Identification by 
Race , Ethnicity, Religion and civil status in early Spanish Records
Submitted by Gloria Cordova, PhD

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Vuelva a Rastros Hispanos

Spanish Records and Identification

In early records one sees designations regarding race and ethnicity of the people. To understand these designations and this practice of so identifying the people in the records, one needs to understand the background in order to know what was referred to in the record.

Source: When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away (1991) by Ramon A. Gutierrez.

Honor and the Law

Spanish conquistadors in the Americas were granted titles of nobility and guaranteed special privileges for their labors in the expansion of the realm. A person’s social status was defined as those qualities that made up the essence of a person, consisting of his/her nature, age, and other circumstances and conditions. The terms calidad and nobleza referred to the character of a person deemed privileged by the state (p. 191).


A summation of various measure of social worth in the community (age, sex, place of residence, race, ethnicity, legitimacy or illegitimacy, civic status (landowner or not), occupation, religion or any combination of these. Calidad evaluated the person solely in relation to rights and privileges.

nobleza (nobility)

hidalguia (hidalgo)

Historically, as the Moorish frontier was pushed back, those men who conquered and defended new territory were compensated for their labors with titles to land and to nobility, Although there were no Moors in New Mexico, some of the colonists spoke of the Indians as Moors.

Honor and social status: Race and honor

Honor-status was a measure of social standing. “Honor was first a value judgment concerning one’s social personality…but before honor could become a right to pride, it had to be acknowledged by others…Honor ultimately depended on brute force.” (p. 177) Gutierrez writes that much of the terminology for religious and racial distinction was drawn from the Iberian reconquest from the Moors between 711 and 1492.


Converts to Christianity. During Spain’s reconquest, Muslims and Jews who lived in conquered territory were forced to convert to Christianity. They were differentiated from the Old Christians “to whom Spain belonged and to whom all honor and distinction flowed.” Puebloans and genizaros were New Christians and the Spaniards the Old Christians.

Soldiers who came to New Mexico in 1598 became a dominating class by subjugating the Pueblo Indians. They were rewarded with aristocratic titles (hidalgos), Indian vassalage (encomiendas) that were inheritable as patrimony for two generations, and land that was also inheritable by their children and descendants (p. 102).


Legal right to Indian tribute was a major determinant of wealth and status in colonial New Mexico. Each Indian household paid their encomendero. Tribute was collected twice yearly in May (cloth and skins) and in the October harvest (corn) (p. 105).


Grants of land to colonists by the Crown. These grants usually were given to individuals in the 17th century but as time passed in the 18th and early 19th century grants were made to communities and groups of landless and land-poor households (pp. 105-106).

After New Mexico’s reconquest in 1693, payment of tribute ceased with the abolishment of the encomienda, but the settlers continued to demand labor and raw materials from the Pueblo Indians through the repartimiento, (a rotational labor draft).

By owning land Spaniards could earn their own subsistence and were not dependent on others for livelihood, as were slaves. Between 1693-1846, people were categorized by a civic status for a particular town. .

vecinos (landowner citizens with full voting rights in town councils (p. 190).

residentes (residents)

naturales (natives)

Gutierrez writes that honor, socially validated, existed in Spanish New Mexican society only because of the presence of Indians who were dishonored and infamous. “The conquerors were honorable because they were Christians, Spaniards, “civilized,” and white. The vanquished Indians were dishonored because they were everything their victors were not: heathens, Amerindians, “uncivilized,” and dark.” (p. 194). The presence of Indian slaves in New Mexican society gave meaning to honor-status.

Over time the words genizaro and criado came to be used interchangeable to refer to all detribalized Indians residing in Spanish towns (p.155). Friars occasionally penned in the baptismal registers that a baptized Indian was “redeemed” and some of the baptized Indians were referred to as “adopted.” Gutierrez notes that this was probably an express of the friar’s hope that the master-slave relation would be a quasi-filial one (p. 155).

Indian slavery

Slavery was illegal but tolerated in New Mexico, Gov. Velez Cachupin so reminded the colonists in 1752 “so that they [captives] can be instructed in Our Holy Catholic Faith and made cognizant of the Divine Precepts, so that they may win their own salvation in honor and glory of God, Our Lord.” (p.185)


Slaves, detribalized Indians (primarily of Apache and Navajo origin) who had been captured by the Spanish and pressed into domestic service. Genizaros resided in Spanish households and towns (p.149). The Spanish Crown tolerated slavery in New Mexico as a way of “civilizing” the Indians (p.181). The Genizaros were prisoners of war captured by the Spanish, or, as fray Atanasio Dominguez expressed it in 1776 “ransomed from the pagans by our people, emancipated to work out their account.” (p. 188)

criado (criar = to rear)

A slave or servant in a Hispano household; a marginal and stigmatized person.

By 1760, calidad labels shifted and race became the dominant way of defining social status. Race was often equated with social standing for marriage candidates. Between 1760-1846, there were two racial labels, espanol and indio (p. 193).

Racial labels in New Mexico were fixed from 1598 for several centuries but the meanings attached to them changed (p. 196).

mulato (p. 196)

---Initially meant “racial mixture of any sort,” for example, offspring of Spaniards and Moors in medieval Iberia or later mixtures between Blacks and Indian, and between Frenchmen and Indians.

---Eventually mulato came to mean specifically a mixture between a Black and a White.

There is no evidence that the use of term mulato in New Mexican church records meant that such individuals had black African ancestry.

---In New Mexico, mulato meant “an individual of mixed Spanish-Indian ancestry.”

Fr. Prada of Abiquiu gave the word this meaning in 1802 when he referred to his parishioners as “indios mulatos.”

mestizos (p. 197)

Progeny of unions between Spaniards and Indians were known as mestizos or mulatos.

coyote and lobo (p. 197)

Terms used widely in colonial New Mexico to refer to the half-breed children of Indian slave women born in captivity. “Pueblo, Apache, and Navajo animal myths portray the coyote and lobo as marginal animals, misfits obsessed by uncontrollable sexual desires and wanderlust.”

Theoretically the children of interracial union and liaisons were ranked hierarchically according to the degree of mixing between the races (p. 198).

mulato = child of a Spanish father and an Amerindian mother.

castizo = child of Spanish woman and a mestizo father.

Racial categories (espanol, mestizo, mulato) were often used interchangeably with descriptions of physical color (blanco, pardi, prieto). The racial system that developed in Spanish America was highly influenced by skin color because honor, status, and prestige were judged by skin color and phenotype. The whiter one’s skin, the greater one’s claim to the honor and precedence Spaniards expected and received.

Nobility and landed peasantry thought of half-breeds as despicable because of the presumption that they were of illegitimate birth, which some were (p. 199). Aristocrats rarely admitted fathering illegitimate children. Such children were listed in baptismal registers as “father unknown.”

Rio Arriba

The northern half of the kingdom

Rio Abajo

The southern half of the kingdom.

Racial Terminology of New Mexico, as interpreted by fray Angelico Chavez.

Source: The Family of Lucero de Godoi Early Records. (1991). p. 2a.

Compiled by Margaret L. Buxton.

Published by the New Mexico Genealogical Society.


(term not often used). Might mean 1/4 Indian OR a general mixture of Indian and White.


A person of 1/2 Spanish and 1/2 European derivation. Term is yet used locally to describe a person of 1/2 Spanish and 1/2 Anglo parentage. This term has been used incorrectly to define a person 1/2 Spanish and 1/2 Indian, which would actually be called “Mestizos.”


In New Mexico this person was the child of bought or captured Plains Indians; the child was raised within the Hispanic culture.


This person would be the child of a Coyote, or a person who would be 1/4 European. This term was used incorrectly to indicate Indian blood.


As found elsewhere, this should mean 1/2 Indian and 1/2 European. It sometimes included general mixtures of White and Indian.


As found elsewhere, the original term meant being 1/2 Black and 1/2 White. It also could apply to descendants of Mulattos who possessed other racial genes as well. A person would be called a Mulatto if Negroid characteristics were still apparent.
Abbreviations for ethnic origins of families.

Source: NMGS Spanish and Mexican Censuses of New Mexico 1750-1830. (1981). p. ii.

Compiled by Virginia Langham Olmsted, C.G.,

C – Coyote

G – Genizaro

L – Lobo

Mu – Mulatto

S – Spanish

Ca – Castizo

I – Indian

M – Mestizo

N – Negro