By CLARENCE GLOVER JR.
Sankofa Education Services
On April 20, I walked into the African American Museum to meet with Dr. Harry Robinson and request the use of the museum auditorium to give a lecture on May 5, Cinco de Mayo. While it may seem strange to some that I, an African American, would give a lecture on Cinco de Mayo, my work has been the culmination of years of research on the origin of the holiday and its relationship to people of African descent in what was earlier New Spain, later Mexico and its relationship to Juneteenth.
Robinson referred me to Robert Edison, the museum’s director of education. As I waited to speak with him in the rotunda of the museum, I look over my head and there to my surprise were the words “YANGA” with a figure of an African man in broken chains.
I could barely contain myself as I rushed up the winding stairs to see what my eyes had beheld. I entered the gallery, there before my eyes the story I had been researching for so many years. There in the African American Museum was an exhibition presenting the journey of African people from slavery to freedom.
While the story of Africans journey from slavery to freedom is not new, what is new is the journey through what is today Mexico. During my early studies of Cinco de Mayo, I became aware that it was a one-day victory of the Mexican army and indigenous “rag tagged” farmers over the well-armed Napoleon III French army. A defeat that would soon be overshadowed by the later French army victory.
But why was this victory so important? Why did people celebrate it? And why is it celebrated so widely in America among Latin citizens?
As I sought to understand the history of Cinco de Mayo, I came across the name Yanga. As an African American historian, I never heard the name. The name never appeared in any history books I had studied on African American freedom. It would be through use of social media that I would find a lost story of the first liberated and independent town in the Americas, led by Yanga, an African Maroon.
Origin of Yanga
Yanga was captured by the Spanish in the 1500’s and brought to the sugar cane plantations of New Spain. But Yanga was not just any captured African, he was a West African Gabon Prince, skilled in diplomacy.
The images I found of Yanga were those of a strong African man. Except for Toussaint Louverture of Haiti, I had never seen such an African leader in the western hemisphere. Both men had in common that they were enslaved African freedom fighters and had defeated powerful French armies.
But why had Yanga been hidden all these years? Why has his story never been told?
As I continued by journey into the gallery, their stood Yanga, mounted on a stand with his raised arms one in a broken chain, the other holding a machete. What a moment for an African American man in America. I was deeply moved as my eyes began to try and take in all they were seeing. Statues, painting, documents all about slavery in the Americas and Yanga.
It was if I was a little boy again. I had found my Super Man and he was Yanga! But unlike the fictious Clark Kent, Yanga had been a real human being. His story was real, and it related to me and millions of African people in the America’s. It was the story and journey of our freedom.
But how does Yanga relate to Cinco de Mayo, and how does Cinco de Mayo relate to Juneteenth?
Cinco de Mayo
It has been said that on May 5, the Mexican army and “some ragged tagged indigenous farmers” defeated Napoleon III French army. For years this ideal of indigenous farmers helping to defeat the powerful French army clouded my mind. It didn’t make sense.
Being a farmer myself and coming from a line of African American farmers, the ideal of minimizing these farmers seemed strange in relationship to the story of Cinco de Mayo. I felt that there was more to the story than meets the eye.
As I continued my online search, I found that Yanga had organized other African men and women and built a Maroon settlement on Pico de Orizaba or Star Mountain, the highest mountain in Mexico.
Maroons were Africans who escaped slavery in the Americas to create independent communities on the outskirts of slave societies. They often mixed with indigenous peoples such as the Zipotec, eventually evolving into separate creole cultures.
It is important to understand that Yanga was the leader of the first free African Maroon settlement in the Americas, which they built and defended in 1618.
While being farmers, Yanga and his men would launch raids against Spanish troops to gain supplies and weapons. The raids proved so effective that; the Spanish government was forced to negotiate with Yanga. The results of the negotiation were the establishment of land that soon came be known as, San Lorenzo de los Negros later renamed Yanga, Veracruz in honor of Yanga, the freedom fighter.
Advancing now to May 5, 1862. The Civil War is in its second year. Napoleon III sought to take advantage of the confederates’ position of strength and acquire cotton for France that was an essential economic commodity in exchange for guns. The French army assumed they could easily take the town of Pueblo. Much to their surprise, they found themselves met not only by the Mexican army, but by descendants of Yanga’s freedom settlement – Black African Maroons skilled in raids and fighting, willing and able to fight for the land they had so long inhabited.
While only a small victory at Pueblo, the victory gave President Lincoln and the Union army enough time to reorganize and gain an upper hand on the confederate army, thus altering the course of the Civil War and ensuring victory of the Union army, ultimately leading to the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth.
As a result of my search, one can relive the Battle of Puebla and see the skilled maroon fighters acted out in black face and straw hats as they engage the French army. History now complete. Through my lecture, “Yanga, From Cinco de Mayo to Juneteenth,” I tell the Negro – Spanish for Black – journey of freedom. A story that carried on into the 20th century Civil Rights Movement.
Join me on May 14 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the auditorium of the African American Museum as I share more of my research on, YANGA, Cinco de Mayo and Juneteenth.
Experience this powerful American freedom story for free in collaboration with The Latino Arts Project, during this the first National Juneteenth National Holiday Observance ’22. YANGA will run through October 2022.
Yanga, El Libertador Negro!
Juneteenth, Glory Halleluyah!