Mexican Food is Soul Food


Dr. Marco Polo Hernández Cuevas


Mexican Food is Soul Food: a Medicine for National Amnesia


There is perhaps no better way to understand a culture, its values, preoccupations and fears, than by examining its attitudes toward food.  Food provides the daily sustenance around which families and communities bond. It provides the material basis for rituals through which people celebrate the passage of life stages and their connection to divinity.  Food preferences also serve to separate individuals and groups from each other, and as one of the most powerful factors in the construction of identity, we physically, emotionally and spiritually become what we eat.

Ken Albala


The Mexican elite had mansions, a university, monasteries, numerous cities to visit in, great governmental buildings to hang out in, and had the bishop’s cloister for social teas and poetry readings.  A tight and exclusive circle of wealthy whites and their lackeys hid in the mansions drinking Spanish wine, eating “white” bread, and practicing the "Minuet."  Out in the town square [and outside city walls], the dark-hued people created Mexico, with tequila, tortillas and La Bamba.  (5)

Ted Vincent


This multidisciplinary exploration proposes that West, West Central and Central African cuisines contributed to the origin and evolution of popular Mexican culinary arts.[1] By unveiling the role diverse African cultural worldviews[2] play in the formation of vibrant popular Mexican gastronomy and identity, the analysis contributes to the restitution of the credit thus far officially denied but nevertheless due to the African ancestors and their Mexican descendants. The study compares historical texts, academic works, and customs in Mexico and abroad throughout the centuries to support its case.  It investigates certain food and drink, food preparation techniques, food and drink preparation and consumption similarities throughout the Americas, and historical African migration patterns to Mexico. 

The analysis reconnects Mexicans: with part of their cultural wealth; with other African American relatives in the Americas; and carries out further de-fragmentation of world political, social, cultural, and economic histories. The work adds to the reconstruction of the Mexican national memories and imaginaries (and the part of the universal memories and imaginaries they constitute) massaged by Eurocentric[3] elites, particularly during "the cultural phase of the Mexican Revolution, 1921-1968" (Hernández, African Mexicans).  As to the why of the task, Stuart Hall's insights concerning the recovery of peoples' lost histories in an analogous situation shed light,

In the course for the search of roots, one discovered not only where one came from, one began to speak the language of that which is home in the genuine sense, that other crucial moment which is the recovery of lost histories.  The histories that have never been told about ourselves that we could not learn in schools, that were not in any books, and that we had to recover [...]. This is an enormous act of what I call imaginary political re-identification, re-territorialization and re-identification, without which a counter politics could not have been constructed.  I do not know an example of any group or category of the people of the margins, of the locals, who have been able to mobilize themselves, socially, culturally, economically, politically in the last twenty or twenty-five years who have not gone through some such series of moments to resist their exclusion, their marginalization.  That is how and where the margins begin to speak.  The margins begin to contest, the locals begin to come to representation" (52, 53).

"Mexican culinary arts" in this analysis refers to innumerable regional manners in Mexico and the United States of preparing, serving and enjoying food developed by the commoners, the so-called "castas" as a creative reaction to their circumstances.  During the Spanish colonial period 1521-1821, the castas in New Spain (a colonial political division that included Mexico, part of Central America and Southern United States, among other lands)[4] were forced to live outside "Spanish" city walls and/or limits due to their African ancestry; they ate animal entrails and leftovers (migas) or foods considered unpalatable for the masters.  In response to their condition, with an unyielding spirit of resistance, with these substances, i.e. "La comida de los dioses" (Gods' sent foods), plus creativity and ancient know-how, the Afrodescendants in Mexico, just as in other places, developed a unique worldview that in part manifests itself when "La comida de la raza" (Peoples' Food) is performed al punto (to perfection).  

These marginalized and stigmatized castas or Afrodescendants are the ancestors of the so-called "mestizos," the sheer majority of the estimated one hundred and forty-two million plus Mexicans and Mexican Americans.[5] [6] These Mexicans, whose African heritage has been buried with the Eurocentric official discourse, are the builders of the nation, and the nationality in and out of Mexico.[7] They are the ones who have cultivated with their reverence, know-how, imagination and resistance capacity, the culinary discourses and food-related belief systems that merit the distinctive appellative of "Mexican." Another premise is that ancestral African worldviews such as holiday traditions, magic, taboos and prescriptions are integral to Mexican food culture, as well as the food culture of other places where the European Transatlantic Slave Trade took captured Africans.

After the near extinction[8] of pre-Columbian diverse First Nations[9] in New Spain, the importation of enslaved Africans[10] surged.  The Africans brought to New Spain, during a three hundred year period (1520s-1830s?), were ethnically and linguistically diverse men and women mainly from West, West Central and Central African nations.[11]   According to historical accounts, from 1580 to 1620, New Spain's demand for Africans virtually paralleled that of all other American areas collectively.[12]  By 1640, the viceroyalty of New Spain had the largest black population in the American continent.[13] 

Although the arrival of Africans from Africa began to decline in the 17th century, New Spain’s Afrodescendant population exploded; and Africans and Afrodescendants from other regions of the empire continued to enter New Spain.  By the 17th century, African and Afrodescendant populations inhabited New Spain long and wide.[14]  According to the Eurocentric dean of Afro-Mexican studies, “at the end of the day, New Spain's population was the result of the relations between First Nations, Africans and Spaniards” (Aguirre 276).  The Asian presence and contributions should be added, and fully recognized; regrettably this is a task that deserves space beyond the limits of this work. [15]   

The African presence and persistence in Mexico has been systematically denied via official mass persuasion channels including public education, mass media and the arts.  The leading argument deployed, and automatically repeated, is that the number of Africans brought to Mexico was so insignificant that soon they were absorbed into the population through "mestizaje,” the Spanish name of an ideology based on a notion of a racial miscegenation that reproduces and reinforces the anachronistic concept of the existence of “pure” human races.  Most of the work regarding Africans in New Spain produced after 1946 has been fashioned in support of that eugenicist worldview.  Mestizaje discourse obscures and diminishes the impact of African cultural capitals invested in the construction of the Mexican nation and nationality.[16]  Other works arbitrarily separate Mexicans into further "racial" subgroups.[17]  Such absurdity constructs a new Other within the Other.  

In addition to the vanishing-without-a-trace idea, mestizaje myth produces and reinforces the notion that most of the hundreds of thousands of Africans brought involuntarily to Mexico--via the Transatlantic Slave Trade, arrived without cultural luggage: spiritless, naked and empty-handed.  Mestizaje ideology feeds the false belief that the African ancestors had nothing to endow to their tens of millions of Mexican progeny born from five centuries of relations with First Nations, Asian and Spanish peoples. 

Mestizaje official ideology, which reproduces and reinforces the unscientific thought of race purity, continues to kindle the racist idea of a "miscegenation" that produced a half-breed nowhere people without a true cultural dowry other than what the Spanish bequeathed.  What could be more essentialist?  Noteworthy is that mestizaje whitening ideology while affirming the alleged disappearance of African genes in Mexico makes the opposite claim for a Spanish heritage: most educated Mexicans will proudly claim a Spanish grandpa while forgetting their African abuela.[18]  To continue to hold that "civilization" was a one-way European investment while ignoring the mutual exchanges of diverse cultural capitals between Africa, Asia, America and Europe that transformed Earth's civilizations and thinking is obsolete if not fraudulent.  

Popular Mexican cuisine, as opposed to elite Criollo cuisine, played a primary role in such world exchange[19] and in Mexican identity formation and reinforcement in an analogous way as was done by other performed cultural texts, such as popular songs and dances that integrated the popular discourse that eventually led to the casta emancipation.  Mexican delicacies--considered by the Mexican gusto populi among the core symbols of Mexican identity--are performed texts with a history and a story to tell.  At least in part, Mexican popular dishes are products of the "ñanga," the revered olla or pot that holds an ancestral spirit that, while unable to consume itself, has given and continues to provide spiritual guidance, comfort and strength to its people.[20]  Mexican popular cuisine is part of the Mexican resistance discourse that accompanied Mexican rebels throughout the colonial period reminding them who they were and what they were made off.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher describes the process of modern elite "appropriation" of popular Mexican cuisine,

In the nineteenth century, elites defined the national cuisine as essentially European, excluding tamales and other corn products from respectable dinner tables, even as they denied the franchise to both rural and urban poor.  Porfirian and revolutionary concern for mobilizing a national workforce led to a second period, roughly 1900 to 1946, of the tortilla discourse.  During this time, a desire to indoctrinate the lower class into bourgeois standards of morality prompted a campaign to replace corn with wheat in the national diet.  Finally, about 1946, once populist reform had spent its momentum and the capitalist economy had incorporated maize, the middle-class appropriated tamales for themselves, transforming a basic element of popular culture into a symbol of national unity. (¡Que..! 153)

Prevailing national and international academic works on "Mexican" cuisine recycle the fallacy that Mexican cuisine is a consequence of the encounter between the Spanish and Amerindian worlds.  In 1996, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (National Mexican Autonomous University) published Conquista y Comida: consecuencias del encuentro de dos mundos (Conquest and Food: Consequences of the Encounter of Two Worlds); a compilation of historical essays on food written by researchers from "diverse countries of America, Europe and Africa" (Back cover).  Although, African peoples are mentioned as receptors (Mintz 227), their culinary contributions to the birth of the new gastronomy are ignored.  Other contemporary works revised[21] reveal a parallel predisposition to obliterate the fact that besides genes, artistic conceptions were exchanged as a result of the Transatlantic Trade. 

"Tamales or Timbales: Cuisine and the Formation of Mexican National Identity, 1821-1911," and !Que vivan los tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity, indeed are two cases in point.  The first, a historical academic essay sustains, "colonial cooks did in deed invent new cuisines borrowing from Mesoamerican and European traditions" (Pilcher 193).  The second, a 1998 book length historical essay (based on a 1993 United States doctoral dissertation) published in English as well as in translation to Spanish by reputable publishers, recognizes the presence in colonial Mexico of "Africans [who] were consigned to the bottom of the social hierarchy" (39); but totally ignores the diverse African gastronomic contributions to Mexican culinary arts.

Research on "Afro-Mexican" cooking is mentioned elsewhere (“Food…” 1).  This brings an additional twist to the problem at issue.  Exploring certain popular Mexican gastronomy as "Afro-Mexican" creates an “Other” within a Mexican Other that is already “African” in fundamental part as will be shown.  Just as racists separate Mexican blood and flesh brothers and sisters due to appearance, such an approach fragments Mexican gastronomy arbitrarily.  Mexicans, the descendants of the castas or “broken color” people are Afrodescendants and so are their cultural worldviews and expressions. 

Just as Cuban and "Afro-Cuban," Mexican and "Afro-Mexican" are synonyms: what needs to be understood and exposed is that both names signify exactly the same.  Mexican without its African component, just as water without its oxygen element, cannot be.  There are straight haired, white skinned, blond haired and blue eyed African Americans in other parts of the continent who proudly claim their African ancestry, why is it so difficult to understand that there are millions of Afrodescendant human beings all over the Americas with a variety of appearances too extensive to enumerate? Luz María Martinez Montiel illuminates, "The criollo [...] was no other than the one born in America, mixed of black and white, Indian and black or of Indian and white [and] had to struggle to overcome his lesser condition to be able to reach a position of privilege even prior to the wars of independence that he himself promoted" (14).

Multi-regional and diverse, Mexican popular food, the exquisite cuisine of tens of millions of Mexican common people, as it is, is soul food.[22] More creative would be to explore and document the relationship of popular Mexican cuisines and the African American cuisines of other regions of the American continent and West, West Central end Central African cuisines.  The remarkable similarities between Mexican practices and Afrodescendant and African practices--outside the influence of the Eurocentric blinding mestizaje discourse--will help to further dispel said notion.[23] 

Other recent literature on the African diaspora to the Americas acknowledges the African and African American culinary contributions to the Americas.  Such works help clarify the problem under study; particularly under the consideration that the African diaspora to Mexico is integral to the African diaspora to the Americas and other places in the planet.  African American Foodways: Exploration of History and Culture discusses the intricate origins of African and [US] African American cuisine "looking into the[ir] material and symbolic power"  and explores rituals and stereotypes associated with the food (Bower 5).  It provides a fuller view of the travels around the planet of some foods and cooking techniques.  It proposes a plausible explanation for the arrival of "the plants of Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia to West Africa as a consequence of the visit of Indonesian mariners to East Africa from at least a century or two BCE to about the end of the first millennium CE" (Bower 25).

The Atlas de Culturas Afrocolombianas (Atlas of Afrocolombian Cultures) dedicates a full chapter to gastronomy.  Following the statement that “cooking is a notable part of the identity of Afrocolombian peoples” (Atlas 178) the work informs of the Colombian regions and environments inhabited by Afrocolombians.  The work explores “Flavors and Aromas with an African Accent,” “Feeding of African People during Slavery,” “African Culinary Endowments in the Americas,” and culinary techniques, foodstuffs used, and the preparation of various Afrocolombian delicacies.  It documents an important part of the foods consumed region by region and regional culinary techniques and preferences.  It ties Afrocolombian cuisines to Caribbean cuisines and to West African cuisines.

Concerning Afro-Brazilian culinary arts history <> reports:

The Portuguese claimed the rights to the territory that makes up modern-day Brazil in 1500, and in 1532, they began bringing African slaves to Brazil. The Africans introduced the Brazilians to new cooking styles and tastes, such as cooking food in dendê (palm oil), using okra as a thickener and a vegetable, and using the banana in different dishes. Africans also introduced a wide variety of chili peppers and ginger to season food, and this practice has continued to be part of Brazilian cooking. Another cooking technique Africans took to Brazil was the use of dried smoked fish and shrimp. The oldest African dish in Brazil, carurú, dates back to the 1600s. It is a spicy stew made with smoked fish or shrimp, quiabo (okra), onions, dendê (palm oil), and peppers. In the twenty-first century, the African influence on ingredients and cooking techniques still thrives, especially in the northeastern state of Bahia. (Brazil)

Amply documented is the fact that over ten million Africans[24] arrived alive (from the many more millions[25] taken) to the lands in the Americas occupied for centuries by English, French, Danish, Portuguese and Spanish colonies.  Their daughters and sons born from their (forced and voluntary) relations with people from all over the Earth populate North, Central, Caribbean and South America.  Actually, by examining American populations (without the Eurocentric mestizaje mongrelizing lens) along the lines of the musical complexes of the blues, son, keiso, kompa, samba, and so on, one can distinguish that the overwhelming majority of Americans of countless beautiful appearances are Afrodescendants whose cultures, now thriving entities in their own right, and cultural forms of expression, including their cuisines, indubitably are the offspring of West African and West Central African cultures, in fundamental part. 

A distinction between food and food preparation should be made.  A notable portion of the food literature concentrates on the biological portion (the transportations of foodstuffs from one point to another) and often fails to clarify the difference between science and art.  The preparation of food belongs to the art category; it is a cultural manifestation.  As such, a foodstuff can be from a place different than that of the person who prepares it.  The style and techniques of preparation are what makes the product unique.  Richard L. Jackson, in reference to oral literary folk manifestations that reflect the “true black experience”[26] in Latin America, makes an observation that applies: "Origin of black folklore is often extraneous, since source is not as significant as meaning when one looks for how versions are applied to and are illustrative of the true black experience and what they mean in terms of black survival" (16) (emphasis added).

Mexican cuisine is comprised by a plethora of fluid flavorful and colorful regional culinary manifestations.  Mexican culinary cultural narratives or performed ethnic "texts" materialize through a distinctive conceptualizing of aromas, colors, flavors, and textures that distinguishes them as Mexican.  When reproduced accurately and within the fitting context and environment the succulent texts “en su punto” open specific channels of communication and resistance across time and place; just as African based music does, it transports the prepared taster of the Comida de los dioses (food sent by the gods) to the momento pleno[27] (to seventh heaven). 

The history of these manifestations up to present has lacked a critical lens capable of seeing beyond Europe; a lens able to perceive that the so-called “Arab" contributions to Spanish culinary arts are "black African" contributions as well.  Under the Moors, part of the land occupied by today’s Spain was, “in fact, a province of the vast empire of the Arab Khalifs, who held their court at Damascus and swayed an empire that stretched from the mountains of India to the pillars of Hercules” (Lane-Pool 27).  The part of the Iberian Peninsula under “blackamoor”[28] control for almost eight centuries (711-1492) was an entity that belonged to the economic, cultural and socio-political map of Islam whose people traded with sub-Saharan Africa.[29]  “The Iberian Peninsula was greatly enriched by the labors of the Moors.  They established the silk industry; they were highly skilled agriculturalists, introducing cotton, rice, sugar cane, dates, lemons [and other citrus such as oranges] and strawberries[30] into the country” (Lane-Pool iii), among many other cultural practices and scientific know-how that reverberate until present. 

   Food and culinary arts exchanges and production between Asia, Africa and Europe started long before the European arrival to America.  Soon after the European entrance many American foodstuffs such as cocoa, tomatoes, peanuts, chili peppers, and avocados found their way to the hearts of various West and West Central African cultures.  Several returned to the Americas as African nationals playing new tunes in the arts of cooking.  While it is true that many plants originated in Asia and were transported to the Americas by European ships, it is also a fact that many of them, such as plantain, rice, corn, and peanut had acquired African nationality and nevertheless had become vehicles to express African culinary worldviews and expressions.  African worldviews gave a new dimension to culinary arts through these foodstuffs; but more importantly, Africans adopted them as another means to resist and express their own experience.  Other such means are continental African American languages, oral literatures, musics, dances, songs, paintings, sculptures, and so forth.[31]     

According to a subdivision of the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, "it is estimated that Palm coconut oil consumption in Mexico is 200,000 tons, which represents 7% of the national consumption of oils and lards that amounts to 2.8 million tons" ("Buenas..., Las").  The use of this oil for cooking, the sap of the tree to make palm wine, and the use of palm leaves to thatch homes can be traced to the onset of New Spain.  In 1942, Henry J. Bruman[32] documented the "Early Coconut Culture in Western Mexico."  He concludes rightfully that the Spaniards did not introduce the palm wine making activity to the region because the necessary antecedents in the European culture were lacking. 

However, Bruman's Eurocentric lens is incapable of considering that amid the West, West Central and Afrodescendant people present in colonial Colima, Mexico (whose population appeared more notable than the Asian) there must have been people versed on the agriculture of oil palms and palm wine making.  Oil palms and palm wine making and ritual drinking were integral to many West and West Central African cultures centuries before the European arrival to the Gold Coast of Africa.  

Other problems with Bruman's work are: it reduces the coconut palm tree presence to Colima; and notwithstanding the notable African presence in the region under his lens, he argues with insufficient data that the palms and wine production know-how must have arrived from "Asia-with India, the East Indies, and the Philippines" (212).  Francisco Rojas González,[33] a contemporary source, dispels the first problem where he notes "Tuba is a distilled product of the coconut palm that drips from a sap bleeding cut made to the tree trunk.  It is drunk by the rural populations of the Pacific coast, particularly those of Colima and Jalisco " (121) (emphasis added). Palm wine is also known in the Mexican Gulf state of Veracruz ("Cotaxtla").

For Bruman's Eurocentric lens, the Africans and Afrodescendants present in his documentary evidence are culturally invisible.  Significant is that this shortsightedness occurs at a time when Mundonovismo (New Worldism)--characterized in part by the rediscovery of American blacks-- is in its climax with Melville J. Herskovitz's 1941 publication of the The Myth of the Negro Past.  Bruman fails to look at the relation between the cultural backgrounds of the Colima Africans and Afrodescendants that appear in his citation and the palm wine production and consumption patterns he documents.  He presents a 1672 Spanish official document,[34] citing verbatim "Not only the Indians, but also the Negroes, mulattos, and other people of this quality drink these beverages" (217). Africans and Afrodescendants are present in 1672 Colima and other areas of Nueva Galicia[35] drinking palm wine.  The document adduced makes no express reference to Asians.  

In 1946, Aguirre Beltrán reports that by 1570 in Nueva Galicia there were 2,375 "blacks" (207) and 75 mulattos (209); in addition to around 1,000 Europeans (205).  In 1646, the number of Africans in the region had increased to 5,180; and the number of Afrodescendants to 13,778 (219).  Africans had been brought to the area as replacements of the dying First Nations work force (Rojas González 117).  It appears reasonable to establish a cultural relation between "the sixty taverns where the [palm] wine is sold," cited by Bruman, in one Nueva Galicia town alone by 1610 and the new African and Afrodescendant populations in the area (215).

Juan Carlos Reyes discloses that by the end of the 18th century the village of Colima, part of Nueva Galicia, had a 34 % black population (262).  Outside the village, the African and Afrodescendant population percentage was considerably greater.  Although the place of origin of the first black Colimians is yet to be precisely documented, according to Reyes, they were purchased in Mexico City.  It has been established that the Africans who entered Mexico from 1527 to 1640 were from West and West Central Africa regions.[36]  The oil palm "is native of West Africa" (Cambridge 397); and "probably formed part of the food supply of the indigenous populations long before recorded history" (Cambridge 397).  It is known that Egyptians used palm wine in embalming preparations.  The probability that West Africans knew how to make palm wine before their arrival to New Spain are too high to be ignored. 

While it appears that West and West Central Africans obtained their wine from the oil palm tree (Elaeis Guineensis) the use of the palms and the toping techniques are akin to the "Mexican" techniques.  According to the evidence, it can be said that Africans in Colima certainly knew about the cultivation and processing of similar palm trees and that they liked palm wine.  More recent research has found that Africans in addition to labor, genes and consumption of goods also "contributed elements of their ancient culture[s]" to the formation of the culture in the Colima area, just as in other regions of Mexico and the American continent (Reyes 263).  Judith A. Carney in Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas makes a statement that applies "There is no need to look half a world away to Asia for the origins of this rice trade" (75).

The generous use of palm oils, pork lard, and other fats in cooking characterizes West, West Central and Central African cuisines as well as continental African American cuisines, including Mexican cuisine.  West, West Central and Central Africans; palm trees; and porcine herds, among others, arrived to the Americas and New Spain on European ships. Spanish cooking is known for roasting, stewing, smoking and boiling. In the cooking described in Bernal Díaz del Castillo's account of a 1538 banquet in New Spain to celebrate the reconciliation of Spain and France, frying is absent (544-550).  The viceroy, the conquerors and other high officials were present.  Also, frying and the incorporation of oil or fats to the food does not seem to have been used by pre-Columbian First Nations cuisines in Mexico before the Africans arrived.  The first Asians of the post-Columbian wave[37] began to arrive to Acapulco in the late 16th century via the Nao of China (China Galleons) (Bruman 214).  Their cultural contributions need to be studied.  The obvious use of frying techniques and incorporating generous quantities of oil and or fat to the food by colonial Africans in other American regions well beyond the sphere of the referred Asian presence in Mexico makes us turn the attention in that direction. 

According to Joseph E. Holloway, "African cooks in the 'Big House' and the slave quarter introduced their native African crops and foods to white planters and farmers, thus linking African and European culinary arts.  African cooks for example, may have introduced deep fat frying, a cooking technique common in Africa as a means of preserving chicken and beef..." (2).   In this reference to the black experience in the United States, Holloway notes "Europeans traditionally fried pork and beef [...]" (2).  Although beyond the parameters of this analysis, the Africanizing of Europeans should be studied.  US African American cuisines developed other fried foods such as fish, bean, and okra fritters among others; and add oil to their corn bread and pork fatback to various vegetable dishes as seasoning.

In step with Jackson's perspective above, what is important to recognize here is how certain cooking techniques were and are used by Afrodescendants in Mexico, similar to other regions of the Americas.   Carnitas de puerco (fried pork) and chicharrones (pork rinds) are popular Mexican delicacies (pork rinds are also eaten by African Americans in the United States). Although found all over the country as well as in United States these delicacies' birth certificate is commonly ascribed to the Bajío,[38] a region formed with lands that were within colonial Nueva Galicia jurisdiction.  Menudo, Birria de chivo[39] and Carnitas of the best quality can be found in Colima, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Jalisco, San Luis Potosí, and parts of Querétaro.  These festive foods served in fandangos are best accompanied by mariachi song and dance.

Fried pork is found in various regions of the Americas and it is integral to the African American diet in various regions of the continent.  In Mexico, frying the hog in its own lard makes "carnitas."  After sacrifice, the animal is cut into various sections to be cooked along with the entrails and head in a copper fryer capable of holding a whole pig and more.  Traditionally, meat and entrails are seasoned before cooking with salt and nitro salt for color.  The meat is fried at high temperatures (so it will form a crust to keep excess grease out) until tender and served with freshly made corn tortillas, avocados, limes, radishes, chopped cilantro and onions, pickled jalapeno peppers and with various tomato, or tomatillo or pepper salsas depending on the host. The various parts are: bofe (lung), buche (tripe), chamorro (calf), costilla (ribs), criadilla (testicles), cuerito (skin), moño or trenza (chitterlings interwoven before cooking), machitos (chitterlings), nana (matrix), nenepil (uterus mixed with tripe), maciza (lean meet), surtida (a mixture of everything), oreja (ear), trompa (mouth), lengua (tongue), liver and heart, etc. ("Carnitas").

"Birria is a spicy Mexican meat stew usually made with goat, lamb, or mutton, often served during festive periods, such as Christmas, New Year's Eve, Mother's Day, and weddings" (Birria). Birria is a dish found in most places the chinaco insurgentes traveled during the 1810-1821 war of manumission (known officially as War of Independence).  It has regional variations but the main ingredients are goat meet, hot chilies and spices.  In Jalisco state, it is performed with black pepper; árbol, ancho and pasilla hot peppers; oregano; thyme; bay leaves; ginger; sesame; marjoram; tomatoes; garlic; and onions. 

Birria stew is served in a bowl.   Chopped onions, quartered limes, cilantro and a hot chili sauce are served on the side to be added to taste.  Birria is eaten with corn tortillas.  The dry peppers used to cook the birria are guajillo and the dry chili for the sauce is puya (hot guajillo).  Some people bake or roast the meat with guajillo sauce (Birria).  Important within the context of the present analysis is that the name "birria" in European Spanish signifies first "1. Poorly made thing; of poor quality or little value" (Larousse).  A spicy goat stew like Mexican birria, too similar to ignore, was tasted by the author of this work in various popular, middle and upper class food establishments in Accra, Ghana, West Central Africa in August 2007.

Menudo[40] (mondongo) is a spicy tripe stew with a host of Mexican regional as well as continental variations.  Mexican varieties are served in special community and family occasions and/or as a cure for a hang over.

There are a number of variations on menudo, including blanco (white or clear), verde (green), or rojo (red). Typical condiments added to menudo are dried oregano, epazote, ground chile flakes, lime juice, fresh cilantro and chopped onion" (Menudo).  As to menudo variations Wikipedia explains: "In northern Mexico, typically hominy [...] is added, and in northwest states such as Sinaloa and Sonora usually only the blanco, or white, variation is seen. Adding patas (beef or pigs feet) to the stew is popular but not universal. In some areas of central Mexico, "menudo" refers to stew of sheep stomach, "pancitas" stew of beef stomach. The red variation is usually seen in Chihuahua, the northern state adjoining Texas. [...] menudo stew in the vicinity of Cancun seems to be more commonly known as mandongo (the [Caribbean] name of menudo), which does not include the traditional grains of corn.

The history of the castas in Mexico reveals that in colonial times "Usually, the best cuts of meat would go to the hacienda owners while the offal went to the peons. These leftovers consisted of organ meats, brains, head, tails, hooves, etc. As cattle and sheep are ruminants that require lengthy intestinal tracts to digest their diet of grasses and raw seeds, the stomach is one of the largest pieces of offal available from these animals" (Menudo).  The dish is also eaten in other places of the Americas from Argentina to Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Puert Rico, Cuba, among others.  In the United States, menudo is available all over the country in Mexican restaurants catering to Mexicans and others who have learned to enjoy this delicacy.  "Menudo is eaten for breakfast and is known as the "Breakfast of Champions" in New Mexico and Texas" (Menudo).

Tamales are another popular national and international Mexican culinary delicacy or "comida de los dioses."  Tamales akin to Ghanian kenkeys (cakeys?)--also known in other regions of the American continent where the African presence is documented or being documented--hold another part of the history of the deep family ties between Africa and the Americas, including Mexico.  Pilcher provides a description of the dish, "[Pre-Columbian] cooks made them by spreading corn dough inside a [corn] husk, adding chili sauce and perhaps some bits of meat or beans, folding the packages up, carefully sealing them to prevent water from seeping in, and steaming them in an olla" (11-12).  The one critical ingredient to present day tamales missing in the above description is lard. 

Caludia Alarcón provides a vital insight:

Tamales have been around for hundreds of years, and some experts believe they precede tortillas as the first corn foodstuff of ancient Mesoamerica. Civilizations such as the Maya and the Aztec consumed an amazing array of tamales, as is evident in their art, mythology and hieroglyphic writing. Early Spanish chroniclers of the New World, such as Bernardino de Sahagún and Bernal Díaz del Castillo mention tamales in their written accounts of prehispanic Mexico. In prehispanic times, tamales were not made with animal fat [nor oil] since beef, pork, and chicken were unknown in the Americas until the Conquest. Prehispanic fillings for tamales likely were made from deer, turkey, various waterfowl, as well as iguana, frogs, and fish [....] The regional variations within Mexico are countless, from the small, meat-filled tamales norteños of Northern Mexico to the large banana leaf wrapped tamales costeños of the coastal regions. Tamales can be savory or sweet, spicy or mild, and can range in size from a few inches like the norteños, to the huge Zacahuil, a tamal measuring up to 4 feet common in the Huasteca region of Eastern Mexico. (1) (emphasis added)

Porcine herds arrived to the Americas in Spanish Galleons after 1492. Therefore, it can be safely established that the pork lard (indispensable to tamal making) is a post-Columbian addition to this Mexican staple.  The use of fats in First Nations' cooking in the manner and quantities used in tamales has not been found.  The banana leaves in which some tamal varieties are wrapped in Veracruz, Tabasco, Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Yucatan provide an additional clue to support the premise that Mexican food and drinks are African in part.  Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless "write of the huge three or four foot long tamales called zacahuiles made with very coarsely ground masa (dough) with flavorings of red chile, pork and wrapped in banana leaves.  These monstrous tamales are baked in wood heated ovens in specialty restaurants, normally on weekends" ("Tamales"). 

K.G. Berger and S.M. Martin report how "palm oil is used in baked dishes that have different names according to the local language;" they explain "When Ofam in Twi, or Bodongi in Fanti is prepared, ripe plantains are pounded and mixed with spices, some wheat or corn flour, beans and perhaps eggs.  Palm oil is stirred into the mixture and the whole is then baked in the oven.  The dish is served with ground nuts.  Apiti is a similar dish, baked in [banana] leaves, without beans or eggs" (404). Mexican zacahuiles, or huge stuffed tamales wrapped in banana leaves, from the Huasteca region are also baked.  A question may emerge about the type of fat used.  African cuisine uses palm oil and Mexican tamales use lard.  This may be a case of substitution due to the unavailability of the product. 

Important to note is the cooking technique.  This, in addition to the Twi and Fanti “important presence” in New Spain (Aguirre 127), permits one, at least, to propose the presence of African know-how in the evolution of Mexican tamales where First Nations' usage of fat or oils in such fashion is not recorded.  Another important piece of information in support of the premise expressed is that tamales are not exclusive to Mexico.  Tamales are found in other regions where Africans are or have been present such as: Belize (bolos); Guatemala, Honduras, Salvador, Trinidad y Tobago (pastelles), Puerto Rico (quanimes) Colombia, Peru, Ecuador (tamales and humitas); and other very similar delicacies unquestionably related to tamales called pastels and made with yucca, cassava and so on.  More investigation is needed.

From the time of the Spanish arrival, tamales were relegated to the realm of the commoners, the castas, the sons and daughters born from the combination of African, First Nations, Asian and European elements.  Just as tortillas, palm wine, La bamba and hot chilies, post-colonial tamales, expressing new worldviews, evolved outside the walls in the ghettos that flourished near the entrances to New Spain's cities and in the rural areas.  Tamales continue to be food for celebration worthy of offering to the ancestors the Day of the Dead, besides other holidays such as Independence and the Revolution.

 Other "very Mexican" culinary texts are: enchiladas, tostadas and flautas; dishes whose preparation involve deep fat frying at one or another point.  Also, refried beans, and "frijoles chinitos" which must have a generous amount of fat added to reach their punto.  In her introduction to The African Presence in the Caribbean, Luz María Martínez Montiel introduces as African the principle: "the land belongs to those who work it, because the 'aura' of the family ancestors is in it" (16).  This was General Emiliano Zapata's revolutionary pronouncement.  "La tierra es de quien la trabaja" is commonly known as the peoples' tenet during the 1910-1920 [African] Mexican Revolution.

Other culinary texts with West, West Central and Central African heritage that are found in a variety of versions (just as African based music, dance and song) in other parts of the American continent long and wide include: pastel de maíz or paste de choclo (types of corn bread), cecina (salted dried beef, charcas, beef jerky), frutas cristalizadas (crystallized fruits), cocadas (candied shredded coconut), plátanos fritos, (fry plantains), fritangas (fried dumplings, turnovers corn bread), Arroz a la tumbada (spicy rice with seafood), pescado frito (fried fish), arroz y frijoles (rice and beans, moros y cristianos, arroz con gandules), arroz con platanos fritos (rice and fried plantains), are restorative medicines that through their aromas, flavors, consistencies, and presentation every time they are properly performed, narrate a story that include the African worldviews of the ancestors; reinforce the identity of the people and bring back to memory a history of resistance.

Peoples from various nations, who notwithstanding the fact that they were brought against their will never lost their spirit or substance as proven by their immense and invaluable cultural dowry.  The spirit of the ancestors vibrating in African American culinary arts throughout the Americas and beyond, which include the national Mexican culinary expressions as shown, should help Mexicans to remember the role played by Africans and their worldviews in the making of the modern Mexican gene pool, nation and nationality.  In this sense, the food and drink of the African ancestors in the making of Mexico are understood as a medicine for Mexican national amnesia.




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[1] There is food culture and culinary arts "dialogue" between the Americas and the Africas that needs to be studied with appropriate lenses (non Eurocentric) to be able to gain a deeper understanding of humanity and the evolving human cultural expressions.

[2] This work subscribes to William C. Whit's explanation of culture where he states, "My working definition of culture includes that it is something learned and shared [among a certain group as means of communication].  It is generally (but not exclusively) confined to human beings.  In addition, and importantly, culture originates as an attempt to come to terms with an environment's physical and social aspects.  As a system of human interactions, however, culture does more than reflect adaptation.  Rather, it is an adaptive response.  That term denotes both an active, creative human involvement and a dialectical interplay between human actor and environment" (45).

[3] Upon "discovery" of the "New World," (which was fully populated with ancient civilizations and as old as the rest of the planet), Europeans placed at the center of the universal map their politics, lands, languages and cultural productions (of which an important part are the product of miss-appropriation) .  Prime examples are so-called "French" cuisine, "classical music" and "universal literature."  "French cuisine" plagiarizes extensively from cuisines the world over.  The history of "Classic music" and instruments can easily be traced to Egypt, something the common person ignores.  "Universal literature" refers to European writing based on elite conceptions of the world, which marginalizes the majority of humanity and their know-how.  Such intolerant and exclusive modus operandi is called "Eurocentric" here.

[4] For a fuller description see "New Spain territories" at <>.

[5] The Mexican Interior Ministry projects 105 million by 2007; plus 11 million in the US see: <> 13 September 2007.  Also, the United States reports a Mexican population of about 26.8 million Mexican-Americans.

[6] Many of these Mexicans are not "migrants;" rather, what migrated was the border.  In 1848 the United States appropriated California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and parts of Colorado that were part of the Mexican territory.

[7] For a closer look see: África en el Carnaval Mexicano.  México D.F.: Plaza y Valdés, 2005. By Hernández Cuevas, Marco Polo.

[8] By 1646, the First Nations population had declined to 1,269,607 (Aguirre 212).

[9] Americans of pre-Columbian origin prefer to be identified thus.  It replaces the racially charged names "Indian" and  "Amerindian."

[10] Though often forgotten, there were African slaves present in Latin America. They brought along many of their traditions and techniques. They were often given less desired cuts of meat, including shoulder and intestines. Menudo, for example, was derived out of the Spaniards giving the slaves cows' intestines. Slaves developed a way to clean the offal and season it to taste. Slaves in the southern United States also did the same thing to the pig's intestines given to them. In South America, the slaves tended to receive the scraps of food the landlords did not eat, and by mixing what they got they usually ended up with new plates that nowadays have been adopted into the cuisine of their respective nation (Such being the case with the Peruvian tacu-tacu) ("Latin American Cuisine").

[11] For a detail account see: La pobalcion negra de México: studio etno-historico by Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán.

[12] Carroll 26.

[13] If one adds the enslaved and "free blacks" Bennett 1.

[14] Aguirre 225.

[15] For a good introduction to the topic see:El movimiento antichino en México (1871-1934)” INAH,1991 México; by Jorge Gómez Izquierdo.

[16] Mexican "passing" is a phenomenon rooted in the Spanish white aesthetic and black phobia mentality.  It started forming during the colonial period.  The castas learned to discriminate one another according to skin hue and behavior.  For further information see Aaron P. Althouse's "Contested Mestizos, Alleged Mulattos: Racial Identity and Caste Hierarchy in Eighteen Century Pátzcuaro, Mexico." The Americas 62.2 (2005): 151-175.

[17] Spaniards descend from the mixture of Iberians (Africans), Greeks, Romans, Goths, and Black Moors, among others.  Under the mestizaje ideology they are no less mestizos than Mexicans.  Why then are they understood as "white" or "pure"? Why cannot Mexicans be conceived as an entity themselves?  The same can be said about First Nations, Africans and Asian peoples: everyone descends from various mixtures of people and cultures.

[18] A regional insight to this is provided by Aaron P. Althouse in "Contested Mestizos, Alleged Mulattos: Racial Identity and Cast Hierarchy in Eighteen century Pátzcuaro, Mexico."  The Americas 62.2 (2005): 151-175.

[19] Many foodstuffs traveled from the Americas to the rest of the world including Africa and influenced and help developed many cultural expressions.

[20] Two important relations must be mentioned: the connection between the Yanga or Nyanga who led the Veracruz revolt of the late sixteen and early seventeen centuries which ended with the emergence of one of the first free towns in the American continent and that of the idea of ñanga as a spiritual force came from two sources: the first explains that the pot, the nganga in its Kongo name, where ancestral spirit or spirits reside, is the source of power for palero priests (Whipler 220).  The second source presents a song sang during a Haitian voodoo initiation rite: The saints want something to eat/Kneel down/A loa in a pot is incapable of eating/You must eat instead of him (Murphy 25).

[21] Among them: México a la carta (Mexico's Menu).  Mexico City: Coordinación General de Abasto y Dostribución del Distrito federal, 1991; Gastronomía queretana.  Querétaro: CONACULTA-FONCA, 2005.

[22] I mentioned this absurdity to Father Glyn Jemmott during a phone conversation the night of September 11, 2007. He called me from Madison, Wisconsin.  According to Jemmott, at this stage, when the Africaness of Mexico and Mexicans begins to be recognized, it is imperative to make that distinction; this is, to separate "Afro-Mexicaness" from "Mexicaness" to get out of the mestizaje trap. I diverge and maintain that "Mexican" and "African-Mexican," under the Eurocentric colonial mindset that dominates Western mentality, add up to the same thing.  They are synonyms.  If one were to approach the issue according to the one-drop rule or the "pureza de sangre" fallacies Mexicans are "Afro-Mexicans" because the genes of the enslaved Africans brought to Mexico during the colonial period pullulate in various amounts in most Mexicans regardless of (or as reflected by) their skin color, hair texture, facial features, bone structure, or cultural beliefs.  Outside the views that continue to reinforce the Black-White-and-its-derivatives construct, existing Mexicans are complete human beings whose worldviews are African-based in fundamental part.  Afro-Trinidadians or African Americans in the United States, among others, do not separate themselves, within the group, according to skin hues or beliefs; rather they are grouped and labeled as "people of color" by the lingering colonial Western mentality and they generally adopt the label.  Even those who look "whiter" than Mexicans are still considered and consider themselves "people of color." From the same European view, Mexicans are people of color too; there is no roundabout way to that fact.  To create subgroups is unproductive and divisive.  William C. Whit in "Soul Food as Cultural Creation" expresses, "Contrary to the stereotypes of Africans having no culture, the existence and continual creation of soul food demonstrates a creation (or series of creations) composed of a variety of elements from Africa, the Americas, and many European sources" (47).  Thus, one can descend from various people and have formed one's belief systems from various cultures and be capable of recognizing it without loosing one's African side of the identity.  Mexicans, as a group, need to learn to recognize proudly our African heritage.

[23] In the United States of America, Mexicans are "ethnically" lumped together with other "Latino-American" and Spanish (from Spain) people across "racial" lines due to the "one drop rule."  Irrespective of how white "Hispanics" believe or claim to be nobody is considered Caucasian.  Within that frame of mind, there are Caucasians, African Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and Hispanics, among others.  Separate classifications within a "minority" group (non-whites) are not recognized officially.  For instance, African Americans are classified as one group although their appearance, behavior, economic status and ethnic heritage range across a wide spectrum at least as extensive as that of the Europeans.  The same case holds for everyone else except Caucasians (to whom the label of "minority" does not stick) who see themselves as "German," "Irish," "English," "Italian," "Norwegian," "Swedish," etc. but in the ultimate analysis they see one another proudly as "white".  It is clear that within the Eurocentric ideology on race Mexicans as a whole are non-white and may not be separated.  

 [24] Ten more million African young women and men were taken to the East. 

[25] Octavio García Mundo cited that one in five people survived the atrocities of the slave hunt, the detention in the fortresses prior to transportation, the transatlantic crossing, arrival to detention in other fortresses prior to being sold, etc.  Unpublished paper presented in Veracruz, Mexico during ALARA 2006. August 9-12.

 [26] Jackson cites Sandra Govan where she explains “Perhaps what makes the poetry that uses the Black Experience truly ‘Black’ is the personal feeling and insight that Black writers, people close in kinship to the experience, invest in their poetry” (3). 

[27] Ian I. Smart explains it as, "that eternal moment of transcendence when the human being reconciles his accidental materiality with his essential spirituality" ("Carnaval" 31). 

[28] According to John G. Jackson “The Islamic culture of the Middle Ages is usually referred to as Arabic, but the Arabs were a minority in the so-called Arabic world, and their chief contribution was the Arabic language” and with that light he exposes, “It was because the conquering army in Spain was largely made up of Africans from Morocco that we hear such phrases as ‘the Moorish invasion of Spain,’ and why Shakespeare’s hero Othello, is a Moor, and why the word ‘blackamoor’ exists in the English language, a word which leaves no doubt as to the color of the army of occupation in Spain” (Lane-Pool iii).

[29] Arab incursions into the Ghana region are documented “Sometime between A.D. 734 and 750.” As a motive, Edward William Bovill proposes that it may have been “to discover and capture the source of the gold pouring into Morocco” (69).

[30] The Romans may have introduced strawberries earlier.

[31] See: George Reid Andrews, Afro-Latin America 1800-2000. Oxford: UOP, 2004. (9)

[32] Henry John Bruman (1913-2005) UCLA distinguished faculty member and philanthropist. "Born in Berlin, Germany; he came to Los Angeles with his mother when he was eight years old. Henry Bruman’s formal education, at all levels, was in California. He graduated from Los Angeles Manual Arts High School in 1930, and attended California Institute of Technology for one year before transferring to UCLA. His first degree, in 1935, was in chemistry, but after spending a summer in Mexico he turned his attention to geography, in which subject he earned a second bachelor’s degree at UCLA. He was to combine these interests in his dissertation “Aboriginal drink areas in New Spain,” written under the supervision of Professor Carl O. Sauer at UC Berkeley, where Bruman received his Ph.D. in geography in 1940" (Thrower).

[33] Francisco Rojas González, a diplomat, social researcher, ethnologist, essayist, storyteller, novelist and cinema scriptwriter was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, 10 March 1904. Died in the same city, 11 December 1951.  He is the author of the novel La negra Angustias, which won him the National Price of Literature in 1944; and was made into a movie in 1948 and 1949. His ethno-historical work is less known and so is his reputation as one of the fathers of sociology in Mexico.  For more information see: Borquez in the bibliography.

[34] He says it contains "the expert opinions of the medical profession, the clergy, the tax collector, and the governor of Nueva Galicia" regarding palm wine (219). 

[35] Nueva Galicia was a region of New Spain. It was named after Galicia in Spain. In the late 18th century, Nueva Galicia became the colonial Intendencia of Guadalajara. Nueva Galicia consists of the states of Aguascalientes, Colima and Jalisco, and neighbouring parts of Durango, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Zacatecas. <> 17 September 2007.

[36]Gwendolyn Midlo Hall.  Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links.  Chapel Hill: UNCP, 2005. (59, 64,84); Jane G. Landers and Barry M. Robinson.  Slaves, Subjects and Subversives: Blacks in Colonial Latin America. Albuquerque: UNMP, 2006 (89); Sylviane A. Diouf.  Servants of Allah: Africa Muslim Enslaved in the Americas.  New York: NYUP, 1998 (47).  

[37] The academically accepted theory is that First Nations people migrated to the Americas from Asia in various waves following animals.

[38] "The Bajío (lowlands) is a region of Central Mexico that includes the plains south of the Sierra de Guanajuato, in the state of Guanajuato, as well as parts of the states of Querétaro (the Valley of Querétaro) and Michoacán (particularly the surroundings of Zamora)." <> 17 september 2007.

[39] "In continental Spanish the word "birria" refers to something of poor quality. It's thus likely that the stew is so named because of its working class origins. Though commercially birria is made from goat or sheep, other meats can be used. For example in coastal areas of Colima and Jalisco where the Green Iguana is common, Iguana meat is a traditional ingredient of birria." <> 17 September 2007.

 [40] The word "menudo" in Mexico can mean the raw stomach meat as well as the stew. The word tripas (tripe) normally refers to the small intestines rather than the stomach. Tripas are also eaten, but normally in tacos rather than stews.