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.
Karen B. Graubart
Spanish legal organization required that political communities be represented by a concejo or cabildo, which used customary law to determine and enforce the common good. In the Spanish colonial world, this entailed vesting indigenous communities with jurisdiction and political representation, parallel to that of the municipal cabildo, which represented the common good of most Spanish citizens. Nevertheless, the supposed common good of indigenous and Spanish jurisdictions often intersected or contested one another. In these cases, agents of the Spanish Crown might intervene, or the parties might negotiate new relations. Because Andean cabildos were entreated not to keep minutes of their deliberations or actions, historians have had difficulty in recognizing the role of indigenous authorities in self-governance, and given more credence to the acts of Spanish cabildos and the Crown. But Indian cabildos and caciques took meaningful decisions within their communities, as demonstrated by moments where they came into conflict with Spanish authorities, and as inferred from a small number of documents available for the similar Mexican case.
Between 1472 and 1572, the conquests of Peru were many: by the Inca, who in the 15th century spread from their southern Andean heartland in Cusco to build an empire that stretched from what is now southern Colombia to northern Chile and Argentina; by the Spanish conquistadors under the leadership of Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro, who reached down from Panama in search of the rumored wealth of the kingdom of “Birú” and fatefully encountered the aspirant Inca emperor Atahualpa at Cajamarca in November of 1532; by the Spanish crown, which intervened after the revolt of Atahualpa’s brother Manco Inca in 1536 and the rebellion of the conquistadors in the 1540s; and by the Inca’s former subjects, the Spaniards’ Indian allies, and their mestizo sons, who ended independent Inca resistance by helping to capture Atahualpa’s nephew in the Vilcabamba valley in 1572. This essay sketches the century-long arc of those many conquests, which together yielded a historical entity not quite like any other in the early modern world, let alone Americas: a composite Spanish-Indian kingdom whose incredible wealth lay not just in the gold and silver that its mines and burials produced but in the network of subjects and laborers that drew both the Inca and their Habsburg successors on to further conquests than was wise.
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.
Susan Elizabeth Ramirez
The Inca (also Inka) Empire, called by the Andeans themselves “Tawantinsuyu,” referred to its four parts: the Chinchaysuyu, the Antisuyu, the Collasuyu, and the Cuntisuyu. Inter-disciplinary research pictures an assemblage of ethnic groups under a dynasty of rulers, believed to have supernatural origins. This multi-cultural state, overseen by a decimally-defined administrative system, was united by kinship ties; the worship of the sun, the moon and ethnic ancestors; negotiation; reciprocity; and force. At its height, it spread from Northwestern Argentina, through Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador, and included about half of Chile and the southern frontier of Colombia. Troubles began in the 1520s as a strange disease decimated the native population, claiming the emperor himself. Yet, the Inca’s jurisdiction continued to expand until circa 1532, the date when Francisco Pizarro and his followers and allies marched across the Andes and confronted the Andean emperor Atahualpa in the plaza of the highland ceremonial center of Cajamarca.
Indigenismo is a term that refers to a broad grouping of discourses—in politics, the social sciences, literature, and the arts—concerned with the status of “the Indian” in Latin American societies. The term derives from the word “indígena,” often the preferred term over “indio” because of the pejorative connotations that have accrued to the latter in some contexts, and is not to be confused with the English word “indigenism.” The origins of modern indigenismo date to the 16th century and to the humanist work of Bartolomé de las Casas, dubbed “Defender of the Indians” for his efforts to expose the violence committed against native populations by Spanish colonizers. Indeed indigenismo generally connotes a stance of defense of Indians against abuse by non-Indians, such as criollos and mestizos, and although this defense can take a variety of often-contradictory forms, it stems from a recognition that indigenous peoples in colonial and modern Latin America have suffered injustice. Another important precursor to modern indigenismo is 19th-century “Indianismo.” In the wake of Independence, creole elites made the figure of “the Indian” a recurring feature of Latin American republican and nationalist thought as the region sought to secure an identity distinct from the colonial powers.
The period 1910–1970 marks the heyday of modern indigenismo. Marked by Las Casas’s stance of defense toward indigenous people and by creole nationalists’ “Indianization” of national identity, the modernizing indigenismo of the 20th century contains three important additional dimensions: it places the so-called “problem of the Indian” at the center of national modernization efforts and of national revolution and renewal; it is, or seeks to become, a matter of state policy; and it draws on contemporary social theories—positivist, eugenicist, relativist, Marxist—to make its claims about how best to solve the “Indian problem.” Though its presence can be found in many Latin American countries, indigenismo reached its most substantive and influential forms in Mexico and Peru; Bolivia and Brazil also saw significant indigenista activity. Anthropologists played a central role in the development of modern indigenismo, and indigenismo flourished in literature and the performing and visual arts. In the late 20th century, indigenous social movements as well as scholars from across the disciplines criticized indigenismo for its paternalist attitude toward Indians and for promoting Indians’ cultural assimilation; the state-centric integrationist ideology of indigenismo has largely given way to pluri-culturalism.
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.