By William B. Taylor, author of Fugitive Freedom: The Improbable Lives of Two Impostors in Late Colonial Mexico
I didn’t plan to write Fugitive Freedom. This was partly because the project that preceded it seemed endless. But when I finally finished Theater of a Thousand Wonders: A History of Miraculous Images and Shrines in New Spain (2016), one of my long unanswered questions about early modern Spain and Mexico’s colonial history crept back in. What to make of the reported profusion of “vagabonds” and impostors, and the predicaments of strangers more generally in the story of how the Spanish empire in America was coming together and coming apart at the same time?
During my first year as an aspiring historian of Latin America in the 1960s, I purchased a copy of Norman Martin’s Los vagabundos en la Nueva Espana. Siglo XVI from a used bookseller on the storied Calle de Donceles in downtown Mexico City. It opened the subject for me, but since it was based on government decrees and regulations, it portrayed vagabondage only as an urgent problem from the point of view of viceroys and judges. It had little to say about the peripatetic rogues and rascals themselves. So, I went looking for them in Mexico’s national archive.
But even in the archives, I found these impostors were as elusive in historical record as in real life. Vagabundos and my questions about empire and disorder remained—in fact, my first publication centered on an eighteenth-century account of runaway slaves in a remote part of the tropical fringes of southern Veracruz and a later book took up village uprisings. Instead, I turned to more accessible subjects where I could dig deeper and hope to make a more definite contribution to understanding the tensions and accommodations in this long-lived imperial order over time—researching peasant communities, land systems, shrines and miraculous images, and priests in their parishes.
Then, in a fit of downsizing three years ago, I went through my old research notes and microfilms. Opening a box of Mexican Inquisition materials, I hoped to find something for two colleagues who were working on transcriptions and translations of Inquisition records for classroom use. Among the microfilms was part of a late eighteenth-century trial record for Joseph Aguayo, a picaresque thief, escape artist and serial impersonator of priests and colonial officials in central Mexico. I soon discovered that Aguayo also came before the Inquisition twice more and that the full Inquisition record of eyewitness testimony as well as Aguayo’s own words and reported activities could finally bring me close to the lifeways and circumstances of one of those vagabond ghosts. Juan Atondo, a second priest impostor whose life is also richly documented in an Inquisition trial record from the late colonial period, seemed much like Aguayo at first glance until I read the case file more closely.
This fortunate discovery at last enabled me to write my new book, Fugitive Freedom: The Improbable Lives of Two Impostors in Late Colonial Mexico.
In the book, the eventful lives and sentiments of these two dubious characters are set alongside each other and framed by the turbulent history of expansion and massive disruption and displacement in early modern Spain and Spanish America. What emerges is a revealing story of the empire, that merges with the picaresque literature of the time (with a nod to pícaros now), a prevailing cultural climate of original sin, deception, suspicion, and disenchantment, New Spain’s Inquisition in the eighteenth century, mental illness as it was understood then, and old and new meanings of freedom. So, my two restless sons of Proteus—that elusive, shape-shifting old man of the sea who gives up his knowledge grudgingly and never completely—were worth waiting for after all.