Research and CV

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Taxing Blackness:  Free Afromexican Tribute in Bourbon New Spain (University of Alabama Press, 2019) 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.

For more on this book, listen to a podcast with New Books Network. Read a review in the Hispanic American Historical Review.

Taxing Blackness cover

“An important study of the internal workings of the late eighteenth-century Spanish viceroyalties, exposing how racial specificity faded away in light of more pressing concerns regarding collecting as much tribute as possible. This book provides new perspectives on the history of race and class, demonstrating that physiognomy and phenotype did not overtake lineage.”

—Nicole von Germeten, author of Black Blood Brothers: Confraternities and Social Mobility for Afro-Mexicans and Violent Delights, Violent Ends: Sex, Race, and Honor in Colonial Cartagena de Indias

“Based on extensive primary research and an impressive array of secondary studies on the categorization of social difference in colonial Mexico, Taxing Blackness convincingly navigates through shifting official policies and responses to them in the 18th century to demonstrate how the concept of calidad rather than casta or race remained the key factor for determining the tributary status of free people of African descent. Calidad, or status, incorporated physical appearance, place of residence, gender and reproduction, public reputation in behavior and judgment, and genealogy; classification based on these attributes was in flux over time as free people of color commonly employed institutional means to negotiate or contest their social position with an increased emphasis on family genealogy. Using regional examples across New Spain, Norah Gharala addresses a contradictory literature on factors that influenced the social status of free peoples of African descent. She explains why and how the Bourbon regime sought to impose tighter control over this population in the late 18th century despite the relatively insignificant amount of revenue that accrued to the crown and the fact that Afromexicans lived in established communities with complex constellations of social ties, using genealogies to defy the persistent attempts to characterize them as vagrants. Even with the abolition of tribute after independence, the legacy of blackness persisted in new patterns of impositions and self-definition that continued to draw on concepts of calidad. Taxing Blackness is a must-read for anyone attempting to understand the debates over race, caste, and class in colonial Mexico.”

—Susan M. Deeds, author of Defiance and Deference in Mexico’s Colonial North: Indians under Spanish Rule in Nueva Vizcaya and The Course of Mexican History

“Scholars interested in the history of race relations, freedom, taxation, and the practices and politics of black vassalage and citizenship in the Western Hemisphere will find Taxing Blackness especially insightful. In sum, Gharala has contributed an important study that redefines our understanding of eighteenth-century afrodescendientes, Mexican economic history, and the ambitions of Bourbon reformers in New Spain.”

—Pablo M. Sierra Silva, author of Urban Slavery in Colonial Mexico: Puebla de los Ángeles, 1531–1706

“‘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 Ordóñez 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.”

Linschoten itinerario f 44
Jan Huygen van Linschoten’s engraving of Rua Direita in Goa from Itinerario. Voyage ofte schipvaert […] naer Oost ofte Portugaels Indien […]. Amsterdam: Cornelis Claesz, 1596.  More information from John Carter Brown Library and Universiteitsbibliotheek Utrecht

“A Black Man from India”: Between Slavery and Freedom in the Early Modern Iberian World (from new book project abstract)

This biographical project tells the story of a young man enslaved in Asia who fought for his freedom in seventeenth-century Mexico City. His life was a microcosm of colonial relationships and a kind of urban servitude that differed markedly from later plantation societies in the Americas. Before he was thirty, he had traveled in captivity across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, visiting ports in the Philippines, Peru, and Mexico. Calling himself “a black man from India,” he claimed that he had gained his freedom in exchange for his bravery and years of service. These experiences on a sliding scale of freedom were neither wholly representative nor completely extraordinary. The case helps us understand the changing and multifaceted meanings of slavery and freedom, race, gender, and self in the global early modern world.


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 24, no. 2 (Aug. 2018): 195-204.

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


Review of Alex Borucki, David Eltis, and David Wheat, eds. From the Galleons to the Highlands: Slave Trade Routes in the Spanish Americas, Bulletin for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies 45, no. 1 (2020).

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.

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

Download my C.V. here.


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