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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

The long and often overlooked history of Africa’s profound imprint on Yucatán

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There is no denying the importance of the struggle between the Spanish and the Maya in the forging of Yucatán’s identity, but other important factors often get left out of the narrative. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Yucatán’s colonial history is often told as the story of the arrival of Europeans and their interactions with the indigenous Maya.

But despite the centrality of these two groups to the history of Yucatán, there is another group of people whose story is less often told. 

The historian and anthropologist Dr. Jorge Victoria has dedicated much of his career to documenting the story of peoples of African origin in colonial Yucatán and Mérida specifically. 

The history of Afro-descendants in Mérida stretches back hundreds of years. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Aside from his academic work on this topic, Dr. Victoria also offers city tours around Mérida’s Centro to explore places and ideas central to understanding the role of the African diaspora in the region.

Jorge Victoria is a renowned researcher with a Ph.D. in History and Anthropology and the author of several books. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

“As soon as the Spanish arrived, so did Afro-descendants. They were here from the beginning of Mérida’s colonial history,” says Dr. Victoria. 

In fact, during the first few decades of the 16th century, while the number of European conquistadors was approximately only 300, there were 80 enslaved Africans in Mérida.

“Slavery is never benign, but the type of slavery practiced in early colonial Mérida was almost always of a domestic sort, not agricultural or similar to the chattel slavery which was so widespread in the United States and the Caribbean,” said Dr. Victoria. 

The Casa de Montejo is one of Mérida’s oldest colonial structures and was home to conquistadors and their attendants alike. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magaine

The main reason for this, Dr. Victoria explains, is that Europeans were nervous about leaving their homes in the hands of the indigenous Maya and felt much more comfortable with people of African descent with whom they were familiar back in Spain. 

Though the history of people from Africa and their descendants in Yucatán is one of slavery, Dr. Victoria points out that this is not the entire picture.

For instance, there are several examples of Afro-descendants earning their freedom and even an elevated status in society through military service on behalf of the Spanish crown. 

Afro-descendants served in a variety of roles in Colonial Mérida but were especially numerous in its defense forces. Photo: Courtesy

One example of this is the story of Sebastián Toral, who was likely born in Africa and ended up fighting alongside the Conquistador Francisco de Montejo against the Maya. Toral was considered so successful that besides being granted his freedom, he was granted a license in 1533 to command a force of approximately 100 enslaved Africans and Afro-descendants. 

Sebastián Toral was a person of great status in Mérida thanks to his military prowess. Photo: Courtesy

Because under Spanish law, the condition of slavery was passed down through one’s mother, mixed-race individuals with a European or indigenous mother were born free and referred to as pardos.

In 1585, Mérida’s Afro-descendant population had secured its own church, which was important as, before this time, all church and state businesses had been run out of a small office in the Spanish-dominated San Idelfonso Cathedral. 

The church of el Santo Nombre de Jesús was located in what today is a parking lot in between of Centro’s Calle 59 and 64. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

With the passage of time, the number of Afro-descendants in Yucatán grew exponentially, with many arriving from the Colonial territory now known as Belize as well as Haiti. 

In the case of Haitians, Dr. Victoria points to the community of San Fernando Ake, near Tizimín, which apparently was originally settled entirely by Afro-descendants from the west of the island of Hispaniola. 

When slavery was abolished in Mexico in 1829 by President Vicente Guerrero (34 years before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation), all legal distinctions based on ethnicity were abolished in the young republic.

But an interesting detail related to this history is the fact that President Guerrero had both African and Indigenous blood running through his veins.  

Despite occupying the presidency, Vicente Guerrero was still the subject of racist slurs. Photo: Courtesy

Of course, the official abolition of slavery did not immediately make everyone in Mexico equal, despite what the law said, but it was an important step for other trailblazers like Felipe Carillo Puerto. 

With all of this history, one may wonder, what happened if Yucatán had such an established connection to Africa? 

As it turns out, during the 2020 census, nearly 70,000 residents in Yucatán identified as being of African ancestry, the third highest per capita in the country. 

For more information on Dr. Victoria’s Afro Tours in Mérida and other related upcoming events, visit Historia con Jorge Victoria on Facebook. 

Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.
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