Mezcla del Indio del Pueblo, donde salio un genízaro

(Mixing with the Pueblos, then came the genízaro …) — Cleofes Vigil

The morning sun started to warm the face of the young girl as she awoke, the bright New Mexico sky temporarily blinding her. Already, her mother was preparing a morning meal of toasted elote (corn) and ground up carne seca de cíbolo (dried buffalo meat).

Her father was washing up, dressed from the waist down as he mentally went over the day’s work of hunting deer for the family. Then the earth rumbled, dust rising up, stinging eyes and lips. It was a hunting party, though one not aimed at raiding for animals.

It was stalking humans.

The man was skewered by a lance, blood gushing from his mouth. The girl’s mother let out a terrifying shriek as she was scooped up onto the enemy’s horse. The girl then felt a strong arm wrap her, lifting her onto a galloping horse, the malodorous stench of her captor filling her nostrils. The girl looked back through fire and smoke at her people’s village, never to see it again.

Raiding and hunting. Killing and capturing. By the early 1800s, New Mexico’s genízaro class was a significant and vibrant element of the local population that included mixed-blood Españoles and mestizos, Coyotes and Indios. Español literally means Spanish in New Mexico, but in another part of colonial Mexico, it meant someone who was mixed with Native American but was mostly Spanish in appearance and culture.

Mestizo meant a vibrant mix of Native and Spanish, and Coyote was a person mostly Native with some Spanish. Indios referred to those from the Native pueblos, plus Diné (Navajo), Comanche, Apache, Ute and Kiowa, among others.

Mixed together, these genízaros were a unique class of people born out of a century of warfare and cautiva — captive culture. The term genízaro comes for the old Janissary system used by the Ottoman Turks; Muslims who would take captured Christian boys and train them to be the warriors class for that empire.

Genízaros occupied a space in New Mexico somewhere between the Hispano New Mexicans and pueblos on one side and the nomadic Native communities on the other. And their story is as integral to the state’s history as any.

They were marginalized yet crucial to the survival of New Mexico in the 1700s. And generations later, their cultural contributions would be significant to what is today’s New Mexican Hispano and Native culture and history.

New Mexico in the 1700s was a dangerous place to live for everyone — and its history of slavery and servitude should not be forgotten as the nation celebrates Juneteenth. Nomadic Natives raided Hispano and pueblo villages, killing men and taking horses, women and children captives, usually never to be seen again. Hispanos did the same, raiding and killing nomadic Native peoples.

Native people also raided and killed other Native communities, selling the captives to Hispanos at Taos and Santa Fe through a unique system called a rescate, or ransom. Captured Natives were placed in Hispano households, where they lived in servitude and slavery. This was a loophole, to be sure, as Natives were prohibited from being enslaved in Spanish society.

Still, women and children disappeared in an instant because of these traumatic raids.

Certainly, genízaros were not merely slaves because once they reached adult age they were emancipated and free to settle in their own communities or even among Hispanos at places such as Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque. They also sometimes made their way into pueblo communities.

By the mid-1700s, they had settlements at Abiquiú, Belen, and later San Miguel del Bado. It is significant that, in the 1750s, Gov. Tomas Velez Cachupin settled mixed blood people of Native, Black and Spanish background at places such as Las Trampas and Truchas. Genízaros were part of those frontier communities that served as buffers to protect Hispanos and pueblos from enemies in the mountains and plains.

Genízaros were also explorers, taking part in the expeditions of Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante exploring the Great Basin.

Juan de Rivera’s genízaros also were culture brokers. They lived in two worlds, Hispano and Native, part of both yet not totally accepted by either.

There was never chattel slavery, such as what could be found in the U.S. South. Mexico outlawed slavery in 1829, and the United States in the Civil War era of the 1860s. Yet, captive Natives continued to be part of the New Mexican social fabric into the early 20th century.

Genízaros disappear from records in the mid 1800s, yet are still with us, as a community and in our bloodlines. Cultural expressions such as Los Comanches and Los Matachines give us a glimpse into this most fascinating and traumatic aspect of our state’s history.

Rob Martínez, New Mexico’s state historian, writes a column about the state’s rich past every month in The New Mexican.

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