The Conquest of Mexico is typically explained in terms of European military superiority, and although this offered an advantage to the forces arrayed against the Aztecs, it was merely part of a broader picture required to understand their downfall. Indigenous political circumstances played the key role in the Conquest, which can best be understood as an Indian victory over other Indians. The Spaniards represented less a conquering force, with which other native groups opportunistically allied, than an opportunity for groups opposed to the Aztecs to employ the relatively minor Spanish forces to multiply their own superior military strength. The Spaniards recognized their own pivotal role and shifted much of the timing of the conquest to sustain it. Other circumstances of the Spanish arrival, including the massive population loss from the accompanying smallpox, did play a role, but one that was primarily understood and used against the Aztecs by the allied Indians. So ultimately, the Conquest can be best understood as an Indian victory over other Indians, but with the Spaniards manipulating the outcome to ultimately win the peace.
Michele McArdle Stephens
The Caste Wars of the Yucatán tore apart the peninsula between 1847 and 1901. While the violence was not constant throughout the more than five decades between the start and conclusion of the war itself, the threat of rebel hostilities was ever present. Scholars have debated the origins of the war for many decades, with most recent academic treatments focusing on heavy tax burdens, poor working conditions for Yucatán’s peasantry, and the loss of land that occurred during the second half of the century. Tensions between political leaders exacerbated relations with the Mayas in particular and the peasantry more generally. The emergence of the breakaway state of Chan Santa Cruz, in the southeastern part of Yucatán, allowed rebel forces to coalesce between 1850 and the early 1870s. Here, a “Speaking Cross” oracle gave direction to the rebellious Mayas, who crushed their enemies and exacted revenge against those who would not support their cause. The emergence of Porfirio Díaz as President of Mexico in 1876 led to a gradual “reconquest” of the areas held by the cruzob, or “people of the Cross.” By 1901, the Mexican military ended the Caste Wars, though violent episodes still marred Yucatán until the early 1930s.
From a geographically, environmentally, linguistically, and ethnically highly variable Mesoamerica, Spain created a core region within her American territories. But for New Spain’s indigenous inhabitants (Mexica or Nahua, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Maya), despite experiencing demographic catastrophe, political and religious subjugation, and labor exploitation during and after conquest, native cultural patterns and agency influenced the reshaping of governance and community (the latter into pueblos de indios), economy, and spiritual and social life during the period of colonial rule. Because environments, indigenous languages, patterns of political, economic, and spiritual organization, ways of structuring family life, varieties of cultural expression, and forms of interrelationships with Spaniards varied so much, indigenous people did not experience a single New Spain. Instead, a multiplicity of New Spains emerged. These indigenous New Spains would play different roles during the independence period, which led to a protracted struggle, further impoverishment, and growing isolation in the new nations of Mesoamerica but cultural survival as well.
Matthew Butler and David A. Bliss
The Hijuelas project is a multi-domain international collaboration that makes available in digital form a large and valuable source on nineteenth-century indigenous history––the so-called libros de hijuelas or deed books recording the statewide privatization of indigenous lands in Michoacán, Mexico. These deed books, 194 in total, have been digitized and described over a two-year period by a team of History students from Michoacán’s state university, the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás Hidalgo (UMSNH), trained by and working under the supervision of archivists of the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies-Benson Latin American Collection of (LLILAS Benson) of the University of Texas at Austin. Additional logistical support has been provided by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS) as a partner institution in Mexico of the University of Texas at Austin and by the state government of Michoacán via the Archivo General e Histórico del Poder Ejecutivo de Michoacán (AGHPEM), which is custodian of the hijuelas books. The project was generously funded by the British Library through its Endangered Archives Programme (EAP 931, “Conserving Indigenous Memories of Land Privatization in Mexico: Michoacán’s Libros de Hijuelas, 1719–1929”).
The project seeks to be innovative in two ways. As a post-custodial archiving project, first and foremost, it uses digital methods to make easily accessible to historians, anthropologists, and indigenous communities the only consolidated state-level record of the land privatizations (reparto de tierras) affecting Mexican indigenous communities in the 19th century. It therefore projects digitally a key source for historians and one that possesses clear identitarian and agrarian importance for indigenous communities. It also makes widely available a source that is becoming physically unstable and inaccessible because of the difficult public security conditions affecting Michoacán. As a collaboration involving diverse institutional actors, furthermore, the project brings together institutions from three different countries and is an example of what may be achieved through equitable international collaborations.
Digital Resources: Power of Attorney, A Digital Spatial History of Indigenous Legal Culture in Colonial Oaxaca, Mexico
“Power of Attorney in Oaxaca, Mexico: Native People, Legal Culture, and Social Networks” is an ongoing digital research project that constructs a geography of indigenous legal culture through digital maps and visualizations. The
“Power of Attorney in Oaxaca, Mexico: Native People, Legal Culture, and Social Networks” is an ongoing digital research project that constructs a geography of indigenous legal culture through digital maps and visualizations. The Power of Attorney (
The multiscalar narrative of the Power of Attorney project speaks to multiple audiences, and the digital multimedia format allows visitors to further tailor their interactions with information. The site operates on many levels. It provides maps and visualizations based on original research, data culled from primary sources that can be used as a research tool, historical and geographical background information, information about how to read letters of attorney, and microhistorical narratives of power of attorney relationships. For undergraduates learning about the relationship between Spanish administration and pueblos de indios, the maps and visualizations provide an at-a-glance overview of the spatial and social connections among Indian towns, ecclesiastical and viceregal courts, and the court of the king in Madrid from the perspective of an indigenous region rather than a top-down perspective. Graduate students and scholars interested in the production of notarial records in native jurisdictions, social history and ethnohistorical methodology and the relationship between local and transatlantic processes can explore the maps, visualizations, and data in greater detail. An educated general audience interested in the history of Oaxaca’s native peoples can find a general introduction to the region, its history and geography, and the long-standing relationship between Mexico’s native people and the law.
In the late 19th century, Mexico’s ancient ruins captivated much of the world. European and American explorers trekked through what was often touted as an “American Egypt” in search of pre-Columbian artifacts to display in private collections and museums. Mexicans similarly hunted after the remains of the Indian past, as their country witnessed a heightened interest in the excavation and exhibition of ancient artifacts during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, the period commonly known as the Porfiriato (1876–1910). The Díaz regime embraced the indigenous past in order to present Mexico as a nation with ancient and prestigious roots. It took control of pre-Hispanic relics and ruins through archaeology, a discipline that was thought to give Mexico the coveted aura of a scientific, cosmopolitan, and modern nation. The Díaz regime gave unprecedented support to the National Museum in Mexico City, the nation’s most important institution for the study and display of Indian antiquity. Museum scholars such as Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, Alfredo Chavero, and Antonio Peñafiel, worked on building and organizing the archaeology collection as the government intensified the process of accumulating artifacts in the capital. One of the central figures in this process was Leopoldo Batres, the head of the General Inspectorate of Archaeological Monuments of the Republic. Batres brought antiquities to the museum, helped organize the archaeology collection, and built the Gallery of Monoliths, the nation’s premier showcase of pre-Columbian relics. He also carried out excavations at ruins throughout the country and reconstructed several archaeological sites, including Xochicalco and Mitla. His most famous (and most controversial) work took place at Teotihuacán, where he rebuilt the Pyramid of the Sun, turning Teotihuacán into the nation’s first official archaeological site, a project made to coincide with the centennial celebration of Mexican independence in 1910.
The epistemic assumptions, methods, and rhetoric employed by colonial indigenous intellectuals in Latin America were based on preconquest intellectual labor and literacy systems. These practices were deeply impacted by collaborative projects and historical scholarship undertaken in the 16th century, as indigenous elites embraced European literacy and scholarly models. This merging of diverse traditions led to a “golden age” of indigenous intellectual achievements in the 17th century, and to a diversity of genres cultivated by native scholars in late colonial times. Indigenous historical actors were intellectuals not only because they recorded and disseminated historical, religious, or political knowledge, but also because they were inserted in culturally hybrid social networks through which collective knowledge circulated. While the works of Chimalpahin, Guaman Poma, Garcilaso de la Vega, and don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl are relatively well known, this small sample of native and mestizo intellectuals must be expanded considerably to examine works produced through co-authorship arrangements with friars and priests, and to address clandestine works composed exclusively for native audiences by less known, or even anonymous, indigenous scholars.
María L. O. Muñoz
The political history of indigenous peoples in Mexico during the 20th century is complex, particularly because it intersects with changing local, state, and federal government projects aimed at exclusion, inclusion, assimilation, integration, homogenization, and multiculturalism. Focusing only on such government initiatives, however, muddies the analytical waters, as doing so tends to silence forms of resistance, accommodation, reaction, adaptation, and the agency of first peoples and communities. Oftentimes this approach assumes a complacent population at the mercy of a predatory state or a subject people in the care of a paternalistic state. In recognition of the danger of accepting state-driven indigenismo projects as the defining criteria of native people’s histories during the 20th century, this article parallels glimpses of state-driven indigenismos with indigenous forms of regional and national organization in defense of individual and collective interests, as expressed in works that have emerged over the last twenty-five years. By no means are the themes covered in this article indicative of the breadth of the concerns, ideas or political, social, and economic interests of native peoples. Rather, its intent is to juxtapose histories of indigenismos and indígena mobilizations and organization after 1940 to illustrate how the government attempted to shape its “revolutionary” vision after 1920 and the ways in which indigenous communities themselves also engaged, or did not, in this process for a number of reasons, collective and individual.
As Mexico’s minister of public education from 1921 to 1924, José Vasconcelos played a prominent role in efforts to create a new national identity expressing the 1910 Revolution’s goals of an inclusive society and equitable nation, opportunities created through education, and shared cultural expressions. Vasconcelos has been widely praised for his educational campaigns, especially in the countryside, among indigenous communities, and for his literacy programs in the city. According to these recent interpretations, his efforts as minister of public education have been both over- and underestimated. Nevertheless, the revolutionary national identity that he helped to foster with his discussion of mestizaje in La Raza Cósmica (The Cosmic Race; 1925) has since been ingrained into everyday life and culture.
Natasha S. Varner
The India Bonita Pageant of 1921 marked a critical moment in Mexico’s revolutionary identity formation. This serialized pageant hosted by the Mexico City newspaper, El Universal, also played a major role in the formulation of indigenous “authenticity,” as defined by race, material culture, gender, and sexuality. The aims of the pageant were at least superficially focused on celebrating indigenous peoples, but it ultimately narrowed popular understandings of what it meant to be indigenous through its focus on select visual markers of indigeneity. It thereby discursively erased portions of the indigenous population that did not conform to these parameters. The pageant also played into broader efforts to solve the so-called Indian Problem by situating ideal indigeneity in the rural past, favoring Aztec heritage over other indigenous identities, and positioning Mestizos as the race of the future. Ultimately, this attempt at indigenous inclusion was part of broader revolutionary identity projects that sought to isolate and erase one problematic part of the population under the guise of celebrating it.
The Spaniards had little idea of what to expect when they set foot in North America. Mexico, as the region is known today, was in the 16th century a vast territory with a grand history. Inhabited by diverse peoples for millennia, great civilizations had risen and then fallen, only to be supplanted by others.
The term “Mesoamerican” aptly describes the majority of peoples who lived in or near Mexico, for they shared many culture traits that depended not only on local resources but also on their ingenuity in exploiting all that was available. Food, technology, ball courts, monumental architecture, calendars, and record keeping are practices that characterize Mesoamerica. And in most instances, trade, whether local or long distance or by foot or canoe, served to join different groups across the land through an exchange of commodities, ideas, and the people themselves. Best known, and it might be said the first among many, are the Maya and the Aztecs.
The Departamento de Bellas Artes (DBA; Department of Fine Arts) was founded as one of the departments of the Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP). It had a Music Section, which centered its activities on teaching music, at all levels in the entire country, with socialist ideology and under the firm belief that the fine arts should be part of the education of the people. To do so, it defined a repertoire of songs and their arrangements that was coherent and had a nationalistic discourse. The selection of songs was taken from diverse sources, some of which were the result of bibliographic research, mostly done in the DBA, but the important groups of melodies and songs that were sung in schools and adult choruses came from the National Music Archive, which was created to be the foundation and massive sample compilation of Mexican music. The composers and researchers at the time had little or no idea what the characteristics of indigenous music was; and to create nationalistic music and national dances, they needed references of what was Mexican, what was traditional. The archive was a massive and ambitious project, and the DBA was a national institute with the authority to write to all the governors in the country asking for references of folk music, local fiestas, and traditional dances, of which composers and researchers knew very little. Composers and musicians participated in sending in samples of scores or lyrics, then institutional programs were designed for rural teachers to compile music in distant regions and towns. Much of the material that was sent in was well known songs, popular ranchera music, and the indigenous music that was expected to create teaching and nationalist programs required so further research. Much of the music used in the educational programs derived from contributions made by rural teachers, and the indigenous music was compiled by few specialists who travelled only with their ears, pencils, and paper and returned with a rough selection of melodies that outlined the indigenous music of Mexico. Other sources of reference, music scores and dance descriptions, came from official events and dance contests held by the DBA in Michoacan, Hidalgo, Estado de México, and Mexico City.
Pulque, the alcoholic beverage of pre-Columbian highland Mesoamerica is the fermented derivative of aguamiel, the juice or sap of the agave known as agave pulquero—principally Agave salmiana. Aguamiel is a sweet, somewhat heavy juice that collects in a scraped out basin in the heart of the agave pulquero and, unless refrigerated, rapidly ferments into the alcoholic pulque. The agents of fermentation are ambient and plant-colonizing bacteria and yeasts. Fresh pulque is a frothy, cloudy brew with a slightly sour taste, usually containing around 2 percent alcohol or somewhat higher, meaning it can be drunk in large quantities without intoxicating the imbiber. Although it is a nutritious drink, consumption was condemned by Spaniards in varying degrees during the Colonial Period. Its popularity in contemporary southern Mexico is increasing after more than a century of persecution and public disparagement. Pulque figures prominently in pre- and post-Columbian Mesoamerican history.
Production of tequila and mezcal is completely different from production of pulque. The former are distilled from the pressed juice (tepache) of macerated and roasted hearts of certain agaves. The juice is fermented in vats for several days, then heated in a still, evaporated, and condensed. Tequila, by law is made from A. tequilana, and mezcal by custom is made primarily from A. angustifolia. Both these distillates contain about 40 percent alcohol. Pulque is a naturally occurring product consumed by native peoples for at least two millennia. Tequila and mezcal are industrial products derived from processes introduced into the Americas by Europeans.
Rediscovering the Aztecs and Mayas: Field Exploration, Archaeological Exhibits, and National Museums
Kevin M. Gosner
In the last decades of the 18th century, with the visit in 1784 of José Antonio Calderón to the Maya ruins at Palenque and the discovery in 1790 of the statue of Coatlicue and the Stone of the Sun in the central plaza of Mexico City, the study of ancient Mexico entered a new era. In the century that followed, teams of field surveyors, mapmakers, graphic artists, and artifact collectors worked across central and southern Mexico as well as in Guatemala. Some were commissioned by the Spanish Crown or later by national governments; many arrived from England, France, Germany, and eventually the United States. Early on they worked side by side with geologists, geographers, and field biologists as part of natural history expeditions, accumulating collections of artifacts that would be displayed in curiosity cabinets and early museums alongside trays of colorful butterflies and stuffed tropical birds. And then, as foreign travel books won popular audiences in Europe and the United States, and as international investors arrived in Mexico and Central America, archaeology also was taken up by enthusiastic amateurs looking to sell books, build private collections, or organize international trade fairs.
For serious students of ancient history, field exploration and advances in archaeological record-keeping transformed a body of research and scientific speculation that since the 16th century had been dominated by theologians, historians, and philologists, who studied Spanish chronicles and native language annals but paid scant attention to the remnants of material culture. In the process, Aztecs and Maya were rediscovered as historical subjects, their histories disconnected from that of contemporary Indian peasants and recast as rivals to the great civilizations of the Old World. Ruins of monumental architecture, recovered artifacts in sculptured stone or finely crafted metals, and ancient texts inscribed on wooden lintels and bark cloth were reclaimed as part of national patrimonies to be protected by new state agencies and displayed in modern museums. On January 20, 1911, the International School for American Archaeology and Ethnology formally opened in Mexico City, and this formative period in the archaeological study of ancient peoples ended. Manuel Gamio introduced the study of stratigraphy to fieldwork practices in Mexico and the discipline was transformed once again.
When the anthropologist Paul Kirchhoff proposed a new definition of Mesoamerica in a landmark study from 1943, the first common characteristics he identified were technological and agricultural: the use of the digging-stick (coa) and “the construction of gardens by reclaiming land from lakes (chinampas).” For thousands of years, Native peoples across Mesoamerica drew on their technological innovations to devise bountiful kinds of farming that have been as diverse as the environments in which they were created. All of their farming systems required some degree of intervention in nature, be it through domesticating plants, tilling the soil, or altering the physical environment by making terraces and harnessing water supplies. On an essential level, then, technology and agriculture went hand in hand. Of the many kinds of Mesoamerican farming, the one that arguably modified the environment the most was a distinctive kind of wetland agriculture in which Nahuas—or Aztecs, the speakers of the Nahuatl language—constructed raised garden beds, known as chinampas, in the shallow, freshwater lakes of the Basin of Mexico.
At the heart of this zone of wetland agriculture was the ancient city of Xochimilco. There the raised gardens filled the surrounding lake of the same name, and eventually came to cover a vast area of some 120 square kilometers. The construction and the intensive cultivation of the chinampas required a considerable investment of time and effort, a good deal of technical expertise, and the mastery of specialist skills and knowledge, including hydrology and engineering so as to manage water levels in the lakes through complex irrigation works. The intensive farming of the fertile, well-irrigated gardens, which could be cultivated year round, yielded sizable harvests of maize and other crops. So productive was chinampa agriculture that scholars have considered it one of the most abundant kinds of farming ever devised. As a technological innovation and environmental adaptation, the chinampas were crucial to changes in Mexican history: they generated surpluses sufficient for urbanization and the rise of Tenochtitlan, one of the early modern world’s great cities, as well as the expansion of the Aztec Empire. The chinampas remained important for the provisioning of the capital long after the Spanish conquest, and in spite of the desiccation of the Basin of Mexico, they are still cultivated in a few places today.
Gillian E. Newell
Every year, in the days just prior to Catholic Ash Wednesday, the indigenous Zoque peoples of northwestern Chiapas, Mexico, celebrate “carnival.” In doing so, they affirm their ethnic identity, take pride in a native vision of the cosmos, and retrace their real and fictive modern and ancient family lineages. Zoque carnival is an “encounter,” or meké in Zoque language, which entails more than the word at first glance would imply. Scholars, however, have analyzed carnivals, be they state-promoted or not, as inversions, nationalistic celebrations, or representations of local, regional, and national history. They often argue that carnivals exist primarily to represent, celebrate, or be a logical result of cultural diversity. Why are the native Zoque carnivals of northwestern Chiapas different? What are these Zoque carnivals? What do they represent to the Zoque people themselves and to non-Zoque people? Why are carnival studies from an “encountering” ethnographic standpoint interesting avenues to develop and pursue?