Daily Life In Colonial Latin America

BOOK: Daily Life In Colonial Latin America













Introduction: Race and Family, Keys to the
Colonial Period


Marriage, Home, and Family

Love, Sex, and Relationships

Childhood and Education

Material Culture

Work and Labor

Religion and Popular Culture

Government, Political Life, and Rebellion

Conclusion: Independence and Beyond





pivotal moments sparked my interest in and approach to this study. The first
happened when I went to Guatemala to do the research for my dissertation. My
topic was a rebellion of the peasantry, the
of a rural area
of eastern Guatemala in 1837. I wanted to find out why they had put down their
hoes and picked up anything that could serve as a weapon for several years,
finally marching on Guatemala City where their young leader Rafael Carrera,
known as “
el indio,
” formed the alliances that enabled him to threaten
and later destroy the Republic of Central America. As I read documents of all
sorts from that period, I began to notice that the true leaders of the
rebellion were the men of several large extended families that owned many acres
in cattle ranches. I searched for these men and their wives in court records,
land surveys, purchase and sale agreements, wills, and baptismal and marital
records, and I saw that many of them were categorized as
mulato libre.
in this part of Latin America in the early 19th century was mostly a matter of
observation or phenotype, and various scholars have discussed the unreliability
of these ethnic appellations in defining a person’s true ethnicity. Since
Rafael Carrera became the first president of an independent Guatemala after the
breakup of the United Provinces of Central America, there are pictures of him
available, and, in spite of his nickname, his features appear at least as much African
as Indian. One aspect of these racial categories that scholars seem to agree on
is that the word
was applied to people who appeared to be at
least partly of African descent and who came from a non-Indian village. The
word was
applied to children who had been born in an Indian village
or who appeared to be
a combination of Europeans and
indigenous people. Taking this standard as my guide, I realized that the
primary leaders of this important rebellion were men of African descent. This
was a surprise. Although historians had noted that most of the people living
between Guatemala City and San Salvador were
a catchall
category still used in Guatemala to mean “non-Indian,” the ethnicity of these
people had been treated as irrelevant to their role in history. As I read more
and more documents, the ethnicity of these people began to seem far from
irrelevant. It seemed to me that their ethnicity was at the core of what they
did and why they did it. And I began to wonder how many other people of African
descent had been hidden from history by this assumption that their ethnicity
was unimportant in motivating their actions.

The other moment came when I began teaching Latin American
survey courses. I always begin with a pre-contact sketch of the peoples of
three continents who blended to create the Latin Americans of today: the
indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere, the European invaders, and the
Africans who were brought against their will as laborers. And I always stress
the nearly insurmountable odds that the Africans and their descendants faced in
the Americas, and the way they refused to be crushed by the inhospitable
conditions of their new home. I did not, however, find a colonial textbook that
gave these people an equal share in the construction of the Latin America we
know today. This is changing, largely because of the well-researched monographs
that have been coming out over the past 20 years, and on which we relied in
writing this book. Before long, the influence of people from Africa will be
recognized in the standard survey text, and I wanted to play a part in that
historiography. When the opportunity came up to do this study of daily life in
the colonial period, it seemed like the perfect chance to bring some of this
recent research to a wider audience. I hope we have not unbalanced this study
too heavily in the direction of the Africans, but we intentionally drew many of
our examples from the experience of Africans and people of African descent in
Latin America, and we have focused on the institutions, like slavery, that
affected them most. I hope we have shown how these people shaped Latin American
history while they made their lives as best they could within the parameters of
a heartless coerced-labor system and how at times they even claimed that most
revolutionary right of working people: to laugh and enjoy life.

Ann Jefferson


Like Ann, my own historical research has focused
extensively on Guatemala. Also like her, I discovered in the course of
conducting archival research for my doctorate that people of African ancestry
had played a more important role there than I or nearly anyone else had
realized. In my own doctoral dissertation I decided to explore the history of
Africans and their descendants in an earlier era, the 17th century, and in the
course of the research process expanded my geographic scope to include what is
now El Salvador as well. My interest was in understanding the significance of
the African presence in that time and place and, in addition, those aspects of
colonial society that may have contributed along with modern racism to the
gradual disappearance of that presence from historical memory in northwestern
Central America. What I found in the records was a whole world of people, some
enslaved and others free, who did everything from producing sugar under the
terrible conditions in which that fateful crop was grown everywhere in the
Americas, to escaping from enslavement to carve out independent lives in the
remote bush, to fighting in the king’s militias against foreign invaders and
then using their records of military service to bargain for relief from the
discriminatory tax burdens the same king levied on people of African ancestry.
I also encountered many, many individuals who forged bonds of love and family
across the boundaries of a legal system of racial hierarchy by which colonial
authorities hoped to keep indigenous peoples, Africans, and Europeans divided
into separate spheres.

As Ann has already noted, a great deal of similar research
has been carried out recently for much of the vast region of the Americas over
which Spain ruled for three centuries, and we have relied extensively on some
of it to incorporate a fresh, deeper understanding of the colonial African
experience into our discussion of daily life throughout Spanish America. Due to
the importance of the sugar economy in Portuguese-ruled Brazil, that place has
sometimes been treated as the only area of Latin America to be profoundly
influenced by centuries of forced African immigration. But recent research has
revealed the broader impact of this forced immigration. A quick way to make
this point is by referring the reader to the statistical tables included in the
exhaustive, online Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, which includes records
of some 35,000 of the voyages that transported more than 10 million Africans
across the Atlantic against their will between the early 16th and mid-19th
centuries. Fully 60 percent of those forced migrants went to Iberian-ruled
areas of the Americas, most to Brazil but well over a million either to the
Spanish Caribbean or to mainland Spanish America. Beyond the numbers, of
course, are individual lives, which have been the subject of much other recent
research into the African experience in the Americas. When taken together with
the findings of a longer-running effort by scholars to give proper attention to
the native peoples who met the newcomers from across the Atlantic and who still
constitute the majority of the population in some parts of Spanish America,
this new research on the lives of Africans and their descendants has allowed us
to see Latin American colonial societies in a far richer light. Thanks to the
painstaking work of dozens of historians, experiences that were for a long time
either slighted or ignored entirely, whether those of Africans or of native
peoples, are at the forefront of the history we tell here.

Paul Lokken





indicated in the preface, we owe a profound scholarly debt to the individuals
whose work appears in the chapter notes and annotated bibliography. Their
research, in turn, was built upon a foundation laid by many other historians of
colonial Latin America. We also express our profound gratitude to Mariah
Gumpert of Greenwood Press for her editorial advice, direction, and patience.
Each of us also wishes to thank a few people who have provided some balance to
our own daily lives, although many others will go unnamed.


First and foremost, I want to thank the person without whom
this book would quite literally never have seen the light of day, my coauthor
Paul Lokken whose knowledge of colonial Latin America is wide and deep, and who
turned out to be a meticulous scholar, a generous collaborator, and a gentle
critic. I am also grateful to Catherine Komisaruk who enlivened the time we
shared in the Archivo General de Centroamérica and who has continued to show an
enthusiastic interest in my work. Thanks also to John Higginson and Mariana
Leal Ferreira who contributed their scholarly talents to parts of the project.
Finally, and from the bottom of my heart, I thank my colleagues in the History
Department at the University of Tennessee who welcomed me and provided the only
academic home I have found in a decade of teaching at several universities. For
making my daily life worth living, I thank my son Brooke, my niece Liz, my
mother, and my sisters and brothers.

Ann Jefferson


like to thank Ann for creating this project, allowing me to share her vision,
and making me a better writer in spite of myself. For daily mercies, my deepest
gratitude to Paula, another generous and astute critic among all else, and to
Annelise and Martine. I also express profound appreciation to my mother and my
parents-in-law for their support. And for keeping me up-to-date on our own
popular culture in all its wondrous manifestations, many thanks to Thom
Oleksiuk, Doug Tompson, and Jeff Ponting.

Paul Lokken










1782, José de Alfaro, husband of Josefa Cadena, a pregnant
chocolate vendor, brought charges against Teresa Bravo, Teresa’s husband Diego
Fernández, and three members of their household for beating Josefa in the
street after Mass on Sunday. The court ordered an examination of Josefa by the
two doctors of the town, San Juan Teotihuacán, outside Mexico City. They found
that she had indeed suffered bruises over much of her body and a scratch above
the eye. Since the doctors were unable to stop the hemorrhage that had begun
after the beating, one of them testified to the likelihood of a miscarriage,
while the other was of the opinion that she might not lose the baby in spite of
the heavy bleeding. Various witnesses confirmed the attack by Teresa and her
companions, although at least one witness, a friend or acquaintance of Teresa’s
husband Diego, testified that Josefa started the fight. The record is
incomplete and does not show any determination by a judge. It may be that a
settlement was made out of court and the case dropped, especially since various
facts about the life of Teresa and Diego indicate that they occupied a higher
rung of the social ladder than a chocolate vender and her husband, whom the
record shows to have been illiterate. Although we can only speculate as to the
outcome, the details of the incident provide important clues to the nature of
colonial society in New Spain (Mexico). 

For one thing, witnesses testified that before attacking
Josefa, Teresa called her a “black whore,” a slur Josefa’s husband found
important to answer in his complaint. He defended his wife’s honor and noted
that charging a married woman with infidelity was the worst insult she could
receive. In addition, he stated that his wife was not “black” but a
one of the numerous labels created by Spaniards in their efforts to draw
legal distinctions among racially mixed individuals in colonial society on the
basis of actual or perceived degrees of non-European ancestry. One witness
testified that the charge of “whore” was leveled at Teresa by Josefa as well,
suggesting that this insult was a powerful one. The fact that José de Alfaro
took pains to assert his wife’s mixed-race status shows that at least in a late
colonial town near Mexico City, it was considered more desirable to belong to
the category
which connoted a significant proportion of
European ancestry, than to be black. By hurling the term
at her
opponent, Teresa established her own superior position in the racialized social
structure of the colonies. There is no indication that Josefa used a racial
slur against Teresa, probably because Teresa, married to a functionary of the
Spanish crown, was likely to have been white, although the document does not

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