The Struggles of Afro-Descendant Women in New Spain

Discover the untold story of Afro-descendant women in New Spain who faced gender violence and oppression through enslavement, limited rights in marriage, and loss of freedom. Explore their struggles and sacrifices in the face of patriarchal laws.

The Struggles of Afro-Descendant Women in New Spain
Afro-descendant women in Mexico suffered greatly as slaves during the New Spain era, facing limited rights and obligations in marriage, forced labor, and ongoing oppression. Images by DALL·E

Gender violence has plagued women throughout history, and its impact has been felt differently across cultures and communities. In this article, we delve into the experiences of Afro-descendant women in the New Spain era. Enslaved for hundreds of years, these women faced a multitude of challenges, including forced labor, rape, limited rights in marriage, and the loss of their freedom.

Through an examination of the Marriages (Matrimonios) collection in the AGN and the legal code of Las Siete Partidas, we shed light on the struggles and sacrifices of these women in the face of a patriarchal system that sought to undermine their rights. Even though they are one of the most violated groups, these women and their African roots in Mexico are rarely talked about because of the nationalist concept of "mestizaje".

Denied Freedom: The Plight of Afro-Descendant Women in New Spain

Gender violence is a problem that has affected women throughout history, and it is experienced and developed in different ways. Learn in the following text how this violence affected Afro-descendant women in the New Spain era.

Throughout time, social, political, and cultural differences subject to the patriarchal system have resulted in the undermining of women's rights and, therefore, in mechanisms of oppression. Women of African descent in the Americas were slaves for hundreds of years, so they were one of the groups that had to deal with these conditions the most.

In the case of Mexico, the enslavement of African women came at the hands of the conquistadors, who, through the Portuguese slave company, introduced thousands of Africans to the territory in the 16th century. The women who were traded during that period were forced to perform forced labor and were victims of rape. This led to the rise of new castes, which were given names based on where they came from. For example, the mulatto is the name for the descendants of the Spanish and African castes.

When digging into the AGN collection named Marriages (Matrimonios), we can learn that within the Hispanic American universe, slave women were limited and obligated to certain circumstances, as in the case of marital life, since they could not marry without the permission of their masters. But more than once, the slave owner was blamed for getting in the way of the sacrament of marriage. For example, Antonia de la Natividad, a slave of African descent, blamed her master for not letting her have a married life.

The struggles of Afro-descendant women in Mexico during the New Spain era were marked by enslavement.
The struggles of Afro-descendant women in Mexico during the New Spain era were marked by enslavement, limited rights in marriage, and ongoing discrimination.

Many of these cases were dealt with by the Church, which exhorted masters not to prevent the union of slaves to avoid concubinage. However, the intervention of the Church did not mean that the right or freedom of African slaves to marry was recognized.

This situation was much more noticeable when it came to the union between a male slave and a free Afro-descendant woman. When this happened, the woman who wanted to marry the slave lost her freedom because she had to agree to the rules of the sacrament of marriage and Catholic traditions about the relationship between men and women. For example, she had to live with her husband "for better or for worse".

Women sacrificed their freedom by accepting marriage to a slave, since, in addition to accepting the ideological conditions of marriage, they had to abide by the legalistic code of Las Siete Partidas, which stipulated that all women "suffer greater hardship" than men. Also, they were forced to stay together even if one of them was unhappy or didn't meet the other's needs. This meant that the law required the free woman to care for and keep an eye on the health of her slave partner.

Given this panorama, it can be pointed out that free women ended up becoming slaves again after marriage. This condition can be found in the clauses that were made when people got married. These clauses reminded the woman that her husband had no freedom, so she had to give up the idea of being free with her partner and accept the responsibilities that came with marriage and the ones that her master added.

The enslavement and oppression of Afro-descendant women in the New Spain era.
A dark chapter in Mexican history: The enslavement and oppression of Afro-descendant women in the New Spain era.

One of the experiences of which there is a record is that of Maria de la Cruz, who married Miguel de los Angeles, both Creole Afro-descendants. At the time of this union, the vicar provisor questioned Maria de la Cruz as to whether she was aware of Miguel de los Angeles' state of slavery and the obligations she had to contract upon marrying him, such as moving to another place in the event of being sold or by order of her master. Maria de la Cruz answered that indeed she knew that Miguel de los Angeles was a slave, but that it was her free decision to marry him, so their marriage was formalized on May 29, 1629.

In the old legal code of Las Siete Partidas, it was stated that the children were born free when they acquired the status of the mother. This formula also applied to the opposite cases, i.e., the child of a slave mother and a free father was by nature a slave. Even though this was the case, slaveholders took advantage of the children of free African women and even sold them as slaves.

By way of conclusion, the problems analyzed here were only some of the many that Afro-descendant women suffered as one of the most violated social sectors. Many of these problems are still unknown because the African roots in Mexico are not visible. This is mostly because the nationalist idea of mestizaje only includes European and indigenous roots and forgets about other groups, sectors, and people.