Laura Matthew, associate professor of Latin American history, checks in from Spain, where she is conducting research with the support of a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, and shares her thoughts on how a recent archival discovery sheds new light on the historical relationship between racial discrimination and mass incarceration.
National Public Radio recently published this article on the high proportion of black males in jail in Wisconsin – the highest in the nation by far, a statistic that is primarily driven by Milwaukee.
That same week, I stumbled across a handwritten letter in the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla, Spain. It treats neither the century nor the themes of my current research. But its description of the discrimination facing people of African descent in late colonial Guatemala was so eloquent – and sadly, modern – that I transcribed it in full. (What follows is a somewhat free translation of parts of the letter into English. The full Spanish transcription will be published in the forthcoming volume of the academic journal Mesoamérica.)
A little context: at the beginning of the nineteenth century in Guatemala, slavery persisted but most people of African descent were free and had been for generations. Some had stopped paying the extra taxes demanded of free people of color, usually by serving in the military. Some had moved into positions of local political power, or were practicing professions like medicine, engineering, and law.
Legally, however, descendants of Africans were barred from university education, professional titles, public office, and the seminary. Their only remedy was to curry favor from whites to allow them to break the rules, or to appeal to the king for an individual exception to the rules called a “gracias al sacar.”
By the 1790s, dozens of these “gracias al sacar” cases from across Spanish America had accumulated and were getting bolder. Now, free blacks were asking for exceptions not only for themselves in limited circumstances, but for their children and descendants. The king’s council responded by setting official prices for these certificates, thus treating them as normal bureaucratic transactions accessible to anyone.
This made some white Spanish Americans very angry. In my classes, I often have students analyze a letter from the City Council of Caracas, Venezuela, responding with “horror” at the prospect of hordes of free people of color threatening their position in society.
But the letter I found in the archive makes the opposite case. A Franciscan friar named José Antonio Liendo de Goicoechea –who had also introduced experimental physics into the university curriculum in Guatemala, and was at the time 67 years old – wrote the king asking that gracias al sacar be extended to ALL people of African descent, automatically and without exception.
Fr. Goicoechea’s eloquence moved me to the point of neglecting my book project for over a week. I wonder if the king, to whom the letter was addressed, also felt compelled to pay attention?
In this kingdom [of Guatemala] there is a caste of men that are commonly called mulatos, and zambos, which have their origin in the union of Indians or Spaniards with Blacks.
This class of men is considered vile and despicable throughout the kingdom…the prejudice against them rises to such a level, that nothing can change the perception no matter how excellent an individual’s appearance.
There are no canonical arguments that can serve to justify the exclusion of the mulato… But the preoccupation against the mulatos has made admirable progress. When another viewpoint is given with strong and convincing reasons, [those who despise them] rely on common infamy.
If the customs of all the mulatos were bad, I would not dare criticize the opinions that keep them out of the seminaries and schools; but there are many, many of both sexes who are equipped with admirable habits and innocent customs…
If there is some ordinary corruption of their customs, it comes from the contempt and scorn with which they are treated. They see that they are considered the lowest of all; they know they are reputed to be despicable by their very nature; that their actions and habits, no matter how good, will not raise them above their miserable state; and that their unfortunate luck will forever be their companion and that of their children and descendants; and thus they are given over to all manner of vices.
At the same time, every day there are fewer and fewer good mulatos. The few that resist the example of their peers, and distinguish themselves in virtue, religion, and upbringing, have to do much violence to themselves, because they are obliged to aspire to such a heroic level, striving without any of the normal help and human incentives…
For this reason it should be no surprise to see our prisons full of mulatos and zambos. When the authors of a theft or a murder are sought, the presumption is against them, supposing that a man who lacks any motive for acting well and many reasons not to, should of course be bad.
The same zambos and mulatos are so ashamed of their heritage, that they use all their faculties and energy acquiring proofs of their Spanish origins….and this obliges all Spaniards in the trades to immediately abandon their professions, upon seeing them practiced by people considered vile and criminal.
If one or another of them, through repeated effort and accredited recommendations, has the good fortune of being ennobled and rehabilitated by Your Majesty [through gracias al sacar], this same privilege makes him feel even more deeply the weight of the dishonor that is commonly attributed to him, because these grants of gracias al sacar are ridiculed…these exceptions prove the opposite rule, and authorize the disgrace of all mulatos.
All of this would be remedied…if by Your Majesty’s royal decree all [mulatos and zambos] were awarded the same privileges and shared nobility as Spanish artisans and were supported in their relations with Spaniards of their same station, in obtaining degrees from the university, in being admitted to the religious orders; if they were allowed the option to distinguish themselves and to make themselves deserving of the titles of better employments and honors, it would be the most powerful encouragement of their achievements in the trades and arts and in the betterment of their customs.
Despite the passion that consumes me regarding this subject, I wished for Your Majesty to enter for a moment in the bosom of my soul and to register my most interior dispositions…if in the end you find everything I have said inestimable and imprudent, I will continue quiet, serene, and with the utmost tranquility…I will bury these feelings that agitate me, waiting for the time that God sees fit to dry the copious tears of these unhappy people, and will continue to obey the dispositions that Your Majesty deems more important.
The Convent of my father San Francisco, Guatemala, October 3, 1802.
Fr. José Antonio Goicoechea