November 16, 2005 :: No. 77
Decades before the first African slaves were
sold in America, Spanish slave hunters crossed the Rio Grande in
search of Indians to seize and enslave. Some were kept
as personal servants while others were sent as “gifts”
to Mexico City. This servitude kept American Indians enslaved for
Robert Castro, assistant professor of Chicana
and Chicano studies at Cal State Fullerton and a scholar of
this chapter in history, is about to delve more deeply into the
subject as the recipient of a postdoctoral associate fellowship
from Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study
of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition.
The award includes a residency at Yale University
in January, a cash stipend and a public lecture based on his research.
Six scholars from across the nation were selected for this prestigious
fellowship, which focuses on issues related to slavery.
“I was both honored and thrilled to be awarded
this fellowship,” said Castro, who joined the Cal State Fullerton
faculty in 2002 and lives in Fullerton. “I had several important
people — like Dean Jonathan Simon from UC Berkeley Law School,
Noga Morag-Levine from Michigan State University Law School and
Isaac Cardenas from Fullerton — who wrote strong letters on
behalf of my research to Yale University.
“Interestingly, when most people hear the term
‘slavery’ as it relates to America, they immediately
imagine Africans brought here and sold as property,” Castro
said. “Yet slavery in America also had its origins in the
treatment of Indians by the Spanish who arrived here.”
With a degree in law from UCLA, Castro decided to
focus on the legal ramifications of Indian enslavement when conducting
research for his doctoral dissertation in political science. Because
of the number of legal memos and documents in New Mexico, he concentrated
his research on the Southwest, particularly New Mexico.
“It’s an interesting socio-legal puzzle,”
he explained. “While there is a great deal of information
about African slavery, little attention has been paid to how corresponding
institutions, like Indian-mestizo servitude, impacted Indians and
mestizos in the Southwest.”
The United States Congress had been aware of servitude
customs in New Mexico since 1847, but it wasn’t until the
Reconstruction era (1865-70) that the government attempted to liberate
Indian slaves from their owners in substantial numbers, noted Castro.
“There was consensus that Indians were captured
and forcibly held in servitude, and often, their treatment was at
the whims of their captors,” he said. “They could trade
these captives as they would a mule or horse. They were sometimes
bartered like private property — especially women and children.”
Over time, servitude customs evolved to entangle poverty-stricken
mestizos, as well.
In 1867, Congress passed the Peon Bill to abolish
“But federal liberation was largely unsuccessful
for several reasons,” Castro explained. “There were
few resources, little operational support, elusive slaving networks
and a lack of manpower. This all contributed to a breakdown in attempts
to liberate captive Indians.
“In addition, Indians were used to establish
the system,” the researcher noted. “Servants and New
Mexican families had grown up with each other over generations.
So even while Indians weren’t owned in the traditional sense,
there was a dependency that was established. Borderland customs
of ritualized servitude took root. Moreover, there may have been
a sense among Indians and mestizos that functioning as servants
was 'their place' in the order of things.”
Castro believes there is a strong connection between
historic slave systems, like Indian-mestizo servitude, and modern-day
activities like human trafficking.
“Trafficking victims, like earlier captives,
are routinely ‘chattelized’ and denied important liberty
rights,” he added.
During his fellowship, Castro will focus his research
on the government’s attitudes toward Indian enslavement. Did
they believe this servitude was the same as black slavery? If so,
did they attempt to create parallel enforcement programs to abolish
the Indian-mestizo slave trade? If not, why not?
“I believe that the government’s anti-slavery
activities were focused on black slavery in the South, and this
deeply affected the government’s priorities,” he continued.
“Once freed, citizenship was bestowed on blacks ... but not
Indians. Some believed that Indians and mestizos weren’t prepared
for citizenship. As a result, they did not have actionable citizenship
rights that the government was obligated to protect. So even though
the Peon Bill was passed, there were few attempts to monitor its
“My project links two formerly segregated slave
histories — black and Indian-mestizo —through the prism
of federal civil rights law,” said Castro. “My hope
is that this project will enhance public understanding of how racial
paradigms sometimes collide with what we imagine law and history
In his classes, Castro frequently explores the multilayered
experience of Latinos, as well as the biological and cultural connections
of mestizos to Indians. He also discusses his research with his
“It is amazing that the history of Indian-mestizo
servitude is absent from most history books,” he said. “When
we think of civil rights, it is clearly grounded in the black experience.
Yet it can also rightly be applied to Native Americans, Chicanos
and other delineated groups that have been stigmatized like African-Americans.
“Unfortunately, these marginalized populations
have largely been excluded from our nation’s public conversation
on race. In many ways, we see civil rights through a black/white
paradigm; the hidden history of Indian-mestizo slavery is an artifact
of that process. Learning more about the enslavement of Indians
and mestizos helps strengthen our understanding of how slavery functioned
in America and worked itself into the fabric of our nation.”
||Robert Castro at 657-278-2571 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Valerie Orleans, Public Affairs, at 657-278-4540
back to News Front