In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African-Descent Women in Colonial Latin America

  • Introduction
  • Afro-Mexican Slavery and Freedom
  • African-Descent Women, Marriage, Family, and Property in Colonial New Spain
  • African-Descent Women, Religion, and Witchcraft in Colonial New Spain
  • Slavery and Freedom in Colonial Peru
  • Afro-Descent Women, Marriage, Family, and Property in Colonial Peru
  • Afro-Descent Women, Religion, and Witchcraft in Colonial Peru
  • Slavery and Freedom in Nueva Granada (Colombia)
  • Afro-Descent Women’s Cultural, Religious, and Intellectual Labor in Colonial Cartagena
  • African-Descent Women in the Southern Cone
  • African-Descent Women in Central America
  • Edited Collections and Anthologies

Latin American Studies African-Descent Women in Colonial Latin America
Michelle McKinley
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0288


Latin American history has been enriched by scholarship that centers gender and Blackness in the production of colonial histories, in ontologies of freedom and enslavement, in elaborations of syncretic religious experience and medical knowledge systems, and in formulating imperial regimes of governance, labor, and property. Feminist historians had insisted on the importance of gender as a category of analysis in deciphering hidden colonial scripts for the past four decades. This insistence deepened our understanding of the importance of sexuality, intimacy, domesticity, calidad, and marriage in colonial Latin American societies, and established the centrality of the Catholic Church in consolidating Spanish imperial rule. However, these studies overwhelmingly retained a Eurocentric gaze. African-descent women appeared as objects rather than subjects of study—exemplars of the fragile and incomplete reach of colonial honor conventions and elite anxieties over the slipperiness of race and calidad. Over the past two decades, the field of colonial Latin American history has shifted from an additive “just add [Black] women” posture to a well-rounded and burgeoning set of inquiries that centers African-descent women at its core. A robust literature explores how African-descent women shaped empire, religion, science, medicine, healing, law, and legality. Given the rich documentary evidence proffered by Inquisitorial proceedings, ecclesiastical, notarial, criminal, conventual, and judicial documents, historians have produced numerous studies of enslaved litigants, Black militias, venerated saints, beatas and mystics, medical and healing practitioners, and sovereign confraternity queens and kings. In addition to these exceptional subjects, we also have histories of African-descent women laboring in expected and unexpected places—urban centers, plantations, repúblicas de indios, palenques, mines, port towns, and haciendas where they shaped local and regional economies. Enslaved people left a pronounced archival footprint throughout the viceregal Audiencias (courts) and notarial offices, as they claimed and exercised the right to matrimony and the customary right to self-purchase (coartación). In so doing, they articulated innovative legal ideals of custom, liberty, dignity, and equity. From the outset, the Spanish empire was marked by a biopolitical compulsion to register race according to tripartite categories of Black slaves, Iberian rulers, and Indigenous vassals. Yet colonial Latin American societies were asymmetric spaces of racial mixing (mestizaje), which produced seemingly endless new racial categories of difference or casta. Scholars of colonial racial formations have repeatedly pointed out that ascription was not tantamount to lived everyday experience. Despite this longstanding acknowledgment of the interstices of race, calidad, class, and gender, studies of colonial Blackness have been tied to an insurgent (and urgent) mission of recovery in contemporary multicultural Latin American nations. Census figures have shown persistent racial drift, deeply rooted to discriminatory social practices that privileged whitening and a depreciation of Black ancestral heritage amid official policies promoting idealized racial democracies. Historians have countered Black erasure (“no hay negros aquí”) and cosmic hybridity with numerous studies from the viceregencies of New Spain, Lima, Cartagena de Indias, and Nueva Granada—colonial sites with significant populations of Africans and African-descent communities. Historians are increasingly bringing a diasporic lens to national histories, situating African-descent peoples as historical subjects of the early modern Iberoamerican empire. The bibliographic entries enumerated here begin contemporaneously with George Reid Andrews’ Afro-Latin America, published in 2000, which coincided with a boom in publications about Afro-Latin American studies. Readers will note that his bibliographic essay does not include Brazilian sources, as the vast Brazilian literature deserves its own essay.

Afro-Mexican Slavery and Freedom

The field of Afro-Mexican studies was established with Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán’s pioneering ethno-historical study, La población negra de México, 1519–1810, published in 1946. Historians of Afro-Mexico have published an impressive body of scholarship premised on both recovery of the African past in the present, and on elaborating the diasporic, historical experience of African-descent people in the colonial period. The bibliographic entries here focus on studies of African slavery and the lives of African-descent women in colonial Mexico. The 16th century was a critical period for the expansion of Afro-Mexican slavery. Colonial officials increasingly relied on African enslaved labor to supplement Indigenous labor in the aftermath of the New Laws of 1542 that prohibited Indigenous slavery. Studies of Afro-Mexico focus geographically on Black populations in the port of Veracruz (as the entrepôt for African slaves from the transatlantic slave trade and the Manila galleons), the communities of the Costa Chica in the states of Veracruz and Guerrero, as well as in the central highlands and cities. Metropolitan records for slave licenses (asientos) indicate that over 120,000 enslaved Africans were imported to New Spain between 1521 and 1631. Recent studies of surviving notarial records in Mexico City and Veracruz reveal that twenty thousand more Africans entered as contraband. By the end of the Iberian union in 1640, New Spain had the largest Black population on the continent second to Brazil.

  • Bennett, Herman. Colonial Blackness: A History of Afro-Mexico. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.

    This book places Afro-Mexicans as the core subjects of Mexican history. Using ecclesiastical and Inquisitorial records, Bennett focuses on the private interior lives and articulations of liberty that Catholicism and other forms of political ideas engendered among enslaved Africans and free Black subjects.

  • Delgadillo Núñez, Jorge E. “Enslaved Women and Creoles in Guadalajara’s Slave Market, 1615–1735.” Slavery & Abolition (2023): 1–22.

    This study charts the evolution of the slave market in 17th-century Guadalajara. The author offers valuable comparative data in his focus on Guadalajara, broadening the field from the more well-known studies of Veracruz and Mexico City.

  • Gharala, Norah L. “This Woman’s Resistance to Her Son’s Paying Tribute: Afrodescendant Women, Family, and Royal Tribute in New Spain.” Mexican Studies 38.1 (2022): 10–34.

    DOI: 10.1525/msem.2022.38.1.10

    This article focuses on African-descent women’s response to colonial taxation. Free Afrodescendants were subject to a royal tribute tax based on their African ancestry, gender, and family. Gharala argues that women petitioners referred to their marriages as evidence of their exempt tributary status, as they sought to mitigate the effects of tribute. Without denying their African ancestry, free mulatas asserted their family histories in petitions that caused colonial officials to re-examine what women of African descent owed the Spanish crown.

  • Gutiérrez Velázquez, María Elisa. Mujeres de origen africano en la capital novohispana, siglos XVII y XVIII. México DF: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2006.

    This book examines the presence and participation of Afro-descent women in New Spain in the viceregal capital city during the 17th and 18th centuries. The author argues that enslaved and free Black women played important roles in workspaces that contributed to the formation of the colonial urban economy. The author focuses on slavery, emancipation, and social mobility in Mexico City.

  • Masferrer León, Cristina. Muleke, negritas y mulatillos. Niñez, familia y redes sociales de los esclavos de origen africano de la Ciudad de México, siglo XVII. México, DF: INAH, 2013.

    This book studies Afro-descendant children who were enslaved in the first half of the 18th century in Mexico City. Masferrer uses over four thousand baptismal records to trace and recreate children’s lives within their parental, familial, and collective networks. The author’s methodology is drawn from the fields of family history and the history of childhood.

  • Proctor, Frank “Trey.” “Gender and the Manumission of Slaves in New Spain.” Hispanic American Historical Review 86.2 (2006): 309–336.

    DOI: 10.1215/00182168-2005-005

    Proctor’s essay explains the process of manumission as an inherently gendered social process in which women and children prevailed in attaining legal freedom. The essay uses cartas de libertad (letters of freedom) and wills from notarial records in Mexico City and Guanajuato.

  • Sierra Silva, Pablo. “María de Terranova: A West African Woman and the Quest for Freedom in Colonial Mexico.” Journal of Pan-African Studies 6.1 (2013).

    Sierra Silva uses judicial, notarial, and parochial sources to trace the difficult transition from slavery to freedom in 17th-century Puebla de los Angeles. He imports a diasporic lens to the study of African-descent women as subjects in colonial Mexican history.

  • Sierra Silva, Pablo Miguel. Urban Slavery in Colonial Mexico: Puebla de los Angeles, 1531–1706. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781108304245

    A sociocultural history of slavery in colonial Mexico’s second largest city, Puebla de los Ángeles. Sierra Silva’s study focuses on the intricate social networks that enabled enslaved Africans and African-descent women to maneuver, gain social mobility, and find freedom in colonial Mexican society.

  • Terrazas Williams, Danielle. “‘My Conscience Is Free and Clear’: African-Descended Women, Status, and Slave Owning in Mid-Colonial Mexico.” The Americas 75.3 (2018): 525–554.

    DOI: 10.1017/tam.2018.32

    In the 1600s, a new demographic of free middle- and upper-class women of Afro descent emerged in colonial Mexico. Williams analyzes this group through the notarial records of Polonia de Ribas’s property holdings. Ribas was a wealthy Afro-Mexican woman from Xalapa who owned several slaves. This article is also available in Spanish: “Polonia de Ribas, mulata y dueña de esclavos: una historia alternativa. Xalapa, Siglo XVII.” Ulúa: Revista de historia, sociedad y cultura 19 (2014).

  • Terrazas Williams, Danielle. “Finer Things: African-Descended Women, Sumptuary Laws, and Governance in Early Spanish America.” Journal of Women’s History 33.3 (2021): 11–35.

    DOI: 10.1353/jowh.2021.0033

    Williams analyzes the passage of sumptuary laws in the sixteenth century that targeted women of African descent in colonial Mexico. Although Black women were a numerically small demographic in the 16th century, sumptuary laws targeting their attire and comportment reflected colonial administrative anxieties about the growing Black and mulatto population in the viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru.

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

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv2c3k21f

    Williams examines how African-descended women accumulated property and capital and conducted lives of dignity in 17th-century Mexico. Free women in central Veracruz—often one generation removed from their enslaved kin—amassed considerable amounts of capital. The book evaluates the mentalités and sensibilities of African-descent women, challenging notions of race and class in the colonial period.

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