Sex, God, and DNA: The Creation of New Mexicans

How a group of devoutly Catholic Spaniards infiltrated the temples and gene pools of the Pueblo Indians



For geneticists, the story of the creation of New Mexico and New Mexicans is straightforward: Spaniards mated with Native Americans, the result a hybrid people called Hispanos. For centuries, Hispanos have told themselves and the outside world they were Spanish; time and again Spanish was the face put forward by the local historians. Since history is written by the victors, as Winston Churchill said, the founding of New Mexico starred bold Spanish conquistadors and toiling Franciscan friars.

Watching a Western they never grew tired of, Hispanos saw themselves pass from noble Spanish origins through a brief phase of Mexican rule to a shotgun marriage with Anglo Americans, which turned out happily by the time the credits rolled. The mutely receptive setting, the spare and sunlit stage, was the Indians'.

Historians in the modern, or postmodern, period have demurred. Estevan Rael-Gálvez, recently the state historian of New Mexico, planned a book that he called The Silence of Slavery: Narratives of American Indian and Mexican Servitude and Its Legacy. Rael-Gálvez is proud to have uncovered Native Americans in his family tree. He probably speaks for the majority of historians when he says that the story of the United States is that cultural strains are erased, and that indigenous strains are erased most of all.

The story begins in 1598, when an expedition of several hundred Spanish colonists led by Juan de Oñate crossed the Rio Grande near present-day El Paso. Most were unmarried young soldiers. Some of the officers and civilians had brought along their wives and children. Spearheading the entrada was a tatterdemalion group of friars in gray robes. Unlike earlier conquests in the Americas, whose object was treasure, the northern extension of New Spain was intended to be peaceful and evangelical. Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, an officer of the expedition who wrote the first history of New Mexico, found it significant that El Paso and Jerusalem lay on the same latitude.

In this New Jerusalem of the Rio Grande del Norte lived forty-five thousand Pueblo Indians, by modern estimates. (Pueblo means town or village in Spanish.) Pueblos looked something like rectangular Lego constructions, with interlocking apartments and multiple stories. You entered a house not through the ground floor but by a ladder, which could be pulled up afterward for safety. Women were in charge of the houses, while men focused on the kiva, the religious center of the village. The kiva was circular in shape, and it too lacked a ground-level entrance, being accessed through a hole in the roof. Pueblo women were stationed closer to the earth than men, because they bore fruit like the earth. The domain of males was airborne—in the realm of clouds, lightning, and rain, the tempestuous things that fertilized the earth. The Indian deities, collectively called katsinas, dwelled in the rain clouds, as did the departed ancestors.

The Spaniards told the Puebloans they must surrender all of these beliefs. Although the soldiers and friars had come in peace, refusal to convert to Catholicism was not an option. What's more, they were required to supply food for the Spaniards and unpaid labor for the building of the missions and the conventos where the friars would live. An early commentator, the American Josiah Gregg, in his 1845 account of the Santa Fe trade, tersely summarized the spaniards' relationship with the Indians, "upon whom they forced baptism and the cross in exchange for the vast possessions of which they robbed them."

The Franciscans were experienced at spiritual warfare from having dealt with native peoples in Mexico. The padres took credit for rainmaking and healing and hunting success—the powers the people ascribed to the katsina spirits. They superimposed their adobe missions on the Indian kiva sites and substituted their icons and relics for the animal fetishes on the Indians' altars. Because by happy coincidence the Christian cross resembled the Pueblo prayer-stick, the friars made sure to enter an unfamiliar village brandishing their most important symbol. Holy days were adjusted so that they fell on Indian feast days. And when the missionaries found out that Pueblo warriors whipped their bodies with cactus in order to toughen up for battle, the Franciscans were pleased to demonstrate their own mortifications, dragging huge crosses through the pueblos, with blood dripping from their bare, striped backs.

Presented by

Jeff Wheelwright, longtime science editor for Life magazine, is the author of The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess.

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