SAN ANTONIO — Rather than staying at home in Texas where Juneteenth was first celebrated, Corina Torralba Harrington goes to her birthplace, Nacimiento de los Negros in Mexico, where her ancestors built a community long before slavery fully ended in the United States.
Celebrating Juneteenth in Texas as the day when Union Gen. Gordon Granger declared slaves had been freed is “not our celebration really, because our people freed themselves,” she said, referring to her Black Seminole ancestors, known as Negros Mascogos in Mexico. Negro is the word for black in Spanish.
They found freedom more than a decade before the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and before Granger enforced it in Texas on June 19, 1865.
© Jonathan Israel Castillo Image: Corina Torralba Harrington (Jonathan Israel Castillo / for Telemundo)
“Our celebration is a commemoration to all the people who were free on that day,” Torralba said.
In her Mexican hometown, June 19 is El Baile de los Negros (The Dance of the Blacks) or El Día del Negro (The Day of the Black), she said.
Like Torralba and her extended family, many Americans and Mexicans trace their heritage to enslaved Blacks, whose quest to be free forced them to journey to what is now Florida, where they lived among Seminole Native Americans and sometimes intermarried, later going to Oklahoma and finally to Mexico.
Yet, Torralba didn’t learn about any of this history as a student in Texas. “Growing up in school, I’ve never heard Juneteenth, or, you know the history of the Black Seminoles in Florida,” she said.
Generations later, she and her relatives journeyed to the past, unearthing their connection to the Black Seminole history that spans centuries, crosses borders, combines cultures and is the story of a people’s aching for survival and freedom.
Ashley Rodriguez, 28, of Lubbock, Texas, is the daughter of Torralba’s cousin, Dina Rodriguez. She said she never learned about the Black Seminole of Mexico in any of her history textbooks, but knowing her ancestors where freed slaves connect her to the present.
“A common question that I’ve just grown used to is, ‘What are you?’ because a lot of people, they look at me, and they’ll be like, ‘Are you Jamaican, are you Dominican, are you Ethiopian, are you Black, are you a Blaysian, are you Filipino?'”, Rodriguez said. “And I will tell them strictly, I’m just Black and Mexican or in other words, a Black Mexican … I’m a part of a history that nobody really knows about, even growing up in school.”
The social justice movement that followed the murder of George Floyd by a then-police officer is also about her and other Black Seminole descendants, Rodriguez said. She identifies as Blaxican, a mix of Black and Mexican.
“I am also a part of that community,” she said, “since we are of African descent.”
Unearthing the Black Seminole history
Until 2015, Torralba saw her trips into Mexico as family vacations and reunions.
“All we knew was we were mixed with Black. We didn’t know anything about the Seminole,” Torralba, whose parents were born in Nacimiento, said.
She and her brother traveled in 2015 to Brackettville, Texas — where other descendants of Black Seminoles live, celebrate Juneteenth and hold Seminole Days — to visit their maternal grandfather’s grave in the Seminole Indian Scouts Cemetery, where they learned more about her family’s history.
Torralba’s maternal grandfather, whose Mexican name is Matías Cervantes, is buried in the cemetery as Robert Fay, his name in the U.S.
© Dzilam Mendez Image: A cabalgada, Spanish for cavalcade, during the Dia de los Negros or Juneteenth celebration in the village of Nacimiento de los Negros, Mexico, in 2015. (Dzilam Mendez)
After escaping plantations in Georgia and North Carolina and going to Spanish Florida in the 1700s — where slavery had been abolished — many Black Seminoles joined in fighting with Native Americans against the U.S. in the Seminole Wars. When the U.S. prevailed, it removed the Black Seminoles with Native Americans to Indian Territory, what is now Oklahoma.
Still facing the threat of being returned to slavery, John Horse, who had Black and American Indian lineage, led a group of Black Seminoles and Native Americans on another treacherous journey from Oklahoma to Mexico, where slavery had been largely abolished since 1829.
Several Black Seminoles and Native people settled and rebuilt their lives in Nacimiento de los Negros. They had to defend their settlement, including against raiding Texas Rangers.
After the U.S. Civil War ended, some Black Seminoles returned to Brackettville, Texas. to serve as scouts for the U.S. Army in its wars on Native tribes. The Black Seminoles were headquartered at nearby Fort Clark. When they were forced out of Fort Clark after the wars, Black Seminoles either returned to Mexico or stayed in Brackettville.
A familiar language
Today, Torralba and Rodriguez have made it a mission of preserving and teaching the families’ history and culture.
Dina Rodriguez, Torralba’s cousin, discovered about a decade ago that her great-great-great-grandfather was Pompey Factor, one of four Black Seminole Indian Scouts awarded the Medal of Honor.
“It was mind blowing and an eye-opener for me,” said Rodriguez, 50, of Lubbock, whose mother and father were born in Nacimiento de los Negros. Her father knew Factor was their ancestor, but didn’t know the relationship.
Rodriguez said she was watching a YouTube video featuring her cousin, Bertha Benson, about the Black Seminole language, which Benson said could die out.
© Provided by NBC News Historical photos displayed on a table including in the center a black and white photo of Corina Torralba Harrington’s great grandmother, Effie Payne, whose Mexican name was Felipa Valdes, with her son, Ned Griner, whose Mexican name was Manuel Torralba, in Brackettville, Texas. Bottom right, is a photo of painted rock that marks the direction to Nacimiento de los Negros, Mexico where Juneteenth brings together descendants of Black Seminoles. (Jonathan Israel Castillo / for Telemundo)
Hearing some of the words jolted Rodriguez’s memories of the language her grandmother and great-uncle spoke. They called the language “Seminole” or “Seminole talk”, but it is considered a Gullah language, she said.
“That touched my heart,” she said, becoming emotional. “My grandmother spoke that. My uncle spoke that and I don’t want that language to be lost. That’s part of my history. That’s part of my family.
Rodriguez recalls some of the songs sung by her grandmother, including the Lord’s Prayer. She sings with a lilt and on the refrain, sings what sounds like “Halawala be thy name.”
In Nacimiento, Torralba, Rodriguez and others are refurbishing a room to use as a classroom, where they can teach the history and songs they have learned to children in Mexico. A friend is helping translate the songs to Spanish to help children and others understand what they are singing.
Torralba reflected on the fact that their ancestors’ history involved suffering and loss, but also showed their fortitude and strength.
“Now that I’ve got older and realized what Juneteenth is about, I think of it in, in different perspectives. I think of it as like, my ancestors, freeing themselves from slavery,” Rodriguez said. “Nobody really knows about the Mexican side of it.”
This story is a collaboration with Telemundo News’ English-language streaming show, Radar. For more on Juneteenth, see Radar’s full episode here.