On April 5, 1723, Juan Joseph de Porras, a mulatto slave laboring in an obraje de paños (woolen textile mill) near Mexico City, appeared before the Holy Office of the Inquisition for blasphemy. According to the testimony of six slaves, including Porras’ wife, while his co-workers prepared to bed down for the night in the obraje Porras had blasphemed over a beating he had received from the mayordomo (overseer) earlier in the day. Señor Pedregal, the owner of the obraje, testified that Porras was one of nearly thirty workers, all Afro-Mexican slaves or convicts, who lived and labored in his obraje without the freedom to leave.
The case against Juan Joseph de Porras and dozens of others like it in the Mexican archives raise important questions, not only about the makeup of the colonial obraje labor force, but also about the importance of Afro-Mexican slavery in the middle of the colonial period. Was the Pedregal labor force, composed entirely of slaves and convicts, the exception or the rule within obrajes of New Spain? If it was not exceptional, how important were slaves to that obraje and others like it? What exactly was the demographic makeup of the obraje labor force in the middle of the colonial period? And, how might the answers to those questions change our understanding of the histories of labor and slavery in colonial Mexico?