“Edible gathering practices and knowledge is something I see becoming more popular,” says Moises Gonzales. “Genízaro land was at the mountain landscapes and borderlands of nomadic groups, using foodways that sustained these groups. At the end of the day, it’s about the knowledge systems.”
Gonzales, a professor at the University of New Mexico, is deep in the process of restoring his grandparents’ home within a Genízaro Land Grant. He has spent much of his personal and professional life focused on creating accessible and indestructible knowledge systems that far surpass the reaches of colonialism. This includes continual involvement within Indigenous seed saving networks and historical research invested in telling the Genízaro story within New Mexican history. It also includes encouraging intergenerational learning environments dedicated to keeping traditional dances, foods, plant uses, storytelling and coming-of-age milestones like the gathering and processing of mineral salts, alive.
Many of the prominent and distinctive cultures expressed within the New Mexico state borders stem from a mixture of the 19 Pueblos, the Diné or Navajo Nation, and nomadic Indigenous communities like the Apache, Ute and Comanche, alongside Chicano, Latino, Hispanic and Spanish backgrounds. Because of these influences and their histories with colonization, New Mexican identities often overlap, expressed in the food, art and languages performed and exchanged between these communities.
One historically under-represented community, whose story and mixed-heritage identity has started to make its way into public acknowledgement, are the Genízaro, an Indigenous and once nomadic community, whose identity lies in between or outside of the federally recognized Native American tribes, Chicano communities, and Spanish colonizers.
Gonzales, a Genízaro descendant, is the co-editor and contributor of the recently-released book Nacíon Genízara: Ethnogenesis, Place, and Identity in New Mexico, and co-author of the book Slavery in the Southwest: Genízaro Identity, Dignity, and the Law. A resident of the Cañón de Carnué Land Grant, Gonzales has been an active leader and voice within the Genízaro community for many years.
“Mountain people use their local gathering practices—an influence that comes into Genízaro identity. By teaching young people about these gathering practices, we pass on an understanding of why practices are relevant. It’s two things: it’s a form of community sovereignty and its identity,” says Gonzales.
Colonialism is not just about dominating or suppressing another group of people. It’s about identity. It’s why, Gonzales explains, the language programs within various tribal communities are so important as a means of expressing and reclaiming sovereignty and identity. He says, “The big underlining pinning to colonization is the erasure of your identity or binding it with whatever the popular or collective culture is. If we don’t participate, we are forgetting all the hard work and blood that was spilled to maintain the community.”
For Gonzales, the practices of keeping the culture alive include many things. He leads annual trips to the New Mexican salt beds to collect and process mineral salts; it’s a specific coming-of-age ritual for young men in the community and an absolute necessity for both culinary and religious practices amongst the Genízaro. Gonzales also participates in the ancestral seed trade networks amongst Indigenous pueblos and Native communities across the Americas.
When discussing the prominent Genízaro food traditions, Gonzales emphasizes the use of gathered plants as a nuanced variety within New Mexican cuisine. Blue corn tortillas, atole, pinto beans and posole are enlivened with wild and dried verdolagas, processed prickly pear or nopales. Local wild plants were an essential resource for the Genízaro. Poor land quality and risked vulnerability associated with ranching and farming—to other groups and to the U.S. government—meant the Genízaro relied on their knowledge of wild plants for sustenance and protection.
Gonzales speaks to the significance in keeping the legacy of his Elders alive, becoming an Elder himself, and passing the traditions, customs and sentiments onto his children and future generations. “There are subtle differences in the borderlands,” explains Gonzales. “At the foothills [of the Sandia Mountains], cactus is harvested and processed. The prickly pear is used in atole, topped with pine nuts or piñon—a practice of the Apache that was borrowed by the Genízaro. Prickly pear is still a part of the Apache religion as well as their culinary practices, but it isn’t something as popular in New Mexican food practices.” Gonzales’ grandmother would rift on this plant combination by using prickly pear when making her blue corn tortillas, a dish Gonzales still makes today.
The Genízaro are primarily descendants of nomadic Indigenous peoples, including the Comanche, Apache, Kiowa, Pawnee Ute and Diné, as detailed by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, confirmed by Gonzales. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many Native American children were captured by the Spanish and sold into slavery, becoming servants in largely Hispanic homes in New Mexico, thereby Hispanicizing and Catholicizing them. Many began speaking Spanish, which became the lingua franca of the Genízaro community, but with a distinctive dialect. In Nacíon Genízara, Gonzales writes, “Genízaros were put into the service of Hispano families as domestic servants, farmhands and herders, or in group work settings for the processing, weaving and knitting of wool. Genízaros occupied an ethnic identifiable space between Spanish, Pueblos Natives and Mestizos.”
By the late 18th century, it is believed Genízaros and their lineage of mixed Indigenous heritage made up one-third of the New Mexican population. They were later freed to settle buffer communities in between Spanish settlements and nearby tribes, giving the settlements a kind of living insulation to help deter outside raids. Until recently, the acknowledgement of the Genízaro’s Indigenous background disappeared from records as the once-enslaved group became absorbed into the Hispanic community.
Gonzales remarks on the ripple effects of this new acknowledgement and information coming to light. “We’ve discovered it in documents as captives and being sold as a slave or servant, but now it’s the New Mexican (or Southern Colorado) version of saying ‘I’m Chicano from a rural area,’” he says. “It’s interesting the number of students in Chicano studies at UNM who now identify as Genízaro or Genízara.”
Performances of Genízaro identity, including food, language and dance, overlap in nuanced ways. In Abiquiú, New Mexico, where a resurgence of Genízaro community activities has been growing, a festival for its Saints Day, La Fiesta de Santo Tomás, takes place in late November in the local Catholic church, as it has for over 150 years. The Genízaro celebration includes Indigenous dancers dressed in traditional garments, which are also pinned with dollar bills—a symbol of their forced servitude—performing El Cautivo, the dance of the captive child.
Cota, an Indigenous wild plant that thrives in high elevations, like New Mexico, is gathered as part of Genízaro tradition. It is used within various Native communities to make into tea as both medicine and libation. Gonzales’ grandmother would ferment the tea to be combined with prickly pear, the juicy and antioxidant-laden bud from the local cacti, to serve as a special drink on feast days. She also further fermented the tea to be used as a vinegar to preserve the vegetables from the last seasonal harvest. This type of preserving traditionally coincided with San Miguel Feast Day in September, after which the men of the community would leave to hunt bison and game for drying and preserving, to sustain the community throughout winter.
Fermented cota is not the only drink made within Genízaro culinary tradition. A fermented blue corn beer called tesgüino is also within the practice. Originating from the Tarahumara, an Indigenous community from the Sierra Madre valleys in Chihuahua, Mexico, the practice was adopted by the Genízaro. It is an uncommon practice within New Mexican foodways. Gonzales, however, makes the drink for feast days in an attempt to keep practice and its history alive.
The name “genízaro” means “war captives,” referring to the women and children for whom this most often applied. It was derived by the Spanish from a Turkish word for enslaved soldiers. For enslaved men, means of gaining their freedom often meant serving as soldiers for the Spanish, to defend their frontier villages like Abiquiú from raids. The once-considered derogatory term has since been reclaimed by the community.
“When we were misbehaving as kids my grandparents would say, ‘No seas genízaro,’ meaning, ‘You’re acting out of control and inappropriate,’” Gonzales explains.
The Genízaro community is now recognized by the state of New Mexico, though only as recently as 2008 when the New Mexico Game Commission returned 32.5 acres of the once-inhabited land back to the land grant of Abiquiú. They are still not federally recognized as a tribe, although this does not hinder the community’s self-identity. Genízaro culture and identity place traditions of self-governance and self-recognition at its core, a catalyst in maintaining an Indigenous cultural identity that has spanned Spanish, Mexican and American rule.
Regardless of any official recognition, Genízaros continue to recognize themselves as an Indigenous group through intergenerational cultural practices and transmission, collective consciousness, and community advocacy like that of Gonzales.
Gonzales’s son, who largely identifies as Pueblo from his mother’s side, also processes salt, learned through Gonzales, as a way of acknowledging his Genízaro lineage. Gonzales notes, “These foodways are always shared within communities. Corn, beans and squash have always moved; the varieties become community-based.”
Gonzales emphasizes the need to continue the learning and sharing process within his community and beyond. “A lot of these foodways are dying, but cota grows in my backyard. Prickly pear varieties are everywhere on my land grant,” he says. “Sometimes, we forget that these foodways are right there, and how we blend them and maintain them is an expressive part of the culture. Those of us who are still engaged are trying to make sure we don’t lose these.”