The Americas 62.2 (2005) 151-175
[Access article in PDF]
Contested Mestizos, Alleged Mulattos:
Racial Identity and Caste Hierarchy in Eighteenth Century Pátzcuaro, Mexico*
Aaron P. Althouse
Late one December afternoon in 1731, Antonio Méndes and his friend Joseph Miguel de Alcaras made their way through the west central Mexican city of Pátzcuaro toward the plazamayor. Their course took them past the house of the Spaniard don Vacilio Botello Mobellán. There, don Vacilio called out to Antonio and Joseph, inquiring after a harness and several other items he said Alcaras had borrowed from him and not yet returned. According to Don Vacilio, he presented his request jovially, but Alcaras denied still having the goods on loan, the two "mulattos" responded to him discourteously, and Méndes even brandished a knife. In their own defense, both Alcaras and Méndes mentioned don Vacilio's accusations, insisted that Alcaras had previously returned the materials in question, and emphasized that Méndes did not pull the knife, but rather that it was taken from him by don Vacilio's two assistants who had intervened in the exchange. Ultimately, don Vacilio leveled criminal charges against Méndes, who he and the criminal authorities labeled a "mulatto," for threatening him with a knife since "being of inferior calidad" he should never have carried the weapon.1
These case details were not particularly unusual in colonial Latin America. Don Vacilio expressed notions of racial superiority and a cognizance of public honor that have been documented elsewhere.2 Furthermore, he took [End Page 151] advantage of a colonial legal code that prohibited individuals of African and indigenous background from bearing weapons.3 However, additional information from Méndes' testimony raises important new questions concerning the phenomenon of racial self-description and racial label ascription by one's observers. Specifically, evidence from the remainder of the case begs further investigation of what the discrepancies between racial self-evaluations and observer opinions indicate about notions of racial identity and reveal about social ties in patzcuarense society. In his statement, Méndes claimed he was mestizo, not mulatto. He also disclosed that his wife was a Spaniard named María Catarina. Were this information recognized by the authorities, it could have simultaneously resolved the knife-toting restrictions by negating Méndes' African descent and substantiated his honor by demonstrating his intimate bonds to a Spaniard. Yet, despite Méndes' self-described racial status and allegedly Spanish spouse, both the criminal authorities and a local man of honor still ascribed him African heritage. Furthermore, don Vacilio pointedly acknowledged his doubt concerning Méndes' mestizo claim, referring to him as "el coconito" (the little coconut), a reference that implied Méndes' darker phenotype.
Similar contestation regarding avoidance and ascription of African background surrounded the case of the tailor Juan Antonio Martín. In August of 1713, Juan Antonio found himself recounting his assault by a Spaniard, Juan Miguel Coronel, to Pátzcuaro's justice officials. The altercation left Juan Antonio blood-soaked and recuperating in the house of a concerned woman who lived on Calle Magdalena where the attack had occurred, and who had taken Juan inside and away from further harm after the episode. Despite his debilitated state, Juan still was able to provide a coherent statement to the investigators. In it, he labeled himself a mestizo, although both the justice officers and his assailant described him as mulatto. This self-assessed mestizo identity was, Juan said, based on his Indian father and mestiza mother. Significantly, this reckoning did not strictly reflect the racial formulas of the Spanish caste system (which would have made him a coyote) but did confirm Juan's desire to be considered a mestizo despite the contradicting views offered by Coronel and the magistrate.4
While the incident left Juan fighting for his survival, his encounter with the colonial authorities brought additional damage—to his public reputation [End Page 152] —resulting from the Spanish alcaldes'and assailant's refusal to accept him as a mestizo...