For this President’s Day in the United States, we’re honoring the first black president in the Americas. No, not Obama – this guy was Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña, the first black and indigenous president of Mexico. Known as the George Washington and the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico, Guerrero was a leading general in the Mexican War for Independence, and abolished slavery in 1829, forty years before Lincoln would do the same. Not only that, but he came from the “las clases populares” aka the working classes of Mexico, and rose from there to become one of the most influential leaders in Mexican history.
Vicente Guerrero was born in 1782 in the village of Tixtla in the region of Acapulco to Pedro Guerrero, an African Mexican and Guadalupe Saldaña, an Indian. His family was devout supporters of Spanish rule, but Guerrero expressed anti-colonialist sentiment from early on. In November 1810, when the revolution broke out for Mexican independence, he was working as a gunsmith and joined the Revolution in November 1810. Within two years he rose to lieutenant colonel organizing forces in southern Mexico, leading successful campaigns in the regions of Ajuchitán, Santa Fe, Tetela del Río, Huetamo, Tlalchapa and Cuautlotitlán.
One of the most popular stories that took place during Guerrero’s 11 years of fighting happened in 1819, when his aging father begged him to go to the viceroy of New Spain and offer his sword in surrender. Guerrero replied to this request before his men with these words: “Compañeros, this old man is my father. He has come to offer me rewards in the name of the Spaniards. I have always respected my father but my Motherland comes first.” Today, the line, “My Motherland comes first,” is the motto for the southern state of Guerrero, named after him after his death.
Between 1810 and 1821, Guerrero won a total of 491 battles, using guerrilla tactics against the Spanish army. He always credited the victories to his fellow soldiers, however: “It wasn’t me, but the people who fought and triumphed.”
Mexico after its independence, however, became swamped with political turmoil. Guerrero first collaborated with fellow rebel leader Agustín de Iturbide, under the “Three Guarantees” proposal: for Mexico to become an independent constitutional monarchy, for the abolition of the country’s racialized class system between Spaniards, creoles, mestizos and Indians, and for instituting Catholicism as the state religion. Once Itubide became Emperor of Mexico by Congress, however, Iturbide went back on his promises to favor policies toward the elite landowners. Guerrero broke his alliance and sided with Antonio López de Santa Anna and Guadalupe Victoria, who backed the Plan of Casa Mata, which abolished the monarchy in favor of a republic. Iturbide ended up fleeing the country in March 1823 when support for his Empire failed and the 1824 Constitution was passed the following year.
Guadelupe Victoria was then elected the first President of Mexico, and in 1828, Guerrero ran for president against Manuel Gómez Pedraza. Though the upper-class Pedraza won the popular vote, demonstrations against him by the military on December 3, 1828, led by Santa Anna, resulted in him renouncing the position and fleeing abroad to Europe. Guerrero was then instilled as the country’s President on April 1, 1829.
During his brief term as President, Guerrero made sweeping changes to help the working classes and the rights of indigenous peoples. Several policies he instigated including taxes for the rich, protection for small businesses, abolition of the death penalty, and advocacy for villages to elect their own councils of representatives. He was a strong advocate for social equality and signed his correspondence as “Citizen Guerrero.”
Most significantly, however, was Guerrero’s abolition of slavery on September 16th, 1829. That declaration, unfortunately, was the action that led to his downfall. Texas, which was part of Mexico’s territory at the time, threatened revolt, backed by its class of white American slave-holders, and Guerrero later made Texas territory an exception of his declaration. Further dissatisfaction against Guerrero generated from the upper-classes and other ambitious military leaders, such as Santa Anna. Attacks were mounted on members of Guerrero’s appointed cabinet from conservative political factions until his minister of war had to resign. A revolt was staged against Guerrero in December 1830 and he was removed from office. He returned to the southern states to drum up another rebellion in response.
Eventually, Guerrero was captured through a ruse. The new minister of war, José Antonio Facio, paid a Genoese captain fifty thousand pesos to invite Guerrero aboard his vessel in Acapulco. Onboard, Guerrero was kidnapped and taken into custody in Oaxaca for trial. He was executed on February 14th, 1831.
Thus, despite his widespread popularity, Guerrero’s downfall was marked by racial and class fears of the time. History professor Jan Bazant of the Colegio de Mexico summed it up the best: “Guerrero’s execution was perhaps a warning to men considered as socially and ethnically inferior not to dare to dream of becoming president.” Nevertheless, Guerrero today is remembered for his strident nationalism as one of Mexico’s greatest heroes.
Vincent, Theodore G. The Legacy of Vicente Guerrero: Mexico’s First Black Indian President
Elected the first black Indian president of Mexico in 1829, Vicente Guerrero has been called the country’s Washington and Lincoln. This revisionist biography of one of Mexico’s most important historical figures–the person who issued the decree abolishing slavery–traces the impact of race and ethnicity on Mexico’s national identity.
An activist from boyhood and a mule driver by trade, Guerrero led a coalition of blacks and indigenous peoples during the difficult last years of Mexico’s war for independence from Spain, 1810-21. In office, he taxed the rich, protected small businesses, tried to abolish the death penalty, and championed the village council movement in which peasants elected representatives without qualifications of race, property ownership, or literacy; he enjoyed signing his correspondence “Citizen Guerrero.” In 1831 he was kidnapped and killed by his political opponents.
This book also tells the story of seven generations of Guerrero’s activist descendants, including his grandson Vicente Riva Palacio, the historian whose well-known writings elaborate on the ideals of a multiracial and democratic nation. Still in print today, his novels, essays, and five-volume national history are used here to help explain the factors that made the region of “El Sur” a center for political radicals from 1810 up to the revolution of 1910.
For all readers interested in issues of diversity, this book will illuminate the evolving and distinct interactions of Indians, whites, and the descendants of the 250,000 Africans and 100,000 Asians brought to colonial Mexico.
Theodore G. Vincent, a retired history instructor from the University of California, Berkeley, is a former newspaper columnist for the Los Angeles Herald Dispatch. He is the author of four books, most recently Keep Cool: The Black Activists Who Built the Jazz Age, and has published many articles on Afro-Mexico.
Vicente Guerrero on Buscabiografias (Spanish)