Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft, and Caste in Colonial Mexico
Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft, and Caste in Colonial Mexico

Hall of Mirrors: Power, Witchcraft, and Caste in Colonial Mexico



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822331117
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 09/05/2003
Series: Latin America Otherwise Series
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.44(w) x 9.36(h) x 0.91(d)

About the Author

Laura A. Lewis is Associate Professor of Anthropology at James Madison University.

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Hall of mirrors

Power, witchcraft, and caste in colonial Mexico
By Laura A. Lewis

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3147-0

Chapter One

Forging a Colonial Landscape


Hernan Cortes landed on the coast of Vera Cruz in 1519. Over the next two centuries, Spanish influence on and control of the territory centered on New Spain came to extend from the mining zone of San Luis Potosi in the north, to the shores of the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, and to the present-day borders of Chiapas and Jalisco states to the southeast and northwest. New Spain urbanized as Spaniards built cities and towns from San Luis Potosi to Antequera (Oaxaca) in the south, and the ports of Acapulco and Vera Cruz on the western and eastern coasts. Mexico City, built over the ruins of the Mexica (Aztec) center of Tenochtitlan, became the colony's administrative, political, and cultural center. Both the "belly" and the "hands" of the region, it was the principal point of convergence for consumption, production, and a trading network that extended the length and breadth of New Spain.

Mexico City's symbolic and economic significance made it then, as now, the region's most populated and diverse city. An ordered space, the city transformed social values into physical reality. The outlying barrios of San Juan Tenochtitlan and the Indian town of Santiago Tlatelolco were separated from a Spanish core, from which the indigenous peoples Spaniardsreferred to as Indians (indios) were periodically banned. The surrounding valleys produced wheat and vegetables, textiles made in workshops (obrajes), and other goods such as tools and furniture for consumption in Mexico City and in Puebla, the viceroyalty's second largest city. Trade routes traversed by muleteers (harrieros) also came together in Mexico City, bringing sugar, rice, cotton, tobacco, cacao, cochineal, indigo, and livestock principally from southern regions, and livestock, silver, and wheat principally from northern and central ones. Some goods were consumed domestically. Others, such as silver, dyes, and cacao were exported from Mexico City to Europe and points east through Vera Cruz, and to Manila and points west through Acapulco. Trade was also vigorous with southern regions of Spain's New World empire.

The period from the late sixteenth to the late seventeenth century marks the height of New Spain's involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. It also covers the demographic collapse of the Indian population, as well as that population's revitalization. During this period, elite landholdings consolidated while rural Indian populations were displaced and regrouped, and Spanish ideas and values spread formally and informally. Legal institutions matured as caste rights and obligations were written (though not systematically) into laws that maintained distinctions between Spaniards and non-Spaniards, and among non-Spaniards themselves.


As in other Latin American colonies, New Spain's economy during this era was heterogeneous. It included traditional forms of production, property ownership, and labor organization (such as state work drafts, tribute, slavery, and the domestic confinement of women) derived from both European and indigenous systems. Over time, however, notions of property rights and legitimate ownership came to be dominated by Spanish ideas, as capitalist relations of production came to characterize important sectors of the colonial economy in manufacturing, agriculture, trade, and mining. In some economic enclaves, laborers were increasingly free and paid with wages even as they were constrained by legislation, debt-peonage, and force.

Spaniards claimed rights to Indian tribute in the form of goods and labor through encomienda, the earliest economic institution. Encomienda had originated in the Caribbean, where the crown lacked a clear policy toward Indians. Here, rapacious settlers, engaged in what many claimed was just war against heathens who resisted Spanish attempts to civilize and convert them, virtually enslaved Indians through encomienda and other extractive measures. As is well known, within decades of Spanish arrival, the native populations of the largest Spanish settlement on Hispaniola and of the smaller islands had been destroyed by disease, overwork, and violence. During this early period, clergy and crown debated Spanish obligations to Indians, the feasibility of converting them to Christianity, and whether and how Spanish authority was to be legitimately imposed on converted peoples.

The crown identified closely with the Catholic Church, its ally against Islam during the late-fifteenth-century reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors, and the source through papal decree of Spanish rights to New World territories. State decisions were therefore deeply informed by theological concerns which, while not uniform, did converge around the need to preserve Indian lives in the interests of evangelical projects. As settlers fought for a consistent labor supply, Dominican friars defended Indians, and called into question "the very legality of the Spanish New World enterprise." Believing that the principal role of Spaniards was to evangelize, they soon refused to hear confession from, or give communion to, encomenderos.

The crown had an interest in upholding the moral authority of the church and defending Indians from the excesses of settlers. It also had to pacify those settlers, however, and both the crown and the church wanted to reserve Indian labor for themselves. Indians therefore had to be protected, but they also had to be made to work. Early mandates of Spanish and Indian rights and responsibilities spoke to the conflicts inherent in a vision of authority divinely sanctioned and driven by self-interest. For instance, in 1502, the crown gave Indians freedom from enslavement once they became Christians. At the same time, it imposed an annual crown tribute on them, and authorized the governor of Hispaniola to compel them to gather and mine gold, to produce food for Spanish settlers, and to work on the construction of public buildings. In 1510, Spanish jurists again mandated improved treatment through the Laws of Burgos, which also gave priority to Indian conversion to the religious and sociopolitical norms of Christianity and Spanishness. But provisions for involuntary Indian labor continued under these laws, as the crown authorized the use of Indians for mining, agriculture, and public works projects, and permitted force to be used if Indians resisted Spanish governance.

The manner in which Indians were to be utilized was still an open question in the first decade after the conquest, when Cortes proposed that New Spain's Indians provide labor to Spanish settlers. The crown objected that such service had killed most Caribbean Indians. Therefore, Cortes limited his proposal to tribute in foodstuffs and cotton to be produced by Indians on their own lands, the construction of dwellings for Spaniards, and the raising of Spanish-owned cattle. He also stipulated that Indians not be used in the particularly arduous environment of mining. But he insisted that settlers needed Indian tribute for their own sustenance, and that encomienda would ultimately benefit the crown without interfering with its interests. Moreover, as one duty of encomenderos was to facilitate the conversion of Indians, religious indoctrination could proceed apace.

The crown soon acquiesced, and encomienda continued to develop in New Spain, as the debate shifted from whether it should exist to how it should be administered. Royal law called for the rotation of encomiendas granted only for a limited time. Nevertheless, as Peggy Liss observes, "a military mentality bent on living off the spoils of conquest predominated." Many Indians became de facto slaves as the first generations of Spanish settlers attempted to retain their encomiendas in perpetuity. They also used Indians in a number of economic enterprises, including mining.

Over the decades, the crown became increasingly nervous about the increasing wealth and autonomy of settlers, as well as about the fate of New Spain's Indians, who were following their Caribbean counterparts into precipitous decline. In a bid to reassert its seignorial authority and to acknowledge the plight of Indians, the crown issued the New Laws of 1542. These were prompted by the priest and Dominican monk Bartolome de Las Casas, who began a vigorous defense of all New World Indians in 1515, and would later become Bishop of Chiapas. The New Laws stipulated that encomiendas would be remanded to the crown upon the deaths of their owners, and that labor would be eliminated as a tribute obligation of Indians. The laws also explicitly declared Indian enslavement illegal. Although their full impact was short-lived-because encomenderos in Mexico, as well as those in Peru, resisted retraction of their rights-over the course of the sixteenth century, encomienda weakened in New Spain.

In accordance with the moral and juridical tenets of the medieval Spanish legal code known as the Siete Partidas, the crown was a paternalistic, benevolent, and sacred institution. The monarch was considered God's earthly representative whose rule was willed by divine mandate. His duty was to preserve the law of the land and the integrity of the social body. In the New World, crown authority widened due to what was perceived as a "jurisdictional vacuum" and to the overt intervention of the crown in social matters. There, the king's Old World obligation to see to the needs of "widows, orphans and the wretched of the earth" extended to Indians who, as the most "miserable" people, were special wards of the crown.

During the sixteenth century, the crown shifted toward free Indian labor compensated with wages. While this was a step toward constituting Indians as royal subjects equal to Spaniards, various forms of legal and extra-legal coercion also obliged Indians to work on Spanish-owned properties such as agricultural estates (haciendas) and ranches (estancias). These properties were expanding as the Indian population decreased, and as land-which, under Spanish law, could not be confiscated from subject populations-was subsequently freed up and acquired by Spaniards in often fraudulent ways. In some regions labor coercion was accompanied by debt-peonage, perhaps the most serious threat to free movement, and decrees against vagabondage helped channel both Indian and non-Indian laborers to specific work-sites.

Spanish organization of rural Indian populations to meet the needs of propertied Spaniards emptied outlying communities. Their inhabitants, along with isolated families, were moved to head towns (cabaceras) or to satellites of these towns. This process of concentrating the population (congregacion or concentracion) freed up land for Spanish use, while Indians were given new plots for their own subsistence in areas more convenient to Spaniards. These were typically located near the monastery complexes whose friars were entrusted with religious conversion.

The Indian population began to rebound in the middle of the seventeenth century. Litigation over land rights then increased as Spaniards continued to take over vast amounts of land illegally as well as through legal grants (mercedes), consolidation, expansion, and purchase. Conflicts also arose over Spanish needs for converts and labor: Spanish enterprises needed Indian workers, but religious indoctrination-at first by the regular and then by the secular clergy-required Indians to be present in their villages. So too did the crown labor draft known as repartimiento, which conscripted Indians for public works projects and specific industries-such as silver mining-important to crown interests. Demands on Indians also came from remaining encomenderos, and more and more from the royal tribute mechanism of corregimiento, which was run directly by the crown's administrative officers and their deputies (corregidores or alcaldes mayores, mayordomos, and alguaciles). Some Indian communities came to owe tribute to settlers and to the crown.


Spanish colonials in the Caribbean had turned to African slaves as early as 1501. The use of such slaves accelerated there as Indians, "weak and of little strength," in the king's opinion, died out. Until 1518, the crown only allowed slaves Hispanicized in Spain to be brought to the New World. Pressure from settlers, however, soon compelled slave importations directly from Africa.

As its Indian population waned over the course of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, New Spain came to have one of the largest concentrations of African slaves in the Americas. Indeed, during its first two centuries New Spain received on average two-thirds of all African slaves brought to Spanish America legally, as well as many brought illegally. Although the peoples Spaniards referred to collectively as "blacks" (negros) were only a small part of the colony's overall population, in 1619 Philip III declared there were so many in the colonies that in "a short while the Indies would become theirs."

Most African slaves brought to Mexico were men. Those Hispanicized elsewhere were Spanish-speaking (ladinos) and already skilled in Iberian modes of production. Due in part to their relative scarcity, African slaves were expensive. Spaniards also considered them, and blacks in general, to be hardier than Indians. Brought through the port of Vera Cruz, slaves were sold and then sent to do hard physical work in the northern silver mining regions, on ranches to the north and west of Mexico City, and on the sugar plantations, ranches, and mines that followed the southwestern belt running from the city of Puebla to the Pacific coast. They were also taken to major urban centers such as Mexico City, Puebla, Guadalajara, and Vera Cruz. Here they toiled in Spanish households, in obrajes, in craft guilds, and as day laborers whose masters took most of their wages in a practice known as jornal. Although slaveholders were generally Spanish, slave ownership extended to some high-ranking Indians and even to aspiring free blacks, such as Adriana Ruiz de Cabrera, whom we have already met.

The crown mandated that all African slaves be baptized before they reached the New World. Baptism, therefore, took place on board slave ships or immediately on reaching port. Slaveholders were obliged to feed and clothe their slaves. They were also required to see to their slaves' ongoing religious training. That is why, as part of her defense, Adriana made sure the inquisitors knew that she regularly took her own slaves to mass.

The Siete Partidas outlined several routes to manumission, including slaves' rights to freedom if they married free persons, a provision nullified in the 1520s by the crown and local officials. Still in effect, however, were provisions for slaveholders to free their slaves, third parties to purchase and free them, or slaves to purchase themselves for an agreed-upon price (which they sometimes paid in installments with their share of jornal wages). In addition, according to the Siete Partidas the status of children followed their mother. The offspring of female slaves who, willingly or not, had Spanish partners automatically became slaves if they were not freed by their fathers. The offspring of male slaves who partnered with Indian or other free women, which was often the case, were then free. Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, this might have meant that mulattoes of Indian/black ancestry were more likely than their Spanish/black counterparts to have been free.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Note on Sources xiii

Introduction 1

1. Forging a Colonial Landscape: Caste in Context 15

2. The Roads Are Harsh: Spaniards and Indians in the Sanctioned Domain 46

3. La Mala Yerba: Putting Difference to Work 67

4. From Animosities to Allegiances: A Segue into the World of Witchcraft 95

5. Authority Reversed: Indians Ascending 103

6. Mapping Unsanctioned Power 132

7. Hall of Mirrors 167

Notes 185

Works Cited 235

Index 255

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