Thanks to Marilyn Tausend for this guest post on the fascinating, little-known history of Africa’s influence on Mexican cuisine. Tausend is the author of the new UC Press book La Cocina Mexicana: Many Cultures, One Cuisine, Cocina de la Familia: More than 200 Authentic Recipes from Mexican-American Home Kitchens (winner of the IACP Julia Child Award for the Best American Cookbook of 1998), and three other books on Mexican cooking. Visit her website, culinaryadventuresinc.com. Scroll down for a gallery of photos of one family profiled in the new book.
African Influence on Mexican Cuisine
by Marilyn Tausend
I have been traveling throughout Mexico exploring the incredibly multi-cultured cuisine of its people for the last three decades. It was, though, only since researching the history of the African presence in Mexico for my newest cookbook, La Cocina Mexicana: Many Cultures, One Cuisine, did I realize that during the many years I’ve been coming to the tree-shrouded small village of La Antigua in Veracruz, that I had often stood right in front of Mexico’s first slave market, now the site of the local school. During the seventy-five years or so after Cortés moved his small contingent of Spanish troops and other followers south in 1525 from Quiahuiztlan to this safer harbor, thousands of Africans were put on the block to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. I since have visited many places in Veracruz where these slaves were relocated, some still retaining African names such as the nearby popular resort of Mocambo which means “sorrow” in the Congo dialect.
Some African slaves also accompanied their Spanish owners during the exploration of New Spain with apparently the first African to set foot in these new lands being on Columbus’s second expedition. Twenty years later, the first black slaves in Mexico arrived with Hernan Cortés from the West Indies.
Owning slaves was a part of the Spanish way of life during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, especially after Portugal began major slave trading between Africa and Europe. These black slaves were baptized as Christians with many becoming household servants and learning Spanish, and if they came to Mexico with their Spanish owners, fought alongside them as well as carried their supplies.
But after the conquest, disaster came with the introduction of small pox and other Old World diseases to Veracruz killing thousands, especially the native population and this decimation spread throughout the country.
This catastrophic reduction of the essential source of manual labor threatened the growing commercial interests of the Spanish, so it was only logical for them to turn to an already familiar source of supply—Africa. Although the exact number is not substantiated, the result was the transporting of black slaves brought directly from Africa without being Christianized.
Few Mexicans today seem aware of this African history of their country, as by the nineteenth century these former slaves had been basically absorbed into the fabric of this country’s population. One of the best known, Vincente Guerrero of mixed African descent, became the second president of the Mexican Republic, even having a state named after him.
However, on the Costa Chica in southern Guerrero, and adjacent Oaxaca, this African presence became very apparent to me especially when I visited the isolated coastal village of El Ciruelo and spent some time with Antonieta Avila Salina and her family. This self-sufficient black family raises their own corn, vegetables and herbs, and they fish in the nearby lagoon for their daily food and to sell at the nearby market.
Although the seafood dishes that I shared with them had few of the ingredients brought from Africa to Mexico, the rice, plantains, and coffee Antonienta uses daily, the tamarind and jamaica for aguas frescas, the sesame seeds used in her festive pipianes, as well as watermelons and yams that are family favorites, all came originally from the land of her ancestors. And just as important is the early forced labor—backs of the men and hands of the women—played in supplying the foods needed by the expanding population of this newly conquered country.
Below is a set of photos of Antonienta Availa Salnias and her family, who live in El Ciruelo in Costa Chica, Oaxaca (page 13). Click to enlarge. All photos courtesy of Ignacio Urquiza, www.estudiourquiza.com