- The Legacy of Vicente Guerrero, Mexico’s First Black Indian President
Vicente Guerrero was the foremost surviving military hero of Mexico’s wars of independence, and one of the few great figures who had fought for independence throughout the entire period of 1810 to 1821, when many other military and political leaders changed sides repeatedly. He served with distinction in the first two governments of independent Mexico, and then in 1829 became the second president of the republic. As a son of the fabled tierra caliente, the hot region of the south between the Río Balsas and the Pacific coast, he was descended from the African slaves of colonial Mexico and also from the indigenous people. He was one of the population that in the colonial era were variously called pardos (black) or castas (caste), or simply mulatto. Theodore Vincent’s use of the term “Black Indian” is irregular in terms of conventions of Mexican usage; and it would probably be better if the term does not catch on. Guerrero’s only legitimate child, Dolores, married Manuel Riva Palacio, and they founded a racially mixed family which produced generations of distinguished statesmen and scholars. One of their sons was Vicente Riva Palacio, a major historian in the nineteenth century, who is a secondary focus of this book. In 1849 Guerrero’s home region was separated out from three other states to become the state of Guerrero, the first Mexican state to be named after a person.
For the specialist, Vincent’s book adds nothing new about Guerrero himself. He does, however, have a very solid point, if too frequently repeated, that Guerrero’s dark skin color and determination to incorporate the masses into the new republic made him a figure of fear for the white elite in central Mexico, which in turn guaranteed he would be one of the overlooked figures in the early historiography. A mule driver in his youth, Guerrero represented the peasant and mixed race poor of Mexico and their aspirations for political and economic equality, and his vitality as a symbol is undiminished today. He was perhaps Mexico’s first genuine revolutionary. He was a congenial man, personally honorable and dedicated to his people, his soldiers, and his family. He was catapulted into the presidency, possibly against his wishes, by a people’s uprising in Mexico City after he lost the 1828 presidential election (at the time, the president was elected by the state legislatures). Though president less than a year, he abolished slavery, expelled the Spaniards from the country, and successfully fought off an attempted Spanish invasion in 1829. His vice president, Anastasio Bustamante, allied with the most conservative forces of central Mexico, betrayed and overthrew him in 1830. He was treacherously captured and executed in 1831. What Guerrero always represents, then, is a region, a cultural and physical minority of people of color, and a radical populist demand for mass democracy. He has remained an enormously appealing symbol of radicalism and the demands of the non-white people, an advocate of popular sovereignty.
I am profoundly sympathetic to Theodore Vincent’s argument in this book that Guerrero was more important than the literature recognizes, not only for his actual biography but also for the regional and cultural elements in the Mexican mosaic that he represented. The problem is, Vincent tries too hard to advocate his thesis, hazardously conflating concrete elements of history with less demonstrable elements of class, culture, race, and identity. In the course of the book, Vincent argues first that perhaps 10% of late colonial Mexico was Afro-Mexican; as the book proceeds he begins to talk about Afro-Indo-Mexicans, and by the latter parts of the book he insists that a majority of modern Mexico is “dark skinned mixed and assimilated Indigenous” (229). Who exactly is he talking about? Vincent sees the failure of early Mexican census data to record race as part of a conspiracy of white elites to deny the existence of dark mixed people, but historically it is simply a...