NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Every culture has its version of witches or a belief in witches. In New Mexico, European ideas about witches blend with traditions from Mexican, Spanish, and Native cultures. So, where do New Mexico’s beliefs about witches start?
State Historian of New Mexico, Rob Martinez, said in medieval times, Catholic beliefs in Spain were being blended with demonology, superstition, and folklore, as well as similar stories of witches from Jewish and Muslim populations in Spain. These beliefs in witches would further be combined once they got to the Americas, with Mexican, Puebloan, Apache, Diné, Comanche, and other Native groups. “..And it’s all simmering through the centuries, so you get these ideas of evil being conducted and the idea that the church, and men of the church, need to eradicate and expel the evils,” said Martinez.
According to Martinez, religion plays a significant role in forming the identity of what a witch is. “Especially in our culture, the role of the church, and specifically Roman Catholicism in a place like New Mexico, is very strong,” said Martinez. “Witches weren’t just about scary stories or scary images, they were [a] reality for our ancestors in Spain and in Mexico and New Mexico in the colonial period.”
Some of those groups deemed “evil” by the Catholics, according to Martinez, were certain Native religions and individuals, mostly women. “They also tended to be from the lower classes and mixed blood. People who were Black, or Native American, or mixed with those races and the lighter-skinned white races,” said Martinez. “So they get blamed for the indiscretions of the people who are more European, and so ‘witchcraft’ and the idea of evil being involved – the devil and demons – is invoked quite a bit through history here in New Mexico.”
Martinez said those accused of witchcraft claimed some power and influence of their own. “They were, in a sense, fighting back against the ruling Spanish colonial political systems; the religious systems. So that was their way of saying, ‘we’re here, and we’re not going to just be oppressed or told what to do,'” said Martinez.
One of the first documented cases of a woman being accused of witchcraft in New Mexico was back in 1607 in San Gabriel with the case of Maria de Zamora. She was an Indigenous person from Mexico who was married to a colonist by the name of Bartolome de Montoya of Spain. Zamora was accused of using witchcraft to kill her daughter’s husband. According to a research paper from UC Berkeley, Zamora’s daughter, Lucia, would confess during the trial that her mother gave her powders to give to Lucia’s husband in the hopes of killing him.
Martinez said the biggest outbreak of witchcraft in New Mexico happened in Abiquiu in the 1760s involving the servant, slave, and warrior class of Native Americans, the Genizaros. “Obviously, they were a blend of different communities. They were kind of ‘Hispanisized’ and kind of Christianized, but not really and they were on the margin of society so they were perfect for this sort of situation,” said Martinez.
With the introduction of Enlightenment ideas coming to New Mexico, beliefs in witchcraft were pushed out of focus but didn’t completely go away. “This move starts in the 1800s, and when you start to get liberal constitutions in Spain around 1812, and later Mexico gets her independence, there are these movements away from witchcraft beliefs… and embracing science and modern political ideas,” said Martinez.
He said it’s important to respect what our ancestors believed and how it shaped their world and lives regarding New Mexico’s stories on witchcraft. “The real things that happened, the imagined things that happened,” said Martinez. “People often ask me do I believe in that, and I say, ‘I believe like my ancestors did out of respect because they believed it, and who am I to say that what they saw or what they thought they saw or the world that they lived in isn’t as real as the world I live in?'”