By Thomas Jang
What figures do you imagine when you think of Latin American liberation movements? Simon Bolivar—the Liberator. Jose de San Martín—the Liberator of Argentina, Chile and Peru. Etched into the history of Mexico and the Americas is Yanga, or Ñanga, who established the first self-liberated and independent town in the Americas for formerly enslaved Africans. First named the city of Yanga, it remains a living testament to the fight for liberation from enslavement. Before he was trafficked into slavery in New Spain and renamed Gaspar Yanga, Nyanga was a Punu chief and a member of the Gabon royal family.
In New Spain, Nyanga was taken to the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción sugarcane plantation, which was located 93 miles away from Veracruz. Veracruz developed due to its importance to the Spanish for their colony of New Spain as a major node in the Atlantic slave trade and its caste system exploited both enslaved Africans and Indigenous peoples. The strict laws that dictated New Spain’s viceroyal system were eventually challenged in 1570, when Yanga led a rebellion against it and liberated himself and several hundred others.
Upon gaining freedom, the group moved around the area between the Cofre de Perote, Sierra de Zongolica, and Mexico’s tallest mountain, the Pico de Orizaba, before finally establishing a palenque, or a maroon society. 30 years later, the group, now referred to by this time as the Yanguícos, were able to raise their own food and livestock, as well as raid supplies from Spanish caravans. Much of their agriculture included sweet potatoes, maize, beans, chile, squash, tobacco and sugarcane which to this day remains a significant crop. Despite attempts by the Spanish to destroy the palenque in 1609, the Yanguícos defeated them and finally were recognized in 1631 as the free town of San Lorenzo de los Negros.
Yanga’s monumental role in liberating enslaved Africans continues to be a significant aspect of Afro-Mexican history and an inspiration for the growing Afro-Mexican movement. In 1871, Nyanga was named El Primer Libertador de las Américas and a national Mexican hero.
With a population of around 17,000 people today, the city of Yanga is a renowned UNESCO Slave Route Project-designated city. With a vibrant Afro-Mexican population, many festivals are held in honor of the Virgin de Guadalupe and the city’s patron Virgen de Candelaria. Upon the occasion of Mexico’s bicentennial in 2021, Yanga’s founding documents, initially stored in Córdoba’s archives department, were digitized and shown to the public in a ceremony conducted by Yanga mayor Apolinar Crivelli and Córdoba mayor Leticia Lopez Landero.