Environmental Racism in Mexico Today is Rooted in History
Similar to the United States, Mexico is also at a moment of reckoning when it comes to the issue of environmental racism. For decades, the Afro-Mexican population has been devastated by environmental injustice. Black and Afro-Indigenous communities on the Costa Chica, east of Acapulco, Guerrero, in particular, have faced displacement and land degradation caused by generations of tourism, deforestation and agrochemical runoff. Moreover, continued tourism to Acapulco has increased these communities’ exposure to the novel coronavirus, stretching underfunded coastal health services even thinner.
Bringing attention to the history of Afro-Mexicans, especially those who live in the Guerrero region, makes it possible to address legacies of environmental racism — an issue that has implications for all Mexicans. After all, since the days of colonial Mexico, Black muleteers have used environmental knowledge to shape regional and national movements for independence. They knew that the literal landscape of slavery perpetuated racial injustice, and conquering this was essential to achieving racial equality — a lesson essential to understand if we want to address environmental racism in Mexico and the United States today.
In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors began to enslave African people and justified their enslavement with arguments that Africans effectively resisted disease and possessed agricultural capabilities. When the disease-related deaths of millions of Indigenous people in the Americas led to labor shortages that jeopardized the colonial project, Spaniards imported nearly 200,000 people from West Africa to all parts of the colony.
Europeans hoped to harness and reorient West African agricultural traditions into plantation economies. The settlers assumed that only people of African descent could survive the harsh climate of the coastal lowlands and work with livestock without succumbing to disease. Within generations, Spanish landowners along the coasts of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Veracruz adopted slavery for cacao, rice and cotton plantations. In addition to leveling forests for crops, the Spanish plantation system also began to destroy biodiversity with imported cattle and replace mountains with mines.
But enslaved Afro-descendants didn’t meekly accept subjugation. They freed themselves and formed runaway communities, or cimarrones.
In coastal Guerrero and other parts of the state, mostly free, Afro-descendant mule drivers called arrieros carried raw materials between plantations, ports and cimarrones. A new class of these Black muleteers would emerge by the late colonial period to carry goods from Acapulco and coastal plantations to Mexico City and regional markets. When ships arrived at Acapulco from Asia each year, arrieros loaded the cargo and carried it across mountains, vast forests and large river valleys to distant urban centers and innumerable nearby pueblos.
With their mobility and environmental know-how, arrieros also tested the limits of Spanish control of the region by supporting runaway communities.
They also became a driving force for Mexican independence. Intimate knowledge of people and places made arrieros effective and popular political leaders in the coastal region. For example, José María Morelos, leader of the independence movement, emerged as a symbol of liberation in 1810. During the war against the Spanish, other arriero independence leaders, such as Vicente Guerrero, Juan Álvarez and Valerio Trujano built military strength along the coasts of colonial Guerrero, including rebel armies with Black and Indigenous contingents.
Morelos’s call to abolish slavery and promise of citizenship for Afro-Mexicans helped mobilize poor Afro-Mexican sharecroppers to fight against Spanish landowners.
After the Spanish executed Morelos, Guerrero and Álvarez carried the weight of the fight for Mexican independence. Afro-descendants remained vigilant until peace came, but with the birth of a nation, Mexican politicians swiftly marginalized the region’s fight for freedom.
In 1828, Guerrero was elected the president of the republic. However, conservative elites sidelined the president politically and reduced his role in the national independence to insurgency in the south. As president, Guerrero officially abolished slavery nationally on Independence Day 1829, but in less than three months, a rebellion chased him out of Mexico City and back to his southern stronghold. The new government waged war against the deposed president, eventually capturing him in Acapulco and executing him soon after.
Coastal peasants and Afromestizos farmers continued to fight for independence from the central government. First, they won statehood for Guerrero in 1849. They also spearheaded an ultimately successful effort to remove an opposition president. Yet their triumph was short-lived, with Álvarez abdicating the presidency after only 68 days.
After he returned to his base in the South, 19th-century politicians abandoned Acapulco and its surrounding coasts. Only after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) did Mexico City officials begin to reinvest in the region for tourism, but even then, tourist development came at the expense of the Afro-descendant communities. The growth of Acapulco increasingly drained local communities of their water, forests and labor.
The 1930s provided a chance to reckon with this environmental racism. In February 1934, the Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey wrote to Mexican President Abelardo Rodríguez, inviting a delegation of Afro-Mexicans to the centenary celebration of the “Emancipation of the Negroes of the Western Hemisphere.” Garvey invited dozens of countries to join him in Jamaica, where he resided at the time, to “mark the progress the race has made” on the hemisphere.
Yet Mexico did not take the opportunity to celebrate the Black arrieros or their geographies as symbols of independence and progress in Mexico — a move that would have brought focus to the region and reduced the exploitation of its environment at the expense of local residents. The government instead continued to characterize the state and its Afro-descendant population as backward and in need of modern agribusiness, highways and hotels. And without consulting these communities, government efforts to uplift Guerrero only further marginalized Afro-Guerrerenses.
This lack of historical recognition is not a minor issue — it shapes Mexican life, culture and politics to this very day. And it has proved to be a barrier for Afro-Mexican activists who are now demanding environmental justice. Today, the Costa Chica of Guerrero, a predominantly Black region, is one of Mexico’s poorest areas because of deforestation, soil erosion and water contamination caused by monoculture, tourism and state neglect. One can only hope that Mexican leaders will begin to address the ongoing challenges of environmental racism. The land, lives and futures of Afro-Mexican people depend on it.
**This piece is reprinted in collaboration with The Washington Post’s ‘Made by History.’