Brückmann on Gonzales and Lamadrid, 'Nación Genízara: Ethnogenesis, Place, and Identity in New Mexico (Querencias Series)'

Moises Gonzales, Enrique R. Lamadrid, eds. Nación Genízara: Ethnogenesis, Place, and Identity in New Mexico (Querencias Series). Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2019. xxviii + 359 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8263-6107-3

Reviewed by Rebecca Brückmann (Ruhr-Universität)
Published on H-NewMexico (July, 2020)
Commissioned by Tomas Jaehn (Special Collections/Center for Southwest Research)

Printable Version:

The Endurance of Memory: Genízaro Identity and Culture through the Centuries

On June 15, 2020, Rio Arriba county authorities removed the Juan de Oñate statue in Alcalde, New Mexico. The statue of New Mexico’s first governor was taken down to prevent a potential toppling during antiracist protests. Indeed, the conquistador’s bronze rendition has been attacked multiple times since its installation in 1991. Mirroring Oñate’s method of torture against indigenous male captives in the 1598-99 Acoma War, the statue’s right foot was cut off in 1998. As colonial governor, he enslaved Acoma Pueblo men and women over the age of twelve for twenty years. Eight years after his first arrival, Spanish colonial authorities banished him for life from New Mexico. They considered the violence against indigenous communities extreme, even by late sixteenth-century standards. Questions of New Mexico’s precolonial and colonial heritage, of ancestry and belonging, and of racialization and transculturation are entwined with the history of the state’s settlement and its memorialization. In recent years, the narrative of New Mexico’s and the Southwest’s duality—combining a distinct Spanish heritage and a distinct Native American heritage—has come under scrutiny.

In Nación Genízara, Moises Gonzales (associate professor in the Community and Regional Planning Program) and Enrique R. Lamadrid (professor emeritus of Spanish) from the University of New Mexico assembled the works of eighteen “activist scholars” (p. 6) to bridge this duality. The edited volume provides multi- and interdisciplinary approaches to the history, memorialization, cultural practices, art, language, socioeconomic status, and archaeology of Genízaros in New Mexico and southern Colorado from the eighteenth century until the present day. As such, the volume is the first collection that focuses exclusively on excavating and explicating the history and identity of a social group who made up a third of New Mexico’s population by the early nineteenth century. Genízaros’ self-consciousness as a sociocultural group, so the volume argues, persisted under Spanish, Mexican, and US-American rule. Nación Genízara developed out of an advanced seminar in Santa Fe and community symposium in Abiquiú in 2016. Its editors understand the book as “a new resolana, a collective forum on the plaza” to debate and contest “hegemonic Hispanophile or ‘Spanish American’ identity” through an examination of Genízaros, whose history “blurs the line of distinction between Native and Hispanic frameworks of race and cultural affiliation” (p. 15).

The volume starts with a foreword by Estevan Rael-Gálvez, New Mexico’s former state historian who in 2007 authored the state Senate’s Memorial No. 59 in recognition of Genízaros. His opening statement is followed by the editors’ introduction of the etymological origin of the term Genízaro and its people’s early history, and thirteen topical chapters. The epilogue draws out the anthology’s personal and political implications. The structure is roughly chronological and topically organized in three parts. The volume first offers historical, anthropological, sociological, and archaeological approaches to Genízaro history and multidimensional, hybrid identity, which analyze census data, colonial and territorial papers (particularly petitions and land grants), maps, church records, and other genealogical sources, including birth and marriage records. The anthology’s second part features cultural and ethnographical studies, including examinations of religious practices and folk rituals, such as the Matachines dance, attire and cultural practices, novels and poetry, and songs. Finally, there are autobiographical and genealogical pieces, introduced as “testimonio, the testimonial narrative of family and community memoir” (p. 6). Overall, the volume serves as a compilation of Genízaro history, identity, culture, and memorialization. Nación Genízara “recapitulates” (p. 6) the Genízaro scholarship from the previous century, offering a number of reevaluations and additional insights, and serves as an introduction to Genízaro history as well as a contribution to ongoing debates on cultural identities in the Southwest.

The book’s first part introduces the reader to the emergence and early history of the term and the formation and consolidation of a Nación Genízara in New Mexico in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Derived from “yeniçeri,” a fourteenth-century description of captive children who later served as soldiers in the Ottoman Empire (p. xvi), the term evolved to Janissaries and, finally, the Hispanicized title Genízaros in the New World. Alongside the term criado, the term served not only as an identifier for a caste of enslaved indigenous people but developed into an “ethnonym” for a “low-caste” group of mixed-race people, “the racially and culturally hybrid” (p. 1). The term and the caste system were officially abolished with Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, but the use of the term persisted, often as a racialized slur that was supposed to denote a combination of poverty and indigeneity. Gonzales and Lamadrid argue in their introduction in reference to sociologist Tomás Atencio’s work that “a distinct ‘genízaro consciousness’ emerged in the early 19th century as a political and cultural identity” (p. 4), which directly counters earlier historiographical claims that with the disappearance of the term Genízaro, self-awareness had disappeared as well.

Gonzales and Lamadrid remind the reader that the social group called Genízaros was established through the abduction of children from diverse indigenous communities, including the Apache, Navajo, Ute, Kiowa, Comanche, and Pawnee, who were enslaved to serve in households or as farmhands. Genízaros’ indigenous kinship ties were severed, they were Christianized, and they took on Spanish names. After the New Laws of the Indies abolished indigenous enslavement, “the doctrine of guerra justa (just war) enabled the taking of insurgents as captives” while describing them as “rescues” (p. 1). In New Mexico, Rael-Gálvez argues in his foreword, “an entire parallel vocabulary … was used as a euphemism for slavery” which disguised the plight of thousands of indigenous enslaved people in the Southwest (pp. xvi-xvii).

Genízaros gained their freedom upon marriage or after fifteen years of enslavement, and their children were freeborn. Cut off from their indigenous kin, free Genízaros established their own communities, and many became soldiers, scouts, and guides for expeditions. Genízaro settlements often served as “buffer zones” between nomadic tribes and Spanish settlements, and thus served “a strategic military function for the province” (pp. 3-4). The first Genízaro land grant was established in Belén in 1741, and a number of the volume’s authors stress that Genízaros’ communal action evidenced in group petitions for land show their self-conscious agency as a community. Ethnogenesis, Charles M. Carillo states, is ”a process by which a social group comes to regard itself or be regarded as a distinct people,” and, referring to Marshall Sahlins, while this process is “externally introduced,” it can be “indigenously orchestrated” (p. 165).

The examinations of seventeenth-century agricultural practices of Tlaxcalans and other non-Pueblo natives near Santa Fe by Ladmadrid, Tomás Martinez Saldaña, and José A. Rivera, the eighteenth-century settlement of Belén and its connections to pueblos by Samuel E. Sisneros, and Ramón A. Guiterrez’s study of the Genízaro roots of the nineteenth-century fraternal organizations Hermanos Penitentes offer a long trajectory of transcultural space and identity formations in the region. The crux of the matter often lies in the fragmentary sources, however, which lead to a number of factual repetitions throughout the volume because of the authors’ inevitable reliance on similar material and historical context. The volume also treats some topics too briefly. For example, the experiences of Genízaras are only introduced by Christina Durán and Virginia Sànchez with essays on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Genízera women in New Mexico and enslaved indigenous women in southern Colorado. Indeed, there is a lot of speculation going on in some of the essays. Moises Gonzales, in contrast, pieces together a differentiated, riveting narrative of Genízaro communities in the Sandía Mountains through an interdisciplinary approach and source mix.

The volume’s second part, which emphasizes cultural and folklore approaches to historical and present-day Genízaro identity, is also fruitful. Through visual sources of Miguel A. Gandert’s photo essay, Michael L. Trujillo’s analysis of G. Benito Córdova’s work, and Levi Romero’s examination of Nuevomexicano poetry and songs, the volume connects its first part’s historical, anthropological, and sociopolitical approach to the immediacy of cultural practices and experiences, including their present-day expressions in Genízaro communities. The authors introduce the reader to artistic expressions and long-practiced rituals, including the Matachines and the Comanche dances that express the community’s understanding of history, identity, and spirituality.

The book’s third part delivers testimonies in the form of an (auto)biographical narrative by Susan M. Gandert as well as a report of the use of genetic testing for genealogical research by Miguel A. Tórrez, research technologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Laudably, Tórrez introduces both advantages and criticisms of DNA “evidence” to reconstruct tribal affiliation and identity, and he states that genetic testing should work in tandem with ethnography and personal narratives to establish identities. At the same time, the idea of “blood” and supposed “Native” looks, which occasionally reverberates through the volume, is contestable. DNA testing does not reveal “race” or ethnicity, because there are no biological markers for either. Instead, it offers ideas about geographical ancestry; other implications border on biological essentialism. There is also a type of romanticization that crops up sporadically, as for example in Levi Romero’s description of “interrelationships that bore a new Indo-Hispano mestizaje” and his assertion that “these two cultures created a model of coexistence that can serve as an example for cultures across the world today” (pp. 289, 292). Such statements belie the descriptions of power relations, violence, and sexual assault explicated in other essays in the volume. In his essay on “Cultural Systems of Slavery in the Hispanic Southwest,” William S. Kiser astutely observes similarities and differences between forms of slavery in the New World, but some passing remarks throughout the volume seem to trivialize chattel slavery. In his foreword, Rael-Gálvez states that “the story of enslaved and emancipated Africans” had “largely defined nearly every aspect of our nation’s history, including the various racial constructions that render nonwhites and nonblacks invisible to this day” (p. xvii). There is something to be said about the historical and present-day impacts of Black hypervisibility, the supposed dichotomy between Hispano and indigenous heritages in New Mexico, and the narrative of separate “triculturalism” of the Spanish, mestizo, and indigenous that Genízaro identities contradict, and yet they perpetuate the assumed division in another form. Only in Teresa Córdova’s epilogue on the political implications for organizing, the power of Atzlàn, and the twentieth- and twenty-first-century Chicana/o movement are Afro-Latinas/os mentioned (p. 341). Given the centrality of the experience of enslavement, it seems curious that the enslavement of Black people (and indigenous forms of the enslavement of Black people) either remains a footnote or, with the exception of Kiser’s contribution, is used as a distancing tool. In addition, connecting the volume’s analyses with the history and identity formation of the mixed-ancestry North Carolinian Lumbee tribe would have also been conducive.

Nonetheless, this volume is a valuable, multidimensional, comprehensive, and yet accessible contribution to the history of Genízaros in New Mexico. It offers a variety of perspectives and differentiates the memorialization of New Mexico’s heritage, bridging the artificial divide between Hispanic and indigenous ancestry. Most importantly, the volume clearly shows that prior claims that Genízaro identity and culture were lost after 1821 are false and, instead, documents a complicated, and vibrant ongoing history and an active present-day community. Nación Genízara portrays processes of transculturation in colonial and territorial history and adds a significant aspect to the historiography of different forms of slavery in the “New World.” Finally, the volume not only offers a variety of multi- and interdisciplinary methods, it also provides source excerpts, including maps, tables, and substantial lists of people named Genízaros, which affords valuable insights and information for students and researchers alike. Nación Genízara tells a story of sociocultural resilience and, indeed, the “amazing endurance of memory” (p. 338).

Citation: Rebecca Brückmann. Review of Gonzales, Moises; Lamadrid, Enrique R., eds., Nación Genízara: Ethnogenesis, Place, and Identity in New Mexico (Querencias Series). H-NewMexico, H-Net Reviews. July, 2020.

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