For anthropologists and social historians, one of the most intriguing and enigmatic social consequences of the Spanish conquest is the persistence to the present day of large, culturally distinctive Indian populations in mainland Latin America. The greatest part of those populations is to be found within the geographic boundaries once occupied by the so-called high civilizations of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and the Central Andes. Native groups in these areas were spared the rapid extinction suffered by their Antillean cousins, at least in part because of higher aboriginal population densities and the prevalence of socioeconomic structures preadapted to the labor and tribute demands of a European conquest state.

In recent years, scholars have drawn attention to the considerable variation that existed among Mesoamerican and Andean populations in the success of their response to both newly introduced pathogens and the colonial institutions which preyed on them. Although demographic losses could be staggeringly high, local social, economic, and ecological factors might alter or exacerbate the course of epidemic disease in different parts of the colonized mainland to create varying patterns of demographic decline.1 Among those ethnic groups which did manage to survive the impact of sixteenth-century epidemics, many faced insurmountable obstacles to the maintenance of economically viable communities where culturally distinctive traditions might be perpetuated. Indeed, given the social disruption caused by such colonial institutions as repartimiento, congregación, and hacienda, it is remarkable that so many Indian groups retained their social and cultural identities into the twentieth century.

It is just such groups, populated by speakers of indigenous languages and exhibiting customs distinct from those of the national culture, that have long been the focus of anthropological research in Latin America. Too often, however, the autonomous Indian community has been seen as a reservoir of indigenous beliefs and practices. Beneath a surface veneer of Catholicism and humorial disease concepts was sought an essentially pure, if simplified, version of pre-Columbian culture, one that somehow remained substantially unchanged despite 400 years of contact with the Western world. The untenability of that view has become abundantly clear in the wake of the last 30 years of ethnohistorical research; study after study has documented the extent to which native communities, even those situated far from the major centers of Spanish exploitation and influence, were drawn into the developing colonial economy and forced to create new institutional mechanisms for survival.

That these colonial Indian societies were significantly different from their pre-Columbian counterparts is no longer a new idea. What remains to be explained satisfactorily is how some Indian groups managed to adapt themselves to dramatically different circumstances in ways that continued to support their cultural and linguistic separation from ladino society, while others, less successful at achieving a creative accommodation, saw their economic viability broken and their sons and daughters leave communities which no longer maintained ceremonial or social links to a distinctive tradition.

No unanimity of opinion has emerged to explain the colonial persistence of individual cultural groups. Scholars have suggested a range of external and internal variables, from the timing and intensity of Spanish contact to the sociopolitical structure and cultural values of the indigenous population, to account for Indian cultural survival or loss in specific cases.2 However plausible a particular explanation of Indian survival in one area may be, generalizing from several similar cases is problematic. For the most part, ethnohistorians have been reticent about formulating models that purport to hold for multiple situations, since neither external circumstances nor internal social structures were ever precisely equivalent in different regions of Latin America.

Another approach to model building might be to examine regional situations that display greater variability in the interplay of external and internal factors during the colonial past. These might be places where the historical impact of colonial institutions varied geographically and differentially affected segments of a single indigenous cultural group. Alternatively, we might examine a region in which the colonial political and economic context was relatively homogeneous, yet the indigenous sociocultural conditions were heterogeneous at the time of conquest and the ensuing culture histories divergent. Hypotheses drawn from these more complex cases about the relative importance of indigenous sociocultural or regional politicoeconomic variables might be tested by their success or failure in accounting for other historical cases where one or more of the inferred sets of covariables occurred.

The latter type of complex regional situation is presented by Mexico’s southern Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where three ethnically and linguistically distinct native groups, the Zapotec, the Zoque, and the Huave, coexisted for a century or more preceding Cortés’s arrival. Local political and economic boundaries among these groups were relaxed under Spanish rule, as the Tehuantepec province was unified into a single administrative entity. Under the stewardship of both Cortés, who first appropriated it as part of the Marquesado del Valle, and the Spanish crown, which reasserted royal authority there in 1562, the southern isthmus was subjected, fairly uniformly, to the waxing and waning of externally derived economic pressures during the colonial era. Yet each of the three native groups responded differently to these pressures. To the extent that available historical documentation permits,3 I will attempt to describe the experiences of each of these groups during the early colonial period, focusing my attention on a period of particularly intense economic exploitation, the ranching boom of 1580–1620 and its aftermath. This analysis has led me to conclude that, in a region which had the initial advantage of being situated far from a major Spanish population center, internal factors specific to each group’s social structure and cultural orientation were powerful codeterminants of its adaptation to colonialism.

Defining Indian Culture in Postconquest Latin America: Ethnographic and Historiographic Issues

Before reviewing the specific circumstances of Indian survival on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, it is appropriate to consider the criteria by which we define as “Indian” populations that underwent a considerable amount of culture change under Spanish colonial influence. Assessing the “Indianness” of the surviving native communities is difficult, even for the ethnographer who can measure a group’s approximation of some ideal standard directly. No rigid set of biological criteria will do, for the extent of genetic admixture between native and European populations in the New World has been great. An Indian physical type may be as prominent among Spanish-speaking urbanites as it is among monolingual Zapotec farmers, although its frequency does correlate inversely with wealth and class.

Cultural and socioeconomic criteria provide a more meaningful measure of Indian survival, although they have been applied somewhat indiscriminately in the ethnohistorical literature. Such ethnically distinctive patterns as language, dress, world view, religion, and other customary behavior are the least ambiguous of cultural markers, yet all were subject to alteration under culture contact. Rather incongruously, we may label as “Indian” today culturally conservative populations whose distinctive behavior includes disease concepts prevalent in sixteenth-century rural Spain or clothing that borrows heavily from Spanish, French, English, and even Chinese costume elements.4

Selective borrowing itself reflects a culture’s ability to respond creatively to outside influences, for the long-term survival of indigenous traditions may depend on their substantive and structural modification. What is central to the historical success of many Mesoamerican Indian cultures and other ethnic groups Edward Spicer has labeled “persistent peoples” is not their ancient cultural purity but rather their ability to accommodate to external pressures without loss of self-consciousness as a people. That ethnic identity, in Spicer’s conceptualization, depends on the continuous unfolding of an interrelated set of symbols which at once define the group as an entity distinct from others and give meaning to the collective experience of its members.5

Symbols relating to land and language seem to be paramount among those traits which reinforce ethnic identity and promote cultural persistence.6 Although Spicer notes some instances in which a group has lost either its territorial base or its distinctive language yet retained its ethnicity, both appear to be important conditions for Indian survival under the acculturative circumstances of Spanish colonialism. In northern New Spain, many Indian groups that were unable to protect their claims to traditional agricultural lands were drawn irrevocably into the colonial market economy, either as wage laborers on rural estates or as members of the growing unskilled labor force inhabiting colonial towns and cities.7 Still, maintenance of a communal land base did not preclude assimilation into colonial society, and is not by itself a sufficient condition for cultural persistence. Not all Latin American peasant villages are classified as Indian in language or culture, nor should they all be placed on a continuum of more or less acculturated rural communities, whatever the genealogical histories of particular communities may be. Important cultural factors which create qualitatively different circumstances of social isolation continue to distinguish Indians from ladinos in rural Latin America, despite several centuries of interaction and cultural change.

A distinctive language is, as Spicer points out, paramount among the factors which promote ethnicity. For the group, it provides a two-way barrier to the outer world, impeding communication between Indians and Spanish-speaking “others,” restricting both the mobility of community members and the ability of outsiders to penetrate the community. For the individual, it provides the vocabulary which shapes his or her orientation to the exterior world, as well as the sounds and rhythms of myths and stories which give meaning to individual experience.

Other cultural traits may also reinforce ethnic distinctiveness, such as the wearing of non-Western clothing or the performance of traditional music and dance, often in the form of a kind of ritual drama. What is important for the participants in these activities is not the cultural purity of what are, on closer examination, often traditions of heterogeneous origin, but the fact that their performance distinguishes the group as a people. On the other hand, loss of native language and other distinctive elements of cultural behavior communicated orally removes an important barrier to the outer world.

When we examine the issue of Indian survival in colonial times, a multitude of historiographic problems obscures our view. At the outset, we are largely limited to “etic” or external measures of Indian identity, for few written accounts relate native perceptions of their own ethnicity. Most documents were produced by Spaniards or creoles and reflect culturally derived attitudes about what features distinguish Indians from other groups, attitudes which shifted through time. Moreover, each document’s purpose and each writer’s observational skills determined the degree of attention paid to linguistic and cultural distinctions within the Indian population.

At worst, these sources may provide gross population figures for a disparate group lumped together as “Indian,” a category which in the early colonial period probably was at least coterminous with major cultural boundaries separating Indians and Spaniards. As time passed, however, the term developed into a racial marker that obscured important divisions between ethnically distinctive native communities and Indian populations absorbed into the lower tiers of colonial society.8 At best, an astute and familiar observer will describe the content of cultural behavior or attitudes toward outsiders in particular native groups. What we can reasonably hope to find for most historical periods is something that approximates the linguistic and territorial criteria for cultural survival outlined by Spicer, i.e., reference to a particular native language and identification of specific communities or larger territorial units associated with that linguistic group. Such criteria will not single out just the most unacculturated of Indian groups, but they should provide reasonable markers for ethnic persistence. Retention or expansion of a linguistically defined territory can be used as a crude index of a group’s successful adaptation, however altered the content and structure of its institutions, while territorial loss implies a significant threat to the group’s capacity for self-maintenance.

Identifying Indian Survival on the Southern Isthmus

Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec is one of the more remarkable regions of Indian survival. More than 93,000 speakers of native languages populate the southern isthmian coastal plain and adjoining low-lying mountains of the Sierra Atravesada,9 where the area’s major indigenous groups, the Zapotec, the Zoque, and the Huave, have persisted since they were first visited by emissaries of Cortés in 1522. Although the region was distant from a major colonial city, indigenous traditions and native dialects did not owe their survival to geographic isolation which removed local groups from the economic pressures felt elsewhere in New Spain. Indeed, in the eyes of Spanish colonists, the arid climate provided a more healthful environment than that found in humid lowland areas nearby (although the isthmian native population also suffered a major disease-related demographic decline). More importantly, the region has long figured in the projects and schemes of outsiders wishing to exploit its physical and human resources or its strategic location for overland and sea trade. To this day, native culture thrives here, and not just in villages remote from the onslaught of commercial expansion and the homogenizing influence of radio and television. Even in a bustling town like Juchitán, Zapotec remains the language of commerce and politics, and is spoken by nearly 80 percent of its approximately 40,000 inhabitants (see Figure 1).10

While ethnicity functions significantly as a sociopolitical factor in isthmian life at present, I do not wish to suggest that the symbolic basis of Indian cultural identity has remained unchanged after nearly five centuries of contact with the Western world. Today, most speakers of Zapotec and Zoque are also conversant in Spanish; 27 percent and 21 percent monolingual speakers, respectively, were reported for these two groups in the 1970 census, though the Huave are still nearly 60 percent monolingual.11 Like most areas of rural Mexico, towns and villages of the southern isthmus have been infiltrated by many icons of contemporary popular culture, from packaged white bread to Coca-Cola. Even a close examination of the costumes, music, and dance reserved for ritual occasions and pointed to as being culturally distinctive reveals a complex blend of indigenous elements with those of foreign inspiration incorporated since the conquest. Following Spicer’s model of persistent cultures, we would expect to find such creative re-workings of cultural form and content.

If we assess cultural survival using language and territorial base as our criteria, the Zapotec have clearly been the most successful in this region at maintaining their ethnicity under colonialism. After recovering from a sixteenth-century demographic nadir, they flourished in the late colonial and national periods. Today, they constitute nearly 80 percent of the native language speakers of the southern isthmus, with a geographic range greatly expanded to include communities once dominated by other cultural groups. At the opposite extreme, the Zoque were profoundly affected by assimilative pressures, maintaining their language and cultural identity only in the more isolated mountainous stretches of their original homeland. By the midtwentieth century, towns on the eastern half of the coastal plain that were identified in early colonial documents as Zoque-speaking had completely lost their ethnic identity. The Huave, on the other hand, have persisted as the most conservative of the three indigenous groups, despite a longstanding economic integration with the colonial market economy. Their lagoon shore-barrier beach homeland has not attracted the permanent settlement of other groups, and, as a consequence, the Huave are the most linguistically isolated of the region’s indigenous groups.12

While these broad patterns of differential cultural survival are readily apparent from more recent demographic and ethnographic surveys, early colonial documentation seldom is sufficiently detailed to trace the roots of such patterns statistically. Censuses enumerating Indian tributaries rarely give individual counts for native communities other than Tehuantepec, which served as the region’s administrative cabecera during this period, or for the larger cultural groups of which they were a part. Instead, we must rely on more qualitative evidence to assess the strength of Zapotec, Zoque, and Huave groups and the nature of their cultural adaptations—evidence such as travelers’ accounts of linguistic boundaries, the persistence of individual communities on tribute rolls, and the rare ethnographic glimpse of native life.

These sources indicate that, by the latter half of the seventeenth century, isthmian native culture was significantly altered from its contact-period form, not just superficially touched by Catholicism and colonial administrative structures. Although the region was far removed from the centers of colonial enterprise, the major ecological and economic transformations introduced into the region through the growth of Spanish ranching had a profound effect on native livelihood and lifestyle. Yet the region’s three ethnic groups developed different adaptations to colonial influences. The success of these cultural accommodations, rooted as they were in distinctive pre-Columbian sociocultural institutions, at once constrained and conditioned differing survival trajectories for the Zapotec, Zoque, and Huave peoples.

The Isthmus Under the Marquesado: Social Transformations in the Aftermath of Spanish Conquest

When Hernán Cortés’s lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado, first entered the southern isthmus in 1522, he saw a complex cultural landscape that reflected the turbulent political climate of late pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. Fourteenth-century Oaxaca Valley Zapotec migrants had secured an important base for further expansion on the coastal plain at the site of Tehuantepec.13 Through conquest and displacement or assimilation of the local population, Zapotec communities were firmly entrenched at least as far west as the Río de los Perros by the close of the fifteenth century, when their paramount ruler, Cosijoeza of Zaachila, had joined the Tehuantepec colony.

Zapotec society on the eve of the conquest was deeply stratified. Strict rules of class endogamy separated the commoner population from the hereditary nobility, among whom further status distinctions divided lower- and higher-ranking noble lineages from the royal family.14 Lavish residences, stone-lined tombs, and sumptuary privileges enhanced the status of the elite, who constituted the administrative and juridical authority of communities that owed them tribute in labor and goods. Military leadership was also an important function of the Zapotec nobility, for a great lord, the coquitao huezaquiqueche, was one who had subjugated other lords, seizing their best lands and exacting tribute from them, in practices widespread among the late prehistoric states of Mesoamerica.15 With its Oaxaca-style platform temple complex, ball court, palaces, and tombs, the fortified mountaintop site of Guiengola bears silent testimony to the post-classic Zapotec entrada in the isthmus.16 Salt pans along the edge of the shallow lagoons and irrigated fields of cotton and tropical fruits made the region an attractive asset for any ruler, a fact which had not escaped the attention of the Aztec lords of Tenochtitlán.

Zapotec territorial gains were made largely at the expense of the Zoque, who had enjoyed several centuries of political autonomy before this incursion. An agricultural economy supplemented by fishing and hunting supported permanent Zoque villages and towns along the flood-plains of the small rivers draining the coastal plain. The larger of these seem to have been led by hereditary chiefs, to whom smaller communities in their immediate hinterland may also have owed allegiance and gifts of food and labor. Architectural and artifactual evidence from prehistoric sites on the Río de los Perros suggests that social distinctions within Zoque society were based on gradations of rank rather than sharp divisions between social classes.17 By the time the Spaniards entered the southern isthmus, the Zapotecs had thoroughly disrupted the Río de los Perros settlement system, dispersing the residents of the largest communities, influencing the material culture of the smaller hamlets and villages that remained, and establishing Zapotec outposts in prime agricultural zones. Culturally and politically independent Zoque settlements had been pushed to the eastern side of the coastal plain and adjoining piedmont, where the villages of San Miguel Chimalapa, Santa María Chimalapa, Yilóztepec, Níltepec, Ostutla, Ixhuatán, Zanátepec, Tonáltepec, and Tapanátepec were located.18 Three of these communities, Tapanátepec and Ixhuatán on the coastal plain and Santa María Chimalapa at the headwaters of the Coatzacoalcos River, are among five Tehuantepec dependencies given special status in Cortés’s 1532 petition to the crown, a status which, as Gerhard points out, reflects the communities’ economic importance to Cortés and very likely their pre-Columbian political independence.19

The Huave were the other local group dislodged by the Zapotec invaders. Confined to the agriculturally marginal barrier beaches and estuarine shores of the Pacific lagoons, egalitarian Huave villages depended on fish, shrimp, molluscs, and turtle eggs collected from the lagoons for both food and trade, as they have to the present day.20 Archeological evidence suggests that the scattered hamlets and small villages of this zone may also have been involved in the transport of goods for the Aztec long-distance traders, the pochteca.21 Although two of these villages, Guazontlán (San Mateo del Mar) and Istáctepec (San Francisco del Mar), were important enough to have been mentioned by Cortés in his 1532 petition, it is unlikely that the pre-Columbian Huave had any formal political ties among their loosely structured communities.

After receiving word of the fall of Tenochtitlán, Cosijopi, the reigning Zapotec ruler of Tehuantepec and son of Cosijoeza, sent rich gifts and promises of loyalty to Spanish emissaries exploring the southern highlands. What Cosijopi undoubtedly hoped would be a strategic alliance did, in fact, work largely to the Zapotec ruler’s advantage at first. His traditional enemies, the coastal Mixtecs, were routed by Alvarado, and the Aztec tribute state, with its persistent demands for tropical luxuries, was dismantled. Although Cortés later substituted new exactions of gold, food, and services from Cosijopi’s subjects, the Zapotec king retained many of his inherited rights and prerogatives, and may even have extended his political control over non-Zapotec portions of the coastal plain. The special status granted the Tehuantepec ruler as a loyal and willing vassal of Charles V carried with it additional privileges of local political autonomy that, while not unchallenged during Cosijopi’s lifetime, clearly enhanced Zapotec sociopolitical adaptability. Here, unlike the experience of Indian societies that had been subjugated by force, native institutions had time to adjust gradually to the impact of colonial rule.

As the years wore on, however, the Spanish presence on the southern isthmus levied a costly burden. By 1563, when the province was finally under crown control, the native population had shrunk to as little as 10 percent of its pre-Columbian level due to the combined effects of ravaging epidemic diseases, overwork, and malnutrition. That same year, Don Juan Cortés, as Cosijopi was known after his conversion to Catholicism, suffered the ignominy of a heresy trial and died disgraced, en route home from Mexico City.22

From the shrewd entrepreneurial perspective of Hernán Cortés, the Tehuantepec province was clearly a valued resource. After securing it as the only coastal holding incorporated into his quasi-feudal domain, the Marquesado del Valle, Cortés wasted little time integrating it into his multifaceted enterprises. Maritime commerce and exploration were undoubtedly the primary objectives of Cortés’s initial interest in the province, and shipbuilding on the coastal lagoons serviced by Indian supplies and labor remained a major activity through the mid-1500s.

Strategic geography was not the only resource of the isthmus. Gold mining in the streams and hills of the piedmont and mountains north of the coastal plain at one time employed nearly four hundred Indian slaves. Provisioning these workers remained a major tax on free Indian villages until rising death tolls and declining productivity of the mines themselves in the late 1540s led to their abandonment.23 Relatively minor industries extracting lumber, pitch, and salt also contributed to the marquesado. But none of these had the potential for sustained growth that the marqués’s early investment in livestock breeding did. Unlike the labor-intensive mining operations, ranching depended little on the stability of a large, sustaining Indian population. As L. B. Simpson noted, it appeared to increase throughout New Spain precisely as the Indian population declined and new lands became available to maintain the invading herds of Old World domesticated animals.24 In the southern isthmus, the warm arid climate and scrubby leguminous vegetation of the coastal plain were well suited to cattle, horses, mules, donkeys, sheep, and goats. Cortés seized hold of the region’s potential early and decisively.

It is not clear how the marquesado initially acquired the land for Cortés’s Tehuantepec ranches. Like other encomenderos before the enactment of the New Laws of 1542, the Marqués del Valle could demand the tribute and labor of Indians within his encomienda jurisdiction, but he could not legally expropriate lands under cultivation. The marqués also claimed the additional seignorial privilege of distributing vacant lands to those he favored, a privilege disputed by the crown as residing solely with it and brought to a halt in 1555.25 Very likely, the core holdings of Cortés’s Tehuantepec ranches were originally acquired through this distributional ruse, which was perhaps augmented by purchases from members of the Indian nobility.26

Among the earliest records of the Tehuantepec ranches are livestock counts recorded for October 1543 by Juan de Toledo, who had served as alcalde mayor for the province since 1538 and was a partner with Hernán Cortés in his isthmian ranching venture. Only 11 years after the establishment of the marquesado, the numbers of newly introduced livestock were impressive: 13,700 sheep; 700 cattle; 180 horses; and 1,242 mules, donkeys, and mares. At that time, livestock not needed elsewhere in the marquesado was sold in Guatemala or other markets.27

Following Hernán Cortés’s death in 1547, the marquesado management shifted emphasis to highly profitable cattle production. When re-inventoried again in 1556, the Tehuantepec ranches held more than 12,000 head of cattle at the estancias of La Ventosa and Las Cruces alone. Some animals were sent to the Oaxaca market, where the marqués held a monopoly on the city’s butcher shops. A large number had to be slaughtered locally because of the damage the poorly tended herds were causing to neighboring Indian milpas and villages. Tallow and tanned hides made at the estancias were then sent on to Peru.28 Supplementing a large resident work force of freed Indians and black slaves, labor for ranching, like other enterprises under the supervision of the marquesado’s Tehuantepec alcalde mayor, was provided by repartimiento allotments of Indians from different isthmian villages, whose wages were carefully recorded in the alcalde mayor’s account books.29 Up until December 1562, when Tehuantepec was returned to crown control, the Marqués del Valle enjoyed unrestricted access at a modest wage to whatever Indian labor the ranches might need.

The Ranching Boom of 1580-1620

For the next ten years, management of the marquesado’s isthmian ranches languished while the political misfortunes of the conqueror’s son sent his vast estate into receivership.30 Once the sequestration ended, the marqués inaugurated a major initiative to increase production on the Tehuantepec estancias. Between 1582 and 1589, 12 new properties were acquired by Martín Cortés and his son Jerónimo. Generally located in the vicinity of existing marquesado ranches on the isthmus or in nearby Jalapa, these new acquisitions were requested from the crown or purchased from Indian or Spanish owners.31

Lolita Gutiérrez Brockington has undertaken a major study of the operation of the Tehuantepec haciendas marquesanas during the entire colonial period, and she reports that this early effort to increase the area of pasturage was just one aspect of an intensified program to expand production of livestock and animal by-products for use within the marquesado and for sale to regional and foreign markets. The vast scale of production on the Tehuantepec estates, which Brockington calculates to have generated as much as 16,500 pesos from livestock exports yearly during the late sixteenth century, relied on a diverse labor pool of blacks, mulattos, mestizos, and Indians. Slaves and resident free workers formed the core of this labor force, but also important were repartimiento drafts of Indians, drawn in weekly quotas of 50 or more from local villages, a practice given official sanction under Viceroy Zúñiga.32

Members of the Cortés family were not the only Spaniards to take an interest in Tehuantepec ranching. According to records in the Mercedes branch of the Archivo General de la Nación, between the years of 1556 and 1634, 208.5 sitios were granted or requested by other individuals. One hundred twenty-one of these were estancias for raising horses, donkeys, mules, or cattle, and 41 were designated for sheep or goats. Forty-three and a half caballerías or agricultural tracts were requested, and the remaining sitio petitions did not specify eventual use.33 Even this large figure is undoubtedly not complete, for individual merced descriptions often use as reference points neighboring estancias whose title cannot be established from these documents.

Looking at the chronological pattern of such land grants, it appears that requests for mercedes rose dramatically in the 1580s to 45 from just 6 in the previous ten-year period, peaking at 122 in the closing decade of the sixteenth century (Table I). Not only was there an unprecedented demand for meat, hides, and wool in New Spain during the period of the isthmian ranching boom (1580-1620), but livestock raising also provided a socially acceptable means of support for early settler and new arrival alike. Colonists increasingly required sources of income not directly tied to the labor services of a drastically diminished native population.

Although the majority of mercedes were small, consisting of one or two estancias for livestock or caballerías for growing maize, there were a few individuals and families besides the Marqueses del Valle who succeeded in amassing sizable estates on the isthmus, estates large enough perhaps to have ridden out the exigencies of drought, flood, and falling market prices that plague ranching and probably doomed a significant proportion of the region’s individual land grants. Even without detailed information on the operation of specific ranches among those granted to private individuals, it seems likely that the large number of recorded grants does not overly exaggerate the magnitude of the ranching boom’s impact in Tehuantepec. Given the intense pressure for pasture lands, the readiness of the marquesado and Dominican estates to absorb the failed attempts of others, and the crown’s insistence, however poorly enforced, that the estancias it granted be populated by a minimum number of the appropriate livestock within one year of the grant, the scale of Spanish land usurpation constituted a major ecological transformation of the isthmian landscape.

Based on sixteenth-century legal specifications for these land use classes, the 43.5 caballerías, 121 estancias de ganado mayor, 41 estancias de ganado menor, and another 3 unspecified estancias (here calculated at the minimum ganado menor size) would have covered an area of almost 2,500 square kilometers.34 With the addition of late sixteenth-century purchases, mercedes and gifts, the marquesado estancias by themselves added another 1,300 square kilometers. Properties belonging to the Dominican convent of San Hipólito Mártir in Antequera are more difficult to estimate. At least 8 Dominican estancias are mentioned in late sixteenth-century merced boundaries. Conservatively reckoned at one standard larger estancia each, the Dominican holdings would comprise a minimum area of 138 square kilometers, but their actual size seems to have been much greater.35

By the time the last merced was granted in 1634, as much as 4,000 square kilometers of territory on the southern isthmus had been relinquished to Spanish ownership. It is difficult to determine with any accuracy the percentage of usable land this represents, since the association of particular mercedes with individual Indian communities provides us with our only fix on the geographical boundaries of the affected area. Still, it is revealing that, by these calculations, the overall area under Spanish control falls within 250 or 500 square kilometers of the total surface area of the coastal plain and adjoining piedmont zones in which such acquisitions were made. Although the size of individual estancias probably varied from the royal standard, some being smaller and others, like the Dominican estancias, apparently much larger, Spanish ranching and agricultural interests consumed a major portion of the region’s land resources. The waning Spanish interest in acquiring further isthmian mercedes in the early 1600s reflects a real shortage of unutilized land.

Viceregal ordinances permitted 500 head per estancia de ganado mayor and 2,000 head per estancia de ganado menor,36 Thus, the crown estancia grants to private individuals theoretically could have accommodated as many as 60,500 cattle, horses, mules, and donkeys and 82,000 sheep and goats. Unfortunately, we have actual inventories only for the marquesado, and therefore the conclusion that livestock raising was indeed extensive on the isthmus must rest in large part on indirect evidence. The Dominicans had such large herds of cattle that they had to petition the crown in 1592 for permission to slaughter 1,000 head to keep them from harassing neighboring villages.37 By 1609, a formal stockmen’s association or mesta had been formed, and the province was to remain one of the 18 major mesta centers in New Spain.38 The Jesuit priest Bernabé Cobo, who passed through the province en route to Mexico City in 1629, estimated that sheep herds alone on the outskirts of Tehuantepec numbered over 50,000 animals.39

Ranching and its Impact on the Indian Population

For the native peoples of the isthmus, the impact of this late sixteenth-century ranching boom was great and its social consequences were complex and far-reaching. Like all the indigenous populations of the New World, isthmian groups were highly susceptible to the ravages of epidemic diseases introduced by the colonists. In 1560, the province had sunk to a low of 2,500 Indian tributaries, a figure which represents as much as a 90-percent loss from preconquest levels.40 Although some 3,200 tributaries were reported in the 1580 Relación geográfica, census figures indicate that the demographic nadir was not passed until the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century.41 Native communities were, I believe, still not fully adjusted to the social and economic realities of their reduced numbers when abruptly challenged by an intrusion of animals and their foreign overseers that more than tripled what the marqués had earlier introduced. As a result, they were particularly vulnerable to disruptive pressures which the ranching economy triggered.

Although ranching was a complex phenomenon, with many subtle effects on the lifestyles of Spaniard and Indian alike, for purposes of the present analysis we may distinguish three major forces of change generated by the events of the late sixteenth century: 1) competition for important economic resources; 2) redirection of Indian labor away from traditional, community-based activities; and 3) acculturation to nonindigenous behavior patterns. Not all of these factors need to have played a decisive role in conditioning native culture change during the early colonial period, but they were significant pressure points affecting the viability of existing cultural adaptations. After discussing the three factors individually, I will examine the kinds of responses each of the isthmian ethnic groups developed to their individual experiences during the ranching boom.


Competition for important economic resources is the most obvious consequence of the boom’s expropriation of hundreds of square kilometers of territory. The intent of Spanish law was for the addition of Old World livestock to a region to complement the traditional agricultural practices of the native population. Various stipulations were routinely attached to mercedes to assure that the ceded lands were unoccupied and located at least a league’s distance from any nearby village. Given the fact that Tehuantepec had experienced such a severe depopulation in recent years and that the majority of Indian villages were located within fertile riverine zones, there were indeed many vast stretches of “unoccupied” lands on which ranches might be located in the last half of the sixteenth century.

In actuality, as might be expected in a situation so far from the watchful eye of the colonial bureaucracy, there were many instances of Spaniards infringing on community lands or livestock straying into milpas. As early as 1554, complaints were registered by the Indian governor of Tehuantepec regarding damage done by herds belonging to the marqués.42 The number of such cases increased during the ranching boom; at least eight are alluded to in surviving records from 1590 to 1650.43 While these cases do not have the intensity of the numerous protracted suits waged against individual haciendas by legally more sophisticated eighteenth-century isthmian communities, they do provide testimony to the repeated intrusion of Spanish livestock on Indian lands during the period under study. Somewhat later in the seventeenth century, the Dominican chronicler Francisco de Burgoa described how Spanish cattle roamed about the region, unsupervised and unrestrained by estancia boundaries, frequently ending up in Indian corn fields, where exasperated farmers were forced to take matters into their own hands.44

Although even a single ill-managed cattle ranch too close to community lands might be a source of tremendous aggravation, some isthmian communities found themselves besieged by Spanish land appropriation. Table II illustrates the frequency of recorded petitions and grants. Most villages had fewer than five requests by private individuals to establish sitios, either livestock estancias or agricultural caballerías. In many cases, the actual infiltration of ranching was probably greater, given the occurrence of repeated references to neighboring undocumented Spanish estancias in land petitions and disputes. Eight communities list ten or more such sitios, and their location highlights the major areas favored for livestock raising and market-oriented agriculture.

One of these is the villa of Tehuantepec itself, where prospective ranchers presumably were attracted by proximity to the regional cabecera and easier access to highland market centers in New Spain. A second area surrounds the Zapotec-speaking western coastal plain communities of Íxtepec and Comitán, which may have combined some microenvironmental suitability with other locational factors. Only slightly lower totals are documented for Río de los Perros communities like Ixtáltepec and Juchitán. The western headwaters of the Río Coatzacoalcos were another, where a series of high grassy hills at Petapa and Utlátepec made good pasture for cattle and horses. While these last communities seem to have been mountain settlements of the Zoque, that group’s major territorial base on the eastern coastal plain was also a prime area for Spanish ranching. A formidable block of Spanish landholdings is presented by the addition of the extensive ranches belonging to the Dominicans to the large number of private grants enumerated in the table for the Zoque communities of Ostutla, Zanátepec, and Tapanátepec. In this latter area, proximity to Guatemalan markets and trade routes perhaps was the primary attraction, but, as will be discussed below, social and demographic aspects of the native population may also have been a consideration favoring the location of so many Spanish landholdings. Across the coastal plain, local aguadas would have provided necessary water for livestock and undoubtedly figured in the desirability of specific pasture lands.

Given the depressed Indian population levels throughout the ranching boom, even the presence of large tracts of land devoted to cattle and other livestock need not have resulted immediately in a shortage of arable land. But as native populations gradually rebounded in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, private ranches limited opportunities for agricultural expansion and led to numerous protracted land disputes between Indian communities and hacienda owners, disputes whose intense litigation could be accompanied by violent confrontation.45 More subtle pressures on cropping systems involving such things as crop choice or length of fallow cycle are not mentioned in these documents, nor can we assess directly the economic impact of loss of lands once used as hunting territories or firewood and wild plant gathering zones.

The Redirection of Indian Labor

Since livestock rather than agriculture was the dominant form of Spanish land use on the southern isthmus, a heavy reliance on native labor was not associated with this period of major land expropriation. Indeed, the fact that ranching depended so little on the strength of native labor accounts in large measure for its growth in Tehuantepec, as well as in other regions of New Spain. Yet some core of resident laborers was required to perform routine tasks tending animals on these estancias. The more commercially successful isthmian ranches periodically required additional workers to clear brush, construct corrals, and aid in the saca or roundup.

Brockington, in her study of the haciendas marquesanas, enumerates a resident labor force of between 32 and 64 full-time black, Indian, and mulatto workers during most of this period.46 Of these workers, 60 to 80 percent were black slaves, just as the majority of resident workers on the marqués’s estancias had been former Indian slaves, their spouses, and children during the first half of the sixteenth century.47 Smaller numbers of semiskilled Indian and mulatto laborers frequently became temporary residents, working as salaried employees for a few months at a time. In order to meet short-term labor needs, the marquesado continued to depend on repartimientos of Indian labor authorized by the viceroy, which requisitioned groups of 50 or more commoners directed by an Indian alguacil to serve a week at a time.48 Although corvée Indian labor was used to support Spanish agricultural production elsewhere in New Spain, its somewhat unusual association on the isthmus with the normally thinly staffed livestock industry reflects the tremendous scale of that industry regionally.49

Repartimiento was not new to the native population of the isthmus. As we have seen, when the province was still under the administrative jurisdiction of the marquesado, labor drafts were regularly used to furnish needed Indians to service its diverse enterprises, first as part of the communities’ tribute obligations, then for wages, following passage of the New Laws. At times, these drafts had been extensive, shipbuilding being a particularly pressured and labor-intensive endeavor. During construction of the galleon Sancti Spiritus in 1556, more than 1,100 Indians were requisitioned for periods ranging from a week to a month to perform varied auxiliary tasks, from making charcoal for fueling the shipyard ironworks to hauling such items as planks from the mountain sawmill and anchors from ports at Utlátepec and Salinas. In that same year, employment of nonresident Indian laborers in work unconnected with shipbuilding was quite limited.50

It seems unlikely that the ranching repartimientos of the late sixteenth century were as onerous as this. The jobs themselves would not have been as strenuous as the back-breaking transport of heavy masts and timbers, some of which required 4 Indians each to carry. Over a century later, the Huave still remembered how many men had died in ill-fated efforts to launch ships.51 Still, a week’s labor lost at a critical time in the native agricultural cycle by 50 of the community’s able-bodied workers surely created some economic strain.

Cushioning the disruptive impact the labor drafts might have played was the traditional means by which the work was organized. The marqués, and probably other ranchers who relied on Indian repartimientos, left the actual requisitioning of laborers in the hands of an alguacil from each community, whose responsibility it was to choose and supervise the men who would work.52 This form of labor organization had been common among the complex indigenous societies of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica for servicing public works and communal agricultural responsibilities. Spaniards preserved the form as an efficient means of securing a needed work force, while altering both its terminology and the contexts in which it was used. Whether called alguacil, tequitlato (Nahuatl term), or collabachijna (Zapotec), the Indian noble who supervised repartimiento labor was an important intermediary between the ranch’s mayordomo and the native social group. Although he was paid by a Spaniard, the alguacil’s conduct was checked by his responsiveness to the internal sanctions of his community.

Probably more significant than repartimientos as a threat to the cohesiveness of the native community was the attraction Spanish wages may have held for individual laborers. Brockington’s data for the marquesado haciendas show that the labor pool shifted at the close of the sixteenth century from one in which full-time mulatto and Indian workers were the primary source of free semiskilled and skilled labor to one in which part-time workers prevailed.53 Although the number of Indians involved was not great (less than 20 in a given year for the marquesado), these part-time employees returned to reside in communities adjacent to the haciendas where their influence may have been greater than numbers alone would indicate. Salary records from the marquesado do not give special attention to a worker’s community affiliation, but the occasional use of a community (e.g., Juchitán, Zetune) or ethnic name (especially Mixe, which was interchangeable with the more linguistically precise Zoque) to stand for an individual’s patronym suggests a broad pool of isthmian villages from which such laborers were drawn.54

Offering in some cases more than double the wage of ordinary draft labor, such semiskilled jobs as masonry, carpentry, sheep shearing, assisting in the saca, and cooking, provided opportunities for economic gain that were in conflict with traditional principles of inherited rank and economic reciprocity. The very concept of labor as a commodity, alien as it was to pre-Columbian notions of economic value, was introduced to the isthmus’s native groups primarily through the haciendas. Along with cash tributes and repartimientos de efectos, wages paid for labor drew a portion of the native population into participation in the colonial market economy, albeit not yet on the scale to be found in the later colonial period.

Acculturation of the Native Community

Ranching affected the lifestyle and social integration of Indian groups in ways more subtle than the profound cultural and epidemiological assault of the earlier conquest period, yet its impact on the diminished native populations was similarly far-reaching. I do not argue that isthmian ranching itself triggered cultural changes as drastic as those witnessed during the early sixteenth century, but rather suggest that this period of major land use changes had other noneconomic consequences that helped shape the types of adaptation that particular communities or ethnic groups made to the developed colonial world of the seventeenth century.

Draft labor on the livestock estancias brought fairly large numbers of Indians into close contact with other sectors of colonial society on a scale and to a degree of intimacy not previously experienced. Spanish residents of the isthmus were never very numerous—even in 1580 only 25 Spanish vecinos resided permanently in Tehuantepec,55 though their numbers swelled to 500 under the ranching boom in 1629.56 Relatively few Spaniards were employed on the estancias, where even the mayordomo might only make an infrequent appearance. Except for those working in the colonists’ households, Indians probably rarely came into contact with Spaniards other than members of the clergy. When they did, an enormous social distance would have limited opportunities for mutual observation and understanding.

Ranching, however, introduced to the province a comparatively large African or Afro-Mexican population. The marquesado alone relied on a core of between 25 and 41 African slaves during most years of the ranching boom.57 Alliances between slaves and Indians or between slaves and Spaniards created new, racially mixed groups, in many cases free from birth, which, in consort with freed Africans and some trusted black slaves, held the core supervisory and skilled cowhand positions on the marqués’s haciendas. By the end of the colonial period, more than three thousand mulattos lived in the Tehuantepec province, and their integration into the colonial social and economic structure was an issue of some official concern.58

Even during the seventeenth century, many Afro-Mexican hacienda employees did not reside on the hacienda itself. Fr. Burgoa described a village of 30 freed slave and mulatto families located at the juncture of the Chiapas and Xoconusco roads, whose presence among the communities of the Zoque district the cleric found most unhelpful to the Dominicans’ missionary efforts because of these settlers’ relaxed lifestyle.59 Although Indian-Afro-Mexican relations were not particularly harmonious,60 the nature of estancia labor and the presence of free black and mulatto communities in its midst gave the native population a close look at the attitudes, behavior, and livelihood of a segment of colonial society closer in status to itself, one whose very presence in the region was tied to the new ranching economy. For some segments of the Indian population, emulation of these black vaqueros may have been a more appealing alternative than that of trying to maintain the economic and social norms of the past.61

Indians also sought to establish their own estancias during the ranching boom, petitioning the viceroy 66 times for permission to establish sheepfolds on community lands or to raise small numbers of mules for riding and transport. Burgoa tells us of some Tehuantepec Indians who owned 40 to 50 mules which they used to transport goods in long-distance trading ventures throughout New Spain and Guatemala.62 Generally the estancias held by Indians were smaller than those of Spaniards. Ganado menor grants were often stipulated to be under eight hundred paces, for example. Although cattle raising is not specifically named as the object of any of these petitions, seventeenth-century records affirming the right of individual Indians to mark cattle with their own brands indicate that Tehuantepec Indians were involved to some extent in the whole complex of livestock management. The much greater interest they demonstrated in sheep and goats may reflect both viceregal policies that limited native ranching and Indian preferences for smaller livestock, the management of which was more compatible with traditional forms of economic activity.

While most estancia petitions were made by private individuals, 18 were submitted on behalf of the community as a corporate group. The 8 isthmian communities (Tehuantepec, Tlacótepec, Tetitlán, Chihuitán, Comitán, Ixtáltepec, Íxtepec, and Níltepec) from which these petitions emanated were, with the exception of Níltepec, located in the Zapotec-speaking western side of the coastal plain. These communities probably maintained flocks as a form of communal bank account—animals could be sold at regional markets in order to provide funds for the community’s cash needs.63 Of the more frequent individual native requests for mercedes (48), in all but two ambiguous cases the petitioners were identified as principales or caciques. In the villa of Tehuantepec alone, ten members of the native nobility petitioned for 23 estancias de ganado menor and 1 estancia de yeguas (mares for mule raising). In other communities, requests were generally made by two or three nobles, each petitioning for a single estancia. All three ethnic groups are represented among the 17 communities for which we have records of petitions from individuals. Since such private requests often stated that the estancia was to be located not on newly cleared lands but on the petitioner’s own private lands, the new-found Indian interest in pastoralism would seem to be fueled by a need to make better use of existing land resources, rather than a desire to emulate Spanish patterns of land acquisition.

Tribute modifications in the latter half of the sixteenth century had exacerbated the plight of the native elite, who also lost their traditional claim to commoner and terrazguero labor on patrimonial estates. Like their Spanish counterparts, the Tehuantepec nobles found sheep raising to be a socially acceptable means of support that depended little on scarce hired labor. Unlike the Spaniard who could explore other options in Antequera or Mexico City, the isthmian native elite found ranching to be one of the few remaining avenues to maintain an economic status commensurate with inherited social rank. Insofar as such individuals continued to serve as an organizing and mediating force in the community, their economic well-being may well have contributed to the benefit of the community as a whole.

Differential Native Responses to the Ranching Economy

In the preceding sections I have considered the types of pressures for change which the isthmian ranching boom placed on the native population through direct and indirect competition for land and natural resources, through the redirection of local labor, and through the acculturation of indigenous lifestyles. Heterogeneous in its ethnic and socioeconomic composition, the region’s Indian population did not respond uniformly to these pressures, nor were the pressures necessarily felt with similar intensity by the three indigenous cultural groups, each of which adopted a distinctive strategy for dealing with the changed social and economic landscape of the early seventeenth century.

For a nearly contemporary description of these groups, we are fortunate to have the 1674 work of the Dominican chronicler Fr. Francisco de Burgoa, who had personally visited each of the isthmian groups earlier in his career. Despite the tortuous excesses of his bombastic prose, Burgoa is the only member of his generation to provide any ethnographic context for the southern isthmus, and his Geográfica descripción is a welcome complement to the tribute and litigation documents which dominate the archival record of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

The Zoque Adaptation to Ranching

Of the three groups, the Zoque appear to have had to adjust most drastically to the economic and ecological transformation of their environment under ranching. Burgoa reported that all seven of the extant Zoque villages were “short of people”; even the head town of Zanátepec had only 50 families, all poor, who managed to support a modest thatch church for the two monks who served the village and the ecclesiastical district of which it was head.64 Whether because of the toll of some unrecorded epidemic or because of out-migration to more isolated Zoque communities, Zanátepec suffered a significant population decline on the heels of the ranching boom. Eighty-five tributaries were listed for the community just a few decades earlier, in 1635, when onerous tithes and charges for masses roused the community to petition for removal of the resident friar. Apparently Fr. Francisco Estevan was not the sole impediment to the community’s well-being, but his presence caused considerable local consternation. Not even the village cacique had been able to protect his meager inheritance from the priest’s grasp.65

The traditional basis of economic support for these communities was agriculture, based on maize and manioc, which was supplemented by hunting and fishing in the rivers draining the eastern half of the coastal plain. Burgoa informs us that the Zoque had great difficulty growing maize, due to the ravages of marauding livestock. As discussed earlier, this area was one of those particularly favored for ranching, since its mosaic of scrub and savanna vegetation offered good pastures. During the period under study, 37 Spanish petitions or grants for estancias de ganado mayor, 6 for ganado menor, and 16 for caballerías are documented in this sector. In addition to these mercedes to private individuals, both the Dominicans of Antequera and the Marqués del Valle maintained enormous ranches in the Zoque area.

With all the neighboring estates, the excess stray cattle and wild horses were “sin número,” and complaints against offending Spanish ranchers generally ineffective. In 1619, the Indian principales of Zanátepec and Métepec (Níltepec) brought their case against Alonso López Ramírez to the Indian procurador, claiming that marauding livestock had destroyed their corn crop for several years and that López had so threatened these villagers for complaining about him that most had fled to Chiapas. Despite the judgment rendered against him in this suit, López’s excess cattle were still a problem when his Dominican neighbors instigated a review of his property titles a few years later.66

Efforts to sustain the traditional Zoque subsistence economy became too difficult, and beef took up the dietary role of lost agricultural staples. Burgoa describes in detail how fully the Zoque had adopted the cowpunching techniques of their ranch hand neighbors. Both women and men were accustomed to roping stray cattle on horseback and bringing them home to feed the family. During the dry season, when food reserves in the bush were low, groups of men burned savanna lands to promote new grass cover and captured feral or unbranded livestock attracted to the fresh pasturage as well as to nearby waterholes. The animals were then penned in strong corrals where they were gradually tamed. Such were the dangers of this three- to four-month-long activity that many men were maimed or lost their lives, yet the Zoque remained committed to the vaquero lifestyle.67

The Zapotec Adaptation to Ranching

On the face of it, the Zapotec would appear to have faced a similarly disruptive competition for agricultural land. Though much reduced from their preconquest totals, the 20 Zapotec villages were not considered by Burgoa to be underpopulated. Despite the erosion of many of its political prerogatives during the latter half of the sixteenth century, the cabecera of Tehuantepec continued its preeminence as the largest native community of the isthmus, with 1,500 Indian vecinos according to Burgoa’s tally. Nonetheless, Tehuantepec was the locus of the greatest number of land grant petitions by individual Spaniards, with 31 documented cases, and both the marqués and the Dominicans also had significant ranching interests within the villa boundaries.

Zapotec-speaking villages on the Río de los Perros floodplain and in the western piedmont, while not as intensively exploited as the cabecera, also had numerous estancias ceded to individual Spaniards. Yet, while Burgoa does compliment the horsemanship of the native population of Tehuantepec, accustomed as its members were, because of the neighboring ranches, to riding since childhood, nowhere does the chronicler suggest that these ranches disrupted the native economy. Rather, he lavishes praise on Zapotec industriousness in agriculture, mentioning diverse native fruits, cotton, achiote, patlaste, and, surprisingly, vanilla and cacao among the cultigens complementing the production of maize.68

In the windy, arid climate of Tehuantepec, most of these plants would flourish only in sheltered irrigated fields, and the construction by the Zapotec of more complex, intensive cropping systems helped protect at least an important segment of agricultural production from competition with Spanish ranchers. In addition to their high cumulative productivity, which enabled the support of more people per unit of land than was possible on neighboring milpa lands, aggregates of well-tended irrigated plots served as a physical barrier to the extension of estancia lands, if not to the ravages of occasional stray cattle. With irrigation canals constructed and maintained through regular community labor service, irrigated lands held closely monitored water rights and would have been defended vigorously by the Zapotec leadership from any perceived outside threat.

Their successful defense, however, was dependent on the community’s retention of an effective structure for dealing with potentially disruptive individuals and events. One early criminal complaint brought before the alcalde mayor of Tehuantepec illustrates the extent to which the management of irrigation was tied to the Zapotec sociopolitical structure.69 The case merits closer examination for its insights into both the functioning of the indigenous system and the constraints placed on the system’s autonomy by the institutions of Spanish colonialism. According to the 1553 complaint registered by three Mexican Indian residents of Tehuantepec and corroborated by the testimony of witnesses, the hereditary cacique Don Juan Cortés ordered that these Mexicans be beaten severely for failing to participate in a labor draft mobilized to work on irrigation canal construction. Whether the beating was inspired by Don Juan’s personal enmity for Mexicans, as the complainants charged, or by their repeated failure to perform required labor services, as one Zapotec witness alleged, evidence presented in the case highlights important structural features of the Zapotec sociopolitical hierarchy and an economic role for the elite beyond that of tribute collection.

First of all, the cacique’s authority to direct public works was accepted by the witnesses who testified to his presence at the outset of the project, symbolically overseeing construction activities. Secondly, although the isthmus and Oaxaca Valley Relaciones geográficas minimize the bureaucratic development of the Zapotec polity, this document provides evidence for the operational role of an administrative hierarchy. An Indian alcalde was in charge of the project; tequitlatos from each of the Tehuantepec barrios involved drafted and oversaw their own laborers, with one of their number acting as intermediary.

The case is also significant for the light it sheds on conflicts between indigenous practices and colonial institutions. Although the cacique’s right to draft labor is not in question here, his authority to punish those who do not comply with indigenous laws has been challenged by the Mexicans, whose right to appeal to the Spanish alcalde mayor for redress of their grievances was recognized under colonial law. While theoretically granted autonomy in local affairs, even such privileged indigenous rulers as Don Juan found that Spanish law undermined their political and juridical powers. It was the intention of the crown to establish throughout New Spain Spanish-style elected cabildos, which gradually replaced the indigenous caciques. In Tehuantepec the process was completed by 1563, when Don Juan was stripped of his position as gobernador following his unsuccessful appeal of a heresy accusation. No longer was the cacique formally involved in community government, although the cacicazgo remained intact until the late eighteenth century.70

While Don Juan’s political role was usurped by colonial institutions, the Zapotec nobility continued to direct community affairs, albeit through imposed political forms. Detailed studies of the functions of Indian alcaldes, regidores, and alguaciles in Nahuatl communities of central Mexico have demonstrated that these ostensibly Spanish offices carried with them many pre-Columbian duties as well, including supervision of inheritance and land redistribution, collection of taxes and tribute, and the mobilization of labor for public works.71 Burgoa makes particular mention of the Isthmus Zapotec offices of gobernador and alcaldes, “que eligen para sus causas y dirección.”72

Although the Huave and Zoque villages ultimately adopted the use of these administrative positions under colonialism and hereditary elite status was claimed by some individuals, there is no reason to suggest that cabildo-like offices have pre-Columbian parallels in either society. In early labor repartimientos conducted by the Marqués del Valle, alguaciles organized and supervised the labor draft for Zapotec villages and cabecera alike. Significantly, they are not mentioned for the other native groups of the isthmus similarly drafted to perform services for the marquesado.73

I find such institutions instrumental in enabling the Zapotec elite to play an important protective role in shielding their communities from the brunt of ranching’s more deleterious impact. As intermediaries in labor drafts, the Zapotec elite could minimize their toll on the labor resources of individual households and on the community economy as a whole. As the managerial and adjudicative authority in irrigation agriculture, principales would have been the parties responsible for guarding against Spanish incursions onto the most productive of their community agricultural lands. That they were not always successful in this endeavor is exemplified by a suit brought against the Tehuantepec curate by the Juchitán cabildo in 1736, seeking restitution of community lands on which its barrios traditionally raised cacao and other foods used to support the church and pay tribute for widows and the infirm.74 In a similar manner, members of the Zapotec elite availed themselves of new economic opportunities to organize community labor for traditional social ends. As discussed above, the establishment of community sheepfolds during the isthmian ranching boom was almost exclusively a Zapotec accomplishment, one which the preexistence of a class responsible for similar kinds of projects surely facilitated.

There is, of course, a negative aspect to the buffer role played by the elite. As long as the well-being of the nobility was tied to the welfare of the community, protection of the commoners was a matter of self-interest as well as social obligation. But just as ranching opened up new avenues for the elite to maintain their economic status, so did it weaken the mutual interdependency between principal and commoner. Their enterprise as ranchers and muleteers indicates that the Zapotec nobility became engaged in the colonial market economy at an early date. No longer tied to tribute and labor support from the community, individual leaders could use their brokerage role to court economic and political favors from Spaniards at the expense of the common good. There is, in fact, documentary evidence of such collusion in at least one case as early as the midseventeenth century, the Tehuantepec Indian rebellion of 1660, in which the names of Indian private estancia owners or their heirs appear on both the loyalist cabildo and its ill-fated mutinous successor.75 Despite the weakening of mutual dependency between nobles and commoners, the traditional basis of elite authority provided a structure which enabled Zapotec towns and villages to withstand the potentially destructive impact of the ranching boom. With their community agricultural lands intact and traditional lifestyle sheltered by elite mediation, isthmus Zapotec settlements were in a favorable position to meet later challenges to their economic and social autonomy.

The Huave Adaptation to Ranching

For the Huave, whose seven small villages and hamlets hugged the lagoon shore margins and barrier beaches, no developed social hierarchy structured village integration or protected the community from outside incursions, yet they retained strong linguistic and territorial integrity. In modern times, the group’s reputation as the most conservative and traditional of isthmian cultures has often been attributed to their physical isolation in an inhospitable environment. Yet the historical record shows the Huave’s early experience with Spanish society to have been other than isolationist.

The Marqués del Valle, for one, exploited their labor extensively. In 1542, he demanded the delivery of lime, dried shrimp, and fish to his gold mines, as well as substantial tribute in gold.76 After encomienda labor services had been abolished, the marqués turned to labor repartimientos, to which the Huave contributed over two hundred workers in one year alone.77 Although we have no census data detailing the group’s population history, it is likely that the hardship of this labor service and its attendant contact with Spaniards and other Indians left the Huave susceptible to the same course of epidemic disease and high mortality that decimated isthmus Zapotec communities during the sixteenth century.

When the ranching boom began, most Huave communities were spared the direct intrusion of livestock and outsiders because of their location in inaccessible spits of land with poor livestock pasturage. Still, three estancia petitions are recorded for Tepeguazontlán and two for Guazontlán, where the marqués had long-established ranches. Although the merced descriptions in each case indicate that the ranches were located a considerable distance from Indian communities, apparently the distance was not great enough to discourage marauding cattle. The Huave solution to this problem was straightforward. They simply hunted down wild and domestic animals alike, butchering them on the spot for whatever bit of meat, hide, or tallow was needed, a “pernicious” custom much deplored by Burgoa.78

As noted above, the Huave found little suitable land for maize production in the arid, sandy environment of their villages, and instead focused their attention on the abundant aquatic resources of the lagoons. The Dominican chronicler recounted with admiration the ingenious method employed by the community of San Francisco (Ixtáctepec del Mar) to trap the tiny shrimp native to the adjacent shallow lagoon by means of a labyrinthine fish weir constructed at the village’s edge during the month of November. Dried salted shrimp and fish were not only a mainstay of the Huave diet but also a major trade commodity, as was perhaps their weaving of purple cloth dyed from Pacific Coast Muricanthus mollusks, a commodity esteemed to this day by isthmus Zapotec women, despite the availability of less expensive, commercial substitutes.79 Huave specialization in these products enabled them to procure otherwise scarce agricultural resources—corn, beans, squash, and other foods, as well as cotton for cloth—through trade with other groups.

Despite their physical separation, then, the Huave were not economically isolated from the colonial world. Midsixteenth-century labor drafts had weighed heavily on the group’s human resources even before the isthmian ranching boom got underway. Eventually neighboring estancias crowded adjoining sections of the lagoon shore as the marqués and other ranchers recognized that even this marginal environment could be used in rearing livestock. But perhaps most significantly, the very nature of their economic orientation put them in a position of mutual interdependency vis-à-vis their agriculturalist neighbors. Having evolved an estuarine-based economy at some point in their history, the Huave were one of the few suppliers of fish, shrimp, and purple cloth on the isthmus. Only one barrio of Tehuantepec is mentioned as a modest competitor for the procurement of fish for the marquesado in 1556. As far as Spanish interests were concerned, the Dominicans alone petitioned the Audiencia to establish a pesquería on the lagoon shore near San Francisco.80 Since lagoon products were widely consumed locally and traded as far away as the Oaxaca Valley, the Huave were assured of a ready market for any surplus seafood they might produce.

Given the importance of this trade to the Huave, how did they escape most of the acculturative influences that are commonly assumed to accompany economic exchange? Burgoa unfortunately is silent on the topic of how Huave villages traded their surplus fish and shrimp, but given the emphasis he places on their isolation, it seems unlikely that the Huave themselves traveled extensively as retailers of their own produce. We might speculate that this exchange was effected through Zapotec rather than Spanish or creole middlemen, as it was in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; Burgoa’s sympathetic account of the loneliness of his Dominican brothers ministering to the Huave suggests that Spanish-speaking visitors to their villages were rare.81 While observers of this trade in more recent times have lamented the advantage taken of these unworldly fisherfolk by their sophisticated Zapotec business associates, for the Huave the low prices paid them for fish and shrimp may in fact have been offset by the advantages they perceived in being able to maintain community solidarity and ideological integrity by delegating their outside marketing to others.


Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century documentation suggests that the Zoque, Zapotec, and Huave populations of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec responded differently to the pressures placed on their communities by the ranching boom. Zoque villages of the eastern coastal plain were the most drastically influenced by the altered economic and social environment, abandoning much of their traditional livelihood. Gradually, the small Indian populations left in these villages lost their distinctive cultural identity. By the nineteenth century, only Zanátepec and Níltepec counted a small remnant population of the original Zoque-speaking majority, and this too had disappeared by 1960. Today, this language group is primarily found in the state of Chiapas. Locally, the mountain enclaves of Santa María and San Miguel Chimalapa have provided the base for a recent resurgence of the isthmian Zoque population, which now numbers over eight thousand. In an appropriate twist of history, small groups of Chimalapa Zoque have returned to the coastal plain to colonize ejido lands formed from the dissolution of haciendas that were themselves carved out of the aboriginal Zoque territory.82

The Zapotec, on the other hand, managed to retain their traditional agricultural subsistence while at the same time selectively adopting technological and economic changes ushered in during the colonial ranching boom. If anything, their territory seems to have expanded on the coastal plain in more recent times to encompass areas abandoned by the Zoque, and today the Zapotec-speaking population of the isthmus has swelled to nearly 75,000.83 Some part of this demographic vigor may be a simple consequence of the greater numerical strength of the original Zapotec communities, which despite the ravages of epidemic disease never apparently fell below some critical biological threshold necessary to maintain themselves. Demographic differences, however, cannot entirely explain the resiliency of Zapotec ethnic identity in the face of profound cultural change.

In my view, the historical survival of the isthmus Zapotecs is primarily a consequence of their stratified social structure. As suggested earlier, a hereditary elite, whose traditional responsibility was to organize community activities and coordinate interaction with the outside world, played a key role in maintaining social and economic boundaries in the face of intense Spanish land pressure. This is not to ignore the fact that the nature of elite recruitment and social roles changed significantly during colonialism, from a system in which social rank was ascribed at birth and carried with it formal ritual, social, and political responsibilities, to one in which wealth became the primary criterion for social status and in which community service depended greatly on peer pressure. The latter system underlies the lavish public display of ethnicity present in isthmus Zapotec towns like Juchitán today, displays which Anya Royce demonstrates are used by the elite to manipulate economic and political influence in opposition to outsiders.84

In stark contrast to the populous, wealthy, urban Zapotecs stand the conservative Huave. Physically removed from the centers of political and economic activity on the coastal plain, yet integrated into the region’s markets, Huave villages have been able to utilize linguistic and geographic boundaries to help minimize the disruptive impact of outside influences. That is not to say that Huave culture is unchanged from its pre-Columbian form. Indeed, some of the most “traditional” Huave cultural forms are dance reenactments of the Spanish reconquest of Granada, a type of dramatic performance that was widely used by sixteenth-century Catholic clergy to indoctrinate the Indian masses. Occupation of a unique ecological niche as defined both by their lagoon shore-barrier beach habitat and the role they played in the colonial economy facilitated Huave cultural persistence in much the same manner as Frederik Barth describes for the pastoral Gujars in his classic ethnographic analysis of interethnic relations in northwest Pakistan.85

Before assessing the extent to which Tehuantepec’s diverse native adaptations to Spanish land usurpation can serve as a model for variations in cultural persistence, I must first clarify the preconditions which permitted the region’s indigenous populations to exercise control over their accommodation to ranching. As mentioned earlier, a peaceful submission to conquest and the political privileges it occasioned allowed the native population some important latitude during the critical first decades of colonial rule. Secondly, the area did not experience the kind of intense colonial exploitation of human resources documented for areas where mining or slaving further depleted a labor force already ravaged by epidemic disease.86 Neither were isthmian communities deprived of adequate land to meet their subsistence needs, despite early congregaciones and enormous Spanish land claims. However, even though Tehuantepec was not among New Spain’s most intensively exploited regions, the Spanish agrarian structure was more developed during the early colonial period on the southern isthmus than it was in Yucatán, where Farriss attributes Maya survival to the late arrival of hacienda agriculture.87 Many of the larger early seventeenth-century Isthmian ranches were reasonably efficient, profit-making enterprises, with livestock production targeted at distant markets.

William Taylor has pointed to the role of indigenous social and political structure in accounting for the colonial survival of Indian communities in the Oaxaca Valley and the Yucatán Peninsula within similar timing and intensity parameters of Spanish influence. He contrasts these areas with central Mexico, where more complex polities controlling larger territorial units were the preconquest norm.88 The Tehuantepec case, however, suggests that the more decisive sociopolitical distinction is not between city-states and empires—the latter did dissolve into their city-state components following defeat—but rather between states and nonstates.

Although indigenous Mesoamerican civilization had achieved great social complexity more than a millenium before its first contact with the Old World, not all prehistoric Indian societies shared the attributes of social stratification and centralized political authority associated with the state. Low-level chiefdoms and egalitarian villages functioned with leadership positions much more dependent on the chief or headman’s personal skills than on the highly structured patterns of authority and responsibility found in the Aztec, Maya, Zapotec, or Mixtec states. Without such a structure, indigenous groups like the isthmus Zoque or the Honduran Lenca were ill-prepared to mount effective barriers to their assimilation into colonial rural society. Ecological separation, whether because of the remoteness or inaccessibility of the group’s habitat or, as in the Huave case, because of its specialized economic role, permitted the survival of some groups despite their structural vulnerability.

For the stratified societies that dominated late prehistoric Mesoamerica, the indigenous nobility played a significant role in shaping the community’s adaptation to colonialism. Many regional studies have detailed the genealogical continuity between politically important colonial elites and their preconquest predecessors.89 Critical as that initial structural advantage may have been in promoting the maintenance of autonomous, culturally distinctive Indian villages under colonialism, the press of creole economic interests and the lure of market-based forms of wealth and prestige for native elites could still undermine this propitious start as development of the colonial economy accelerated. That they did not in Tehuantepec accounts in large measure for the vigor of isthmus Zapotec ethnicity today.


Noble David Cook presents one such detailed regional comparison of postconquest mortality in Demographic Collapse: Indian Peru, 1520–1620 (Cambridge, 1981). See Linda Newson’s recent article, “Indian Population Patterns in Colonial Spanish America”, Latin American Research Review, 20:3 (1985), 41-75, for a review of colonial demographic trends.


Among those who have considered this problem at some length are William B. Taylor, “Landed Society in New Spain: A View from the South,” HAHR, 54:3 (Aug. 1974), 407; Wayne S. Osborne, “Indian Land Retention in Colonial Metztitlán,” HAHR, 53:2 (May 1973), 103-115; Nancy M. Farriss, Maya Society Under Colonial Rule (Princeton, 1984), 227; Erwin P. Grieshaber, “Hacienda-Indian Community Relations and Indian Acculturation: An Historiographical Essay,” Latin American Research Review, 14:3 (1979), 124–125; and Newson, The Cost of Conquest: Indian Decline in Honduras Under Spanish Rule (Boulder, 1986), 7-9.


My sources include published sixteenth- and seventeenth-century administrative and ecclesiastical reports, travelers’ descriptions, and unpublished archival materials. The bulk of documentation in this last group pertains to land ownership and is drawn from the Mercedes and Tierras branches of the Archivo General de la Nación (hereafter AGN), Mexico City, but an important and diverse set of account records from the Tehuantepec holdings of the Marquesado (Hospital de Jesús branch of the AGN) has contributed much detail to this analysis.


Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, Medicina y magia: El proceso de aculturación en la estructura colonial (Mexico City, 1963); Anya Peterson Royce, Ethnic Identity: Strategies of Diversity (Bloomington, 1982).


Edward H. Spicer, “Persistent Cultural Systems: A Comparative Study of Identity Systems that Can Adapt to Contrasting Environments,” Science, 174:4,011 (Nov. 19, 1971), 795-800.




François Chevalier, La formation des grands domaines au Mexique: Terre et société aux XVIe-XVIIe siècles (Paris, 1952).


Compare the social and racial meanings of this term in late colonial Antequera outlined by John K. Chance in Race and Class in Colonial Oaxaca (Stanford, 1978), 151-155. In modern times, the term “indio” has reverted to an ethnic marker function, albeit one with strong negative connotations; see Benjamin N. Colby and Pierre L. van den Berghe, “Ethnic Relations in Southeast Mexico,” American Anthropologist, 63:4 (Aug. 1961), 772-792.


Recent census figures for the indigenous groups of the southern isthmus are compiled by Margarita Nolasco Armas, Oaxaca indígena: Problemas de aculturación en el Estado de Oaxaca y subáreas culturales (Oaxaca, 1972), 23, Table 89.


Royce, Ethnic Identity, 169.


Nolasco Armas, Oaxaca indígena, 23.


Ibid. More detailed observations of the Zapotec, Zoque, and Huave populations are to be found in recent ethnographic works, including Beverly Chiñas, The Isthmus Zapotecs: Women’s Roles in Cultural Context (New York, 1973); Royce, Prestigio y afiliación en una comunidad urbana: Juchitán, Oaxaca (Mexico City, 1975); Norman D. Thomas, The Linguistic, Geographic, and Demographic Position of the Zoque of Southern Mexico (Provo, 1974); Alfonso Villa Rojas, “Notas sobre los Zoque de Chiapas, México,” América Indígena, 33:4 (Oct.–Dec. 1973), 1,031–1,070; Italo Signorini, Los huaves de San Mateo del Mar (Mexico City, 1979); and Miguel Covarrubias, Mexico South: The Isthmus of Tehuantepec (New York, 1967).


Although such prehistoric events are difficult to pinpoint with archeological dating techniques, the traditional midfourteenth-century migration date related by Fr. Francisco de Burgoa in his Geográfica descripción, 2 vols. (Mexico City, 1934), II, 328, is matched by lexicostatistical data indicating a separation of isthmus and valley Zapotec dialects approximately six hundred years ago. See María T. Fernández, Maurice Swadesh, and Robert Weitlaner, “El panorama etnolingüístico de Oaxaca y del istmo,” Revista Mexicana de Estudios Antropológicos, 16 (1960), 137-157.


Córdova’s sixteenth-century Vocabulario castellano-zapoteco (Mexico City, 1942) provides linguistic data for these and many other structural features of preconquest Zapotec society. As Kent V. Flannery and Joyce Marcus point out in their recent synthesis of preconquest archeological and ethnohistorical data, The Cloud People: Divergent Evolution of the Zapotec and Mixtec Civilizations (New York, 1983), 191-197, 301-308, royal ancestry and marriage alliances had become of pivotal importance in defining political authority among the Zapotec following the decline of Monte Albán.


In the Oaxaca Valley, architectural differences at postclassic archeological sites like Mitla, Yagul, and Zaachila substantiate the social and political distinctions among Zapotec classes reflected linguistically in Córdova’s Vocabulario; the evidence is summarized in Flannery and Marcus, Cloud People, 290-300. Additionally, the Oaxaca Relaciones geográficas describe the tributary relationships between coquitao and their subjects, and occasionally the cycles of warfare that led to one town’s subjugation by another. See also Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, ed., Papeles de Nueva Espana, segunda serie, geografía y estadística, 7 vols. (Madrid, 1905), IV and Robert H. Barlow, “Dos relaciones antiguas del pueblo de Cuilapa, estado de Oaxaca,” Tlalocán, 2 (1945), 18-28.


The mapped and surveyed remains of Guiengola are reported by David Peterson and Thomas B. MacDougall in Guiengola: A Fortified Site in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (Nashville, 1974).


These conclusions are based on archeological data recovered during my dissertation research in the vicinity of Juchitán. See Judith Francis Zeitlin, “Community Distribution and Local Economy on the Southern Isthmus of Tehuantepec: An Archaeological and Ethnohistorical Investigation” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1978).


The sixteenth-century linguistic boundary between Zoque and Zapotec communities was noted by Antonio de Ciudad Real, Tratado curioso y docto de las grandezas de la Nueva España: Relación breve y verdadera de algunas cosas de las muchas que sucedieron al padre fray Alonso Ponce, 2 vols. (Mexico City, 1976), I, 179, II, 46–48.


Peter Gerhard, A Guide to the Historical Geography of New Spain (Cambridge, 1972), 266.


El libro de las tasaciones de pueblos de la Nueva España, siglo XVI (Mexico City, 1952), 373-374; Burgoa, Geográfica descripción, II, 398-399.


Zeitlin, “Community Distribution,” 259-261.


Zeitlin, “Colonialism and the Political Transformation of Isthmus Zapotec Society,” in Five Centuries of Law and Politics in Central Mexico, Ronald Spores and Ross Hassig, eds. (Nashville, 1984), 65-85.


Jean-Pierre Berthe, “Las minas de oro del Marqués del Valle en Tehuantepec, 1540-47,” Historia Mexicana, 8:1 (July-Sept. 1958), 122-131; Ivie E. Cadenhead, “Some Mining Operations of Cortés in Tehuantepec, 1538-1547,” The Americas, 16:3 (Jan. 1960), 283-287.


Lesley Bird Simpson, Exploitation of Land in Central Mexico in the 16th Century (Berkeley, 1952), 1-2.


Viceroy Don Luis de Velasco to marqués, AGN Mercedes, vol. 4, fol. 141.


Chevalier, “El Marquesado del Valle: Reflejos medievales,” Historia Mexicana, 1:1 (July-Sept. 1951), 51-52.


Testimony of Juan de Toledo before juez de residencia, Dec. 10, 1543, AGN Hospital de Jesús, leg. 160 bis.


Account of the marquesado haciendas, Dec. 12, 1556, AGN Hospital de Jesús, leg. 267, exp. 26.


1556 account records of the Tehuantepec alcalde mayor, AGN Hospital de Jesús, leg. 160 bis.


By the time sequestration of the marqués’s property ended in 1574, an account of the Tehuantepec ranches showed a reduction in the number of larger animals to less than five thousand, with two designated estancias unoccupied. Testimony before Gaspar de Maldonado, alcalde mayor of Tehuantepec, AGN Hospital de Jesús, leg. 160 bis.


Records of land transfers to the marqués, AGN Hospital de Jesús, leg. 287, exps. 3-6; land surveys and grants in the province of Tehuantepec, AGN Mercedes, vol. 11, fol. 173; vol. 14, fol. 72v; vol. 16, fol. 168; vol. 22, fol. 96.


Lolita Gutiérrez Brockington, “Labor and Race on the Haciendas Marquesanas in Tehuantepec, 1588-1621” (paper given at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, San Francisco, Dec. 1982). The details of this study are to be presented in Brockington’s forthcoming book, Labor, Management and Race in Tehuantepec, 1588-1688 (Duke University Press).


For 67 of these sitios we do not know for certain if the petitioner’s request was granted. Given the incompleteness of the Mercedes files and the large number of examples of undocumented Tehuantepec estancias, the inclusion of these petitions among the land grant figures probably does not overestimate the scale of land usurpation on the southern isthmus.


In Exploitation of Land, 17, Simpson cites the following size specifications for the various types of land grant issued by the crown: a caballería was to measure 1/41 sq. league or 105.4 acres, an estancia de ganado mayor 1 sq. league or 6.76 sq. miles, and an estancia de ganado menor 4/9 sq. league or 3 sq. miles.


Taylor, Landlord and Peasant in Colonial Oaxaca (Stanford, 1972), 174, reports that four isthmian cattle ranches belonging to the Dominican friars had a value of 33,000 pesos in 1597. That value seems excessively high for the five hundred head of cattle officially permitted on each estancia de ganado mayor, and suggests that the Dominican ranches combined several such estancias. By the mid-1600s, the order’s holdings formed a contiguous block stretching for 22 leagues from the isthmus to the Guatemalan border (Burgoa, Geográfica descripción, 395).


Simpson, Exploitation of Land, 20.


Convent of Santo Domingo to viceroy, AGN Tierras, vol. 2737, exp. 24.


William H. Dusenberry, The Mexican Mesta: The Administration of Ranching in Colonial Mexico (Urbana, 1963), 50.


Described in Antonio Vásquez de Espinosa, Compendium and Description of the West Indies (Washington, 1942), 200.


Zeitlin, “Colonialism,” 75.


Alfonso Caso, “Tehuantepec,” Revista Mexicana de Estudios Históricos, 2:5 (Sept.–Oct. 1928), 165–166, Appendix; Gerhard summarizes some of the later tributary counts in his Guide to Historical Geography, 266.


Viceroy to Tehuantepec alcalde mayor, AGN Mercedes, vol. 4, fol. 27.


In addition to the previously mentioned acknowledgement by the Dominicans that their cattle were interfering with Indian farmers, several viceregal ordinances of this period pursued complaints about Tehuantepec estancia boundaries and stray cattle. See AGN Mercedes, vol. 15, fol. 249; vol. 20, fol. 6; vol. 37, fol. 35; vol. 40, fol. 86v; AGN Indios, vol. 5, exp. 202; vol. 7, exp. 410; AGN Tierras, vol. 2717, exp. 1.


Burgoa, Geográfica descripción, II, 406, 409.


Communities from all three ethnic groups brought suit against neighboring Spanish landowners, both private individuals and the Dominican convent, in litigation that sometimes lasted 10 to 20 years or more without final resolution. The Zapotec community of Ixtáltepec saw one Spaniard killed as tempers flared over a land dispute with the owner of the hacienda Zopiloapa in 1753, AGN Tierras, vol. 760, exp. 2.


Brockington, “Labor and Race,” Table 3.


See, for example, the 1554 account records of the marqués’s Tehuantepec mayordomo, AGN Hospital de Jesús, leg. 160 bis.


Brockington, “Labor and Race,” 3.


Farriss, for example, notes that labor repartimientos were employed in maize, indigo, and cotton production during the early colonial period in Yucatán, and then primarily in the eastern side of the peninsula, where native population densities were low. See Farriss, Maya Society, 53f. Livestock raising was characteristically a small-scale enterprise, one geared exclusively to meet local consumption needs and not supported by Indian corvée labor. See Farriss, “Propiedades territoriales en Yucatán en la época colonial,” Historia Mexicana, 30:2 (Oct.-Dec. 1980), 153-208.


1556 wage receipts of the Tehuantepec alcalde mayor, AGN Hospital de Jesús, leg. 160 bis.


Burgoa, Geográfica descripción, II, 400.


Brockington, “Labor and Race,” II, 3.


Ibid., Table 3.


In any given year, only a few names reveal community or ethnic affiliation, for example, 3 out of 32 names of salaried vaqueros listed in the 1611 mayordomo account records for the Tehuantepec estancias. AGN Hospital de Jesús, leg. 272, exp. 14.


Caso, “Tehuantepec,” 174.


Vásquez de Espinosa, Compendium, 197.


Brockington, “Labor and Race,” Table 3.


Expediente formado sobre imposibilidad del cobro de tributos de pardos y mulatos, 1793, AGN Tributos, vol. 34, exp. 7, fol. 118-178.


Burgoa, Geográfica descripción, II, 409.


Free blacks and mulattos had been accused by some Indians of taking their lands in one instance alluded to in a 1583 viceregal order against such molestations. AGN Indios, vol. 2, exp. 654.


Cheryl English Martin, Rural Society in Colonial Morelos (Albuquerque, 1985), 199, reaches the same conclusion in discussing the acculturative influence of slaves and their free descendants on Indian populations in the sugar hacienda zones of Morelos.


Burgoa, Geográfica descripción, II, 389.


Farriss, Propiedades, provides abundant documentary support for a similar role played by eighteenth-century cattle estancias owned by Maya cofradías.


Burgoa, Geográfica descripción, 408.


Viceroy to Dominican padre provincial, Mexico City, May 22, 1635, AGN Indios, vol. 12, exp. 196.


Viceroy to Tehuantepec alcalde mayor, Mexico City, 1619, AGN Indios vol. 7, exp. 410; viceroy to Tehuantepec alcalde mayor, Mexico City, 1626, AGN Mercedes, vol. 37, fol. 35.


Burgoa, Geográfica descripción. II, 407-411.


Ibid., II, 396.


Criminal complaint against Don Juan Cortés, AGN Hospital de Jesús, leg. 450, exp. 1. In a recent unpublished paper, Robert Hunt compares the structural characteristics of canal irrigation systems in modern nation-states (“Size and Structure of Authority in Canal Irrigation Systems” [1988]). He finds that all but the smallest systems (those irrigating less than 20 hectares) have a constituted authority structure to manage the universal tasks of system construction and maintenance, capture and allocation of water, accounting, and resolution of conflict. Although irrigation management may not have led to the development of the late political state in Mesoamerica, as Jerome Offner argues in “On the Inapplicability of ‘Oriental Despotism’ and the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ to the Aztecs of Texcoco,” American Antiquity, 46:1 (Jan. 1981), 43-74, the control of such irrigation systems normally was directly tied to the polity’s governing structure. See, for example, Eva Hunt’s extensive analysis of this topic in “Irrigation and the Socio-Political Organization of Cuícatec Cacicazgos,” in The Prehistory of the Tehuacán Valley, D. S. Byers, ed. (Austin, 1967-), IV, 162-259.


Don Juan’s heretical disgrace is described in detail in Burgoa, Geográfica descripción, II, 356-358. As late as 1796, hereditary claims to the Tehuantepec cacicazgo’s lands and salinas were being brought before the Audiencia, AGN Tierras, vol. 2,783, exp. 12.


See S. L. Cline. Colonial Culhuacán, 1580-1600: A Social History of an Aztec Town (Albuquerque. 1986), 36-58 and Robert S. Haskett, “Indian Town Government in Colonial Cuernavaca: Persistence, Adaptation, and Change,” HAHR, 67:2 (May 1987), 203-231.


Burgoa, Geográfica descripción, II, 394.


See 1556 wage receipts of the Tehuantepec alcalde mayor, AGN Hospital de Jesús, leg. 160 bis.


1736-37 suit by community of Juchitán against haciendas belonging to Dominicans, AGN Tierras, vol. 578, exp. 6.


Zeitlin, “Colonialism,” 78-79.


El libro de tasaciones, 373-374.


1556 wage receipts of the Tehuantepec alcalde mayor, AGN Hospital de Jesús, leg. 160 bis.


Burgoa, Geográfica descripción, II, 406.


Ibid., II, 403, 406.


1556 account records of the Tehuantepec alcalde mayor, AGN Hospital de Jesús, leg. 160 bis.; documents in support of petition by the convent of Santo Domingo, 1580, AGN Tierras, vol. 2, 719, exp. 26.


Burgoa, Geográfica descripción, II. 401. For a description of the activities of more recent Zapotec middlemen in Huave villages, see Frederick Starr, In Indian Mexico (Chicago, 1908), 169-170; Beverly N. Litzler, “Women of San Blas Atempa: An Analysis of the Economic Role of Zapotec Women in Relation to Family and Community” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1968), 85.


Thomas, Zoque, 29-30; Nolasco Armas, Oaxaca indígena, 23. Table 89; Covarrubias, Mexico South, 58.


Nolasco Armas, Oaxaca indígena, 23, Table 89.


Royce, Prestigio y afiliación, 203-206.


Frederik Barth, “Eeologic Relationships of Ethnic Groups in Swat, North Pakistan.” American Anthropologist, 58:4(Dec. 1976), 1,079-1,089.


Newson, “Indian Population Patterns,” finds Indian demographic survival to be directly related to the intensity of Spanish exploitation.


Farriss, “Propiedades.”


Taylor, “Landed Society,” 404-409.


See, for example, Haskett, “Indian Town Government”; Farriss, Maya Society, Taylor, Landlord and Peasant; and Ronald Spores, The Mixtec Kings and Their People (Norman, 1967).

Author notes


In preparing this article for publication, I have benefited from the comments and suggestions of several individuals who read earlier drafts, particularly Lolita Gutiérrez Brockington, Pedro Carrasco, John Chance, George Cowgill, Nancy Farriss, Robert Hunt, Robert Manners, Joyce Marcus, Lillian Thomas, John Tutino, and Robert Zeitlin. Any errors of fact or interpretation are, of course, entirely my own responsibility. The archival research on which this study is based was supported by a grant from the Mazer Fund for Faculty Research, Brandeis University.