Taxing Blackness:  Afromexican Tribute in Bourbon New Spain, forthcoming from University of Alabama Press in Atlantic Crossings

Casta painting
Las castas. Anonymous, 18th century, oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico. Credit: Wikipedia.

Hundreds of thousands of free descendants of Africans born in Mexico during the eighteenth century faced a highly specific obligation to the Spanish crown: a tax based on their genealogy and status (calidad). This royal tribute symbolized imperial loyalties and social hierarchies. As the number of free people of color soared, this tax became a nodal point that colonial officials and ordinary people referenced to define and debate the nature of blackness.

Taxing Blackness is the first book to show not only how tribute impinged on the lives of ordinary Afromexicans but how they responded to it. Agents of the colonial regime viewed the collection of tribute and the storage of tax rolls as crucial to incorporating free subjects of African descent into the Spanish empire. Many free Afromexicans paid tribute to affirm their belonging and community ties. But some contested what they saw as a shameful imposition that could harm their families for generations.

This story traces the competing definitions of blackness that emerged as colonial subjects and bureaucrats disputed the relative importance of skin color, genealogy, and physiognomy as identifiers of African descent and tributary status. Gharala shows the profound ambivalence, and often hostility, that free people of African descent faced as they navigated a regime that simultaneously labeled them dangerous vagabonds and sources of tax revenue. The fusion of calidad and economic demands like tribute underpinned Spanish colonialism, enabling the commodification of diasporic laborers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Taxing Blackness offers Atlanticists, Mexicanists, and Latin Americanists new perspectives on the rise of race, genealogy, and blackness in discourses of slavery and freedom in the Atlantic world and in the relationships between free people of African descent and colonial regimes.

“‘Not even blood mixture could make them unworthy’: political loyalty and tribute in Bourbon New Spain” for special issue on “New directions in the political history of the Spanish-Atlantic world, c. 1750–1850” in Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies

ordonez signature trib 3 exp 2 f 91
Signature of D. Juan Ordoñez de Seixas, a bureaucrat involved in a case treated in this article manuscript. Archivo General de la Nación, Tributos vol. 3, exp. 2, f. 91. Photograph by the author.

Abstract: “This article examines the shifting meanings of calidad and political loyalty as they applied to royal tributary status in Bourbon New Spain. While tribute had long remained a symbol of the relationship between crown and subject, Bourbon bureaucrats began to employ the language of calidad to explain tributary obligations. The use of calidad led to the creation of a robust tributary population that by mid-century produced record amounts of revenue. Despite the late-colonial expansion of tribute, bureaucrats would never reach a consensus regarding the precise nature of tributary status or calidad. I examine Afromexican claims to conquistador ancestry from the early-eighteenth century to explore the uses of genealogy, calidad, and physical appearance as determinants of tributary status. Comparing an early case study with bureaucratic opinions from the end of the century, I argue that petitions for tribute exemption provided a forum for ordinary people and bureaucrats to debate the meanings of political loyalty and family history. Bureaucrats attempted to limit the extent to which the privileges granted to descendants of conquistadors could coexist with a mulato calidad, while Afromexicans used petitions to establish a lineage of loyalty and services which could exempt them from tribute.”

Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles

“‘Not even blood mixture could make them unworthy’: political loyalty and tribute in Bourbon New Spain” Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies (July 2018).

“Calidad, Genealogy, and Disputed Free-colored Tributary Status in New Spain” The Americas 73, no. 2 (April 2016): 139-170.

(Co-Author) “Pain Coping in Latino Populations” Journal of Pain 10, no. 10 (October 2009): 1012-1019.


Review of Premo, Bianca, The Enlightenment on Trial: Ordinary Litigants and Colonialism in the Spanish Empire. H-Law, H-Net Reviews. July, 2018.

Review of “Urban Slavery in Colonial Puebla de los Ángeles, 1536-1708,” by Pablo Sierra. Dissertation Reviews. October 27, 2014.

Download my full C.V. here.