The four essays that comprise this book were originally published between 1987 and 1992. They are part and parcel of the author’s longstanding and seminal contribution to the history of colonial Mexico. Here in particular, his goal is to document the appropriation of Indian land in the valley of Orizaba by the creole nobility and higher colonial bureaucracy. For this, Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán studies the formation of the four aristocratic estates in Orizaba and their meandering ownership and succession.
Chapter 1 details the establishment of the county of Orizaba (1627). Its founder, Rodrigo de Vivero, and his heirs, owners of a sugarcane plantation based on slave and Indian labor, are presented in excruciating detail. Chapter 2 deals with the marquesado del Valle de la Colina, founded by Diego Madrazo in 1690. The author shows how the tobacco monopoly (1765-1825) triggered a capitalist transformation, expressed in a regional economic boom that affected the noble elite, the productive process, and the social fabric of the local colonial and indigenous societies.
Chapter 3 chronicles the marquesado de Sierra Nevada, founded by Domingo Ruíz Tagle in 1708; and chapter 4 deals with the marquesado de Selva Nevada, entailed by Antonia Gómez and Manuel Rodríguez in 1778. These chapters highlight the conflicts between the landed aristocracy and the local elites and emerging social forces of Orizaba (enlightened hidalgos, merchants, planters, provincial bureaucrats). The latter masterfully describes the judicial maneuvering of the Indian communities involved in secular struggles aimed at recovering their ancestral lands. This is exemplified by the tangled and mutually exhausting dispute between the marquesses of Selva Nevada—who inherited the controversy from the Jesuits—and the Indian town of Zongolica. Overall, however, this portrayal of indigenous communities as dynamic and engaged historical agents is an exception. Aguirre’s elite-centered approach depicts Indians and slaves as lacking historical agency. While chapter 1 treats nobles in awesome detail, Indians and slaves are mentioned only briefly, and they quickly disappear from the picture. Chapters 2 and 3 treat both groups mainly as a passive labor force.
This text is a reaction against “detached” writings in social and economic history, which privilege trends, variables, and patterns at the expense of the eventful biographies of the people involved in their own saga. But this volume falls short in the endeavor of evenly mastering biography and historical process. Endless vignettes of aristocrats veil the central argument, and are weakly connected to the region’s social and economic processes. The absence of footnotes makes the text even more convoluted. One gets the sense of standing in front of bundles of rich archival records not yet subject to the distillation that transforms legajos into history.