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.

Spanish Soldiers Killed on the Plains!

On Sunday, August 14, 1720 Santa Fe Presidio Garrison Lieutenant Pedro de Villasur died on the Platte River during an altercation with Pawnee Indians. Villasur was the leader of a force of Spanish soldiers, Pueblo Indian militia, and several citizens who’d set out that spring on an expedition to the Platte River in what is today’s Nebraska. The expedition was following up on reports that large numbers of Frenchmen were trading with the Pawnee, a tribe which dominated the central plains. This made Mexican officials nervous. Not only did Spanish mercantile policy forbid foreigners from trading within her empire, but the traders from French Louisiana could be providing the Plains Indians with arms and ammunition that could then be used against New Mexico’s settlements.

To find out what was going on, Villasur and his men were dispatched on a fact-finding mission. the reached the plains east of what is today Colorado’s Front Range in mid-August. When they found a large village of Pawnee, Villasur sent a note in to ask for a parlay.

It’s unclear whether there were any Frenchmen in the village to translate the note, which was in French, but the Pawnee didn’t waste any time responding to it. They attacked the next morning.

Villasur was among the first to fall and among the forty-five who died. The few expedition members who survived the battle carried the news back to Santa Fe and seem to have provided the details subsequently recorded in a unique artwork, one of two painted hides  that eventually came into the hands of Jesuit priest Philipp von Segesser von Brunegg.

In 1758 Segesser von Brunegg sent these artifacts to family members in Switzerland. They were eventually sold to the Palace of the Governors Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico and returned to thecity that Villasur and his men departed from over 300 years ago. They are officially known as the Segesser hides.

There’s documentary evidence of other reposteros, or artwork painted on tanned hides, created in Santa Fe during the 1700s and some scholars believe the Segesser pieces were also produced there. Because of the details in the Segesser II hide, the painting that reflects contemporary accounts of the Villasur debacle, it seems clear that the painting was done by people who were familiar with the events.

Augst 14 post ilustration.Segesser detail

The other fascinating thing about this artwork is the way it combines pictorial elements characteristic of indigenous or folk-art paintings while also reflecting influences from European battle tapestries of the late 1600s and early 1700s. The wide borders on the hide painting contain flower and leaf designs similar to of those works.

If you’d like to know more about these unique historical artifacts and the Villasur expedition, the Segesser  hides are on display in Albuquerque, New Mexico through October 20, 2019 as part of a larger exhibit titled A Past Rediscovered. If you can’t make it to Albuquerque, you can view portions of the hide paintings here.

Sources: Marc Simmons, New Mexico, an Interpretive History, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988; Ruben Salaz Marquez, New Mexico, a brief multi-history, Albuquerque: Cosmic House, 1999; https://www.cabq.gov/culturalservices/albuquerque-museum/exhibitions/a-past-rediscovered