Everyone knows the Portuguese and Spanish initiated the African slave trade in the late-15th century to replace the diminishing indio labor force in the West Indies, and that the French and English brought slavery to North America later for similar reasons (Indians having proved unsuitable). What is not generally understood, however, is the role of Africans in Mexican history; it was only in 1992, on the Columbian quincentenary, that Mexico officially recognized Africa as the third "root" of its culture, joining its Indian and European heritages. Some 250,000 to 300,000 Africans worked on haciendas or in silver mines; colonial Mexico in the early-17th century, in fact, was the largest slave enclave in the New World. At that time, Yanga, an escaped slave, fought a successful guerilla war and founded a "black" city in Veracruz state that now bears his name, but slavery would persist in Mexico until the 1829 liberation from Spain, after a twenty-year struggle led by the mulatto Jose María Morelos y Pavón. A generation later, in 1863, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed norteamericano slaves — fourscore years after English and German Americans won their freedom.
Such is the grim background to The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present, a survey of paintings, prints, photographs, movie posters, musical instruments, and other artifacts, now at the Oakland Museum of California. Organized by Cesáreo Morena, visual arts director at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, and Sagrario Cruz-Carretero of the University of Veracruz, it's mandatory viewing for pretty much anyone these days except the most retrograde rebel yellers. It is accompanied by two exhibitions, Who Are We Now? Roots, Resistance & Recognition, and Common Goals, Common Ground, that examine the relationship between black and Latino cultures (e.g., the Afro-Mexican battalion of widows who fought with Zapata in the 1910-20 Mexican Revolution). The melancholy and ironic aspects of history are certainly in evidence — the hispanicized black conquistador who aided Cortez, Catholicism's role in spreading empire, the post-liberation caste system imposed on mixed-marriage mestizos, mulattos, and zambos or lobos by the "pure-blooded" criollo ruling class — but the emergence of today's racial and cultural mix now appears, to our increasingly multicultural, postracial country, like an unplanned triumph of humanity's better angels: consider it a fandango, or musical party, of sorts. Some photographic highlights: Casasola's 1910 portraits of female soldiers; Garcia's family portraits; and contemporary portraits by Almeida and Gleaton. Explanatory materials are bilingual, as is the catalog (which features works not shown in Oakland). See web site for related events. The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present runs through August 23 at the Oakland Museum of California (1000 Oak St., Oakland). MuseumCa.org or 510-238-2200.
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