This article reassesses the notions of culture that are tied up with our understandings of gender and ethnicity in colonial Oaxaca. It examines the lawsuits indigenous women leveled against husbands and lovers in the eighteenth century to revisit some canonical scholarly claims about gender culture among the region's inhabitants. Traditional scholarship has approached such cases as evidence of women's assertion of agency in their relationships with husbands and lovers or as the ethnic defense of community against the Spanish colonial state. Such approaches sidestep the law itself as a subject of analysis. When compared to the legal activities of inhabitants elsewhere in the empire, we find women's engagement with Spanish justice in Oaxaca was reluctant at best and, at times, at odds with judges' notion of the law as beyond the control of the participants. But women's instrumental engagement with law was not wholly unique to the region. It followed patterns observable in other communities, including Spain. Thus, rather than look at these documents through an ethnic or gendered lens alone, one can also read them as evidence of Oaxacan women's dynamic participation in the creation of a broader imperial legal culture that pitted local peace against legal process.

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