The first town of freed African slaves in the Americas is not exactly where you would expect to find it — and it isn’t exactly what you’d expect to find either. First, it’s not in the United States. Yanga, on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, is a sleepy pueblito founded by its namesake, Gaspar Yanga, an African slave who led a rebellion against his Spanish colonial masters in the late 16th century and fought off attempts to retake the settlement. The second thing that is immediately evident to vistors who reach the town’s rustic central plaza: there are virtually no blacks among the few hundred residents milling around the center of town.
Mirroring Mexico’s history itself, most of Yanga’s Afro-Mexican population has been pushed to neighboring rural villages that are notable primarily for their deep poverty and the strikingly dark skin of their inhabitants. Mexico’s independence from Spain and new focus on building a national identity on the idea of mestizaje, or mixed race, drove African Mexicans into invisibility as leaders chose not to count them or assess their needs. Now many blacks want to fight back by improving the shoddy education and social services available to them and are petitioning for the constitution to recognize Afro-Mexicans as a separate ethnic group worthy of special consideration.
“The two races that are most discriminated against here are the blacks and the indigenous — but it is more accepted against blacks,” says Hemeregildo Fernandez, a doctor in Yanga and one of the few blacks still living in town. His office is tucked on a narrow street that juts off the main square, where the rotund man with warm brown skin and salt-and-pepper hair receives a fluctuating stream of patients. The majority of the black Mexican population works in agriculture, fishing or construction, and while, like Fernandez, some have achieved notable positions in coastal towns, he says, “Most blacks have no economic power.”