Campus: CSU Fullerton -- November 16, 2005
Robert Castro Awarded Yale Fellowship to Study Slavery of American
Decades before the first African slaves were sold in America, Spanish slave hunters
crossed the Rio Grande in search of Indians to seize and enslave. Some were kept as personal
servants while others were sent as "gifts" to Mexico City. This servitude kept American
Indians enslaved for centuries.
Robert Castro, assistant professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at Cal State Fullerton
and a scholar of this chapter in history, is about to delve more deeply into the subject
as the recipient of a postdoctoral associate fellowship from Yale University's Gilder
Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition.
The award includes a residency at Yale University in January, a cash stipend and a public
lecture based on his research. Six scholars from across the nation were selected for this
prestigious fellowship, which focuses on issues related to slavery.
"I was both honored and thrilled to be awarded this fellowship," said Castro, who joined
the Cal State Fullerton faculty in 2002 and lives in Fullerton. "I had several important
people - like Dean Jonathan Simon from UC Berkeley Law School, Noga Morag-Levine from
Michigan State University Law School and Isaac Cardenas from Fullerton - who wrote strong
letters on behalf of my research to Yale University.
"Interestingly, when most people hear the term 'slavery' as it relates to America, they
immediately imagine Africans brought here and sold as property," Castro said. "Yet slavery
in America also had its origins in the treatment of Indians by the Spanish who arrived here."
With a degree in law from UCLA, Castro decided to focus on the legal ramifications of Indian
enslavement when conducting research for his doctoral dissertation in political science.
Because of the number of legal memos and documents in New Mexico, he concentrated his
research on the Southwest, particularly New Mexico.
"It's an interesting socio-legal puzzle," he explained. "While there is a great deal of
information about African slavery, little attention has been paid to how corresponding
institutions, like Indian-mestizo servitude, impacted Indians and mestizos in the Southwest."
The United States Congress had been aware of servitude customs in New Mexico since 1847,
but it wasn't until the Reconstruction era (1865-70) that the government attempted to
liberate Indian slaves from their owners in substantial numbers, noted Castro.
"There was consensus that Indians were captured and forcibly held in servitude, and often,
their treatment was at the whims of their captors," he said. "They could trade these captives
as they would a mule or horse. They were sometimes bartered like private property -
especially women and children." Over time, servitude customs evolved to entangle
poverty-stricken mestizos, as well.
In 1867, Congress passed the Peon Bill to abolish these practices.
"But federal liberation was largely unsuccessful for several reasons," Castro explained.
"There were few resources, little operational support, elusive slaving networks and a lack
of manpower. This all contributed to a breakdown in attempts to liberate captive Indians.
"In addition, Indians were used to establish the system," the researcher noted. "Servants
and New Mexican families had grown up with each other over generations. So even while
Indians weren't owned in the traditional sense, there was a dependency that was established.
Borderland customs of ritualized servitude took root. Moreover, there may have been a sense
among Indians and mestizos that functioning as servants was 'their place' in the order of
Castro believes there is a strong connection between historic slave systems, like
Indian-mestizo servitude, and modern-day activities like human trafficking. "Trafficking
victims, like earlier captives, are routinely 'chattelized' and denied important liberty
rights," he added.
During his fellowship, Castro will focus his research on the government's attitudes toward
Indian enslavement. Did they believe this servitude was the same as black slavery? If so,
did they attempt to create parallel enforcement programs to abolish the Indian-mestizo slave
trade? If not, why not?
"I believe that the government's anti-slavery activities were focused on black slavery in
the South, and this deeply affected the government's priorities," he continued. "Once freed,
citizenship was bestowed on blacks ... but not Indians. Some believed that Indians and
mestizos weren't prepared for citizenship. As a result, they did not have actionable
citizenship rights that the government was obligated to protect. So even though the Peon
Bill was passed, there were few attempts to monitor its enforcement.
"My project links two formerly segregated slave histories - black and Indian-mestizo -
through the prism of federal civil rights law," said Castro. "My hope is that this project
will enhance public understanding of how racial paradigms sometimes collide with what we
imagine law and history to be."
In his classes, Castro frequently explores the multilayered experience of Latinos, as well
as the biological and cultural connections of mestizos to Indians. He also discusses his
research with his students.
"It is amazing that the history of Indian-mestizo servitude is absent from most history
books," he said. "When we think of civil rights, it is clearly grounded in the black
experience. Yet it can also rightly be applied to Native Americans, Chicanos and other
delineated groups that have been stigmatized like African-Americans.
"Unfortunately, these marginalized populations have largely been excluded from our nation's
public conversation on race. In many ways, we see civil rights through a black/white
paradigm; the hidden history of Indian-mestizo slavery is an artifact of that process.
Learning more about the enslavement of Indians and mestizos helps strengthen our
understanding of how slavery functioned in America and worked itself into the fabric
of our nation."
Robert Castro at (714) 278-2571 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Valerie Orleans, Public Affairs, at (714) 278-4540 or email@example.com