Becoming 'The First Free Town in the Americas': Claiming and Celebrating Blackness in Yanga, Veracruz

Charlene Conrad Liebau Library Prize for Undergraduate Research

2021 Upper Division Winner: Duncan Wanless

Senior Duncan Wanless spent almost two years researching the fascinating Mexican town of Yanga, which was founded in the 16th century by an African-born runaway slave. The pandemic prevented Wanless from traveling to visit, so he conducted his research from a distance: scouring digital archives, "walking" the streets of Yanga via Google Maps, and reaching out to Mexican scholars. His project, "Becoming 'the First Free Town in the Americas': Claiming and Celebrating Blackness in Yanga, Veracruz," dives into the origins of Yanga and how the town embraced its African past, bucking the tendency of Mexican municipalities to erase and suppress Blackness in their culture and histories. Duncan's most significant concern given emerging pandemic conditions at the time of his research, was how to ethically and sensitively tell the stories of the Yanguenses. Yanga is a rural community, and few of its citizens had their voices digitized. During Duncan's initial research stages, a short 1989 study about the town of Yanga caught his eye. He reports his observation as follows, "In this text, I was introduced to a unique community that celebrated Black history in surprising and fascinating ways. I wanted to know how the town of Yanga had developed such a remarkable local identity in the twentieth century."

Every year I have students interested in writing theses or research papers on Afro-Mexico, but they are stymied by a lack of sources. Duncan Wanless planned to sidestep that problem by focusing on the memory of Afro-Mexico in a small town in Veracruz named after its famous maroon founder Yanga. He initially planned to attend the annual festival and conduct oral histories there, supported by the Haas program, which selected him as a fellow for the academic year 2020-2021. When COVID made that research trip impossible, I thought he might pick another topic, and advised him to do so, but Duncan managed to draw water from a stone and find rare published work through exhaustive searches and networking with Mexican academics. I can’t believe he pulled this topic off!

--Professor Elena Schneider (Source: Faculty Letter, April 15, 2021)


Thank you to Duncan Wanless for sharing his work and photographs, faculty advisor Elena Schneider, Jennifer Dorner, and Liladhar P. for sourcing exhibit materials; Aisha Hamilton for exhibit curation and guidance; Gisèle Tanasse and Nicole Brown from the Library Prize Committee for their feedback and support.