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

So the Christianity that was forged in the Kingdom of New Mexico was part Indian. A flamboyant, demon-riddled Catholicism from sixteenth-century Spain found a mate in the out-of-body expressionism of Native Americans. Syncretism is what you call it, syncretism meaning religious combination or religious admixture.

Now as to the syncretism of bodies and blood. During the seventeenth century, there were dozens of Franciscans in New Mexico, who kept their hands off the Indians so far as is known, but there were hundreds of settlers and soldiers who were unrestrained. The conditions around the pueblos might be described as a sexual free-for-all. Uninhibited, the Indians copulated frequently and openly, and women offered their bodies as gifts to the strangers, per the Pueblo custom. The Spanish men naturally accepted, thinking the husbands either dishonorable or dupes. As the settlers began to demand tributes from the Indians and to acquire their children as household slaves, the sexual exploitation found many new avenues. The padres wrung their hands but did not or could not stop it, for they were more concerned with reforming the Indians than their own countrymen. Very soon the mixed-race children, the Hispano mestizos, appeared.

The mestizaje, the racial mixing process, had started even before the conquest of New Mexico. By dint of breeding with the native tribes of Central America, many of the Spaniards already had some Indian blood, and the blood of African slaves had entered their gene pool as well. The move up the Rio Grande brought a major new infusion of Indian DNA.

More comprehensive than any historical document, DNA writes a record of matings in its four-letter language, although the record isn't arranged sequentially or chronologically like a family tree. It's a jumble, like a drawer stuffed full of parking tickets or grocery receipts with the dates snipped off. In each new generation of human beings, the identifying marks of the previous generations are halved and shuffled on the chromosomes to make room for additional markers. But since humans tend to marry their own kind, the same variants of DNA are shuffled in and out. When an admixture takes place, an intense crossing-over between two peoples or races, the event makes a large impression on the DNA. It can be seen long afterward unless it is obscured by more recent admixture.

A 2004 study showed that the Hispanos in San Luis valley are about one-third Indian and two-thirds Spanish-European. They have a small portion of African ancestry, averaging 3 percent. The Hispanos generally resemble other Hispanic and Mexican-American groups, while having a somewhat higher proportion of European blood than the rest. Genetic research also has confirmed the harshly one-sided nature of the admixture. By paying special attention to the y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), scientists proved that the genetic exchange in the early years of New Mexico was almost entirely between Spanish males and Indian females.

The intercourse that turned Spaniards into New Mexicans continued for decades, geneticists believe, extending from the Pueblo tribes to the more resistant blood of the Navajos, Apaches, and Utes. But after the Hispanos were formed, mating took place within a closed circle. Europe would send no more of its genes. The historical record indicates that the Kingdom of New Mexico had very little immigration after being established. In fact, many of its colonists left, discouraged, as Juan de Oñate was, by the lack of mineral wealth and by the hostile tribes beyond the pueblos.

The Puebloans converted to the Catholic faith en masse, or they claimed to, and their children, the mestizo cohort, were ready-made believers. If their fathers acknowledged them as sons and daughters and took them in, they were deemed españole as well. This wasn't how the Franciscan brothers had imagined their New Jerusalem would go— pagans won over to Christ through a change in their genes rather than in their hearts.

Adapted from Jeff Wheelwright's The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA (W.W. Norton & Company, 2012).

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

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