Rethinking Identity: Afro-Mexican History

By Michelle Nicola

Illustrator: José Agustín Arrieta (1802–1879)

El Costeño by José Agustín Arrieta (1802-1879).

“This is the country of my ancestors. It includes the fandango—music that takes Spanish instruments and plays them with African style, songs like ‘La Bamba’ that trace their way back to slavery and still influence music today, and a Mexican president with both Spanish and African ancestry. This is my history, but no one is talking to us about it,” wrote Daniel as he reflected on the Afro-Mexican unit our class had just completed.

Several months earlier, I was searching for a way that my Spanish speakers class could support African American Heritage Month activities at our school. At De La Salle North in Portland, Oregon, students organize month-long activities to celebrate and critically consider the histories of the many heritages represented in the student body. I wanted to support these student-led projects with lessons in my classroom, but how? Driving home one night, the solution hit me: Nicholas Marshall.

Nicholas was a memorable student from my first year of teaching. One day he looked at me, eyes wide, and said: “Wait, Señorita! There are Black people who speak Spanish?”

“Yes,” I had said. “There most definitely are.” I developed a whole unit for my Spanish World Language class based on Nicholas’ question. I decided to adapt that unit to meet the needs of my current students. I hoped that, by the end of the unit, they would be able to identify ways that enslaved Africans and their descendants shaped Mexican culture, and describe the historical and political forces that led to Afro-Mexican invisibility. I wanted students to complicate their narratives about Mexican identity and realize that Afro-Mexican resistance weaves through the fabric of that heritage.

My students at De La Salle were heritage language speakers. Heritage students have both a cultural and a linguistic connection to a language other than English. Our class of 23 juniors and two seniors each shaped the definition of heritage Spanish speaker in their own way. For example, Marta didn’t consider Spanish her native language—she favored English, although she spoke Spanish with her parents. Ana Maria emigrated from Mexico at the age of 10. She learned to read and write in Spanish, and then learned to do the same in English. Daniel grew up in the United States but spoke Spanish at home and often with his friends. Itzel was from Guatemala and English was her third language, after Mayan and Spanish. Alex’s father was from Ecuador and his mother from Chile, so his Spanish was peppered with words that differed from those of his peers.

They all spoke, read, and wrote with high levels of fluency in Spanish, yet they weren’t “native” Spanish speakers because most of their formal schooling had been in English. They switched between cultures and languages and, in Daniel’s words, sometimes felt “stuck between two countries I’m not wanted in.” In that sense, the definition of a heritage speaker is not just about language; it also includes socio-emotional factors.

Where Did the Africans Go?

On our first day, I announced that we would be uncovering the history of Black Mexicans. “Does anyone already know anything about this topic?”

My students’ faces were blank.

“When I was preparing this unit for you, I found out that many people believe the first Africans arrived with the first conquistadores. By the 16th and 17th centuries, one out of every two Africans who were enslaved and taken to the so-called “New World” was sold in Mexico. In fact, until 1650, the number of African-heritage Mexicans equaled the number of Spanish-heritage Mexicans. Yet today, no one seems to know much about the story of Afro-Mexicans and their descendants. So where did they all go? How did they become invisible?”

“Maybe they left the country,” Josué called out.

“It’s possible,” I replied. “Any other ideas?”

“Maybe they got kind of mixed,” Lalo ventured.

I pulled out my trusty teacher phrase: “Tell me more.”

“You know, Ms. Nicola, the birds and the bees, and then the kids got lighter skin or something.” The class laughed.

“You may be on to something, Lalo. I want you to keep these ideas in the back of your minds throughout the unit. Keep asking the question: How does a history, a culture, and a people become invisible? I want you to collect stories of things you didn’t realize had a connection to Africa, but that are deeply rooted in African cultures and that have shaped what we think of as ‘Mexican.’

“Now grab your bags,” I said. “We’re going to the computer lab.”

Once in the computer lab, I gave my students a piece of paper with the URL for the Afropop Worldwide website “La Bamba: The Afro-Mexican Story” (see Resources). “Chicos,” I called out, moving to the center of the lab. “Remember that even though the website is in inglés, your notes need to be en español.” Although I wanted our class to read, write, think, and speak in Spanish 100 percent of the time, the reality was that my students don’t live in a 24/7 Spanish-speaking world. Too often, I ended up resorting to English-language resources.

The website contained a wealth of information, and I wanted to give students the autonomy to explore what they found interesting. So the only instruction I gave them was to spend time reading and writing down what they found interesting. At the end of the unit, students would need their notes for their essays, but I didn’t bother them with that detail for the moment. Instead, I gave them time to let their curiosity lead the exploration. As they clicked from page to page, I wandered around the room, checking on their notes and gathering snippets of their conversations.

“Whaat? The fandango is African?” I heard Eduardo exclaim.

“Eduardo, don’t forget to write down what you are learning,” I reminded him.

Estamos hablando de cómo el son jarocho tiene raices africanas (We’re talking about how son jarocho music has African roots),” Evelyn commented to me as I walked by.

Maestra, what is this about the ‘third root’?”

Bueno, Alex, read it and you will see. That part is important, so write it down.”

Alex jotted notes on la tercera raíz (the third root). In 1992, as part of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Spanish in the Americas, the Mexican government officially acknowledged that African culture in the country represented la tercera raíz of Mexican culture, along with Spanish and Indigenous peoples. Since then, many Mexicans (especially those living on the west coast) have reconnected with their African heritage through dance, theater, radio, and political mobilizations.

Daniel called out to me. “I’m interested in this guy Vicente Guerrero. He was a hero in the war for independence, and it says here that he was Mexico’s first Afro-Mexican president—the Barack Obama of 1829!”

I smiled. My students were already rethinking some of their ideas about Mexico. They were collecting stories of things that they had taken for granted as “just Mexican” and uncovering a more complex version of those stories.

By the time we had finished our first lesson exploring the Afropop site, students were hooked and energy was high. It was a good launching pad for our next question: If Afro-Mexicans have been living in Mexico since the days of the slave trade, why wasn’t anyone talking about it?

The Black Grandma in the Closet

If the goal for the first part of the unit was to challenge students to rethink Mexican identity, and specifically Black Mexican identity, parts two and three were about discovering the historical and political forces that led to the invisibility of Afro-Mexican roots, and the activism and resistance that occurred throughout history and into the present.

I decided to show an episode from the Henry Louis Gates series Black in Latin America titled “Mexico & Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet.” Gates documents the ways that Black Mexicans were oppressed and made invisible, and how they have fought against Spanish oppressors and modern-day discrimination. I gave students lots of freedom to explore the Afropop Worldwide website however they wished, but I took a different tack for this next activity.

“Mexico & Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet” is full of information about why we don’t often hear about Black Mexicans. Before students viewed the documentary, I created a note-taking template so they could work together to capture the relevant facts. I listed important names, dates, and ideas in the order they were mentioned in the documentary. Then I chose four items for each 15-minute segment of the documentary. I made a copy of the note-taking template for each student, and had students get into groups of four.

OK, clase, vamos a ver el documental,” I said, moving about the room. “We’ve already discussed some ideas about why no one knew the African roots of the fandango, or that Mexico had important military and political leaders who were Black. Josué suggested maybe all the Afro-Mexicans left the country, and Lalo talked about interracial relationships. Now we’re going to dig a little deeper and see what Mexican anthropologists and historians have to say. You can see on your papers that important terms from the documentary are divided into sets of four. Each person in your group will be responsible for taking notes on just one term. When we’ve heard all four terms, I’ll stop the documentary and as a group you will write one summary that includes all of those terms. OK?”

Students decided how they wanted to divide the terms and ideas among themselves, and I hit play. By the time we finished, I was happy with my decision to have students share the work of understanding and synthesizing the reasons behind Mexico’s hidden Black culture. They collectively gathered and analyzed more information than students working on their own. And, because each person was responsible for one term per video segment, everyone had a responsibility to listen and share.

In one of their summaries, Lalo, Ana Maria, Itzel, and Evelyn wrote: “Tlacotepec is the city where the documentary opens. They say that if the ‘one-drop’ rule were applied to this city, everyone would be Black! The fandango uses Spanish instruments but played in an African way. The documentary says that slaves were singing ‘La Bamba’ in 1683!!! (So, does that mean that Ritchie Valens broke copyright? LOL)”

Marta, Alex, Daniel, and Miguel wrote: “Vicente Guerrero, Mexico’s first Black president (1830), said, ‘The country comes first,’ a common saying in Mexico. After that, they abolished racial categories on birth certificates and other official documents.”

This act, though progressive in purpose, contributed to the systematic erasure of Afro-Mexican history. The simple act of eliminating racial categories did not eliminate racism, and some present-day activists are seeking to reinstate racial categories into the Mexican census so that Afro-Mexicans can benefit from public policy. Miguel in particular was uncomfortable with the idea that a reintroduction of racial categories would fix the problem: “Father Hidalgo started our nation’s independence with El Grito de Dolores, and he believed that we should not have racial categories. Activists like Israel Reyes, a teacher in Mexico, are trying to boost Afro-Mexican pride with their radio shows and activism to reintroduce racial categories. I think the radio show is a good idea, but new census categories will divide the people.”

Eduardo’s group focused on the story of Sagrario Cruz Carretero, professor of anthropology at the University of Veracruz. Cruz Carretero did not discover that she was Black until she was 19, when she traveled to Cuba and started recognizing herself and her family in the faces of the Cubans she met. The foods they made were the same foods—like fufú—that Cruz Carretero’s grandma made, foods that can be traced back to Africa. When she returned to Mexico, she asked her grandfather why he had not told the family that they were Black. Her grandfather responded that they were not Black, they were moreno. According to Cruz Carretero, “This happens in most families—you hide the Black grandma in the closet.”

Camila, Sofia, and Adán wrote: “Yanga is a town and a man. The town of Yanga is named after a slave who freed himself and lived for 30 years in the mountains fighting off the Spanish and defending his community. If the TV show Survivor had existed in the 16th century, he definitely would have won. And he did win against the Spanish—in 1609 they finally grew tired of fighting him and gave him the land. Yanga became one of the first towns in Mexico where Blacks could live free!”

Lalo snapped to attention when the film started talking about interracial relationships. The Catholic Church allowed marriage between races and so, from early on, Africans, Europeans, and Indigenous Mexicans mixed bloodlines. The Spanish already had a heritage that was more open to interracial relationships than other European countries, thanks to the centuries-long dominance of the Moors in Spain, so those relationships weren’t as taboo as they were in the United States. Interracial marriages continued over time, to the point that one’s African roots could only be heard in the dropped d from the word helado, a certain hue in skin tone, or the taste of an old family recipe. “See?” Lalo said with a smug smile. “I told you they were making babies.”

Pros and Cons of Racial Statistics

By now, I had a degree of guilt about the resources I was providing them with—our two main sources had been in English. I needed to get my students back to reading in Spanish. So next we looked at Afrodescendientes en México, by the Consejo Nacional para Prevenir la Discriminación (National Council for Preventing Discrimination).

This document describes the problems, including the difficulties connected with the lack of racial statistics in Mexico, and offers concrete actions that both the Mexican government and its citizens should take to counteract this history of invisibility and oppression. Specifically, it calls for more research and a way to document the numbers and experiences of Afro-Mexicans.

Once again, I had a resource full of important information that I wanted my students to capture. Therefore, I annotated the text before making copies for my students. I starred main ideas, wrote definitions and synonyms for high-level vocabulary in the margins, added footnotes with questions for students to consider. I noted a few questions that I had while reading. Some students did not need this extra support, and for easier texts students would do this annotation work themselves. However, because this was a complicated government document, I wanted to make sure all my students had access to the information presented.

Then I divided the class into heterogeneous groups so that students could help each other as needed. I told them that each group would decide who would be the reader, summarizer, director, and question-asker.

“One person is going to read aloud,” I explained. “Another is going to write a summary of the main ideas from the text. The director is in charge of watching the clock, and also making sure that everyone speaks and no one dominates the conversation. The question-asker will jot down questions that the group has while reading.”

Students got busy reading and writing, and I walked around the classroom, listening in and answering questions.

Questions such as “Maestra, ¿qué es el racismo interiorizado? (Teacher, what’s internalized racism?)” were an indication that students were being exposed to a broader understanding of systems of oppression.

The text did not have hard data in the form of statistics on achievement gaps, poverty, or access to services—how could they provide this when the Mexican census had no system for identifying those of African heritage? But the authors described the myriad ways that the ideology of racial superiority has spread into the language, education policy, and throughout Mexican society.

Mateo focused in on Memín Pinguín, a popular cartoon from the 1940s based on racist caricatures that could be compared to Sambo in the United States. The text reinforced information we had learned in the documentary. Mateo took notes on how the government had issued a commemorative stamp featuring Memín Pinguín in 2005 that had caused such an international stir that Jesse Jackson flew to Mexico City to speak with then-President Vicente Fox. Mateo told me that he wanted to write his final essay on this character.

Sofia and Camila were curious about the experience of Afro-Mexican women. They began to write down questions about how basing beauty standards on lo blanco (whiteness) affected women. They were also struck by the information that Afro-Mexican women are the most vulnerable targets of racism in Mexico, to the point that many of them leave the country, primarily heading to the United States.

Miguel called me over. “They’re saying that they want to reintroduce racial categories in Mexico. I think that will divide the people more.” He shook his head. Miguel, a senior, had often encouraged the juniors to step out of their comfort zone and hang out with students of other races at our school. I admired his willingness to challenge his peers and the text. I also wanted him to consider multiple perspectives before solidifying his view.

“Miguel, I hear your concern about dividing people, but can you think of any ways that Black Mexicans would benefit from reintroducing racial categories? What does the article say?” Miguel returned to the text, searching the document for answers.

My students were asking important questions, and it was time for them to give voice to what they were learning. For their end-of-unit project, I asked them to write an explanatory essay, either highlighting an unsung Afro-Mexican historical figure or explaining how African ancestry has shaped the Mexico of today.

Eyes Wide Open

Before this unit, my students had little to no knowledge of the African presence in Mexico. By the end of the unit, students were asking important questions about race, defining racial categories, and what it really means to be Mexican. Many walked away with a different view of their family’s country of origin, one whose history and cultural identity was infinitely more complex than they had previously imagined. Their final essays demonstrated that we had met our goals of rethinking identity, identifying ways that Afro-Mexicans helped shape the nation, and reflecting on the present-day implications of Afro-Mexican invisibility.

“Many people do not know the history of Afro-Mexicans,” wrote Ana Maria, “but it’s thanks to them that we have various walls, cities, food, and dance. It may be that you have to look with eyes wide open to see it, but their presence is there for those who wish to see it.”

Miguel’s paper was a response to the position of Afrodescendientes en MŽxico. He decided to stay true to his original stance: “I fear that reintroducing racial categories in Mexico will have the opposite effect of what they want. I don’t think that they should divide people in this way because they may start to divide the country.”

As sometimes happens, this six-week unit evolved into about 10 weeks of learning. There were a few things that I ended up cutting, and others that I will do differently next time. For example, I’ll build in more time for small group discussion, and plan for students to struggle with the questions present-day activists are facing: how to undo the legacy of invisibility and oppression. In addition, I would provide some more journaling time for students to self-reflect. For high school students deep in the throes of identity development, extra time for journaling may have allowed them to question assumptions they had about themselves, and the groups they identify with.

There is more work to do—more counter-stories to offer, more questions to ask, Afro-Latina/o history from countries other than Mexico to explore. Yet, my students began to understand that national identity is something we construct together and that, just like in our classroom, everyone has something to contribute.


  • Afropop Worldwide. 2013. “La Bamba: The Afro-Mexican Story.” Public Radio International.
  • Velázquez, María Elisa, and Gabriela Iturralde Nieto. 2012. Afrodescendientes en México: Una historia de silencio y discriminación. Consejo Nacional para Prevenir la Discriminación.

Michelle Nicola currently teaches middle school language arts and Spanish at Bridger School in Portland, Oregon. Student names have been changed.