The African Presence In New Spain, c. 1528-1700

“Africans in Mexico left their cultural and genetic imprint everywhere they lived. In states such as Veracruz, Guerrero, and Oaxaca, the descendants of Africa’s children still bear the evidence of their ancestry. No longer do they see themselves as Mandinga, Wolof, Ibo, Bakongo, or members of other African ethnic groups; their self identity is Mexican, and they share much with other members of their nation-state.” – Historian Colin Palmer, “A Legacy of Slavery”

By Dr. Rhonda M. Gonzales
Associate Professor of History
University of Texas at San Antonio

The ubiquitous border that represents the boundary between the United States of America and Mexico has been the physical meeting point of histories important both to nation-state interests as well as to the histories of generations of people who have made their homes within the lands of that area.
In this section, we are interested in the latter, beginning with the first half of the sixteenth century, a pivotal era for the region. It was then that the nascent, shifting, and fluid milieus of New Spain became the geographic crucible in which the earliest generations of eventual Mexicans and Americans, whose descendants form the core of the two nation’s citizenry today, rooted themselves. The people involved in that rooting process were diverse, and hailed from many different areas of the world. Besides those who came from distant lands, key among the actors implicit in this historical period included many peoples whose ancestors were long indigenous to the areas that the Spanish Empire claimed for itself.
The diverse languages and cultures of those indigenous populations had for millennia before 1528 unfolded within this landscape. Their histories are only part of the period’s historical narrative that will be discussed here.
In 1519, a fundamental change began in what is now known as southern and central Mexico. That change started when foreigners arriving from great distances across the Atlantic Ocean intruded upon indigenous populations living in the regions of the Yucatán and Veracruz. From the start, newly arriving immigrants were heterogeneous in their lands of origin, languages, and cultures. Some of them hailed from places that spanned the Iberian world, in the lands of then emerging Spanish and Portuguese Empires. In addition to Iberians, many of the newcomers arrived from the west and west-central shores and hinterland regions of the African continent.
The native histories of each of these “Old World” regions and peoples are as multifaceted as any. However, those who ended up in “New World” lands found historical experiences unlike any they could have had in their homelands. Upon their arrival in the New World, they were likely viewed by their indigenous hosts simply and
collectively as newcomers, without much regard, at least initially, for their diverse backgrounds and their motives for visiting.
Likewise, the newcomer views of the indigenous people was apt to be comparably monolithic. In their respective minds, however, none of these populations likely saw themselves in such simplistic terms.
The Iberian and African immigrant populations developed along historical trajectories in New Spain, throughout the Americas, and neighboring islands, spawning diverse experiences. However, much about their particular histories in those lands, especially in the earliest periods, are not evenly represented in historical texts.
Specifically, we are interested in charting the broad histories of populations of African ancestry – those whom we will collectively term Afro-Mexicanos – who traversed and lived within the broad region that today encompasses Southern Texas and Mexico between the years 1528 and 1700, when the entire region was under the domain of New Spain (colonial Mexico). We do this to address gaps in historical narratives that commonly underplay, or overlook entirely, the presence and the roles people from Africa and their eventual American born descendants played in the histories of both Mexico and the United States during those nations’ formative years. But to do this,we must first establish a background.

In the Beginning: Spanish Expansion to the Americas

In the late fifteenth century, when Spain expanded its efforts to grow an empire under its dominion, their plan was not the result of an impulsive idea. For more than seven hundred years, the Iberian world had been engaged in attempts to throwback Muslim populations whose forebears had seized the Iberian Peninsula’s southern regions in the eighth century. Beyond that, they also strove to establish a direct hand in the long-distance trade that Muslim merchants had long held in northern Africa and Asia. Thus, since that period’s inception, regional Iberian governments strategized to regain control on these fronts. As evidence of that effort, such fortified kingdoms as Aragon, Castile, and Portugal, among others, maneuvered to recapture the regions by establishing the government’s stronghold, but for years had little success. Their failures had less to do with inability than it did with the reality that by the twelfth century, the expansive North African Almoravid Dynasty had established solid roots in Andalusia and Granada. Their dominion guaranteed a formidable and enduring Muslim presence.
Iberian Christian governments, never abandoning their desire to expunge the Muslim presence, made eventual headway. In 1469, Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon married, and their union resulted in the unification of their respective kingdoms. Once together, they moved forward with their efforts to consolidate extant regional kingdoms. More than twenty years later, in 1492, at a battle in Granada, they successfully flattened Muslim dominance in the long-contested southern areas. That defining moment witnessed the eventual annexation of the southern Iberian Peninsula to the nascent Spanish Empire.
The same year as the Muslim defeat at Granada, 1492, marked the year that Spain commissioned Christopher Columbus to seek out and bring into consideration new lands for the Empire and for the Catholic Church. While their original goal was to land in Asia, by forging a westward navigation route that would curtail the need to
circumvent Africa or pass eastward overland, the planned route did not manifest as they had envisioned. With a certain level of unanticipated fortune, however, Columbus’s voyage managed to pave the way for worldwide interconnections and realignments among people who originally belonged to both the Old and New Worlds. That happened when he landed in what he called the Indies, because he believed that he had landed in India.
Once it was learned that in fact they had not reached India, they explored the region to determine what of value, particularly gold and other mineral wealth, they might find. Over the long haul, the ultimate and long-ranging effects of those developments led to both increased material wealth for Spain and her New World representatives, but the negative outcome was subjugation and death for Indigenous peoples and enslaved African populations. The enduring implications have been the intertwined histories shared among Europe, Africa, and the Americas that have continued until the present.
By 1516, Spanish successes remained limited in the Indies. They fell far short in the agricultural production of sugar cane or other items that would generate meaningful wealth. They also increasingly came to understand that they had not arrived in Asia at all, yet they held on to hopes that they might eventually find an overland route that would reach the Far East continent. To do this, they initiated multi-pronged expeditions into the interior hoping that such efforts might lead them to riches in gold and more along the way. In 1517, Cuba’s governor, Diego Velazquez, sent expeditions to find and enslave Indians for work on the islands. Some of the expeditions led explorers along the coasts of Florida, Central America, and South America.
One explorer, Francisco Hernandez de Cordóba discovered the Yucatan Peninsula, where he and his men battled Mayan Indians who defended their lands. A wounded Cordóba returned to Cuba and, before dying from his injuries, reported to Velazquez that there was gold, silver, and cotton cloth, along with other sources of wealth
among the populations he encountered. Because Spaniards had not found signs of such abundance in more than twenty-five years in the Indies, this information renewed their enthusiasm and inspired new efforts to move farther into the mainland.
Two years later, in 1519, following Cordóba’s news, Velázquez commissioned Hernán Cortes to undertake further explorations. Cortes assembled a diverse party of sailors and soldiers that included Spaniards, Indigenous Cubans, and Africans totaling approximately 550 men organized into eleven companies. His eventual objective was to conquer the wealthy Aztec empire. After engaging in protracted battles and strategy building, the fall of
Tenochtitlán, the seat of the empire, came to pass on August 13, 1521. In that decisive episode, at least six black men were among Spain’s forces.
One identifiable by name was African born — likely from Morocco — Juan Garrido. Garrido was enslaved and fought in the Caribbean as early as 1503, but when he participated in Spain’s founding of New Spain he did so as a free man. Among his accomplishments as a contingent in the conquest, he is credited with being the first person to grow wheat in New Spain. Later in his life, Garrido established a family and lived in Mexico City.
An additional instance of an early African presence in the conquest period is found in the story of Juan Valiente, a slave in Mexico City, who in 1533 negotiated with his owner for permission to participate in wars of conquest south of New Spain on the condition that he share any wealth he amassed with his owner. Valiente eventually traveled to Guatemala, Peru, and Chile, successfully earning a position of captaincy and an encomienda, a
Spanish grant that provided him access to native labor and paid tribute to him.
Afro-Mexican conquistadors continued to be part of Spanish companies in New Spain, but their participation after conquest was typically done as dependents and auxiliaries whose status was marked by their attachments to Spaniards. And although they were often promised rewards for their service, the reality was they experienced many disappointments, and after conquest were often prevented from continued duty and the rewards that came with being part of the military.   Some of them, however, did manage to shift from the status of enslaved to free status through their military service. But the precedent of African participation in the conquest had later implications in New Spain.
By the late sixteenth and early seventeen centuries their involvement in the military was significant, especially during emergencies and when the stability of the state was at risk.  In this way, they played an integral role in the sustainability and structure of the Spanish Empire.

The Rise of African Enslavement in New Spain

The consequences of Old World and New World populations intermingling were devastating to Indigenous communities. Biologically, because indigenous populations had not previously been exposed to the communicable diseases transported by Europeans and Africans, the Indigenous people endured tremendous casualties because of their inability to recover from contracting the newly imported diseases. This situation was compounded by the harsh conditions and treatment they withstood at the hands of Spaniards. Combined, those conditions led to an abysmal decline in the Indigenous population, thought, at the time of conquest to number 5-10 million. However, it is estimated that only 1 million Indigenous persons remained within one hundred years of Spanish arrival.
Even with such tremendous human loss, the Indigenous population remained the demographic majority throughout the colonial era. Yet, the decrease in their populations did lead to labor shortages for the agricultural, domestic, mining, and transportation jobs needed to grow and sustain Spain’s budding colony.
Iberians and West Africans already had well-established relationships when the demand for an imported labor force arose in New Spain. By the early sixteenth century, an Iberian presence along the West African coast had life. The relationships among West African and West Central African populations and Iberian peoples had initiated in the late fifteenth century, when Iberians, backed by new navigation technologies, looked to curtail the power held by Trans-Saharan African Muslim traders. The Iberians sought to establish a foothold in trade that stemmed from the Gold Coast, home to the lucrative West African gold fields that fed into inter-continental economies. With that objective, Iberians had begun, with the cooperation of African traders along the coast, to service the diverse demands along the coast between what is today Angola and northern Africa.
Among the various products traded included the trafficking of human bodies between various West African communities, who themselves used slave labor. This became an aspect of commercial relations between Africans and Iberians. Eventually, Iberians began to use African slave labor for sugar production on Sao Tome and
Principe, islands off the shores of West Africa, a move that inspired the eventual transport of enslaved African people to New Spain. Essentially, that expanded system of human trade grew from an already established system.
In the period of African enslavement most concerning New Spain, it is apparent that African populations were largely taken from homelands located in West and West Central Africa, a vast region comprised of a great diversity of populations. The majority of those people likely originated from the areas of modern day Senegal,
Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau in the sixteenth century, while in the seventeenth century the majority of enslaved peoples likely came from West Central Africa, primarily from the regions of modern-day Angola.
Enslaved African laborers were present in New Spain by 1521. From the inception, mixtures of African descended, Indigenous, and Spanish citizens formed intimate unions that resulted in mixed children. The emerging complexity of racial mixtures within New Spain was almost immediate.  Based on historical records, the Afro-Mexicano population in 1570 stood at 24,235, while those deemed African (that is, having parents who were both singularly identified as African) is estimated to have been 20,569. If we compare the African descended population with that of Spaniards, by 1570, the African population and their descendants comprised
approximately 0.67 percent of the population, while Spaniards accounted for only 0.2 percent. When we examine a delimited period in the sixteenth century, between 1521 and 1594, the data indicates that approximately 36,500 Africans had been brought to New Spain.
If we turn only to urban areas, according to a 1595 census, Afro-Mexicans outnumbered Spanish and Mestizos (persons of Indian and Spanish mixed-descent) in urban towns. By 1646, the numbers increased to 116,529 for Afro-Mexicans and 35,089 for those African identified. It is clear that the number of children from mixed unions accounted for the much of the growth. African descended populations thus comprised 8.8 percent, compared to
Spaniards and their descendents, who comprised 0.8 percent in 1646.
During the seventeenth century the number of people of African ancestry who had been born in Africa and lived in New Spain had reached 110,000 people. Taken as a whole, the late sixteenth century through the late seventeenth was the clear high point of New Spain’s involvement in the slave trade to the colony. By the
midpoint of the seventeenth century, the majority of Afro-Mexicans had been either born in New Spain or originated from the circum-Caribbean world, but by the end of the century the number from Africa declined significantly. During the seventeenth century, New Spain was home to the second highest number of slaves and
largest free African-descended populations in the Americas. Examining the available numbers of Afro-Mexican populations recovers a narrative of the clear presence they had in New Spain. But those populations cannot be reduced to mere numbers. They lived their lives in New Spain.

Afro-Mexicans Work and Communities

African people enslaved during the conquest established roots in New Spain, but they did so in diverse locales and with some variation in status. The majority of Africans arrived at the start of the colonial period and lived as slaves, though over the course of their lives, some of them managed to attain the status of “free” persons. A number of possibilities paved the path for this outcome. For instance, some of them found a way to pay their owners for their freedom, while in other cases, owners sometimes manumitted free status. This commonly happened upon an owner’s death when such instructions were noted in the deceased’s wills.
Another possibility for holding free status occurred when a child was born to a mother whose status was free. By law, this happened even if the child’s biological father was himself enslaved. At the same time, even though free status may have been accorded them, Africans, like Indigenous populations, were always subject to hegemonic Spanish institutions, government and ecclesiastical entities, as well. So, free status did not equal absolute liberty.
For the most part, the largest concentration of Africans and their descendants were heavily represented in urban areas because Spanish culture was entrenched with a preference for urban living, and that inclination was carried over to New Spain. By one estimate, in 1574 approximately 18,000 or 30% of the colony’s Spanish population lived in Mexico City. The African presence in the city was inseparable from the Spanish presence because a hefty part of the successful Spaniards’ image included the presence of a few domestic slaves in one’s home. But Afro-Mexicanos also played other labor roles throughout New Spain. Outside of urban areas, Africans were
represented, and perhaps best known for, their skilled work in mining — especially gold, but also silver — in ranching, and in small factories. Additionally, a good number of Afro-Mexicanos lived in free settlements, (cimarrones or palenques) established by renegade slaves.
Far and away the most detail known about how Afro-Mexicanos lived and worked in the aforementioned milieus come from government records describing life in urban zones. In those spaces, Africans and Spaniards typically lived in close quarters within the traza, the city center, which comprised thirteen square blocks in Mexico City. It was common, for example, for Africans to live on the ground floors of multi-storied buildings, while Spaniards lived on upper floors, away from the foul odors that characterized cities where dense populations and the lack of effective sanitation systems were everyday realities. Indigenous people, because of laws that required them to live in regions of distinct populations, usually lived in areas on the perimeter and beyond, away from Spanish and
African residents. Such rules of segregation were also common to workplaces and hospitals, though as previously noted, the restrictions were largely ineffective in preventing intimate unions among Spaniards and Africans.
In the city, the typical Afro-Mexicano was enslaved for domestic purposes. As domestic laborers they were subject to the whims of their owners within spaces that were typically private, but their work often required a mobility that did not confine them to the indoors. Afro-Mexicanos and Spaniards lived and socialized in the midst of a bustling, constricted urban setting. Indeed, some have suggested that in such situations Afro-Mexicanos held a limited degree of control over their lives and labor. In navigating the city streets, Afro-Mexicano vendors peddled goods associated with elite Spanish populations, especially the Calle de San Francisco. Many worked in skilled jobs as leather workers, weavers, tailors, carpenters, and candle makers. While seemingly adept at these
jobs and no doubt more, Afro-Mexicans were often systematically excluded from participation in such trades. For example, in 1570, they were prevented from practicing the prestigious skilled craft of silk weaving and joining the associated guilds. This was, perhaps, because Spanish guilds feared competition from Afro-Mexicans.
But Afro-Mexicanos lives involved more than work, they also included time for developing social, political, and cultural networks. To do this they carved out niches, usually against the will of Spanish officials, where they could self-determine their relationships with one another, even across racial categories. In fact, many Afro-Mexicanos, in an effort to gain access to perceived advantages associated with identification in another ethnic category, may have changed their identities after marriage across race. For instance, Indian women who married either Mestizos or free people of African ancestry often refused to pay taxes due to native chiefs on the grounds that they had acquired new identities, and they often pointed to new styles of dress as evidence.
But a Spanish law attempted to curtail this possibility if marriage did not justify it. For instance, women of various castas (social class) were not permitted to wear Indigenous styled dress unless they were married to an Indian man. If a woman’s dress was deemed inappropriate her items could be confiscated. However, regardless
of government attempts to keep Africans, Indigenous, and Spanish populations separated, relationships across these distinctions were prevalent throughout the seventeenth century. By then, the capital was particularly diverse.
However, because of the often-precarious nature of their social gatherings, the associations they developed were typically kept quiet since much of what was undertaken might be interpreted as plots to contest or weaken Spanish political authority by nurturing solidarity. Some of the most prevalent places they met and socialized included taverns, city markets, servants’ quarters, and cofradias (mutual aid societies).
Cofradias were important among the community networks Afro-Mexicanos created and sustained. Such organizations had been characteristic of cultural life in Seville, Spain, and the tradition was brought to the colony.
Furthermore, the formation of black cofradias in Spain before their presence in New Spain paved the way for their expression among Afro-Mexican communities in New Spain. Interestingly, because the cofradia had been an institution associated with the church, it was uniquely viewed in positive terms by Spanish elites — when Afro-Mexicanos established them — as their attempts to participate in church life.
However they were perceived and received, they served as niches in which Afro-Mexicanos could exchange information and offer one another support. For example, the cofradia was the first place they turned to for help in arranging burials or for contesting violent situations they encountered under their masters’ dominion. Also
important in the history of city life is that these societies were also thought to be places where Africans organized themselves politically. Reportedly, among their agendas were sometimes strategies for overthrowing or overruling the political institutions in places like Mexico City. For instance, in Mexico City as early as 1537 there were allegations of a plotted slave revolt, and then again in 1540, leading to two uprisings.
Later, in 1609 and 1612, authorities became concerned when cofradias elected their own kings and queens to represent them and their attempts to overthrow the government. In the seventeenth century, the number of cofradias in New Spain reached a high point, with participation found in such cities as Taxco, Zacatecas, San
Luis Potosí, Veracruz, Mexico City, and Michoacan. Cofradias members collected alms to support one another, performed ritual ceremonies, public penance processions, lavish processions, parties, and more. There is little doubt that the cofradia was a platform from which Afro-Mexican people could express their cultures entwined
with Christianity.
Afro-Mexicano political organizing, while sometimes embedded within the robes of the church held sway and made for unease among New Spain officials. And because of the groups’ effectiveness, Spanish officials often responded with violence and intimidation as a means of quashing resistance and attempts to overthrow the government. One such purported effort, in 1612, led to the execution of thirty-five Afro-Mexicans. Another case occurred in 1611 when 1,500 Afro-Mexicans schemed to hold a demonstration in front of the viceregal palace and the Office of the Inquisition in response to what they charged was the death of an African woman that resulted from abuse by her owner. In an act of dissension, they carried her body in a solemn procession in front of both the palace and Inquisition office.
Attempts to diminish their ability to protest also came with the creation of laws, which were usually ignored until incidents occurred. Such laws included: forbidding the carrying of arms, curfews between 8pm and 5am, requiring Afro-Mexicans to live with “known masters” who were imbued with the power to give permission for their travel, and the banning of gatherings of more than four people. While Spanish attempts to control and intimidate were real, they were likely inefficient in milieus that relied on the mobility of their servants, which inherently led to opportunities to intermingle in the city.
Outside of the city, gold and silver mines throughout New Spain were primary locations in which Afro-Mexicanos, free and enslaved, lived and worked alongside Indigenous populations. At major mining sites, Afro-Mexicanos typically did not comprise more than 15% of the population. There is far less detail about the day-to-
day lives of those who toiled in the mines, which were scattered far from urban centers and created a wide dispersal of Afro-Mexicanos throughout expansive areas of New Spain. As early as 1540, in Zacatecas, which lay about 150 miles northwest of Mexico City, Spaniards – largely cattlemen and miners – had started businesses
and settled in the region. The height of Zacatecas mining would come between 1550-1650.
By 1550, there was silver mining in Guanajuato, Parral, and Zacatecas, where slave labor was needed. In 1560, Guanajuato Viceroy Don Luis de Velasco claimed lawless Afro-Mexicans roamed the hillsides. In 1569, Taxco mines employed 800 African slaves, who worked along side Indigenous laborers. A mid-seventeenth century example is instructive of an individual’s journey to the mines. Apparently, Juan de Moraga, the teenage son of a Spanish priest and an African woman, was sold to an accountant in Mexico City, who then sold him to a mine owner for work in Zacatecas. Indeed, the great demand for laborers created a level of competition among the owners. As a consequence, though many of the mine workers were not enslaved, the great majority ended up permanent residents after incurring debts as a result of taking advances of food, clothing, and shelter.
A reason for the desire of an Afro-Mexican presence in the mining efforts in the sixteenth century New World, beyond the need for laborers generally, might well have had to do with an understanding that many of the regions of West Africa from which they originated would have been home to abundant gold mines that fed the economies of the time. Possibly, some of the African slaves in New Spain were descendants of West African lands and may have had direct or indirect mining skills and knowledge that transferred with them to New Spain.
Likewise, the same may have been true when it came to textile production, for which Africans in Cholula were well known.
Another area that saw the predominance of Africans was agriculture production. The African knowledge of and skills in agriculture was anchored in generations of knowledge their forebears handed down. In West Africa, many people would have had adept knowledge and practice in rice and yam cultivation, both of which had been staples in diets of the region. In fact, the ability of African farmers to produce topnotch crops in New Spain (wheat, sugar) and raise Euro livestock was at times a matter of concern to Indigenous populations who sometimes brought complaints to the Spanish courts because their produce was often overlooked for that which Afro-Mexicans brought to market or, alternatively, that Spanish citizens often went searching in Afro-Mexican vicinities for particular items.
Tied to African knowledge in agricultural skills was their ability to, from time to time, escape the confines of enslavement, climb remote terrain, and establish sustainable cimarron communities that challenged and circumvented Spanish authority. Highlighted in the literature on such communities throughout the Americas was
their ability to evade and defend themselves from capture.
Legendary in Mexico is an African known as Yanga, who founded a cimarron community that was reported to have attained autonomy within the mountainous regions of Veracruz, and turned into the establishment of what is thought to be the first free black town in the Americas in 1609, known as San Lorenzo de los Negros. This town still exists, but in 1932 was renamed “Yanga.”
In addition to its longevity, it is the location of festivals that celebrate this determined man’s savvy at interacting with and getting colonial officials to agree to his demands that the people in his settlement be declared free and that the town be given an official charter. Although in the end Yanga negotiated with New Spain’s government, it was in part due to his and others’ military defense skills that paved the way for that possibility.
But Afro-Mexicano involvement in resistance efforts in urban milieus and cimarron communities were not limited to New Spain’s valley regions. From early times, and increasingly so as time passed, Afro-Mexicanos and their descendants also moved north, away from the areas nearest the seat of the Spanish Viceroy, and this posed additional worries for Spanish officials. The threat of African movement toward the north, where the Spanish administration was weakest, was particularly worrisome to the government because they feared, and rightfully so, that cimarrones in central Mexico were particularly inclined to form alliances with Indigenous peoples, as well as non-Catholic Europeans who eventually settled the frontier zones.

The Northern Frontier: The Eventual US/Mexico Border and the African Presence

Mexico’s valley region was far and away the most densely populated of New Spain. Nevertheless, the northern frontier zones of the empire – the lands that later became known as Northern Mexico and the American Southwest – had their share of newcomers, who moved into areas where long-rooted indigenous populations already lived. The most ambitious of early newcomers to New Spain’s northern zones arrived early in the sixteenth century and continued to found new settlements in the seventeenth century, though never on a grand or expansive scale.
In the earliest periods, the expansion of Spanish and African presence resulted from moves made by ambitious, private individuals, who made enterprising decisions to explore new lands in hopes of procuring lands and mineral wealth for themselves. Those moves were often spawned by rumors of such wealth throughout the sixteenth century. In fact, early on, many of the men who ventured out (sailors and soldiers) to claim lands are said to have deserted their companies the first chance they had in order to capture a piece of land for private gain. These individuals were often viewed as rogues by elite Spaniards, for many of them did not uphold the same standards of social distance elites thought beneficial; in contrast, they often intermingled with populations of Mestizos and mulattoes.
This sort of individual land acquisition changed in the latter seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the Spanish government carried out efforts to ensure the security of its empire through efforts to draw Spanish settlers to the northern frontier zones. Key among their desires, too, included the hopes that lucrative mineral
deposits would be found. The result was that over time the arid, rugged northern frontier maintained regular though sparse settlements of populations who participated in mining and ranching until the eighteenth century.
Detailed accounts of the Africans who settled the frontier zones are rare, but like the original conquest, there is every indication that among the earliest people in the northern zones included, at minimum, an African man – Esteban, a Moroccan slave who was a member of the disastrous 1528 Pánfilo de Narvaez expedition to Florida that eventually led to the exploration of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Esteban accompanied Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso Castillo Maldonado, and is thought to be the first black man to set foot in Texas and the Southwest. However, there are few direct references to specific African populations and individuals who inhabited the eventual Mexico/Texas border areas throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
By the last quarter of the seventeenth century, areas of Southern and Southwestern Chihuahua were beginning to see civilian populations move in, along with greater administrative control. One historian writes, “miners, ranchers, farmers, Spaniards, and Mestizos, more or less tamed Indians, and a sprinkling of Africans, [were] introduced for some of the heavier work in the mines.”
In 1691 an Afro-Mexican bugler accompanied Domingo Teran as part of the second Spanish missionary expedition to visit the Indigenous populations of East Texas. Then, in the eighteenth century Afro-Mexicans were among the garrisons forming permanent settlements.
The Spanish found New Spain — from the valley of Mexico to the Spanish borderlands — as a unique zone, full of complex identities, government presences, and cultural milieus. Between 1528 and 1700, this complexity was on a steady march northward. On the borderlands could be found a hodgepodge of people — black slaves,
Mestizos, mulattos — who fled oppressive institutions and used the borderlands to become roving miners, peddlers, and even participating in criminal activities as horse and cattle thieves, murderers, and otherwise violent offenders.
There, rather than racial enclaves, they formed mixed societies who gathered in cimarrones, as a means of resisting oppressive circumstances as social persons who shared common aspirations. Indeed, there has long been a presence of Afro-Mexicanos along the Mexico and Texas borders.

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  • Weber, David J. Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
  • ———, ed. New Spain’s Far Northern Frontier: Essays on Spain in the American West, 1540-1821. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979.
  • David J. Weber, Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment (New Haven, 2005). 16.  Weber makes this argument regarding the eighteenth century, but I believe is applicable to earlier periods.  While European occupiers understood that domestic rivalries existed among communities of people on the ground, they were all indios in their views.
  • Michael C. Meyer, William L. Sherman, and Susan M. Deeds, The Course of Mexican History, Sixth ed. (New York, 1999). 91. Columbus actually landed on an island indigenously named Guanahani, which was later named San Salvador.  The exact island is not known with absolute certainty.
  • Martha Menchaca, Recovering History Constructing Race: The Indian, Black, and White Roots of Mexican Americans (Austin, 2001). 40-1, John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the making of the Atlantic world, 1400-1800, Second ed. (Cambridge, 1998). 36-42.
  • Meyer, Sherman, and Deeds, The Course of Mexican History. 92.
  • Ibid. 93-93. At a point Velazquez became dubious of sending Cortes, and he ended up moving to stop the expedition, but not before Cortes was able to set sail.
  • Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, La Población Negra de México, Tercera ed. (México, D.F., 1989). 20, Meyer, Sherman, and Deeds, The Course of Mexican History. 120-122, 205.
  • Beltrán, La Población Negra de México. 19-20, Ben Vinson III and Matthew Restall, “Meanings of Military Service in the Spanish American Colonies,” in Beyond Black and Red, ed. Matthew Restall (Albuquerque, 2005), 18.
  • Restall, “Meanings of Military Service in the Spanish American Colonies,” 18.
  • Ibid., 18-19.
  • Ibid., 19.
  • Ibid.
  • Meyer, Sherman, and Deeds, The Course of Mexican History.  92, Patricia Seed, To Love, Honor, and Obey in Colonial Mexico: Conflicts over Marriage Choice, 1574-1821 (Stanford, 1988). 22.
  • Joan Cameron Bristol, Christians, Blasphemers, and Witches: Afro-Mexican Ritual Practice in the Seventeenth Century
    (Albuquerque, 2007). 11.
  • Beltrán, La Población Negra de México. 20.
  • R. Douglas Cope, The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720 (Madison, 1994). 13.
  • Thornton, Africa and Africans in the making of the Atlantic world, 1400-1800. 138-9.
  • Herman L. Bennett, Africans in Colonial Mexico: Absolutism, Christianity, and Afro-Creole Consciousness, 1570-1640
    (Bloomington, 2003). 1, Bristol, Christians, Blasphemers, and Witches:  Afro-Mexican Ritual Practice in the Seventeenth Century. 5.
  • Bristol, Christians, Blasphemers, and Witches:  Afro-Mexican Ritual Practice in the Seventeenth Century. 4.
  • Laura A. Lewis, Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft, and Caste in Colonial Mexico (Durham, 2003). 16.
  • Bennett, Africans in Colonial Mexico: Absolutism, Christianity, and Afro-Creole Consciousness, 1570-1640. 1.
  • Meyer, Sherman, and Deeds, The Course of Mexican History. 205.
  • Cope, The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720. 10.
  • Meyer, Sherman, and Deeds, The Course of Mexican History. 205.
  • Cope, The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720. 9-11.
  • Ibid. 16.
  • Meyer, Sherman, and Deeds, The Course of Mexican History. 205.
  • Thornton, Africa and Africans in the making of the Atlantic world, 1400-1800. 178.
  • Cope, The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720. 9.
  • Ibid. 10, 21, Peter Stern, “Marginals and Acculturation in Frontier Society,” in New Views of Borderlands History, ed. Robert H. Jackson (Albuquerque, 1998), 162.
  • Stern, “Marginals and Acculturation in Frontier Society,” 162.
  • Cope, The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720. 17.
  • Norma Angelica Castillo Palma and Susan Kellogg, “Conflict and Cohabitation in Central Mexico,” in Beyond Black and Red, ed. Matthew Restall (Albuquerque, 2005), 119.
  • Cope, The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720. 16.
  • Palma and Kellogg, “Conflict and Cohabitation in Central Mexico,” 115-8.
  • Cope, The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720. 11.
  • Ibid. 39.
  • Thornton, Africa and Africans in the making of the Atlantic world, 1400-1800. 202-3.
  • Nicole Von Germeten, Black Blood Brothers: Confraternities and Social Mobility for Afro-Mexicans (Gainesville, 2006). 14.
  • Cope, The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720. 17.
  • Ibid. 17-18, Thornton, Africa and Africans in the making of the Atlantic world, 1400-1800. 202-3. Cope writes 1608 and 1612.
  • Germeten, Black Blood Brothers: Confraternities and Social Mobility for Afro-Mexicans. 11, 14.
  • Cope, The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720. 17-18.
  • Ibid. 18.
  • Ibid. 13, Kris Lane, “Africans and Natives in the Mines of Spanish America,” in Beyond Black and Red, ed. Matthew Restall
    (Albuquerque, 2005), 173.
  • David J. Weber, ed., New Spain’s Far Northern Frontier: Essays on Spain in the American West, 1540-1821 (Albuquerque,
    1979). 22.
  • Lane, “Africans and Natives in the Mines of Spanish America,” 173.
  • Weber, ed., New Spain’s Far Northern Frontier: Essays on Spain in the American West, 1540-1821. 184.
  • Patrick Carol in Beyond Black
  • Lane, “Africans and Natives in the Mines of Spanish America,” 174.
  • Ibid., 160.
  • Ibid., 173.
  • Palma and Kellogg, “Conflict and Cohabitation in Central Mexico,” 116.
  • Thornton, Africa and Africans in the making of the Atlantic world, 1400-1800. 131.
  • Ibid. 269.
  • Insert Yanga reference.
  • Stern, “Marginals and Acculturation in Frontier Society,” 163.
  • Weber, ed., New Spain’s Far Northern Frontier: Essays on Spain in the American West, 1540-1821. viii, xi.
  • Stern, “Marginals and Acculturation in Frontier Society,” 159.
  • Robert H. Jackson, “Some Common Threads on the Northern Frontier of Mexico,” in New Views of Borderlands History, ed.
    Robert H. Jackson (Albuquerque, 1998), 227.
  • Jesús de la Teja, “Spanish Colonial Texas,” in New Views of Borderlands History, ed. Robert H. Jackson (Albuquerque, 1998),
    101.
  • John Francis Bannon, ed., The Spanish Borderlands Frontier 1513-1821 (New York, 1970). 77.
  • Barr, Black Texans:  A History of African-Americans in Texas, 1528-1995. 3.
  • Stern, “Marginals and Acculturation in Frontier Society,” 157.
  • Ibid., 158.
  • Restall, “Meanings of Military Service in the Spanish American Colonies,” 37, Stern, “Marginals and Acculturation in Frontier
    Society,” 163, 167, 170.