Food Choice and Social Identity in Early Colonial New Mexico

Article excerpt

In 1601, three years after Spain established the colony of New Mexico, one settler described the land as "sterile, lacking in everything necessary to support human life" (Hammond and Rey 1953: 688). In 1669, Franciscan priest Juan Bernal again complained that "for three years no crops [had] been harvested ... and ... a great many Indians perished of hunger, lying dead along the roads, in the ravines, and in their huts." He continued in a similar vein stating, "The greatest misfortune of all is that they [the colonists] can no longer find a bit of leather to eat, for their herds are dying" (Hackett 1937: 272). Despite these cries of distress, colonists throughout the early colonial period (AD 1598-1680) managed to construct homes, estancias (ranches), the capital (Santa Fe), and Franciscan conventos (missions) in Pueblo villages. Although the colony was not particularly robust, it did persist for nearly one hundred years and was not abandoned until the Pueblo Rebellion when native peoples rose up in revolt, destroyed the conventos and estancias, and forcibly expelled the colonists.

During the early colonial period, Spanish colonists settled among Pueblo villages; planted crops; raised livestock; and imported cloth, ceramics, and tools. Some fortunate individuals and imported sugar, cinnamon, wine, and chocolate (Ivey 1993; Scholes 1936: 329, 1937; D. Snow 1993), and most consumed the Old World crops they grew, as well as foods appropriated from native peoples. Colonists not only created a functioning society for themselves, but also attempted to incorporate the Pueblo peoples into their social and economic systems. Although they had a well-established cuisine based largely on maize, the Pueblos eventually adopted European-introduced crops such as wheat, peaches, and watermelons and today consider some of these introductions to be traditional foods.

Reports from colonists, such as those quoted previously, suggest that finding sufficient food to meet the caloric needs of the colonists and Pueblo peoples was a challenging aspect of early colonial life, but perhaps nearly as important as the nutrients were the social meanings that their foods imparted (Douglas 1997). The choices that colonists and Pueblo peoples made regarding the foods they ate and how they prepared meals had important implications for their social identities. Since social structures in colonial situations are often flexible, an examination of the foods that people prepared and consumed allows us to explore the changing cultural relations accompanying colonization. Using archaeological and documentary analyses of food and cuisine, we can begin to investigate such changes in early colonial New Mexico.


For colonizers around the world, colonization represented an opportunity for upward social mobility, an escape from economic or social problems at home, and a chance to develop a new social identity (Elliott 1989; A. Smith 1994). New Mexico offered such possibilities because the Spanish government gave colonists land for raising livestock and crops, two enterprises that had proven lucrative to colonists in Mexico. In addition, some settlers who agreed to provide military service were granted an encomienda--the right to collect tribute from converted indigenous peoples. Finally, those original colonists who resided in New Mexico for five years were granted the rank of hidalgo, or nobleman, not a small concession in a hierarchically organized society such as Spain's where such status was valued. Historian Marc Simmons (1991: 65) observed that the privilege associated with hidalgo standing was "something which all commoners craved with unquenchable passion." Although colonists sought upward social mobility, they were faced with novel physical and social environments that challenged their abilities to reproduce Spanish culture. Other than the governors' wives, many of the women colonists in New Mexico were mestizas (women of mixed Spanish and Native American parentage), who brought aspects of their Native American heritage to their families' lifestyles. …