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.

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).