Gaspar Yanga: The First Liberator of the Americas

Gaspar Yanga, leader of a successful slave revolt in Mexico

Gaspar Yanga, leader of a successful slave revolt in Mexico

Yanga, Yanga, Yanga
Today, your spirit I invoke
Here, in this place
This, this is my poem for Yanga
Mandinga, malanga, bamba
Rumba, mambo, samba.

So intones the Veracruz-born and Kansas City-based poet Xánath Caraza in her paean to Gaspar Yanga, who in 1570 launched a slave revolt that would lead to the establishment of a maroon colony in Mexico.

For 30-plus years, Yanga and his band of fugitives waged a guerrilla war against the Spanish Empire, conducting surprise attacks around Veracruz, the main port of New Spain. Local lore has it that Yanga had been a prince near present-day Gabon, and in fact his name translates to “pride” in the Yoruba language. During his decades-long struggle, Yanga helped free other slaves from bondage.

Then in 1609, in an effort to crush the slaves for good, the viceroy Luis de Velasco sent a force of close to 500 men under the command of Captain Pedro González de Herrera to defeat an equal number of Yanga’s warriors. The two forces met at Río Blanco near the village of Córdoba, where constant attacks by Yanga had brought traffic between Veracruz and the colonial capital of México City to a crawl. Both sides suffered heavy losses, compelling the viceroy to give Yanga’s fugitives their due respect. The former slaves signed a treaty with the Spanish crown in 1618 and established an independent settlement, San Lorenzo de los Negros, the first such settlement in all of the Americas founded by blacks.

Little else is known about Yanga — we don’t even know when he was born or when he died — but what is known for sure is that, in 1932, the town of San Lorenzo was renamed in honor of the brave man who founded it.

Remembering Yanga — and that our hearts beat to the rhythm of African drums — is how we celebrate our heritage.