One of my hobbyhorses is how frustrating it is that our public discussion of race in this country exists primarily on a black-white binary. At least at one university I know very, very well, diversity means African-Americans, as has been very clear to me in the very different ways that the school’s officers and administrators show interest in black job candidates as opposed to how they treat Latino and Native American job candidates, among other things. That makes some sense from a historical perspective of course, but the United States has always been much more racially diverse than black and white. Particularly given that this is a state with a 14 percent Latino population, you’d think that group would be considered equally important with African-Americans in terms of interest in diversity, but it flat out is not.
Of course, this is not an isolated example. In our public discussions of police violence and the prison system, Latinos and Native Americans don’t receive the attention of African-Americans on the left. It’s much the same in our discussion of politics. Some of this has to do with proximity to power–New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, etc. all have very large African-American populations and only New York has a comparable Latino population, although that is changing. Latinos are so concentrated in the border states that it takes on a regional guise and while Native Americans have locally large populations, they tend to be in states with low populations such as New Mexico and South Dakota. With the obvious centrality of slavery to any understanding of American history, this all makes even more sense.
However, even in our discussions of slavery, we leave out a whole lot of stories when we assume it is just African-Americans being enslaved. New Mexico for instance has a whole other complex history that is worth exploring.
Mr. Trujillo is one of many Latinos who are finding ancestral connections to a flourishing slave trade on the blood-soaked frontier now known as the American Southwest. Their captive forebears were Native Americans — slaves frequently known as Genízaros (pronounced heh-NEE-sah-ros) who were sold to Hispanic families when the region was under Spanish control from the 16th to 19th centuries. Many Indian slaves remained in bondage when Mexico and later the United States governed New Mexico.
The revelations have prompted some painful personal reckonings over identity and heritage. But they have also fueled a larger, politically charged debate on what it means to be Hispanic and Native American.
A growing number of Latinos who have made such discoveries are embracing their indigenous backgrounds, challenging a long tradition in New Mexico in which families prize Spanish ancestry. Some are starting to identify as Genízaros. Historians estimate that Genízaros accounted for as much as one-third of New Mexico’s population of 29,000 in the late 18th century.
“We’re discovering things that complicate the hell out of our history, demanding that we reject the myths we’ve been taught,” said Gregorio Gonzáles, 29, an anthropologist and self-described Genízaro who writes about the legacies of Indian enslavement.
Those legacies were born of a tortuous story of colonial conquest and forced assimilation.
New Mexico, which had the largest number of sedentary Indians north of central Mexico, emerged as a coveted domain for slavers almost as soon as the Spanish began settling here in the 16th century, according to Andrés Reséndez, a historian who details the trade in his 2016 book, “The Other Slavery.” Colonists initially took local Pueblo Indians as slaves, leading to an uprising in 1680 that temporarily pushed the Spanish out of New Mexico.
The trade then evolved to include not just Hispanic traffickers but horse-mounted Comanche and Ute warriors, who raided the settlements of Apache, Kiowa, Jumano, Pawnee and other peoples. They took captives, many of them children plucked from their homes, and sold them at auctions in village plazas.
The Spanish crown tried to prohibit slavery in its colonies, but traffickers often circumvented the ban by labeling their captives in parish records as criados, or servants. The trade endured even decades after the Mexican-American War, when the United States took control of much of the Southwest in the 1840s.
Seeking to strengthen the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865, Congress passed the Peonage Act of 1867 after learning of propertied New Mexicans owning hundreds and perhaps thousands of Indian slaves, mainly Navajo women and children. But scholars say the measure, which specifically targeted New Mexico, did little for many slaves in the territory.
Many Hispanic families in New Mexico have long known that they had indigenous ancestry, even though some here still call themselves “Spanish” to emphasize their Iberian ties and to differentiate themselves from the state’s 23 federally recognized tribes, as well as from Mexican and other Latin American immigrants.
The pure Spanish blood myth comes from racism and classism within elite New Mexican society that was framed by the need to claim whiteness after the United States took over when we stole half of Mexico to expand slavery in the 1848. With the position of the Mexican elite declining in California, New Mexico, and Texas, claiming pure blood became a way to justify holding on to power in a way that white Americans understood. But this was almost always a lie. Indigenous roots are in most Mexican people, no matter on which side of the border they reside. Indian slavery was not confined to the Southwest either. Native Americans were enslaved across the Americas. If we are teaching the history of slavery and not talking about Native Americans and New Mexico, we are not teaching the whole of American slavery. For that matter, if we talk about colonial America and we do not discuss New Mexico right there with Massachusetts and Virginia, we are not teaching about our past correctly. Just like if we think of race in modern America as fundamentally about African-Americans and whites, we are not dealing with the complexity of the present, especially in a nation with rapidly changing demographics, for all that Donald Trump, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, John Kelly, and the fascists in ICE are trying to halt that.