Although this inventory of historic and emergent Genízaro characters and themes in the Nuevomexicano literary imagination is abbreviated, it invites in-depth critical study of a scarcely known facet of the creative writings of the borderlands. In Spanish colonial New Mexico, Genízaros were a class of detribalized, Hispanicized indigenous people originally held as captives and slaves, and their earliest appearance in a literary text dates to the 1780 equestrian play Los Comanches. Twentieth century literatures in which they and their descendants appear are in the work of Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, Rudolfo Anaya, Nasario García, and Jim Sagel. The twenty-first century list includes authors Gilberto Benito Córdova, Leslie Marmon Silko, Lorraine López, Gabriel Meléndez, and Joseph P. Sánchez. Spanish, the first Genízaro lingua franca, is still holding out, but we are all inundated with English, now second nature to us all.
The title of the most recent sociocultural study on Genízaros is telling: Postcolonial Indigenous Performances, Coyote Musings on Genízaros, Hybridity, Education, and Slavery (Gallegos 2017). Officially erased as a designated group after 1821, Genízaros had never fit easily into the mestizo schema of the colonial casta system, since they were not a caste. “Coyote” is the closest casta that approximated their intercultural existence. Likewise, the cartography of Genízaro writing defies easy categorization, occupying hybrid spaces between Latinx, Chicanx, and Native American.
Recent postcolonial and de-colonial theory provides ample framing for viable discussions, using the “methodologies of the oppressed” (Sandoval 2000) to identify “de-colonial voices” (Aldama and Quiñonez 2002). Walter Mignolo defines decoloniality as an array of analytic approaches and political practices “opposed to pillars of Western civilization: coloniality and modernity (2011: xxiv-xxiv).” The exploration of the “decolonial imaginary” (Pérez 1999) is most useful for our project. In a recent foreword, Estevan Rael-Gálvez fully deploys her approach: “In the face of this obscured [Genízaro] reality, and sometimes with nothing more than documentary fragments, the use of imagination as a decolonizing methodology remains a critical imperative in the historiography of any colonized peoples (2019, Foreword).
Until the late anthropologist and novelist Gilberto Benito Córdova stepped onto the national stage as a curator for New Mexico’s 1992 “American Encounters” Exhibit at National History Museum, few beyond those fortunate Nuevomexicanos who had studied Spanish colonial history had ever heard of Genízaros. That same summer on the National Mall, at the New Mexico component of Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife, visitors were privileged to see Genízaros in motion, the amazing dances and multi-lingual songs of Los Comanches de la Serna, from Ranchos de Taos.
With family roots in the village of Abiquiú, Córdova was the first scholar to engage the reality of contemporary Genízaro identity. In an unconventional, undated, unpublished, and never delivered academic paper, he affirms his identity in what anthropologist Michael L. Trujillo calls a “full throated roar” (Trujillo 2019, chapter 11).
I, Gilberto Benito Córdova, proclaim here before all of you that I will shout it from the mountain tops, “I am Genízaro! I am a Genízaro! Soy lo que soy, I am what I am; I am from the past, heading for the future. Soy Genízaro; I am a Genízaro.” And I ask you at this time to proclaim it along with me, “Soy Genízaro; I am a Genízaro and I will keep this beautiful secret a secret no more” (n.d.a 20).
Interestingly, Córdova relied as much on expressive culture as he did on ethnography to communicate his assertions. In his fanciful book, Abiquiú and Don Cacahuate: a Folk History of a New Mexican Village (1973), he proposes the perplexing numskull character, “Sir Peanut” of New Mexican joke lore as an intercultural pícaro ‘trickster.’ But a full literary rendering of Genízaro culture through the picaresque tradition would emerge more than three decades later, with Big Dreams and Dark Secrets in Chimayó (2006), the first Genízaro novel. First, some historical context will help elucidate the fortunes of the most populous indigenous group in the Upper Río Grande, who was almost entirely submerged and erased from the Nuevomexicano cultural imaginary.
In eighteenth century New Mexico the term Genízaro ‘Janissary’ became an ethnonym designating a sizeable sector of the indigenous population, whose descendants are still present in the region. In Nuevo México, Genízaro was an ethnic assemblage of individuals and communities of Natives of mixed origins, mostly Apache, Navajo, Ute, Paiute, Kiowa, Comanche, and Pawnee. They entered Spanish colonial society as captives taken during frequent skirmishes and slave raiding with enemy tribes that surrounded the Upper Río Grande region (Brooks 2002). Some Pueblo groups such as the Tewa-Hopi of Abiquiú became Genízaro by displacement and relocation (Córdova 1979). Long after slavery was outlawed, the doctrine of Guerra Justa ‘Just War’ enabled the taking of dissidents and insurgents as captives and the institution of the Rescate ‘Rescue’ allowed the ransom of Native captives, notably children (Magnaghi 1990: 86). Genízaros were euphemistically “rescued” from their captors, “adopted,” Christianized, and put into the service of Hispano families as domestic and skilled laborers, farm hands, herders, and weavers (Magnaghi 1990: 90).
The Genízaro lived among the Hispano population “in Spanish fashion – that is, having surnames from their former masters, Christian names through baptism in the Roman Catholic faith, speaking a provisional form of Spanish, and living together in special communities or sprinkled among the Hispanic towns and ranchos ‘ranches’ (Chávez 1979: 198).” The same Laws of the Indies that outlawed slavery granted their freedom after 15 years or upon marriage. Many distinguished themselves in armed service as scouts and militia in frontier areas, another reason they were associated with the Ottoman Janissaries. With their geographical and cultural knowledge of the vast plains and mountains surrounding New Mexico, Genízaros also served as guides for expeditions both large and small (Sánchez 1997). After ransomed individuals worked off the debt of their “Rescue,” their children were freeborn, but many Genízaros were re-absorbed into the servitude of debt peonage, and into the extended families of their masters (Rael-Gálvez 2002). Sold or born into slavery, and then into freedom, by 1800 they comprised as much as one third of the Hispano population (Schroeder 1975: 62, Magnaghi 1990: 89, Gutiérrez 1991: 171). Genízaros occupied an ethnic, identifiable space between Spanish, Pueblo Natives, and Mestizos. Some historians assume that the disappearance of the term Genízaro from colonial records meant that the cultural group somehow declined and disappeared as well. What did not disappear until the end of the Apache wars of the 1880s was the taking and trading of captives as a persistent feature of warfare in the borderlands. Truly enough, numbers of Genízaros attached to both Pueblo and Hispano communities merged with those groups from below. However in several communities socially and geographically insulated in remote or mountainous areas by their land grants, Genízaro historical and cultural memory has persisted through ritual practice, custom, and self-governance (Gandert et.al. 2000, Lamadrid 2003, G. Gonzales 2017, M. Gonzales and Lamadrid 2019).
The first inscribed literary callout of Genízaros occurs in the spectacular equestrian play, Los Comanches (1780), celebrated on village plazas across northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, honoring the August 1779 defeat of a supposedly invincible war chief, Cuerno Verde. After an invocation to the four directions before the battle, the Nuhmuhnuh (tribal Comanche) leader’s arenga or battle harangue boldly summons the “valiant Genízaros” as their general.
Pero hoy ha de correr sangre
Del corazón vengativo.
Ea, nobles capitanes,
Que se pregone mi edicto,
Que yo como general
He de estar aprevenido…
[But today blood shall flow
From this vengeful heart of mine…
Your attention, noble captains,
Let my edict be proclaimed.
That I as your general
Will be prepared…]
(Lamadrid 2003: 55)
By the 1770s, many Genízaros had fled Hispano settlements to cast their lot with the prosperous Comanches. Is Cuerno Verde’s call for them to fight the Spanish? Or is it a brash admonition for Genízaros allied with the Spanish that they also face his vengeance? Historically, most Genízaros in Nuevo México defended their own, neighboring Pueblos, and Spanish communities against the Comanches. They were also first in line to trade with them in times of peace.
The only novelistic treatment of Genízaros in an eighteenth century setting is the unpublished historical novella Genízaro: the Legend of Joaquín Mora from Abiquiú, penned by noted Spanish Colonial historian, Joseph P. Sánchez, and written as an exploratory literary exercise between the 1980s and the present. Joaquín Mora, a composite character based on archival accounts of intrepid Genízaros in battles, expeditions, and trade fairs, is present at the death of Cuerno Verde, and participates in major military and exploratory expeditions, including the 1776 Domínguez-Escalante Expedition. The narrative is framed by fictitious interviews in 1880 in San Francisco by legendary historian Hubert Howe Bancroft with an old woman named Manuelita from Abiquiú.
The work of several notable scholars draws from oral and festival traditions, including the indita ballad (Romero 2002: 56-90, P.J.García and Lamadrid 2012), captivity narratives (Brooks 2002, Lamadrid 2015, Rael-Gálvez 2002, Rebolledo 2002), and the region-wide Comanches celebrations (Lamadrid 2003). In the WPA projects of the 1930s, captivity narratives were collected all over the state (Rebolledo 2006: 109-120) and more were published as memoir and oral history (N.García 1992). By the 21st century, fully voiced oral histories referencing slavery have receded into the past, into oral tradition. Since direct transmission of these narratives has eroded with the passage of time, the only expressive forms left are a few ballads and a few fiestas with their ubiquitous but almost silent cautivos ‘captives.’ In terms of expressive culture, the legacy of bondage in New Mexico has passed into the hands of creative writers by the mid-twentieth century.
A teacher and field and County Agricultural Extension Agent, Fabiola Cabeza de Baca as a writer cultivated a hybrid narrative style that Chicana critics have called “folk history” and “community ethnography (Rebolledo 1995: 42-43).” She realized that documenting Indo-Hispano foodways was an ingenious way to tell New Mexico’s deepest stories. Her books raised consciousness and status of regional gastronomy, from low-class cooking to the level of cuisine. She fully contextualized her “recipes” and made them available cross-culturally to American readers in The Good Life: New Mexico Traditions and Food, in print since 1949. Each section of the cookbook is based on a season, with scenes from village life over a year, set in the early twentieth century. By then, although slavery and debt peonage were long abolished, individuals sold or born into servitude were still attached to many extended households, with bonds of blood and family. It is implied that the village curandera “healer,“ Señá Martina, the Herb Woman of Chapter 2, is a woman of unknown indigenous origins. As in colonial census documents, she is known only by her first name plus the abbreviated, but well-earned honorific title of Señora. She freely shares Indo-Hispano healing traditions with her community and attends births and deaths. Then the tradition of silence and euphemisms regarding cautivos and criados (family-raised captives) is broken when Cabeza de Baca uses the word “slave” in reference to Señá Martina.
The old medicine woman seemed so old and wrinkled to Doña Paula and she wondered how old she was. No one remembered when she was born. She had been a slave in the García family for two generations and that was all any one knew. She had not wanted her freedom, yet she had always been free. She had never married, yet she had several sons and daughters. (14).
The earliest literary criticism of Chicana/o writers noticed early on the prevalence and iconicity of the abuela “grandmother” figure, as a family mediator and as a link to the past, often an indigenous past for mestizo cultures (Rebolledo 1983). From the same root, the curandera emerges as a powerful figure with mystical qualities and ancestral knowledge (Rebolledo 1995: 84). When I recently asked novelist Rudolfo Anaya about the implied indigenous origins of Última (1972), the most beloved curandera of Chicano literature, he said that despite his upbringing on the llano, the eastern plains of New Mexico, he had never heard about Genízaros until college. He elaborated further:
I think when I was writing the novel and envisioning Última (and her first visitation to me) there was a sense that she was part Indian. But where did she come from? I mean, the way I thought of the people of that Pastura area (some of whom appeared as characters) none of them ‘felt’ Indian. Did I ever tell you that I was thinking in Spanish as I wrote in English? That never happened again (Anaya 2018).
Repressed and obscured origins are one of the hallmarks of Genízaro heritage.
In several works of Genízaro fiction, protagonists deepen the link to the remote past when they learn that their abuelas in their household are actually their great-grandmothers. A poignant and lyrical treatment of cautivos and criados with this device is Jim Sagel’s Always the Heart – Siempre el Corazón (1998). This completely bilingual novella for adolescent readers is set in the Chama river valley and emerges from the unspoken, almost mystical relationship between a love-stricken teenager and her great-grandmother. The deep structure of the novel is the story of Changing Woman, the figure from Navajo religion most associated with the Virgin Mary in Reservation Catholic missions. Changing Woman continually ages, and then comes back cyclically as a young woman. The parallels between the first love and that of her Genízara ancestor, her tatarabuela “great-great grandmother.” Here, the old abuela speaks of the love of her own mother’s life, who was destined not to become her husband:
“You see, the only way they could see each other was in secret.”
“Because she was a criada.“
“A criada?” I ask, marveling at the thickness of my abuelita’s long hair.
“That’s what they used to call Indian women when they were taken captive. They were kept as slaves, but since they were raised up as part of the family, they became just as Spanish as the rest of us” (10).
A tangible symbol of the link to Genízaro heritage is a quilt left to the young woman by her abuela who she discovers she is her bis-abuela, “great-grandmother.” Secretly sewn into it is a Navajo blanket woven by her tatarabuela, la cautiva.
The family heirloom inherited by Lorraine López’s Gifted Gabaldón Sisters (2008) is a trunk belonging to Fermina, a mysterious elderly woman attached to their 1960s East Los Angeles household. The contents of the trunk surface after the deaths of their mother and Fermina. Tucked in the bottom is a complete set of interviews of her by a WPA field worker in 1937 and 1938 (inspired by stories López discovered about her own hidden family history). The documents reveal Fermina’s traumatic past as a Hopi child from Walpi “First Mesa,” abducted by Navajos, traded to an Hispano rancher for food, and resold for money to the Gabaldón family of the Río Puerco. A secret kept from the sisters their whole lives was that Fermina was actually their great-grandmother.
The revelation has a cathartic effect and allows the narrator and her sisters to “enfold and finally comfort that bereft and shuddering child who was Fermina, and who was also me” (316). The chronicles are strategically interspersed throughout the lengthy novel and frame the other chapters. Fermina spent her life caring for the children and keeping house, and the sisters finally realized she was a modern day criada. For a modest woman, serving her descendants was compensation enough, but her enduring legacy to her great-granddaughters was a mysterious “gift” to each. Loretta received the ability to cure animals, Bette is a storyteller with the talent of telling believable lies, Rita inherits the dangerous power to curse others, and Sophie’s gift is an endearing sense of humor. With the documents, the sisters recover the true history of their origins and the legacy of their ancestors in stark contrast to the patriarchal family stories they were always told growing up. López foregrounds female histories, implying that written histories must be challenged to prevent the erasure of women. The rewritten history of the Gabaldón family could now include todos los antepasados, “all of the ancestors.”
The recovery of cultural and historical memory through testimonial voices is a thread that binds all these narratives, both fictional and non-fiction. With a philologist’s attention to the rich textures of Nuevomexicano Spanish, renowned folklorist and writer Nasario García deploys the ethnographic interview to gather and retell many legends and tales, including captivity narratives. Edumenio Lovato of San Luis, New Mexico, relates his ancestor el cautivo Rafael Lovato’s experiences as an adopted son of a loving Pawnee family. He was abducted while tending sheep on the plains east of Las Vegas, New Mexico, and taken to a village on the banks of the Platte River. A childless elder couple adopted him, won his respect, an initiated him into the culture of the Pánanas. Rafael became fluent in Pawnee and was especially interested in the hunt, since it offered him the opportunity to escape. “Con el tiempo sus apresadores le enseñaron a Rafael el uso del arco y la flecha, el arte de cazar – With time his captors taught Rafael to use the bow and arrow, the art of hunting (N.García 2010: ).” Over his five year captivity, he never lost his desire to return home. All his attempts to escape were thwarted, and he was finally rescued. García’s writing provides a literary linkage to the oral traditions of New Mexico.
The celebrated Laguna Pueblo writer, Leslie Marmon Silko utilizes memoir to capture the cultural complexities of her homeland. In The Turquoise Ledge (2010: Chapter 6), she explores her mixed Pueblo, Anglo, and Hispano ancestry, including a horrific and well-documented tale of one of her ancestors from the prominent Luna family of Los Lunas. The brother of Josephine Romero Luna’s received four little Navajo sisters to raise after a military campaign in 1823. He became so abusive of them that they conspired to to poison him. After a quick trial, the three oldest sisters, still teenagers, were sentenced and hung. The youngest sister, Juana, was raised by Josephine, whose extended family called her “Grandma Whip” because of her propensity to whip and terrorize children, family members or not. She carried a large ring on her belt with many keys. Everything was locked up, even the sugar, because the sisters had mixed rat poison into it to exact their revenge. Although she was not Silko’s blood relation, Juana the Navajo criada became a beloved surrogate grandmother figure in the family and Silko was taken as a child by her grandmothers to leave flowers on her grave. No flowers for the terrible Grandma Whip.
All of the works cited so far reflect the 1821 ban and erasure of the word Genízaro, along with all the other caste terms, except “Coyote,” which has survived into modern times to reference mixed heritage. Gilberto Benito Córdova proclaims his Genízaro heritage and identity, acknowledging his paternal genealogy to a Navajo captive girl traded to a family in Abiquiú in the 1860s, a genealogy shared by his protagonist Salvador in Big Dreams and Dark Secrets in Chimayó (2006). Alcohol is the sacrament that fires the hallucinations through which Sal saves and decolonizes his world, by questioning and tearing it apart. It is a delirious, Dionysian encyclopedia of Indo-Hispano folklore and includes characters from the Iberian picaresque Pedro de Ordimalas, to the Pueblo trickster Mano Fashico ‘Brother Francis’ (Lamadrid and Steele 1998), to the Navajo characters Coyote and Spider Woman. After profaning the sacred altar of the famous Santuario de Chimayó in a drunken frenzy, the Matachines intervene to punish Sal, who becomes the Torito ‘Little Bull’ and is symbolically castrated at the culmination of the dance.
In a deliberate affiliation with the ancient Iberian picaresque tradition, “Sal” links his destiny to Pedro de Ordimalas, whose literary genealogy connects to Miguel de Cervantes, whose play by the same name is inspired by the Iberian folk tradition. Pedro is the only human being who gains entrance to Heaven, not by faith, but by his wits. After torturing the devils in Hell reciting the sweet names of Jesús, María y José, the Holy Family, he is expelled from the fiery domain and eventually makes it to the gates of Heaven, greets his namesake, San Pedro, gets a glimpse of the Holy Throne of God, and is converted into a stone, with eyes, just inside the gates. Eventually trapped by a falling tree at the foot of the iconic Cerro Pedernal above Abiquiú, Salvador meets his final demise and is summoned into the next dimension by Spider Woman herself. She tells him “Hijo, hijo mío, you have misunderstood. If you tangle your yarn, your web will become a trap… Hijo, hijo mío, you are not dependent on the weaver. You are the weaver” (Córdova 2006: 218-219). Anthropologist Michael Trujillo sees this moment of liberation as the re-birth of a modern-day Genízaro Nation (2019).
A year after the appearance of Benito Córdova’s novel, a 2007 Memorial was passed in both houses of the New Mexico Legislature, “Recognizing the Role of Genízaros in New Mexico History and Their Legacy (Rael-Gálvez 2017).” A renaissance of Genízaro scholarship, cultural activism, and literary creation followed. As Nuevomexicano family secrets are revealed, as archives are un-locked, as erasure is contested, as the rituals of Genízaro communities are understood and appreciated, the literary imagination is freed. In 1959 Fabiola Cabeza de Baca paints a portrait of a beloved criada and curandera at the end of her life. In 2017 in his exploration of the “deep archives” of memory and tradition of the Mora valley, Gabriel Meléndez imagines his character “Sarita la Genízara” when she first enters Nuevomexicano society (152). Comanchero smugglers involved in illegal trade with the Comanches drag in a young Native woman and her child from the plains, and she is acquired by a local family. Since her young daughter has already been promised to a family in Taos, mother and daughter are tearfully separated. The comancheros are deaf to Sarita’s cries of anguish, and she begins the Comanche ritual of mourning, pulling out handfuls of her own hair, since she didn’t have a knife to cut it. Over subsequent decades, she becomes the respected matriarch and founder of one of the Sánchez clans in Mora and never fulfills her lifelong dream of finding her daughter. Historical trauma becomes a legacy of pain for succeeding generations. But memory restored can be the balm of nightmares.
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