Genízaros were detribalized American Indians who lived among the Hispanic population in New Mexico and southern Colorado in the 17th through the 19th centuries. Most of them had Spanish surnames and Christian given names, spoke at least some Spanish, and were, at least nominally, Roman Catholic in religion. Most genízaros were, or their ancestors had been, slaves or indentured servants, captured by the Spanish from Indian tribes or purchased from Indian tribes, especially from Plains Indians. By 1793, out of a total New Mexican population of 29,041 as many as 9,680 people may have been genízaros.
In 2007 the genízaros and their contemporary descendants were recognized as indigenous people by the New Mexico Legislature. In recent years, they have comprised much of the population of the South Valley of Albuquerque, and significant portions of the population of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, including Espanola, Taos, Santa Fe, and Las Vegas, NM in eastern New Mexico and several communities in Southern Colorado.
The term "genízaro" is a Spanish word, borrowed from the Italian word "giannizzero", itself adopted from the Ottoman Turkish word "yeniçeri". This Turkish word referred to slaves who were trained as soldiers for the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish word was also adopted into English as "janissary". The first known use of the word "genizaro" in New Mexico was in the early 1660s when a politician was accused of mistreating a "genízara" servant, whose mother was Apache-Quivira (Wichita) and whose father was a Pueblo. The term came into general use after 1692 when the Spanish regained control of New Mexico after the Pueblo revolt.
The word "genízaro" also had a military meaning in New Mexico. Genízaro militia and scouts were important in defending New Mexico from raiding Comanche, Apache, and Navajo. The genízaro were formally organized in 1808 into a Genízaro Troop, commanded by the corporal from their ranks and with a dedicated supply system to support them.
The Spanish in Latin America had a complex racial classification system of castas (castes) for people divided into about one dozen different castes determined by their parentage. A person's caste determined his or her social status and legal rights. The term genízaro as a racial classification is unique to New Mexico and Colorado. Genízaros ranked low on the status ladder of castes.
Historian James F. Brooks said that genízaros were "neither 'Spanish' nor 'Indian'" in culture. Historians debate whether they "constituted a racialized and degraded social category imposed...by Spanish authorities or whether, in time, they developed an internally generated positive ethnic identity." Most genízaros had been, or were, descendants of Indians who had been taken captive by other Indians and either sold to or ransomed by the Spanish. The debt of a ransomed Indian, often a child, with young women especially prized, was usually ten to twenty years of service to the person paying his or her ransom. The actual experience of a ransomed Indian--a "genízaro"--was "bondage on a continuum that ranged from near slavery to familial incorporation, but few shed the stigma of servility." The casta category of genízaro passed down to the descendants of the ransomed Indian, although there was some social mobility among the castas.
Many of the captives who became genizaros found their way into Spanish society at the annual trade fairs, especially in Taos. Comanches and other tribes brought their captives to the fairs and offered them for sale. In 1770, a female captive from 12 to 20 years old sold for two good horses and some small items; a male was worth only one-half as much.
Many of the genízaros complained of mistreatment by the Spanish and were settled in land grants on the periphery of Spanish settlements in accord with a policy established by the Governors of New Mexico. These settlements became buffer communities for larger Spanish towns in the event of attack by enemy tribes surrounding the province. The genízaros in the frontier communities become mediators between the often-hostile Indian tribes surrounding the Spanish settlements and the Spanish authorities. The following description from the 1740s of the Tome-Valencia settlements by a Spanish religious official, Fray Menchero, describes genízaros and their settlement on land grants:
"This is a new settlement, composed of various nations [tribes], who are kept in peace, union, and charity by the special providence of God and the efforts of the missionaries,... the Indians are of the various nations that have been taken captive by the Comanche Apaches, a nation so bellicose and so brave that it dominates all those of the interior country...They sell people of all these nations to the Spaniards of the kingdom, by whom they are held in servitude, the adults being instructed by the fathers and the children baptized. It sometimes happens that the Indians are not well treated in this servitude, no thought being given to the hardships of their captivity, and still less to the fact that they are neophytes, and should be cared for and treated with kindness. For this reason many desert and become apostates. Distressed by this, the missionaries informed the governor of it, so that, in a matter of such great importance, he might take the proper measures. Believing the petition to be justified,...he ordered by proclamation throughout the kingdom that all the Indian men and women neophytes who received ill-treatment from their masters should report it to him, so that if the case were proved, he might take the necessary measures. In fact a number did apply to him, and he assigned to them for their residence and settlement, in the name of his Majesty, a place called Valencia and Cerro de Tome, thirty leagues distant from the capital to the south, in a beautiful plain bathed by the Rio (del) Norte. There are congregated more than forty families in a great union, as if they were all of the same nation, all owing to the zeal in the father missionary of Isleta, which is a little more than two leagues from there, to the north. This settlement dates from the year 1740. The people engage in agriculture and are under obligation to go out and explore the country in pursuit of the enemy, which they are doing with great bravery and zeal in their obedience, and under the direction of the said father they are erecting their church without any cost to the royal crown."
"In all the Spanish towns of New Mexico there exists a class of Indians called genizaros. These are made up of captive Comanches, Apaches, etc. who were taken as youngsters and raised among us, and who have married in the province…They are forced to live among the Spaniards, without lands or other means to subsist except the bow and arrow which serves them when they go into the back country to hunt deer for food… They are fine soldiers, very warlike… Expecting the genizaros to work for daily wages is a folly because of the abuses they have experienced, especially from the alcaldes mayores in the past… In two places, Belen and Tome, some sixty families of genizaros have congregated."
Most genízaros were Navajo, Pawnee, Apache, Kiowa Apache, Ute, Comanche, and Paiute who had been purchased at a young age and worked as domestic servants and sheepherders. Throughout the Spanish and Mexican period, Genízaros settled in several New Mexican villages such as Belén, Tomé, Valencia, Carnuel, Los Lentes, Socorro, and San Miguel del Vado. Genízaros also lived in Albuquerque, Atrisco, Santa Fe, Chimayó, Taos, Abiquiú, and Las Vegas, NM.
By the mid-18th century, the Comanche dominated the weaker tribes in the eastern plains and sold children that they kidnapped from these tribes to the Spanish villagers. By the Mexican and early American period (1821–1880), almost all of the genízaros were of Navajo ancestry. During negotiations with the United States military, Navajo spokesmen raised the issue of Navajos being held as servants in Spanish/Mexican households. When asked how many Navajos were among the Mexicans, they responded: "over half the tribe". Most of the captives never returned to the Navajo nation but remained as the lower classes in the Hispanic villages. Members of different tribes intermarried in these communities.
Today their descendants comprise much of the population of Atrisco, Pajarito, and Barelas in the South Valley of Albuquerque, and significant portions of the population of Las Vegas in Eastern New Mexico.
In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain, and New Mexico became a territory within the First Mexican Empire. The Treaty of Córdoba enacted by Mexico decreed that indigenous tribes within its borders were citizens of Mexico. Under Spanish rule, genízaros and Pueblo natives had often been treated as second-class citizens, although they were protected by the Laws of the Indies. Officially, the newly independent Mexican government proclaimed a policy of social equality for all ethnic groups, and the genízaros were officially considered equals to their vecino (villagers of mainly mixed racial background) and Pueblo neighbors. During this period, the term genízaro was officially dropped from church and government documents. In practice however, Mexico was far from egalitarian. Many genízaros remained culturally and economically marginal in New Mexican society.
Economic and social conditions under Mexico were so bad that in 1837, the Pueblos, genizaros, coyotes, and vecinos revolted against the Mexican government. Rebels cut off the head of Albino Perez (the Governor of New Mexico), and killed all of the Mexican troops in Santa Fe. They formed a new government and elected José Angel Gonzáles, a genízaro of Taos Pueblo and Pawnee ancestry, as governor. The revolt was often referred to as the Chimayoso Revolt, after the community of Chimayó in northern New Mexico, which was home to José Angel Gonzáles and many other mixed-blood indigenous peoples. The Chimayoso revolt was one of many against the Mexican government by indigenous groups during this period, which included the Mayan revolt in the Yucatán.
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