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Catholicism as an instrument of counterhegemony: the religiopolitical ingenuity of Afro-Mexican People.


Black Studies advocates have sought to create a counterhegemonic body of thought designed to facilitate the liberation of African people since the inception of the discipline in the 1960s. For some six decades, these scholars have been researching the philosophy and praxis of Blacks on the continent and in diaspora from a multidisciplinary perspective that includes history, politics, sociology, psychology, art, and economics. This study makes a contribution to that scholarship by addressing two omissions.

First, Karenga (2002), one of the most prolific academics in the field, states that "From its beginning, Black Studies scholars have always defined and developed the discipline as inclusive of African peoples throughout the world African community" (p. 3). He mentions that although the subject area "tends to focus most heavily on the African American initiative and experience," it nonetheless includes African Latinos and other Blacks from the Spanish American world. However, in spite of this global scope, Black Studies researchers have not had sufficient time to seriously investigate the culture and historical influence of Afro-Mexicans (Karenga, 2002; Okafor, 2010). I address this omission by examining the political ingenuity of enslaved Africans in Colonial Mexico (1521-1821).

Second, Karenga (2002), together with a substantial number of Black Studies scholars, acknowledges that Africans are a profoundly spiritual people who have consistently and rigorously expressed their religious sensibilities from ancient times to the present-day (p. 233). These scholars typically examine the history and theology of African religion, beginning with the culture of the Ancient Nile Valley and progressing to more recent belief systems, like those of the Dogon of Mali. However, in investigating this topic, they often overlook an important religious tradition that reveals the political and spiritual acumen of African people. They miss the remarkable importance of Catholicism as a counterhegemonic instrument that enslaved Blacks utilized to resist subordination in Spain's New World colonies (Adams, 1979; Karenga, 1990; Painter, 2007). I give attention to this subject through an examination of the liberatory politicoreligious strategies of Afro-Mexican Catholics.

In researching this topic, I utilize Afrocentricity, a theoretical framework which stresses African agency and treats Africans as active subjects of history rather than objects or passive victims (Asante, pp. 44-47, 1998). Asante's conception of this theory emphasizes its academic focus and counterhegemonic intent: "Afrocentricity's intellectual assault on the dominance dogma is initially historical; that is, it presents a set of facts describing events and phenomena a in such away that a more valid interpretation of the agency of African people emerges even in the circumstance of oppression" (pp. 44-47). Similarly, Karenga (2002) cites Afrocentricity as a quality of thought "rooted in the human interests of African people ... [and representing] the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense ... (p. 47). My study, which is historical, takes as its focal point the life experience of enslaved Afro-Mexicans (1519-1829), as they strategically utilized the religion of their masters to facilitate their survival and liberation. It emphasizes the humanness of African people as they resist the enervating forces of European bondage.

More specifically, I argue that the enslaved Africans of colonial Mexico reconstituted many of the confraternities created by the Catholic Church to make them serve as centers of resistance. Within these organizations, Blacks developed strategies that assisted them to survive the dehumanizing conditions of bondage and to oppose the subordination of their masters.

The confraternities existed throughout Latin American under the auspices of Catholic religious orders and parish churches. The colonial authorities used them to help establish and maintain the religiopolitical interests of the papacy and the king of Spain (Palmer, 84-186, 1976; Von Germeten, pp. 11-40, 2006a). These associations were part of the long-standing tradition of the Catholic Church that the settlers brought with them to the New World to facilitate their cultural imperialism (Foster, 1953). One of the foremost aims of the confraternities, as discussed in detail below, was to expedite the Christianization of the enslaved Afro-Mexicans. The Spaniards believed that their conversion to the Catholic faith would make them more accepting of bondage and so less likely to revolt (Bristol, p. 66, 2007; Davidson, pp. 241-242, 1966).

The term "Afro-Mexican," which does not appear in the colonial literature, refers to a wide variety of both enslaved and free individuals, who lived in colonial Mexico from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Some members of this group were Africans who were brought from the western or west central region of the continent to serve as slaves. Others were born in Spain or in various parts of Spanish America and transported to the colony as bondsmen.

Some Afro-Mexicans were labeled negros, indicating pure African background, while others were called mulatos, denoting mixed parentage. A significant number of colonial Blacks were free as a result of manumission or miscegenation (Simms, pp. 7-9, 2008). Both enslaved and free Afro-Mexicans lived all over the country, in rural and urban settings, while a number of runaways occupied clandestine communities referred to as "cimarrones" (Love, pp.93-101, 1967) The study uses the terms "counterhegemony" and "resistance" interchangeably to signify all individual and collective acts that, according to Karenga (2002), "1) deny support to, challenge or overturn the established order; 2) deny, diminish or eliminate its hold; 3) force changes in its structure and functioning and/or; 4) escape its control and jurisdiction" (p. 146).

The thesis of this study is that the Afro-Mexicans reconstituted many of the confraternities to serve as centers of resistance by promoting community service, Christian piety, and militant insurrection. In developing this argument, the study first surveys the politico-religious history of Colonial Mexico, giving specific attention to the development of African slavery, the collaboration between the colonial state and church, and the significance of Black confraternities. It then discusses in detail the three specific points of the thesis, and relates them directly to African slave resistance.

A Survey of the Politicoreligious History of Colonial Mexico

New Spain was the name given to the viceroy-ruled territories of the Spanish Empire which was one of the dominant powers of the New World for some three hundred years. The specific territories of New Spain included present-day Mexico, Central America, and a large part of the southwestern United States. The period of Mexico's colonization, which is the focus of this study, began with Hernan Cortez's defeat of the Aztecs in 1521 and extended to the revolutionary war of 1821, when the nation gained its independence from Spain.

African Slavery in Colonial Mexico

Slavery began in Colonial Mexico in 1519, when the first African bondsmen accompanied their masters in the conquest of New Spain; the institution continued as a preeminent feature of the nation's economy until its abolition in 1829 (Beltran, 1944; Davidson, 1966; Pi-Sunyer, 1957; Richmond, 2001). The wealth produced by African labor contributed substantially to making the settlement one of the most prosperous colonies of its day and to filling the coffers of both the Spanish royalty and the Catholic Church (Gass, pp. 74-75, 1954; Miller, pp. 147,243,263, 1985). The cargos of precious metals and the enormous revenue generated by cash crops and local industry were largely dependent on the exploitation of Blacks who labored in such areas as silver mines, textiles factories, slaughterhouses, and sugar plantations (Pi-Sunyer, p. 242; Beltran, p. 181, 146).

The development of African slavery in Colonial Mexico can be divided into three major periods (Simms, p. 230, 2008). During the first, 1519-1580, African bondsman served the invading conquistadores as they defeated the Aztec's and confiscated their land. Throughout these six decades, the number of Blacks gradually increased as the indigenous population declined. The second period, 1580-1650, witnessed an enormous increase in the demand for slave labor: between 1570 and 1650, the average annual import of Blacks was between 30,000 and 45,000. The third period, 1650-1829, experienced a decline in both the importation of Africans and the number of Blacks in the population at large. When slavery was abolished in 1829, historians estimate that approximately 200,000 bondsfolk had been brought to Colonial Mexico (Beltran, 1946; Palmer, pp. 16-17, 1976).

The Church/State Governance of Colonial Mexico

To facilitate the exploitation on the massive slave labor force, the Spanish monarch and the Roman Church forged an alliance regulated by a sophisticated set of laws and privileges collectively called the patronato real (Davidson, p. 238, 1966). Through a number of papal bulls, the Church agreed to recognize the authority of the king in colonial governance. In return, the Crown accepted the responsibility of Christianizing the indigenous people, building the requisite number of churches and monasteries, and providing a military defense for papal interests. This arrangement formalized the papacy's subordination to the Spanish sovereign, but simultaneously involved the Church in the political affairs of the colonial state.

The Church purposed to expand its influence throughout Colonial Mexico by evangelizing the natives and Africans and bringing them into the Catholic faith (Palmer, pp. 179-186, 2000). However, because of the geographic distances and inadequate number of missionaries, it simply did not have the resources to accomplish this goal. To solve this problem, the papacy conceded to the king, who claimed divine appointment and espoused the political philosophy of absolutism, the building of the church in Spanish American.

The patronato real authorized the Crown to nominate candidates for church offices--such as cardinals, bishops, abbots, canons, and the like--to collect tithes, and to allocate funds for ecclesiastical projects. Colonial authorities also assigned missionary orders to specific locations and set the boundaries of Episcopal sees. In addition, the state had the right to approve or veto papal bulls and to censor communications between the Church of Spain and its congregations in the New World. Miller (1985) elaborates the outstanding features of this church/state alliance and concludes his discussion, stating:
   The royal prerogatives extended to virtually all
   Church matters except dogma and doctrine, and
   over the years those rights were exercised by the
   monarch, the Council of the Indies, and ranking
   colonial officers. One exception was the fuero, the
   special privilege of churchmen to be tried only in
   Church courts if they were accused of any crime
   (p. 143).

However, this coorporative arrangement between the State and Church was not limited to ecclesiastical affairs. Because the two institutions enjoyed such enormous wealth through slave labor, they cooperated to produce a stable and contented African work force. They enacted legislation relating to the bondsfolk that was conciliatory in nature, granting them freedoms in order to pacify feelings of hostility and distrust, and to reduce the likelihood of resistance. Hence, the Church and State sought to produce a modicum of tolerance among the enslaved Africans by making their daily lives as palatable as the circumstances of forced labor would allow. For instance, the royal cedula of 1536 enjoined the settlers to treat their bondsmen humanely, so that they might be more cooperative and less inclined to revolt (du Puga, p. 373, 1878; Price, p. 85, 1996). Similarly, the ordinances of 1545 directed masters to provide their slaves with "good treatment" by supplying them with adequate food and clothing and by not punishing them cruelly. The ecclesiastical and civil authorities hoped that such legislation would forestall insurrection and ensure high levels of tranquility and maximize productivity. They also desired that the African confraternities would placate the bondsfolk and pacify any feelings that they might have of hostility and belligerence.

The African Confraternities of Colonial Mexico

European confraternities were voluntary organizations formed by the members of the Catholic Church who desired to pay homage to a particular saint and practice their faith among a select company of believers. These groups, which originated in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in northwestern Europe, were brought to the Americas by believers who sought to recreate their religion traditions in the New World (Foster, 1953, pp. 3-11; Larkin, pp. 194-197, 2006).

As the enslaved Africans and mulattoes of colonial Mexico converted to Catholicism, they formed their own confraternities under the supervision and with the support of the Roman clergymen, who encouraged a limited degree of autonomy (Von Germeten, pp. 215-233, 2006b). These brotherhoods, which were led by African men and women, flourished in the 1600s, in Veracruz. Mexico City, Zacatecas, San Louis Potosi, Taxco, San Miguel Allende, and Queretaro. Like their white counterparts, the Black organizations provided certain privileges to their dues-paying members. These included, for instance, the assurance of a decent Christian burial, the recitation of masses and rosaries, the freedom to participate in church-sponsored activities, and assistance to families in crisis (Palmer, pp. 54-55, 1976). The African organizations carried the following official labels: cofradi de los mulatos [confraternity of the mulattos] confradi de los morenos [confraternity of the browns], cofradi de los pardos [confraternity of the half-breeds], and confradi de los negros [confraternity of the blacks] (Von Germeten, pp. 3-7, 2006a).

Although the Church and State originally created the Black confraternities as hegemonic institutions, the Afro-Mexicans transformed them into sites of resistance. Within the confines of these organizations, they congregated legally and stealthily; that is, they convened with the master's approval but beyond the master's scrutiny. In other words, many of the confraternities became subversive brotherhoods through which the Africans confronted the psychologically and physically dehumanizing conditions of bondage.

The Confraternities as Centers of Slave Resistance

The Afro-Mexicans reconstituted many of the confraternities to serve as centers of counterhegemony by promoting community solidarity, Christian piety, and militant insurrection. In doing this they creatively utilized the Catholic faith to oppose the conditions of bondage in Pre-independence Mexico (1521-1821).

Resistance in the Form of Community Solidarity

The fragmentation of the community. The religious leaders and political authorities of colonial Mexico were constantly fearful of a well-coordinated slave insurrection which might maximize the threatening number of bondspeople living in close quarters among them. During the peak years of slavery (1575-1650), the Black population fell short of 100,000; however, in spite of their relatively small numbers, many regions of the country had a higher percentage of enslaved Africans than free settlers (Palmer, p. 187, 1976). Hence, to prevent the clandestine from planning mass resistance, the Europeans attempted to fragment the Black community. They sought to forestall the bondsfolk from congregating in large numbers, and thereby developing a sense of unity and the ability to plot subversion (Davidson, pp. 240-247; 1966).

In 1553, Viceroy Luis de Velasco demonstrated this colony-wide fear of a synchronized uprising, stating, "This land is so full of Negroes and mestizos [people of indigenous and European background] who exceed the Spaniards in great quantity, and all desire to purchase their liberty with the lives of their masters" (Davidson, p. 244, 1966). In the same year, Velasco established the Santa Hermandad, a civil militia, designed, in part, to defend New Spain against a well-manned slave insurrection.

Similarly, to prevent Blacks from gathering in large numbers, colonial lawmakers, in 1612, passed an ordenanaa making it illegal "for more than four Negro women and men to be present at the burial of a Negro man or woman, or of a free or slave mulatto, male or female" (Davidson, p. 244, 1966). This legislation was akin to that of 1622 that prohibited Afro-Mexicans in the capital city from congregating for any reason (Bristol, p. 103, 2007). In like manner, Cardinal Cisnero, a high-ranking governing official, typified the communitywide alarm over the possibility of a well-coordinated uprising, stating, "They [Africans] are fit for war, men without honor and faith ... which, as they increase, infallibly lead to rebellion, for they wish to impose on the Spaniards the same chains which they wear" (Love, p. 91, 1967).

In summary, the colonists, fearing a well-coordinated slave insurrection, attempted to prevent Blacks from congregating in substantial numbers and fostering a spirit of solidarity and interdependence around their common interests as an oppressed people. However, they were unsuccessful: the enslaved Africans nonetheless united within their communities.

The production of community solidarity. The confraternities provided a legal and customary way for the bondspeople to develop social cohesion during the frequent religious celebrations, funeral services, flagellation parades, and ministries of benevolence that the organizations sponsored. Relative to religious celebrations, the Africans participated enthusiastically in the annual religious fiestas and feasts that they organized and sponsored using their own financial resources, which resulted from begging, donations, and the like. The fiestas commemorated the official holiday of a designated saint, giving opportunity for many from the brotherhoods to stage parades during Lent and on Corpus Christi. Large numbers marched in these processions in order to honor their saint and publicly display their religious devotion among the townspeople (Larkin, pp. 194-197, 2006).

In a similar manner, African confraternities celebrated the religious feasts. Remarkably, the colonial ecclesiastics often criticized these gatherings, referring to them as raucous, wine-soaked galas that challenged public order, and that, according to the bishop of Nueva Galicia in 1673, were an affront to spiritual and temporal good behavior (Von Germeten, pp. 215-233, 2006b). Such criticism suggests that the Africans used the celebrations as an occasion to enjoy a measure of conviviality within their kinship group.

These observations indicate that the African participants in the feasts and fiestas shared a spirit of cooperation as they staged the celebrations and worked in concert to produce them. The public parades and ceremonial festivities were among the few occasions when the bondspeople could congregate with relatively little supervision and express themselves with an uncommon level of freedom. Hence, the two events made a socially useful contribution to the African community; they allowed its members to experience a modicum of interconnectedness in an environment that sought to disrupt their solidarity. Therefore, the feasts and fiestas helped the bondsfolk to sustain themselves as a subjugated people in a socially hostile environment (Von Germeten, pp. 3-7, 2006a).

In terms of funeral services, the Spanish colonists viewed Africans as not only inferior, but subhuman, and so undeserving of the dignity of a Catholic internment (Foster, pp. 11, 13-14, 1953). Alonso de Sandoval, a Jesuit priest of the colonial era, reports that in 1627 it was common in New Spain for settlers to leave the bodies of Black people unburied "as if they were beasts, mouth dropped open, looking up and full of insects" (Von Germeten, p. 1, 2006a). However, within the framework of the confraternity, the bondsfolk worked concertedly to bury their dead in an honorable and reverent manner, and this contributed to their social cohesion and solidarity as a people.

The burial of Juan Roque, a prosperous free African of Veracruz in the early 1600s, clarifies this point (Von Germeten, pp. 97-98, 2006a). In anticipation of his death, Roque requested to be buried in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, where he was a member of the confraternity. He also asked that members from the Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament from the Santa Veracruz Church serve in his entourage, and he designated twenty pesos in alms for their participation. In addition, Roque, as a cofrade (member of a confraternity), requested a full complement of masses for his soul after death, believing that numerous services of this sought might solicit the mercy of God and result in less time in purgatory.

Although Roque's situation is remarkable due to his uncommon affluence, his story is representative of the general contribution of the African confraternities to the interment of its members. Characteristically, the organizations insured that their deceased brothers and sisters were laid to rest with dignity: this included a public funeral procession, intercessory prayer, a solemn wake, and, if possible, care for indigent widows. In this manner, the confraternities were a source of interdependence and unity in the African community. Bristol's (2007) comment, concerning the internment rituals of the mulatto organizations, which were typical of the Black confraternities in general, supports this observation:

When candles (wax was an expensive item) were needed, the cofrades took them to the funeral, paying for the mass out of their dues, and accompanying the body to the church. Once a year a requiem mass would be sung for the souls of dead brothers, and the cost of the tomb, wax, and the parish fees were paid from the confraternity's money. Thus, in their lifetimes the mulatto confraternity members had the satisfaction of being part of a collective and the assurance of knowing that, that upon death they would be buried in a Christian manner (p. 105, 2007; Von Germeten, p. 66, 2006a).

In this way, the cofrades cooperated from one generation to the next to confirm the human value of African people and to belie the ruling class notion that Blacks constituted an inferior race whose members did not deserve a dignified burial.

Pursuant to the flagellation parades, members of both the European and African confraternities staged spectacular public processions, during which they voluntarily scourged themselves as an act of penance and identification with the passion of Christ (Webster, pp. 11, 18, 1995; Larkin, p. 498, 2004). They viewed self-punishment as a form of personal mortification and retribution for supposed transgressions or undeserved favor from God.

Of the limited data relating specifically to Afro-Mexican flagellation, the papers of the Confraternity of Saint John of the Penitence are among the most informative. The brotherhood's founding document of 1635 clarifies the goal of the flagellant parades, stating, "We wish to have a blood procession to make penitence for our sins, to serve God and to commemorate his Passion and death" (Von Germeten, p. 31, 2006a). The organization's first books, dating from 1650, indicate the group's profound commitment to intrepid spectacle and religious symbolism in its public demonstration of self-humiliation. Von Germeten states that the confraternity's inventory included "a head of Saint John with a diadem displayed in a curtained box, a platform to carry Saint John and the hardware needed to carry it, bells, some kind of sign ... a silver machete, an iron cross, and a crown of thorns" (p. 31).

Similarly, the Confraternity of Saint John in Zacatecas, an African organization of the late 1600s, assigned a remarkably high priority to dignity, inclusiveness, and public display in its flagellation parades. It formally required through its constitution that participants wear a white tunic and colored insignia and that they exhibit bells, standards, banners, and a crucifix during the procession. The angeles de bien, a group of small children carrying candles and dressed as angels, played a prominent role in the public display. The parade's route followed the sacred geography of the town, starting at the cathedral, passing by the religious institutions, and returning to the cathedral. During the course of the procession, the confrades and their children dramatized selected events from the biblical narrative according to Catholic theology (Von Germeten, p. 32, 2006a).

The flagellation parades were empowering rituals that contributed to the spiritual cohesion and social connectedness of the slave community. The cofrades coalesced their organizational skills, spiritual passions, and dramatic talents to gain the approval of the towns-people and Catholic hierarchy. To accomplish this, they labored collectively to present the biblical stories accurately and to organize the processions meaningfully, so that the project fostered interdependent cooperation in the African community.

With respect to benevolent ministries, the African confraternities, like their European counterparts, supplied their members with a broad range of social services, including, for example, special assistance to families in crisis. In this regard, the Afro-Mexican women, who were called madres or "mothers," were consistently prominent, especially in treating ill adults and orphaned children. They exercised rudimentary nursing skills, as they cared for needy bondsfolk, free Blacks, abandoned children, and pregnant women. Von Gremeten (2006a) summarizes the contributions of "cofradas" (female confraternity members), writing:

[African] [w]omen served important symbolic and actual functions in black and mulatto confraternities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In a social context in which life expectancy for salves was very low, African women were able to provide other slaves with much needed charity (p. 41; Mulvey, pp. 258-260, 1980).

The madres played such a prominent role in some of the larger, well-established confraternities that they were elected to offices within a hieratical structure and served according to their station. For instance, in the Confraternity of the Coronation and Saint Benedict in Veracruz, members and founders elected a head mother annually. This woman, in turn, chose five "female companions" who shared "the duty to visit all brothers and sisters who fell ill (Von Germeten, pp. 54-55, 2006a). In addition, the head mother identified those who were truly indigent and gave them two pesos in alms from the organization's treasury (Palmer, p. 51, 1976).

Notably, these women did not only minister to the sick, but they also attended to orphaned Black children. In colonial society, public auctions and similar occurrences often separated African mothers from their sons and daughters. This created a number of orphaned youth whom the madres raised within the nurturing context of the African confraternity. Such youngsters depended on the brotherhood for solace when they were sick, instruction when they were growing up, and ultimately, burial after death (Von Germeten, p. 157, 2006a; p. 217, 2006b).

In addition, the ministries of benevolence, which were largely conducted by Afro-Mexican women, provided the slave community with special care in crisis situations. When illness struck the bondsfolk, the madres served as nurses, and when the colonial masters destroyed African families, the cofradas became surrogate mothers. In this manner, the welfare services helped maintain the unity and solidity to the Black community (Von Germeten, p. 55, 2006a).

In summary, Mexico's colonial rulers were constantly fearful of a massive slave uprising. They responded to this threat by attempting to prevent the bondsfolk from congregating in large numbers and unifying their communities. However, the African people resisted. In their confraternities, they produced solidarity through their religious celebrations, funeral services, flagellation parades, and benevolent ministries (Palmer, p. 186, 1976).

Resistance in the Form of Christian Piety.

The Africans used the confraternities to demonstrate their fidelity to the Catholic faith through self-humiliation, and they thereby won the admiration of many of the colonists and resisted being labeled an inferior people. An examination of three discrete points clarifies this observation; they include the Spanish American cast system, European and colonial Baroque Christianity, and the settlers' reaction to African piety.

The Spanish American caste system. The political and ecclesiastical authorities created a hierarchy that regulated the economic, educational, religious, occupational, and political opportunity of the colony's entire population. This method of social stratification was based on values relating to calidad (quality or status), a concept that categorized individuals and distinguished Spaniards from non-Spaniards who, as Indians and Africans, constituted the majority of the population (Simms, pp. 229-230, 2008; Castro Morales, pp. 677-678, 1983). Several elements formed an individual's calidad, including skin color, occupation, clothing, personal contacts, cultural habits, status as slave or free, and limpieza de sangre (purity of blood). Only Christians who could verify the absence of Jewish, Muslim, and other non-Christian elements in their heritage could claim purity of blood. Because limpieza de sangre was requisite to holding all state and church offices, Africans, mulattoes, and Indians were totally excluded from positions of authority, and therefore, based on calidad, they were also consigned to the lowest social classes. This disprivilege was compounded by classifications based on skin color. The system in its totality classified Africans as infames de derecho (evil ones) of mala raza (bad race) and mala casta (bad caste), while identifying the colonists as gente de razon (people of reason), without a particula de sangre vil (particle of bad blood) (Morales, pp. 674-678, 2008).

The vocabulary employed to designate race further clarifies the status of Africans in the Spanish American caste system. In referring to the bondspeople, the colonial authorities used the word negro (black), a term for color that signified "unlucky" or "sad" in colonial culture. When an Indian and a Spaniard procreated, the child was identified as mestizo (mixed); however, when an African and a person of another race conceived a child, their son or daughter was called a mulato (mule), the impotent offspring of a horse and a donkey. The word mulato carried a pejorative significance all throughout colonial culture (Simms, pp. 235-236, 2008).

In addition, a legal prohibition against intermarriage between Indians and Blacks was one of the foremost restrictions employed by the authorities to insure that Africans remained at the absolute bottom of the social hierarchy (Love, p. 100, 1967; pp.131-139, 1970). Colonial law prescribed that, because all Indians were free subjects of the king of Spain, the offspring of indigenous women could not be enslaved. Consequently, in order to gain freedom for their children, many Black men married Indian women (Simms, p. 235, 2008). However, such marriages could cost white slaveholders an entire generation of free labor. To guard against this loss and to insure that the bondsfolk remain at the bottom of the caste system, in 1580 and again in 1681, the Council of the Indies in Seville passed legislation forbidding African/Indian unions (Miller, pp. 104, 124-125, 143, 1985; Pi-Sunyer, p. 243, 1957).

In sum, this hierarchical structure both concretized the ascendance of the Europeans, by justifying their ultimate authority, and facilitated the exploitation of the bondspeople, by identifying them as an inferior group deserving of servitude.

The Baroque Catholicism of Europe and colonial Mexico. In the Baroque Catholicism of eighteenth century Europe, believers highly revered self-inflicted suffering generally and flagellation specifically, as discussed above (Larkin, p. 37, 1999; Von Germeten, p. 23, 2006a). Other popular forms of asceticism included, stripping oneself of status symbols, such as clothing and jewelry, in order to deny the privileges of wealth and class and to experience destitution vicariously (Weissman, pp. 27, 30, 53, 59, 88, 1982). In some instances, the faithful identified with Jesus symbolically by fasting for "forty days and forty nights" as He did according to the Gospel of St. Matthew 4:1-3 (Larkin, p. 512, 2004). In other situations, the faithful identified with Jesus by humiliating themselves through fasting for "forty days and forty nights" as He did according to the Gospel of St. Mathew 4:1-3. Still another form of self-abasement involved the humiliation of ones corpse. In this case, a person willed that his body be buried in despicable clothing and in an inglorious spot, so that he might identify with Christ in His death (Von Germeten, pp. 235-236, 2006a). According to Baroque Catholicism, such rituals did more than simply put believers in mind of the Lord's passion; they actually recreated the events of His life and enabled them to mystically participate in salvation history (Larkin, p. 496; Von Germeten, p. 29).

However, these forms of asceticism were not confined to European Catholicism; they became popular in colonial Mexico as well. For instance, in the first half of the seventh century, Juan de Palafox y Mendoz, the Bishop of Puebla, taught and performed a strict regimen of self-humiliation. This included fasting three times per week, wearing a hair shirt that irritated his skin, and flagellating himself three times per day (Larkin, pp. 34-55, 1999; pp. 497-498, 2004;). Similarly, a devotional treatise circulated in the colony, advocated the practice of rituals such as "fasts, disciplining, [wearing of] cilices, [and] praying with arms outstretched in the form of a cross (rezar en cruz)" (Larkin, p. 499, 2004). Because such forms of self-abasement were highly esteemed throughout the colony, the settlers applauded the African Catholics when they practiced similar religiosity.

Consequently, Black confrades won local renown when they debased themselves through conspicuous self-flagellation, alms-collecting, and other such acts of civic piety. The religious practice of the Incarnation and Saint Blaise confraternity, which was founded in 1610 and operative in the city of Valladolid, illustrates how many of the African organizations won colony-wide approval during the seventeenth century. Primarily, the group conducted flagellation parades, which are discussed above, and alms-collecting, the focus of this section. The begging put the organization in the public eye and impressed the European community with its humble piety, as its members went about meekly soliciting handouts to fund its religious activities (Von Germeten, pp. 104-158, 2006a).

More specifically, in the late 1600s, the brothers and madres (mothers) traveled throughout the neighborhoods surrounding Valladolid and in all the towns and rural areas of the Diocese soliciting funds for their masses, sick comrades, and the like. According to the organization's constitution, when the "pilgrim" left the city to collect alms, the membership accompanied him to the outskirts of Valladolid, carrying their standard and lighted candles and playing their trumpets and drums. When he returned, they welcomed him on the city's outskirts with the same fanfare (Von Germeten, p. 111. 2006a; p. 225, 2006b). This ceremony and the alms-collecting itself publicly displayed the organization's humility and earned it the respect and support of the townspeople at large.

The historical records indicate that the women were more successful in begging for public support than were the men. This might be explained by the overall status of women in colonial society. Throughout New Spain women in general and Black women in particular were viewed as sinful by nature and deserving of contempt. This idea was based on the notion that Eve was responsible for Adam's transgression and consequently the cause of original sin. Therefore, when the African women, who were already of the lowermost social class because of their race, further humiliated themselves by alms-collecting, the local people were all the more impressed with their self-effacing piety, and so more willing to give to them than to the men (Von Germeten, pp. 43, 56, 61-64, 2006a). It was if their self-effacing conduct symbolically doubled the lowness of their slave status.

In conclusion, the African confraternities practiced for the most part the same forms of Baroque religious expression as the Catholics of Europe and New Spain. The worshippers of all three communities validated their Christian genuineness through public displays of self-degradation and ascetical identification with Christ.

The settlers' reaction to African piety. As stated above, the Black cofrades earned the admiration of the colonists through their self- flagellation and alms-collecting. Under the influence of Baroque religiosity, the settlers applauded the Africans for emulating the suffering of Christ through these rituals, and they openly affirmed them through their philanthropic testaments, charitable donations, mystical enslavement, and confraternal membership.

Relative to the philanthropic testaments, in anticipation of death, the European Catholics often willed generous gifts to African confraternities and thereby demonstrated their veneration of the Black groups. A will left by Gabriel Lopez in 1631 illustrates this point. The store owner requested burial in the Franciscan church and paid for fifty masses for the souls of Indians in purgatory. He also left six pesos to "the Incarnation of the morenos" of Valladolid, a Black confraternity, together with a similar donation to several European confraternities (Von Germeten, p. 107, 2006a). Similarly, the records of the Merced, a seventeenth century African confraternity located in Mexico City, indicate that the organization funded a celebration on the feast day of St. Roque through a testament of fifty peso left to them by a European patroness (Bristol, p. 106, 2007). These bequests, which named African organizations as their beneficiaries, expressed the admiration felt by many colonists in response to Black Christian piety. The settlers believed that they could supernaturally share in the divine rewards of African holiness by supporting the Black confraternities through their posthumous largess.

With regard to charitable donations, as mentioned earlier, public solicitation was a prominent feature of Afro-Mexican Catholicism during the seventeenth century. The cofrades petitioned support on a large scale, dispatching numerous members to diverse locations consistently each week and on religious holidays. These initiatives proved remarkably lucrative. For instance, records for the Incarnation and Saint Blaises, a sizable seventeenth century Black confraternity of Valladolid, indicate that begging accounted for nearly all of the funding for the group's activities (Von Germeten, pp. 111-112, 2006a). This success in alms-collecting, which was common among the African institutions, points to the generosity of the colonists in responding to the needs of the confraternities and to their respect for the organizations as pious and reputable organizations within the Catholic faith.

Relative to the notion of mystical enslavement, as mentioned earlier, the European Catholics, who were strongly influenced by Baroque religion, highly esteemed the African Christians, believing that their lowliness intensified their intimacy with Christ. Indeed, the colonists held this lowliness in such high regard that they identified themselves with the subjugated Africans by creating a "mystical enslavement." That is, they practiced a religious philosophy that allowed them to share mystically and vicariously in the holiness of the bondsfolk without jeopardizing their status as free people (Von Germente, p.38, 2006a).

To accomplish this, they often used the term escalvo (slave) to express their obsequious devotion to the Eucharist and the Virgin: in the context of their confraternities, they often applied such labels to themselves as "slave of the Virgin," "slave of the holy Sacrament," "slave of the Eucharist," and "slave of the Rosary" (Von Germeten, pp. 36-37, 2006a). To illustrate, the patents of the seventeenth century Puebla Congregacion de la Annunziata (Congregation of Slavery to the Annunciation of Morenos) specifically laud slavery and direct its members to symbolically prostrate themselves at the feet of the Virgin and swear to serve her eternally.

They also cite the Virgin as a slave to the Lord because of her sacrificial love) (Von Germeten, p. 38). These rituals and the accompanying language demonstrate the settlers' high regard for the African Christians and their lowliness, which the Europeans attempted to experience through their mystical identification with bondage.

Concerning confraternal membership, the European Catholics often practiced what might be term "spiritual reckoning." That is, they hoped to gain salvation by impressing God with high levels of devotedness. They reasoned that if individuals had many participants in their funeral processions, copious masses said for their souls, and membership in multiple confraternities, it would improve their chances of going to heaven (Von Germeten, p. 94, 2006a). For example, with regard to multiple memberships, Juan Martinez, a colonist of Valladolid during the early 1600s, left a testament stating that he belonged to the Third Order of Saint Francis and "every other confraternity of this city" (Von Germeten, p. 107, 2006a).

This value of belonging to numerous confraternities prompted many Spanish Americans to join AfroMexican organizations, in addition to the European groups with which they typically held membership. For instance, a testament made in 1635 by a Valladolid government official and his wife mentions their belonging to various confraternities around the city as well as their desire to join the Incarnation and Saint Blaise, an African confraternity, at the regular cost of membership after their deaths (Von Germeten, p. 107, 2006a).

At the same time, the records of the Incarnation and Saint Blaise, a Black confraternity of Valladolid, indicate that colonists often joined the organization before their demise (Von Germeten, pp. 106-107, 2006a). They did so reasoning that, as members of the Afro-Mexican group, they would have more people participating in their funeral and that this would make the event more socially impressive and spiritually beneficial. The fact that the colonists openly joined the organization indicates that their membership was not the cause of embarrassment or public shame and that the African confraternity held a place of respect in the Spanish American community.

In conclusion, the Afro-Mexicans utilized the confraternities to demonstrate their religious piety through self-humiliation generally and alms-collecting and flagellation specifically. Through these practices, they won the admiration of many of the colonists and challenged the notion that they were an inferior people. The examination of the Spanish American cast system, which portrayed Blacks as a mala raza (bad race); Baroque Christianity, which applauded self-induced suffering; and the settlers' appreciation to African humility, which they expressed through their financial support of the organizations, clarifies this observation. Hence, the confraternities were Christian institutions that gave Africans a space within the restrictive social structure of New Spain in which they resisted being labeled as an inferior people. Bristol (2007) examines the interplay between Afro-mexican ritual and European authority, and makes the following conclusion that supports the foregoing discussion:
   ... slavery and holiness were linked in New Spain.
   The poverty, humility and suffering that Afro-Mexicans
   endured was seen as bringing them closer
   to Christ's experience, and both they and Spaniards
   used the language of slavery to emphasize their
   own sanctity. Spaniards supported and joined AfroMexican
   led confraternities in order to share in this
   holiness. (p. 54)

Resistance in the Form of Militant Insurrection

The European Spaniards constituted a minority among a servile population of mestizos, mulattoes, Blacks, and Indians during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of the colonial era. In this setting, the colonists, motivated by their numerical inferiority and an incessant fear of insurrections, created African confraternities. In the main, they believed that the socio-religious freedoms that the organizations afforded the bondspeople would to some extent pacify them and reduce their tendency to insurrect. However, to their chagrin, the Africans often used the confraternities as sites for developing insurrectionary leaders and militant strategies of resistance (Bristol, pp. 203-204, 2007). An examination of the structure of these organizations and the related insurgence clarifies this observation.

The structure of the confraternities. Throughout colonial Mexico, the ruling class withheld all social status from the enslaved Africans; however, within the confraternities, the bondsfolk formed their own hierarchies or maintained those that they had know before enslavement (Bristol, pp. 106-107, 2007). Although as laborers in the mines, factories, and fields, they could exercise no authority, in the confraternities they became functional leaders in positions such as majordomos, deputies, confraternity mothers, and so on (Villa-Flores, p. 237, 2006). This was possible because these groups provided the sole opportunity for legal meetings and the most elementary sort of community organizing; indeed, Blacks and mulattoes were generally prohibited from congregating even in small numbers in any other setting. An examination of the constitution of the Cofradia del transito de Nuestra Senora (Confraternity of the Assumption of the Virgin), an organization founded by free mulattoes during the late seventeenth century in the convent of Santa Clara of Queretaro, elucidates this point (Bristol, pp. 103-105, 2007).

The confraternity held annual elections to choose a majordomo, rector, secretary, and twelve deputies. The candidates for these positions were selected from the general membership and typically served for no more than one year. However, a special provision allowed for the possible reelection of the rector and majordomo for a series of three terms. The constitution also called for the election of a priest from outside the group, by definition a Spaniard, who would supervise both sacred and secular activities (Bristol, p. 104, 2007). Consequently, the confraternity allowed a limited amount of self-governance in which its members made decisions collectively and identified their leaders democratically.

The document also regulated the management of finances. It mandated that each member pay one peso upon joining the organization and another peso at each of the yearly meetings. This money funded the burials and masses for deceased members as well as the costs of celebratory feasts, holy days, and acts of benevolence. The elected officials were required to make all financial decisions interdependently, and the majordomo could not make expenditures without the consent of the other leaders and the priest. The constitution also controlled fundraising. It stated that designated members would go about collecting alms each Wednesday and Sunday and during church celebrations.

Similarly, the constitution of the Confraternity of the Coronation and Saint Benedict of Palermo of New Veracruz, an African group, directed the collaboration of men and women in executing administrative tasks (Von Germeten, pp.50-52, 2006a). It specified that male and female members work cooperatively during Lent in decorating Saint Benedict's chapel on Wednesdays (Von Germeten, p. 55). In addition, the constitution required that the confraternity use a box with three keys to secure its finances, books, and other valuable items. The keys were distributed among the rector and the oldest male and female founders. The policy stipulated that all three individuals had to be present when the box was opened and that each one exercised equal authority in deciding how money was spent.

In summary, the confraternities allowed their members to exercise a certain level of autonomy: within the organizations, they identified their leaders and learned to exercise and submit to authority. In addition, they gained experience in managing funds and making decisions, and perhaps most importantly, they acquired a sense of their ability to define and fulfill community goals. These were lessons that proved to be useful in planning and staging insurrections as the following discussion clarifies.

The insurgence of the cofrades. The colonial fear of slave rebellions intensified dramatically during the seventeenth century due to the increased importation of Africans, the growing cast population, and the rise in number of free Blacks. Indeed, the African populace exceeded that of the Europeans from about 1550 to 1650 (Beltran, p. 414, 1944; Valdes, pp. 168-169, 1987). Under these circumstances, the settlers viewed the Black confraternities with increased trepidation, realizing that through them their members could elect their own leaders, direct some of their own affairs, and even possibly plan conspiracies without being detected. Mexico City, the area with the largest Black population, was the locus of slave rebellions in 1611 and 1612. In both instances the insurrectionary leaders used confraternities to plan and execute their sedition.

Concerning the event of 1611, reports indicate that more than fifteen hundred confraternity brothers and sisters of the church of Nuestra Senora de la Merced (Our Lady of Mercy) convened to bury the body of an African woman, who had been the property of don Luis Moreno de Monroy, an affluent Spaniard (Davidson, pp. 235-253, 1966; Gonzalez, 2002; Israel, 1980; Love, pp. 89-103, 1967; Palmer, pp. 138-139, 1976). The group insisted that abusive treatment was the cause of death, and on the day of the burial, they seized the corpse and paraded defiantly through the streets of Mexico City. The procession passed by the royal palace, the Holy Office of the Inquisition, and other public locations. Finally, the marchers returned to Monroy's home where they began issuing threats and hurling stones. Fearing for his safety and the destruction of his property, Monroy called the Spanish authorities who, as a well-armed military force, drove the crowd away and imprisoned its organizers.

An investigation confirmed that the leaders of two African confraternities, the Confraternity of Saint Joseph and the Confraternity of Saint Efigenia, were responsible for organizing the resistance. The colonists determined that the uprising was largely preplanned by these office holders. As punishment, they were whipped and jailed, and their owners were instructed to sell them outside the colony. The foremost leader of the insurgence, who was identified as a slave named Diego and an officer in one of the two confraternities, was beaten publicly for openly displaying the corpse of the African woman.

This incident demonstrates that the Africans used the organizations as sites for developing seditious leaders and insurrectionary strategies. They took advantage of the opportunity that the brotherhoods afforded to organize their community for concerted resistance. However, the incident of 1611 was not the only occurrence of subversive activity among the African cofrades of Mexico City; just one year later another group of Blacks staged a very similar uprising.

In 1612, a contingent of Africans initiated a second conspiracy against the Spaniards of the capital city (Bristol, pp. 101-102, 2007; Palmer, p. 139-141; Von Germeten, p. 78, 2006a). The uprising was originally headed by an Angolan slave who was associated with a confraternity of the church of Nuestra Senora de la Merced. The insurgents planned the rebellion for the Holy Week of 1612, a time when the Spaniards were traditionally occupied with the rituals on Jueves Santo (April 19th). They elected a king and queen, and gained financial support from allied Black confraternities in other parts of the city. In preparation for the violent overthrow of the colonial system, the leaders instructed their people to acquire such weapons as knives, machetes, and swords. However, for those unable to arm themselves, the organizers planned to use confraternity funds to buy them weapons. All Spanish men were to be killed, but their women were to be spared in order to serve their former slaves. In addition, the insurrectionists gained the support of African sorcerers. One of whom was Sebastian, the property of Diego Ramirez, who agreed to bewitch the colonists and poison their food and water.

However, largely by chance, the colonial authorities learned of the movement on the second day of Lent; they immediately aborted it and arrested its organizers. They identified the overmen as confraternity officers and sentenced them and a numbers of others to torture and execution. Thirty-five Africans and mulattoes, including seven women, were publicly hung, and all Black confraternities were officially dissolved. Such harsh penalties indicate that the officials were quite serious about destroying the organizations and that they were well-aware of how threatening the confraternities were to the colonial system.

Although, the insurrection was unsuccessful, it is critical to note the preeminence of the confraternity in its planning and execution. As in the case of the incident of 1611, the Africans used their organization to strategically plan and implement clandestine resistance. However, the event of 1612 was more serious: the confraternity was a source of leadership, funding, and inter-organizational cooperation that was essential to plotting a premeditated and bloody overthrow of the colonial government.

In conclusion, the colonial authorities of the Church and State worked cooperatively to create and maintain the Afro-Mexican confraternities, believing that they would pacify the bondsfolk and reduce their tendency to insurrect. However, the Blacks did not behave as their masters intended: instead, they utilized the organizations to develop strategies of resistance. In 1611, they took advantage of the freedoms that the associations afforded them to organize a violent protest against mistreatment, and similarly, one year later, within the framework of the brotherhood, Black confrades devised a plan to overthrow the slave system and execute their colonial masters.

The Implications of the Study

This study argues that the African bondspeople of colonial Mexico subtly revised many of the confraternities sponsored by the Catholic Church to serve as cites of resistance. Within these organizations, the enslaved Blacks developed strategies that assisted them to counter the dehumanizing conditions of bondage. They accomplished this by reconstituting many of the brotherhoods to promote community service, Christian piety, and militant insurrection, as discussed above.

As mentioned earlier, this research makes a contribution to the field of Black Studies by examining the religiopolitical history of Afro-Mexicans. This is an area of investigation that has received little, if any, attention throughout the history of the discipline, but nonetheless falls within the boundaries of the "African world community" as defined by Karenga (2002, p. 3).


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Rupe Simms received a PhD in Sociology from Loyola University of Chicago. and a PhD in Bible Exposition from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is Full Professor at North Park University, Chicago, and the Director of its Center for Africana Studies.
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Date:Sep 22, 2011
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