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Legal Contradictions for the Enslaved in 18th Century Mexico: The Case of Lorenzo Zabala

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The following is a guest post by Drue Edney, an intern in the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress through the Library of Congress Internship program (LOCI).

Note: this post uses a pejorative term as it originally appears in the collection item.

During my internship at the Law Library of Congress, I have had the great honor and privilege to read many documents and personal letters in the Miscellaneous Hispanic Legal Documents Collection. Written almost entirely in Spanish, the documents in this collection are from the 15th through the 19th centuries and therefore some knowledge of written Spanish and paleography are necessary. My goal is to use my research to highlight historical moments where underrepresented groups show up in the collection. In my research, I am preoccupied with how Afro-descendants appear in historical collections and why these instances may not always result in greater understanding of Afro-descendant cultural contribution. As a case study, I have chosen a document written on July 22, 1730 by Lorenzo Zabala, who was writing from “San Phelipe el Real” (present day Chihuahua City, Mexico). In the opening lines of his request for a marriage certificate, Zabala identifies himself as “Lorenzo de Zabala mulato esclavo,” (Lorenzo Zabala, a mulatto slave). Zabala’s appeal to the court provides a rich historical context for this collection, because it highlights underrepresented communities of Latin America, specifically enslaved people of African descent.

Image showing the process of identifying metadata elements in the collection
This is a depiction of the metadata entry process for locating the date and origin of a collection item. Image from Miscellaneous Hispanic Legal Documents by Drue Edney.

When I read the documents in this collection, I am looking to determine three things: 1) where the document comes from, 2) what year it comes from, and 3) what the document is about. To the untrained eye, these documents could appear to be written in code. Let me pause here a moment and give a quick lesson in deciphering the code for this particular collection. Many of these documents are form letters that follow a pattern. The author will typically end a written communication with the date and the city just before the signature. Lorenzo Zabala’s request is not only a good example of this type of formulaic approach, but this document also reflects my own research interests.

Lorenzo Zabala begins his request for a marriage certificate by identifying himself as a mulato esclavo. Although this is perhaps the only document in a collection of thousands of documents where the author clearly self-identifies as an enslaved person, Zabala not only distinguishes himself as not free, when he uses the word esclavo, but he also reflects a caste system of colorism that gives him some social standing, when he uses the word mulato. His betrothed is also identified by her race when he refers to her as a mestiza. It might be tempting to quickly move past Zabala’s racial identifiers because Zabala’s letter, written in his own hand, does in fact denote his access not only to education, but also to money. However, Zabala’s request does not exist in a vacuum as this collection demonstrates. The opening lines of Zabala’s request articulate a case for racial distinction.

Section of a Casta painting
Casta Paintings like this one were popular throughout the 18th Century because they attempted to codify the intricate racial caste system of Colonial Mexico. Image from The American Yawp Reader (via Wikimedia).

The Casta Paintings, created during the reign of Phillip V (1700-1740), reflect Mexican anxieties about miscegenation, and are contemporaries to Zabala’s request. Zabala’s use of the word mulato to describe himself and mestiza to describe his betrothed reflect the racial caste system of 18th century Mexico. The word mulatto is not only derogatory because it is derived from the word mule, invoking the animal’s inability to reproduce, but it reflects the derogatory and prejudicial stance toward people of simultaneous African and Spanish heritage. Likewise the word mestiza describes that his wife is of indigenous and Spanish heritage and that she is free, and that her free status passes on to their children.

Photo of a price guide for marriage services taken from a document in the collection
“Provisional Tariffs for this Archdiocese.” This item is a price guide for marriage services found at the church. It is organized by priest, by service, and by race. Photo by Drue Edney.

Also in this collection is a ledger, grouped along with other 18th and 19th century documents from Mexico, which details the price for marriage licenses categorized by race. The use of the word esclavo here tells us that this ledger predates the emancipation of enslaved people in 1829 by Afro-Mestizo President Vicente Ramon Guerrero. The ledger details the exact cost of a marriage certificate for a mulato and a mestiza, such as Zabala and his betrothed, and also demonstrates that legal marriage of slaves was such a regular occurrence as to require some infrastructure, like this ledger, to standardize the price for such a service. His request to marry clearly reflects his access to both financial means and education, while it simultaneously makes a case for humanity within a racialized caste system.

Nevertheless, this document juxtaposes human rights with civil liberties, thus highlighting a contrast within the legal system of 18th century Mexico. Zabala, enslaved, was himself property, which by today’s standards is a clear human rights violation, yet his right to marry, a civil liberty, was protected under the law. If we see the legal institution of marriage itself at that time as a transfer of women (as property) from their fathers to their husbands, does this document illustrate Zabala’s right as human property to own human property? Additionally, legal marriage certificates establish bloodlines for the transfer of real property to heirs through legal birthright. One possible reason for these conflicting legal practices is population control. In her article, “The African Presence In New Spain, c. 1528-1700” history professor Dr. Rhonda M. Gonzales, asserts that Afro-Mexicans outnumbered Spanish and Mestizos in urban towns. She claims that, “[b]y 1646, the numbers increased to 116,529 for Afro-Mexicans and 35,089 for those African identified. It is clear that the number of children from mixed unions accounted for much of the growth. African-descended populations thus comprised 8.8 percent, compared to Spaniards and their descendants, who comprised 0.8 percent in 1646.” Applying Gonzales’ assertions to an urban area such as San Phelipe el Real possibly explains that the land-owning Spaniards may have been feeling the increased need to dilute the concentration of the enslaved Afro-descendant population by the 1730’s when Zabala was writing. It seems then a reasonable deduction that legislators would seek to encourage legal marriage between the enslaved Afro-descendants and the mestizo populations in an attempt to avoid an overconcentration of the enslaved Afro-descendant population in San Phelipe el Real, even if it meant creating contrast between human rights and civil liberties.

As Frederick Douglass once asked, “What, to the slave, is the 4th of July?” similarly we can ask: what, to an enslaved person, is the right to legal marriage? For an enslaved person, a marriage certificate does not undo the atrocities of chattel slavery, but perhaps it begins to protect the transfer of wealth from one generation to the next. The legal marriage certificate therefore offers a “loophole of retreat,” a phrase Harriett Jacobs uses in her autobiographical slave narrative to describe the specific way she exploited a loophole to subvert the tyranny of having been born into slavery in the American South. Similarly, when Zabala requests a marriage certificate, he leverages a loophole of retreat by using the legal system to potentially secure the free status of his heirs. Although he was enslaved, he is not an enslaved person with no power; nor is he among the lowest caste of this racial hierarchy. While 18th Century Mexico’s legal system secured power for some through racial purity, bloodlines, and property, Zabala’s request simultaneously forces the very same system that denied his human rights to acknowledge his humanness by granting him a legal marriage certificate.

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Comments (2)

  1. An interesting case study and guest post, Drue! It would be nice for a reader to be able to further contextualise “human rights” as it was understood in 18th Century Mexico (even a little link out as you had done so previously). Good luck with the research.

  2. It’s a great article!

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