The Genízaro Pueblo of Abiquiú

Russel Albert Daniels

The Genízaro (heˈnēsǝrō) people of Abiquiú have a profound sense of community. They have lived upon the same land in New Mexico for nearly 300 years. Their history, however, is born out of violence and slavery.

Spain and the Catholic Church profoundly impacted the lives of the Indigenous ancestors of the Genízaro people. Beginning in the early 1600s, Spanish colonists sought to “reeducate” (some say “detribalize”) the Native people of the Southwest.

Funded by the Spanish Crown, the Spanish first abducted and then later purchased war captives from surrounding tribes. Those “ransomed” were primarily from mixed tribal heritage, including Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, Navajo, Pawnee, and Ute. The colonists took these individuals to their households, where they were taught Spanish and converted to Catholicism. They were forced to work as household servants, tend fields, herd livestock, and serve as frontier militia to protect Spanish settlements. Many endured physical abuse, including sexual assault. The Spanish called these captives and their children “Genízaro.” The term originated from a Turkish word for slaves trained as soldiers.

This conflict and oppression affected the lives of several thousand Native people, trampling their cultural practices and spiritual beliefs.

Outside of Genízaro communities such as Abiquiú, this history has been slipping from memory. For the Genízaro people, however, it is embedded in their land and commemorated in their observances. Today, they are reasserting their Genízaro identity and culture.

The National Museum of the American Indian thanks the Genízaro people of Abiquiú for making this photo essay possible.

All images courtesy and copyright of Russel Albert Daniels.

Rio Chama Valley, Northern New Mexico

For centuries, the Apache, Navajo, Pueblo, and Ute peoples forged trails in and out of the rugged Rio Chama valley, while Tewa and other Pueblo peoples farmed along its river. The creation of New Spain in 1535, and then the extension of the Spanish Empire into the Southwest in the 1600s, transformed the region. By the 1700s, the Rio Chama valley had become a violent imperial frontier marked by deadly clashes, retaliatory raids, and a brutal trade in Native slaves. The conflicts forever altered the lives of Native peoples, including the Genízaro of Abiquiú in northern New Mexico.

Abiquiú Settlement History

Tewa and other Pueblo peoples live and farm in the Rio Chama valley.

Spanish colonists establish forts and missions in the Rio Grande valley, leading to conflicts with—and exacerbating those among—Native peoples.

Led by Tewa religious and political leader Popé, Pueblo revolt against Spanish imperialism drives Spaniards out of the region.

Spanish colonists return to the region, reintroducing violence and promoting slave trading, which leads to unprecedented Indian-on-Indian slave raids.

The Spanish use the term “Genízaro” to refer to people of mixed American Indian and Spanish parentage.

Spanish ranchers and farmers move into the Rio Chama valley and begin purchasing Indigenous war captives from Native communities, converting them to Catholicism and enslaving them to create a labor force.

The Spanish begin to establish Genízaro land grant settlements as strategic barriers in the Rio Grande valley as protection from tribal attacks from the northern frontier.

Genízaro land grant settlement Santo Tomás de Abiquiú is established. The first inhabitants are Hopi and Genízaro people.

Mexico’s independence from Spain. Mexico respects the Genízaro people’s land grants but requires that all people in this country are designated as ciudadanos Mexicanos (Mexican citizens), ending government use of the term “Genízaro.”

Mexico and the United States sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The United States takes control of much of the Southwest and part of California. The treaty calls for the protection of the Genízaro people’s land grants.

The U.S. Court of Private Land Claims validates a 16,000-acre Abiquiú land grant.

The New Mexico State legislature recognizes Genízaros as “Indigenous people.”

Genízaros celebrate the publication of the book Nación Genízara: Ethnogenisis, Place, and Identity.

Abiquiú Settlement History

 1300s

Tewa and other Pueblo peoples live and farm in the Rio Chama valley.

 1600s

Spanish colonists establish forts and missions in the Rio Grande valley, leading to conflicts with—and exacerbating those among—Native peoples.

 1680

Led by Tewa religious and political leader Popé, Pueblo revolt against Spanish imperialism drives Spaniards out of the region.

 1692

Spanish colonists return to the region, reintroducing violence and promoting slave trading, which leads to unprecedented Indian-on-Indian slave raids.

 1700s

The Spanish use the term “Genízaro” to refer to people of mixed American Indian and Spanish parentage.

 1730s

Spanish ranchers and farmers move into the Rio Chama valley and begin purchasing Indigenous war captives from Native communities, converting them to Catholicism and enslaving them to create a labor force.

 1746

The Spanish begin to establish Genízaro land grant settlements as strategic barriers in the Rio Grande valley as protection from tribal attacks from the northern frontier.

 1754

Genízaro land grant settlement Santo Tomás de Abiquiú is established. The first inhabitants are Hopi and Genízaro people.

 1821

Mexico’s independence from Spain. Mexico respects the Genízaro people’s land grants but requires that all people in this country are designated as ciudadanos Mexicanos (Mexican citizens), ending government use of the term “Genízaro.”

 1848

Mexico and the United States sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The United States takes control of much of the Southwest and part of California. The treaty calls for the protection of the Genízaro people’s land grants.

 1894

The U.S. Court of Private Land Claims validates a 16,000-acre Abiquiú land grant.

 2007

The New Mexico State legislature recognizes Genízaros as “Indigenous people.”

 2019

Genízaros celebrate the publication of the book Nación Genízara: Ethnogenisis, Place, and Identity.

Delvin Garcia Standing in Remains of the Santa Rosa de Lima Church

Sections of church walls are all that remain of the 18th-century Spanish colonial settlement Santa Rosa de Lima. Repeated attacks from Ute and Comanche peoples forced the colonists to abandon the village. In 1754, through a land grant, the Spanish gave Genízaro and Hopi families 16,000 acres of land that was one mile away. Here, the Santo Tomás de Abiquiú settlement was established.

During the ensuing years, as Spain, Mexico, and then the United States claimed parts of the region, the Genízaro people of Abiquiú lost some of their land. Delvin Garcia, former president of the Abiquiú land grant board, has worked with fellow community members to reclaim these lands. As Garcia states, “La Merced del Pueblo Abiquiú (the Town of Abiquiú Land Grant) is recognized and protected under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and is historically unique.”

Santa Rosa de Lima’s Feast Day Observances

Since Abiquiú was established in 1754, its Genízaro people have returned to what remains of the Santa Rosa de Lima Church to honor its patron saint by holding mass on her feast day.

Preceding and following the mass is a solemn procession. In 2019, the ceremony was led by Reverend Valentine Phu Au, the Santo Tomás Apostol Catholic Parish priest, and Frankie López, the feast day organizer. Each carried a Santa Rosa de Lima bulto—a carved and painted sculpture of a saint.

Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo) Dancers Performing in the Abiquiú Plaza

Whether through warfare, trade, intermarriage, or ceremony, the lives of Abiquiú’s Genízaro people and those from surrounding tribes have been intertwined. To this day, the Genízaro people maintain ties with members of the Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo) community.

After the Santa Rosa de Lima feast day procession, Ohkay Owingeh dancers perform the Bow and Arrow Dance in the Abiquiú plaza. In doing so, they honor the saint and their historical ties to Abiquiú.

Rafaelita Martinez

Abiquiú’s Genízaro people lived under fear of raids and attacks from northern tribes into the 19th century. Rafaelita Martinez, a devout Catholic, raised her twelve children in Abiquiú and is the oldest Genízaro person living in the community. She is standing in front of the wooden doors and once-high adobe walls surrounding her placita, or courtyard. Her property is one of Abiquiú’s original family fortresses—a picturesque yet stark reminder of her community’s past. Martinez says that in many ways the history of Abiquiú crystallizes the tumultuous history of the entire Southwest.

Dexter Trujillo Gathering Mistletoe from a Juniper Tree

Like most Genízaro people in Abiquiú, Dexter Trujillo descends from a family that helped settle the community. In the mid-1800s, Apache people abducted his ancestor, Juan de Dios, as the boy strode along Abiquiú Creek. According to Trujillo family history, the boy was enslaved for more than nine years before he injured his leg and was left for dead. He survived by eating mistletoe fungus from juniper trees until U.S. Army soldiers discovered the boy and returned him to Abiquiú.

Morada de Alto and Three Lenten Crosses

Dexter Trujillo is a leader of Los Hermanos Penitentes (The Penitent Brothers), a religious brotherhood formed at Abiquiú by the 1800s. In addition to commemorating the Passion of Jesus Christ, the brotherhood prays on behalf of the community, often in an adobe structure called the Morada de Alto. There, Los Hermanos Penitentes members also house their religious icons and plan events. While his Catholic religion is important to Trujillo, so are his Indigenous beliefs, and Abiquiú’s Genízaro families deeply respect him for his role in perpetuating Indigenous spiritual traditions.

Virgil and Isabel Trujillo in Their Family Apple Orchard

Virgil Trujillo, brother of Dexter Trujillo, manages part of Abiquiú’s centuries-old acequias, or communal irrigation system. It combines Spanish and Indigenous practices to direct water into fields. “Our identity is tied to the land,” he says. “Ranching and farming are the source of our life and freedom. Everything is tied to the land; everything starts as a natural resource.”

Isabel Trujillo, Virgil’s wife, is the director of the Pueblo de Abiquiú Library and Cultural Center. She says, “Anthropologists and history books have ignored our painful past, but many Abiquiú families have continuously honored our Indigenous ancestry with ceremony, dancing, and feast days,” she says. “Today, there is a revival and resurgence of interest in our unique Genízaro identity, culture, and history. You can’t take it out of our blood.”

Maurice Archuleta in the High Desert Surrounding Abiquiú

Maurice Archuleta is an artist attuned to the importance of community ceremonies and festivals as expressions of Genízaro identity. “Since I was a child,” he says, “I’ve learned our traditional stories, dances, and songs.” Archuleta sees Abiquiú’s celebrations as a reflection of its unique history, including its relationships with surrounding Native communities and Catholicism. Drawn especially to ceremonial dance, he sometimes introduces new steps by watching Native Pueblo dancers. “I study their footwork,” he says.

At the Gate of Abiquiú’s Oldest Cemetery

A former land grant board member, Johnny Jaramillo often visits the gravesides of his wife and two sons. Now in his eighties, he remembers riding as a young man with his grandfather on a horse-drawn wagon up to his farm on the mesa within the Abiquiú settlement. There, his grandfather tended his crops. Today, Jaramillo maintains a cattle pasture and herds his cattle by horseback on the same mesa. “We need to preserve our unique heritage and cultural ways for future generations,” Jaramillo says. “We need to harness our history into opportunity.”

Pueblo Tools and Pottery Sherds

Genízaro farmers and ranchers often come across ancestral Pueblo awls, arrow straighteners, hoes, stone points, and pottery sherds in their fields. Dating from AD 1200s to AD 1400s, these implements are a quiet reminder of the Tewa peoples who lived and farmed in the Rio Chama valley prior to the Spanish entering the Southwest.

Santo Tomás Apostol Catholic Parish in Abiquiú

Well before the construction of the original Santo Tomás de Abiquiú Church was completed in 1773, Catholic baptism, marriage, and death records of Indigenous peoples who the Spanish had secured from other tribes identified them as Apache (Apache), Caigua (Kiowa), Cumanche (Comanche), Panana (Pawnee), and Yuta (Ute). In 1821, when Mexico won Independence from Spain and gained control of the region, the new imperial power ended the practice of identifying Abiquiú’s Indigenous people by tribal affiliation or referring to anyone as Genízaro.

Frankie and Carmen López Holding Santo Tomás Bulto

Abiquiú Mayordomos Frankie and Carmen López are responsible for organizing feast day observances and safeguarding the community’s Santo Tomás bulto. Dating to the late 1700s, the statue was made by Pedro Antonio Fresquís (1749–1831), a well-known santero, or creator of religious works.

The couple cares greatly about Abiquiú’s families. “Right now, the Pueblo of Abiquiú doesn’t have a lot of opportunities,” says Frankie López. “Our leadership is fractured, and folks are forgetting their past. I want this pueblo—the land grant board, church, library, and community center—to be united. I want to leave a legacy for our children’s children.”

Santo Tomás Feast Day Preparations and Festival

In Abiquiú, the feast day of Santo Tomás is celebrated in November during three days of prayer, song, procession, and dance. The festival not only commemorates the pueblo’s patron saint but also the painful experiences of its people’s ancestors as war captives.

Friday evening begins with a church member leading the recital of the rosary. This is followed by dancing through the church as a form of prayer.

On Saturday, community members—including children—don their ceremonial clothing and join a procession that weaves through the pueblo before the feast and more ceremonial dancing begins.

El Cautivo Dance

The Santo Tomás feast day ceremony culminates on Sunday with El Cautivo (The Captive) Dance, which has been performed at Abiquiú for more than 150 years. Dancers dress as their ancestors, with face paint, feather hair ornaments, and ankle bells. They also wear dollar bills pinned to their ceremonial clothing, signifying their “ransom”—being purchased by the Spanish from other tribes—and the beginning of their enforced servitude. Spanish law allowed them to be free after 10 to 15 years.

Victor David López in the Ruins of a Colonial Building

Victor David López, a retired schoolteacher, traces his family history back to the early Genízaros and Hopi who first lived on Abiquiú land in 1754. He remains devoted to researching and understanding the legal history of the land grant. As López notes, the Pueblo de Abiquiú was long referred to as an Indian pueblo, but in a 1909 patent document, the U.S. government referred to the community’s inhabitants as “the converted half-breed Indians of the Pueblo of Abiquiú.”

José Roberto Garcia Looking at the Rio Chama

José Roberto Garcia, who has lived at Abiquiú most of his life, traces his complex family’s history to Spanish General José Mará Chávez. While noting his ancestor who served as a governmental official during the Spanish, Mexican, and American territorial periods and who attained the rank of Brevet General in the Union Army during the Civil War, Garcia also acknowledges his Hopi ancestry.

Johnny and Ben Jaramillo Branding Cattle

For generations, Genízaro people, such as cousins Johnny and Ben Jaramillo, have supported themselves through farming and ranching. Today, elders are concerned about increasing employment opportunities in Abiquiú so that young people can stay and raise their families in the community. Many elders are supportive of creating an Abiquiú Chamber of Commerce to draw new business.

Theresa Jaramillo and Antonio Vasquez Outside Their Home

As a Genízaro child, Theresa Jaramillo was sent to Saint Catherine’s Indian School in Santa Fe, but she left because the Native students regarded her, as she says, “not being Indian enough.” Jaramillo has found that participating in community observances—such as the Santo Tomás feast day for which she sews ceremonial clothing—has helped her make sense of her Genízaro identity. For her, these shared traditions are both a remembrance and reflection of her community’s unique history.

Rafaelita Martinez and Daughter Elizaida Departing the Santo Tomás Parish

The Genízaro people of Abiquiú are surrounded by their history. It is not only embedded in their land but in the ancient pottery sherds they find in their fields as well as their ranching and farm work, acequias, orchards, faith traditions, and colonial churches. Their sense of place and sense of history are indivisible, as is their Indigenous and Hispanic heritage.

Russel Albert Daniels. Photo by Chad Kirkland.

Photo by Chad Kirkland

Russel Albert Daniels

Russel Albert Daniels was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and studied photography at the University of Montana School of Journalism. After a brief stint with The Associated Press, Daniels began freelancing as a documentary photographer. His work concentrates on Native Americans’ resilience and identity as well as others’ attempts to erase their cultures. His projects about culturally specific gender issues, the controversies over protecting Bears Ears National Monument, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, have helped bring forward critical conversations from Indian Country.

Photographer’s Statement

My work is an act of self-discovery of my Diné, Ho-Chunk, Mormon settler, and European heritage. In the mid-1840s, White River Ute people abducted my great-great Diné grandma Rose when she was five years old. After years in bondage, the Ute traded her to Aaron Daniels, a Mormon frontiersman. Decades later, he and Rose married and had four children. The family enrolled in the Northern Ute tribe in northeastern Utah.

The enduring legacy of human trafficking and white supremacy over Native Americans is frequently ignored by Anglo America. I use storytelling to shine a light on the disenfranchisement this ignorance causes.

—Russel Albert Daniels

Curator Interview with Photographer

Interview transcript