This study of colonial Coyoacán is the latest of the central Mexican case studies to come out of UCLA in the last 20-odd years. Part one of Horn’s work treats formal structures of political and economic relations in Coyoacán, with separate chapters on the postconquest altepetl, Nahua municipal government, Spanish provincial authorities, and tribute and labor. There are no real surprises here, but some additional detail on the internal functioning of indigenous structures is presented. Part two deals with Nahua household structure, land tenure, the development of Spanish estates, and the market economy. Much of the material on Nahua land tenure echoes findings for nearby Culhuacan published 15 years ago. Horn’s discussion of the development of Spanish estates adds to the ample literature on haciendas that proliferated in the wake of Charles Gibson’s 1964 observation that the topic required investigation.
Horn asserts that the breakup of the Nahua political unit (altepetl) was not solely a process of decline but allowed for the independence of smaller units. I would find this argument more persuasive if the units’ fragmentation and political autonomy were the result of increased indigenous economic prosperity. In my view, the micropatriotism and ethnic separation that emerged during the colonial period were a reflection of Indians’ increasing powerlessness in colonial society. Political fragmentation allowed smaller units to have their own cabildos; but the men who served on these councils were increasingly impoverished, and the towns themselves lost population and effective political agency. Spanish officials initially used indigenous cabildos for their own economic and political purposes. In the early period, when Coyoacán had a legitimate ruler and, in Horn’s assessment, a flourishing cabildo, “indigenous authority functioned smoothly, channeling Nahua goods and labor to public works projects and Spanish civil and ecclesiastical officials” (p. 229). The cabildo’s power was eroded after it became less central to Spanish concerns, which is a commentary in itself.
With the decline of the indigenous population and Spaniards’ new interest in being directly involved in production for the growing Hispanic urban population, two things occurred. First, beginning in the late sixteenth century, Indian land was acquired by individual Spaniards; and second, Spaniards contracted for labor with individual Indians rather than relying on the repartimiento. Both of these processes are well-known phenomena. The formal channels of Indian-Spanish relations increasingly gave way to informal ties of agricultural production and the colonial market. But as with institutional interactions, Spaniards were in the dominant position as a group.
Horn’s work is part of a genre of colonial Mexican history that emphasizes cultural survival and the continuation of indigenous structures, while placing particular emphasis on indigenous language documentation. It is worth noting, however, that record keeping in Nahuatl ended with political independence, as the Mexican state eschewed the special status of Indians. Nahua communities apparently did not keep records in their native language beyond independence, nor did individual Nahuas produce native-language documents for private use, such as correspondence. Indigenous literacy never advanced beyond a few men in any community. With the cessation of any state-approved use of native-language documentation, these texts virtually ceased to be produced.
I would recommend this book to experts in the field as a regional case study. It provides detail on the (d)evolution of a particularly interesting Nahua town close to Mexico City, with emphasis on a key transitional period, 1570-1650.