A Black History Month Series
Welcome to part two of our blog series “Unsung Heroes,” lifting up Black leaders around the world for Black History Month. Because of my extensive travel experience and the ways those travels influenced my life, worldview, and career, I find it important to not only lift up Black American voices during this month, but Black voices from around the world. This is consistent with my perspective that we are celebrating Black History Month and not just African American history month. Stick with us this month to learn about some relatively unknown, uncelebrated Black heroes.
Fighting for Liberation in Latin America
A lesser-known segment of Black history that we’re excited to lift up is the African presence throughout Latin America. Black individuals in North, Central, and South America contributed to liberation, independence movements, culture, and civilization overall, and their contributions are significant to our understanding of Black History.
According to scarce documentation along with local lore, Gaspar Yanga was part of the royal family of Gabon; he was tragically captured and sold into enslavement in Mexico as a young man. Known as Yanga, he escaped slavery and eventually led a group of enslaved Africans to form their own independent maroon colony. Yanga’s maroon settlement resisted colonial Spain from about 1570 to 1609 — over 200 years before Mexico won independence from Spain.
More than just fugitives, Africans in the Americas would escape plantations and settlements and establish community with other Africans seeking liberation. Yanga’s maroon colony provided refuge for Africans escaping slavery and even fought against Spanish armies several times. After negotiations with the viceroy of New Spain, Yanga struck an agreement where the viceroy recognized Spain’s respect for the region as an autonomous region for the African community. What once was the official town called San Loranzo de Negros, in 1932 bore the name of its liberator, Gaspar Yanga.
“El Primer Libertador de las Americas”
When Yanga’s story was written down by a historian and novelist in the 1870s, Yanga was named as a national hero and “the first freedom fighter of the Americas.” The revolts and freedom movements he led inspired future fights for Mexican independence from Spanish rule, which was won in 1810 (check out our blog post on Mexican Independence celebrations). The maroon colony of Yanga is recognized to be among the first free African settlements in the Americans after the start of the European slave trade. Many even call Yanga the first free village in Mexico.
Yanga’s leadership in the struggle for liberation from enslavement served as an inspiration not only to other enslaved Africans, but led to the ultimate liberation of the native peoples of Mexico from the colonial rule of Spain. Yet, as we see too often today, communities of color such as Blacks and Native Americans were pitted against one another historically by the enslavers and colonizers who oppressed both groups. Today our lack of knowledge of these connections serves to continue to keep us divided. Yanga’s story helps us bridge the gaps in our knowledge between Native people’s liberation struggles, enslaved Africans’ revolts, and how those courageous freedom fighters contributed to the countries and communities we know of today.
The word “Yanga” has origins in areas of West and Central Africa. In Yoruba regions in Nigeria “Yanga” means pride. Celebrating Yanga as the Mexican national hero he is should be more of a source of national pride for Mexico. It is a critical part of the complex and evolving picture of Black history that we celebrate during this month and always.