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  • Picturing Families Between Black and White:Mixed Descent and Social Mobility in Colonial Minas Gerais, Brazil
  • Mariana L. R. Dantas (bio)

During the eighteenth century, the Rodrigues da Cruz and the Vieira da Costa families rose to relative prominence in the comarca of Rio das Velhas, a judicial district of the captaincy of Minas Gerais (Figure 1). Both families had as their patriarch a wealthy Portuguese man whose fortune was built on the gold-mining industry that dominated the regional economy in the early part of the century. Both families were also the product of relationships between Portuguese gold miners and slave women. The second and third generations of the two families similarly comprised freed or free persons of mixed European and African descent whose own standing in society relied in part on their families’ ability to manage the social and legal implications of the circumstances of their birth. The Rodrigues da Cruz and Vieira da Costa families were thus part of a large and rising population of pardos (light-skinned persons) or mulatos (persons of mixed descent) in eighteenth-century Minas Gerais—not of solely Portuguese origin or descent (brancos), solely African origin (preto), nor solely African descent but born in Brazil (crioulo). Their ambiguous social standing could lie somewhere between the elite status of most brancos and the slave status of most pretos or crioulos.1 [End Page 405]

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Figure 1.

Main Parishes of the Comarca of Rio das Velhas

Yet, despite their numbers, the majority of people within this group lived lives and formed families that are not always accessible in the colonial records. Although they were counted in population maps or censuses, their individual stories are frequently unavailable to historians, possibly because they lived modest lives, because their records have been lost, or because they were [End Page 406] not recorded as pardo or mulato in the documentation.2 The economic and social prominence of the Rodrigues da Cruz and Vieira da Costa patriarchs, and their children and grandchildren’s active involvement in the economic, social, and judicial life of the comarca, has ensured their families, visibility in the archives.3 The information available about them makes it possible to reconstruct episodes in the lives of their members and the families’ trajectories over time. Looking into these records reveals ways persons of mixed descent were affected by, interacted with, and navigated a social environment marked by the discriminatory practices that supported Portuguese privilege and African slavery.4

Scholars have long been interested in the social mobility of persons of African origin and descent in the captaincy of Minas Gerais, and in colonial Brazil more generally.5 Studies have emphasized the constraints that slavery and a hierarchical Portuguese imperial society imposed on persons of African descent, often resulting in their living impoverished and disenfranchised lives.6 These studies coexist with others that portray colonial Brazilian slavery and society as somewhat fluid and tolerant of its nonwhite members’ attempts to empower themselves.7 More recently, scholars have employed microhistory and biography as methodologies to investigate the experience of social mobility among Africans and their descendants in colonial Brazil. Moving beyond discussions of numbers and patterns of slave manumission, or the economic [End Page 407] and social insertion into society of former slaves, such scholarship has painted nuanced pictures of individuals who managed to transition from slave to free, and to move up in the social hierarchy. Without ignoring the discriminatory nature of colonial society and Portuguese imperial laws and practices, these works unveil the stories of individuals who overcame these obstacles to achieve power, prominence, and privilege of some sort.8

The focus on socially mobile Africans and African descendants reveals the rich, complex, and often unexpected lives that members of this group experienced in colonial Brazil. Such knowledge has further challenged historians to abandon any kind of facile or linear explanation of the role Africanness or Blackness played in defining social standing within that society. Yet it is important to remember that individual experiences are inevitably enmeshed in broader historical processes that are not always discernible from the perspective that a single life story offers. In the case of social...