Gasper Nyanga, a native of Gabon, West Africa, was brought to Veracruz, Mexico, as one of the over 200,000 enslaved Africans shipped to the country’s gulf and pacific coasts to work the sugar cane fields and mines controlled by the Spanish crown during the mid 16th and late 17th century.
As with other instances of slavery throughout the new world, no sooner did the initial ships disembark in 1537 that the first uprisings began. Throughout Mexico, Africans and Indigenous alike escaped the mines and haciendas to create “maroon” societies in the mountains.
After one of Mexico’s most brutal rebellions, it was to the mountains of Veracruz that Gaspar Nyanga led 500 other self-liberated peoples. For more than thirty years this community lived off goods secured through raids on caravans in route to Mexico City. As the community grew and the raids became more frequent, Nyanga became an increasingly hunted man: So fierce was this hunt that over 500 armed men ware sent to destroy his colony.
Nyanga and hundreds of men living in the highlands of Veracruz battled against the troops sent to capture them by order of the Spanish Crown. With hopes of causing enough destruction to force the Spaniards into negotiations that would help protect his people, Nyanga sent a message via a prisoner captured by his men. This message asked that a free homeland be granted upon fertile soil for his community of self liberated Africans and African descendants to settle.
At the end of a battle that suffered many casualties on each side, Nyanga and those under his care arranged a move to the lowlands of Veracruz. All African descendants and their offspring who had liberated themselves prior to 1608 were granted legal freedom to settle in this town, San Lorenzo de los Negros. In exchange, Nyanga assumed the position of mayor and agreed to pay taxes to the Crown as well as turn away any enslaved peoples seeking refuge within the city. Thus, Nyanga and his townsmen became the settlers of the first free town for Africans in the western hemisphere, later renamed Yanga, for its forefather.
Based on existing historical research and personal field research, the proceeding text from “El Negro Mas Chulo: African by legacy, Mexican by birth,” recounts this story through fictionalized letters written in the voice of Gaspar Nyanga, addressed to a contemporary African American woman living in North America. The images that accompany were photographed in the town of Yanga, as well as in parts of Guerrero, and Oaxaca on the Pacific Coast of Mexico.
Yanga's First Letter, in which he proclaims his self-liberation
by Marco VIllalobos
by Marco VIllalobos
Yo soy el mero negro Yanga y te escribo del primer pueblo libre de todo las americas.
Yes, I in fact am Yanga, that same African stolen from my homeland some years ago and now escaped from captivity in Veracruz, Mexico, where those of us who so desire have once more secured our undeniable right to self-government.
On behalf of the men and women who have struggled alongside me here, I deliver to you our successes, hoping to pass unto you the spirit of our free town, indeed the first recognized free town for African peoples in the Americas, established with much hardship and endurance in the year 1609 in this place now called San Lorenzo de los Negros that occupies the hilltop territory outside Cordoba, amidst the haciendas of 9 wealthy men who now understand the seriousness with which we African descendants consider our liberty.
It will be some time before history begins to recognize our achievements in this land where the indigenous struggle will occupy the romanticism and politics of artists, scholars, and guerillas for centuries to come. Few are aware of us Afro Mestizos-- African by legacy, Mexican by birth and culture-- yet these enlightened few signal an interest both profound and intense in its nature, leading me to believe that one day our story as New Americans will prove invaluable in understanding how it is that Africa takes shape in the Americas as well as understanding exactly what it is that these Americas can be.
Our narrative here, while it is in some respect similar to those Brazilian, Haitian, and larger Caribbean and American narratives of liberty, is altogether different. Our interaction with the native and colonizing European populations appears to me distinct from their interactions with Africans elsewhere in this hemisphere-- perhaps this is why our presence is slow in gaining attention. So it is with this thought that I reach out to you now, wondering exactly what of our legacy has made its way to your attention, if any, and to what degree you have attained liberty under northern rule.
If it interests you, I can send you a more detailed account of our own path to greater self-rule here in Mexico. It is with this thought in mind that I wish unto you the best of light while awaiting your word here in the spirit of true freedom.
Ever your brother by birth,
San Lorenzo de los Negros