Founders, Explorers, and Other Afro-Latinos in US History

Afro-Latino history is deeply rooted in the United States, a crucial part of this country’s founding and history. But it tends to be thought of as something that only happened somewhere else or that is a more recent phenomenon in this country – when it’s acknowledged at all.

Not for lack of trying to get the word out, though. Afro-Puerto Rican scholar Arturo Alfonso Schomburg co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research with John Edward Bruce in 1911 and dedicated his life to preserving African American and Afro-Latino culture. He was driven to collect records of Black history his whole life because as a grammar school student in Puerto Rico, one of his teachers told him that Black people had no culture or history. The New York Public Library purchased his collection of Black art, literature, and archival materials and founded the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The material is out there to learn about the Afro-Latino history of the US, but it is still erased, discounted, or forgotten. Which is why Black History month and conversations like the one started by Juliana Pache and her #BlackLatinxHistory hashtag are so important both here and abroad.

Afro-Latino contributions are often erased in Latin American countries because of anti-Blackness and because of the United States’ history of erasing traces of Spanish colonial presence, Afro-Latino contributions, especially those that happened during this time period, are doubly erased. So in the spirit of honoring Schomburg and fighting the ongoing efforts of erasure, I present you with a collection of facts about Afro/Hispanic relations and Afro-Latinos in US history:

1. Black explorers: The history of Africans in Spain is long and would require another article entirely. There were many people of African descent – both free and enslaved who participated in the conquest of the Americas. There were Afro-Hispanic explorers on Columbus’ voyage: the Niño brothers. Juan Niño piloted La Niña, with his brother Francisco documented as having been with Columbus when he “discovered” Trinidad. On what is now US soil, Juan Garrido, who traveled with Ponce de Leon on his quest for the Fountain of Youth in Florida in 1513. He was later also part of the expedition that conquered the Aztecs in 1519. Enslaved as a child, Estevanico, also known as Esteban the Moor, joined Andrés Dorrantes de Carranza on the expedition led by Pánfilo de Narváez. to conquer Florida. They were shipwrecked near Galveston, Texas and held captive by native peoples for five years before spending four years walking through New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico back to Mexico City. After exploring northern Mexico with Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca in 1536, Estevanico acted as a guide on the expedition led by Friar Marcos de Niza that scouted terrain for Francisco Coronado. Estevanico is credited as being the first non-native person to step foot in Arizona and New Mexico.

2. The first place where African slave labor was used in the North American continent is also the site of the first slave rebellion. The Spanish colony, called San Miguel de Guadalupe, was founded in 1526 by Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón in the Winyah Bay area of South Carolina close to where Jamestown would be founded by the British in 1607. The slaves fled the colony and found refuge and settled with the Cofitachequi peoples while the remaining Spaniards returned to Hispaniola.

3. The first non-native immigrant to the New York City area was an Afro-Dominican named Juan (Jan) Rodriguez. A merchant sailor who was skilled with languages, he was hired by Dutch traders to help communicate with Lenape fur traders in 1613. When the Dutch sailors set sail for home, he stayed behind and married into the local community. In 2012, New York named a portion of Broadway in his honor.

4. The city of Los Angeles was founded by Afro-Mexicans. Founded on September 4, 1781, El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles became home to forty settlers, or pobladores, 26 of which were Afro-Mexicans. A descendant of these pobladores, Pío Pico, of Afro-Mexican heritage, was the last governor of California under Mexican rule. Under the United States rule, his brother Andres Pico became a California State Senator.

5. Afro-Mexicans have a history of fighting slavery, dating back to Gaspar Yanga, the first liberator of the Americas. Yanga escaped from a sugarcane plantation in Veracruz, forming a palenque with followers and fighting off attacks from the Spanish until they were officially recognized as a free Black community. The second president of Mexico, Vicente Guerrero, who was of Afro-Mestizo descent, abolished slavery in 1829, which had a deep impact on territories now considered part of the United States. After abolition, white Anglo American settlers and slave owners who had moved into the Mexican colony of Texas decided to hold onto their slaves and declared independence in 1836. Texas joined the United States in 1845 as a slave owning state and this annexation eventually led to the Civil War.

6. The Underground Railroad also ran south to Mexico. Escaped slaves, mostly from Texas and Louisiana fled to Mexico, often with the aid of Tejanos and their influence can be seen throughout Mexico’s northern states. El Nacimiento, Coahuila was founded by a group of Mascogos, composed of runaway slaves, free Blacks from Florida, along with Kikapus and Seminoles.

7. The cigar manufacturing industry traveled to Key West and Tampa with Cuban immigrants during the wars for independence from Spain and Afro-Cubans in the US found themselves segregated by law and separated from African Americans by language and culture. Revolutionary writer Jose Marti turned to Afro-Cubans Ruperto and Paulina Pedroso in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa for support in achieving independence from Spain. The Pedrosos helped collect money and also helped found one of the first mutual aid societies for Cubans, mostly cigar-workers who faced racial discrimination from the Cigarmakers International Union. The New Deal era brought African Americans and Afro-Cubans together as the club was used as a federally sponsored music academy and held concerts from Fats Domino, B.B. King, and Cab Calloway.

8. Gilbert Faustina, of Afro-Cuban descent, left his mark on the American South and the Catholic Church. He started a cigar factory, opened low cost rental units, and opened up Faustina Beach, the only beach open to African Americans in the entire Gulf of Mexico, enraging whites in the area and facing harassment. Opposed by the Catholic hierarchy, he also helped founded the Knights of Peter Claver, an all black group modeled on the Knights of Columbus, who had excluded him because he was Black. The order was founded in Mobile, Alabama and is currently headquartered in New Orleans.

9. After passage of the Jones Act which gave Puerto Ricans US citizenship, they were eligible to be drafted for military duty and Afro-Puerto Ricans were subject to the same discrimination faced by African Americans. Although it is rarely mentioned in histories of the unit, Puerto Rican popular music legend Rafael Hernandez Marin was part of 369th Infantry Regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters. He, along with his brother and 16 other Puerto Ricans, were also part of United States Army’s Ochestra Europe.

10. Sylvia Mendez’s family, her Mexican father Gonzalo and Afro-Puerto Rican mother Felicita, nicknamed “La Prieta,” refused to accept the segregated conditions in California schools. When their children were rejected from the all white schools in the district, while their lighter skinned Mexican cousins with a French last name were accepted, they filed suit and their case Mendez v. Westminster ended segregation of schools in California and laid the foundation for Brown v. Board of Education. Sylvia Mendez was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010.

This list is by no means comprehensive, so please feel free to add your own facts in the comments.

Image clockwise from top: Juan Garrido with Cortes, Arturo Schomburg, Pío Pico, and Estevanico.