In 1829, Mexico's president, Vicente Guerrero, son of an African slave mother, inadvertently spawned a Mexican underground railroad for African-Americans by signing a decree banning slavery in the Mexican Republic.
“Sometimes someone would come along and try to get us to run up north and be free. We used to laugh at that. There was no reason to run up north. All we had to do was walk south, and we’d be free as soon as we crossed the Rio Grande.”
Felix Haywood, a Texas slave, as quoted in
“The Slave Narratives of Texas”
Beginning in 1822, more than 20,000 slave owners settled into Texas. Even though Mexican Federal Law clearly reasserted the nation’s commitment to defend the right of enslaved Africans to liberate themselves, slave owners in Texas pressed for an extradition treaty which would require Mexico to return runaway slaves. After Texas gained independence from Mexico, the slave population in Texas as well as the number of runaways across the border into Mexico mushroomed.
Mexicans living in Texas took great risks and invested enormous resources toward facilitating the escape of enslaved Africans. The Texas-to-Mexico routes to freedom constituted major unacknowledged extensions of the Underground Railroad. The Tejanos (Texas Mexicans) were accused of tampering with slave property, consorting with blacks, and stirring up a spirit of insubordination among the slave population. Mexican Americans stood their ground refusing to return runaways and continued to support slave uprisings.
In 1857, the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Dred Scott, an enslaved African who had sued for his freedom on the grounds that his owner forfeited any claim to him after taking him into a free state, the Mexican Congress declared that enslaved people were free the moment they set foot on Mexican soil.
During the 1890s, hundreds of Black migrants fed up with slave-like conditions and segregation, left Alabama for Mexico and established 10 large colonies. Shortly thereafter, during the period of the Mexican Revolution, large numbers of black people migrated from New Orleans to Tampico, Mexico, as the oil industry prospered. These Africans in Mexico established branches of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).
Sadly today, we hear of conflicts and polarization between African Americans and Mexican Americans in communities around the country. Gone are the days when César Chávez established relationships with Coretta Scott King and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; gone are the days when the Black Panthers were allies with their Mexican-American counterparts—the Brown Berets, and gone are the days when blacks in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) allied with Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), a Mexican-American student organization on college campuses. I cite ignorance in both communities.