By Shirley Hawkins
LOS ANGELES — As Los Angeles celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month, retired African-American history professor Ron Wilkins is on a mission to publicize the little-known history of solidarity between African Americans and Mexicans that he says dates back for centuries.
“Believe it or not, there is a long and shared history of blacks and Latinos struggling together against racism and injustice that is not widely known,” said Wilkins, who has taught cross-cultural courses at Antioch University, Cal State Dominguez Hills and West Los Angeles College.
A former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who actively participated in the civil rights and black power movements, Wilkins has studied black and Mexican solidarity for more than 25 years.
He was the guest lecturer at the Palms-Rancho Park Library Sept. 15 for the branch’s Latino Heritage program. He pointed out that Africans and Mexicans made contact with each other before Christ.
“The Olmec civilization in Mexico had contacts with the Egyptians starting around 800 B.C.,” Wilkins said. “Egyptian soldiers and mariners traveled to Mexico and encountered the Olmec people. Their cultures got along very well. For the first time, you start to see pyramids being erected in Mexico.”
Wilkins, who has traveled to Mexico several times, pointed to a photo he had taken of the statue of an Egyptian soldier.
“You can tell from his broad nose and lips that he is distinctly African, possibly inspired when the Egyptians who traveled to Mexico,” he said.
Wilkins posted photos of historic Mexican figures who had distinct African features and whose complexions were unmistakably dark.
“Artist Diego Rivera and Generals Vicente Guerrero and Emiliano Zapata all had African roots,” Wilkins said, pointing to photos that depicted all three men with dark skin.
Wilkins said that Mexicans abhorred the institution of slavery and that it was not uncommon for Mexicans in Texas to participate in slave insurrections and to actively help slaves escape to freedom in Mexico.
“Spain controlled Mexico. In 1810, Afro-Mexicans played a major role in the fight for Mexican independence from Spain,” he said.
Wilkins said that slavery was abolished in Mexico in 1821 and that Gen. Vicente Guerrero, whose father was African-Mexican, was one of the leading revolutionary generals of the Mexican War of Independence and later served as president of Mexico. He signed a decree banning slavery in the Mexican republic on Sept. 16, 1829.
On Feb. 14, 1831, Guerrero was executed by his enemies for officially abolishing slavery and for bringing about the country’s independence.
“We should celebrate Guerrero rather than celebrating Valentine’s Day,” Wilkins said.
Slave owners were aware that thousands of slaves had found refuge in Mexico. As far back as 1822, the slave owners wanted to expand Texas, which bordered Mexico and was sparsely populated at the time, by using slave labor.
The slave owners pressed for an extradition treaty and regularly traveled to the Mexican border to demand that their runaway slaves be returned, but the Mexican government adamantly refused.
“Rumor has it that five to six thousand slaves had escaped the plantations with the help of the Tejanos, Mexicans in Texas,” Wilkins said.
In 1836, after the defeat of slavery defenders at the Alamo, Texas ordered the capture of Mexican leader Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, one of General Jose de Urrea’s brigadier generals. Urrea and his troops then traveled from plantation to plantation.
“Wherever they saw slaves, they set them free and gave them immediate titles to the land that they had been working,” Wilkins said.
“During the Mexican Revolution, which lasted from 1910 to 1920, black fighters fought shoulder-to-shoulder alongside Gen. Zapata,” Wilkins said.
“In 1857, the Mexican Congress declared that any black person who set forth on Mexican soil was free.”
African-American and Mexican relations extended far beyond fighting for freedom. Wilkins said that in the 1930s and 1940s, black artists such as John Biggers, Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett regularly traveled to Mexico to meet and collaborate with Mexican muralists.
Another little known fact, Wilkins said, is that Jackie Robinson, the first African-American ballplayer to sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers and break the color line in the major leagues, was primarily due to the success of African-American baseball players who had traveled to Mexico to play in the Mexican baseball leagues.
“The Negro League players were shut out of playing in the major league teams in America, so traveling to Mexico to play against Mexican teams was a common practice,” Wilkins said.
Jorge Pascal, who owned baseball teams in Veracruz, Mexico, took notice of the talented players in the Negro Leagues. In 1938, in order to give the Mexican leagues a winning advantage on the ball field, he started hiring black players. He hired pitcher Satchel Paige, considered to be one of the best pitchers in the Negro Leagues — and the Mexican teams continued to win.
“That’s when the United States took notice and started considering signing an African-American ballplayer, and Jackie Robinson was the first one they signed,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins said he had been interested in black-Mexican relations since he was a youth.
“Everywhere I’ve lived, I grew up around Mexican people,” he said, adding that he had many Mexican friends. “I wanted to know the history between Mexican and black people,” recalls the retired professor, who grew up in the Slauson Village area of South Los Angeles and lived in the same neighborhood as many of his Mexican friends.
Wilkins said that the African influence in Mexico is still evident.
“There are 30 villages in Mexico that are still predominately black,” said Wilkins, who has visited several. “They have annual meetings where the black villages come together and discuss how their education can be improved and how to forge better relations with the government.”
Muriel Shabazz said Wilkins’ lecture was insightful and that she had learned many facts about black and Latino relations that she had not read about in the history books.
“I would love for this course to be taught in the prisons and in the schools where they have large African-American and Mexican populations,” Shabazz said.
“Unfortunately, this history is not part of the curriculum in the schools,” Wilkins said. “I would love to see this history depicted in a film. That’s my hope.”