- Géneros de Gente in Early Colonial Mexico: Defining Racial Difference by Robert C. Schwaller
The historical problem of social difference—the labeling of people as part of putative groups, the laws and legislation meant to control the interaction of colonial subjects, the experiences of those inhabiting different categories—has been one of the most productive topics for historical writing on the early societies of Spanish America. With some notable exceptions, much of our knowledge about these topics comes from work on the late colonial period, and especially from studies of New Spain's urban centers in the second half of the eighteenth century. We know much less about the sixteenth century, whether for cities or rural areas, which is surprising given that this period was obviously a crucible of colonial ethno-genesis. Robert Schwaller's new book, Géneros de gente in Early Colonial [End Page 617] Mexico: Defining Racial Difference, helps to fill this historiographical gap, and in the process offers a major contribution to the literature on social difference and the evolution of its legal foundations, linguistic qualities, and lived realities in the earliest America.
Focusing on the core of the viceroyalty of New Spain—its northern mining centers, central highlands, and near southern regions—Schwaller organizes the book in two parts. Part 1 reconstructs the Iberian cultural and ideological frameworks of New Spain's social categorization, the travel of those concepts to the Americas, and early colonial legislation and rulings on the subject (such as marriage policy, the status of the enslaved, and restrictions on place of residence). He proposes we use the term géneros de gente or "types of people" to describe these phenomena. This small change in nomenclature is a significant intervention in the ongoing debates on the subject. In the past, most scholars have used different period terms, such as casta ("caste") and calidad ("quality/social status"), or employed the modern analytic categories of race and ethnicity. Schwaller, in contrast, argues that genéros de gente better captures how sixteenth-century historical actors understood their society: one that was pluralistic and filled with discernibly different peoples. He also prefers género for its capaciousness. It is a roomier term for glossing the many categories and labels that were used at the time, which could include elements of what we would now call race or ethnicity, but also notions of status, social networks, casual readings of appearance, religious qualities, or geographic origins. Put simply, social difference could mean something very different in the sixteenth century than it did in the more heavily studied eighteenth century, let alone our present, and the géneros de gente label is meant to help readers keep our eyes on the sixteenth-century present.
Part 2 presents us with a wealth of archival material, examining the experiences of géneros de gente, especially individuals ascribed with the intermediate labels of mestizo and mulato. Schwaller reads a diverse body of sources with great skill (see, for example, his expert use of Inquisition trials and petitions for the right to bear arms). Through careful dissection of these materials, Schwaller finds intriguing examples of "tacit españoles" throughout chapter 3: that is, individuals of mixed parentage (usually Spanish and indigenous), whose archival traces suggest that they were (tacitly) recognized as Spanish. In the same chapter, he also finds numerous [End Page 618] cases of "tacit indios." Together, these sources demonstrate that social and cultural factors, especially connections to the Spanish or indigenous elite, could strongly influence lived identities, in addition to the obvious elements of lineage and descent. The sixteenth-century category of mestizo was truly liminal, in other words, reserved for those understood to be culturally and socially between two worlds or who did not demonstrate sufficient characteristics associated with indio or español. The label mulato, in contrast, which is examined at length in its own chapter, tended to be applied to anyone understood to be of partial African descent, an early example of a racial logic that would persist in many...