r. douglas cope
In January 1719, Mexico City authorities arrested three artisans
for robbing several hundred pesos’ worth of cash and clothing from a
wealthy merchant’s store. They quickly identified the ringleader, a weaver
named Francisco de Ledesma—better known to his friends as Francisco
Franco. He called himself a Spaniard, though the jailer had some doubts:
‘‘going by his color, hair, and the knowledge of [his fellow] workers, he is a
mulatto.’’∞ After a lengthy trial, Francisco was found guilty and sentenced
to eight years’ labor in a sweatshop (obraje). His lawyer objected, claiming
that Spaniards could not legally su√er forced labor. The court, however,
dug through its records and uncovered forty-three cases of Spaniards
condemned to obrajes between 1689 and 1721. Ironically, the investigator
himself questioned the ‘‘Spanish’’ status of several of these prisoners,
citing as an example one Francisco Necasio, whose assigned master had
‘‘not taken him for a Spaniard, but for a mestizo, which he was.’’≤ The
court nonetheless maintained its position, emphasizing the class issue:
those who could not pay for their crimes with money had to pay with
their bodies. Labor in obrajes had never carried the stain of infamy;
besides, those condemned were typically artisans who could continue
their professions in these workshops. What could be more suitable? This
legal dispute eventually reached the Council of the Indies, but before it
could be resolved, the case took a surprising final twist. A Spaniard
appeared who gave Francisco yet another surname (de la Hoya Moro) and
another identity: an escaped slave ‘‘of the Turkish nation’’ who should be
returned to his owners.≥
One is tempted to ask: who was this mystery man, anyway? But that
may be the wrong question. As the essays in this volume demonstrate,
understanding identity in colonial Latin America is seldom straightfor-
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