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Dallas exhibit spotlights Afro-Mexican hero who rebelled against Spanish rule

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José Maximino Contreras Rivas
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Latino Arts Project
This mural by José Maximino Contreras Rivas titled “La fundación de San Lorenzo de los negros” will be featured in the exhibition at the African American Museum in Fair Park.

A new show at the African American Museum tells the story of Gaspar Yanga, who established one of the first free Black settlements in the Americas.

He led a rebellion of liberated slaves against Spanish colonialists and established one of the first free Black settlements in the Americas, but Gaspar Yanga’s story is still largely unknown.

“Yanga: Path to Freedom In The Americas,” a new exhibition opening at the African American Museum in Fair Park, hopes to shine a light on one of Mexico’s national heroes.

“Yanga’s story is powerful,” said Jorge Baldor, founder of the Latino Arts Project and one of the show’s curator. “It's one that talks about freedom. It talks about overcoming obstacles. His story was intentionally deleted, so what we're doing is giving him his voice.”

A member of the royal family of Gabon, Yanga was sold into slavery in Mexico in the 16th century. Around 1570, he escaped and led a group of enslaved people into the highlands of southeast Mexico in Veracruz. The colony he helped establish successfully fought off Spanish colonists and became an enclave for Afro-Mexicans that now bears Yanga’s name.

The 1,500-square-foot exhibit will also explore the story of the Southern Underground Railroad, the journey made by more than 5,000 enslaved people who fled Texas for Mexico.

"We want this liberation story to impact people of all ages," said co-curator Zameer Jiwani in a statement. "By creating interactive and digital components, we're hoping to engage with young people for whom this history can be an empowering reminder of the importance of seeking and demanding freedom."

The exhibit will also feature dozens of commissioned and collected artworks exploring the Afro-Mexican experience. The works include a nine-foot-wide canvas created by Mario Guzman Olivares, an artist from the Costa Chica area of Mexico.

The Latino Arts Project has secured a slew of collaborations with other North Texas arts groups. Cara Mia Theatre will present a new play called “Yanga” in June, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra will present a concert based on Yanga’s story during Hispanic Heritage Month. Baldor said there’s also an art talk series in the works for this Fall.

The African American Museum will host a grand opening for the community on Saturday, April 9, starting at 6 p.m. The free exhibition will run through the end of October.

Got a tip? Email Miguel Perez at mperez@kera.org. You can follow him on Twitter @quillindie.

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Miguel Perez is an assistant producer at KERA. He produces local content for Morning Edition and KERA News. He also produces The Friday Conversation, a weekly interview series with North Texas newsmakers.