On a day during the cold months of 1549, the slave Catalina de Velasco
waited to meet the friar Bartolomé de las Casas, a famous man whom she
fervently hoped would testify on her behalf as she petitioned for her free-
dom in a Spanish court. She stood in an austere and dimly lit room of the
monastery furnished with high- backed chairs and a long, polished table.
Religious paintings hung on the walls. Catalina was a minor of twenty years,
and her legal representative (curador) had insisted she be examined in per-
son to see if she was truly an india. Only a few days before, she had been
granted permission by the Council of the Indies to travel over a two- day
period to the Monastery of San Pablo, the temporary residence of several
notable friars. These men were experts in all things Mexican; they could ex-
amine her physiognomy— the shape of her head and face, her coloration—
with great authority. She was certain they would help her win her freedom.
Months before, several judges of the council had scrutinized her while the
curador stood by her side. Her mistress, the marquess of Villafranca, Doña
Inés de Pimentel, had also demanded to be present at the hearing, if only to
intimidate her.1 The judges had then determined that she was an india, but
not a mestiza—the daughter of a Spanish Christian and an india—as Cata-
lina had claimed. She had made this claim because her deceased mother had
once told her that her father was a Christian.
The New Laws of 1542 had been passed in Castile, stating that indios from
Spanish domains were free and could no longer be enslaved. Catalina bore
no scar or royal brand on her face that would have marked her as a legally
captured slave from the Spanish territories, yet to gain her freedom, she still
had to prove that she had come from Mexico, not somewhere in the Portu-
guese empire as her mistress claimed. As her legal representative explained
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