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The African Presence in México

A look at the little-known history of enslaved Africans brought to Mexico in the 1500s and their contributions to Mexican culture. Organized by the National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago, the exhibition is on view May 9 through Aug 23, 2009.

For nearly 500 years the existence and influence of the African descendants in Mexico have been overlooked. The African Presence in México: Yanga to the Present traces how Africans—less than two per cent of colonial Mexico’s (1521–1810) population—significantly enriched Mexican culture through their art, music, language, cuisine, and dance.

"The exhibition invites Mexican-Americans and African-Americans to look at their identities in light of their shared histories in Mexico and the United States," says Cultural Arts Developer Evelyn Orantes, co-curator, with Chief Curator of Art Philip Linhares, of the Oakland installation.

"African Presence in México also allows Americans to better understand the complexity of race issues in the U.S. and Mexico," she says. The Spanish first brought Africans to Mexico in 1519 to labor in the agrarian and silver industries, under often brutal conditions. There were constant slave protests and runaways (cimarrones), who established settlements in the mountains of Orizaba.

In January 1609, Yanga, a runaway slave elder, led the cimarrones to successful resistance against a special army sent by the Spanish Crown to crush their actions. After several cimarrón victories the Spanish acquiesced to the slaves’ demand for land and freedom. Yanga founded the first free African township in the Americas, San Lorenzo de los Negros, near Veracruz. It was renamed in his honor in the 1930s.

Slavery in Mexico was abolished in 1810 by Jose María Morelos y Pavón, leader of the Mexican War of Independence. As a mulatto (Spanish and African), Morelos was directly affected by Mexico’s prejudices. Racial mixes were seen as undesirable by a society that aspired to purity of race and blood; i.e., Spanish only.

In 1992, as part of the 500th anniversary of the arrival (encuentro) of the Spanish in the Americas, the Mexican government officially acknowledged that the African culture represented la tercera raiz (the third root) of Mexican culture, with the Spanish and indigenous peoples.

The bilingual exhibition features paintings, prints, movie posters, photographs, sculpture, costumes, masks, and musical instruments. "It’s a fascinating hybrid—a visual arts exhibition based on a cultural history," says co-curator Orantes.

An ad hoc group from the museum’s African-American and Latino advisory councils, local artists, academics, and community members was created for the The African Presence in México exhibition. The representatives have helped identify community issues and interests for educational programs and performances to accompany the show.