While writing my forthcoming biographical novel, There Will Be Consequences,I struggled with the historical record regarding José Angel Gonzales, rebel leader and governor of New Mexico from August 10 to September 10, 1837. The accounts are unanimous that Gonzales was the son of María Dominga Martín Liston of Taos Pueblo and a mestizo man named José Santos Gonzales. However, they also insist on identifying José Angel as genízaro.

In New Mexico at that time, a genízaro was a person from one of the unchristianized Native groups, or los indios bárbaros—typically the Ute, Apache, Comanche, or Navajo—who had been baptized and now lived among the “civilized” Christians. The term was used both for people who’d been captured directly from these tribes and for their descendants.

What’s odd about the identification of José Angel Gonzales as genízaro is that he almost certainly wasn’t. His father was mestizo, not genízaro. The term mestizo designated someone of mixed heritage, usually Indian and Spanish. It was a different classification from genízaro, which specified the person’s Native ancestry as “barbarous”. José Santos may very well have been the child of a Spanish mother and Pueblo father, or vice versa.

It’s interesting to me that the historical accounts of New Mexico’s 1837 revolt don’t reflect an awareness that José Angel’s forebears may have included Spanish men or women. Instead, he’s labeled genízaro and thus placed firmly in the “barbarous Indian” category. This labeling provides a useful lens for reading the historical record and assisting us in understanding how Gonzales was viewed by his biographers. A “barbarous Indian” was someone a civilized person might do business with, but they weren’t necessarily to be trusted. They wore clothing that was different from the norm and not entirely respectable. They had different customs. Because of this differentness, someone with this heritage might be less than trustworthy and not as cultivated and respectable as people with Spanish ancestors. Gonzales, as genízaro, could be expected to exhibit these traits.

However, that’s not what the historians report. Instead, we’re told Gonzales was a good, brave man but ignorant of politics, that he had a respectable appearance and a reputation as a good buffalo hunter, or cibolero. In fact, according to one early source, Gonzales was named governor because of his hunting skill. Yet, even as the accounts speak of Gonzales’ honesty and bravery, they insist on his ignorance. The fact that he was functionally illiterate—meaning he could sign his name, but little else—is put forth as proof of this “fact.”

These dichotomies of genízaro/respectable, honest/ignorant indicate to me that the historians didn’t know what to make of Gonzales. He was supposedly the descendant of “wild Indians” and yet he had a respectable appearance. He was the leader of rebels who took supplies without paying for them, and yet was honest. He was ignorant and still managed to impress his fellows enough for them to place him in the Governor’s office (there’s no record that he sought the position).

The fact is, Gonzales was far from ignorant. He was a renowned buffalo hunter, an occupation that required deep knowledge of the animals’ habits as well as skill in killing them and getting the resulting meat and hides back home from the plains. Gonzales was also a clever military tactician, leading the rebels to victory in early August 1837 and engineering their successful withdrawal at the Battle of Pojoaque Pass the following January. The insistence on his ignorance is based solely on the fact that he didn’t display the characteristics of Spanish learning, a learning he almost certainly never had access to. Padre Martinez’s school at Don Fernando de Taos didn’t open until Gonzales was an adult and even then wasn’t large enough to provide for every child in the area.

Gonzales was in office barely a month before the ricos from the lower Rio Grande met to plot his ouster. Some of the men at this meeting (including Manuel Armijo) had been in Santa Fe two weeks earlier and watched Gonzales in action as he presided over the Assembly to organize the new government. What had they seen? A man who was honest, who had experience leading men, who was from Taos Pueblo, and who may have had darker skin than they did. And they wanted him out of office. My guess is that it wasn’t Gonzales’s experience on the battlefield that was in question. Clearly, these men had a problem with some aspects of the governor’s person.

So, to answer the question in the title: Yes, I believe the historical record is racist. I realize the historians of the 19th and early 20th century were ensconsed within their world view and couldn’t see past their prejudices, but I have trouble absolving them of their attitude. No matter what Gonzales did, it was going to be wrong, because he was genízaro. I believe the way I’ve portrayed Gonzales in There Will Be Consequences moves beyond what has been written of him in the past to demostrate what even the racist recounting of the 1837/38 events can’t hide: the man’s honesty, ability to think strategically, and deep desire to aid his fellow humans. I hope you’ll agree with me.

4 thoughts on “Is This Historical Record Racist?

  1. Bravo! History is indeed fluid. In fifty or a hundred years someone might well interpret the same material differently based upon their own current times. It’s not easy to read between the lines of some ‘historical’ accounts. Congratulations, I think you got it right.

    Like

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