The desire to understand the myriad experiences of and historical contexts in which people of African descent enslaved in Africa then brought to the Americas lived invites scholars to look beyond well-trodden North American landscapes and adjacent island colonies whose academic emphases has generated robust historiographies that are at once illuminating and skewed. The concerted turn away from earlier lines of inquiry stems from the trajectories forged largely within the broad areas collectively termed African Diaspora studies. Scholars with interest in the field have underscored the shortcoming of using only narrow examples of diasporic experiences, which commonly centered on the ways in which enslaved persons were oppressed and victimized within hegemonic societies that an elite stratum controlled.
The field's shift recommends, if not insists, that such themed-histories, while relevant, must be interwoven and examined as part of an melange of disparate and unique diasporic realties in which diasporic people, too, shaped their life's course and those of others. Moreover, it maintains that the breadth of representations recovered and the analyses and conclusions they generate must themselves be the scaffold that leads us to develop relevant theories built from and across their multifarious realities. (1)
The histories of African people and their descendants in sixteenth and seventeenth century New Spain (Colonial Mexico) offer an opportunity for Diaspora scholars to not only broaden the geographic scope of diasporic experiences and theory, it also opens a chance to reach into and reconstruct historical narratives centered on the early modern period that include people of African descent as subjects of those histories. (2)
The current contribution stems from the examination of three Inquisition records housed in the Archivo General de la Nacion de Mexico. (3) Using these sources, its aim is to recover facets of Black and Mulatto people's lives within a dynamic milieu in which their multiple, variable identities collided, merged, emerged, and were at times negotiated, appropriated and even shed. Their choices highlight the environment of change, skepticism, mistrust, and ubiquitous uncertainty in seventeenth century New Spain. (4) More specifically, it combs the documents whose primary protagonists are women to draw out an understanding about aspects of the lives enslaved and free Black and Mulatta women experienced and shaped. (5)
Assessing files pertaining to three women whose actions were brought to the attention of the Inquisition for witchcraft allegations, the case is made that within the testimonies the Inquisitors amassed to determine the validity of and resolution for reports made about them located in the stories of shrewd women involved in complex social networks, and healing works that tied them to multiple people within their communities.
The women's stories introduced below transpired within the framework of seventeenth century Mexico. By that time the colonial enterprise had been in process for more than fifty years. The major economic enterprises they developed in agriculture and mining made them dependant on Indigenous and African labor. Throughout the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century African laborers and their descendants--enslaved and free--had been transported to New Spain to offset the dearth of labor caused by the early decimation of Indigenous populations. The importation of African origin peoples--some directly from the African continent and others from the Iberian world--set the stage for creating a colony in which "[b]y the mid-sixteenth century, people of African descent outnumbered Spaniards in New Spain and comprised the second-largest slave population in the Americas." (6)
Throughout the seventeenth century the demographic growth of African origin people and their descendants continued to grow, and that included the increasing number of New Spain born African descendents (creoles). (7) By the mid-seventeenth century, the majority of African descended people comprised of creoles and free mulattos. (8) These increasingly diverse Black and Mulatto populations played critical roles in rural and urban economies as well as in the transport systems that connected them.
Within the urban milieu of cities and towns is where the important healing works of Black and Mulatta women was done in the colony. In towns and communities these women, whether free or enslaved, commonly took care of people comprising Spanish households. (9) They were obliged to take care of the many needs and oblique desires of their owners and employers; in the period town and city living required burdensome work. They commonly lived in tight quarters with their Spanish overseers, which meant that people generally had little privacy in their homes. And life outside of the home was not likely any more private or anonymous, for the culture was one in which people were familiar with neighbors. People knew who belonged, who did not, and who the newcomers were. Gossip was rampant, and gossip was the Inquisition's engine. (10)
The Inquisition's official purpose was to secure the colony by imposing a requirement to report on the denunciation all Spanish and African people known to have committed crimes against the Catholic faith. This applied to heretics, blasphemers, bigamists, and perpetrators of other acts deemed immoral. Eventually, however, the institution came to have jurisdiction over a range of additional crimes. People denounced others or self-denounced. People who did the denouncing were identified as witnesses, not accusers, of the person(s) implicated. The processes involved carrying out any subsequent investigation which remained in the hands of the Office of the Inquisition. (11)
To create an air of purpose and obligation in society, the 1571 instruction for the Tribunal instituted in New Spain emphasized that the goals of its actions were to create an environment that was "feared and respected." (12) In practice the Inquisition functioned as a form of "social, religious, and political control over what it saw as seditious ideas and heretical propositions spread by foreigners and other dissenters in the colonial milieu." (13) But in addition to that it could be used as a tactic to entangle people within Inquisitorial processes for contrived reasons, with the full security of anonymity that the Inquisition guaranteed. (14)
Maria Vasquez, Leonor Ontiberos, and Phelipa Angola were each brought to Inquisition on accusations of their involvement in heresies involving "witchcraft." They lived in distinct areas of New Spain and there is no suggestion in the record that they knew one another.
In 1614, Maria Vasquez, a free Black woman, living in Salaya, Michoacan was called to the attention of the Inquisition for her alleged involvement in the treatment of a sick child who ultimately died. In 1652, Leonor Ontiberos, a free Mulatta woman of about forty years in age, was a resident at a labor hacienda in San Martin where she was a seamstress. The Inquisitorial Office brought her into custody because it knew of her widespread reputation for being a "witch." And in 1662, Phelipa Angola, an aged Black enslaved woman identified as belonging to the Angolan caste, who lived in San Augustin de las Cuebas, was denounced for her involvement in divining the source of stolen merchandise.
On the surface, the material records generated in their Inquisition proceedings suggest that these heretical women were solo actors turned over by witnesses who were far removed from the denounced, but when one reads closely it becomes evident that none of them would have appeared to testify to the Inquisition were it not for their relationships, however distant or close, with the person under investigation. Setting aside the question of substance and legitimacy of the claims made against them and focusing instead on what the witnesses said about Maria, Leonor and Phelipa and their works gives us an opportunity to see that these Black and Mulatta women, free and enslaved, participated in dynamic communities that involved complicated relationships that were unbounded by ethnic category.
Maria Vasquez's journey to the Inquisition was anything but linear. On October 25, 1614, she along with two other women and one man--Ysabel Duarte, Maria de Torres and Juan Garcia, each identified as Spaniards--were collectively reported to the Inquisition by Ysabel Maria, a twenty-seven year old enslaved person by Maria de Torres for suspicion of witchcraft and palm reading. According to Ysabel M., Maria V. was a frequent visitor to the home of Maria de T. She explained that it was there that she had witnessed them in intense discussions that sometimes involved the exchange of items that were used to make remedies. She said that some of these were placed in chocolate drinks given to her spouse to soften his temperament. Talking about the others and their works, she explained that Juan Garcia was a palm reader and that Ysabel Duarte had been known to have given herbs to a young girl to use in bringing her parents around to a marriage they opposed. (15)
The following day, October 26, 1614, Maria Hernandez, a 60 year old Black woman originally from Badalona, Spain, who was also enslaved to Maria de T. came forward to denounce the same group of people. Maria H. corroborated Ysabel M.'s claims about Torres, Duarte and Garcia in her denunciation. But she offered more detail, adding that Maria V. had spent two nights in the Torres home and that she had witnessed she and Maria de T. spending time in a chamber talking very secretly and that one time Maria de T.s' child had been present. The child, she says, was handed a half-folded paper that had an image of a saint printed on it.
And she claimed that she had also witnessed them praying over an incense-burning altar (sahumerio). Another time Maria de T. had received a small paper folded with a...