Transforming Mulatto Identity in Colonial Guatemala and El Salvador; 1670-1720

Transforming Mulatto Identity in Colonial Guatemala and El Salvador; 1670-1720

Transforming Anthropology
Volume 12, Issue 1-2 (January 2004)
Pages 9 – 20
DOI: 10.1525/tran.2004.12.1-2.9

Paul Lokken, Assistant Professor of Latin American History
Bryant University, Smithfield Rhode Island

This article examines an important moment in the history of people of African origins in the region now encompassed by the republics of Guatemala and El Salvador. That moment has received relatively little attention in modern scholarship because the entire subject of the colonial African presence in the region was largely ignored until recently. The lingering effects of nineteenth-century scientific racism contributed to the “forgetting” of African origins, but developments during the colonial era initiated the process. During that era, the dependence of Spaniards primarily on the labor of the region’s indigenous majority allowed members of an African-defined minority—both free and enslaved—to rework the contours of the identity assigned to them, via marriage, militia service, and other avenues. This transformation in identity was marked by shifts away from association with the “inferiority” of tributary status and toward incorporation into a broader category—gente ladina (hispanized people)—that carried connotations unrelated to African identity.

…Increased fluidity in classification was perhaps inevitable, at least where identification of “mixed” origins was concerned. For instance, while marriage records demonstrate clearly that in seventeenth-century Guatemala the term “mulato” was generally applied to people who actually possessed some African origins, examples of labeling “mistakes” were beginning to crop up as well, notably in San Salvador and San Miguel. In 1671, the son of an “espafiol” and an “india” from San Miguel was identified as “mulato libre” in a marriage record produced in Olocuilta, just outside San Salvador, and in 1691, a record filed in Amapala listed the parents of a “mulato libre” as “indios vecinos” (Indian residents) of San Miguel.” The vulnerability of Spanish efforts to enforce boundaries between “types” of individuals with plural origins as a means of divide-and-rule (Cope 1994:3-26, Lutz 1994:79-112, 140) is also underscored in court cases in which people whom others defined as mulatto claimed mestizo status in order to avoid tribute or otherwise dissociate themselves from the “taint” of African ancestry (Few 1997:120).”…

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