In 2021 when Yanga, Mexico’s first liberated city, celebrated its founding, the city’s founding documents highlighted how the city was formed. Historians say that about two centuries before Mexico gained its independence, Yanga, located in the state of Veracruz, defeated the Spanish crown in battle, leading to its freedom and also becoming the “first self-liberated and independent town in the Americas.”
The town/city located in east-central Mexico was first called San Lorenzo de los Negros, then San Lorenzo de Cerralvo, before eventually Yanga, in honor of Gaspar Yanga, an enslaved African who led the uprising that paved the way for the city to be founded. Gaspar Yanga, otherwise known as Yanga or Nyanga, was born in Gabon on May 15, 1545. He was said to be of the Bran tribe and was a direct descendant of the Royal family of Gabon. He acquired his first name, Gaspar, when he was captured and sold into slavery.
In the mid-1500s, Gaspar Yanga became a slave and was transported to New Spain, modern-day Veracruz, Mexico. He was assigned to work on the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción sugarcane plantation, some 93 miles from Veracruz, a major port city that the Spanish soon turned into an important harbor for slavery in Mexico.
Around 1570, Gaspar Yanga along with a group of slaves revolted against their Spanish captors and settled on the hilltops near Veracruz, Mexico. The Maroons, as they were named, built a contained colony where they and other runaway slaves lived. They lived unbothered for 30 years. Besides raising livestock and harvesting their own foods such as beans, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, and corn, the Maroons sustained themselves by robbing passing caravans and selling the loot they gained.
In 1609, Spanish soldier Pedro González de Herrera along with 550 members of his unit led a battle against Gaspar Yanga’s people who were also known as the Yanguícos. They were seen as a threat to the colonial order. Gaspar Yanga attempted to negotiate with the Spaniards by using a captured Spanish soldier as barter and presenting an offer of cohabitating in a peaceful state with the Spanish.
The Spaniards refused and a battle ensued which caused numerous casualties for the Yanguícos and Spanish soldiers. The Spanish burned the Yanguícos’ living quarters but they prevailed and retreated. The outlying terrain was unfamiliar terrain to the Spaniards. Some years later, around 1618, the Spanish agreed to a truce that enabled the Yanguícos to establish their own government.
JSTOR Daily writes: “In an 11-point agreement, Yanga, as leader of the rebellion, negotiated a peace settlement with the Catholic priest, Alonso de Benavides, and Captain Manuel Carrillo, which granted the Yanguícos freedom as long as they did not allow other fugitives from slavery to join their ranks. Although the Spanish Crown tried to back out of this peace treaty several times, it remained in effect until Mexico gained independence in 1821.”
The city of Yanga has since 1976 held the “Festival of Negritude,” and “Primer Pueblo Libre de las Américas” — Festival of the First Free Pueblo in America — to remember Yanga’s founding. Recently, Yanga and the Fort of San Juan de Ulúa in the state of Veracruz were proclaimed Sites of Memory of Slavery and of African and Afro-descendant Populations, by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and the Organization of the United Nations for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO), through the International Project The Slave Route.
A statue of Gaspar Yanga, showing a muscular man with a machete (meaning he has broken the chains of slavery) is in the UNESCO Slave Route project-designated city. Gaspar Yanga, also referred to as the “first liberator of the Americas”, is today seen as a hero, particularly by Afro-Mexicans who continue to fight for greater recognition.
Black Mexicans were only recognized for the first time in 2015 when the Mexican government conducted its national survey. Before that, Mexico and Chile were the only Latin American countries that did not officially count the people of African descent in their surveys.
Afro-Mexicans are the descendants of enslaved African people brought into the country in the 16th and 17th centuries. The indigenous communities in Mexico reduced dramatically at this time because of disease. The shortage of labor saw slaves from Africa brought in: estimates indicate 200,000 slaves arrived in the country. They were forced to work in plantations in the South and underground mines in the North.
Mexico had a larger African slave population in the early 1600s than any other country in the Americas. Most of them tried to escape the horrendous experience and ended up in the mountainous region of Mexico where they hid in caves and jungles. One such community was what Gaspar Yanga established.