Mexico’s Hidden Black History

Welcome to the Mexico that you don't know. The slaveship express made stops all over the Americas—including the Estados Unidos Mexicanos.

Getty Images
Getty Images

The black history of the Americas goes well beyond the borders of the United States or the shores of Caribbean islands. In the following article from our archives, and the slide show below, see just how far that history reaches. There’s also more about the black history of Latin America here.

SAN NICOLÁS TOLENTINO, MEXICO–There’s a part of the African Diaspora here on Mexico’s southern Pacific coast in the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca that many African Americans–and even other Mexicans–don’t know exists.

Along the 300-mile, narrow coastal plain from Acapulco in Guerrero east-by-southeast to the beach town of Huatulco in Oaxaca known as the Costa Chica, there are more than 200 communities where many people have black African ancestry, with varying degrees of obviousness and self-recognition.

Consider the case of dark-skinned Idilo Evitélio Domínguez, 74, who posed proudly in front of a gallery of family photos in his living room in Santo Domingo Armenta, east of here. In an enlarged photo, his mother looks quite African, his father more indigenous. The studio photo of a whiter-looking couple to one side in fact is of Domínguez and his medium-brown-skinned wife as a young married couple. Such retouching once was common.

Even today, the sense of racial pride is not always easily understood by outsiders. Domínguez said he tried living in Acapulco and Mexico City, but always came home. There, he was black, he said. Here, he was just a man.

Just how many sons and daughters of Africa live here is a complex, subtle and even very Mexican question, only in part because the Mexican census doesn’t ask the question. Between Acapulco and Puerto Escondido, where those communities are concentrated, 35 to 40 percent of people probably are Afro-Mexican, according to a local expert, with varying degrees of nearer or farther indigenous ancestry. Using Mexican population estimates, that’s upwards of 200,000 folk.

“Some of us got off the boat in Mobile, some in Port-au-Prince in Haiti or Kingston in Jamaica, some in Salvador do Bahía in Brazil or Cartagena in Colombia, and we’ve kept going in different directions from there,” said Rev. Glyn Jemmott, 64, a Trinidadian-born Roman Catholic priest who has lived and worked in the Costa Chica since 1985.

Among the Costa Chica’s significantly Afro-Mexican communities, this town of maybe 3,000 is a bit bigger than the average. By a credible estimate, about four out of five people here who are negro (black, in Spanish) or moreno (brown) live in towns or communities with 2,500 residents or fewer. The economy is mainly agricultural.

Calling yourself moreno in these parts can have more to do with trying to avoid negative stereotypes that at least some in the Mexican mestizo majority have of blacks than, say, your African-American grandmother or great-grandmother having said she was “colored.”