Dr. Gloria Arjona, a professor at California Institute of Technology, holds a hand drum she sometimes uses in her lectures on Black Mexican history. Photo by Ricardo Hernandez.
It was the experience of colorism that led Dr. Gloria Arjona to look into the history of Black people in Mexico.
Born in El Paso, TX, and raised in Mexico City, the professor of Spanish and Spanish literature at California Institute of Technology was the darkest member of her family.
“I invented stories that I was adopted,” she said, eventually identifying strongly with the indigenous population in Mexico and with African-Americans in the U.S.
Mexicans are taught that they are mestizo, a Spanish term that means mixed blood, but refers to Anglo-indigenous heritage.
On her own, Arjona learned that the term, meant to unify the population after the Mexican Revolution of 1916, practically erased the history of the country’s considerable African roots.
Consider Juan Garrido, Arjona says, a free African who accompanied Ponce de Leon to what is present-day Florida, nearly 100 years before the first enslaved Africans landed in Jamestown, Va.
Africans, slave and free, outnumbered Europeans in the colonial era and often joined forces with the indigenous people, creating communities that maintained African customs in present-day Veracruz, Guerrero and Oaxaca. Called palenques, the most renowned was founded in 1570 and led valiantly by Gaspar Yanga.
North American blacks escaping from slavery also founded towns like El Nacimiento, Coahila, across the border from Texas.
Slavery in Mexico was abolished in 1829 by President Vicente Guerrero, who was himself of African and European descent.
Arjona has no doubt that racism stemming from the colonial period and beyond is the reason this history is suppressed.
“If you had more than 50 percent African or Indigenous blood, there were privileges you couldn’t aspire to,” Arjona said.
Some cultural expressions had remained in Afro-Mexican communities for hundreds of years unrecognized. Music is the most obvious.
Strumming on her guitar and singing or drumming during her lectures, Arjona demonstrates that many terms for music popular in Mexico are African: from Colombia’s cumbia, to the Dominican Republic’s merengue, Argentina’s tango, and Mexico’s bamba.
She will host a lecture called “Blaxican History,” at ‘Fiestas Fridas,’ at La Plazita, 3637 Magee Ave. in Oakland on Sat. Feb. 17, 2018, from 4–7 p.m.