New Mexico Scrapbook: The people called ‘genizaros’

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Anyone who reads much in the history of colonial New Mexico will sooner or later run across the word “genizaro.” It was a true “localism,” that is, a term used in its own way with a special meaning to the people of the Rio Grande valley.

During the Spanish colonial era, government officials or priests who used the word in their reports to superiors in Mexico City took pains to define it, knowing that outsiders were unfamiliar with the local usage.

For example, in 1778, Father Juan Agustin de Morfi gave this definition: “In all the Spanish towns of New Mexico, there exists a class of Indians called genizaros. These are made up of captive Comanches, Apaches, etc., who were taken as youngsters and raised among us and who have married in the province.”

Genizaro is the Spanish word for “Janizary,” which originally was the name for guards and elite troops of the Turkish sultan in the old Ottoman Empire. Spaniards probably picked up the word in their wars with the Turks, and they gave it a new meaning: “A person begotten by parents of different nations.”

That sense of mixed parentage was carried over to New Mexico where,as Father Morfi says, genizaro referred to individuals of various tribes who grew up in Spanish society. At every opportunity, the Spaniards would ransom child captives, taken by Indian groups in raids upon their neighbors.
The captives were placed in the homes of wealthy colonists who were supposed to care for them and raise them as Christians. The children were really household servants, but not slaves, since upon marrying they were free to go their own way.

The problem arose of what to do with the adult genizaros. They were Indian by blood, but having lost all trace of the native language and customs, they were, culturally speaking, thoroughly Hispanicized.

Father Morfi informs us that the Pueblo Indians would have nothing to do with them. So the genizaros were forced to live among the Spaniards and struggle to make a living.
One of the largest groups lived in the provincial capital of Santa Fe, in the Barrio de Analco,a neighborhood surrounding historic San Miguel Chapel. Here were 42 genizaro families, about 300 people.

Because of their ethnic background as Plains Indians, the genizaros had the reputation of good fighters. Morfi said: “They are fine soldiers,very warlike, and most formidable against our enemies.” Because of this, Gov. Juan Bautista de Anza in 1779 decided to move them out of Santa Fe and resettle them in a new town on the eastern frontier, to serve as a buffer protecting the Spanish settlements.

To this, however, the genizaros objected. Anza dropped the plan, but not long afterward, the governor organized a “genizaro troop,” in other words, citizen soldiers made up of men from Analco. This troop put in good service during campaigns against hostile tribes.

About 1793, the idea of moving the genizaros out of Santa Fe came up again and this time, they were transferred bag and baggage eastward to the Pecos River, where they founded the towns of San Miguel and San Jose. Those communities exist to the present day.

Another genizaro town that can still be found on the map is Abiquiu, located on a bluff overlooking the Chama River in northern New Mexico. It is famous now, not because of its genizaro origins, but because until recently it was the home of the late artist George O’Keefe.

Genizaros also established the town of Los Jarales on the Rio Grande near Belen. This, too, was a dangerous frontier zone, facing, as it did, the Ladron Mountains on the west, a favorite lair of hostile Apaches. The genizaros here provided protection to the wagon caravans heading down the valley to Chihuahua.

For the rest, there was a floating population of genizaros in practically every hamlet and town in New Mexico. They even show up in the censuses for the colonial Indian missions that stretched down the valley from El Paso. Theirs was a hard lot, as is usually the case with outcasts.

And what happened to the genizaros? In time, they were simply assimilated into the general population. That process was aided after the winning of independence from Spain. To promote the spirit of democracy, the revolutionary government abolished the use of racial terms of any kind throughout the new nation.

Now, all citizens, no matter their ethnic origin, were to be labeled simply “Mexicans.” In New Mexico,this meant the word genizaro was dropped, at least in the colonial records.

It took another hundred years or so, however, before the term was totally abandoned in New Mexico.