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  • Natalie Taylor

HISTORY OF SAN MIGUEL: The beginnings of African heritage

In my last two posts I wrote about the ancient Mulatto chapel in San Miguel, and how it eventually was taken over by the Oratory church. The obvious conclusion is that there was a Black population in San Miguel. This was indeed true, and today I would like to delve into the roots of this presence.

Few people are aware that there was a fairly large community of African descendants in San Miguel during the early years of its founding, in the 16th century. What is even more intriguing is the fact that people of color had been present from the beginning of the Spanish colonization, with several Blacks arriving with Hernan Cortes when he first landed in New Spain—today’s Mexico—in 1519.

The African roots in New Spain, and the eventual settlement of Blacks in San Miguel, is a mostly untold story that deserves the telling. Let us begin with the first Blacks who ever set foot on American soil in this part of the world, and their eventual large influx over the next century.

Hernan Cortes was born in Spain in 1485—seven years before Christopher Columbus came to America. He was part of a noble family, studied letters in Salamanca, and at the age of 20 decided to set on a life of adventure and exploration by joining a fleet on its way to the New World. His first foray was in the island of Hispaniola, today part of the Antilles, where he was contracted to defeat natives, and set up colonies for the Spanish crown. He remained there for 18 years, participating in the conquest of Cuba, and then in 1518 was put in charge of an expedition to explore the Yucatan.

The map above shows the route Cortes took to reach the Aztec empire at Tenochtitlan. Following the numbers from 1 through 9, we have Cuba, Cozumel, Chiapas, Veracruz, Jalapa, Tlaxcala, Cholula, Paso de Cortes mountain pass, and finally the last stop: Tenochtitlan (today’s Mexico City)

The expedition of Cortes into Mexican territories along the Atlantic coast, had with it a significant number of Africans on board. Many were slaves, but those known as Ladinos had accepted Christianity and spoke Spanish. These “black conquistadores” were part of the exploration and conquest of the American continent, and many were freemen when they arrived, or were emancipated and given lands and riches in the New World.

The ruins at Yucatan

When he landed on the Yucatan peninsula, in Mayan territory, Cortes found old temples and pyramids, but not the great Mayan civilization that existed up to almost a 1000 prior to his arrival. He then continued his incursion through jungles, and mountains, until reaching Tenochtitlan, some 750 miles west.

If the Mayan pyramids had impressed the Spanish, the vision of Tenochtitlan left them dazzled. Before them stood a magnificent, thriving city with tall buildings, clean waters and advanced agriculture. When Cortes arrived to Tenochtitlan, he had a number of Blacks with him—some slaves, some freemen, and foremost among them was Juan Garrido.

Garrido and Cortez: Image from 16th century codex

Juan Garrido was born around 1480 in Africa. Most likely he was the son of a king who traded with the Portuguese, and went to Lisbon when he was 15 to become a Christian, and get a European education. His first entry into the New World was in 1503 on an expedition to Hispaniola. He eventually joined Cortes in his conquest of Tenochtitlan.

When the conquistadors arrived in Tenochtitlan, they could hardly believe their eyes. A city of almost half a million people stood before them. Tall temples, and pyramids reached toward the sky, cobbled streets, canals and lagoons spread beneath, and intricate, colorful decorations were everywhere they looked.

The Mexica (pronounced Me-shika), the people of the Aztec empire, were just as amazed at the newcomers. What was perhaps most impressive—aside from the strange garments and arms—were the never-before-seen, four-legged animals on which many of these foreigners were mounted. There were no horses in America, and for the natives, men and beast must have seemed as one. These beings could be nothing other than gods. Most of these newly arrived gods had light skin, but some, like Juan Garrido had a dark complexion, similar to some of the Mexica’s own gods of color.

Tezcatlipoca: Image from 16th century codex

Their most feared god was Tezcatlipoca, particularly in his black manifestation; seen as the great creator, god of sustenance, patron of warriors, who could bring both good and evil. Juan Garrido must have looked like his personification.

The conquistadors’ initial awe and admiration of the Aztec city and culture, quickly turned to greed. Within a short time Cortes killed the emperor Moctezuma, and began the subjugation of the Mexica. Juan Garrido was an important part of this campaign. During one particularly bloody battle, the Spanish sustained heavy losses, commemorating the event as “Noche Triste,” night of sorrow. Juan Garrido built a chapel, “The Martyrs,” on the site where those Spanish warriors perished, and where many of them were buried.

Garrido participated in the exploration of Michoacán and received recognition for his services from the king of Spain. He was appointed portero (gatekeeper) of the city, a pegonero (guardian of the aqueduct), and possibly a post equivalent to city manager. Garrido acquired farming land on the outskirts of Tenochtitlan where he planted the first three seeds of wheat, grown in New Spain—and most likely, the first wheat ever in America. He remained in the area growing wheat, and producing flour, married and started a family.

Some years later, he headed a gold mining expedition, complete with a slave gang; then in 1533 he joined Cortes once again in charge of a squad of enslaved Africans, and Indians headed to Baja California for mining. After returning from this expedition, Garrido lived quietly in his Mexico City home for eleven more years, and died in 1547 at 67 years of age—shortly after his great friend Hernan Cortes had passed away. Garrido left a wife and three children.

Juan Garrido’s story is unique because it was documented by Richardo Alegria, an ethnologist, and contains many details. But there were many other “black conquistadors” who explored, fought for the Spanish crown, and were compensated with a share of the looted wealth taken from the Mexica. Most sought freedom from slavery as the first reward, and afterwards received land, money, and political appointments and pensions.

These favored African descendants, however, were a minuscule number of the enslaved people of color who made up the majority of Blacks brought to New Spain. In the next article I will continue their story, and their appearance in San Miguel.

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