What is a “Genízaro”?

My August 3, 2020 post discussed the 1837 rebellion in New Mexico and described the rebel governor as genízaro Jose Angel Gonzales. Today, I want to discuss what meant by the word “genízaro.”

In New Mexico in the 1830s, the term was technically outlawed. All racial identifiers had been banned in the 1820s, after Mexico gained its independence from Spain. However, the term was still generally used for people whose ancestors originated in one of the Native American tribes in the region, more specifically the “wild tribes” of the Utes, Apaches, Comanches, or Navajos.

My 1960s-era Spanish dictionary tells me “genízaro” means “composed of different species,” or, in Mexico, “half-breed.”  According to Ruben Cobos’ dictionary specific to New Mexico, in the 1800s, the term referred to the children of non-European parents of mixed blood, or to a non-Pueblo Indian captive rescued by the Spanish settlers.

This term “rescued” is very telling. It underscores the idea that a child taken from a nomadic tribe, baptized Catholic, and raised by Spanish settlers was both saved from hell and given the chance to be “civilized.” This idea a justification purchasing children from tribes that had stolen them from other tribes, as well as capturing them directly. Thus, a Navajo child could be “rescued” from its Comanche captors but could also be “rescued” by stealing it away from its parents.

The resulting group of people formed a useful work force for the Spanish settlers. As adults, they often set up households of their own. In some cases, they banded together in communities at the margins of the Spanish settlements. Some of these—Abiquiu, Jarales, and Carnué, for examplte—still exist.

In recent years, there’s been a resurgence in interest in these communities and their story. The two links below are to videos with more information about this topic.

https://www.npr.org/2016/12/29/505271148/descendants-of-native-american-slaves-in-new-mexico-emerge-from-obscurity

New Book Shares Genízaro Slavery History in New Mexico

This book was released December 1, 2019. You can find it here.

Sources: James F. Brooks, Captives and Cousins, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002; Cassell’s Spanish Dictionary, New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1960; Ruben Cobos, A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2003.

Nomads in New Mexico

If you’ve read Jered Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (or even if you haven’t), you’ll want to watch this. Dr. Montgomery looks at the way violence structured how indigenous communities and Spanish settlers interacted in the 18th century, and uses her findings to argue against much of Diamond’s book. She’s not only an expert in the social, political, and economic practices of the Utes, Apaches, Comanches, and Spanish in the Taos region, she’s articulate and fun to listen to. I hope you like this as much as I did.