On “Infected Roots” and “Foul Origins”: Social Mobility and the Memory of Race among Ranching Families in Late-Colonial Western Mexico

Thursday, January 3, 2013: 1:20 PM
Salon V (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Andrew B. Fisher, Carleton College
The eighteenth century marked a pivotal moment in the history of the tierra caliente of western Mexico, as the indigenous peasantry lost vast stretches of land to a growing class of Hispanic ranchers. The subsequent clash over land rights has spurred historians to characterize these two social groups – Indians and non-Indians – as mutually antagonistic and wholly separate from one another. Nevertheless, not only were the boundaries marking pueblos apart from commercial estates remarkably porous, a great deal of ethnic diversity rested behind many of the region’s most common caste categories. Especially important in this regard was the role played by the region’s free-black population. Free blacks filled important occupational niches in both villages and ranches and established multiracial families with Indians and poor whites alike. By the late eighteenth century, ethnic fluidity came under attack as social antagonisms grew. Peasants recast their pueblos as primordial “Indian” entities while landowners buried any hint of racial contagion that their less prosperous progenitors may have introduced into the family tree.

This paper explores how race was remembered and debated among one of the region’s most important ranching families, the Sosa-Merlán-Alvarado clan. Participation in the region’s early cattle boom allowed some scions to accumulate substantial wealth, while others remained mired in poverty. A longstanding inheritance dispute between two branches of the family highlights the interplay between race and mobility. More than simply a conflict over property, the feud had everything to do with whether affluent relatives could establish an identity not only racially distinct from their poorer kin, but also from their own direct ancestors. The case demonstrates that blackness could not be easily erased with wealth. Yet it also reveals how members of the same extended family approached the racial tint of blackness that affected them all in very different ways.