For as long as I can recollect through my K-12 educational journey, I have understood the concept of Black History as one rooted within the North American experience. This is both a reflection of an odd disentangling of identities as a Mesoamerican living in the United States as well as a broader consideration of Latin American Mestizo identity, a relic of 300 years of colonialism in the Americas.
Mestisaje (the blending racial identities), as a colonial construct of the early 1500s, renders many of our roots invisible, including those that are of African, Indigenous and Asian origin. It wasn’t until much later as an adult, and especially later as an educator, that I was able to slowly engage with the process of learning about the communities from which I come. Black History Month also serves as a valuable reminder for continuing this process of understanding the complex interplay of experience within a binational, bicultural and bilingual reality. It requires an embracing of social and cultural complexity.
Part of this challenge is in understanding the African experience in the Americas. The African presence in Mexico, for instance, predates the formation of both the United States and Mexico as contemporary nation states. According to Dr. Michael A. Gomez, author of the book “Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora,” “From 1521 to 1594, from 75,000 to 90,000 Africans were brought to Spanish-held territories, with over half going to Mexico…by the time of formal emancipation (in Mexico) in 1827, some 200,000 Africans had labored in Mexico alone.”
This history is important to note as emancipation south of the border, and closer proximity to free lands, was also an alluring prospect for many Africans who were enslaved in the Deep South. In an NPR article from 2021, historian Alice Baumgartner — author of the book “South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War” — estimated that approximately 3,000 to 5,000 enslaved persons fled south to Mexico. This trek included traversing through safe houses in south Texas until reaching freedom, as well as jumping ship at Mexican ports for enslaved sailors and stowaways who departed from New Orleans and Galveston, Texas.
Clearly this tension around slavery was evident at the time of Texan cessation from Mexico in 1835 and later in Texan entry into the United States in 1845, as well as the subsequent Mexican American War that erupted from 1846 to 1848. These binational events are forever tethered as part of the larger story of the North American African diaspora.
These are stories that provide a richer understanding of our collective experience in North America, and they are critical for decolonizing our complex identities. This cross-pollination of historical narratives is one that deserves additional examination.
Oscar Rosales grew up in the Yakima Valley and works and resides in Seattle.
Read more of the Feb. 23-Mar. 1, 2022 issue.