Slavery, By Any Other Name
Updated: Mar 23, 2018
In Ocate, New Mexico, sometime between 1910 and the late 1920s, a young girl named Dora Ortiz often visited with an old woman known as Rosario Romero. During those visits, she listened carefully as Rosario’s stories drew Dora in as close as whisper. For Dora, Rosario may have seemed like the oldest woman in the world, with a memory as long as her wisdom was deep. She was, after all, believed then to have been well over a hundred years old. Ma-Ya-Yo was what Dora called the old woman, for she was like a grandmother to her. Although she had held the name Rosario for decades, she still remembered her first name, Ated-bah-Hozhoni, Happy Girl, a prophetic gift perhaps given with quiet ritual and intention by her Navajo mother. Her Diné name was one of the last vestiges that revealed from where she had come and who she once was. Although that name may have sounded to her like beauty and loss all wrapped together, it was a name that told her that she was once a happy girl.
In a story where indigenous names and origins were almost always irrevocably lost, this exception is significant. Rosario’s life was part of an old story in villages throughout New Mexico and the greater southwest, a story whose telling was perhaps not meant to be passed on. It was after all, a history that had been quieted over the years by whispers as much as by silence, hushed aside even by those who have inherited the story—carrying, as it is, if not its geography in their faces and hands, certainly its memory in an aching consciousness— unknown perhaps, but still there. It is the story of American Indian slavery, an institution that while perhaps obscured, certainly existed and through it, thousands of individual lives passed.
Rosario passed away in 1930 and Dora, the young girl, who had become a young woman, then took pen to paper and filled her Red Chief notebooks with these stories from her childhood. In that decade, she married, had children and the notebooks were put away. Forty years later, Dora Ortiz Vásquez published Enchanted Temples of Taos: My Story of Rosario. Part family memoir, part eulogy and perhaps even part imagination, her narrative pays homage on the one hand to her great grandfather, the famous Padre Antonio José Martínez of Taos as the benevolent master and on the other, Rosario, the sometimes recalcitrant “servant.” Yet, Vásquez writes against the grain of her contemporaries, naming Rosario’s experience—slavery, by any other name.
While Rosario’s story is certainly distinct and particular to the southwest, it is one that is now, even as it may have appeared in centuries past, seemingly out of place as a slave narrative of the United States of America, which continues to echo of another place and people. It has perpetually been defined as something else, something that is not “slavery.” Yet, ecclesiastical records of New Mexico alone reveal that thousands of Native Americans were baptized and entered into New Mexican households. More than statistics, these numbers were people, whose narratives of captivity, enslavement and presence deeply affected the community structure and complexity. The full tapestry of Rosario’s story emerges in-between Vásquez’s narrative and many other historical documents, all more fully woven between the delicacy and strength of her two names.
Years earlier, in 1872, one of the Navajo headmen would recall that when ‘all the nation came against the Navajo, that is when they lost the children.’
The day of the raid, hidden into the rocks of a cliff, Ated-Bah-Hozhoni watched as her father, husband and two young sons were killed. With them, a part of her must have broken that day. Her captors found her, clutching her one year old daughter in her arms and together, they were carried away with others.
While Vásquez appears to place Ated-Bah-Hozhoni’s captivity in the very early 19th century, historical documents reveal that her violent loss and separation may have actually taken place during the 1860s and perhaps even within 1861. These were years of continual hostilities between the Navajo and New Mexican communities and by 1861 New Mexican officials legislated a means to wage war against the Navajo, a war that would culminate in their eventual defeat.
The impact of this period of warfare and kidnapping would even enter the sentiment and memory of the Navajo, as phrases would be added to the language to describe what happened. Ated-Bah-Hozhoni had probably heard her father whisper the term “nahondzod,” which has been defined as “the fearing time” or “under captivity, moving with fear.” This fear was perhaps exactly what Ated-Bah-Hozhoni held with her the day she was carried away, a journey that became her own middle passage across desert and mountain, dust rising with each movement. She would never set her eyes upon those mountains again, leaving a part of her happiness behind.
It is unclear when Ated-Bah-Hozhoni arrived in Taos, but Vásquez notes that Padre Martínez had bought her for one hundred and fifty pesos and given her a new name—Rosario. Most captives were given a name at their baptism. Remarkably, there is no baptismal record that has been located to date for either Ated-Bah-Hozhoni or her daughter, whose Diné name was lost. What Vásquez also reveals, was that Rosario’s daughter was not purchased by Martínez, but by another family. This separation of mother and daughter undoubtedly compounded the loss for the young captive. Vásquez devotes two chapters to this subject, unfolding Rosario’s “misbehavior,” failing in her household duties, which Padre Martínez accordingly attributes to her missing her daughter. Padre Martínez then purchases Rosario’s daughter.
While neither Rosario, nor her daughter Soledad are included in the 1860 federal census, they are clearly identified in the 1870 census. Therein, Rosario Martínez is identified as a forty-year-old Indian female, keeping house, followed by ten-year old Soledad. Census enumerators would thereafter document Rosario’s presence every decade until the 1930 census, dying just one month before that enumeration. During those decades, her occupation would be listed simply as “servant,” “day laborer” and finally “wool weaver.” It would be impossible to fully measure Rosario’s life during the seventy years she lived in New Mexico, first with Padre Martinez in Taos and then in Ocate, with Martinez’s son’s family, George Romero and in a third generation, next to Romero’s daughter, Maria de la Luz Romero Ortiz.
Like many female captives taken as adults, Rosario, according to Vásquez’s narrative attempts three times to escape her captors. In the narration of one of these attempts, seizing the opportunity, Rosario takes the young Soledad with her and runs away. Two other Navajo slaves are recognized in that chapter. The other two that accompany Rosario and escape are Maria Antonia who was held by Padre Martínez’s brother, Santiago. Francisca is the other, who was held in neighboring Agustin Lucero’s household. These runaway slaves were quickly apprehended and returned to their masters. What punishment is vetted out is unknown.
The war waged against the Navajo by the U.S. army in the first few years of the 1860s was also eclipsed by the war against slavery itself. The same year that Rosario and Soledad may have been captured was also the beginning of the Civil War. When that war ended, a special proclamation was issued abolishing Indian slavery. The reasoning followed, that even if the slavery was of “Indians”—still then considered significant obstacles and threats to westward expansion— slavery of any kind, from an ideological standpoint posed a significant problem for the nation, just then emerging from itself divided over the issue.
Undoing this institution was no easy task, particularly because it was obscured. Federal officials would thus spend the last half of the decade attempting its demise. Vásquez's portrayal of Rosario’s alleged freedom appears more romanticized than real. In reality, although the military had attempted to free individuals, the courts were soon recognized as holding more pressure. It was perhaps this pressure that prompted Padre Martínez to appear before the Taos County Probate Court in its January 1867 session, petitioning not to free Maria Rosario, his “famula,” maid-servant, but to make him her legal guardian. Within six months, Martínez would fall ill and pass away.
With this passing, Rosario would move (or be moved) to Ocate with Martínez’s son, George Romero and his family. Within one year, W.W. Griffin, a federal agent would be appointed to identify the crime of holding slaves. Among the 435 cases that Griffin brings before the grand jury in New Mexico, he charges Santiago Martinez, Agustin Lucero, both noted above, and George Romero with “holding Indian slaves.” Citing “insufficient evidence,” however, he eventually dropped the charges against Romero. Rosario is nonetheless listed next door to George in 1870 and in 1880 is listed as an Indian servant in his household still.
Read together, these stories, names, and experiences of one individual provide a window into the story of American Indian slavery. It is a story about being Indian in the wrong place, which accentuates the discourse about family and the very contest over the images of slavery and indianness alike. It is a story that reveals that the most telling aspects of any deep and sustained study of New Mexican identity, rises from beneath layers of histories formed somewhere in between erasure and memory—histories experienced, imagined and passed down through story, telling, as it is, identities.
Ma-Ya-Yo was the name that the Martínez, Romero and Ortiz grandchildren remembered the old woman by. It was, according to Vásquez a term of endearment, whereby they recognized Rosario as being like a grandmother. Although Vásquez does include parts of the story of Rosario’s daughter Soledad, what is most striking about Vásquez’s account is the near complete absence of Rosario’s own family in the account. While not every slave in these circumstances had family and descendants, Rosario did. What did her children and grandchildren call her? What stories were they told about and by Ated-Bah-Hozhoni.
Aside from her daughter Soledad, she also had four sons. While it does not appear as though she married, the father of her four sons may have been Juan de Dios Griego, who in the 1870 census is identified as a laborer born in Durango, Mexico. He is also present in her household in the 1880 census. Three of her sons, Albino, José and Yicero (sic) never appear to have married, but one son, José Domingo had eleven children and her daughter Soledad had at least one daughter.
By the time that she died, Rosario had five children and at least twelve grandchildren of her own. Now, nearly three quarters of a century later, Rosario has hundreds of descendants, living throughout the world. My conversations with many of these individuals have extended and deeply enriched these stories. Those descendants are each reflections of this extraordinary woman’s life. Her singular beauty and strength and her original name—prophesizing happiness—is, I hope, their collective legacy. New Mexico’s collective identity is also born out of this astonishing complexity and as such, is part of our shared legacy as well.
Copyright 2018 Estevan Rael-Gálvez