In 2008, the US (and many around the world) celebrated the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. He was deemed the very first “Black president of America,” and although it’s clear they meant America as the US, the title isn’t correct. Considering America as an entire continent (with its own divisions in itself) we can say that the first black president (even in North America) wasn’t Barack Obama, but Mexico’s third president Vicente Guerrero 180 years before Obama.
The acknowledgment of Guerrero as the first black president in the continent (Jean-Jacques Dessalines became emperor of Haiti before in 1804) is recent since his figure in Mexico’s official history was put under a whitewashing treatment until quite recently. Paintings and written accounts of his life and deeds showed him as a white, slightly brown, person with fine features, even though contemporary documents described him as a black man.
Not only that, he was constantly racially discriminated against, which only made him more eager to raise his voice and fight for his people’s freedom and respect. So, who was this man that passed into Mexico’s history as a national hero but that his identity was deliberately erased?
Who Was Vicente Guerrero?
Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña was born in 1782, to an Afro-Mexican father and an indigenous mother, in the village of Tixtla near Acapulco (the state where he was born was given his name, Guerrero). From a very early age, he developed his sense of justice and will to fight against oppression. Life in colonial New Spain (Mexico) was based on a caste system with the most intricate divisions and categories.
Vicente Guerrero was born into a specific group that merged African and indigenous roots. Both had shared their traditions and customs into one but were also victims of extreme poverty and invisivilization. For Guerrero, this was inadmissible and since childhood became quite vocal about equality.
An Activist Since Childhood
As a child Guerrero worked as a mule driver, a job most black and indigenous people were allowed to do. He was inspired by the priest of his town, Father Saucedo, who decided to break all caste rules and omit to design the racial status of newborns when baptized. Back in those days, the certification of baptism was used as official documents, and the race it indicated would determine the amount of taxes they had to pay or even if they had to engage in military duties. Father Saucedo, decided not only to omit to put their race, but he actually enlist them as Spanish to avoid both taxes and military duties.
Father Saucedo’s actions inspired young Guerrero who had also found quite an activist in his father. Pedro Guerrero was very vocal against slavery and according to the story, he was responsible for convincing one of his slave-owning customers to free is over 400 slaves. So, since he was a boy, Guerrero started a lifetime activist job not only to help indigenous and black people but to raise conscience on equality, a flag he would wave all his life.
Vicente Guerrero’s Part in Mexico’s Independence War
His biggest opportunity to take his activist work to the next level came with the outbreak of the Independence War. When the insurrection broke out in 1810, Guerrero was working as a gunsmith in his natal Tixtla. In the south, the movement was led by José María Morelos, a priest with a similar ideology to Guerrero, and who, according to some theories, also had black roots.
As soon as Guerrero joined Morelos, it was clear that he had a fierceness that made him stand out from the rest. He soon became quite close to Morelos and when the priest was captured Guerrero took over the leadership. The pride he had about his identity inspired other southern Afro-Mexicans and Native people to join the fight against the Spanish yolk.
During the Independence War Guerrero led and defeated the Spanish army in 491 battles in a lapse of eleven years between 1810 and 1821. However, he never took the credit for them. He would often be heard saying that it had been “the people who fought and triumphed.” Still, the number of victories he had, made him a notable figure and a fearsome enemy for the Spaniards to the point that they took his father and sent him to implore his son to stop the fighting. Again, he refused in his famous quote, “I have always respected my father but my Motherland comes first.”
By 1820, the insurgent band had a clear advantage over the Spaniards. In a desperate move, the royal band sent their most talented leader, Agustín de Iturbide to defeat Guerrero, but not even their best soldier could handle the fierce and valiant leader. Seeing that the royal army was close to being defeated, Iturbide accepted Guerrero’s offer to join forces against the Spanish and settled with a famous hug that passed into history as the Abrazo of Acatempan, and a signed treaty known as the Plan de Iguala.
Their army became known as the Army of the Three Guarantees, and together they drafted the Plan de Iguala in which they proclaimed independence from Spain. Not only that, Guerrero made sure to add into the treaty that the caste system that had ruled for centuries was to be abolished. Clause 12, to be specific, dictated that “All inhabitants… without distinction of their European, African, or Indian origins are citizens with full freedom to pursue their livelihoods according to their merits and virtues. Together, in 1821, they entered Mexico City putting an end to an eleven-year war.
President Vicente Guerrero
Iturbide was named Emperor of Mexico in 1823 in what was supposed to be a constitutional monarchy, but sick with power, Iturbide took control of the country to himself. Guerrero joined rebel Nicolás Bravo against Iturbide and started an uprise against the government in the south of the country. Although their forces were decimated by Iturbide, his empire fell that same year and Guerrero was named one of the three rulers of the Constituent Congress.
In 1829, after years of military success, he was named president of Mexico, after defeating his rival Manuel Gómez Pedraza. He imposed a liberal government whose foundations are still followed today. Among his merits in office, he founded public schools and supported the arts and the sciences. He taxed the rich and aided small businesses to thrive. Not only that, he ended the death penalty all over the country and allowed small cities and towns to have their own representatives which could be elected by the people regardless of race, property ownership, literacy, or even social and economic class. Naturally, he reinforced his proclamation from the Plan de Iguala to abolish slavery in the country.
Sadly, in less than three years of government, his liberal and progressive ideas became his undoing.
Treason and Death
In December of 1830, his rivals grouped and revolted against him overthrowing him from office. He tried to take back the presidential chair organizing a rebellion, but he was betrayed. According to the story, vice president Anastasio Bustamante, paid a sailor a good amount of gold to capture Guerrero. The Genovese sailor, Francisco Picaluga, invited Guerrero to his ship for a special dinner, and once they were off-guard, the ship sailed leaving him without escape.
The ship arrived at the coast of Huatulco in Oaxaca, a neighboring state, where he was shackled and imprisoned for two months. He was tried and sentenced to die. On February 14, 1831, Vicente Guerrero, hero of the Independence and third president of the country, was executed on the church Villa de Cuilápam.
A contemporary author, wrote this when he learned about his death:
“There you have Guerrero; that man whom the greatest nations of the earth envy us. For whom setbacks were reasons to be faithful, for whom hope was a reason to persevere, for whom misery was not an obstacle, for whom family was not a chain tying him to the post of inaction, for whom envy was an unknown feeling, for whom cowardice was a vain word, for whom food was in the forests and ammunition in the enemy’s cartridge cases.”
Racial Discrimination and Whitewashing
Although a passage like the one above shows that Guerrero was a loved and inspiring figure for many, he also had several detractors who didn’t only want him out of the picture for his liberal ideas but also for the color of his skin and his identity.
Contemporary painters and writers mocked him and his origins in their works later on, once he made it into the history books, his image was whitewashed describing and portraying him as a man with light-brown skin, slim features, and straight hair. The attempt to erase completely his origins that made him pride, was successful to the point that for decades, it was simply assumed he was a white man.
Vicente Guerrero’s Legacy
Although he’s highly remembered as one of the fathers of the nation for his job during the Independence War, for him one of his best deeds was the abolition of slavery. He boosted the proclamation four years before Canada (1833) and over three decades before the US (1865). As a matter of fact, doing so became quite problematic in territories like Texas where the US influence of slave owners ended up expecting the then Mexican state from this order.