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Mexico's Indigenous Communities

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A rich and detailed account of indigenous history in central and southern Mexico from the sixteenth to the twenty-first centuries, Mexico's Indigenous Communities is an expansive work that destroys the notion that Indians were victims of forces beyond their control and today have little connection with their ancient past. Indian communities continue to remember and tell their own local histories, recovering and rewriting versions of their past in light of their lived present. Ethelia Ruiz Medrano focuses on a series of individual cases, falling within successive historical epochs, that illustrate how the practice of drawing up and preserving historical documents-in particular, maps, oral accounts, and painted manuscripts-has been a determining factor in the history of Mexico's Indian communities for a variety of purposes, including the significant issue of land and its rightful ownership. Since the sixteenth century, numerous Indian pueblos have presented colonial and national courts with historical evidence that defends their landholdings. Because of its sweeping scope, groundbreaking research, and the author's intimate knowledge of specific communities, Mexico's Indigenous Communities is a unique and exceptional contribution to Mexican history. It will appeal to students and specialists of history, indigenous studies, ethnohistory, and anthropology of Latin America and Mexico

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1 Historical Background

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A few years after the conquest of Mexico, a Spanish judge, Don Alonso de Zuazo, heard and pronounced judgment in a dispute concerning matters of land that arose among members of the native nobility. The conflict was apparently serious enough that it not only dragged on for some time but also resulted in the deaths of antagonists on both sides. In the course of the dispute, the Indian nobles presented several codices to the judge (“paintings” was the term used during the colonial period to describe these manuscripts). After he had examined the codices, the judge noted in laudatory fashion that the numerous details and fine points they contained allowed them to be treated like any other comprehensible and admissible legal document: “they provide evidence as much as any other writings provide it.” The parties involved in the litigation took a different line, however, maintaining that the codices neither reflected their problem nor offered a possible solution. Consequently, the judge ordered that the tlacuilo (the person who painted the manuscripts, also indigenous scribe), whom he referred to as “amantecas” (artisan), repaint the codex, but this remedy failed to placate the Indian litigants. The judge then decided to bring in an enormous dog (lebrel) he had previously let loose on more than 200 criminals and Indians convicted of idolatry. The dog had been fattened on human flesh. With the terrifying sight of the ferocious animal as a backdrop, the judge informed the Indians that if they did not “paint the truth denoting the markers and boundaries of that controversy,” the dog would be unleashed to kill them. Instantly, as if by magic, the artist painted a manuscript that was “altogether certain, and the parties approved it.” The legal dispute was thus fully resolved, and the litigants on both sides emerged satisfied. Indeed, so content were they with the Spanish magistrate’s clear judgment that the Indians decided to convert to Christianity.1

 

2 Indigenous Negotiation to Preserve Land, History, Titles, and Maps

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Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the colonial justice system witnessed the Europeanization of such basic institutions of Mesoamerican indigenous society as the family, marriage, and access to property. This transformation took place with greatest effect within the Indian population of Mexico City and nearby areas.1 While European influence predominated in the colony, many cases were still argued during this period in which the Indian pueblos’ use of traditional customs and practices in the defense of their lands continued to play an important role.

Although the General Indian Court continued to function during this period, many Indian claims were heard in the first instance in regional tribunals and only received consideration by the Audiencia of Mexico City if they were not resolved at the lower level. This situation was especially true with regard to litigation over land involving Indian pueblos. In 1722 the Spanish Crown issued a decree formalizing the establishment of a new judicial institution, the Tribunal de la Acordada. This was the colony’s sole tribunal with unlimited territorial jurisdiction, and it answered only to the viceroy. Although the tribunal’s jurisdiction was originally confined to rural areas, Mexico City and other urban centers were brought under it in 1756, thus empowering its judges and agents to operate anywhere in New Spain. The court heard cases involving criminal prosecutions.2

 

3 Indigenous Negotiation to Preserve Land, History, Titles, and Maps

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As the eighteenth century drew to a close, New Spain’s Indian communities faced continuing challenges and threats. A new set of issues made their relationship with the colonial authority even more complex. Two factors in particular—an increase in the native population and a pronounced effort among Spaniards and creoles to develop commercial agriculture—intensified the pressure on Indian lands.1 Furthermore, as a consequence of the Bourbon reforms introduced in the 1760s, the Indian pueblos were compelled to rationalize their financial affairs. Although they tried to do so by renting their unoccupied or “surplus” lands, the new policy ultimately benefited rural estate owners, miners, and merchants rather than the indigenous communities.2

The native population was also affected by the creation in 1786 of a new political-administrative unit, the intendancy, under whose authority the indigenous communities were placed. Intendancy officials became personally involved in regulating the pueblos’ financial business, which in turn led to greater involvement by Spanish authorities in the affairs of indigenous government3 and Indian authorities’ loss of some of their local political strength.4

 

4 Defending Land

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As we have seen repeatedly, the primacy of land for the Indian pueblos and its interweaving with ancient documents, primordial titles, and local history form part of a complex process of negotiation the pueblos undertook in the face of state power as a way of defending their lands. Such negotiation implies that the Indians understood the official legal landscape, enabling them to interpret from their own cultural vantage point documents, programmatic statements, and agrarian legislation emanating from the state. In this process, moreover, the legalization of land claims, the stamp of official certification, and the primordial titles themselves constitute a kind of contemporary mythology elaborated by the pueblos.1 The Indians’ ability to incorporate—sometimes successfully—elements of their native culture into the most adverse legal contexts stems from their capacity for negotiation, which, in turn, is a function of their ideological flexibility.

The case of Ixcamilpa, a pueblo located in the state of Puebla, is instructive in this regard. In 1912, members of the pueblo went before the revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata to request the restitution of their lands, which they asserted had been wrested from them long ago by local hacendados. In support of their claim, they produced the pueblo’s colonial-era primordial titles. On this basis and within the framework of the Plan of Ayala, they achieved their objective. On April 30, 1912, Zapata granted the pueblo its lands through a specific decree of restitution. Nonetheless, six decades later many of the pueblo’s campesinos still found themselves without land. Around 1976 they decided to band together and litigate their case in Mexico City, citing the lands affected by the “restitution” and—as documentary evidence—using the decree Zapata had issued in their favor in 1912. The Indians also directly confronted and fought against the local landlords, who reacted with force by having them jailed, using the judicial police and army to pursue and capture them. Undeterred, the Indian campesinos—in keeping with the substance of the 1912 decision—persevered and began to achieve the distribution of the lands that had been controlled by the hacendados, or “the rich,” as the Indians liked to call them.2

 

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