African presence in Spanish America explored in three presentations

Jose Francisco Garcia and his wife Linda Garcia are two of the most intellectually curious people I know.  They are quintessential searchers always open to discovery and they love nothing more than sharing what they learn with others.  Their great passion is preserving and presenting Mexican history and culture and they do this in a variety of ways, including their work through the Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands, which replaced their Las Artes Cutlural Center. Linda is a librarian, storyteller, and artist.   Jose is a photographer.  Both are amateur historians. One of Jose’s many projects is the subject of this story – a series of presentations last winter that saw him and Walter Brooks examine the African Presence in Spanish America.  Look for a story I did about Jose and Linda and their magnificent obsession to be posted here soon.





African presence in Spanish America explored in three presentations

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in El Perico

A collaborative public education series by the Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands and the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation will examine the African Presence in Spanish America.

Three presentations are scheduled:

Saturday, Feb. 25, 2 p.m., Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, 3448 Evans St.

Tuesday, Feb. 28, 6 p.m., W. Dale Clark Library, 215 So. 15th St.

Wednesday, Feb. 29, 6 p.m., Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands, 4925 So. 25th St.

Historical Society curator Jose Francisco Garcia, the series co-organizer and facilitator with Malcolm X administrative director Walter Brooks, says the power-point programs “will emphasize the growing understanding of history between Spanish, African and indigenous peoples over the past five centuries,” adding, “we will highlight how Africans significantly enriched the cultural life, language, cuisine, music and dance in Mexico, Peru and Colombia.”

Garcia says the Feb. 26 program will discuss how the slave trade brought many Africans to the Spanish Americas. In North America, runaway slaves, some using the underground railroad, entered Mexico, where an anti-slavery attitude prevailed. Runaway slave settlements in Mexico were called palenques.

Much of Garcia’s research focuses on Mexico, whose African presence is well detailed. In the early 17th century runaway slave-turned-freedom fighter Gasper Yanga led a revolt that resulted in the Spanish establishing a free city in Veracruz that still bears his name. Other black enclaves remain in Southern Mexico.

Early blacks in Mexico were not all slaves. Some were explorers, others were hired laborers. An independence movement leader, Jose María Morelos y Pavon, was mulatto, as was Mexico’s second president, Vicente Guerrero, who officially abolished slavery in 1822.

Whether Africans fled or migrated to Mexico, they contributed to the cultural milieu and its maze of influences. That infusion continued through the generations until it’s become so pervasive it’s been obscured.

“Costa Chico, a territory in the southern part of Mexico, is where the majority of pure African, runaway slaves settled,” says Garcia. “It’s where the population is a little more African in appearance than anywhere else in Mexico. But they all have Spanish names and they all speak Spanish and they know very little about their African ancestry – until they play their music and sing their songs and eat their food. And that’s not only true of them but of Mexicans too. Half of the cuss words in Mexico come from Africa.”

Garcia and Brooks, longtime community activists who are also 2nd district trustees with the Nebraska State Historical Society, will contrast African settlements and influences in other nations with the immersive African-Latino remix found in many U.S. urban centers, most notably Miami.

The Feb. 28 program will explore “the cultural implications of how the African presence has impacted music, language and overall affected the arts, the food, the culture and the traditions of these societies,” he says. The Feb. 29 program, he says, “will look at where these populations are now and what is happening to provide them with a sense of identity and how contemporary culture is facing the reality the African presence in Spanish America is formidable.”

Garcia says the truth is no Spanish society is untouched by the African imprint, thus no discussion of Spanish culture, history or heritage can be considered without acknowledging this vibrant strain.

“The African presence is the third root,” he says. “Those who know history know that Spanish society and culture have been developed from three roots – the indigenous, the Spanish and the African. This created the mestizo, the bastards, the half-bloods, the Cimarrons, the mulattos, all those peoples that were a mixture of all of these three roots.”

His interest in the subject was sparked in exploring his own Chicano roots.

“As I was trying to get my feel on history, on my identity, the African presence just kept coming up. We’re part of the effects of world history, and to this very day we’re marrying that effect, that mescal, that mix..”

The results of the cross-cultural immersions can be seen in sport.

“I’m a great baseball fan, so I’m aware of the Spanish influence in baseball. When Sammy Sosa broke on the scene, I asked, ‘Who is this guy who looks black but has a Spanish name and speaks Spanish?’ Only he speaks a different Spanish.”

Sosa’s homeland, the Dominican Republic, much like all the Caribbean nations, including Cuba, boast an Afro-Latino lineage that permeate the culture.

Garcia says the sheer demographics of the America’s point to African and Spanish heritage groups as the dominant populations, if not economically, than culturally and socially. Black and brown people, he suggests, have shared interests and agendas that if solidified could wield political power.

Ultimately, he says, “I’m doing this to help people understand that just because you’re Mexican doesn’t mean you’re not an African-Mexican, just because you’re a Colombian doesn’t mean you’re not an African-Colombian. It’s so complex. Just because you’ve learned to call us Latinos doesn’t mean that’s right.” He wants people to appreciate their similarities and differences in this intertwined web.

“There will always be something that will set every culture aside and make it unique and make it characteristically human. The problem comes when you shut your eyes from these differences and you make believe a fantasy world exists.”

Admission is $5 for students and $3 for seniors at the Historical Society and the Malcolm X Center and free with a donated food item at the library.


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