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Essay: African and Afro-descendant Women in Mexico City during the Colonial Period

Written by Maria Elisa Velázquez Gutierrez PH
Translated by Wiley G. Barnett

If little is known about the presence of Africans in Mexico, less is known about the participation of Mandinga, Wolof, or Bantu women, among the many groups of African women who arrived in Mexico and whose participation was decisive for the economic, social, and cultural development of the country. It is calculated that around 250,000 Africans were introduced to New Spain, of which about 80,000 were women. This figure does not include those who entered as contraband or the Creoles, that is, those born in Mexican territory. Numbers revealed by researchers of this topic demonstrate that in the second half of the sixteenth century and the first decades of the seventeenth, Mexico was the Hispanic country that received the largest number of Africans.

The African women and their descendants played a decisive role in the construction of Mexican society. Many of them worked in the farms of the times, in particular the sugar plantations that proliferated in states such as Morelos and Veracruz, cutting sugar cane, piling up the sugar cane, and doing other field labor. Their insertion in the regional economy, while barely recognized by the historiography, was relevant, and it is demonstrated by Adriana Nevada, whose research highlights that the men and women slaves of the sugar ranches represented 30 percent of the invested capital in these units of production at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In the cities these women occupied jobs as housekeepers, cooks, and wet nurses, functions intimately linked with the everyday lives of the people who hired them, mostly Spaniards and Creoles. Many African women and Afro-descendants were in charge of raising the children of their masters, creating relationships of affection and recognition. For the most part, the Afro-descendants, once free, worked in the cities of New Spain, carrying out different tasks. Many of them were merchants of different products in permanent and temporary markets known as “tianguis” in Mexico. Others worked as cooks and were in charge of “public dining rooms.”Others worked as healers, midwives, or in manufacturing, many times serving sentences imposed by the Inquisition. And lastly some worked as auxiliaries working with pottery, tailoring, and shoe making. Some of them were able to obtain jobs as teachers and others had access to economic conditions that were to a certain extent advantageous in relationship to other sectors, mostly through marriage.

A number of stigmas and stereotypes were associated with women of African origin: violence, rebelliousness, colors, laughter, sensuality, maternity, submission, witchcraft are some of the images that these women evoked when we review the literature, works of art, and documentation sources of the viceroy period. But basically two extreme ideas, distinct yet complementing each other, seem to have been part of the occidental concept of the feminine during those times (and even to the present day). These ideas included, of course, African women and their descendants. One idea, which was inherited from primitive Christianity and medieval thought, characterized Eve, and hence all women, as “an instrument of the devil,” as inferior, perverse, as the supreme temptress. The other idea alluded to the worldly lady, the ideal Amazon on horseback, that in Spain, by the fifteenth century reflected the romantic counterpart of the Virgin cult. This contradiction between subjugation and adoration was transmitted for centuries and became part of the feminine ideology of New Spain. Juan Luis Vives, an educator in the sixteenth century, said, “Everything good and everything bad in this world, one can say without fear of making a mistake, comes from women. . . .”

Obviously the African women of Muslim and animist cultures had a different concept of themselves and of their work in the family and community. Even today, these stereotypes are reflected in the popular culture of our society. Rarotonga, a protagonist of a Mexican short story of the 1950s called “Lagrimas y Risas,” was a sensual, beautiful, proud, and dominant woman; in contrast, Mama Dolores, the protagonist of a famous movie titled The Right to Be Born, was a dedicated mother and a docile victim who was capable of any sacrifice.

The truth is that several practices and customs of the African women and their descendants in relation to their attire, their character, their behavior, and certain cultural traditions were criticized and seen with suspicion during the viceroyalty. Gestures, ways of wearing clothes, ways of dancing, but mostly the posture and presence of the women of African origin claimed the attention of chroniclers who visited New Spain during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Slaves expressed their customs and their resistance to slavery in their daily lives through practices that Europeans considered blasphemous and/or witchcraft. Many Africans and Afro-descendants, especially women, were accused by the Inquisition of committing acts against the Christian faith by using herbs, charms, and magic to obtain love, cure illnesses, or cause harm to their masters. For example, the documenting sources testify that in Mexico City the largest number of women accused of witchcraft by the Inquisition were women of African origin.

A great number of cases provide information about this situation, among them a document of 1577, concerning a report against a woman of African origin who was accused of “making a lot of money” on the basis of making, as specified in the file, “ . . . superstitions, witchcraft, prayers and conjuring, reprehended by the Holy Mother Church, mixing with these, mass and other sacred things invoking the demons having tacit pact with them or tacit to be able to understand and force secrets from men’s hearts and make their wills surrender. . . .” Many others were accused of serving as “alcahuetas,” for example the slave of Luis Martin de Carvajal, for using the “. . . habit of lying, and giving beverages to many people so that they turn crazy and without sanity so they love the women with whom they deal preparing beverages and witchcraft and giving them chocolate to drink to such people, to make them do these things. . . .” To insult or to speak against the Christian precepts was a form of resistance to subjugation, which such speakers paid for with abuse and punishment from the Catholic Church.

Freedom was obtained through different means. Because slavery was transmitted through the mother, many male slaves would get involved in domestic partnerships, legitimate and illegitimate, with indigenous women so that their children would not be slaves. Female slaves would enter into relationships with Spaniards or Americans, achieving in certain cases the recognition of their children by the children’s fathers, who frequently granted their children freedom. Close and affective relationships that developed between masters and slaves, especially in urban settings, led many masters to grant freedom to their slaves, fundamentally to women who had breastfed them or raised them. It was also common for slaves to buy their freedom after years of service. The census from this period reflects the communal living and mixture of the different groups: families were integrated by indigenous women and mulattos, by black women with mestizo children, or by indigenous women, Spaniards, and Afro-descendants. Various testimonies reveal the complex social and cultural processes that existed. For example, in my research about women of African origin in Mexico City, I found documents about one African Wolof who had been able to obtain his freedom and who owned land and other property, as well as several slaves. The Wolof also had a slave daughter, a mulatta, who asked his support to obtain her freedom. The life of Juan Correa, the famous baroque painter of the seventeenth century, also illustrates the integrated nature of life during this time. The mulatto artist was one of the preferred artists of the times; his works were in demand all over the territory of New Spain and he was even elected to decorate the sacristy of the Cathedral in Mexico City. He was a teacher in his own workshop and a director of his guild, a position that was given only to individuals recognized for their integrity and their artistic trajectory. Correa captured, in his art, images of “little angels” and the “God child” with the physical features and coloring of Afro-descendants, something that was very unusual in that period but apparently was allowed. Correa had a slave woman at his service while at the same time he was contributing economically toward the payment for the freedom of his nephew, who was a slave. These examples, among many others, demonstrate that in spite of the segregation that existed in that period, at least until the middle of the eighteenth century, the color of one’s skin was not an insurmountable obstacle to better economic and social conditions and to close, affective, and working relations with the different ethnic groups. The “pseudoscientific” racism generated by the intense commerce of African slaves during the eighteenth century, which was supported by some ideas from the school of rationalism based on the superiority of some races over others, promoted new negative ideas about Africans and justified their exploitation and the inhuman traffic that had its peak from that point on. However, when these ideas were brought to America, the mixing of races was already an undeniable reality in Mexico.

About María Elisa Velázquez Gutiérrez
María Elisa Velázquez Gutiérrez is a researcher and Professor in the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) where she coordinates since 1997 the permanent seminar: Populations and Cultures of African Origin of Mexico.

From her multiple texts, stands out a book on Juan Correa´s life, mulatto painter of the XVII century, published by the National Council for Arts and Culture in 1998, as well as the compilation of a book with articles by specialists made to create a balance on the studies of Africans and their descendants towards the end of the millennium, entitled: Populations and Cultures of African Origin in Mexico. This book, published in April of 2005 gives birth to an editorial series dedicated to the theme in the INAH, entitled Africanías. As part of this collection, a book was published in 2006 of her authorship entitled Women of African Origin in the Novohispanic capital, centuries XVII and XVIII. In 2007 she published a book entitled Portraits of Africans and Afro descendants in Guanajuato, centuries XIX and XX by the National Institute of Culture of Guanajuato.

She is in charge of one of the lines of research of the International Project AFRODESC since 2007, which joins researchers from France, Colombia and México. Since February of 2009 she was named by the Director of the UNESCO Vice President of the Scientific International Project The Slave Route of the UNESCO.

  • family griot

    Your essay about African descended women in Mexico city is very informative. I’ve recently discovered through genealogical research on my family that I have Afro-Mexican ancestors. My Afro-Mexican ancestors came to the U.S. and fought in the U.S. Civil War in the U.S. Colored Troops. One thing I’ve been curious about is how they migrated to the U.S. during the mid 19th century. I’m still researching the answer to that. Again, great essay.

  • Mujer de Color

    I wish to thank you for the writings on this topic. Until now, all I had to teach my children about their mixed ancestry was verbal. Your works and efforts have allowed me to add a solid historical background to my words and I am very grateful. I hope that your publications are available as I plan to add them to the family library. Again Thank you Maria Elisa Velazquez Gutierrez!

  • MsG

    Some years ago, when the Los Angeles Opera came to my school to work with my students in presenting a one-act opera entitled LA MULATA DE CORDOBA I became fascinated with this very interesting and somewhat obscure (at least to those of us in the US) legend. Professor Velázquez Gutiérrez’s research certainly speaks volumes to me as it presents historical background upon which this legend came to be and which could be its factual basis as many of the details she discusses are motifs and events in La Mulata. For example in the opera, the very wise and beautiful, Mulata becomes quite prosperous and very much admired by the opposite sex, leading to accusations of witchcraft, an inquisition and her imprisonment. After the Los Angeles Opera introduced and produced this opera with my students, I wanted to find out more about the legend; however, at the time there was not much information available about this very interesting topic. Thank you, Professor Gutierrez, for your very revealing research.

  • Mleah

    For years, my father spoke of his grandfather who lived in the hills of eastern Tennessee who was a Cherokee. DNA testing says that the Native American blood that flows in our veins is not Cherokee but Mayan. I live and work in southern California and I see a bit of mother Africa in most of the Mexican people here.

  • Ana

    Unfortunately, the caste system that was left over from the Spanish colonial days still exists in Mexico, Mleah. The goal for most families is for the children to marry “lighter” and that way bleach the color of the previous generation. Unsurprisingly, African traits appear in this younger generation.

  • SEAD

    Last April when the First Lady visited Mexico some pictures of here experience there appeared on the Huffingtonpost… so I asked the following question and received the subsequent responses:

    Commented Apr 15, 2010 at 23:50:36 in Style
    “So where are the Afro-Mexic­anos? Mexico denies they people the rights and privileges of full citizenshi­p as they are often treated as foreigner due to the ignorance of the ordinary Mexican of Mexico’s history of slavery and forced labor. You could however see the most ridiculous black-face caricature­s on Mexican TV on an almost daily basis.”

    See Shoshana’s response:

    shoshana43 on Apr 18, 2010 at 12:15:37
    “I guess the “Afro-Mexi­canos” are in the same place the Afro-White­s are.

    In other words there is no such thing as what you said.

    Mexico is a sovereign nation and has the right to live as they see fit.
    If you do not approve of how they run their nation it is still their business and none of yours.

    Mexico’s real history doesn’t even resemble what you posted.”

    hypyrwyf on Apr 17, 2010 at 22:42:00
    “You mean like we do here with Latinos?”

    Avere Fede on Apr 16, 2010 at 06:21:45
    “Very interestin­g observatio­n. I’m not at all sure that the average American is aware of the horrible treatment that Afro-Mexic­ans receive in their own country! It seems this issue isn’t one that the First Lady chose to address or even acknowledg­e on this particular trip.”

    Hopefully this helps to dispel the ignorance out there.

  • adriana

    i want to learn more of the aFRO MEXICAN HISTORY IN MEXICO I DOING A PAPER PLS HELP

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