This study approaches the history of epidemics in Mexico under Spanish invasion through the lens of religion and labor. In the aftermath of a particularly devastating epidemic from 1576 to 1581, colonial administrators in Mexico tried to exact previous levels of encomienda tribute from a greatly diminished population. Across the colony, Indigenous survivors protested having to pay “tribute for the dead” for those that they lost in the outbreak, and they demanded official recounts and new censuses of their communities. Underlying their protest were longstanding Mesoamerican practices and principles for the structure of collective labor, or tequitl in Nahuatl, including social norms dictating the proper relationship between religion, work, and the afterlife. The language of protest suggests that among the most serious violations of the “tribute for the dead” was that those who died in the epidemic were being compelled to work as spectral laborers for Spanish purposes. The resilient power of these practices and beliefs motivated and galvanized a groundswell of struggle against the encomienda system of labor extraction toward the end of the sixteenth century, bringing that system to its knees.
For Romina Robles Ruvalcaba, in memoriam
Six major epidemics ravaged Mexico in the sixteenth century; three were particularly catastrophic with respect to demographic loss. Before Spanish invasion, the population of Mexico was 22 million, but by the end of the sixteenth century scarcely 2 million people remained. Historians of New Spain are all too familiar with, even perhaps somewhat numbed by, the aggregate of these numbers. Yet in truth we know little about how the colonial demographic cataclysm was lived, felt, and comprehended by the Indigenous communities who suffered and survived it. As a historian of religion, I spent the better part of a decade working to draw a more intimate history of sixteenth-century Mexican pandemics, especially reflecting on how they shaped and defined religious belief and practice. I uncovered some of the Spanish theopolitical ideas that emerged to sustain the colony through decades of precarity and loss. Even more urgently, I searched for the rival ideas and visions that pueblos de indios forged, as they strategized their postpandemic survivance into the future.1 The conclusions of that study were published in The Church of the Dead: The Epidemic of 1576–1581 and the Birth of Christianity in the Americas (2021), in which I argue that the mortality crisis gave birth to a spectral church: an ecclesial body absent of living persons, an ecclesia ex mortuis: a church of the dead.2
Here I return to the documentary record of the Mexican cocoliztli epidemic of 1576–81, this time through the lens of religion and labor.3 My purpose is not first and foremost to elaborate how the sixteenth-century demographic crisis shaped labor practices in the colony: this has already been well described by historians.4 Rather, I consider how cocoliztli specifically, and the colonial cataclysm more generally, threatened the social signification and cultural meaning of work itself. During the outbreak and in its immediate aftermath, long-standing cultural and religious principles definitive of work and labor in Mesoamerican culture were jeopardized by Spanish extractive practices and ideologies. These threatened to erode not only human-human relations, but also human-divine. To be clear, this contest did not pit a secular, narrowly economic understanding of labor against a traditionally religious one. Rather, two distinct religio-political views of how work properly serves to organize social relations, including with the dead, competed to gain a foothold in the emerging colony.
By imperial design, the Spanish colony was premised and organized around incorporating Indigenous peoples as subjects of the crown and exploiting their labor for the extraction of wealth. The mortandad, that is the epidemic cataclysm of the sixteenth century, represented for the Spanish a distressing labor crisis as fewer Indigenous people remained to sustain the colony.5 Existing labor structures were revised, and new ones were devised, so that the project of primitive accumulation could continue apace. Confronted with the scope of the mortandad and its damaging economic impacts, colonial administrators and Spanish settlers in Mexico refused to yield. Instead, they endeavored to exact previous levels of encomienda tribute from greatly diminished populations. In the aftermath of cocoliztli, devastated communities were compelled to render the same degree of tribute as before the outbreak, in essence paying levies for those family members that they had lost.
Across the colony, Indigenous pueblos resisted and rebelled against this oppressive practice, denouncing it as paying “tribute for the dead,” or making the dead pay tribute: tributo de muertos in Spanish, miccatequitl in Nahuatl. Pueblos de indios employed forceful legal means, including petition, litigation, and demand for official census recounts, to protest the escalation of Spanish exploitation. In this effort they also recruited and involved Spanish allies and advocates, who similarly leveraged the critical language of “tribute for the dead” in defense of Indigenous communities. I see in these collective efforts evidence of a widespread protest movement in the last decades of the sixteenth century. Here, I parse the language of protest to uncover the cultural meanings and values at stake.
Underlying their protest were longstanding Mesoamerican practices and principles for the structure of collective labor, or tequitl in Nahuatl. The resilient power of tequitl galvanized a groundswell of struggle against the encomienda system of labor extraction toward the end of the sixteenth century, bringing that system, already in decline, finally to its knees. Among the most serious criticisms was the implication that those who died in the epidemic were being compelled to work as spectral laborers for Spanish purposes, an intolerable violation of the proper structure of tequitl: one could say anathema. Even the dead were exploited as part of the economic structure of the colonial mortandad.
Encomienda and repartimiento, adaptable systems of community labor draft and payment of tribute, structured the colonial economy.6 In fact, there were no less than seven different forms of taxation levied against the pueblos de indios.7 Over the course of the sixteenth century, the Spanish modified and expanded these economic institutions in response to dramatic population loss. While scholars have interrogated the exploitative nature of the colonial economy and its harmful effects on Indigenous communities, we have not understood how Mesoamerican cultural meanings of work as a basis for ordering social relations were undermined by colonial models of extraction. Similarly, studies of Nahua cosmology treating the pre- and post-invasion period have paid scant attention to the conceptualization of work as a dimension of meaning-making and worldview.8 Under European imperialism the formation of the religious subject and the laboring subject was a joint process of colonial construction, one frequently resisted and challenged by colonized populations. I use the category “religion” in the broadest, most ample, sense: to refer to the mores and worldviews, rites and actions, oriented around building and maintaining connection between the physical and immaterial world. In the Mesoamerican context specifically, religion refers to the maintenance of right relations with fellow human beings, as well as with divine spirits and other nonhuman entities, including ancestors and the dead.
The interpretive locus of this study is a two-year struggle by the people of Tecamachalco, in the present-day state of Puebla. From 1577 to 1579, the Indigenous Popoloca community labored mightily to end the tributo de muertos that plagued them even as they reeled from cocoliztli's devastation. The lords of Tecamachalco delivered their complaint in person to the viceroy on two occasions and suffered harassment and even arrest for their defiance. These significant events are recorded in the Anales de Tecamachalco. Written in Nahuatl as a collective account, frequently in the first-person plural, the Anales chronicles two hundred years of community history, from 1398 to 1590. This history begins before Tecamachalco became a subject tributary of the Aztecs in 1466, and then registers significant events through seventy years of Spanish invasion and corresponding mortandad and population loss, concluding with years of the cocoliztli pandemic and its aftermath.9 For the years 1577 to 1580, the Anales records the community's embodied experience of cocoliztli as a collective and shared affliction, details their strategic response including the defense of land inheritance and provisions made for children orphaned by the epidemic, and finally documents their pursuit of justice with respect to protesting unfair levies. It is here that the neologism miccatequitl appears in the record, when community leaders first bring their concerns in person before the viceroy in 1577. The specific entry reads, “On Wednesday the fourteenth of August , the lords [of Tecamachalco] arrived in Mexico City. On the third day they saluted the viceroy, and they spoke to him about miccatequitl, the tribute of the dead.”10
Theirs was not an isolated complaint but rather a widespread protest in the aftermath of cocoliztli. Throughout Mexico, pueblos de indios appealed for a recount, a new census, so that their encomienda tribute could be reduced proportionate to their remaining population. In fact, these protests offered an even deeper critique: condemning the encomienda system itself as a “tributo de muertos.” In these complaints Indigenous pueblos were aided by Spanish allies: Spanish advocates articulated objections to the tributo de muertos in the same postpandemic period. These collective protests were powerful and effective: the repartimiento system of draft labor, preferable to many Indigenous community, mostly replaced the encomienda head tax after cocoliztli.11
Historian Thomas Laqueur explores how the dead shape human communities across culture, time, and place: “The dead make civilizations on a grand and intimate scale, everywhere and always: their historical, philosophical, and anthropological weight is enormous and almost without limit and compare.”12 Here I reflect on the work of the dead in Tecamachalco to probe the deeper meanings, referents, and resonances at play, and to surface some of the most acutely felt impacts of colonial extractive labor. The Tecamachalco protest reveals new dimensions of the harmful cultural impacts of colonial labor systems. Reflecting on the complaint of Tecamachalco, I show how Mesoamerican ideas about the relationship between religion, work, and the afterlife were contradicted by colonial economies and the compromised theological ideas that justified them.
Epidemic Cataclysm in Mexico
For three-quarters of a century, the mortandad, the colonial death event wrought by structures of imperial violence and epidemic disease, threatened Indigenous life.13 Smallpox wreaked a path of devastation through Mexico for most of 1520, killing perhaps 8 million people. Its disruption created the conditions for the Tlaxcalan-Spanish defeat of the Aztec Triple Alliance at Tenochtitlan: the symbolic “conquest” of Mexico. Twenty-five years later, in 1545, the deadliest epidemic of the colonial period struck, taking at least 12 million lives. This disease was the first to be named cocoliztli. In 1576, Indigenous Mexican communities suffered a particularly wrenching episode in which 2 million Indigenous Mexican people died: the focus of this study.
The specific cocoliztli pandemic under discussion here began its destructive sojourn through Mexico in April 1576, laying waste to Indigenous communities in its haphazard yet predatory path. Concentrated within a radius of about four hundred miles, by some reports it spread even into the northern reaches of New Spain, including territories now considered part of the United States, and as far south as the Peruvian Andes.14 The pace of contagion appeared to decline in October 1578, only to accelerate again several months later in August 1579; it continued to take lives until the middle of 1581.15 In the first three months of the outbreak, reports observed that forty thousand people had died in the territory of Tlaxcala.16 An account from December 1578 stated that thirty to forty thousand were dead overall in the city of Cholula, Puebla, alone. Half of these were adults in their prime; the rest were children and the elderly.17 In February 1577, Franciscan missionaries mourned a total of six hundred thousand deaths in the diocese of Mexico.18 As the death toll finally began to taper, the viceroy of Mexico reported to the king that more than 2 million of his vassals were lost—more than half the population of Mexico.19 Cocoliztli carried away so many people that Nahua elders described a special path to Mictlán, the place of the dead, for those who died of the disease: “Auh in umpa ui, Mictlan / iehoantin, in ixquichen tlalmiqui / in zan coculitzli ic miqui / in tlatoque, in maceoalti” (By that way they go to Mictlán, those who died on the earth, those who from cocoliztli died, whether they were lords or commoners).20
The anonymous Nahua authors of the Anales de Tecamachalco recalled the terrible progression of symptoms that afflicted their community:
On the first day of August  cocoliztli began extremely strongly in Tecamachalco; it could not be resisted. . . . For this reason, many people died: young people, married people, old people [men and women] and children. . . . In two or three days they died of hemorrhage, blood emerged from their noses, from the ears, from the eyes, from the anus. And women bled between their legs. And for us men, blood emerged from our members. Others died from diarrhea, which took them suddenly, they died quickly from this.21
Until recently, the deadly illness was thought to be typhus or a form of the smallpox that had struck in 1520. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, as Ebola threatened the African continent, epidemiologists concluded that the historic cocoliztli epidemic, with its familiar bloody symptoms, must have been hemorrhagic fever.22 But hemorrhage is a general symptom of untreated bacterial or viral infection; it cannot readily point to a specific disease. Others have suggested that there was not a single disease agent but, rather, that the Great Death stemmed from a constellation of causes. Most recently, new technological instruments have made it possible for paleoarcheologists to trace agent pathogen DNA, which can offer the beginnings of a molecular understanding of many historical diseases, including in early colonial Mexico. Scientists have identified the presence of a strain of bacterial Salmonella enterica (a paratyphoid fever, S. paratyphi c.) in individuals who were buried in a plague cemetery in Oaxaca during the first cocoliztli outbreak in 1545.23 Perhaps Salmonella enterica was indeed also the culprit in 1576. Certainly, colonial processes created the social and economic conditions for Salmonella enterica contagion: the economic, agricultural, and cultural disruption wrought by the Spanish compromised the capacity of pueblos de indios to maintain their traditional health and healing practices.
Mortandad and Labor in Mexico: Centuries of Debate
Historians and demographers have long debated whether epidemics or oppressive labor was the primary cause of Indigenous mortality in Mexico.24 The political and ethical stakes could not be higher. If epidemics were the primary cause of death, goes the argument, then the Spanish win a sort of dispensation: they are not truly to blame. If, on the other hand, violence and economic exploitation are the culprits, then Indigenous Mexicans endured an entirely new scale of suffering under foreign rule, their affliction the direct product of Spanish depravity. In fact, these debates date back to the beginning of the sixteenth century, when letter after letter arrived from the colonies to the Spanish monarchs bemoaning pestilence and disease as the causes of mass Indigenous demise. But just as many indicted Spanish colonial violence, slavery, forced labor, and physical abuse.
In fact, extractive labor and epidemic disease were not distinct processes; colonized peoples who suffered and survived saw them as intertwined. Though infectious disease preyed on colonial impoverishment and dispossession, the mortality of America's Indigenous peoples by epidemic disease was just one incarnation of the multiple death worlds wrought by European invasion.25 Military conquest and systems of extractive labor, including slavery, also took a devastating toll.26 The cultural theorist Alberto Moreira calls the primitive imperial accumulation of the Spanish colonial project “the psychotic night of the world.”27 Disease contagion was less a symptom of colonialism than its sequelae, a chronic condition that is the consequence of an original or prior disease or injury.
Even as it was wrought by colonial forces, the mortandad in turn forged and formed Mexican economic and political arrangements, social settlements, and cultural practices. Berkeley demographer Woodrow Borah identified the cocoliztli epidemic of 1576 as the end point of an unprecedented period of sharp population decline, which in turn triggered a century-long period of economic contraction in the colony.28 Observing the costs in the epidemic's immediate aftermath, an accountant of the Royal Treasury, Melchior de Legaspi, concluded:
The illness and death of the natives have been so great that they have been completely diminished, so much so that in many pueblos in this great land fewer than half the population remains, and in others less than a third. And so, our profits are less than they were. . . . The absence of Natives in these lands is so great that it seems unfathomable that they could have been brought to this point. The profits are far less and our expenses ever greater because of the tremendous hardship. And the whole land is in misery, affliction, and need.29
Epidemics like cocoliztli triggered transformations in the structure of labor over the course of the sixteenth century. Encomienda was the founding economic structure of Spanish American colonialism. The conquistadors laid waste to populations and then reaped their reward: receiving from the Crown entire communities of survivors, sometime as many as several hundred persons, in encomienda. The encomenderos abused and exploited survivors until they also perished—further diminishing the people who were meant to become the Crown's loyal subjects. In its original iteration, the encomienda was a “landless institution,” a system of personal labor draft. It was not until after the first cocoliztli outbreak, in 1545, that the explicit right to tribute in kind begins to appear written into encomienda grants.30
Over the course of the sixteenth century, the brutal and abusive encomienda system proved unsustainable.31 Complaints of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of encomenderos reached Spain early, by 1510. Drawn up by a commission of the most famous jurists and scholars of the day, the Laws of Burgos of 1512 were the first codified attempt to legislate the behavior of Spanish encomenderos and to mitigate abuse of people held in encomienda. The thirty-five laws provided a structure for the regulation of Indigenous labor with certain minimal protections, exempting Indigenous peoples from being subject to private trade, forbidding physical abuse and forced removal, with a system of penalties levied in gold pesos.32 The 1512 laws specify that Indigenous communities should not be resettled by force but, rather, only of their own free will. In 1537 the papal bull Sublimus Deus prohibited Indigenous enslavement and set the groundwork for the New Laws (1542), regulating every dimension of encomienda.
Increasing regulation coupled with continued population loss led to the revision and, ultimately, decline of encomienda over the course of the sixteenth century. After the New Laws, repartimiento, a form of draft or corvée labor more directly under the control of the Crown, began to replace encomienda. This process was accelerated by the first cocoliztli pandemic in 1545. By the time of the second cocoliztli outbreak in 1576, encomienda had in many regions become a head tax, payable in maize and coin. Another key shift, as the century progressed, was that encomienda tribute was no longer payable directly to encomenderos; but instead to the Crown via its colonial representatives.33 This is the system that the people of Tecamachalco protested in their 1577 complaint to the viceroy.
Spanish Theopolitics: The Colony as a Laboring Body
Spanish encomienda was never narrowly economic or strictly functional. Rather it was deeply imbricated with complex theological ideologies that defined the place of Mexico's Indigenous people within the economic structures of Spanish colonial society, including dictating their status as subject laborers. Spanish theopolitical concepts challenged pre-Invasion cultural mores in which the idea of tequitl, of collective labor, structured social relations. In the sixteenth century the Spanish imposed the idea of the colony as a sacred body, as the mystical body of Christ (corpus mysticum), in which millions of presumed Catholic Indigenous subjects figured as exploited laborers, as the body's feet.34 In Mexico, the primordial Christian theology of corpus mysticum transubstantiated into a jurisdictional concept. It now referred to a theopolitical body that extended Spanish authority over Indigenous bodies and territories. In this process, a new theological regime emerged, one in which the body of the Church and the body of the colony became overlapping entities, coidentified as both territorial and theological jurisdictions: the corpus coloniae mysticum.
The bishop of Michoacán, Juan de Medina Rincón, was a fierce advocate who for decades protested the unmitigated exploitation and abuse of Indigenous Mexicans, especially after the cocoliztli epidemic. In one of his final letters to the king, he appealed to the idea of Indigenous laborers as the wounded feet of the body of Christ:
With great haste the indios travel toward their end because in all parts and regions many are falling ill and many more are dying from the slow and deadly pestilence that never ceases. The natives have always been the feet of this body, but although the head [cabeza] that governs sees their fragility and weakness, it nevertheless continues to walk around on them [the feet] and they get worse and weaker. The indios are exploited for agricultural labors, for the construction of buildings, for work in mines. They say that these things are necessary for the republic—that the indios will last as long as they will last, as a spoon made of bread.35
The representation of Indigenous people as the feet of the body of Christ reiterated and reified, even sacramentalized, their subject and expendable status within the colonial order. As feet, Indigenous peoples were the extremity on which the colony precariously stood.
The idea of laboring classes as the feet of the social body was not a New World innovation but rather dates to the eleventh century. Medieval French political thinker Christine de Pizan (1364–1430) elaborated a corporeal social hierarchy in her Book of the Body Politic. She explains the specific place of agricultural laborers as the feet of the body politic:
[The] whole of the people in common, described as the belly, legs, and feet, so that the whole be formed or joined in one living body, perfect and healthy. . . . Of all the estates, they [the simple laborers] are the most necessary, those who are cultivators of the earth which feed and nourish the human creature. . . . And really it is the feet which support the body politic, for they support the body of every person with their labor.36
In Mexico, the theological, even ontological status of indios as feet relegated them to a particular economic, social, and racial status within the colonial regime. Colonial thinkers thus invoked one of the most potent Christian theological formulations when they identified indios as the feet of the mystical body of the colony, appropriating sacred language to sacramentalize indios’ subject status even as they protested it.
Sixteenth-century theopolitical formulations persisted as the colony matured and consolidated. The seventeenth-century Mexican jurist Juan de Solórzano Pereira Solórzano also correlated laboring classes in Mexico with the feet of the body politic. His writing dedicated to the “Mystical Body of the Republic” identifies diverse sectors of the colonial society with parts of a corporate body. He specifies feet in a list of integral parts, each of which should know its role:
All of these offices form the Republic into a body composed of many men, as of many members, that help one another, and assist one another to endure. Among these, of the shepherds and farmhands, and other such roles, some are called feet, and others arms, and others fingers of the same Republic, with each being compulsory and necessary, each in their ministry, as the Apostle Saint Paul so seriously and wisely brought us to understand.37
These are the potent Spanish theopolitical ideas that oriented and justified the structures of extractive labor in Mexico during the century of mortandad. They also contradicted and competed with Indigenous Mesoamerican cultural labor practices and logics. Yet tequitl as an ethos of sacred and collective labor was powerful enough to rival and even dislodge Spanish theopolitics of the colony as a laboring body of Christ.
Protesting the Tribute of the Dead in Tecamachalco
The Tecamachalco mobilization against the tributo de muertos began in August of 1577, just a year after the community recorded the first outbreak of cocoliztli. With the epidemic still ongoing, the Indigenous lords of Tecamachalco traveled to Mexico City for an audience with the viceroy: “[speaking] to him about the miccatequitl, the tribute of the dead.” The community was well-organized and tightly governed under Native leadership,38 perhaps becoming even more so as they confronted cocoliztli. Tecamachalco had a record of written appeals to the viceroy for various interventions, protections, and exceptions: no less than six such petitions from Tecamachalco appear in the archive for the period 1576 to 1578 alone.39 When the Tecamachalco governors returned from Mexico City, tensions back home mounted. Perhaps triggered precisely by the audience with the viceroy, a month later a Spanish judge, Baltazar Dorantes, arrived in the community, tasked to register residents of Tecamachalco for purposes of assessing tribute. The judge's presence was clearly harassing. Dorantes demanded the pueblo turn over its tribute ledgers and then imprisoned several prominent Indigenous leaders for almost a week. Among those detained was one Pedro Osorio who had been specially charged by the people of Tecamachalco to guard and protect the interests of cocoliztli's orphans. The troublesome judge continued his efforts through November, even overseeing the tribute assessment regionally.
In February of 1578, a census recount began in earnest, now involving a Nahuatl translator and a scribe working alongside the judge: “they came to count the people, otepuaco.” The census concluded on March 16 when: “Ruano the scribe closed the books.”40 That very day, the lords of Tecamachalco departed again to Mexico City, this time with the new count in hand. Perhaps given the difficult judge's role in the census, the immediate outcome is not surprising: “At the end of the month of April,” the Anales de Tecamachalco tells us, “Don Rodrigo observed the valuation, and then we heard his pronouncement: that we are responsible to pay the tlacalaquilli miccatequitl [the tribute of labor of the dead], which is 4140 pesos.”41 Tecamachalco's initial bid for justice had failed.
The motivations for the Tecamachalco protest were both economic and practical: it was simply not reasonable or even possible for their community to continue to pay the same tribute that they had before cocoliztli struck. But a closer study of the word miccatequitl in the Anales de Tecamachalco also compels us to consider conflicting denotations of work in the first century of Spanish invasion. The Nahuatl neologism miccatequitl appears twice in the Anales de Tecamachalco, at first on its own in the entry for August 1577 and once doubled up in the entry for April 1578: tlacalaquilli miccatequitl (the tribute of the labor of the dead). What freighted and multivalent meanings did the complex formulation “the tribute of the labor of the dead” contain? Surely, the language of “paying tribute of the dead” carried significant rhetorical power, including for the Spanish. Beyond this, it also referred to enduring and resilient Mesoamerican worldviews, and pointed to the distortion of sacred notions of work and labor under Spanish rule and under encomienda specifically.
A cursory search for the term miccatequitl in available dictionaries and inventories of colonial Nahuatl does not return other attestations of use. On the other hand, the precise Spanish phrase tributo de muertos appears elsewhere in the colonial record, similarly deployed toward the regulation of Indigenous tribute in the post-pandemic period in the late sixteenth century, as I discuss below.42Miccatequitl is compounded from micqui, “corpse” or “dead person,” and tequitl, “work” or “labor.” Tequitl, both in colonial and contemporary Nahuatl, is a complex and multivalent social keyword, with many associations and referents, variously meaning “work,” “role,” “force or effort,” “the performance of religious ritual,” “mutual effort,” “offering,” even “gift.” The Spanish early colonial administrator Alonso de Zurita observed at the middle of the sixteenth century:
In the old days they performed their communal labor in their own towns . . . They did their work together and with much merriment, for they are people who do little work alone, but together they accomplish something . . . The building of the temples and the houses of the lords and public works was always a common undertaking, and many people worked together with much merriment.43
In Mesoamerican cultures tequitl is a highly valued ordering principle that is fundamentally mutual, collaborative, and collective: a social scaffolding structuring most every dimension of human relations, in no way reducible to the narrow translation “tribute,” as is made clear in the Anales of Tecamachalco.44Tequitl refers to “creative collaboration”45 in which people give their labor to the collective as part of a sacred trust: “to love and respect implies to give work in the benefit of others.”46 We can see many examples of tequitl labor in the Anales: the weighty charge of guarding cocolitzli's orphans, for example, or even the task of carrying a petition in person to the viceroy. Protest and complaint on behalf of the community are themselves a form of communal care and labor, of tequitl.
The complex religious and cosmological resonances of tequitl are affirmed by an anthropological study of Nahua communities in Puebla in the 1970s. Observing the exceptionally frequent use of the term tequitl, Marie Noëlle Chamoux explains, “Tequitl, as a social role or office, defines the ideal situation of the individual, in human society as well as in the natural and supernatural worlds, which tend to be considered as a whole.”47 For Nahua people in the twentieth century, the realm of tequitl is not limited to material production but also includes divine action, referring to “specialized activities for reproducing the cosmic order that conditions mankind's survival.”48 It is very clear that during cocoliztli, pueblos de indios participated in and upheld tequitl, with all of its social and cosmological power, as a central mechanism to ensure the survivance of their communities into the future. Tequitl helped maintain and protect communities during cocoliztli and its aftermath.
Conversely, there are many activities that the Spanish would have logically associated with “work” that are excluded from the category of tequitl; among these are trade, the payment of rents, and making loans. For the contemporary Nahua in Chamoux's study, these strictly instrumental activities are negocios, not tequitl. Surely the Spanish exaction of tribute in the sixteenth century, whether from the living or the dead, was regarded as crude negocio, not tequitl. Encomienda tribute was a violation of and a threat to tequitl that could not be tolerated.
Spectral Labor: The Work of the Dead in Tecamachalco
Work, or tequitl, does not only structure vertical human social relations within Mesoamerican societies; it also organizes and defines the quality of horizontal relationships. This includes not just relations with other human persons but also with divine beings, spirits, and the dead. All of these are captured and encompassed within the structuring relationships of “work.” Human beings perform labor for the dead, and likewise the dead engage in various types of labor on our behalf. That is to say, the dead also participate in tequitl. The second, doubled-up appearance of the word miccatequitl in the Anales is especially revealing in this respect. Paired with and proceeded by tlacalaquilli, which more clearly refers to tribute, the term miccatequitl is freed to communicate the full weight of tequitl: not the “tribute of the dead” but, more specifically, “the labor of the dead.” These were powerful vocabularies of protest in sixteenth-century Mexico.
Anthropologist Catharine Good Eshelman explores the work of the dead in her study of contemporary Nahua communities in the Mexican state of Guerrero. There, “the dead continue to participate in the productive and ritual activities of the domestic group and the community. . . . They do not disappear as social beings, but belong to domestic groups, defined as entities that ‘work [just] like one does.’ ”49 Framed within Nahua cultural logics, tequitl “is the central organizing concept of life in this region,” and encompasses a broad range of activities in service of the community: imparting or sharing knowledge, teaching, healing, praying, singing, making religious offerings (ofrenda), and sexual relations.50 In its cosmological orientation, tequitl is closely linked to fuerza, a powerful, personal energetic force that flows and circulates. Through fuerza, tequitl is linked to “perseverance, rituals, affects, and spiritual or creative activities.” Finally, within this system of reciprocity and exchange, “The circulation of tequitl and fuerza is not limited to human beings: the earth, elements of nature, plants, animals, the saints, the Virgin Mary, and the dead all participate in the constant movement of work.”51 Tequitl includes both the labor of the dead and the labor of those living descendants who work with and for them. Some of the work of the dead is legible to human beings—for example, the role of the dead in maintaining and ensuring productive agricultural cycles—while some work is inaccessible, pertaining to otherworldly realms inaccessible to us.
Returning to the concept of miccatequitl with these understandings in mind,52 we can see that the problem, the fundamental offense, of Spanish encomienda after the mortandad is not that cocolitzli's dead were made to work or that the living labored on their behalf. Rather, Spanish tribute is the wrong sort of work: it is not “tequitl,” sacred labor, in the traditional sense but rather its antithesis. The Spanish were in other instances brutal in their uses of the bodies of the dead. In at least one instance, Spanish missionaries turned the main plaza of the Oaxacan pueblo of Teposcolula into a mass grave, a plague cemetery, precisely to make it uninhabitable.53
According to Nahua mortuary traditions, there are certain labors, or trials, from which we are released when we die. In book 3 of Bernardino de Sahagún's sixteenth-century Historia de las Cosas de la Nueva España (or Florentine Codex) his Nahua collaborators explain the rituals and ritual language that are employed in discharging the dead to the afterlife, to Mictlan. Sahagún's Spanish translation reads, “And on the day that someone dies, whether man, woman, or child, they said to the deceased, laid out on the bed, before they are buried: ‘Oh child, now you have passed on [from] the toil, the trabajos, of this life.’ ” Surely the negocio, the business, of paying tribute to the Spanish is one of these: an earthy toil. Within Mesoamerican religious practice it is assumed already that the dead participate in the most valued labor of tequitl. But the types of labor that the Spanish insist on that are incorrect: the payment of tribute within the encomienda system is inappropriate toil, not sacred tequitl; encomienda tribute is an improper labor burden from which the dead should be freed.
Pueblos de indios understood that the loss of tequitl under Spanish systems of extractive labor was a grave threat to their survival: from their perspective, one of the primary causes of mortandad, or collective death, in the sixteenth century. In cocoliztli's immediate aftermath, King Philip II commissioned a survey of the peoples and lands of New Spain. The resulting collection of materials, known as the Relaciones geográficas, is one of the essential sources documenting the Indigenous history of early colonial Mexico. In the widely circulated questionnaire, several queries invite self-assessment of population loss, health, and infirmity. One question in particular asks pueblos whether their population numbers changed under Spanish rule and, if so, inquired specifically about the cause of that change. It is a disturbing and tender task to ask a people to narrate their own demise at the service of more efficient colonial rule.54
Of 103 responses, the vast majority, 92, describe population loss, or mortandad. But within that singularity are listed nearly twenty different possible causes for that decline. The most commonly identified cause was disease and illness—which figured in eighty completed answers to the questionnaire. This is unsurprising given that cocoliztli was still then painfully recent. The second most common explanation was transformation in labor practice, including especially exploitation under imposed systems of extractive labor. Even more significant for this study, twenty-nine responses name a decline in work, or “idleness,” as the primary cause of mortandad, of general decline in health overall, and of shortened lifespan.55 Here pueblos surely mean “the loss of the strict, ordered regimen of daily life.”56 We can now understand more clearly that surviving pueblos de indios regarded the loss of tequitl as one of the primary causes of mortandad. Surely this knowledge motivated their protest.
Counting the Living to Release the Dead
Like the people of Tecamachalco, pueblos de indios across New Spain sought out formal census of their communities, demanding a recount that they hoped would reduce their tribute assessment to better reflect the new demographic reality. This protest was general and widespread, and predated the 1576 cocoliztli outbreak. Consider for example a report by the Franciscan provincial in preparation for an official visitation by a representative of the Council of the Indies, Juan de Ovando y Godoy, between 1568 and 1571. Here the provincial records show pervasive protest and open rebellion against the encomienda head tax:
There is this other problem of the count, and that is that tribute is levied by headcount, and every day there are fewer people remaining but the full tribute requirement remains intact. . . . And those that are still living pay for the Dead and for those who have fled their misery . . . and this is against Natural Law, divine and human. . . . And as the decline of the population never ceases, and the tributes continue, their complaints and recounts also never end. And their encomenderos complain that their people are rebellious.57
The tribute de muertos protests did not begin with cocoliztli, but rather the outbreak contributed to the escalation of urgency and an increase in requests for recount. The accountant of the royal treasury of New Spain, Melchio de Legaspi, notes the general protest in a letter to the king written in October 1577:
The collection of tribute is very belabored owing the great number of people taken by this pestilence. . . . The land is so transformed that it looks like another place entirely. The tributes cannot be charged, and in this you must make all diligence possible. . . . The same amount of tribute can no longer be charged as it once was. Almost all the pueblos are asking for a census.58
There were in fact some communities that hesitated to request recount because the civil servants tasked with it regularly menaced and abused Indigenous households, including helping themselves to whatever they liked. We observed this harassment from the Spanish judge in the pueblo of Tecamachalco. Rather than subject themselves to theft and harassment, some communities chose to simply accept the tributo de muertos. The bishop of Michoacán, Juan de Medina Rincón was particularly concerned about fraud and harassment in the recounts that the pueblos de indios had requested: “The counts and assessment that have been conducted after the pestilence have been received with notable aggravation. The pestilence was so great, and the tribute that they give in all the land is [heavy]. As is commonly accepted as justice, those that remain should not have to pay the tributo de muertos.”59
Spanish advocates and allies like Medina Rincón reiterated the concerns of the communities using the language of tributo de muertos. In her study of the role of the official defenders of the Indians in Yucatán in the sixteenth century, Caroline Cunill explains that one of their central purposes was to appeal for and oversee accurate recounts of the population so that they would not pay undue tribute, so that the living would not have to also pay for the dead: “que los vivos no tuvieran que pagar también por los muertos.”60 The defensor Francisco Palomina, for example, fought for the reduction of tribute in at least twenty-two towns in the Yucatán in 1569–70, even before cocoliztli, arguing that “many towns in this province have been aggravated, vexed, and over worked in paying excessive tribute owing to the death of tributary Indios.”61 His efforts were successful, leading to a reduction of the total tribute paid in that region.
Although their initial efforts to end the tribute de muertos had failed, in April 1579 the Anales of Tecamachalco records that a new draft labor system was enacted in their community: el trabajo en común, or couatequipano in Nahuatl. Four hundred fifty individuals were assigned to the repartimiento judge: “This was the new order,” the entry concludes. Throughout Mexico the repartimiento system of draft labor mostly replaced encomienda after cocoliztli. For the people of Tecamachalco, as for other communities, repartamiento was less problematic and objectionable, and more easily subject to some degree of Indigenous control, than encomienda head tax cash tribute.62 The people of Tecamachalco had won their protest: those who died from cocolitztli would no longer be forced to labor for the Spanish.
Sometimes the structure of the colonial economy was compelled to yield to the tequitl of Indigenous protest, as communities strategized their survival in the aftermath of the mortandad. This was surely the case with the tributo de muertos protest.
I am grateful to the UCR Center for Latino and Latin American Studies Research Center for time and space to write this piece. Thanks also to Lisa Bitel for the invitation to present this work at the Sacred Underground Symposium at the University of Southern California in October 2022, and to Marie Kelleher for responding. Research for this project was supported by the UC Office of the President Faculty Fellowship in the Humanities and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies.
From Native American studies, the term survivance implies endurance and persistence, not just survival. The word was coined by Chippewa cultural theorist Gerald Vizenor: “Survivance is an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction. . . . Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy and victimry.” Vizenor, Manifest Manners.
Some of the framing and contextualizing material for this essay is taken from Church of the Dead, but the argument itself—the elaboration of labor in relation to Mesoamerican cultural systems—is original to this article and incorporates new research.
I draw on a series of unpublished manuscript letters at the Archivo General de las Indias in Seville, Spain, written by ecclesial actors (priests, friars, bishops) during the time of the cocoliztli pandemic (1576–81). I also consult published primary sources from the sixteenth century, including Nahuatl-language materials. For these I rely on Spanish translations, colonial Nahuatl-Spanish dictionaries, and on the assistance of Nahuatl philologists.
Before the last century, the demographic cost of these diseases was not accurately fathomed. But in 1974, the extensive research of demographers Sherburne Cook and Woodrow Borah from the University of California, Berkeley, radically increased estimates of what the Native American population of the Americas had been before the arrival of Europeans. See Borah and Cook, Population of Central Mexico in 1548; Borah and Cook, “Conquest and Population”; Cook, Essays in Population History.
See especially works by Silvio Zavala, Lesley Byrd Simpson, Charles Gibson, Nancy Farriss, James Lockhart, and Kevin Terraciano: Gibson, Aztecs under Spanish Rule; Farriss, Maya Society under Colonial Rule; Lockhart, Nahuas after the Conquest; and Terraciano, Mixtecs of Colonial Oaxaca.
As observed in Chamoux, “Conception of Work and Labor in Contemporary Nahuatl-Speaking Communities,” 1. The exception here is the substantial literature on the cargo and the mayordomia.
Corteguera, Death by Effigy, 7. I am grateful to Luis Corteguera for bring the original reference to cocoliztli in the Anales de Tecamachalco, to my attention.
Celestino and García, Anales de Tecamachalco, 78.
Kirkpatrick argues that in the documentary record of the sixteenth century, the terms repartimiento and encomienda function interchangeably, as synonyms. Kirkpatrick, “Repartimiento-encomienda.”
Laqueur, Work of the Dead, 11. This is a project in that vein, although I am less interested in the fate of mortal remains than in the labor/work of mortal spirits.
Many works consider the history of epidemics in Mexico, although none center religion. Those that have been helpful include Cooper, Epidemic Disease in Mexico City; Florescano and Malvido, Ensayos sobre la historia de las epidemias en México; Molina del Villar, Por voluntad divina; Somolinos, “La epidemia de cocoliztli de 1545 señalado en un codice”; Cuenya, Puebla de los Ángeles en tiempos de una peste colonial; Molina del Villar, La Nueva España y el matlazahuatl; Fields, Pestilence and Headcolds; Prem, “Disease Outbreaks in Central Mexico during the Sixteenth Century”; Cook, Born to Die; Lovell, “ ‘Heavy Shadows and Black Night’ ”; Cook and Lovell, Secret Judgments of God; McCaa, “Spanish and Nahuatl Views on Smallpox and Demographic Catastrophe in Mexico.”
Most considerations of cocoliztli have focused on the outbreak of 1545. But see Malvido, “La epidemia de cocoliztli de 1576.”
My data from the documentary record affirms Gerhard's account of the progression of the outbreak. Gerhard, Guide to the Historical Geography of New Spain, 23.
“Este mal es casi universal.” Letter from Fray Pedro de Oroz, AGI, México 283, Cartas y expedientes de personas eclesiásticas 1575–77, November 1576.
“El tiempo q [h]ubo la pestilencia en esta tierra porque estando en la ciudad de Cholula donde murieron de 30 a 40 mil personas entre grandes y chicos entre los quales murieron mas de 15,000 adultos.” Letter from Fray Rodrigo de Sequeras, AGI, México 284, Cartas y expedientes de personas eclesiásticas 1578–79, December 26, 1578.
“Tanta disminucion . . . de 8 o 9 meses a esta parte se an muerto de pestilencia casi seyscientos mil and aun no a parado el mal que todavia anda en algunas pueblos.” Letter from Fray Gabriel de San José, Fray Juan de la Cruz, AGI, México 283, Cartas y expedientes de personas eclesiásticas 1575–77, February 26, 1577.
Hernández, “On the Illness in New Spain,” 84. The Franciscan Torquemada similarly estimated the number of dead to have been over 2 million by the conclusion of the epidemic.
This translation of the Nahuatl is from López Austin, “Los caminos de los muertos,” 142. López Austin is analyzing material from the appendix of book 3 of Sahagún's treatise. The original Nahuatl can be found there. Note that in the original Sahagún translates cocoliztli as the nonspecific enfermedad and translates mictlán as infierno. The original document folio is available at https://www.loc.gov/resource/gdcwdl.wdl_10614/?sp=48&st=image.
Celestino, García, and Reyes García, Anales de Tecamachalco, 76.
While the study pertained to victims of the 1545 epidemic, the results of this study suggest that Salmonella might also be the cause for the subsequent disease in 1576. Vågene et al., “Salmonella Enterica Genomes.”
There is also significant political debate around how the dead have been counted and around the causes of death. Henige, Numbers from Nowhere; Cameron, Kelton, and Swedlund, Beyond Germs; Denevan, Native Population of the Americas in 1492; Lovell, “ ‘Heavy Shadows and Black Night.’ ”
Letter from Melchior de leGaspi, AGI, México, 324, Cartas y expedientes de oficiales reales de México 1573–1599, October 5, 1581, 2r. “Con la falta de los naturales esta tierra tan estrecha q parece imposible en tan solo tiempo aver de caydo tanto q las rentas y aprovechamientos han diminuydo y los gastos son cada dia mayores por la mucha carestia de los bastimientos y asy estar toda la tierra muy miserable y afflijida y con mucha necesidad.”
The laws also provide also for religious instruction, designating the encomenderos themselves as responsible for Christian indoctrination, with the priests charged with celebration of mass and ministration to the sick. The heftiest penalties were assigned for failure to bring the Indians of their encomienda to church on Sunday.
But individual encomenderos in more far-flung regions sought to circumvent and bypass regulations, often through nefarious means.
Letter to the king from bishop Juan de Medina Rincón, AGI, México 374, Cartas y expedientes de Michoacán 1561–1700, March 8, 1581.
See Richie, “Confraternity and Community,” which makes the case that Tecamachalco's cargo system was well entrenched from the colonial period.
These petitions appear in the Archivo General de la Nación, in the Instituciones coloniales section.
Celestino and García, Anales de Tecamachalco, 80.
So unusual is the Nahuatl linguistic construction that a publication of the Anales from the beginning of the twentieth century mistranslates the term as “much tribute.” Peñafiel, Anales de Tecamachalco, 1903.
Zorita as quoted in Carballo, “Labor Collectives and Group Cooperation,” 247.
In her study of colonial Maya society, Nancy Farriss writes, “Labor services existed as part of a web of reciprocal rights and obligations that bound subordinates to their superiors.” But this understanding flattens the nuance and complexity and horizontality of the idea of tequitl. Farriss, Maya Society under Colonial Rule, 184.
Eshelman is explicit about the implications of contemporary community practice for understanding the past, and most Mesoamericanists embrace this practice.
Hughes, Church of the Dead, 127–28.
The answers to these questions, historian Serge Gruzinski observes, “review in their dryness the view of a population in the course of witnessing its own disappearance.” Gruzinski and Corrigan, Conquest of Mexico, 81.
Letter from Melchior de leGaspi, AGI, México, 324, Cartas y expedientes de oficiales reales de México 1573–1599, October 19, 1577, 2r. Emphasis mine.
Letter from the bishop of Michoacán, AGI, México 374, Cartas y expedientes de Michoacán 1561–1700, October 11, 1581, 1r.
Nancy Farriss notes that these sort of labor drafts do not figure prominently in written grievances in Maya Indigenous communities. Farriss, Maya Society under Colonial Rule, 53.