México negro/Black Mexico
The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Chicago is currently presenting a show called The African Presence in Mexico.This exhibit is the most comprehensive project ever organized about African contributions to Mexican culture. The three groundbreaking exhibitions that make up this project attempt to stimulate a better understanding of Mexican culture among Mexicans and non-Mexicans alike. The Museum hopes that this project will help Mexicans and African-Americans to look at our groups’ identities in light of the history they have shared both in the United States and in Mexico. The project also features numerous public and educational programs.
African-Americans and Mexicans are two of the largest cultural groups in the city of Chicago and the two largest communities of color in the country. Both groups have influenced each other’s efforts to resist oppression and the suppression of their cultures and they have a shared history that must be heard.
The Underground Railroad (1829-1865), the secret network of people helping enslaved African-Americans escape to their freedom, went North to the northern U.S. and Canada. To the South, the Underground Railroad reached beyond the U.S border. It crossed the boundaries deep into its neighbor country, where slavery had been abolished in 1829 -- 36 years before the U.S. The southernmost point known of the Underground Railroad is the recently discovered “Freedom Station” located in Mazamitla, Jalisco, in Mexico.
During the time of slavery in the U.S. (1776-1865), another way enslaved African-Americans reached freedom in Mexico was by collaborating with the Seminoles. During the Seminole Wars, the U.S. government drove the Seminoles from their lands in Florida and the Indian Territory. The Seminoles were seeking a new place to make their home just as African-Americans were seeking a place to be free from slavery. Both groups united and, in 1850, nearly 300 Blacks and Seminoles fled to Mexico together. The leader of the Seminoles said: “When we came fleeing slavery, Mexico was a land of freedom, and the Mexicans spread out their arms to us.” The Mexican government granted the Black Seminoles land in Northern Mexico.
Free people of color and Creole African-Americans fled Louisiana in small groups, in the 19th and 20th Centuries, and formed communities on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. In the 1850s, the government of Louisiana restricted the rights of free people of color. This inspired black people to move to Mexico, where their rights were not dictated by race. During Reconstruction, from 1865 to 1877, after the Civil War in the U.S., some free people of color returned to Louisiana from Mexico. In the 1880s, when the Jim Crow laws institutionalized segregation, the Creole descendants of this generation fled to Mexico again in search of racial equality. This second group reconnected with their relatives on the Gulf Coast.
By the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920, the African-American community in the U.S. was coming together for the Harlem Renaissance, a movement that rebelled against racism and segregation. The artists who participated in this movement were creating a body of work done entirely by and for African-Americans. They wanted to change the identity of Black people in the U.S. from being one that was defined by slavery to one that was positive and defined by African cultures. This was happening in the U.S. just as Mexicans were reconstructing a country that had been torn apart by a decade of war. In Mexico, artists were rebuilding the national identity of Mexicans as well. The similar movements in the U.S. and Mexico perfectly positioned African-Americans and Mexicans for a profound exchange of ideas, techniques, and even people. Through this exchange, African-Americans learned how to use visual art as a form of resistance to assimilation and oppression and as a way of energizing others to resist those forces as well.
The exhibit runs through September 3, 2006.
The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum is located at:
1852 W 19th Street, Chicago IL 60608
Hours: Tuesday - Sunday 10 am - 5 pm
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