Mexico’s Role in Black History
Our Neighbor to the South Played a Big Role in Ending Slavery and Setting Up the Path to the Civil War in the United States
When my wife and I visited The Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, we heard the story of the siege that took place there in 1836. The siege ended with Texans being defeated by Mexican troops, and the slaughter became a rallying cry for those who fought for Texas’ independence. A woman in the audience started explaining the battle to her young son, referring to the Mexicans as “the bad guys” and the Texans as “the good guys.”
Mexico’s Immigration and Slavery Problem
In 1836, the political situation in Texas was complicated, to say the least. For many years, white immigrants from the United States had immigrated — often illegally — into the Mexican territory of Texas. They brought with them their families and their slaves, making the territory a very productive part of the nascent Mexican nation. By the late 1820’s, these immigrants began getting a little restless. They wanted a country to call their own and not be tied to the nation of Mexico and all of its debt from the war for independence from Spain.
Not only that, but Mexico’s first Black President did something that really set off the slave-owning illegal immigrants: He abolished slavery. If the abolishment of slavery leading to a war sounds familiar, it’s because the Southern States would revolt against the United States thirty years later under similar pretenses. (Georgia’s Secession Declaration mentions slavery quite a lot.)
Vicente Guerrero was born in a small town about 100 kilometers inland from modern-day Acapulco. His mother was of African descent, and his father was mestizo, someone of mixed Spanish and Native Mexican heritage. Because of his dark complexion, people often referred to Guerrero as El Negro. When the Mexican War for Independence broke out in September 1810, Guerrero sided with the revolutionaries against his father’s wishes. Slowly and steadily, he won battles here and there, rising through the ranks of the rebel army.
By 1820, Spain had lost Mexico as a colony, and the new Mexican legal system guaranteed equality under the law to all people in Mexico: “All inhabitants… without distinction of their European, African or Indian origins are citizens… with full freedom to pursue their livelihoods according to their merits and virtues.” Of course, some things are easier said than done.
The period between 1820 and 1828 saw Mexico go through an Emperor, a military triumvirate and a president. The elections in 1828 were turbulent, and it ended in a military coup d’état that saw Guerrero rise to become president on April 1, 1829. However, that presidency was short-lived. There too many allegiances between former revolutionary generals and politicians, some of which saw the profit in slavery in Texas and wanted to keep things the way they were. They were a little more “Conservative,” I guess?
Liberal Policies of Mexico, Circa 1829
On September 16, 1829, President Guerrero declared slavery abolished in all of Mexico. The Spanish had stopped trading slaves in 1818, and the young Mexican government had made the slave trade illegal in 1824. But there were plenty of slaves — African and Indigenous — throughout Mexico in 1829. When Guerrero abolished slavery, he set in motion a series of Conservative insurrections that ended in his execution in 1831. Why was he executed instead of exiled?
“The clue is provided by Zavala who, writing several years later, noted that Guerrero was of mixed blood and that the opposition to his presidency came from the great landowners, generals, clerics and Spaniards resident in Mexico…Guerrero’s execution was perhaps a warning to men considered as socially and ethnically inferior not to dare to dream of becoming president.” — Jan Bazant
By the time of Guerrero’s execution, the bell had already been rung. Slave owners in Texas knew that their big source of free labor was about to come to an end even if the Conservative forces in Mexico managed to keep control. With American influence and resources, they began to take more and more of Texas, seeing themselves as conquerors, as “the good guys.” By 1836, Mexico had been ruled by a military junta or a military dictator, with democracy being very fragile. The Texans saw that fragility and revolted. By 1845, Texas was annexed into the United States and the slave owners were allowed to continue their practice of enslaving human beings for free labor.
The Other Underground Railroad
In turn, abolitionists started shuttling escaped slaves into Mexico, knowing that Mexico would not return them to their enslavers like the northern states in the US would. Between 5,000 and 15,000 African slaves escaped via Texas and into northeastern Mexico, settling along the coast, enriching the Native Mexican culture with their culture, food, music and art. Fifteen years after the annexation of Texas, the American Civil War started, and it was the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States.
If You Don’t Know Who Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña Was, You Should
About 160 years have passed since the American Civil War started, but much more time has passed since the events that led to it were put into motion. Some of those events were the abolishment of slavery in Mexico. Others were the illegal entry of Americans into Texas and the ensuing Texas revolution and the Mexican-American War. People who wanted to own other people were so protective of their practice that they went to war, or funded it. People who opposed it were willing to give their lives to end it.
In the United States, you’ll rarely — if ever — hear about Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña, the “young man with bronzed or tanned skin, tall and strong, aquiline nose, bright and light-colored eyes and big sideburns.” You probably will not hear about El Negro who was President of Mexico before the United States had Barack Obama. Nevertheless, Vicente Guerrero existed, and he very likely set into motion a series of events that echo to today.
René F. Najera, MPH, DrPH, is a doctor of public health, an epidemiologist, amateur photographer, running/cycling/swimming enthusiast, father, and “all-around great guy.” You can find him working as an epidemiologist a local health department in Virginia, grabbing tacos at your local taquería, or on the campus of the best school of public health in the world where he is an associate in the Epidemiology department. All the opinions in this blog post are those of Dr. Najera and do not necessarily represent those of his employers, friends, family, or acquaintances.