- West Side Story: Free-Black Labor in the Mexican Pacific during the Late Colonial Period as seen through the Revillagigedo Census
Since at least the 1960s, the study of labor has been among the central topics of research on black life in the colonial Americas. Understanding systems of slavery have, in many ways, dominated the discussion, providing fascinating insights into the development of colonial societies, the workings of Western modernity, and clues into alterity, resistance, and subaltern relationships.1 However, more recent reformulations and scholarly inquiries into questions of agency and identity have produced a renewed interest in the condition of freedom.2 In Latin America particularly, the preponderance of free-coloreds has offered interesting opportunities and models for understanding the possibilities for material success in a world where everyday racial/caste prejudices lingered, and where ideological systems of thinking about difference were often ambivalent (at best) about blacks.
On the eve of the 19th century, perhaps nowhere in the Americas was the free-colored population more numerous than in Mexico. Anywhere between 370,000–625,000 free-coloreds lived in New Spain between the 1790s and 1810. By comparison, the free-colored populace of Brazil and Venezuela, colonies that held two of largest black populations (including slaves) in Latin America, numbered 587,000 and 440,000 freedmen respectively.3 This article examines one of the principal zones of black residency in late colonial Mexico, the Pacific basin, in order to come to a better understanding of the labor patterns exhibited by free-coloreds. Using an extraordinary colony-wide census, commissioned by Viceroy Revillagigedo between 1790 and 1793, the article studies seven coastal and semi-coastal provinces in the Pacific region that held between 4–5% of the colony’s blacks (see Map 1).4 Because the census was raised to recruit non-Indians for militia duty, detailed information on women and natives was largely excluded, including their professions. However, the census still provides us with an important, rare look at the range of employment possibilities for black males near the close of the colonial era.
It is worth reiterating that the late 18th century, and the 1790s in particular, were remarkable times in the life of the colony, and Spanish America more generally. Serious ruptures in the caste system—the socio-racial hierarchy that had been constructed in the second half of the 16th century to manage the growing non-white population—were becoming ever more manifest. Ongoing miscegenation and the blurring of color lines threatened the operation of the discriminatory social order by the late colonial period. Elite backlash against the loosening of the system tried to impose correctives.5 For instance, the late 18th century saw an increase in the number of institutions that implemented and enacted “purity of blood requirements” (limpieza de sangre) as entrance criteria, including Mexico’s Royal College of Attorneys and its Mining College.6 Stricter vigilance of racial boundaries was also featured in a host of ecclesiastical and municipal organizations. On a more intimate level, the Real Pragmática decree (1776–1778) facilitated efforts by elite families to control their children’s marriage choices by enabling parents to prohibit nuptials they deemed were of “unequal station.” Although the new law targeted stark breeches of the class divide, the contested marriages often involved individuals of different races.7 Backlash also came from other quarters. Financial stresses precipitated by agricultural crises that struck hard in the late colonial period, generated a number of heated conflicts between natives and free-coloreds. Afromexicans who were once welcomed to help fortify and populate ailing indigenous communities in the 16th and 17th centuries (especially in the Pacific region) were eventually perceived as unwanted competition during moments of economic malaise in the 18th century. Quite simply, black access to land and agricultural production threatened to diminish the prospects for indigenous livelihoods.8 As individual, family, and community dramas unfolded within the colonial courts and on the streets of rural communities, the jostling for status, honor, privilege, and survival in colonial society became all the more palpable. At the same time, undeniably, real gains were being made along the...