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Mexicanos in the West

In the book, “Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States”, by Manuel G. Gonzalez, the established political and religious hierarchical structures in colonial New Spain did not extend into the frontier regions of what would later become New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and California. During the period from approximately 1776-1845, some generalizations about life on the northern rim of the territory can be made; family life was fraught with challenges, gender roles were less structured and enforced, class stratification was less clear, and racial divisions were somewhat less noticeable.

In the interior territories of New Spain, arranged marriages were frequent, especially amongst the upper classes, and women tended to marry young. Gender roles were firmly defined; husbands served as the head of the household and made major decisions while the wife controlled the household and performed what we would later term “domestic labor”. Young boys were given a rudimentary education and girls were trained to fulfil their role as wife and mother. These practices were enforced by a cultural milieu in which women were kept firmly in place by rule of law and moral codes influenced by the Roman Catholic Church. On the frontier, many modifications were necessitated to accommodate the precariousness of life (Gonzalez, 48).

Life in the northern frontier was difficult and fraught with many challenges. Diseases like smallpox and matlazahuatl fever (an epidemic which often caused death within 3 to 4 days), permanent conflict and warfare with the Indians, and the hostile physical environment resulted in malnutrition, caused a high infant mortality rate and low life expectancy of about 40 years (Gonzalez, 48). The relative absence of the hierarchical political and religious structures which ordered society in the interior meant that gender roles were less clearly defined. Gonzalez relates that almost 27 percent of households in 1845 were headed by widows (Gonzalez, 49). This phenomenon, combined with the absence of a clear gendered based division of labor afforded women more freedoms on the frontier. They often worked outside the home, drank alcohol, gambled and smoked. These freedoms, along with legal privileges, such as owning property and running businesses, afforded to women in Hispanic society were allowed more frequently on the frontier than in central New Spain.

One of the aspects of frontier life which seriously impacted the development of the territories was the “Indian Question”. In 1777, when Teodoro de Croix was commandante general of the Internal Provinces, he began making alliances with some of the more aggressive tribes against other “indios barbaros” who had been traditional enemies. Later, in the 1780s, the viceroy, Bernardo de Galvez, “…determined to aggressively subjugate them [Apaches and other indios] by invading their strongholds”. He was trying to force them into submission and “undermine their traditional lifestyle” thus attempting to make them rely on their favors for survival (Gonzalez, 51). This strategy achieved mild success, but also provoked violent retaliations against the settlers. Often entire villages would be abandoned disrupting the frontier economy and contributing to a high death rate amongst male settlers and an expectation that women would fight alongside their men.

Even though the clerical and governmental structures were very familiar with and aware of the differences among “race” between espanoles and indios, there was a higher prevalence of racial mixing in New Spain than in other parts of the North American colonies. This miscegenation which was both “…illicit as well as Church sanctioned” and ppears to have occurred most often between Hispanic colonists and “genizaros, generally defined as captives and slaves of nomadic tribes who had been ransomed by the Spanish government (Gonzalez, 52). There are, of course, regional differences in the frequency of the mestizo population which resulted from this racial mixing. In Texas, since most of the tribes were warlike and nomadic, “marriage with the colonizers [was] unlikely. However, in New Mexico, detribalized Indians were more likely to mix with settlers becoming servants in Spanish households or founding their own settlements in the outskirts (Gonzalez, 52).

The preeminence of the Roman Catholic Church in New Spain and the establishment of the mission system, particularly in Texas and California, influenced society. The later, viewed Indians as barely human, while the Spanish recognized their humanity and accepted or turned a blind eye towards, racial mixing. Anglo Americans approached the native Americans as a species of people that should be relegated to reservations or exterminated, whereas the Spanish viewed them as potential converts. This is not to say that the Indians didn’t suffer deprivations in the missions. They were wracked with disease, over work, and separation from their families and cultural traditions. However, there was a greater degree of societal acceptance of mixed race couples.

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