Photo: Image of Statue of Gaspar Yanga (aka El Yanga and Negro Yanga) of Yanga, Veracruz, Mexico
The heritage of Africans in Mexico after Christopher Columbus is a rarely explored topic in the history books of the Americas. Gaspar Yanga is one of the neglected figures within African history in the Americas. He was the founder of the town Yanga, located in the Veracruz region of Mexico, between the Port of Veracruz and Córdoba. It is among the first free African settlements in the Americas after the start of the European slave trade.
While the available official reports regarding the history of Gaspar Yanga is sorely lacking, local lore reports that Yanga escaped slavery from the region of the Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion plantation in 1570. Regional lore also provides that Yanga was a prince stolen from a royal family of Gabon, Africa. The word "Yanga" has origins in many regions of West and Central Africa, including the Yoruba regions in Nigeria where the word means "pride".
Between 1570 and 1609, Yanga led his followers into the mountains located in the vicinity of Pico de Orizaba (Citlaltépetl, or "star mountain", the highest mountain in Mexico), the Cofre de Perote, Zongolica and Olmec regions. The Olmec controlled this region during its empire over the region (1200 BC to 400 BC), which included the jurisdiction of the current nation of Mexico.
By 1600, it is reported that the Yanga maroon settlement, or palenques, was joined by Francisco de la Matosa and his group of African maroons. All of this occurred before the independence of Mexico from the Spanish crown.
Map of Yanga, Veracruz region along the eastern coast of Mexico
Yanga's early palenques would turn into decades-long resistance against colonial Spain. In 1609, Spain's viceroy of New Spain (the colonial name of Mexico) was Luis de Velasco, Marquis of Salinas. That year, Velasco sent Captain Pedro González on a military expedition against the Yanga palenques. The battle came to a head at the Rio Blanco and resulted in major losses on both sides.
By 1631, viceroy of New Spain Rodrigo Pacheco began negotiations with the Gaspar Yanga resistance. Yanga struck an agreement with the colonial leader respecting Spain's recognition of an autonomous region for the African community. The first official name was San Lorenzo de los Negros (aka San Lorenzo de Cerralvo), near Córdova. Since 1932, the Mexican town has bore the name of its liberator Gaspar Yanga.
''Yanga is important to the people of Mexico and America," said Gordillo Jaime Trujullo, who along with his wife Maria Dolores Flores promotes the town's history. "It is a great deal and has not been taken into account. This town is the birthplace of freedom. The most important legacy of black Yanga is freedom. Freedom is what we appreciate most in this community."
Like his birth, no definitive records are available regarding Yanga's date of death. There is said to be a great deal of information in the national archives of Mexico and the archives of Spain, according to historian and anthropologist Antonio García de León. The first information about Yanga arose in the second half of the nineteenth century by the historian and military-man Vicente Riva Palacio, grandson of Mexico's first black president, Vicente Guerrero.
Today, the town reportedly hosts the "Carnival of Negritude" every August 10th in honor of Gaspar Yanga. The town reports approximately 20,000 citizens that is now primarily considered mestizo, Spanish for "mixed heritage".
The inscription under Gaspar Yanga's statue reads: "Negro Africano precusor de la libertao de los negros esclavos fundo este pueblo de san lorenzo de cerralvo (hoy yanga) por acordado del virrey de nueva espana Don Rodrigo Osorio Marzuez de cerralvo el dia tres de octubre del ano de 1631 por mandato del virrey trazo el pueblo el Capitan Hernando de Castro Espinosa H. Ayuntamento Constl. 1973-1976". English translation: African Black liberator and precursor of the black slaves who founded the town of San Lorenzo de Cerralvo (now Yanga) by agreement of the viceroy of New Spain, Rodrigo Pacheco, on the third day of October 1631 by order of the viceroy's pen.Village Captain Hernando of Castro Espinosa H. Ayuntamento Constl. 1973-1976."
Video footage of an African American exploratory group's trip to Yanga, Veracruz, Mexico
Reference: Blacks in Colonial Veracruz: Race, Ethnicity, and Regional Development, by Patrick J. Carroll (2001)