Have you ever wondered what happened to the nearly 250,000 Africans taken between 1519 – 1810 as slaves to what is now Mexico, or what became of slaves who fled the United States for that same country?
Consider the following: The Underground Railroad’s first freedom station outside the United States was at Mazamitla, Mexico, in the state of Jalisco. Slavery was abolished in Mexico 36 years before it was abolished in the United States.
Yanga, an African who escaped slavery, founded the first free town in the Americas, near Veracruz, Mexico, on Jan. 6, 1609. A bronze statue of Yanga stands in the township of Yanga, in Veracruz, to this day.
In 1850, African-Americans and Seminole Indians began to travel together from the United States to Mexico, where they evolved into a single society of Indians and Mascogos (Black Seminoles). The Mexican government granted land to the Mascogos, in exchange for help protecting Mexico’s border. A part of the Mascogos’ permanent settlement at Hacienda el Nacimiento in northern Mexico remains to this day as Nacimiento de los Negros.
Collaboration between Mexican and African-American artists began in the 1920s, at the time of Mexico’s Cultural Revolution and the Harlem Renaissance of African-American culture, and continued throughout the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. Langston Hughes, famed poet of the Harlem Renaissance, traveled to Mexico in 1921 to teach.
“The African Presence in México: From Yanga to the Present,” an amalgam of paintings, photos, lithographs and historical texts, accompanied by tours and various educational and public programming in Spanish and English, reveals a nearly five-century connection that is often overlooked in the myriad tributes to Black contributions to the cultures of the Americas. On loan from the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, where it first opened in 2006, the exhibit will be hosted through July 4 by the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C. The NMMA is the largest Latino arts organization in the United States and the only Latino museum accredited by the American Association of Museums.
“This exhibition is the largest and most complete display to date of the African in Mexico,” says Cesáreo Moreno, visual arts director at the NMMA and co-curator with Sagrario Cruz-Carretero of “The African Presence in Mexico” exhibit. “Today in Mexico, most African descendants refer to themselves as Negro. Contemporary Afro-Mexicans completely identify themselves as Mexicans, not Africans. But after five centuries of helping to create Mexico and the Mexican culture, how could they be anything but?”
While examining the complexities of race, culture, politics and social stratification, the exhibit’s historic pieces and contemporary artistic expressions highlight the indelible impact that Africans have on the artistic, culinary, musical and cultural traditions of Mexico. The presentation includes reproductions of two rare 18th-century colonial “casta” paintings (portraying mixed-race people) not seen on display since the exhibit opened at the National Mexican Museum of Art, and also features important historical figures, like Yanga. A companion exhibit, “Who Are We Now? Roots, Resistance and Recognition,” examines the relationships between Mexicans and African-Americans in the United States and African-Americans in the United States and Mexico. According to the NMMA, it was developed by Elena Gonzales, the NMMA’s associate director of development, “to offer a basis for discussion on contemporary U.S. relationships between people of African and Mexican descent.”
“At so many levels, ‘The African Presence in Mexico’ project is a landmark undertaking and the most important cultural presentation ever organized by the National Museum of Mexican Art,” says Carlos Tortolero, NMMA president and founder.
Museum officials are hoping that “The African Presence in México” will be a catalyst for “a more positive dialogue” between African-Americans and Mexicans and that Mexico will seize the opportunity not only to reveal its African legacy, but also to actively embrace it as an important element in its national cultural heritage.
“Visitors will learn that Mexico is a diverse country, that it has had its own struggle with slavery, race and class, and that Africans in Mexico participated in the country’s seminal events as well as made important contributions to the nation,” says Portia James, senior curator at the Anacostia Community Museum.
Anacostia, which opened in southeast Washington in 1967 as the nation’s first federally funded neighborhood museum, worked with several Mexican and Latino civic organizations and cultural leaders and organizations to collaborate on programming and promotion for “The African Presence in Mexico” and to generate ongoing dialogue in the Washington metropolitan area. The exhibit received federal support from the Latino Initiative Pool, administered by the Latino Center, while related programs and special events are presented in collaboration with the Smithsonian Latino Center, the National Museum of African Art, the Mexican Cultural Institute and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
The final stop of the exhibit’s five-year tour that began in Chicago in 2006 and so far has landed in California, Philadelphia, Mexico, New Mexico, Texas and now Washington, D.C., is scheduled to be the DuSable African American Museum in Chicago in the fall. Sponsors of the tour include Chase, Sara Lee Foundation, Boeing Co., The Wallace Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Polk Bros. Foundation, Ford Foundation, The Nathan Cummings Foundation, Kraft Foods, Woods Fund of Chicago, the Joyce Foundation, The Albert Pick Jr. Fund, Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and the Illinois Arts Council.
For more information on “The African Presence in México” and its companion exhibit “Who Are We Now? Roots, Resistance and Recognition,” go to www.nationalmuseumofmexicanart . org/af/africanpresence.html.