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Results of DNA project in Abiquiú support oral history of Native ancestry

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Residents of Abiquiú are using science to verify what they already know – many of them are descended from American Indians.

Local library director Isabel Trujillo recently received a grant to collect and test the DNA of 20 people from the area to learn about their ancestors, many of whom were believed to have been Native American slaves. According to test results, 18 of the 20 people (10 men and 10 women) tested in Abiquiú had Native American DNA. Almost all were from their mother’s lineage but some also found it with their father’s line.

A young Navajo woman, Maria Rita Cordova, was brought into the Cordova household in 1860 when she was 8 years old. The 1920 Abiquiú census listed her and her daughter as servants in the Cordova household. (Courtesy of G. Benito Cordova And Family)

Trujillo has worked at the Pueblo de Abiquiú Library and Cultural Center for more than two decades. In her time there, she said, numerous residents have approached her inquiring about their American Indian ancestry. Most families have passed down tales of slave ancestors from generation to generation but she wanted to put science behind the stories.

“They did know a lot of times that grandma spoke a native language,” she said. “Or that grandma was a captive brought to the area. I wanted to start exploring that indigenous connection and where it was lost and why.”

Trujillo said the participants volunteered and the only requirement was that both their parents were born in the Abiquiú area. The project is umbrellaed under the New Mexico Genealogical Society’s statewide DNA project, which is being managed by Miguel Tórrez. Abiquiú, he said, has been home to both Native American and Spanish people. He added that the Abiquiú area was the farthest northern defensive point for the Spanish during the 1700s and later a trade center.

It was the practice of the Spanish during that time to take American Indian women and children from their tribes and bring them to the established Spanish villages and settlements where they would live in captivity as slaves and servants. They were given the surnames of their captors and baptized as Christians. This group of displaced Indians became known as a class of people called genízaros.

The captured women sometimes produced children with the Spanish, expanding the genízaro class and becoming the ancestors of modern-day New Mexicans. Around the turn of the 20th century, Tórrez said, New Mexicans, including those in Abiquiú, were pressured to suppress their American Indian roots.

“They were encouraged to do that to appear more European,” he said. “To fit more into society.”

The project included not only DNA background, but the Genealogical Society provided genealogy charts for each participant. In addition, Moises Gonzales, a University of New Mexico associate professor of community and regional planning with the School of Architecture and Planning, conducted interviews to record their oral history.

Gonzales is from the Carnuel area east of Albuquerque and considers himself a genízaro. He recently co-edited the book “Genízaro Nation” with fellow UNM professor Enrique Lamadrid. He is also the co-curator of the Genízaro Identity and Continuance exhibit that is on display at the Gutierrez-Hubbell House through May.

Today’s genízaros identify with more than just a genetic link with their ancestors, he said.

“These are folks where their cultural expressions is through ritual and custom,” he said. “What I think is important is that DNA does not define who people are culturally.”

Meanwhile, Tórrez said the results of the DNA tests were no surprise to participants.

“They don’t need genealogy or DNA to tell them who they are,” he said. “We wanted to see if the DNA supports the oral history. All three, DNA, genealogy and oral history, are aligned and supported each other.”

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