La Cofradia de la Limpia Concepcion de los pardos in San Joseph del Parral, 1600-1800: reconstructing the historical memory of African-Mexican community in the north of New Spain.

AuthorMoriel-Payne, Juana

In a memoir written in 1948 and titled El Parral de mis recuerdos (The Parral I Remember), Salvador Prieto Quimper describes his life in Parral; a noble provincial city. (1) Through his memories, the author gives glimpses of a community that was, for him, happy and harmonious; with neighbors swapping talk in the town square and beautiful, modest young ladies, but above all: men, real men, honorable men. Such was the case with Doctor Francisco Perches and Don Trinidad Villaverde, whom the author describes as "men with unmistakably Basque surnames. Each and all were like the knights of Calatrava, spotless and flawless, descendants of the most ancient Comarcan families." (2) In other words, for Prieto-Quimper, those men were, "honorable, a privilege inherited from their ancestors." (3)

As has been noted, in the memoirs of this 20th century author, certain values of colonial society still stand out, among them honor: a privilege which, according to him, one inherits. Although the 20th century is not his research focus, the memory of this author serves to make certain values stand out, but more than anything it serves to signal who has been erased from the memory of a mining town in northern Mexico; men and women of African origin who lived in colonial Parral as enslaved people, or spread out among castes as free men and women who in their turn knew how to defend and thus show honor, actively participating in one of the few organizations that colonial society allowed them: the brotherhoods.

Until now, Nicole von Germeten is the only historian concerned with research Black brotherhoods in New Spain. (4) She compares and contrasts the activities of these brotherhood groups in three locations in New Spain: Valladolid, Mexico City, and Parral. And for her, the brotherhood of this last border city didn't have the success of other brotherhoods in central Mexico for several reasons; and among them, she gives special weight to constant attacks by groups of Indians, isolation, poverty, a floating population, and excessive control by a hacienda owner in Parral and his relatives.

The presentation below expresses the belief that the analysis of La Cofradia de la Limpia Concepcion de los pardos needs to be re-evaluated within an Afro-Mexican context, including the cultural influence of Spain and Africa. This kind of approach can help to demonstrate that although those African-Americans could not have counted on a consolidated and recent historical memory such as that of the indigenous groups and Spaniards in southern New Spain, however, in the north they were sufficiently free to remember and publicly show that they enjoyed a kinship that lent to an identity and local status in society, just as they did in the brotherhood in the Parral festivals. And in the same way, more broadly, it is worth adding to Afro-Mexican history, which has been disregarded in Mexican history, and consequently, does not exist in the memory of Prieto Quimper, the 20th century Parral writer.

This hypothesis is an essential part of the thesis which for the moment will limit itself to examining Germeten's study of the brotherhood of Parral together with a historiography of the African presence in Mexico. Thus, here it is germane to examine some of the primary sources used by her, some new ones taken from the Historical Archive of Parral, and thereby propose new paths for a more complete cultural study, within La Cofradia de la Limpia Concepacion.


One could say that the first serious study of Mexico about the Afro-Mexican population came about in 1946, under the pen of Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran. In his introduction, he points out that, surprisingly, this ethnic group assumed a "most important" role during the colonial period, "at the exact moments in which biology and culture came together to form a new nationality." (5) Hence, he wishes to show that the Mexican nation was built by mestizo's hands which, beyond being simply "brown," contain a great variety of skin tones. All the same, above all, Aguirre Beltran suggests that the cultural strain that the brown-skinned, Black, mulatto or persons of color brought from Africa and Spain integrated itself into Colonial Mexico. (6)

More recently, Frank T. Proctor III indicates that the cultural homogeneity of most enslaved Africans who came to Mexico helped them face the complicated colonial social apparatus. These men came from Central and Western Africa, which were generally culturally homogenous areas. In New Spain, they entered into two republics, Indian and Spanish, and to fit in to the caste system, Spain used to rank indigenous, Spanish, Black people, and mestizo people. (7) Proctor believes groups of Africans survived culturally in this rigid colonial system because of cultural homogeneity; the same link that bound family, religion and work, spaces were Afro-Mexican identity got fashioned. (8) Nevertheless, this identity did not culminate in a communal consciousness that challenged slavery, but did serve to make use of the institutions of New Spain and to exercise control over their work, family, and religious beliefs. (9)

Joan Cameron Bristol, in turn, proposes that African communities in Mexico could make sense of a complicated colonial society by creating alternative forms of authority. (10) Bristol explains that the enslaved African populous received Christianity, but understood it in their own way, as this instruction wasn't constant, since normally the enslaved African person had either monetary or productive value, rather than spiritual or religious. (11) The African enslaved in New Spain thus managed to participate in through the brotherhoods. These religious instances offered individual participation in acts of devotion and charity, and as a group activity, it also offered spiritual and monetary aid at the hour of death, and a way for them to participate in rituals, processions and festivals. (12) In any case, membership wasn't so easy to acquire, given that the authorities were suspicious of brotherhoods of African origin; because they might be sites of conspiracy and rebellion, besides the power to be used to gain access to the tribunal of the Holy Inquisition and challenge colonial power, something they used as their best weapon: blasphemy. (13)

African history in Mexico transforms and complicates itself, arriving at the final years of colonialism as the Spanish empire suffered setbacks, with the help of African communities. That is how Ben Vinson III presents the matter in his study of New Spain halfway through the 18th century. He shows how the formation of brown, dark, or Black soldiers and communities of color obtained benefits, and cemented a place within colonial society (14). And in time, white soldiers insisted on the difference between them and Black people, eventually achieving the creation of an exclusively Black army. (15)

Racial segregation wasn't permanent, but this experiment in most of the important cities in Mexico served people of color as they formed communities, kinship, and began to obtain benefits, almost like any other white person. Over time, soldiers of color made inroads among elite commercial associations, could contract to marry mestizos, were exempted from taxes, had property rights for agriculture; thanks to the status conferred to them by the corporation. (16) Even so, the mechanism that best lent participation and privileges to brown soldiers was the political charter enjoyed by the arm in various matters. This capacity to self-govern, with their own laws and regulations, tried to separate the military from civil society, or the lower classes from decent people. Being a soldier was evidence of quality, although, that quality could be manipulated and transformed, but could never eliminate entirely the social significance of being Black. (17)

In general, historians emphasize the active participation of the Black community in colonial Mexico; a participation resulting from the same system that had its origins in Spain. Jane G. Landers suggests that Las Siete Partidas, a law ruled by the Spanish empire, allowed African persons and their descendants to have a free status. This situation let them keep an African national culture, declare a Spanish identity and thus let them be members of the church, brotherhoods, councils, the army, and thereby obtain legal protection and privileges as royal subjects. (18) Proctor indicates that this legal practice, brought from Spain, nevertheless became complicated or changed due to the presence of two republics: Spanish and indigenous.

Those communities added to the Afro-Mexican and culminated in a complicated caste system which, as Vinson shows, was rather ambiguous. So it is suggested that this ambiguity opened up gaps for the political, economic, and social participation of Afro-Mexicans, and also serving as a way to control the familial, economic, social circles by extending, solidifying, and transforming its cultural context.

In her study of Black brotherhoods in New Spain, von Gemeten recognizes the Spanish origins of this religious organization, the same one adopted from the Middle Ages to incorporate the non-Spanish population. At the same time, she mentions that this system was also based on an African organization in Spain since 1400 (but it is also necessary to recognize the changes, adjustments, and transformations lived by the organism in New Spain, above all the complicated system of castes, highlighted by Proctor and Landers). (19) Von Germeten also mentions that the only African group trying to maintain their identity in the 17th century was the Zape who lived in Mexico City, suggesting...

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