The political, religious, and economic institutions vital to sustaining Spanish rule were built on indigenous communities. The encomienda became the principal tie between the native and European populations in the early colonial period. The cabildo provided some continuity in terms of the political authority of nobles, and it established a system of indirect rule. Labor abuses, the brutality of warfare, and disease reduced them by approximately 90 percent in the first century of colonial rule. It is important to note, however, that, despite this massive depopulation, the indigenous peoples constituted the majority of the population in New Spain throughout the colonial period.
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More than any other native group in New Spain, the Nahuas of central Mexico came into immediate and sustained contact with Spaniards, most of whom settled among Nahuas in the Valley of Mexico and surrounding areas, where the prospects of profit were greatest, near trade routes that linked the mining regions of the north with the Atlantic port. In contrast, relatively few Spaniards went to more remote regions, such as Oaxaca. In the Mixteca Alta, for example, in the colonial jurisdiction of Teposcolula less than 5 percent of the total population was non-native by the end of the eighteenth century.
Indigenous groups in regions where the Spanish presence was minimal were less affected over time than groups in central Mexico, especially the Basin of Mexico. Still, no group was immune from Spanish competition or influence. Studies of indigenous societies under colonial rule have shown that managed change initiated by the Spaniards occurred mainly at the corporate level.
People continued to live in nuclear or multifamily residences throughout the colonial period. Nor did Spaniards attempt to redefine social relations in the household. Furthermore, Spaniards did not need to reorient the division of labor practiced by sedentary peoples of Mesoamerica as Europeans did among semisedentary and nonsedentary groups of northern Mexico and much of North America. In fact, Spaniards profited by leaving the division of labor intact and by exploiting preexisting tribute mechanisms to extract wealth.
The survival of fundamental aspects of social organization contributed to forms of indigenous cultural maintenance and recreation, even under the strains of colonial rule. I argue that Mesoamerican concepts of family, marital obligation, and sexuality exhibited remarkable continuity throughout the colonial period, even in areas of extensive contact with Spaniards. Over the course of several generations, Spanish gender systems, marital roles and expectations, and attitudes toward sex exerted a notable impact on native attitudes and practices, but the changes did not simply replace indigenous lifeways.
Only after centuries of sustained interaction did changes in native values and gender relations become apparent, but they were often uneven and seldom comprehensive. Many Mesoamerican groups possessed distinct responsibilities and privileges, yet not one was entirely independent or self-sufficient. Despite social differentiation and hierarchy, each group was recognized as an integral part of the whole.
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Power struggles and fissures erupted between and within groups, but social relations were articulated in idealized terms of reciprocity and complementarity. In other words, the distinct contributions of each group or individual were considered necessary for the survival of the community. Reciprocal exchange through feasting and tribute created balance and maintained cooperation across social boundaries. Although nobles enjoyed a privileged status, they were obligated to provide for commoners.
Elders and youth were other interdependent, paired groups that performed distinct yet complementary roles in the ritual life of the community. The fundamental principles of reciprocity and complementarity, as well as hierarchy, also shaped gender relations in highland Mexico. Scholars have used complementary to describe several cultural characteristics of Mesoamerica. This combination is sometimes discussed in terms of duality. In this study, I use complementary or complementarity to describe a system in which men and women possessed distinct roles and responsibilities considered necessary for the well-being of their households and communities.
Complementary social relations were naturalized and projected back into time immemorial through gendered mythologies of the deities. In many cases, however, concepts of complementarity, duality, and parallelism failed to promote full equality between men and women and, in fact masked gender hierarchy, inequality, and difference. For example, males almost exclusively occupied the most visible positions of local authority in all regions considered here except the Mixteca.
Family structure and the organization of labor also reflect a degree of male dominance.
Throughout central Mexico and Oaxaca, most heads of household were male. Although their authority over the legal and economic matters of the adult members of the household was circumscribed, men appear to have organized the labor of other household members. The colonial record reveals numerous cases of violence against women in indigenous highland Mexican communities, in which hierarchies of status differentiated the experiences of the elite and commoners.
Despite these findings, however, based on my analysis of a wide variety of sources from more than a hundred Mesoamerican communities, I do not accept the characterization of gender relations in Mesoamerica as patriarchal. Patriarchy is a system that clearly elevates men above women and invests political, social, and economic power in the hands of the eldest males of households. Evidence of these fundamental characteristics of patriarchy does not appear in the sources that I use to analyze Mesoamerican gender systems. Community membership, either through birth or marriage, and adulthood—not gender—determined who had economic and civic rights and responsibilities.
Thus, women, like their male counterparts, could hold land, order their own testaments, witness legal documents, initiate criminal and civil suits, and participate in local rituals. They also shared the obligations of paying tribute as required of all community members. In a more abstract sense, Mesoamericans did not make essentializing distinctions between male and female personality traits. Both men and women could be considered, for example, hard-working, capable, providers or dishonest, adulterous drunks.
In certain legal and economic contexts, gender was not a determining factor in gaining access to resources or institutions. The competing dimensions and discrepancies in these ideologies defy simplification and point to openings for conflict over gender rights, obligations, and status. The chapters of this book examine multiple themes that, when considered together, provide a balanced and complex view of gender relations in highland Mexico in colonial times.
Chapter 2 draws on theories of the body, gender performativity, and dress to show how gender was inscribed on the body to create the appearance of difference, which in turn shaped all social relations. The chapter considers, on the one hand, the fluidity of the body and gender identity and, on the other hand, the rituals and daily practices that imposed a binary system of gender.
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I am especially interested in the cultural construction of gender and the ways in which complementarity and parallelism shaped daily interaction. Chapters 3 and 4 explore interrelated themes concerning marriage, a nearly universal institution in native communities practiced by nobles and commoners alike. Chapter 3 analyzes betrothal and nuptial ceremonies and practices. It also considers how Spanish attempts to eradicate native practices of serial monogamy and polygyny, and to enforce Christian monogamous marriage, altered indigenous concepts and customs.
Chapter 4 first analyzes the social, political, and economic significance of native marriage to shed light on marital expectations and obligations. It then examines marital conflicts and domestic violence that developed in failed relationships. My analysis reveals a complex process of negotiation among husbands and wives, their households and social networks, and local native officials, in which women sometimes aired their grievances before the community. Spanish legal and ecclesiastic magistrates became involved in conflicts that turned extreme or violent, usually when a woman was beaten or killed.
Chapters 5 and 6 address sexuality. Chapter 5 examines indigenous sexual ideology and attitudes based on my analysis of Mesoamerican metaphors and symbols used to discuss and represent sexual matters. It also considers how Spanish friars adopted some of these indigenous concepts in their efforts to promote Christian morality and, in turn, how Spanish mores, Christian teaching, and colonial law affected native sexuality. Chapter 6 studies sexual crimes, including adultery and rape, and their prosecution in preconquest and colonial times. Adultery and rape were considered serious transgressions, and illicit sexuality was a central concern of indigenous moral teachings.
My findings suggest that Spanish attitudes regarding virginity had very limited influence on indigenous values and customs in highland Mexico in the colonial period. Chapters 7 and 8 reconstruct the organization of labor and the way that shared labor arrangements and other acts of sociability among households shaped community relations.
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Chapter 7 addresses the gendered division of labor in the household and in the community. I also demonstrate that men, especially artisans, frequently worked within the home. Chapter 8 investigates household relations, focusing on family organization, ritual kinship, and residence patterns. My analysis of economic, ritual, and political activities carried out in the household advances arguments in Chapter 7 refuting assumptions of a strong division between public and private space.
I argue that household and community were in fact two interrelated spheres.
The chapter also examines how ritual kinship created multidimensional webs of relations among households and provided important social networks for women. I show how threats to the integrity of the household and community, including increased demands for tribute and labor, led men and women to seek legal redress, to protest, and at times to rebel against colonial authorities. Women often organized acts of resistance, such as refusing to pay tribute, and assumed leading roles in local riots. This chapter argues that women engaged in local political and economic struggles and that their defense of homes, communities, and allies reveals a broader consciousness among women that has not been explored in previous studies.
The chapter considers the evidence for both major changes and continuities in indigenous social and gender relations in rural communities of central Mexico and Oaxaca between and , brought about by increasing contact with other cultures and institutions. Finally, I include a glossary of native- and Spanish-language terms used in the book.
Men and women of highland Mexico most often would have referred to themselves as members of a particular community. For the sake of simplicity, I use placenames that are used today, aware that indigenous groups used and in some cases continue to use their own names in their own languages.