An exhibition entitled, “Pathways to Freedom in the Americas: Shared Experiences between Michigan, U.S.A and Guerrero, Mexico” will open at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan on November 15th and will be on display for four (4) months before traveling throughout the state. “Pathways to Freedom in the Americas” is an exhibition of discoveries.
“Pathways to Freedom” presents a seldom publicized depiction of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the unfamiliar story of fugitives from slavery in the United States taking the Underground Railroad south to Mexico, and the contributions made by the states of Michigan, U.S.A. and Guerrero, Mexico toward the abolition of slavery and the extension of freedom to all people.
The exhibition tells the story of Mexico’s 2nd President, Vicente Guerrero, for whom the state of Guerrero was named, who was of mixed African descent and who abolished slavery. Moreover, through maps, photographs, art, and music, the exhibition provides a glimpse into how African heritage permeates the Mexican culture, especially in the Costa Chica Region of Guerrero.
Black Mexicans? Most people, even from within Mexico, are unaware of the African presence in the country, but the ethnic group is so common that it is called the “Third Root of Mexico.” According to the African Studies Center at Michigan State University, the first contact between Africans and Mexicans dates back to the existence of the Olmec Civilization, as far back as 1000 BC. Evidence of this initial contact is found in artifacts such as the Olmec Heads that are thought to be attempts to create representations of early African visitors.
The largest number of Africans arrived in the Mexican territory during the three hundred years of the colonial period, 1521-1821. During these times, Africans and Afromestizos (people of joint African, European and/or Indigenous heritage) outnumbered Europeans by up to 3 to 1 in Mexico. Approximately 500,000 African slaves were brought by the Spanish to Mexico, compared to 450,000 slaves brought to the USA by the British.
Today, the largest Afro Mexican communities in Mexico are located along the central coasts of the country in central Veracruz, and in the Costa Chica Region of Guerrero and Oaxaca. The population of Afromestizos in Mexico is estimated at 1% and at about 10% in the Costa Chica area, but the actual numbers are unknown since they are counted among the Indigenous population.
The Mueso de Culturas Afromestizas (Museum of the Afromestizas Cultures) in Cuajinicuilapa, Guerrero is dedicated to teaching about the African presence in Mexico. The museum displays information and items related to the slave trade, political and military contributions during the War of Independence and the Revolution, and artifacts used in cultural dances and celebrations.
Moreover, civic organizations such as the México Negro, Asociación Civil, along with other community groups, activists and scholars, have convened an annual conference, the “Encuentro de Pueblos Negros” (Meeting of the Black Towns and Peoples), to foster awareness of the history and traditions of these communities, and to increase attention to their social, political, and economic needs. This conference is held annually in March, the month designated by the communities as Black Heritage Month. In 2011, in response to their efforts, the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs announced that they would create a Department of Afro-Mexican Community Affairs in Oaxaca.
The legal recognition of these communities is a crucial step in achieving state and federal recognition of Afro-Mexicans. They have not been counted as a separate ethnic group on the National censuses. However, they continue to fight to be recognized as a specific ethnicity. This recognition will afford them all the constitutional rights and support that is given to the Indigenous groups.
On their pathways to freedom, the voices and activism of the Afro-Mexican communities in the Costa Chica continue to rescue and promote their cultural traditions, and to fight for a greater visibility that matches the extensive contributions that they have made throughout Mexican history.
Under a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council, the “Pathways to Freedom in the Americas” exhibition was organized by the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Task Force in partnership with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan, United States of America and the Museo de Las Culturas Afromestizas in Cuajinicuilapa, Guerrero, Mexico. The exhibit research team in Mexico was led by local Professor Candelaria Donají Mendez Tello from the Universidad Autónoma de Guerrero in Zihuatanejo. Many other educational and community organizations in both states have contributed, making this project a cultural and international exchange.