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
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.
On August 13, 1521, the Spanish conquistadors and their native allies seized Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. The Spaniards succeeded because they had forged alliances with the Tlaxcalans and other indigenous self-governing communities (altepetl) to fight the Aztecs. After the conquest these communities continued their traditions, and the Spaniards largely replaced Aztec leadership with their own. In addition, the friars and the secular church converted the natives to an extent, and together with the crown they foiled the conquistadors’ attempts to become liege lords with jurisdiction. The process culminated in the New Laws of 1542, which curbed the encomienda, a grant to Spaniards that comprised several Indian towns paying tribute. A society of social bodies evolved, composed of municipal councils, lay brotherhoods of churches, and others, complete with their own laws and jurisdictions. Then a series of silver strikes beginning at Zacatecas in 1546 drew settlers into the Bajío north of the former Aztec and Tarascan empires. The local natives resisted initially, and when peace came, they and the settlers created a dynamic early capitalist economy that invigorated other regions. The frontier expanded when animal herds moved further north beyond the mines, and the zone of Spanish influence grew to the south as well.
In 1540 Spanish conquistadors and their indigenous allies began occupying the northwestern Yucatan Peninsula, and they took Tiho/Mérida in 1542. The Yucatan, the Bajío, and the other regions that composed colonial Mexico successively integrated into a global commercial network spanning Europe, Africa, and Asia. The crown and the merchant guild (consulado) in Seville sought to capture the burgeoning Atlantic commerce within the fleet shuttling between Seville/Cadiz and Veracruz and restrict the silver flowing from Acapulco to Asia via the Philippines. Yet market forces defied most of the rules they put in place. Merchants from Asia settled in Manila; Peruvians docked in Acapulco; and the Dutch, French, and English competed with fleet merchants or operated contraband trade from the Caribbean islands to New Spain. In the 18th century, the crown loosened trade regulations within the empire and continue curbing the autonomies of social bodies. A series of investigations (visitas) shook New Spain, and more compliant viceroys and officials appeared, while the friars lost over one hundred parishes (doctrinas) during the mid-century. The king expelled the Jesuits in 1767; registered ships sailing individually replaced the fleet in 1778; and in 1786 José de Gálvez introduced the intendants in New Spain. As the empire transitioned toward a territorial state, Napoleon imprisoned the Spanish king (1808). In 1810 Miguel Hidalgo and a popular following unleashed the War of Independence. As the conflict unfolded, the legitimacy of the old order crumbled, and the empire dissolved in 1821.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.
The Spanish crown claimed to wield sovereignty over Mexico’s vast geographic territory from around 1521 to 1810, though many regions remained beyond Spanish influence. As part of Spain’s ongoing effort to exert political and economic control, royal representatives (such as secular and ecclesiastical bureaucrats and military personnel) attempted to create and maintain a stratified social order. Colonial society was meant to resemble a kind of pyramid, with Indians (the legal name for indigenous vassals) and foreign slaves at the bottom and a small group of colonists and their descendants at the top. To preserve this social organization, secular and ecclesiastical law distinguished between people based on their ancestry or purity of blood (related to religion, ethnicity, and race), sex, and legal standing as either free vassals or human chattel. Spanish men of old Christian blood had the most rights and privileges, and slaves the fewest. This framework existed in the secular and ecclesiastical courts and in the highest corridors of Spanish political power, especially in Mexico City and other urban centers like Puebla and Guadalajara.
The reality of social relations on the ground, however, bore little semblance to the archetype. Mexico had an extraordinarily diverse population, including indigenous peoples of different ethnicities (in the majority), Iberians, and forced migrants from Africa and Asia, who mixed and interacted with one another in complex ways. People followed innumerable life trajectories and faced diverse challenges, most of which had little to do with the constraints of the colonial governing system. To think that Spanish social constructs, such as the caste system depicted in eighteen-century paintings, shaped the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people who lived in Mexico during three centuries of colonial rule is to overlook historical contingency and to exaggerate Spain’s imperial perspective. This article illustrates the paths taken by individual men and women—some merely to survive and others to achieve great social standing—in an overall effort to see beyond the categories used in colonial documents and understand Mexico’s social organization from people’s actual experiences.