TIE Podcast Summer Session Preview: Dr. Danielle Terrazas Williams on the Legacy of Free Women of African Descent in Colonial Mexico

Silhouettes of two women color face away from an outline of Mexico, emblematic of the book "The Capital of Free Women" by Terrazas Williams.
Book cover for "The Capital of Free Women" by Danielle Terrazas Williams

In the first Toward Inclusive Excellence Summer Session podcast episode of 2023, Editor in Chief Alexia Hudson-Ward interviews Dr. Danielle Terrazas Williams, associate professor of history at the University of Leeds, about her book The Capital of Free Women: Race, Legitimacy, and Liberty in Colonial Mexico (soon to be reviewed for Choice). Seeking to explore the social and legal histories of African-descended people in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Mexico, her study considers the lives and agency of free, African-descended women in Mexico, challenging traditional narratives of racial hierarchies and gendered mobility in the colonial period.

Listen to the full conversation below:

TIE Podcast · Dr. Danielle Terrazas Williams on the Legacy of Free Women of African Descent in Colonial Mexico

Dr. Terrazas Williams is currently at work on her second book project, “Imagining Catholic Empires: Slavery, Freedom, and the Jesuits in Colonial Mexico,” at the University of Notre Dame, where she is a Kellogg Visiting Fellow. This text will examine one of the most prolific Catholic religious orders—the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits—and their role in the ministry of African-descended people in Mexico, exploring larger questions of early modern governance and religious acculturation in Mexico. Her broader research interests include women’s history, governance, slavery, family, and notions of class and status.  

Over the course of this enlightening conversation, Dr. Terrazas Williams delves into her personal connection to Mexico and how it sparked her interest in digging for the stories of free Black women. As she explains, when she first began her research as an undergraduate, there were not many narrative histories available about free women of African descent in Mexico, despite the country having a long history with slavery. Her passion to uncover these stories and center Black women’s experiences stuck with her throughout her academic career and led her archives in Mexico, Spain, and Italy to research her first book. She found that every archive told its own story—while some revealed larger events like natural disasters or epidemics, others recounted more intimate family details, including successes and sacrifices, allowing Dr. Terrazas Williams to piece together a comprehensive history that revealed highly gendered ideas around things like property ownership, legitimacy, and economic agency.

Recognizing the challenges in trying to conduct research on free Black women, with some trying to downplay or discourage research being conducted on related topics, Dr. Terrazas Williams nonetheless underscores the critical importance of resiliency and having access to archives to navigate those roadblocks and push back against attempts to erase Black women’s stories. She highlights the National Institute of Anthropology and History’s work to educate the public about the history of Black people in Mexico, and further champions the archivists in Mexico who work tirelessly to keep documents safe with limited budgets and small staffs, often under threat of national disasters.

Here is a quick peek inside the episode:

On what led her to study women of African descent in colonial Mexico:

“I’m definitely not the first who’s ever thought about writing on the history of Black people in Mexico. In fact, I was very much sort of brought in when I was conducting research in Mexico by amazing scholars … and I learned so much [from them] … about the importance of making an effort in demonstrating, or, you know, highlighting with archival materials the history of Black people in Mexico. And so, I really decided to spend my career being in the archives and ensuring that when people say, ‘no hay negros aquí,’ that there aren’t Black people here, that I could say, well, these are the late sixteenth-, seventeenth-century records. These are the materials that we can say that these people lived here, that these Black women were able to navigate the Spanish institutions.”

On the importance of notarial archives:

“A notarial record is one that is a document notarized—often business documents. So it’s either the purchase and sale of something, and in the case of colonial Mexico someone, but a notarial record could also be a power of attorney … And so they’re often considered the drier records of archival materials. But, inspired by the work of Kathryn Burns from [UNC] Chapel Hill, who I worked with when I was a graduate student at Duke University, it was a site where I found very lively tales. And so, for example … in the case of … a free Black woman … it says that her mother was enslaved. She was born in Africa [and] was forced to the Veracruz region. So, this is a Black woman who’s one generation removed from slavery. We also learn through her last will and testament … that she owns two of her brothers … [in] the document she describes these two men as ‘los hijos de mi madre,’ which translates into ‘the children of my mother’ … that, I think, speaks about that distance, and perhaps that tension that is there, and she does end up owning her brothers and a few other slaves that we know about because she ends up giving them both their freedom, but after more than twenty years in her service. And so there are lots of ways in which the notarial archive offers these confusing, tragic, and sometimes triumphant stories of this colonial past that we had very little sense of before.”

On the tensions around studying free Black people in colonial Mexico:

“I think that these tensions around discussing Black people in Mexico have flared up in the last few years specifically in Mexico, due to questions of immigration. And so, for example, you know what we’re seeing is that there are more migrants who are coming to the US-Mexico border, to try to attempt to cross into the US, who are either from the Caribbean or from Africa … And so, there is this push-back to say that Blackness is not … Mexican, and that’s just so far from the truth because if Spanishness is Mexican from 1519, well certainly Blackness … is certainly part of the same conversation … I think also people are committed to this nationalistic narrative … and to disrupt that national narrative is really unsettling for people … It’s important to also acknowledge the importance of what immigration does for countries in really important ways, but to also say that that’s not the story for everyone who is in Mexico and is of African descent.”

Be sure to sign up for alerts on the latest Toward Inclusive Excellence (TIE) content, whether it’s a new blog post, podcast episode, or webinar.

Interested in contributing to TIE? Send an email to Deb V. at Choice dvillavicencio@ala-choice.org with your topic idea.

Brepols logo: a ship outline in blue alongside the name Brepols

Brepols publishes world-class academic research, with a particular focus in history, archaeology, history of the arts, language and literature, and critical editions of source works. We commit ourselves to producing high-quality, distinguished publications that will have a lasting scholarly impact, and whether we are producing traditional printed volumes, databases or (Open Access) e-books, we guarantee that all our products will share the same stamp of quality.

Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.