A Review of The Capital of Free Women: Race, Legitimacy, and Liberty in Colonial Mexico

by | Jun 9, 2022

A Review of Danielle Terrazas Williams, The Capital of Free Women: Race, Legitimacy, and Liberty in Colonial Mexico. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022. 282 pages.

Ever since James Lockhart published Spanish Peru in 1968, historians of colonial Latin America have mined the notarial archives to illuminate the daily lives of people who were largely invisible in historical accounts until then. In her fine study of free women of African descent in late 16th and 17th century Xalapa (a prosperous city strategically located on the road between the port of Veracruz and Mexico City), Danielle Terrazas Williams follows this tradition and takes it one step further.

Not only does she use notarial records to reveal these women’s economic activities, but also to tease out details of their personal lives and social networks. By approaching the documents as literary texts, she also shows how free women of African descent constructed narratives within the constraints of the notarial genre to guard their public reputations and bolster their interests. Approaching the Xalapa notary’s office as “a theater in which the performers knew their roles” (p. 180), Williams provides occasional glimpses of how they wanted to present themselves to the world and, therefore, of how they viewed themselves and their place in society. The author, a historian at the University of Leeds, supplements this picture with research in local parish records as well as in archives in Mexico City, Seville and Rome.

The Capital of Free Women is a wonderfully rich book, alive with vivid vignettes of enterprising women who supported themselves and their families by buying, selling, and leasing land, houses, cattle and slaves; running small businesses such as an inn or pack animal rental agency; borrowing and lending money; and managing their finances carefully. Some struggled to earn a living, but others built considerable wealth over a lifetime and passed it on to their children. Even though many were illiterate, of illegitimate birth, living in consensual unions or on their own as single mothers, they strove for respectability by joining Catholic confraternities, donating money to the Church, placing their sons as apprentices to learn a trade; and marrying, baptizing, and confirming their children. Some contracted legal marriages, occasionally with Spanish men.

These women knew their rights and defended them successfully. When necessary, they mobilized a wide network of friends and patrons, including prominent and powerful men who were willing to serve as character witnesses or guarantors on their loans. Indeed, the book’s title derives from the women’s astute deployment of social and cultural as well as economic capital. All told, they were far from marginal actors in Xalapa’s economy and society.

These women did not represent all free women of African descent. Only those of some means recorded their transactions before a notary. Although perhaps not members of the elite, as Williams sometimes calls them, their social status was superior to that of the domestic servants, laundresses and food vendors who probably comprised the majority of free Black  women. Yet their very public business activities, ingenuity, and legal and financial know-how were not unusual among colonial women. Historians of Latin American women have shown that Iberian patriarchal norms were less restrictive than often believed. Women of all classes and races participated in the economy, controlled their property, enjoyed protection under the law and wielded social as well as economic power. Consensual unions and out-of-wedlock births were widespread in the popular classes. Consequently, the women in this book were not transgressive. Unlike studies based on criminal and Inquisition records that involve sorcery, blasphemy and rebellion, this one emphasizes conformity to social mores. Indeed, these women’s efforts to work within the colonial system and seek social legitimacy contradict the stereotypes of Black women as exotic, licentious and disorderly.

 

Free women of African descent did, however, differ from other women in that they were sometimes just one generation removed from slavery and occasionally had relatives who remained enslaved in the region’s bustling economy. The book’s descriptions of their relationships to slavery is fascinating. As in other areas of Latin America and the Caribbean, some women worked hard and went into debt to free their enslaved relatives.

Yet they did not all oppose slavery. Many were slave owners themselves and were apparently no more likely to manumit their slaves than white owners. Surprisingly, one woman kept two of her brothers in slavery and rented them out to provide herself with a steady income. Their stories thus defy easy generalizations about racial solidarity. Instead they demonstrate that—although individuals may have preferred freedom for themselves—the institution of slavery was widely accepted in 16th and 17th century New Spain, just as it was in Africa. And the possibility of falling back into slavery was always possible for those with dark skin, as occurred with one woman’s daughter who was captured in a Dutch pirate’s raid on the nearby port of Veracruz. But, because of the kinds of sources consulted, The Capital of Free Women does not dwell on the prejudice and dangers its subjects may have faced. It is instead an uplifting narrative of the dignity and resilience of African-descended women.

This book leaves us with many questions. Because it is a qualitative rather than quantitative study, we don’t know how many cases it is based on or what proportion of free African-descended women might qualify as “women of means.” Nor do we know how many women declared themselves to be negra, morena, mulata, or parda, distinctions that divided the black population and may have been important to these women’s identity and self-construction. By lumping them together as “African descended,” the author misses an opportunity to explore one more aspect of the diversity of the Afro-Mexican experience that is so deftly chronicled throughout the text.

The Capital of Women enhances our understanding of colonial Latin America by complicating many widespread notions about the past. Exploring Mexico’s rich black heritage, it is part of trend to “blacken” the country’s history, which tends to focus exclusively on Indians, Spaniards and mestizos. It contains valuable insights into the history of women and the family, of slavery and racial mixture and of the regional economy. Because it is also beautifully written, it will be welcomed by undergraduates and scholars alike.

 

Silvia Marina Arrom is Jane’s Professor of Latin American Studies Emerita at Brandeis University. She is the author of La Güera Rodríguez: The Life and Legends of a Mexican Independence Heroine, among numerous other books and articles.

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