andrew b. fisher and matthew d. o’hara
Introduction
Racial Identities and Their Interpreters in Colonial Latin America
We are informed that it is extremely inconvenient for the welfare and good of
the Indian natives of those provinces that mulattoes, mestizos, and Negroes
circulate in their company, because in addition to the fact that they treat them
badly and use them as servants, they teach them their evil customs and habits
of laziness and also certain errors and vices that tend to corrupt and hinder the
objectives that we desire for the salvation of the said Indians’ souls, and that
they live in an orderly society.
≈Philip II to the Royal Audiencia of Panamá, 1578
All Indian women are deceitful, lustful, thieving, disobedient, and above all,
great whores. . . . They prefer to live as concubines of the Spaniards, and on
occasion with black and mulatto men, than marry an Indian commoner.
≈Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala to Philip III, 1615
In today’s parlance, the New World has lost most of its value as a
historically useful term. Critics most commonly point out that what Co-
lumbus ‘‘discovered’’ was not new to the millions of indigenous people
whose ancestors had lived in the western hemisphere for millennia prior
to 1492. To question the novelty of the ‘‘New World’’ is no longer a radical
critique but a baseline assumption. The more significant conceptual prob-
lem is that the term privileges a precise (even pristine) condition cap-
tured at a particular moment in time. Precontact America was not, after
all, populated by timeless societies beyond the bounds of history, nor was
there a clear and universal endpoint for the many repercussions un-
leashed on what would become the Atlantic world in the aftermath of
1492. The colonial societies that coalesced in early Latin America, in
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