The Third Ethnic Root of the “La Raza Mexicana”
By Rick Rhoda
Some Mexican Mestizos refer to themselves as “La Raza” literally “the race.” “Dia de la Raza” is celebrated on Columbus Day (October 12) as the day indigenous Mexicans started their resistance against the European invasion. The term “La Raza” derives from Jose Vasconcelos’ 1948 book “La Raza Cósmica,” which argued that Mestizos are a new superior race. In developing his thesis, Vasconcelos drew upon many concepts including Marxism; he felt that Europeans were too materialistic and capitalistic.
The government of Mexico tacitly agreed with this approach which engendered national pride. It was also consistent with the government’s post-Mexican Revolution view that all ethnic groups should be combined into a common Mexican national identity. While almost all people in Mexico refer to themselves as simply “Mexicans,” the available data suggest that about 73% are Mestizo compared to 15% indigenous, 10% white and 2% other.
Many overlook the historical fact that between 100,000 to 200,000 African slaves were brought to Mexico during the 16th through 18th centuries to work sugar cane plantations, mines, and later textile mills. This is nearly a third the number brought to the USA. In 1646 there were 35,000 African slaves in Mexico, more than 2.5 times the white population.
In colonial times, the Catholic Church used at least 16 categories of racial mixes for marital and baptism purposes. A Spaniard-Indian mix was a Mestizo; Spaniard-Black mix was a Mulatto; Indigenous-Black mix was a Zambo; Mestizo-Spaniard mix was a Castigo; Mulatto-Spaniard mix was a Morisco; Spaniard-Morisco mix was an Albino; etc., etc. However, after independence nobody could keep track of all the combinations and eventually everyone of mixed race was simply considered a Mestizo. Of course those which looked more European had better opportunities while those who had more African- looking features faced stronger discrimination.
Thousands of slaves escaped and either assimilated with indigenous groups or formed their own rural communities. The most famous of these was established in central Veracruz around 1570 by Gaspar Yanga and his followers. They fought with the Spanish colonial government for over 40 years eventually gaining legal autonomy. The town, later renamed Yanga, was one of the first free African settlements in the Americas. Now it is well-known for its Afro-Mexican heritage.
Mexico’s second president, Vicente Guerrero, whose mother was partially Black, abolished slavery in 1829, four years before Britain and 34 years before the USA. Thousands of escaped slaves moved into northern Mexico from the USA before it abolished slavery in 1865.
Mexico currently has about a third the population of the USA and imported about a third as many slaves. One might expect that Blacks in Mexico would be about as apparent as Blacks in the USA. However, today there are very few black faces in Mexico. One can travel for many weeks in Mexico without seeing a Black Mexican. By paying very close attention, one can identify people of African heritage in a few selected communities in Veracruz, like Yanga, and along the Costa Chica in Guerrero and Oaxaca. What happened to all the Blacks in Mexico? In a word they fully assimilated by having offspring with other racial groups.
Modern research based on DNA indicates that on average Mexican Mestizos are genetically about one-eighth African. While Brazil is often identified as the world’s foremost melting pot, the evidence suggests that in Mexico the races have melted more than in any other country.
While there are very few black faces in Mexico, there is a great deal of African heritage represented in art, music, dance, food, and even in fishing and agricultural practices. As part of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ famous voyage, the government of Mexico in 1992 finally acknowledged officially that Africa was the “third root” of la Raza Mexicana.