If Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek pronounced “He is the first black president in North America,” most of us would confidently answer “Who is Barack Obama?”
And we would be wrong.
The fact is that Mexico, not the United States, holds claim to that black history milestone. Vicente Guerrero preceded President Obama by over a century for that distinction. But don’t feel bad that you didn’t know that. Most Mexicans don’t either. (Note: Haiti’s Jean-Jacques Dessalines named himself emperor in 1804.)
“Guerrero is well known as the third president of Mexico but his African roots are not well known due to ignorance of the African presence in Mexico,” explains Dr. Carlos Muñoz, Jr., who served as the founding chair of this nation’s first Chicano Studies department at California State University at Los Angeles. “So despite the fact that Guerrero is a national hero, with statues in his likeness, a state named in is honor and Mexican towns like Vicente Guerrero in Baja California bearing his name, his African roots are only now becoming widely acknowledged.”
Independent scholar Theodore G. Vincent’s 2001 book, The Legacy of Vicente Guerrero, Mexico’s First Black Indian President, is credited for bringing this little-known black history fact into public discussion.
Born Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña in 1782 to Afro-Mexican Pedro Guerrero and the indigenous Guadalupe Saldaña in Tixtla, a village in the Acapulco region in Spanish-ruled Mexico, Guerrero inherited a sense of justice early on. One year, Father Saucedo Caballero, the priest of his town, broke caste rules by omitting racial designations on baptism certificates before being replaced. According to Muñoz, “enslaved Africans were viewed as inferior to the Spanish colonizers, but were generally accepted as equals by the Mexican indigenous people.” During the 1791-1793 census, villagers around Guerrero intimidated Spanish racial census takers to list them as “Spanish” to avoid taxes and military duty.
Guerrero’s father intensely opposed slavery, reportedly influencing one of his slave-owning customers on his mule runs (being a mule driver was a widely Afro-Mexican profession back then) to free all of his 400-plus slaves.
Vicente Guerrero’s role as freedom fighter got underway in earnest when he impressed General José María Morelos, who was also of African descent, in 1810. Fighting against the Spanish, Guerrero rose in rank. When the Spanish captured and executed Morelos, Guerrero continued the fight.
Although the legendary Mexican general is celebrated for winning 491 battles against the Spanish army between 1810 and 1821, he never took credit for himself. “It wasn’t me, but the people who fought and triumphed,” he insisted. He was so dedicated to the cause that even when the Spanish sent his father to implore him to stop the resistance, he refused, famously stating, “I have always respected my father but my Motherland comes first.”
In 1829, Guerrero, whose military prowess was critical to Mexico attaining independence, became the nation’s third president (second by some accounts). Very liberal, even by today’s standards, Guerrero believed in public schools and supported the arts and sciences. As president, he taxed the rich, protected small business, ended the death penalty and supported villages having their own representatives.
Abolishing slavery on September 16, 1829, a few years before Canada did in 1833 and more than three decades before the United States would in 1865, was his boldest move. Backlash from white American slave owners led him to exempt Texas, then a Mexican territory, from his declaration.
Ultimately, his progressive ideas were his undoing. A revolt against him in December 1830 led to his removal from office. When he organized a rebellion in response, he was tricked into a meeting in Acapulco where he was kidnapped and taken into custody in Oaxaca to stand trial that resulted in him being executed February 14, 1831.
His legacy, however, has grown even stronger in recent years. This month, the ongoing educational project Pathways to Freedom in the Americas presented an exhibit on Guerrero and other Afro-Mexicans. The exhibit has traveled to various parts of the state since 2012.
Today, African Mexicans, largely found in the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca (mostly in the Costa Chica area) and in Veracruz, are generating much-warranted scholarly attention for the former president, Muñoz notes. He believes that “knowledge of Guerrero will foster better relations between Mexican Americans and African Americans.”