One notable aspect of the Spanish colonial system in central New Spain was the fact that native peoples often retained control of local town government. It has repeatedly been concluded, however, that the vicissitudes of conquest and a disruptive imposition of Hispanic political structures led to the virtual disappearance of earlier indigenous ruling organizations and methods, if not the rulers themselves. Moreover, historians such as Charles Gibson believe that after an era of vigor lasting little more than 70 years, indigenous cabildos (town councils) functioned “principally to collect tribute and to dispense minor punishments,” probably owing to a “decay” in community pride and a growing reluctance to serve on town councils after 1590.1 The matter would rest there without the efforts of a number of other historians and ethnohistorians who find this picture of growing decadence wanting. As they reexamine the dynamics of conquest and colonialism on both regional and local levels, some bring new and innovative methods to bear on Spanish-language documents, and some turn to records in native languages, principally Nahuatl.2

Nahuatl, on its way to becoming a true written language before the conquest, was the lingua franca of Mesoamerica. After the triumph of the Spaniards, indigenous notaries were apparently first taught to write Nahuatl in Latin script by ecclesiastics and later through some sort of apprentice system. Local notaries recorded most of the internal business of the Indian world in Nahuatl until the late eighteenth century. Literally thousands of these documents survive in the form of petitions, cabildo minutes, land rental and land sale documents, wills, and many others. Taken together, they provide the most immediate and certainly the richest descriptions of central New Spain’s indigenous communities available. The use of Nahuatl originals, rather than the occasional Spanish translations, is also important because interpreters were not uniformly skillful, nor were some above misrepresenting the contents of documents in ways that would serve the interests of powerful non-Indians. This is not to say that the Nahuatl record itself is without distortion or bias, for documents are often formula-ridden, contain arguments couched in language intended to address what were perceived as Spanish concerns, and more often than not reflect the view of the indigenous elite. But by examining these formulas, by analyzing crucial terminology, and by carefully comparing factual content with the Spanish-language record, investigators can discover more effectively just what was new, how much adaptation took place, and how much remained unchanged inside New Spain’s indigenous society.

When applied to the study of the many indigenous town councils of the Cuernavaca region, this methodology is extremely productive.3 Analysis of a broad range of governmental activities can prove that the area’s cabildos and its native ruling group retained both their vigor and a great amount of local autonomy until independence. Of equal importance is the realization that they successfully accommodated many aspects of preconquest government and society to intrusive Hispanic forms. In fact, it becomes increasingly clear that pre-Hispanic tradition remained a significant force underlying all but a very few cabildo functions.

Pre-Hispanic Cuauhanahuac and the Spanish Conquest

The strong and complex traditions of the stratified society living in the preconquest Cuauhnahuac region (“near the forest,” corrupted by Spaniards to Cuernavaca and now part of the state of Morelos) grew from the common cultural experience of pre-Hispanic central Mexico. The region was the site of six conquest states—Cuauhnahuac (center of the western province of Tlalhuic and probably the most significant power), Oaxtepec, Yautepec, Yecapixtlán, Totolapán, and Ocuituco (eastern and southern centers of Náhuatl Xochimilca settement)—made up of a dominant altepetl to which a total of 69 other altepetl owed political and economic services. The influential, largely independent altepetl of Tepoztlán, located to the northwest of Oaxtepec, was a seventh significant power in the region.4

Altepetl (a compound made up of atl, water, and tepetl, hill/mountain) were complex units made up of a number of equal parts, or districts, each with a ruling dynasty. In addition, altepetl status required the possession of deities and religious structures dedicated to them, a government palace, a jail, a market, and a land base. The various districts of a typical altepetl participated in government through a process of rotation which allowed uniform representation over time.5 Governance of the Cuauhnahuac region’s altepetl seems to have adhered to this model; Cuauhnahuac and Tepoztlán apparently had systems in which the dynasties of their internal subdivisions rotated in and out of the position of tlatoani (paramount ruler). Since tlatogue (plural of tlatoani) generally ruled for life, this rotation would have been slow, but other dynasties would have been represented on a general advisory council of the nobility. Lower levels of government were staffed by a heavily stratified network of lesser rulers or lords, the tetecuhtín, and other nobles, the pipiltín, drawn from each district.6

For much of its history, the Cuauhnahuac region maintained political independence of the Valley of Mexico states, and during the late fourteenth century actually enjoyed considerable influence there.7 All this ended in 1438, when the aggressive Triple Alliance conquered this semi-tropical source of cotton, dividing it into two provinces whose administrative centers were Cuauhnahuac and Oaxtepec. This arrangement upset the older equilibrium of power between these altepetl and the other conquest states. Moreover, the need to pay tribute to the Triple Alliance and the presence of a Mexica garrison and administrators in Cuauhnahuac drastically reduced the region’s independence. Nevertheless, its ruling structure was left more or less intact and retained a significant degree of autonomy in local matters as well as representation on the council that elected the Mexica tlatoani.8

Just over 80 years later, the region experienced a second conquest, this time at the hands of Cortés and his followers as they maneuvered toward the final defeat of Tenochtitlán.9 Cortés recognized the importance of the region’s rich agricultural lands, and granted himself its most significant parts. After a lengthy legal struggle, the area was made part of the newly created Marquesado del Valle in 1529. Repeated sequestrations of the estate that occurred from the sixteenth through the early nineteenth centuries had little direct effect on the indigenous people or their government, but did leave the Marquesado jurisdiction split nearly in two by a wedge-shaped section of royal territory administered from Cuautla Amilpas (see Map 1).10

The jurisdiction’s special status kept its altepetl from being distributed among a multiplicity of encomenderos, a factor that retarded the intrusion of Spaniards. Contact with non-Indians was also potentially reduced because the sugar estates which came to dominate the region agriculturally relied on black slave labor for many aspects of production. Equally significant was the fact that no Spanish municipality was ever established in the area during the colonial period. Instead, the regions altepetl continued to be ruled by indigenous councils, and many were able to retain a good deal of agricultural land, especially those areas not suitable for sugar cane cultivation. Some towns retained even this sort of property, growing cane themselves.

To a limited extent, this early isolation may well have allowed the area’s people and their rulers more time to come to terms with the conquest in comparison to citizens of the Valley of Mexico. But the Cuernavaca region was isolated only in very relative terms. From the beginning, its peoples were compelled to pay the same kinds of tribute to the marqués that other people had to deliver to encomenderos. They were soon liable for repartimiento service, sometimes as workers on estates, more commonly as laborers sent to the mines of Taxco and Cuautla, which took them away from their towns and brought them into contact with the non-Indian world. The region was actively evangelized by the Franciscans, somewhat later by the Dominicans and Augustinians, and finally by orders centered in Mexico City which, like the Jesuits, owned large estates in close proximity to Indian towns. By the late seventeenth century, if not sooner, it was rare to find a community without some resident non-Indians, and Marquesado officers and Spanish estate owners enjoyed a tremendous amount of power in the region which more than compensated for their relatively small numbers.11 Neither was the jurisdiction spared the nearly incalculable effects of population loss nor the physical consolidation of towns beginning soon after the conquest and culminating in the final seventeenth-century congregación process.

Cuauhnahuac/Cuernavaca was designated the administrative seat of the region presided over by a Spanish alcalde mayor. The Mexica jurisdiction of Oaxtepec was broken into four cabeceras (head towns), Oaxtepec, Tepoztlán, Yautepec, and Yecapixtla, which until the middle of the seventeenth century was cabecera to 14 sujetos (subordinate towns) known as “las Tlanahuas.” All five cabeceras, along with Jonacatepec, Jojutla, and Tlaquiltenango, which served as seats for some of the area’s tenientes, were designated villas to display their jurisdictional importance.12 Further consolidation during the congregación process reduced the number of independent political entities in the area to what may have been an all-time low. Recovery was slow, but by the late eighteenth century over 70 independent towns existed in the region.13

Much of this new jurisdictional arrangement was alien to the region’s inhabitants. The newcomers had misinterpreted the organization of the altepetl and the conquest states, assuming that their component parts had far less autonomy than was actually the case, and so designating them sujetos. As such, their ability to act on their own initiative was diminished, and it was on this level that the disruptive effects of colonial reorganization were felt most keenly. Yet certain altepetl may have encouraged the misunderstanding, exaggerating their own importance and receiving benefits by willingly acting as intermediaries for the outsiders.14 It is probably no coincidence that the centers which retained the greatest amount of political power after the arrival of the Spanish were the same altepetl that had been able to make the most of the earlier Mexica conquest of the region: Cuauhnahuac, Yautepec, Oaxtepec, Yecapixtla, and Tepoztlán.

Cabildo Structure

Whether the Spaniards seriously believed that they could recreate Iberian-style town councils in the jurisdiction’s indigenous communities is uncertain, but by the 1530s it was in these favored towns, as well as a few other populous centers, that cabildos stalled by officers bearing Spanish titles such as alcalde, regidor, and escribano (notary) were being established.15 Over time, sujetos also developed their own hierarchies of town officers, but so long as they remained jurisdictionally subordinate, they were not fully independent of the cabecera’s council. Officers were to be selected in annual elections, which were eventually recorded in Nahuatl by the communities’ own notaries.16

But any parallels between the organization of the jurisdiction’s indigenous cabildos and Spain’s ended at this superficial level. In Spain, cabildos were staffed by regidores who represented family or economic interests and who held their positions for life and by alcaldes, subordinate judicial officers who were elected for limited terms of office. In central New Spain as a whole and in the Cuernavaca jurisdiction in particular, regidores and alcaldes represented geographic districts. Moreover, alcaldes had greater status in the official and social hierarchies than regidores; alcaldes were far more likely to have the honorific “don” than regidores. Another New World innovation was the office of gobernador, or chief administrative officer, which had been created to accommodate the indigenous ruling system.17 Pre-Hispanic traditions of governmental organization that included an elite council and systems of noble functionaries were reflected in the jurisdiction’s broader cabildo structure, which not only included a hierarchy of elected council members, but also a larger group of past officers, members of the local elite, and a variety of lesser officials, elected or otherwise, who were full members of a given town’s ruling group. From this pool came the individuals who held the various civil and religious offices in town government.18

The specific shape of the jurisdiction’s cabildos was determined by local needs and to a significant degree by its pre-Hispanic traditions, though the latter were more obvious in the early years. The structure of Cuernavaca’s sixteenth-century cabildo strongly reflected the villa’s pre-conquest organization, a persistence encouraged (as was often the case) by Spaniards who installed Cuernavaca’s heir to the conquest-era tlatoani as gobernador, an office he held into the 1540s. At that point, other high nobles began to attain the office as well, also a standard colonial pattern and in Cuernavaca’s case perhaps the reassertion of an earlier rotational system of government. Moreover, a system in which subordinate governors ruled each of the villa’s four major districts suggests that multiple tlatoani-level lineages were still being accommodated for some time after the conquest.19 This particular arrangement had disappeared by the late sixteenth century, but in common with most of the jurisdiction’s towns, the villa’s traditional, multiple-district structure was reflected by a cabildo organization in which an alcalde, a regidor, and several other subordinate officers represented each barrio (ward or district). Over time, and especially in the eighteenth century, a greater variety of officer types was added to most of the jurisdiction’s town councils, but the basic cabildo organization in place by the late sixteenth century persisted to independence.20

The specific functions and operational methods pursued by the region’s councils were defined early and they remained important to the end of the colonial period.21 Variations and embellishments appeared over time, but in general the jurisdiction’s cabildos always carried out a surprising variety of specific tasks under the broad headings of community administration and responsibility to the local church. These normally included the collection of all types of tribute, management of repartimiento labor, fiscal administration, local market and trade regulation, the maintenance of public and religious buildings, land distribution, and police and judicial functions.

Tribute Collection and Delivery

The whole question of tribute is one of the better studied aspects of the impact of colonialism on New Spain’s Indian peoples. José Miranda’s major synthesis, though concentrating only on the sixteenth century, established the legal basis and general organization of the system.22 Later work, principally that of Charles Gibson, concentrated on the local realities of tribute collection in the Valley of Mexico. Though under the jurisdiction of the Marquesado del Valle, tribute and collection practices in the Cuernavaca region seem to have been similar to those described by these scholars.23 There, in the decades immediately following the conquest, the tribute continued to be collected in the form of pre-Hispanic-style goods. Cuernavaca, Yautepec, and Tepoztlán sent the Marquesado a certain amount of awning cloth (ropa de todillos), mantas, shirts, and quilted cotton material at two 80-day and two 100-day intervals per year, clearly a survival of a pre-Hispanic vigesimal system. In addition, every two weeks in rotation the three communities were compelled to send the marqués a certain number of chickens, or, on meatless days, from 60 to loo each of frogs, fish, and eggs. This exaction was quite similar to pre-Hispanic obligations to send foodstuffs to palaces and rulers, but other traditional goods not desired by Spaniards, such as the loin cloths and warriors’ costumes mentioned in the Matrícula de tributos, were dropped.24

By the 1590s, though there are indications that regular contributions of foodstuffs and fodder were still expected by local Spanish officers and by indigenous town functionaries who continued to expect pre-Hispanic-style prerogatives, payment in goods had otherwise disappeared.25 For the remainder of the colonial period, tribute consisted of a cash payment figured at the rate of one peso per whole tributary per year, and an additional half fanega of maize per whole tributary per year (commuted to a cash assessment of nine reales per fanega by 1615), both owed to the Marquesado. The jurisdiction’s councils were also responsible for the collection of various royal assessments, such as the medio real de ministros, a tax which helped finance the General Indian Court and similar courts in the Marquesado, and the servicio real, originally promulgated in 1592 to pay for the 1588 armada sent against England.26

Collection practices, too, were modified before the turn of the century and would remain virtually unchanged until independence. A council was obliged to collect tribute at the end of each tercio period, which fell in April, August, and December. In general, low-level officers bearing titles such as tequitlato or mayordomo carried out the collection of tribute at the neighborhood level. Yet the pressure to gather the required amount of tribute near the end of a tercio period could be so intense that they might be joined in the actual house-to-house process of collection by higher level district officers and even by the gobernador himself. This latter officer had the ultimate responsibility for the tribute’s delivery to the proper Spanish authorities.27 Difficulties of collection often arose because people constantly tried to evade payment or were simply unable to pay because of drought, bad harvest, or epidemic. Collectors were sometimes inept, and some were not above embezzling tribute funds. Town officers who failed to deliver the proper amount for these and other reasons could suffer financially, politically, and personally, and in extreme cases this suffering could be extended to the entire ruling group.28

It was also the responsibility of the jurisdiction’s councils to provide domestic servants for local Spanish officers or workers for rotary labor tribute such as the repartimiento, which might entail service on Spanish-owned estates or, in the seventeenth century, the Valley of Mexico’s desagüe project.29 But until the middle of the eighteenth century, the most important form of repartimiento labor consisted of weekly levies of workers sent to the mines of Taxco or Cuautla. As in the case of the collection of monetary tribute, the repartimiento was a constant headache for the jurisdiction’s cabildos, since there was a great deal of resistance to this often dangerous and unhealthy labor (tributaries generally worked in refineries, where they stirred a gluttonous mass of ground ore and mercury together by wading through it). Town officers often used force to gather the required number of workers, and their occasional excesses could lead to rioting, as happened several times in Tepoztlán during 1725.30

The “Caja” System and the Use of Municipal Treasuries

A major cabildo function all over New Spain was the generation and maintenance of a municipal treasury, an activity that potentially was as fraught with difficulty and corruption as tribute collection. This became so obvious by the 1570s that a decree was issued ordering each full tributary to work a plot of ten square varas. The crops grown on these plots were to be collected and sold, and proceeds from the sale were to be put along with an account book in an arca o caja de comunidad (community chest) in a cabeceras municipal palace. Keys to the area’s multiple locks (at least three) were to be held by three of the cabecera’s elected officers, though local curates sometimes held one of the keys instead. Caja funds were intended for community expenses, but not for tribute payment. These regulations remained in force through the late eighteenth century, when they were renewed in article four of the instrucciones de intendencias.31

The caja system did not always work as planned in the Cuernavaca jurisdiction. Many towns had trouble maintaining their treasuries, corruption and embezzlement took their toll, and even when funds were available, they often failed to cover expenses. And in contravention of the law, councils routinely withdrew caja monies to help make up tribute arrears. Irregularities were probably encouraged by rather lax enforcement on the part of Spanish officers, apparently a problem all over New Spain. Yet it was not until the 1780s that a concerted effort was made to reform the system by forbidding the withdrawal of caja funds without a license from higher authorities, a law that was doomed from the beginning.32 Few pueblos were willing or able to wait for the notoriously slow grindings of colonial bureaucracy for permission to meet the financial challenge of all manner of local emergencies. Lessons implicit in the struggles of Tlaquiltenango’s council from 1796 to 1798 or of Xiuhtepec’s cabildo during 1801 and 1802 to obtain such licenses when faced with financial ruin because of drought, crop failure, and pestilence were not lost on other municipalities.33 For this reason, the jurisdiction’s councils commonly spent treasury funds without obtaining the necessary license in the face of such emergencies. The Spanish authorities who had to enforce this cumbersome regulation often reprimanded offending cabildos, but did little else.34

The jurisdiction’s cabildos used their treasuries to finance a wide variety of governmental and corporate activities. From the late sixteenth through the middle eighteenth centuries, Cuernavaca and other towns located along the main road that went from Mexico City to Acapulco had to provide bearers, horses, and pay for supplies given to travelers on their way to the Philippines. Building construction or the repair of public structures such as town halls and jails damaged by time, weather, or earthquakes was a continuous source of expenditure that could sometimes run into thousands of pesos. Moreover, possession of a town hall that could be described as “just a shack” brought dishonor and reflected badly on a town’s political status.35 Litigation was also a major expense for most towns, and caja funds were used to meet the cost of hiring lawyers, maintaining litigants in Mexico City, and paying fees for the generation of legal documents. If, as commonly occurred, a council pursued several cases over a course of years, its caja could be completely emptied.36 This led many councils to charge their tributaries extralegal fees or to accept loans from Spanish estate owners. In 1712, factions contesting an election in Tepoztlán did both, failing, however, to raise the required amount to cover their debts, a situation which resulted in the temporary incarceration of two council members by the alcalde mayor.37

Other important governmental expenses that remained constant during the colonial period included the salaries of town officers, fees for the Marquesado’s confirmation of municipal elections, and provisions supplied by the community during visits of Spanish officers. In 1754, for instance, Tepoztlán’s council paid 101 pesos, 6 reales for its election confirmation; 63 pesos to cover tribute lost because town officers were personally exempt from this exaction; and 25 pesos for food, a cook, and a bugler during the alcalde mayor’s yearly inspection tour.38 Municipal treasuries were depleted in times of agricultural emergency, when maize or other foodstuffs had to be purchased from outsiders. Beginning in the eighteenth century, school construction and pay for the master who was at least supposed to teach Indian children to read and write Spanish required new withdrawals from the caja,39

Invariably coming in combination, such expenses could put a terrible strain on a town’s treasury. Sujetos were faced with a double drain on their own financial resources because they often had to contribute to cabecera construction projects and expenses that brought them little direct benefit. Their obligation to provide workers for cabecera lands, jailers, messengers, and what amounted to personal servants for cabecera cabildo officers represented an additional drain, if only because the services of their own tributaries were lost for significant lengths of time.40

Municipal Support for the Church

The obligation to support the local Catholic church was another major source of community expense. To a certain extent, colonial authorities had discouraged municipal expenditures for the church during the sixteenth century, but by the seventeenth the jurisdiction’s cabildos were customarily making so-called “voluntary” donations which were actually required by tradition and in some cases by law.41 An important component of municipal expenditure for the church was sometimes called teopantequitl (church tribute), a term with strong links to pre-Hispanic obligations to finance the religious sphere. Easily transferred to the not dissimilar colonial requirement that communities provide a stipend for each resident curate amounting to 100 pesos and 100 fanegas of maize, the label persisted into the eighteenth century.42 Special, short-term exactions were added from time to time, such as one collected during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries to help finance construction of the cathedral in Mexico City.43 Cabildo members collected all of these assessments from each head of household, but officers and, by extension, the caja were held responsible for shortfalls.

Church construction and repair were a more direct drain on corporate treasuries, since time and the elements could be just as unkind to sacred edifices as they were to secular. In addition, a well-constructed and well-maintained church was a source of local pride and an indication of a community’s status as an independent political entity.44 When a church building was damaged in an earthquake, a common occurrence in the colonial Cuernavaca jurisdiction, expenses could be even greater. If faced with such an emergency, councils would usually petition for a short-term exemption from all forms of money and labor tribute for the duration of reconstruction. This type of exemption was granted to Tetelpán, for example, after an earthquake caused 1,200 pesos of damage to its church.45

But the need to finance a panoply of festivals and the sacraments was the most common and probably most expensive aspect of community church support at any time in the colonial period. Councils often endowed a large number of masses, either general ones for the souls of the dead or others specifically said for the eternal peace of deceased town officers. In 1629, the council of Xiuhtepec paid 100 pesos for 30 high masses and another 100 pesos for the performance of a weekly mass in the local monastery for the souls of the dead, an obligation which continued to be financed by the council into the eighteenth century.46 The celebration of festivals led to additional expenditures during the course of a year. In 1716, for instance, Cuernavaca’s council paid 15 pesos for the purchase and transport of palm fronds used by the Marquesado during Easter week festivities in Mexico City, provided the Marquesado with 10 pesos for oranges and 8 pesos for the capital’s royal hospital on Holy Monday, and spent over 300 pesos for the celebration of the villa’s own calendar of festivals and masses.47 This is not atypical in the jurisdiction, and the surviving record makes it clear that while individual or cofradía (lay brotherhood) support was important, community treasuries were the single largest source of money for the yearly round of church observances.48

Sujetos of a cabecera de doctrina (seat of the local parish) had an obligation to contribute to the cabeceras religious functions. This was doubly hard on these dependencies, since most of them had their own church buildings, masses, and fiestas to maintain. Some of them complained, and in so doing left a record of what was owed outside their own communities. In 1745, petitioners from one of Jonacatepec’s sujetos de doctrina stated that on Maundy Thursday they were compelled to send five pesos to the cabecera’s governor, two pesos to its fiscal, one mat, one gourd, and one shroud. On Corpus Christi, another sujeto had to provide the father guardian of Jonacatepec’s monastery with two loads of firewood and two pesos for candles. Other sujetos were expected to give flowers, singers, and dancers for various cabecera de doctrina festivals.49 But despite complaints and occasional litigation, exactions such as these continued to independence.

The Sources and Administration of Corporate Income

The combination of secular and religious expenses draining away town revenues could therefore be great. Income from the ten-vara plots normally seems to have been inadequate, and councils relied on a variety of other sources of revenue to meet their financial responsibilities. As in many regions of New Spain, other significant sources of corporate income included the sale of cash crops grown on community lands, in this case usually maize or sugar cane, rental of livestock (cows or oxen) to towns lacking enough of their own, and the sale of firewood to local sugar refiners, voracious consumers of this fuel.50

Another pervasive (and often abused) source of corporate income was assessments collected from each tributary over and above the yearly individual tribute payment. Cuernavaca’s council financed religious festivals by collecting a seven-real fee called the ximilli (xihuitl, grass, plus milli, field, or “pasture”) from each tributary living in its districts and sujetos. The legality of the ximilli, which apparently had pre-Hispanic roots, was never entirely clear to Spaniards nor Indians, but despite several lawsuits involving this “immemorial custom,” assessment continued into the eighteenth century. Similar to the ximilli were extralegal, short-term personal exactions known as derramas which were regularly collected in such towns as Cuernavaca, Yautepec, and Tepoztlán (especially notorious for this sort of thing) to meet various kinds of financial emergencies.51 The Cuernavaca jurisdiction’s cabildos were not innovative here; similar levies were routine in other parts of New Spain from the sixteenth century, as in Tlaxcala, where the council used them to finance fiestas and construction.52

From the middle of the sixteenth century at the latest, the most important source of corporate income was the rental of town lands, usually to non-Indians and often to the Marquesado itself.53 The generation of income from specific plots of corporate land cannot be seen as a colonial innovation, for though rental was not involved, it is well known that pre-Hispanic altepetl derived revenue from specially designated properties. Moreover, a variety of sources from the postconquest Cuernavaca jurisdiction, especially records of internal town property disputes, indicate that traditional land terminology remained important for much of the colonial period. Cabildo officers involved in a 1570 Cuernavacan dispute centered around the rental of a plot of corporate land were careful to refer to the property in question as tierra de comunidad (as it was rendered in a translation of a missing Nahuatl petition), land specifically designated for community support. Their opponents claimed that it was actually tierra de repartimiento, land to be distributed for individual use. The Nahuatl here would have been altepetlalli (town land) or perhaps tecpantlalli (land for the support of the palace) for the former, and probably calpullalli for the latter, designations that predate the conquest.54 Conflicts over the status of such lands or other lands traditionally used to support preconquest temples, and their alleged usurpation by financially pressed town councils, can perhaps be blamed on the disruptive nature of conquest. But the basic concept that some land was to be used for community income, while other land was for individual support, was obviously still in force.55

Pre-Hispanic land terminology and concepts remained important in the seventeenth century, as notaries were still careful to refer to rented land as altepetlalli.56 The production of income through land rental persisted, too, for the seventeenth century, like the preceding one, was a period of continuing population loss and relatively light internal pressure on the existing community urban and rural land base. At the same time, more and more Spaniards eager to obtain property were moving into the area. Taking advantage of this situation, Cuernavaca earned part of its income by renting non-Indians urban shops, houses, and lots, some of them on the main square, as well as a variety of rural parcels and ranchos. Much of the rent went to purchase such things as wax, flowers, incense, and fireworks to be used during different fiestas.57 With the permission of a towns greater council, barrios or sujetos, such as Cuernavaca’s dependency of San Gaspar Tetela in 1625 or the villa’s districts of Panchimalco and Tlanihuic in 1635, could sometimes handle the rental of their own corporate properties for the same purposes.58

The jurisdiction’s municipal councils continued to arrange rentals in the eighteenth century even though the indigenous population was on the rise, putting renewed internal pressure on the town land base. Although land rental under these conditions could be considered detrimental to a community’s interests, many cabildos seeking a steady source of corporate income had few alternatives. Further, towns such as Cuernavaca, Tepoztlán, and Yautepec seem to have retained enough surplus property to justify the continued rental of some of it to outsiders.59 And notaries were still using Nahuatl land designations such as altepetlalli to describe rented land.60 Even in the early nineteenth century, pueblos such as Zacualpán, Xiuhtepec, Tetecala, Mazatepec, Coatlán, and others were still able to raise a good part of their incomes from land rental.61

Within and outside of the Marquesado, Indian municipalities were obliged under law to obtain licenses before any town land was rented to outsiders. Councils complied with this regulation at times, but more often than not ignored the law for the same reasons that led many to withdraw caja funds without permission.62 Councils saw themselves as sovereign entities able to dispose of their land as they saw fit without the intervention of intrusive authority. Yet the jurisdiction’s councils knew that they had to protect themselves and their rented land, and most imposed legal restraint in two basic ways. Tradition required the unanimous consent of a council before a rental agreement could be finalized. Officers who acted on their own initiative, such as Cuernavaca’s governor, don Antonio de Hinojosa, who in 1690 privately arranged the rental of town land to the Cortés sugar ingenio of Atlacomulco, could find themselves in serious difficulties with their councils, who only then might turn to the Marquesado authorities for redress.63 The second form of legal restraint was provided by Nahuatl rental documents, drawn up with scrupulous care by local notaries. Cabildos considered these records to be legal instruments which protected them from the loss of property at the hands of unprincipled non-Indians. There was some justification for this attitude, since many of them survive precisely because they were accepted as evidence by Marquesado and royal justices adjudicating the jurisdiction’s land disputes. Moreover, Spanish renters commonly presented the authorities with Nahuatl lease agreements as proof of their legal tenure on a plot of land.

A Nahuatl rental agreement from the pueblo of Xochitepec dated February 19, 1631 is a good example of the standard procedures followed by most of the jurisdiction’s Indian councils.64 According to the notary, after a survey of the property had been conducted by council members, the land was voluntarily rented to the Spaniard don Alonso Gaitán. The rental was justified because the parcel was no longer being cultivated and, moreover, was pillalli (noble land, private property) that had devolved to the community on the death of its owner.65 Since Gaitán was the legal holder of the land, the council vowed that no one would be able to evict him, and if a successful challenge to his tenure did occur, the challenger would be rented an equivalent plot at the same rate. The names of the witnesses, including several Spaniards, town council members, and the notary, were appended to the document to certify that it was a faithful record of the transaction. Two copies of such records were usually made, one kept by the council and the other presented to the renter as a title. Normally, the renter or an agent was required to pay the yearly rent to a town officer of high rank, usually a governor or alcalde.66

Despite these elaborate measures, rentals often had the unintended result of allowing outsiders to control significant blocks of prime corporate land. To make matters worse, Spaniards repeatedly claimed that rented land was their own private property. When the matter inevitably reached the notice of the Spanish courts, councils often found that their Nahuatl rental documents were outweighed by Spanish records introduced into evidence by well-connected adversaries, with the result that corporate properties would be lost to the Hispanic world.67 In addition, tradition and the strict adherence to standard rental procedure could not always keep dishonest town officers from embezzling rent money for their own gain. Yet the councils’ documentary proofs and protections were vindicated just often enough to encourage a continuance of customary rental practices despite the risks.

Cabildos such as those governing San Francisco Tetecala and Yautepec in the mideighteenth century, for example, that could realize an income from a variety of enterprises—land rental, the sale of agricultural products, and special levies in addition to normal tribute assessments—at times achieved genuine financial solvency. But at other times, even relatively wealthy towns such as these could suffer economic reverses due to drought, sudden unforeseen expenses, or the like, and smaller communities with fewer resources could be left in dire financial straits indeed.68 Several options were available to cabildos when this occurred. More community land could be rented out if there was any to spare, or, as happened more commonly, extra derramas could be exacted from the macehuales. Records also indicate that from the sixteenth century onward, towns rented land from nearby Spanish estates to gain additional agricultural plots for community support; from 1682 into the eighteenth century, for example, the council of Atlacholoaya leased land from the Marquesado for 70 pesos a year.69

But another alternative also existed, one which seemed easy, safe, and highly profitable. This was the outright sale of community land to Spaniards, mestizos, and even Indians, something that was as common as it was illegal.70 As might be expected, most sales occurred during the seventeenth-century era of seemingly inexorable population decline. While there were certainly instances of private profiteering, sales under such conditions were generally part of a sincere and sometimes desperate effort to raise needed income. Most of the jurisdiction’s cabildos relied on a system of internal checks to placate the local power structure and guard against abuse. Sales were considered to be valid only when undertaken with the approval of both elected members of the current council and other members of a town’s ruling group. Those who acted on their own initiative could be exposed to the colonial authorities for “illegally” alienating town land.

Members of the jurisdiction’s councils were aware that land sales were not always viewed in a favorable light by external Marquesado and royal authorities, so they were careful to make an alienation seem as justified, voluntary, and necessary as possible. Toward this end, the procedures used to carry out land sales, as well as the Nahuatl documents that recorded them, were clothed in the same kind of quasilegal terminology used in land rental. A land sale document written by one of Cuernavaca’s notaries on October 8, 1608 is typical.71 One criterion of legitimacy was established when a regidor and an elder from the calpulli (district) of Tianquiztenco sought the full cabildo’s permission to sell four lots to a Spaniard. Next, it was determined that the plots could be sold because two were calpullalli said to have been abandoned because of population loss, and two were pillalli left vacant by the extinction of the owner’s family. The sale of this second type of property was actually preferred since it had fewer detrimental effects on the integrity of corporate landholdings. In a rather typical additional statement, all four plots were characterized as being marginal land located at the edge of a ravine. But such descriptions were probably exaggerations for effect, since few buyers could have been found for authentically worthless property. More to the point, the council asserted its need for income to pay “much of the tribute that the calpulli owes, the tribute of our lord the marqués and our ruler the king,” a statement clearly intended to satisfy tax-hungry colonial authorities. As far as the villa’s council was concerned, the legality of the sale was now no longer in doubt, and following custom the land sale document, unaccompanied by a Spanish translation, was given to the buyer as a legitimate title of ownership.

A Cabildo’s Judicial Functions

The cabildos’ jurisdiction as courts for the adjudication of petty crimes and cases of drunkenness is well attested, but their jurisdiction over the alienation or rental of corporate property meant that they also acted as land courts for most of the colonial period.72 This authority extended to property sales and rentals by private individuals, which were customarily formalized in a council’s presence. The procedure allowed town officers to make sure the rental or alienation in question met local criteria for legality and stood some chance of holding up in the colonial court system. Once again, Nahuatl documents are the best source of information for this local governmental activity, and two land sale receipts dating from 1603 reveal the procedure followed when a pair of Cuernavaca’s ruling elite sought to alienate three contiguous parcels to a Spaniard. The sales were carried out in the presence of the villa’s governor, members of its council, and several other indigenous and non-Indian witnesses. The council was told the size of each plot, and the interested parties had to prove that the land was actually their property before the sale was allowed.73

The jurisdiction’s indigenous cabildos also acted as land courts when they distributed ten-vara plots or other communal property, such as parcels given to individuals entering full tributary status at marriage, and redistributed plots if the current usufruct holder died without heirs.74 Internal land ownership disputes, common throughout the colonial period, were likewise adjudicated by the cabildos. In 1572, for instance, two noblewomen appeared before Cuernavaca’s governor, a notary, and other unnamed council members alleging that a commoner had usurped some of their property by unjustly claiming it as calpullalli. In the course of the governor’s investigation, he conferred with the elders of the affected district and dispatched a minor officer to survey the property. All agreed that the land belonged to the two women, and the governor confirmed their ownership.75

The fact that pre-Hispanic central Mexico already had a well-developed judicial system seems to have helped colonial cabildos cope with the postconquest legal situation. That hierarchy, described by such early ethnographers as Fray Bernardino de Sahagún and his indigenous informants, went from a court headed by a huey tlatoani (supreme ruler) and included members of the highest nobility to a series of lower courts staffed by members of the lesser nobility. On the district level, members of the local nobility also acted as judges, and had staffs of officers bearing the titles topilli and tequitlato, designations which survived into the eighteenth century in the Cuernavaca jurisdiction. All of these courts and officers heard both civil and criminal cases, examined witnesses, and kept written records.76 There was presumably some local variation of this system in the Cuernavaca region, but whatever the exact pre-Hispanic structure may have been, the judicial activities of the postconquest indigenous cabildos were part of a continued, if modified, evolutionary process. Governors served as chief judges, members of the ruling group sat in judgment with them, and lesser officials carried out judicial duties of various sorts at the district or subdistrict level.

The Cabildo and Litigation

Yet it was also clear to the jurisdiction’s ruling group that the Marquesado and royal governments maintained a very real authority over their actions. In response, many cabildo members attained a real mastery of the Spanish legal system and sought to use it for their own benefit whenever possible. It has already been seen that would-be miscreants could be kept in line by threatening them with exposure to the external legal system. Further, when consensus in a local matter could not be reached, or if the community was suffering at the hands of non-Indians, council members customarily turned to the Marquesado or viceregal courts for redress.77 Even then, few cabildos would have seen this as surrendering their basic authority in such matters; Spanish officials were expected to acknowledge the legitimacy of the local power structure.

From the sixteenth century on, suits involving corruption of the tribute collection process, including alleged incompetence or malfeasance on the part of Spanish or indigenous officers, were especially common. Tribute litigation also embraced attempts to win exemption from payment or mine repartimiento duty. From the early years of the colonial era there were frequent disputes revolving around churchly matters and concerned with such things as the alleged corruption of curates, friars, and priests, some of whom were accused of exceeding limits imposed by the arancel, a schedule of costs for the administration of sacraments and the like.

Other forms of litigation became more common as the region’s non-Indian population increased. When Spanish livestock destroyed indigenous crops, cabildo officers drew up accounts of the damage, pressed the Marquesado authorities for redress, and if a favorable decision was forthcoming, distributed money received as restitution to the affected Indian citizens.78 Though various types of land disputes were always present, mounting pressure on the corporate land base over time meant that disputes between communities and Spaniards or between two or more indigenous communities, questions surrounding the rental or sale of community land to outsiders, and conflicts over water rights broke out more and more often. Attempts to recover land lost in the congregación process and efforts to gain a 600-vara townsite became common in the eighteenth century for this same reason.79

From the sixteenth century onward, indigenous councils all over central New Spain in general, and in the Cuernavaca jurisdiction in particular, hired procuradores, or untitled lawyers, during the course of all types of litigation.80Procuradores specializing in cases dealing with the Indian world worked closely with council members, some of whom traveled to the viceregal capital and resided there until the matter was settled. Procuradores helped councils devise litigation strategies and kept council members apprised of important developments. Such advice was sometimes relayed to councils in the form of Nahuatl documents, and some procuradores were themselves bilingual.81

Even before a procurador was retained, the Spanish authorities were usually alerted to a problem by Nahuatl petitions, a form used by the jurisdiction’s cabildos from the sixteenth century through the middle eighteenth century.82 Written with great sensitivity to the colonial legal system, they were not a completely colonial innovation, in a very real sense being firmly rooted in pre-Hispanic tradition. Bernal Díaz del Castillo witnessed members of the Aztec nobility and rulers of subject states bringing what were basically written petitions to Moctezuma. The chronicler often mentions the reverence shown to such documents, which he realized were vitally important in the Aztec imperial system.83 Hispanic and indigenous customs were skillfully reconciled when high colonial functionaries were addressed in such reverential terms as “[O]h, honored ruler, . . .. We your poor macehualtín [vassals or commoners] are appearing before you. We kiss your rulerly hands and feet. . . .,”84 This markedly subservient salutation, in which the petitioners (who were members of the high indigenous nobility) humbled themselves before an exalted authority figure would have been equally acceptable in the pre-Hispanic court of a tlatoani, where nobles, barefoot and dressed in plain garments, did not dare look directly at their ruler.

The texts of Nahuatl petitions also reveal the extent to which the jurisdiction’s indigenous ruling group understood the Spanish legal processes and the options available to them. A cabildo contesting a grant of land to a Spaniard might first assert the Indians’ ancient and continued ownership of the plot in question by stating that “our fathers and elders left [the land] to us. . .. [W]e do not verify the document which you bring [the offending grant].” Such legalistic arguments could be strengthened by threats that the matter would be taken out of the hands of the Marquesado “to Mexico City to the rulerly house, the Audiencia,” for until 1771 litigation could be pursued either in Marquesado or royal courts. The former were normally chosen, but the Audiencia and even the viceroy served cabildos as courts of appeal if Marquesado decisions were unfavorable.85

Petitioners were also adept at playing on what they believed to be typical Spanish fears. If threatened with the loss of land to an outsider, litigants such as the councils of Jojutla and Tlaquiltenango might claim that the property in question was an important source of corporate revenue and tribute. Moreover, the standard litany went, loss would mean that “all the commoners will run away. Who will pay all the tribute. . .. ? And who will take care of the Taxco duty [tlachcotequitl, the mine repartimiento] when the commoners have run away. . .. ? And who will pay all the community [funds]. . ..?”86 This is not to trivialize the matter of land usurpation and its adverse effects on the community as so much legalistic formula, for the problems involved were very real. Other, more individualistic complaints were harder for Spanish officials to dismiss out of hand, and while some petitions were ignored, most served to initiate fullblown court cases.

Nahuatl petitions were usually translated orally, in written form, or both. Subtle shades of meaning were sometimes lost in the process. Further, a certain amount of fraud and misrepresentation was possible in this system, since through ineptness or hostility interpreters could easily distort a petition’s contents. For instance, one major factor leading to the failure of litigation initiated by Tlaquiltenango in 1619 arose from an interpreter’s willful omission of a key passage in the cabildo’s petition charging a local curate with fraud.87 Indigenous councils also used petitions fraudulently themselves, deliberately using vague or misleading terms intended to fool their Hispanic audiences. Some cabeceras involved in litigation with sujetos presented the Marquesado with fabricated documents which falsely recorded their dependencies’ capitulation. Some of these frauds were detected, others were not.88 But, for the most part, the Nahuatl petitions were genuine, and the translations, when present, as accurate as the skill of individual interpreters allowed.

Indigenous litigants stood little chance of winning without skillfully written petitions and the assistance of an able procurador. The careful selection of favorable witness panels was a third important ingredient in litigation. They were organized by the council with the help of their procurador, and testimony was taken either in the particular pueblo involved, in Cuernavaca as the seat of the alcalde mayor, or in Mexico City. An indigenous council which was able to present friendly testimony by prominent Spaniards, and, secondarily, by members of the local indigenous elite, stood a much better chance of victory than one which could not. When a cabildo’s witnesses made a good impression; when their case was presented in compelling terms; when their claims were obviously true; when Hispanic officers were persons of integrity; and when opposing litigants lacked enough influence in the right places, the jurisdiction’s cabildos stood some chance of prevailing. If a council was victorious, the documentary proof of the court’s decision was guarded closely, since it could be used as precedent in later litigation or might be necessary if an abuse continued or was repeated.

The Nature of the Ruling Body

The tendency of litigation to continue for years without any definitive solution is of course well known, and the court cases of the Cuernavaca jurisdiction were no exception to this rule.89 Because new cabildos were elected each year, in theory if not always in practice, officers who were familiar with a specific dispute did not necessarily remain in office. Therefore, since expertise and experience were more important than momentary official status, litigation tended to involve current council members, former officers, and even members of the greater ruling group listed only as huehuetque or principales. This goes some way toward explaining the tendency of land rentals, sales, and other internal cabildo functions to be carried out by officers and elite nonofficers as a group. But the propensity for any council action to involve more than just a town’s elected officers had other causes as well.

The colonial legal system was in some way responsible, since current and former officers were liable for tribute debts accrued during past and present council service. When tribute shortfalls occurred, everyone had to work for a solution or face the confiscation of their property and jail terms.90 Further, Marquesado authorities gave official recognition to the power and authority of those called principales for most of the colonial period. A good case in point was the use of a number of the jurisdiction’s principales during the congregación process from 1604 to 1606 to make house-to-house censuses of their communities and to generate lists of the number of chickens and the amount of food possessed by each household, but members of the ruling group continued to be accepted as legitimate municipal spokespersons into the eighteenth century regardless of their official status.91 Local political alignments also played a part. Partisan factions were present in most of the jurisdiction’s towns, and when these fought for control of a cabildo in Spanish courts the litigation was pursued by all of their prominent members, whether elected officers or not. Whatever their official status, members of these same groups were likely to engage in other forms of litigation that touched on their common interests.92

Most important, however, were the restricted size of the jurisdiction’s ruling group and its inherited social rank. Few towns had a ruling elite that exceeded 15 percent of the male tributary population. Continuous documentary references to their elevated social status make it clear that ruling legitimacy rested on links, real or imagined, to the preconquest nobility (even when some of the colonial officers were biologically mestizo) and to early colonial rulers whose legitimacy had been recognized by Spaniards.93 Because of this, the differentiation within the ruling group between those actually serving on the council and those who were not was quite weak. Every member of a town’s ruling group, whether an elected officer or not, had the right and obligation to act in all matters affecting the community’s interests. Further, since a single person could hold positions in both the civil and religious spheres over time, a certain overlap of officer function was encouraged. Gobernadores, alcaldes, and regidores were expected to collect and deliver tribute to the proper authorities, had judicial functions, police duties, and obligations to oversee the smooth operation of the local church. In turn, officials who were primarily concerned with the local religious establishment, such as fiscales (chief secular aids to priests), also acted with their colleagues in purely secular matters.

This is not to say that the jurisdiction’s indigenous ruling group was not internally stratified, for members of the highest elite tended to dominate whatever their electoral status, while other individuals never rose above the lowest officer levels. Governors, in many ways the social and political heirs of the pre-Hispanic tlatoque, usually enjoyed much more power than their fellow council members. There was also a slight tendency for cabildos to rely more heavily on elected officers in their dealings with external authorities as the colonial period lengthened. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the region’s ruling elite was careful to make distinctions between actual (present) officers and pasado (former) officers in all forms of documentation directed toward the outside world. This was at least partially a result of the Spanish tendency to assume that elected officials, and especially current governors, had more authority than those out of office. But there is much less evidence that these distinctions had any real importance within the indigenous cabildos themselves. There, an elected officer such as an alcalde had little more claim to power than a past officer of the same type and, if elected to political office for the first time, may actually have been a sort of junior member of the group.

Less immediately apparent are the mechanisms which sometimes allowed noblewomen to participate actively in a pueblo’s political life. Noble wives, widows, or other female relatives of governors or other high-level officers had the best opportunity to do so, perhaps because their status gave them greater credibility in the official male circles. It was not completely unknown for a governor’s widow to continue litigation initiated by her husband, or to be a valuable ally in cases arising after her spouse’s death.94

A few even gained true political power in their own right. A cacica y principala named doña Josefa María Francisca was an important leader of one of Tepoztlán’s political factions from before 1700 through the 1720s. Marquesado officers, who were far more uncomfortable with such a blatant and continued exercise of power by a woman than was Tepoztlán’s own ruling group, unsuccessfully tried to neutralize doña Josefa by attacking her virtue and femininity. She was arrested in 1712 for allegedly carrying on an affair with a married town officer (not surprisingly, another member of her political faction), and more than one official judged that she was “a discredit to her sex” without ever addressing the validity of her political actions.95 The important topic of female participation in the local ruling body has yet to be given the attention it deserves, but perhaps a pre-Hispanic precedent allowed women such as doña Josefa, elite widows, and the wives and sisters of town notables to become allies of the jurisdictions male-dominated ruling group.96

It is thus clear that indigenous councils pursued a wide range of activities dictated by both Spanish law and pre-Hispanic custom. The blend of these two ingredients crystallized early in the colonial period, and there is no evidence that cabildo functions had been reduced to tribute collection and petty crime control by independence. Even in the early nineteenth century, the Cuernavaca jurisdiction’s many indigenous cabildos were involved in a diverse set of pursuits which included tribute collection, the administration and rental of community lands, significant fiscal responsibilities in both the secular and churchly worlds, and the vigorous protection of community interests through active, and sometimes endless, litigation.

Neither did community pride nor the will to serve on the regions cabildos disappear. Municipal and church buildings, physical symbols of a town’s importance and independence, were continually repaired and rebuilt. Members of local ruling groups actively sought elected office into at least the first decade of the nineteenth century. A traditional elite, their status and their dominance of municipal government was rarely questioned by their own people and usually recognized by outsiders in search of willing intermediaries. The elite always regarded themselves as a chosen few, with full powers to administer their towns without recourse to or interference from Spanish authorities. These factors, combined with the basic inability or unwillingness of the colonial authorities to intervene in every aspect of indigenous municipal government, allowed the cabildos to retain a significant amount of local autonomy.

Conquest and foreign domination brought many changes, to be sure. The familiar pre-Hispanic imperial system was shattered, replaced by one that often had very different goals and which reduced New Spain’s native peoples to a distinctly inferior status. This new legal system had to be mastered, and though the jurisdiction’s indigenous leaders quickly learned to manipulate it, they could never be certain of prevailing when opposed by powerful non-Indian interests. At the local level, the ruling group was forced to contend with such innovations as the yearly election of town officers, the imposition of an array of Iberian officer types, a variety of obligations to the Catholic church, and the disruption or rearrangement of preconquest jurisdictional alignments.

But the Cuernavaca region’s ruling elite had entered the new colonial era armed with experience in a sophisticated governmental system which included a distinct officer hierarchy, a well-developed judicial system, mechanisms of tribute collection and delivery, corporate land management, and even the periodic elevation of rulers. Pre-Hispanic government service had also involved many obligations to the religious establishment. And the jurisdiction’s peoples had already begun to learn how to cope with foreign invasion and domination thanks to the recent triumph of the Mexica in the area. Time and again, when the operation of the jurisdiction’s many postconquest indigenous cabildos is examined carefully, it is clear that the ruling group was able to blend tradition and intrusive procedures, many of which were not completely alien or irreconcilable. This was the underlying force which gave resiliency to the region’s ruling group and allowed it to retain a good measure of local autonomy under potentially disastrous conditions.


Charles Gibson, The Aztecs under Spanish Rule (Stanford, 1964), 141, 191, 193.


For persistence, see Provinces of Early Mexico: Variants of Spanish American Regional Evolution, Ida Altman and James Lockhart, eds. (Los Angeles, 1976); William B. Taylor, Landlord and Peasant in Colonial Oaxaca (Stanford, 1972); and Kevin Gosner, “Las elites indígenas en los altos de Chiapas (1524-1714),” Historia Mexicana, 33 (Apr.-June 1984), 405-423, among others. For important ethnohistorical works, see Explorations in Ethnohistory: Indians of Central Mexico in the Sixteenth Century, H. R. Harvey and Hanns J. Prem, eds. (Albuquerque, 1984); The Inca and Aztec States, George A. Collier, Renato I. Rosaldo, and John D. Wirth, eds. (New York, 1982); Lockhart, Frances Berdan, and Arthur J. O. Anderson, The Tlaxcalan Actas: A Compendium of the Records of the Cabildo of Tlaxcala, 1545-1627 (Salt Lake City, 1986); and Ronald Spores, The Mixtees in Ancient and Colonial Times (Norman, 1984).


Mexico’s Archivo General de la Nación (hereafter AGN) was the major source for documents used in this study. The ramo Hospital de Jesús (hereafter HJ), partly in bound volumes and partly in unbound legajos, has been especially useful.


Michael E. Smith, “The Role of Social Stratification in the Aztec Empire: A View from the Provinces” (unpublished paper, author’s files), 11, defines conquest state. See also Robert Barlow, The Extent of the Empire of the Culhua Mexico (Berkeley, 1949), 76; Peter Gerhard, A Guide to the Historical Geography of New Spain (Cambridge, 1972), 94 and “Continuity and Change in Morelos, Mexico,” The Geographical Review, 65:3 (1975), 338; Michael G. Riley, Fernando Cortés and the Marquesado in Morelos, 1522-1547 (Albuquerque, 1973), 3—4; Smith, “Postclassic Culture Change in Western Morelos, Mexico: The Development and Correlation of Archaeological and Ethnohistorical Chronologies” (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1983), 121, 123-125, 128, and “Social Stratification,” 18.


Lockhart, “Complex Municipalities: Tlaxcala and Tulancingo in the Sixteenth Century” (unpublished paper given at the VII Reunión de Historiadores Mexicanos y Norteamericanos, Oaxaca, 1985); Susan Parry Schroeder, “Chaleo and Sociopolitical Concepts in Chimalpahín: Analysis of the Work of a Seventeenth-Century Nahuatl Historian of Mexico” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1984), 140-145.


Rafael García Granados, Diccionario biográfico de la historia antigua de Méjico (Mexico City, 1953), 413 (Cuauhnahuac); Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, Relaciones geográficas de México (Mexico City, 1979), 241—243 (Tepoztlán).


Francisco Javier Clavijero, Historia antigua de México (Mexico City, 1979), 77; Riley, Marquesado in Morelos, 4; Smith, “The Archaeology and Ethnohistory of Triple Alliance Expansion: A Case Study from Morelos” (unpublished paper, author’s files), 9; Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España (Mexico City, 1979), 608.


Clavijero, Historia antigua, 105, 215; Fray Toribio de Motolinía, Memoriales o libro de las cosas de la Nueva España y de los naturales de ella (Mexico City, 1971), 396; Smith, “Archaeology and Ethnohistory,” 13, "Social Stratification,” 35, and “Postclassic Culture Change,” 128.


Hernando Cortés, Cartas y documentos (Mexico City, 1963), 141–143; Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Historia de la conquista de Nueva España (Mexico City, 1976), 315-316.


See Woodrow Borah, Justice By Insurance: The General Indian Court of Colonial Mexico and the Legal Aides of the Half Real (Berkeley, 1983), 330-351; Bernardo García Martínez, El Marquesado del Valle, tres siglos de régimen señorial en Nueva España (Mexico City, 1969); Gerhard, Historical Geography and “Continuity and Change”; Riley, “Land in Spanish Enterprise: Colonial Morelos, 1522-1547,” The Americas, 27:3 (Jan. 1971), 233—251, and Marquesado in Morelos.


Cheryl E. Martin, Rural Society in Colonial Morelos (Albuquerque, 1985).


Gerhard, Historical Geography, 95-96; Riley, Marquesado in Morelos, 30.


Gerhard, “Continuity and Change,” 343-345. Gibson, Aztecs, 57, notes an increase of independent towns in the Valley of Mexico during the same period.


Lockhart, “The Tlaxcalan Actas” (unpublished paper, author’s files).


This timing was common in many areas of New Spain. Regulations connected with the establishment of indigenous cabildos are cited in Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, Formas de gobierno indígena (Mexico City, 1953), 31-32; Luis Chávez Orozco, Las instituciones democráticas de los indígenas mexicanos en la época colonial (Mexico City, 1943), 5; Recopilación de leyes (Madrid, 1791), 209-211; and Silvio Zavala and José Miranda, “Instituciones indígenas en la colonia,” Memorias del Instituto Nacional Indigenista: Métodos y resultados de la política indigenista en México, (Mexico City, 1954), VI, 79.


The jurisdiction’s electoral process is discussed in Robert S. Haskett, “A Social History of Indian Town Government in the Colonial Cuernavaca Jurisdiction, Mexico” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1985), 64-117.


Lockhart, “Complex Municipalities.”


For another view see Pedro Carrasco, “The Civil-Religious Hierarchy in Mesoamerican Communities: Pre-Spanish Background and Colonial Development,” American Anthropologist, 63:3 (1961), 483-497, who believes that elected officers and the more traditional group of elders were related, yet somewhat distinct.


This arrangement has not been fully delineated. A system of tlatoani/governor rotation existed in pre-Hispanic and early colonial Tlaxcala. Lockhart, Berdan, and Anderson, The Cabildo of Tlaxcala. Cabildo arrangements were reconstructed from numerous election documents in various legs, of AGN HJ.


Haskett, “Colonial Cuernavaca,” 46-56.


For comparison, see translated cabildo minutes from Tlaxcala in Eustaquio Celestino Solis, Armando Valencia R., and Constantino Medina Lima, Actas de cabildo de Tlaxcala, 1547-1567 (Mexico City, 1985) and Lockhart, Berdan, and Anderson, The Cabildo of Tlaxcala.


José Miranda, El tributo indígena de la Nueva España durante el siglo XVI (Mexico City, 1952).


For a jurisdiction-wide description of tribute, see AGN HJ leg. 312:11 (1615). See also Gibson, Aztecs, 194-211.


AGN HJ leg. 289, exp. 2, fols. 12r (Tepoztlán), 189r-190r (Yautepec), and exp. 4, fols. 11r-12v (Cuernavaca). Berdan, The Aztecs of Central Mexico, an Imperial Society (New York, 1982), 36-39, discusses pre-Hispanic tribute collection practices and the supply of foodstuffs to palaces.


Haskett, “Colonial Cuernavaca,” 582-586. A cédula of May 25, 1596 set regulations standardizing tribute collection. See Borah, Justice By Insurance, 333.


AGN HJ vol. 84, exp. 16, fol. 12r (Cuernavaca, 1717), a Nahuatl document; leg. 312, exps. 11 and 12 (1615 and 1635); vol. 49, exp. 3 (maize tribute collected in cash, 1692—93). Borah, Justice By Insurance, 334, states that the entire medio real assessment was retained by the Marquesado following 1748. See also Lesley Byrd Simpson, Many Mexicos (Berkeley, 1974), 66.


See a 1581 Nahuatl description of tribute collection in Xiuhtepec, AGN Civil vol. 831, exp. 6, fols. 4r-6v.


See AGN Tierras vol. 1753, exp. 3 (Cuernavaca, 1694-95) and AGN Tributos vol. 52, exp. 17 (Cuernavaca, 1694-96).


AGN Civil vol. 2229, exp. 1 (provision of Jonacatepec’s teniente with weekly levies of servants and messengers, 1740s).


AGN Indios vol. 12, part 2, exp. 27, fol. 177r vol. 13, exp. 179, fols. 163v-165r; and vol. 13, exp. 345, fols. 286v–286r (Cuernavaca and Chalcatzingo petitioners complaining to viceroy about repartimiento labor and the desagüe, 1640-41); AGN HJ vol. 86, exp. 40 (resistance to Taxco repartimiento in Cuernavaca, 1716); and AGN Civil vol. 1608, exp. 10 (rioting against Taxco repartimiento in Tepoztlán, 1720s).


AGN HJ leg. 312, exp. 12 (Cuernavaca, 1638). The order for the creation of cajas dated from 1554, and an auto acordado dated Sept. 3, 1577 included more details, Tierras vol. 2388, part 1 (Metepec and Malacatepec, 1770). AGN HJ leg. 309, exp. 5 cites law 31, title 4, book 6 of the Recopilación de leyes, which has additional information. See also Lockhart, Berdan, and Anderson, The Cabildo of Tlaxcala and Gibson, Aztecs, 213–214. Originally, towns had to rent land if they did not possess enough of their own, but by the 1780s the law was commuted to a flat 1½ real fee per tributary.


AGN HJ leg. 332, exp. 14.


AGN HJ vol. 82, exps. 5 and 20 (Xiuhtepec and Tlaquiltenango). See also leg. 304, exps. 40 and 56 (Huichilac and Coatlán, 1799-1802), requests to use caja funds to repair damage to church buildings.


See AGN HJ leg. 332, exp. 14 (Cuernavaca jurisdiction, 1793).


AGN Indios vol. 12, part 2, exp. 27, fol. 177r and vol. 13, exp. 17g, fols. 163v-165r (Cuernavaca to viceroy, 1640-41). Between 1740 and 1780, Cuernavaca paid 2,175.5 pesos for building construction and repair, AGN HJ leg. 358, exp. 1.


See lengthy court cases in AGN HJ vol. 86, exps. 36, 37, 55 (Cuernavaca vs. Spanish estates and an interpreter). Borah, justice By Insurance, discusses courts and litigation expenses.


AGN Civil vol. 1118, exp. 5.


AGN HJ leg. 74, exp. 72 (Tepoztlán, 1754). See also AGN HJ leg. 345, exp. 42 (Jojutla and Tehuiztla, 1751), similar cases.


AGN HJ leg. 332, exp. 14 (Alpuyeca buys maize from outsiders, 1785). Teachers were apparently not present regularly before 1700. See AGN HJ vol. 82, exp. 3 (Jonacatepec, 1771); vol. 82, exp. 8 (Yautepec, 1771); leg. 74, exp. 72 (Tepoztlán, 1771).


See the Nahuatl documents in AGN Civil vol. 2229, exp. 1, fols. 28r-31r and vol. 1513, exp. 13, fols. 9r–9v (Jonacatepec vs. sujetos, 1745). The sujetos had to provide workers and money for cabecera projects, probably one cause of sujeto separations.


Gibson, Aztecs, 215. Spores, The Mixtees, 154-164, 174-175, finds an “unusually high proportion of expenditures on religious activity” in sixteenth-century Mixtecan Oaxaca.


AGN HJ leg. 402, exp. 54 (1749); leg. 443, exp. 1 (1707-53). Teopantequitl is mentioned in Cuernavaca’s 1717 Nahuatl tribute list, AGN HJ vol. 84, exp. 16, fob 12r. More details of monetary support for curates can be found in HJ vol. 50, exp. 6 (Cuernavaca jurisdiction, 1710-22) and leg. 443, exp. 1 (Cuernavaca jurisdiction, 1707-53).


AGN HJ leg. 312, exp. 12 (1638).


See Wood, “Corporate Adjustments,” 188-190 for a detailed discussion of the importance of town churches. See also AGN HJ leg. 78, exp. 19 (Tetecala pays for repair of Franciscan monastery’s roof, 1758); leg. 332, exp. 14 (Xochitlán uses all the money in its caja for church repair, 1785).


AGN HJ vol. 86, exp. 56. Similar requests were granted for San Andrés, AGN Tierras vol. 1714; exp. 8 (1689-93); Tepoztlán, AGN Civil vol. 1608, exp. 10 (1724-29); and Ticumán, AGN HJ leg. 208, exps. 210, 220 (1730s). The ramo AGN Indios has multiple records of earthquake damage to churches, but there is some evidence that certain towns exaggerated the extent of damage to avoid the hated Taxco mine repartimiento.


Biblioteca Nacional de México, Fondo Reservado (hereafter BNM/FR), Fondo Franciscano Caja 91, exp. 1389, nos. 14, 15, and 16 (1629-1757).


AGN HJ vol. 86, exp. 40, fols. 5r-6v.


A list written by Tepoztlán’s curate in 1789 shows that the villa’s council supplied nearly three-fourths of all support for masses, processions, fiestas, and the like, AGN Civil vol. 997, exp. 14, fols. 1r-1v.


AGN Civil vol. 2229, exp. 2, fols. 29r and 30r, a series of Nahuatl documents.


AGN HJ leg. 78, exp. 19 (Tetecala earns income from the sale of sugar cane, 1758); Lockhart, Berdan, and Anderson, The Cabildo of Tlaxcala (sale of crops as income); AGN HJ leg. 345, exp. 23 (Tepoztlán’s “immemorial” custom of renting out cows and oxen, mentioned 1755); vol. 86. exp. 53 (Tepoztlán’s sujeto of Santo Domingo sells firewood, 1703).


AGN Tributos vol. 45, exp. 7 (1694); AGN HJ vol. 85, exp. 26 (1716); leg. 344, exp. 79 (fee raised to one peso per tributary, 1736); leg. 345, exp. 23 (similar fee is “immemorial custom” in Tepoztlán, mentioned 1755). Tepoztlán’s record of election disputes is full of references to illegal fees of this sort, and see AGN HJ leg. 384, exp. 2 (Yautepec, 1806-1809).


Lockhart, Berdan, and Anderson, The Cabildo of Tlaxcala.


AGN HJ leg. 277, exp. 9 (Cuernavaca rents sugar cane land to the Marquesado for 142 pesos a year, 1551).


Questions about the exact meaning of calpullalli in various localities remain. See Sue Louise Cline, “Culhuacán 1572-1599: An Investigation Through Mexican Indian Testaments” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1981), 268-271, and Luis Reyes García, “El término calpulli en documentos del siglo xvi” (unpublished paper, 1979, author’s files).


AGN Tierras vol. 1506, exp. 2 (1570).


AGN HJ vol. 48, part 2, exp. 9, cuad. 3.


Nahuatl rental documents can be found in AGN HJ vol. 80, exp. 1 (1620s), leg. 273, exp. 43 (1680s and ’90s); vol. 48, part 2, exp. 9, cuad. 3, fols. 544r-554r (six Nahuatl leases); and AGN Tierras vol. 1724, exp. 1 (1628–50). Similar rentals by Xiuhtepec, BNM/FR Fondo Franciscano Caja 91, exp. 1389, no. 14 (1629) and AGN HJ vol. 80, exp. 1 (1624), and Tezoyuca, AGN HJ vol. 52, exp. 15, fols. 7r-13r (a series of nine Nahuatl rental receipts, 1691), are also representative.


AGN HJ vol. 52, exp. 18, fols. 3r, 5r.


AGN HJ vol. 86, exp. 44 (Tepoztlán, 1700-10), leg. 344, exp. 79 (Cuernavaca, 1736), vol. 67, exp. 18 and vol. 82, exp. 17 (Yautepec, 1731 and 1780).


AGN HJ vol. 48, part 2, exp. 9, cuad. 3.


AGN HJ vol. 82, exp. 17.


AGN HJ leg. 273, exp. 7 (license for Cuemavacan land rental, 1666).


AGN Tierras vol. 1753, exp. 3.


AGN Civil vol. 1103, exp. 8, fols. 103r-103v.


See Haskett, “Colonial Cuernavaca,” 493-499, for a discussion of Nahuatl land terminology.


For similar rental agreements see AGN HJ vol. 52, exp. 3, fols. 44r–44v, 48r (Tezoyuca, 1631); vol. 52, exp. 6, fols. 3r-4r (San Andrés Acatlicpac, 1637); vol. 52, exp. 2, fols. 4r-6r (Yautepec, 1641); leg. 442, exp. 6, fols. 154r-155v (Xochitepec, 1642); vol. 52, exp. 7, fols. 2r-2v (Tlaltizapán, 1643); and leg. 90, exp. 9, fol. 12r (Tezoyuca, 1668-69).


See Haskett, “Colonial Cuernavaca,” 518-520 and Taylor, Landlord and Peasant.


See AGN HJ leg. 78, exp. 19 (Tetecala in financial difficulties, 1758); vol. 67, exp. 18 and vol. 82, exp. 14 (Yautepec, 1732 and 1780).


AGN HJ leg. 277, exp. 9 (sixteenth century), vol. 50, exp. 1 (Atlacholoaya); see also leg. 339, exp. 1, leg. 387, exp. 33, leg. 391, exps. 8, 18, and 20 (leases arranged by Atlacholoaya, Atlacahualoya, Achichipico, San Miguel Cuautla, and Yecapixtla, 1707-independence).


Both Gibson, Aztecs, 212, and Taylor, Landlord and Peasant, 78, mention sale of community land for this purpose.


AGN Civil 1103, exp. 8, fol. 68r.


Haskett, “Colonial Cuernavaca,” 235–241. See also Gibson, Tlaxcala in the Sixteenth Century (New Haven, 1952), 116, who mentions such activities.


AGN Civil vol. 1103, exp. 8, fols. 74r-74v. Similar were the rental of a noble couple’s town lot to a Spaniard in June 1586, AGN Civil 1103, exp. 8, fol. 67r, and rentals recorded in Nahuatl documents dating from 1685, AGN HJ vol. 48, exp. 1, fols. 43r-44r.


For example, land was given to newly married tributaries in eighteenth-century Tecpantzinco, AGN HJ leg. 344, exp. 50.


AGN Tierras vol. 1962, exp. 8, fol. 23r, a Nahuatl document. It is possible, of course, that the elite-dominated local government was siding with their own kind; the merits of the commoner’s claim were not recorded.


Sahagún, General History of the Things of New Spain: The Florentine Codex, Book Eight (Santa Fe, 1954), 41-42, speaks of a high court, the tlacxitlán, headed by the ruler, and lower courts called tecalli. Clavijero, Historia antigua, 216-217, claims that the cihuacóatl (second to the tlatoani) was the supreme judge. Pre-Hispanic judicial titles, such as tlacatecatl and tlailotlac, sometimes appear as surnames of members of Cuernavaca’s ruling group in the sixteenth century.


In 1607, Cuernavaca turned to the Marquesado when a solution for a local land dispute could not be found. AGN HJ leg. 210, exp. 23, fol. 1r (a Nahuatl petition).


AGN HJ leg. 262, exp. 1, fols. 30r, 47r-v (Nahuatl documents, Xiuhtepec, Apr. 1585).


AGN HJ, Tierras, and other ramos are full of such litigation. See also Borah, Justice By Insurance, who presents a gazetteer of New Spain’s common litigation types.


Borah, Justice By Insurance, 235, 275-278.


AGN HJ leg. 90, exp. 7, fol. 31r (procurador Bartolomé de la Torre to the council of Cuentepec, 1731).


A collection of over 40 Nahuatl petitions can be found in AGN HJ leg. 210, and this and other ramos of the AGN contain numerous and varied examples of a similar type.


Díaz del Castillo, Historia de la conquista, 183-184.


AGN HJ leg. 210, exp. 45 (council of Tezoyuca to the gobernador del estado, 1607).


AGN HJ leg. 96, libro 4, fol. 43r (a Nahuatl petition, Xochitepec, 1624). A viceregal decree in 1771 restricting the jurisdiction of the Audiencia in the Marquesado removed a good deal of flexibility from the system. Borah, Justice By Insurance, 334, 338.


AGN HJ leg. 266, exp. 6, fols. 40r-41r (Tlaquiltenango to the gobernador del estado, 1619).




AGN Civil vol. 1513, exp. 13, fol. 9r-9v (misrepresentation by Jojutla and Tlaquiltenango vs. their sujetos concerning obligations to the cabeceras’ churches, 1745).


AGN Tierras vol. 1496, exp. 6 and vol. 1501, exp. 2 (Cuernavaca vs. Ahuatepec, 1690-1720s); AGN Civil vol. 1608, exp. 10 (Tepoztlán, late seventeenth century to 1720s).


See tribute disputes in AGN Tributos vol. 52, exp. 17 (Cuernavaca, 1690s), AGN HJ leg. 323, exp. 1 (Guaxintlán, 1735), and HJ vol. 86, exp. 14 (Yautepec, 1780).


AGN HJ vol. 49, exp. 8 (none of the censuses have been located). For other references to the activities of nonofficers see AGN HJ leg. 210, exps. 46 and 47 (telpopochtín [nobles] of Cuernavaca’s Tlapallán and Analco districts complain of Taxco repartimiento, 1607); leg. 210, exp. 56 (huehuetque of Cuernavaca’s Ollac district complain of Franciscan land usurpation, 1607); and vol. 52, exp. 18, fol. 5r (huehuetque of Tetecala arrange house rental to Spaniard, 1625) (all Nahuatl documents); AGN HJ leg. 90, exp. 4 (Tlaltizapán, 1722), leg. 323, exp. 1 (Huichilac, Yautepec, and Zacualpán, 1734), and leg. 345, exp. 23 (Tepoztlán, 1755). Haskett, “Colonial Cuernavaca,” 283-287, discusses the functions of various officer types.


AGN Civil vol. 2224, exp. 4 (Cuernavaca, 1673) is a good example of a factional election dispute. See Haskett, “Colonial Cuernavaca,” 132-196 for a discussion of election disputes. Factional strife in other litigation can be seen in AGN Tierras vol. 1753, exp. 3 (dispute over land rental, Cuernavaca, 1694-95); AGN HJ leg. 323, exp. 1 (Tepoztlán factional alignments in litigation, 1735 and 1747). See also AGN HJ leg. 344, exp. 49 (tribute dispute, Tetecala, 1738) and AGN Tierras vol. 1499, exp. 10 (land dispute, Ayoxochiapa, 1780).


References to status can be found in or inferred from much of the documentation from the sixteenth century. See Cuernavacan litigation records, AGN Tierras 1506:2 (1570); Zavala, Tributos y servicios personales de indios para Hernán Cortés y su familia: Extracto de documentos del siglo XVI (Mexico City, 1984), 147-169; and most of the cases cited in this article. The question of mestizaje is discussed in Haskett, “Colonial Cuernavaca,” 168-171, 388-390, 407-427.


AGN HJ leg. 96, libro 1 (wife and sister of Xiuhtepec governor active in town matters, 1650); AGN HJ leg. 387, exp. 37 (tlatoani’s widow and Cuernavaca cabildo vs. the Cortés Tlaltenango sugar estate, 1568); leg. 208, exp. 218 (widow of an alcalde and Achichipico cabildo vs. a former governor, 1732).


See AGN HJ vol. 86, exps. 44 and 50 (1711 and 1705); vol. 85, exp. 21; AGN Civil vol. 1118, exp. 5 (1712-13) and vol. 1608, exp. 10 (1725) for mention of doña Josefa.


Evidence from Toluca indicates that indigenous women were politically active. In 1704, a governors widow, known as the “governadora,” attempted to become an elector, but Spanish officials ruled against her; AGN Indios vol. 36, exp. 211 (citation provided by Stephanie Wood).