There is No There There: Women and Intermarriage in the Southwestern Borderlands

There is No There There: Women and Intermarriage in the Southwestern Borderlands

A Common Place, An Uncommon Voice
Volume 13, Number 3, Spring 2013

Amanda Taylor-Montoya

Amanda Taylor-Montoya is an independent scholar living in southern New Mexico.

Borderlands are fuzzy, slippery, ambiguous places. Whether imagined as a geographic region straddling an international border, “the contested boundaries between colonial domains,” or simply zones of intercultural contact where state or imperial power is weak, borderlands are spaces where social boundaries are unstable and social conventions appear more flexible. Cooperation and accommodation characterize the borderlands as much as conflict and violence. Historians often point to centuries of racial mixture to help explain the cultural fluidity and hybridization that prevail in the borderlands.

Tales of liaisons that transgressed racial boundaries (beginning with the relationship between Hernán Cortés and Malíntzin Tenépal) are so common in histories of the Southwestern borderlands that they function as a kind of creation story for the region and its peoples. Here, men exchanged women—as captives or wives—to establish, bolster, or consolidate economic and social relationships. Indigenous women not only provided sexual companionship and domestic labor, but also served critical roles as translators, guides, and cultural mediators in colonial encounters between Europeans and native peoples. Whether consensual or coerced, mixed unions figured prominently in the borderlands economy and culture…

…Spanish colonial society recognized a wide variety of mixed race peoples, but also maintained a stringent hierarchy between them. The racial system included not only españoles (Spaniards) and indios (Indians), but also people identified as mestizos (Spanish and Indian), mulatos (Spanish and African), castizos (Spanish and mestizo), castas (racial mixture), color quebrado (literally, “broken color”), and genízaros (Hispanicized Indians). One’s racial classification was determined not only by ancestry or phenotype, but also by occupation or class, and could change over time according to one’s circumstances.

Race and legitimacy were intertwined in colonial New Mexico, as many associated mixed unions with illegitimacy and illicit sex. Consequently, many marriages—particularly among the elite—were arranged, in order to ensure matches with someone of equal status to preserve family honor. Simply put, the state’s acknowledgment of mixed race people did not alter the association of racial mixture with dishonor. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, New Mexicans increasingly moved away from the nuanced racial hierarchy in place during the colonial period toward a more rigid racialization of two categories: Spanish and Indian…

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