“Juneteenth has never been a celebration of victory, or an acceptance of the way things are. It’s a celebration of progress. It’s an affirmation that despite the most painful parts of our history, change is possible–and there is still so much work to do.”-Barack Obama
This year, Juneteenth comes just after a series of events that have put the Black Lives Matter movement at the forefront of the world’s attention. Although I was aware of the holiday, I knew little of its history and festivities. The goal of Juneteenth 2020 in our home was to learn more, and we learned a lot, including that Juneteenth crosses over into Mexico.
So what exactly is Juneteenth? The name itself is a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth,” and it’s referring to the events of June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger finally arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce the end of the Civil War and slavery. While this was great news, it was two and a half years late. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued on September 22, 1862, and would go into effect on January 1, 1863. This announcement and this date became the symbolic marker of African American freedom in the United States. Since then, annual celebrations have been held to commemorate Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, and Emancipation Day.
As historian Mitch Kachun said, the celebrations of Juneteenth have three goals: “to celebrate, to educate, and to agitate”. Traditional celebrations include festivals, family reunions, cookouts, rodeos, learning engagements, public readings, church services, sporting events, and more. It is even common to include readings of the Emancipation Proclamation. Nowadays, recognition extends beyond the actual date to a week or even the whole month of June. One of the biggest Juneteenth celebrations takes place in Houston, Texas at Emancipation Park. This particular park is significant because it’s one of the first African American-owned lands post-emancipation. In 2020’s era of global connectivity and social activism, the celebrations are more focused on education and agitation, but they have become worldwide celebrations nonetheless.
As a Mexican-American, I was happy to learn that this date and celebration crosses over into Mexico. At the same time, I was disappointed that this history lesson was nowhere in my formative education or that of my fiance’s, who was born and raised in Texas. A brief history lesson: Slavery has been abolished in Mexico since 1829 thanks to the second president, Vicente Guerrero, who was the son of a black man and an Indigenous woman. Seminoles and escaped slaves known as Black Seminoles (or Mascogos in Spanish) lived in harmony in Florida before it being acquired by the United States. In the pursuit of more lands, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced the Seminoles, Mascogos, and many other tribes from their native lands. And that is not where the injustices ceased, thus they fled Indian Territory and the United States altogether in 1850. Their final settlement was the desert of Coahuila, in the village of Nacimiento, which means “birth.” The Mascogos story only gets more complicated from here as politics and military arrangements in Mexico and the United States scattered the tribe across borders where they remained subservient to the respective governments. One positive outcome of the continued ties was the solidarity with the Black population of Texas, which is why the small town of Nacimiento celebrates Juneteenth.
Juneteenth for them is known as Dia de los Negros and is also a day to commemorate the day of emancipation. In recent years, many Mascogos descendants who have migrated away make the trip back to Coahuila to celebrate this historic date with a day of festivities, traditional garb, and regional food. Celebrations can include anything from a day at the river to dances in the village square. Delicious celebration food staples include soske, a corn-based drink (like atole), tetapún, a sweet potato bread, and empanadas stuffed with pumpkin or piloncillo (a form of pure cane sugar). Typically, you would hear families singing capeyuye, clap-accompanied hymns passed on by their ancestors. Many are concerned that these hymns and other traditions are being lost as generations venture away from their ancestral land. There is a touching story about one of the last remaining matriarchs of the Mascogos, Lucia Vazquez Valdez, who continues to sing the hymns of her great-grandparents in their unique English dialect, though she speaks very little English. Read about Lucia and listen to the hymns here.
While it was great to learn about the Moscogos and the greater meaning behind Juneteenth, the one abundantly clear thing is that the world still has a lot to learn about Black History inside and outside of the United States. Especially history before 1492.
Currently, Juneteenth is not a national holiday – only 47 states observe it as a holiday. To support making Juneteenth a national holiday, sign the petition on Change.org. To learn more about Juneteenth, go to Juneteenth.com. There are many more Juneteenth celebrations around the world learn about and hopefully, we will learn more about them as the Black Lives Matter movement continues.