This Native American History Month I propose we celebrate Isobel de Olvera, a Native American who also had African ancestors. She was a single, free woman of color who lived in the last years of the 16th century and early years of the 17th century and comes to us through her own words.
Olvera’s date of birth and when she died remains buried in the sands of time, but on January 8, 1600 she was about to leave Mexico City for New Mexico with the Juan Guerra de Resa expedition when she recorded her historic statement. She made a formal deposition that day before the alcalde [mayor] of Queretaro which she intends to carry with her “to protect my rights.” She identifies herself as a person of Native American and African descent who has reason to be concerned about her safety. Her affidavit, it should be noted, was recorded 19 years before the first 20 Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619.
I am going on the expedition to New Mexico and have some reason to fear that I may be annoyed by some individual since I am a mulatto, and it is proper to protect my rights in such an eventuality by an affidavit showing that I am a free women, unmarried and the legitimate daughter of Hernando, a negro, and an Indian named Magdalena . . . . I therefore request your grace to accept this affidavit, which shown that I am free and not bound by marriage or slavery. I request that a properly certified and signed copy be given to me in order to protect my rights, and that it carry full legal authority. I demand justice.
Olvera’s bold affirmation stands as the first protest and demand by an American who was Native American, a woman, and an African.
[Olvera’s words and story currently appears in the 2012 edition of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. It was printed in Quintard Taylor’s In Search of the Racial Frontier and first appeared in George B. Hammond and Agapito Rey, eds., Don Juan de Onate: Colonizer of New Mexico, 1595-1628 (University of New Mexico Press, 1953) 560-562]