Generos de Gente in Early Colonial Mexico: Defining Racial Difference by Robert Schwaller (review)
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Generos de Gente in Early Colonial Mexico: Defining Racial Difference. By Robert Schwaller (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2016) 304pp. $35.95

Schwaller’s Generos de Gente divides into two parts. “Ideology and Law” tracks the etiology of early sixteenth-century Spanish royal degrees, revealing not only the historic processes that shaped the appearance of socioracial vocabularies, such as mestizo and mulato (15), but also how these vocabularies became entrenched into “Indies Law” (derecho indiano) (55). Schwaller’s second emphasis, “Lived Experience,” probes Inquisition records (1545–1599) through a novel methodology, eschewing evaluation of the cases themselves (85). Instead, his analysis concentrates on prosopography, collecting “substantial personal information suitable for qualitative analysis” to provide details concerning the lives, connections, and cultural identities of sixty slaves, natives, mestizos, and mulatos (115). The focus is on how these people “experienced life” in the early decades after the conquest (6). Both sections produce revisionist interpretations.

“Ideology and Law” tracks how legislation concerning mestizos and mulatos evolved. First, through petitions and complaints, elites as well as mestizos or mulatos “educated the monarch and his councils” about issues concerning the population mixes developing in the Indies, thereby defining “new categories of difference” (50, 51). The official response was to issue royal decrees copied directly from these documents that “perpetuated and entrenched” those socioracial “categories within colonial legal codes” (50). The Crown seldom issued blanket legislation for all the Americas at the same time. Schwaller notes how “royal legislation . . . in response to a particular problem in one jurisdiction of the Indies could be held as valid in other areas where similar problems existed” (54). The result was that elite calls for a law concerning mestizos in Peru might later be recopied for other jurisdictions in the Indies. What started as “popularly constituted social categories of difference,” such as mestizo and mulato, thus transformed “into juridical categories capable of regulation and enforcement by the legal system” [End Page 285] (51). In effect, Schwaller provides a creative tracking of the origin of the casta laws.

Perhaps even more revisionist is Schwaller’s account of how people lived. He detects subtle differentiations in what historians have now recognized as the situational nature of socioracial status, dependent on a multiplicity of variables. His case histories detail how “the attribution of the mulato label followed a logic distinct from that of mestizo” (110), owing to the “greater consensus” about mulato identity and the greater “mutability” of the mestizo category (115). Most innovative is Schwaller’s focus on the role of “Afro-indigenous mulatos within the social order” (114), particularly given more recent understandings that they “may have accounted for as many as half of New Spain’s mulatos during the sixteenth century,” a percentage conceivably approximated elsewhere in other Indies locales (12).

The book is not always clear about the unique dynamics that might have promoted such African–Native mixings. Not until two-thirds of the way through it does Schwaller inform readers that the Spanish medieval law code, the Siete Partidas (1256–1265), provided male slaves with a stupendous option to free the next generation from bondage. If a mother possessed a “free womb,” the state of her reproductive organ rather than that of the slave father determined the status of offspring. Strikingly, only two of the sixty individuals in Schwaller’s research included links between slave mothers and free males; the rest involved links between slave males and Native or, later, black or mulato free-womb mothers and thus the subsequent birth of free sons and daughters (179, 196).

Nonetheless, Schwaller breaks new ground in probing the consequences of such Afro-indigenous mixes. He documents how slave fathers evinced “familiarity with both Hispanic and indigenous cultural beliefs and practices” (127), whereas their sons and daughters continued to maintain “strong multigenerational ties to indigenous kin that were often based on their acculturation to indigenous ways of life” (12). Such an approach is a stark reminder that scholars have focused too much on the development of post-conquest society through a Spanish lens—the ways in which conquistadores and later settlers viewed Natives, classified and created mixtures, or constructed laws.

This monograph raises compelling questions, some of...