The Son Jarocho as Afro-Mexican resistance music.

Author:Diaz-Sanchez, Micaela
Position:Essay
 
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As Chicana and Chicano scholars looking into Black Mexico and its cultural production, we unravel the Black musical-cultural legacy and make it explicit in our conversation of the son jarocho, an Afro-Diasporic music from the sotavento region of Mexico. Our positionality places us in an emic-etic dichotomy as practitioners and intellectuals of the son jarocho. However, we share the etic perspective as outsiders from the region of origin in Mexico. As practitioners of the son jarocho in the U.S., we are connected as cultivators of the music and particpants of bi-national dialogue between Chicanas and Chicanos and practitioners of the son jarocho in Mexico.

Responding to the mandate of this special edition on Black Mexico for The Journal of Pan African Studies, our goal is to make an intervention, thinking about embodied tradition as a contemporary articulation of Afro-Mexican history. Prominent research on African-descended communities in Mexico privilege archival research/historical/historiographical approaches. Our point of entry is the son jarocho, an Afro-Mexican musical tradition from the sotavento region encompassing the southern portion of Veracruz into Oaxaca and Tabasco. We will begin this conversation with a trajectory of the African presence in Mexico.

A Brief History of the Enslavement of Africans in Mexico

During the early colonial period (1521-1640), Africans and African-descended people outnumbered whites in New Spain (Mexico). The rapid decimation of Indigenous populations due to epidemics and inhumane labor practices had created a need for an alternative labor source. From 1580- 1630 the Mexican demand for enslaved African labor was at its height and the Caribbean coastal state of Veracruz became one of the largest ports of entry for enslaved Africans in the Americas. (1) Colin Palmer writes that almost half of the enslaved sent to the New World between 1595 and 1622 went to Mexico, citing the peak years as 1606, 1608-1610, and 1616-1621. (2) The burgeoning mining industry along with a growing campaign for the humane treatment of Indigenous populations spearheaded by Spanish Friar, Bartolome de Las Casas, coincided with the peak of African enslavement in Mexico. In correspondence between the Spanish crown and colonial officials in New Spain, Viceroy Manrique de Zuniga expressed the preference for African people over Indian labor,

[They] experience notable pressures and problems [because they] are used in the boiling house and at difficult and intolerable tasks that are more suited to negro slaves accustomed to performing such difficult jobs and [who are] not weak and frail Indians with little strength and stamina. (3) Enslaved Africans suffered under the most strenuous labor conditions on plantations, sugar mills, and mines. Palmer writes, "The belief that, as workers, Africans were superior to Indians was shared by the Spaniards in New Spain and in the other colonies. The often expressed belief was that one African was the equivalent to as many as four Indians where productivity was concerned." (4) Despite a concentration of the enslaved in the mining regions of the northern states, Zacatecas and Guanajuato (as well as Michoacan, Tlaxcala, Jalisco) a large concentration remained in the port city of Veracruz and surrounding rural areas. (5)

Communities who escaped enslavement, or cimarrones in Veracruz lived in fortified settlements called palenques, mocambos, or quilombos. (6) The most important commercial route from the port of Veracruz to the colonial capital of Mexico City was in the valley of Cordoba, the site of expansive sugar plantations. The most historically significant cimarron settlement was founded in 1580 by Yanga, who escaped enslavement and was a royal figure from the nation of Bram in Africa.

Yanga, who had been living in the mountains for more than 30 years, "the king of the cimarrones," corresponded with colonial officials on behalf of the marooned communities. Palmer writes, "In his letter to Pedro Gonzalez de Herrera, Yanga made an impassioned defense of his kingdom, saying that his people had retired to an area to escape from the 'cruelty and treachery of the Spaniards who, without any right, had become owners of their freedom.'" (7) Yanga also led the cimarrones in a series of systematic attacks on travelers transporting goods along this route in the valley of Cordoba. The frequency and violent intensity of these attacks rapidly garnered attention from colonial leaders and ultimately had a crippling economic effect. In 1609 the Spanish crown sent a special army of Spaniards and Indigenous archers to "pacify" the area and to crush the actions of the fugitive enslaved. Cimarron victors demanded that the Spanish crown establish a free town inhabited exclusively by the Black runaway enslaved who had escaped prior to September of 1608. In 1618 San Lorenzo de los Negros, the first free black town in the Americas, was established near the city of Cordoba. (8) In 1932 the name of the town was changed to Yanga in honor of the legendary leader of cimarrones. (9)

The increasing racial mixture of colonial society in New Spain required a detailed classification of new hybrid and racialized subjects. The casta paintings of this period provided visual taxonomies of ancestral and physical characteristics maintaining a hierarchy of racial types in the Americas. While the discursive history of casta paintings is an extensive one, I briefly discuss them as a prominent system of archival representations of race in colonial Mexico. Bobby Vaughn writes,

The goal of these casta classifications that pervaded nearly all of Spanish America at least into the nineteenth century--was to create a racially hierarchical society and, to this end, the complex nomenclature differentiated people by race and ancestry. (10) This system of racial classification was enforced by legal codes that inscribed restrictions and rights of these colonial subjects. The three main racial "stocks" were Espanol, Indio, and Negro and the paintings represented the variations of racial miscegenation. For example:

  1. De espanol y de India nace mestizo.

  2. De espanol y mestiza nace castizo.

  3. De espanol y castiza nace espanol.

  4. De espanol y negra nace mulato.

  5. De espanol y mulata nace morisco.

  6. De espanol y morisca nace albino.

  7. De espanol y albina nace torna atras.

  8. De espanol y torna atras nace tente en el aire. (11)

  9. From Spaniard and Indian woman bear a mestizo.

  10. From Spaniard and mestiza bear a castizo.

  11. From Spaniard and castiza bear a Spaniard.

  12. From Spaniard and Black woman bear a mulatto.

  13. From Spaniard and mulatta bear a morisco.

  14. From Spaniard and morisca bear an albino.

  15. From Spaniard and albino woman bear a torna atras (literally, a "throw-back").

  16. From Spaniard and torna atras bear a tente en el aire. ("up in the air" or "you never know what you're going to get"). (12)

The lists continue for several pages detailing this complicated taxonomy of race. In some classifications two parents who are mixtures of "Negro" and "India" produce offspring named after an animal. For example, "De mestizo e India nace coyote." (13) (From mestizo and Indian woman bear a coyote).

The casta paintings represented these hybridized bodies in specific colonial milieus with particular attention to internal domestic spaces versus external locations. The clothing of the subjects was intricately crafted according to the racial hierarchy, as was their physical positioning within the framed image. Mexican anthropologist Sagrario Cruz-Carretero, who was instrumental in developing "The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present" exhibition writes,

Paintings with blacks, mulattos and other mixes with blacks show violent scenes: blows are being dealt with kitchen utensils, hair is being pulled, or subjects are strewn across the floor in the drunken state to highlight the volatility and danger of the members of these groups. (14) This elaborate system of representation functioned as critical to the Spanish crown informing governmental officials in Europe of the rapidly changing demography of New Spain.

In Magali Marie Carrera's Imagining Identity in New Spain, she traces the genealogy of the casta paintings through the story of a Spanish woman whose baptismal records were incorrectly documented in the libro de las castas (mixed-blood caste book) versus the libro de los espanoles (book of the Spaniards). Carrera writes, "The visual strategy of surveillance is not just about looking; rather it constructs the very object of its observation: hybrid bodies, that is, people of mixed blood." (15) These archives operated as central not only to the surveillance of these hybrid subjects of New Spain but also contributed to the archival representation of racialized bodies.

Focusing on the city of Xalapa, Patrick Carroll argues that these communities were more frequently recorded in colonial records than free laborers,

White racism and consequent attempts to discriminate against and subordinate the enslaved and free persons of African descent also heightened the likelihood of their appearance in written records, including laws as well as notarial, parish, criminal, and census records. (16) These vigilantly documented records of Afro-Mexican subjects shifted after the victorious struggles for independence from Spain and the abolition of slavery.

In 1810 Father Miguel Hidalgo delivered his famous decree for Mexican independence from Spain as well an end to slavery. Leadership of the independence movement was passed to insurgent priest, Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon, who was of African ancestry, echoed Hidalgo's abolition of slavery. In 1821, Mexico gained its independence and, in 1829, President Vicente Guerrero, also of African descent, declared an end to slavery.

While independence established the legal termination of the Spanish casta systems, the legacies of this colonial racial hierarchy pervaded many aspects of Mexican...

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