Monday, June 27, 2011


I've been in New Mexico for a couple of weeks now, and I plan to stay till the July 4th Weekend when I expect to hightail it back to California and stay for another three weeks or so and then come back here. It is part of the continuing process of leaving a long-time home in California and setting up permanent residence in New Mexico. It is a long and drawn-out process for us with many moving parts.

I took the picture above in March when I was here for a couple of weeks and took a trip up to Santa Fe for some exploration off the beaten path. That's the view toward Santa Fe on the road I take, the Sangre de Christo mountains in the distance.

I went up to Santa Fe yesterday and attended a lecture on the topic of "Captive Women" -- exciting, no? -- in the context of the Slave Culture of the Southwest. (pdf link to a book review) Well, it's a somewhat complicated topic. This region is in many ways still culturally a part of Mexico (much as Los Angeles and most of Southern California is). But it also has a very strong Native American cultural influence (which Southern California largely lacks.) The Anglo gloss over the top of it all is still widely considered to be a form of entertainment -- and is not expected to last.

The "slave culture" of the Southwest has to do both with the common practices of Native American societies and with the commonplace colonial practices of the Spanish in America. Capturing slaves and holding them -- and/or selling them -- was what was widely done by Natives and Hispanos, apparently until quite recently.

But it is complex because in Native society -- and to an extent in American-Spanish society -- slaves captured in raids become members of the household and often marry into the family. It was just the way things were.

Anglos on their High Horses disapproved, of course, and many religious Anglos came out to the Southwest from Back East to redeem the slaves of New Mexico -- only to cause a spike in the slave trade because, of course, they were paying cash money for redemption of slaves. So more were captured to be turned in for cash.

In a marginal economy like New Mexico's still is in some respects, what are you going to do?

The fact that slaving was relatively commonplace in New Mexico up until fairly recently (reports of slaves in New Mexican households go right up to the 1940's) and that almost all the captives were women and children from various Indian peoples (some from Mexico itself), and that going on periodic slave raids was what was done, and that being taken captive wasn't necessarily all that terrible a thing is one of New Mexico's long held "secrets." Of course it was a "secret" out in the open, but there you are.

It was not the same as black chattel slavery in the American South, not by a long shot -- because it was based on Native practices rather than justified by reference to Biblical cant. And as far as anyone is willing to say, it was never as brutal nor as ridiculously restrictive, nor as racist, nor as inhumane as black chattel slavery. On the other hand, it's not an excusable practice for those reasons. I say from the saddle of my Anglo-Irish High Horse!

It's part of the history and culture of the Southwest and New Mexico in particular, and it shouldn't be sidestepped because "you just don't talk about such things."

The stories that a couple of hundred of us heard told yesterday -- quite a turn out, I would say, for a lecture on a fairly obscure topic -- were partly "lifting the veil" stories, telling us things we didn't know. The point was made that we pass by all sorts of sites on our travels around New Mexico that are primary sites of the Southwest slave trade and genizaro communities, and we might never give it a thought. We should give it a thought. We should never forget. We should recognize and honor those captives and the contributions they made to New Mexico's history and culture.

Much of what we think of as unique about New Mexico, and why this is often considered to be "another country," is the result of a much more complicated past than most of us realize.

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