History at its Best: €The African Presence in Mexico€

Larry Saxton | 11/19/2009, 6:20 a.m.

Did you know that in 1518, when Hernan Cortes landed on the shores of New Spain (Mexico), there was an African Conquistador, Juan Garroido accompanying him? Did you know that during Spain€s colonial rule over Mexico that roughly 250,000 to 300,000 Africans entered the ports of Veracruz and Acapulco? Did you know that in 1609, just two years after the founding of the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, the first free African township was established in New Spain (Mexico), founded by an African named Yanga? And did you know that the second president of Mexico, Vicente Guerrero, was of African descent, and that he abolished slavery in Mexico in 1821?

These are but a few of the historical facts learns after viewing the exhibitions €The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present€ curated by Sagrario Cruz-Carretero and Cesareo Moreno, and €Who Are We Now? Roots, Resistance, & Recognition,€ developed by Elena Gonzales, now on display at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum.

This dual exhibition examines the impact that Africans had on Mexican culture and examines the relationships between Mexicans and African Americans in the United States, and African Americans in the United States and the country of Mexico.

The traveling exhibition was organized by the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. It is the first exhibition to showcase the history, artistic expressions and practices of Afro-Mexicans. With paintings, photographs, lithographs and historical texts, it examines the complexity of race, culture, politics and social class. Carlos Tortlolero, president and founder of the National Museum of Mexican Art said, €At so many levels, €The African Presence in Mexico€ project is a land mark undertaking, and the most important cultural presentation ever organized by the national Museum of Mexican Art.€

For more than 500 years, the contributions of persons of African descent in Mexico to Mexican culture have been overlooked. The €third root,€ or the €African root,€ which the African influence in Mexican culture is sometimes called, was all but eliminated from Mexican history after the Mexican Revolution in the 1920€s. At that time Minister of Education Jose Vasconcelos united a divided nation under a new idea of Mexican identity which said that all Mexicans were a mixture of Spanish and indigenous heritage, thus completely ignoring the African root.

Speaking on how the various communities have responded to the exhibition, co-curator Sagrario Cruz-Carretero, said, €The African American community has received this exhibit with open arms. People have come up to me and said, I have always known it, and finally someone is saying it. It€s the Mexican-American community that is having difficulty with this exhibit and this overall issue. To the African American community it highlights the fact that there is so much of the African Diaspora that is missing from the history books. It kind of proves that there needs to be more research and more people going into this field.€

The Anacostia Community Museum is planning stimulating and educational public programs around the exhibition. €We are going to present programs focusing on several different areas: the art, the music, the culture and the foods of Africans in Mexico,€ said Tony Thomas, education program coordinator for the ACM. €We are going to have various curators come in and give lectures. We will have some type of educational and informative activity every weekend until the exhibition closes.€

Ambassador Cyrille S. Oguin of Benin, Martin Castro, board chair of the National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA), Carlos Tortelero, director of NMMA and Ambassador Sarukhan of Mexico (l-r).Photos Courtesy of Anacostia African American Community Museum
After viewing the exhibition Carol Foster, 60, founder of the DC Youth Ensemble, talked about what the exhibit means to her. €It just means that we are everywhere, and that our presence is so strong in everything that is humanity and the world, finding out about our culture and its impact on other cultures and how broad our cultural reach is, and how integral our culture is to the whole world culture. It€s amazing how much we don€t know about our own culture and our own presence in everybody else€s culture.€

The exhibitions €The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present€ and €Who Are We Now? Roots, Resistance, & Recognition€ will be on display at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum through July 4, 2010. For more information call 202 633 4820 or visit www.anacostia.si.edu . WI
Photo by Roy Lewis
Marriage of Maurillio and Teresa, by Tony Gleaton, 1990. Courtesy Photo
Summers Dream, a painting by Maximino Jabier, 2002. Courtesy Photo