Sierra Silva on Gharala, 'Taxing Blackness: Free Afromexican Tribute in Bourbon New Spain'

Norah L. A. Gharala
Pablo Miguel Sierra Silva

Norah L. A. Gharala. Taxing Blackness: Free Afromexican Tribute in Bourbon New Spain. Atlantic Crossings Series. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2019. Illustrations. xii + 292 pp. $54.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8173-2007-2.

Reviewed by Pablo Miguel Sierra Silva (University of Rochester) Published on H-LatAm (December, 2019) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version:

As the first monograph dedicated to examining Afromexicans’ fiscal obligations, Taxing Blackness examines the contested relationships between free people of African descent, tax collectors, and Bourbon reformers. Norah L. A. Gharala has penned an ambitious study that captures the complexity and regional nuances of Afromexican tributary populations during the long eighteenth century. Through six chapters, the author deftly speaks to the intricacies of Afromexican tribute, family genealogies, and claims to exempt status in urban centers, coastal settlements, and ranching towns. From the tax evaders of Puebla to the increasingly burdened tributaries of San Luis Potosí, black families deployed any number of strategies to decrease their fiscal obligations while claiming lineages that marked their permanence in specific spaces. Gharala makes the case for the rootedness of eighteenth-century Afromexican communities in contrast to their archetypical depiction as colonial vagabonds (vagos). She argues that free people of color deployed differing notions of vassalage, freedom, family, and blackness by “negotiating the effects of the tribute regime using the bureaucracy’s own apparatus” (p. 2).

Gharala is careful to set aside discussions of a nebulous Afromexican “identity” in favor of three interlocking concepts: calidad, blackness, and tributary status. The approach is compelling and reflects the need to devise archival methodologies focused on the particularities of free people of African descent. Within a Mexicanist historiography, studies of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century afrodescendiente populations tend to focus on enslaved Africans and their creole children through the negotiation of slave status, ethnonyms, religious beliefs, and Spanish patronymics. Gharala, by contrast, urges us to consider that at the onset of the Bourbon reforms—and especially during the administration of viceroy Revillagigedo (1789-94)—the Afromexican population was one overwhelmingly defined by freedom and its attendant fiscal obligations. In a context of loyalty and vassalage, then, tributary status could also be understood as “a symbol of freedom from slavery” (p. 38). But few free people enjoyed paying tribute and this was true of impoverished, middling, and upwardly mobile Afromexicans alike. Thus, the author’s focus on calidad—that shifting status marker that encompassed a given individual’s genealogy, public reputation, and extended social sphere—and its manipulation (to attain non-tributary status) allows for productive analysis of New Spain’s fiscal regime.

Through a careful examination of tribute registers, census materials, and petitions for fiscal exemptions, Gharala demonstrates the extent to which Bourbon officials targeted Afromexican tributaries at the end of the eighteenth century. For instance, in chapter 4, the author establishes that the total number of tributaries (indios de pueblo, mulatos, and indios laboríos, or indigenous people living outside formal communities) registered in New Spain increased by 18 percent between 1769 and 1788. During that very same span, the mulato tributary population expanded by 121 percent! Afromexican communities in Chietla, Tancítaro, Autlan, and Colima, to name but a few, bore the brunt of these aggressive taxation efforts. Despite these stunning findings, Gharala does not overreach in her conclusions as she maintains objectivity in assessing the scale of indigenous tributaries. Even as “accountants in Mexico City saw Afromexican tributaries as potential sources of untapped revenue,” what they “expected to gain from charging Afromexican tributaries was never the lion’s share of local tribute payments” (p. 139). Instead, the author provides a robust quantitative platform by which to understand the fiscal burdens leveled on different categories of indigenous people and afrodescendientes alike.

In the final chapters and conclusion of the book, Gharala expands on this fiscal landscape to analyze how Afromexicans constructed claims to community and genealogy up to the early national period. The author is careful to note that Crown officials generated this data with specific fiscal purposes. Nonetheless, the information itself is valuable in understanding afrodescendiente family life and socialization. Based on a sample of eighteen tribute lists, Gharala finds high rates of endogamy among mulato tributaries throughout the viceroyalty at the end of the eighteenth century, although Celaya and Puebla were notoriously exogamous urban centers. She notes that commissioners generally flattened caste distinctions among Afromexicans (negro, moreno, pardo, mulato, lobo, coyote, etc.) as part of a systemic effort to generate homogeneous tributary households. The result was the emergence of a generic tax-paying mulato or mulata, whose descendants would not be able to avert their tributary genealogies. In this regard, afro-indigenous unions, though technically “exogamous by caste, were still endogamous in terms of tributary status and joined individuals within the tributary class” (p. 151).

The author should be particularly lauded for her considerable engagement with recent Spanish-language publications by Yovana Celaya Nández and Rafael Castañeda García. Taxing Blackness converses well with John Chance’s Race and Class in Colonial Oaxaca (1978), Patricia Seed’s To Love, Honor and Obey in Colonial Mexico: Conflicts over Marriage Choice, 1574-1821 (1988), Ben Vinson III’s Bearing Arms for His Majesty: The Free-Colored Militia in Colonial Mexico (2001), and other seminal studies of colonial Mexico. Due to its subject matter, the book should be assigned in advanced undergraduate and graduate seminars. Scholars interested in the history of race relations, freedom, taxation, and the practices and politics of black vassalage and citizenship in the Western Hemisphere will find Taxing Blackness especially insightful. In sum, Gharala has contributed an important study that redefines our understanding of eighteenth-century afrodescendientes, Mexican economic history, and the ambitions of Bourbon reformers in New Spain.

Citation: Pablo Miguel Sierra Silva. Review of Gharala, Norah L. A., Taxing Blackness: Free Afromexican Tribute in Bourbon New Spain. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. December, 2019. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.