who accompanied the conquistadors were the first Africans in Mexico. One of the earliest was Juan Garrido, who accompanied Spanish colonizer Hernán Cortes around 1510 and participated in the fall of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztecs. Garrido was the first person to sow wheat and manufacture flour in the Western Hemisphere.
A native of West Africa, he went to Lisbon, Portugal, to become Christian and educated. It is speculated that Garrido may have been a member of a royal family in his native land—thus his free status. Before reaching Mexico, he was a member of the expeditions of Nicolás De Ovando, Ponce de León and Diego Velásquez. Garrido journeyed to Hispañola (the island comprised of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guadeloupe, Dominica and Florida. Later in life, Garrído still searched for fame and fortune in such places as Michoacán and Baja California. He died poor and forgotten, but his contribution of a common foodstuff forever changed our eating habits.

Afro-Mexicans in the 16th century fell into three categories: slaves, unarmed auxiliaries and armed auxiliaries, both of which were comprised of men who were enslaved and others who were free. According to “Black Conquistadors” author Matthew Restall, “…it is primarily after this date [1510] that armed Black servants and slaves begin to play significant military roles in Spanish conquest enterprises.”

Other early Africans brought to Mexico as slaves came with the party of Pánfilo Narváez in 1519. In the early 1500s, they replaced indigenous laborers who had been decimated by European-imported diseases. Between the mid-16th and mid-17th centuries, the numbers of Africans at times exceeded the indigenous population. For a very short period, more Africans were imported into Mexico than any other part of the Americas.

As in other parts of Latin America, slaves resisted their oppression. These maroons or cimarrones were reported to have fled and settled in such places as Coyula, Cuaxinecuilapan and Orizaba. One of the most famous was Gaspar Yanga. He was reputedly descended from a royal family in the African nation of Gabon and brought to Mexico as a slave. He led an uprising and escape from a sugar plantation in Veracruz in 1570. The enormous mountain peaks behind the Veracruz lowlands became the home of both African and indigenous maroons during that time period. Established in Cofre de Perote in the mountains near Orizaba, Yanga’s maroon settlement or palenque, called San Lorenzo de los Negros, had 60 dwellings where 80 men and more than 24 African and indigenous women and several children lived. This settlement was renamed Yanga in 1932. The Yanguicos survived by raiding provisions from passing Spanish caravans. They also farmed and raised livestock. They practiced a form of self-government based on several Central African models. It was hierarchical and oriented towards the needs of self-defense and retaliation. Yanga’s colony had grown to some 500 people and the Yanguicos continued to elude capture until the Spaniards decided to negotiate in 1608. It was the intention of the Spanish crown to crush Yanga and his followers. Before this could happen, Yanga and the Spanish colonizers signed a treaty, unique for that time, in September of that year. There was no surrender.

The points of the treaty were:

1) All Yanguicos who fled prior to September 1608 were freed and those who fled after this date were returned to their masters.
2) The palenque was chartered as a free town with Yanga as governor.
3) Only the Franciscan friar would minister to them.
4) The Yanguicos would return fugitive slaves and aid the Spanish in case of external attack.
5) The Spaniards could only visit on market days.
6) The Yanguicos received farmable land.

In addition, Yanga stipulated that he would be governor and the line of succession would accede to his descendants. The Spaniards ceded to the Yanguicos demands and the maroon community was officially settled on Mount Totutla in 1630. Yanga’s maroon movement is a notable event in the history of African-descended Mexicans. It is the only known example of a fully successful attempt by slaves to secure their freedom en masse by revolt and negotiation and to have it sanctioned and guaranteed by law.
The Thorntons: Saga of an Afro-Mexican Family
Alva Moore Stevenson

From Compton to Newark, with frequent headlines screeching about violence between Mexican and Black youth, one could easily be convinced that relations between the two groups have always been brimming with hostility. The media’s embrace of sensationalism blots out an important aspect of history and a very different kind of relationship: the Afro-Mexican family dating back a century. I am Afro-Mexican. Stories like those of my family, those of entire Afro-Mexican communities in the United States, have been ignored for too long. In this society where racial and ethnic identity is narrowly defined, we haven’t fit into anyone’s box. How does a person of African-American and Mexican heritage self-identify? What were the experiences of our foreparents who embraced each other across national and ethnic lines? I hope to answer these questions by sharing the story of my family.

The root of the Afro-Mexican Thornton family can be traced back to 19th century Versailles, Ky. It was there that James Thornton, reportedly of African, European and Choctaw ancestry, was born a slave in 1835. He was mustered into the U.S. Colored Troops’ 12th Heavy Artillery regiment during the Civil War. James was court-martialed and tried on charges of mutiny for supposed offenses against a White officer. His original sentence to be shot by musketry was commuted to hard labor on the Dry Tortugas islands off the Florida coast. But the war ended before he could serve his sentence and he left Kentucky for Kerr County, Texas.
Believed to be the first Black landowner in that county, James married Adeline Joiner in 1870 and they had 12 children. One of them was my grandfather, Daniel.

My great-grandparents told their children they would never be treated fairly in the U.S. and should either go to Canada or Mexico. Daniel chose Mexico and migrated there around the turn of the century. Arriving in Guadalajara, he quickly became fluent in Spanish and secured a position as a foreman helping to build the Mexican railroad. He was the liaison between English-speaking White management and Spanish-speaking Mexican workers.

Tráncito Pérez de Ruíz, my grandmother, was born in San José de Grácia, Sinaloa, a mining town. Tráncito had fled the ranch where she lived during the Mexican Revolution because many girls were kidnapped and raped. She worked in the army of General Elias Plutarco Calles as a cook and nursemaid. One of her most memorable moments was serving breakfast to Calles, Pancho Villa and General Alvaro Obregón. Daniel met Tráncito and they married in 1914.
My grandparents were provided a caboose to live in until work on the railroad was completed. Then they migrated to Nogales, Ariz. The Thorntons joined a small, tightly-knit enclave of Afro-Mexican families living in that border town between the 1920s and 1950s. Many were Black soldiers, from nearby Camp Stephen D. Little and later Fort Huachuca, who married Mexican women from across the line.

Daniel spent time as caretaker at the Nogales City Cemetery, as a mail carrier, as a worker at the Tovrea meat packing plant and as the owner of a shoeshine parlor. Tráncito owned a restaurant for a short time, but gave it up to raise her family. They had eight children, including my mother, Lydia Esther. My grandmother was also ordained as a minister in the El Mesías United Mexican Methodist Church in 1947. My mother and her siblings were native Spanish speakers who learned English only upon attending school. Nogales’ segregated Grand Avenue School was a one-room building with African-American teachers. In many Afro-Mexican families, there were children born to the women during previous marriages to Mexican men, such as my Aunt Soledad, who we called “Sally.” By virtue of having Black stepfathers, they too were mandated to attend the segregated school.

There was a unique syncretism expressed between these children—Afro-Mexican, African American and Mexican—as friends and classmates. Language and culture was shared. Afro-Mexican and Mexican children taught their African-American classmates Spanish. At the first annual reunion of the Grand Avenue/Frank Reed School in Nogales in 1994, I observed that many of the African-American students had remained fluent. My mother was one of the first Nogalians to enlist in World War II. She was given a choice to join either a White or Black regiment. She chose the Black regiment—the 6888th Central Postal Directory otherwise known as the Black WACS. Like others of this second generation of Afro-Mexican families, she left Nogales after World War II for Los Angeles, where she married and became a bilingual schoolteacher.

Much has been written about biracials who are Black and White, but not about those who are of two marginalized groups. In the Thornton family, my mother and her siblings saw themselves as African American, as Mexican or fluidly, able to shift between two identities. Key for them was to self-identify in ways they perceived would give them the best quality of life. In varying degrees, the self-identity of second generation Thorntons was tied to their ability to speak Spanish. This comes into much sharper focus in the third generation. My sister, my cousins and I carved out a self-identity largely based on language. Those who did not speak Spanish generally identified as Black. Others, such as some older cousins, who became fluent at a Spanish-speaking convent, gravitated towards a Mexican identity.

I view my family’s history in a much larger context. It is important to look at the history of the southwest U.S., Mexico and the Spanish-speaking Americas. You will find African peoples brought into Mexico, for instance, both as slaves and free people as early as the beginning of the 16th century. One of them, Juan Garrído, came with the party of Hernán Cortes and was the first person to sow wheat in the hemisphere.

Some Afro-Mexicans traveled north into the southwest U.S.—then part of the Spanish Crown and later Mexico— such as the family of Pío Píco, a businessman, military leader and the last Mexican governor of California. Conversely, African Americans fled south to escape virulent racism, such as James Hughes, the father of writer Langston Hughes. He migrated to Mexico in 1909 to work for the Sultepec Electric Light and Power Company.

Afro-Mexicans in Mexico and the U.S. exist. We may be left out of the history books, but that doesn’t make our contributions to the development of both cultures and both countries any less significant.
Uncovering the Long History of Blacks in Mexico—Part II

Alva Moore Stevenson

Africans have been in Mexico at least since 1510. Those who were imported as slaves resisted their oppression, as in other parts of the Americas. In my last article for, I wrote about one of the most famous, Gaspar Yanga, who led an uprising and escape from a sugar plantation in Veracruz in 1570.

Yanga went on to negotiate peace and freedom for his community of escaped slaves. It’s the only known example of a fully successful attempt by a maroon colony to have free status sanctioned and guaranteed by law. Yanga’s efforts represent an exceptional legacy upon which Black Mexicans continued to build.

The import of African slaves had all but ceased by the mid-16th century. Spanish colonizers in Mexico were confronted with an increasingly mixed-race society due to miscegenation. Castas, people of mixed blood, not only blurred and crossed racial lines, but economic lines as well. To reinforce their identity as the elite class, Spaniards in Mexico instituted a caste system as a method of social control. This was an ordering of racial groups according to their limpieza de sangre, literally cleanliness of blood.

In other words, people’s place in society was determined by their proportion of Spanish blood. But the castas largely ignored this caste system. Afro-Mexicans such as Vicente Guerrero played critical roles in Mexico’s independence of August 1821. Of African and indigenous ancestry, Guerrero was born of the peasant class and worked as a mule driver. He became commander in chief of the Mexican army during the last three years of the war for independence which lasted from 1810 to 1821. He was a member of the three-person junta that ruled Mexico for part of the post-war period from 1823 to 1824. And he was president of the country from 1829 into early 1830. Guerrero believed in ending privileges and he promoted equality for all races and social and economic classes. The Mexican government, during his presidency, abolished slavery in 1829.

Martha Menchaca, author of “Recovering History, Constructing Race,” discusses the reasons behind the northward migration of Afro-Mexicans and other non-White Mexicans in the early 19th century in her book. She writes, “Blatant racial disparities became painfully intolerable to the non-White population and generated the conditions for their movement toward the northern frontier, where the racial order was relaxed and people of color had the opportunity to own land and enter most occupations.”

In the period up to 1848 and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Black Mexicans and African Americans crossing back and forth over Mexico’s northern border experienced great social fluidity.

California was a part of Spain from 1769 to 1821, and from 1821 to 1848 it belonged to Mexico. Like the castas in 17th and 18th century Mexico City, early Black Californians ignored social strictures related to race.

This racial ambiguity made possible the success of the Afro-Mexican Pico family. Of Spanish, African, indigenous and Italian ancestry, Pío Píco was the last Mexican governor of California. He served in that position in 1831 and again from 1845 to 1846. A consummate politician and “revolutionist,” Pio Píco was also a wealthy landowner, military commander and also served as a Los Angeles city councilman in 1853. His brother, Andres, represented California at the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga in 1847, ending the Mexican War in California. He also served as state senator in 1851 and from 1860 to 1861.

Members of the Camero, Moreno and Quintero families, and other Afro-Mexican families, were landowners as well as skilled tradesmen. Such families lived not only in California, but across the Southwest. Afro-mestizos comprised part of the population that founded the towns of Nacogdoches, San Antonio, Laredo and La Bahía in Texas, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Los Angeles and Santa Barbara in California.

In contemporary Mexican society, the caste system no longer functions openly. But Afro-Mexicans remain largely marginalized and are concentrated at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.

Bobby Vaughn, a scholar of Afro-Mexican studies, says that issues of race in Mexico have “been so colored by Mexico’s preoccupation with the Indian question that the Afro-Mexican experience tends to blend almost invisibly into the background, even to Afro-Mexicans themselves.” The national focus on Mexican identity as a blend of Spanish and Indian heritage effectively excludes Afro-Mexicans.

Since the mid-1990s, Afro-Mexicans from 30 African-descendant areas are meeting in what is called an Encuentro de Pueblos Negros, a gathering of Black towns. The annual event is led by Father Glyn Jemmott, a Trinidadian Catholic priest and an advocate for Afro-Mexican communities. According to Jemott, the residents of these towns are striving “to relate our common history as Black people, to strengthen our union as communities, to organize and open realizable paths to secure our future, and to resist our marginalization in the life of the Mexican nation.”

Their movement parallels similar ones involving African-descended peoples in Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.