Despite the Valley of Oaxaca Marquesate, Spanish garrisons, a score of Spanish-run haciendas, a few mines, and the capital town Antequera, Oaxaca had a sparse population of no more than a thousand Spaniards around 1550. On the other hand, the native population, while reduced, still numbered several hundred thousand, widely dispersed over the entire territory, and largely controlled by the hereditary native nobility. The Spanish authorities, in order to break the hold of the old chiefs on the natives, began moving indigenous populations into congregaciones: new townships in potentially productive areas—valleys, mines, and along royal roads. Each township had its cabercera (head town) and sujeto (subject) villages. Indigenous governing councils, supervised by Spanish agents, were responsible for local order and collection of tribute.
The missionary clergy initially went along with congregación because it led to more converts, but after a generation of seeing the cruel reality of people displaced from their land and traditions, opposed it. In 1604, although the policy was officially abandoned and some of the people returned to their original way of life, many did not. Their descendants remain living in the original caberceras, which comprise a significant portion of present-day Oaxaca’s 570 municipios, or governmental townships.
The natives, in being shifted toward traditional Spanish occupations, in which they worked mines, harvested sugarcane and wheat, and tended sheep and cattle, were forced to abandon the way of life that had sustained them for millennia. In a few generations, even the memory of their extensive irrigation works—diversion dams and canals that fed terraced fields—was lost.
The severe consequences of this forgotten water-conservation tradition have become acute in modern Oaxaca. An increasing population has led to lack of bottomland, forcing families to poor uplands that without irrigation cannot sustain them. Slash-and-burn dry farming, noncontour plowing, overgrazing, and overcutting of forest have turned large tracts of Oaxaca into eroded wasteland.
In a real sense, European disease, rather than the conquistadores, subdued Mexico. Despite the missionary fathers’ most benign efforts and the most beneficial effects of the king’s New Laws, typhus, measles, smallpox, and other European plagues wiped out about 90 percent of the Mexican indigenous population within a few generations after the conquest. Although estimates vary, most experts agree that pre-conquest Mexico’s 15–25 million native population had shrunk to a mere 1.3 million by 1650.
Oaxaca’s figures reflect a similar tragedy. Of a population that archaeologists estimate at around two million in 1500, only 150,000 remained in 1650. In some cases, such as the mines of Santa Catalina Martir, in 1580, a combination of overwork and disease killed thousands; those remaining simply fled into the hills. In the southern Valley of Oaxaca towns, plagues reduced thriving towns such as Teitipac, Ocotlán, and Miahuatlán from populations of thousands to a few dozen inhabitants nearly overnight.
Today’s Mexicans can look forward to the year 2019, the 500th anniversary of Cortés’s landing, when Mexico’s native-speaking population will have largely recovered to its pre- conquest level of approximately 25 million.
The Changing Role of the Church
During the colonial era, civil and church authorities increasingly came into conflict with missionary orders, whose independent status derived directly from papal authority, in contrast to locally administered (“secular”) clergy, who answered to local bishops. Disputes often revolved around treatment of the natives, whose welfare missionaries often outspokenly championed. The kettle, always bubbling, sometimes boiled over. In 1647, Bishop Cerda Benevente of Antequera tried to kick all Dominican fathers out of their churches; in 1749 Bishop Maldonado tried to replace 27 Dominicans with clergy under his control. The issue of power was finally settled in 1767 when the King of Spain expelled all Jesuit missionaries from his New World colonies. This chilled the liberal activist tendencies of clergy everywhere in Mexico and led to an increasingly conservative church establishment.
During Spain’s Mexican colonial twilight, the church, increasingly profiting from the status quo, became fat and largely complacent. The biblical tithe—one-tenth of everything, from crops and livestock to rents and mining profits—filled church coffers. By 1800, the church owned half of Mexico. Moreover, all clergy (including the lay church officers) and the military were doubly privileged. They enjoyed right of fuero (exemption from civil law) and could be prosecuted by ecclesiastical or military courts only.
The Colonial Economy
In trade and commerce, New Spain existed for the benefit of the mother country. Spaniards enjoyed absolute monopolies by virtue of the complete prohibition of foreign traders and goods. Colonists, as a result, paid dearly for often shoddy Spanish manufactures. The Casa de Contratación, the royal trade regulators, always ensured the colony’s yearly balance of payments would result in deficit, which would be made up by bullion shipments from New Spain mines (from which the crown raked 10 percent off the top).
If New Spain was a tradition-bound feudal domain, Oaxaca was even more so. The crown regulated nearly everything. Any kind of enterprise required a royal license, issued through a bureaucracy that required bribes as part of the cost of doing business. Wealth flowed directly from the labor of the native people. Although Oaxaca people produced lots of corn, wheat, cattle, sheep, wool, and some silk, cochineal was by far Oaxaca’s most valuable export.
Whatever native people produced, they all had to pay taxes, whether directly to the local collector or as tribute to the encomendero owner of the estate where they lived. For many poor native families, the problem of getting enough to eat year-round was doubly acute because of the seasonal nature of their produce. They began to rely upon alcaldes mayores, local royal officials, for cash advances on crops, especially cochineal. Through their official posts, alcaldes mayores enjoyed a monopoly, which forced local folks to sell to them for a pittance. This hated monopoly payment system, known as repartmiento, although officially forbidden, was rampant during the mid-1600s, when a swarm of Oaxaca uprisings led to the killing of Tehuántepec’s greedy alcalde mayor and a number of his henchmen by an angry crowd of native cochineal producers.
Reform didn’t come until the 18th century, when Spanish authorities saw the light and banned the repartmiento system, replacing the alcaldes mayores with less corruptible salaried agents known as intendentes.
The bustling cochineal trade led to boom times in colonial Oaxaca. The region, previously a backwater, neglected by Mexico City authorities, benefited from a monopoly on cochineal production after 1745. The population tripled during the 1700s, reaching 20,000 and making the city of Oaxaca (whose name was officially changed from Antequera in 1786) New Spain’s third-largest city by 1800.
The benefits of the new prosperity did not extend equally to all Oaxacans, however. As the administrative center for the entire region, most wealth flowed to Oaxaca City, where a rich elite, of mostly Spanish-born government and church officials and owners of large estates, raked in the lion’s share of the profits. Below them, a modicum of treasure and respectability trickled down to the small locally born white and mixed-blood professional and merchant class. Finally, the great majority of mixed and pure native descent who did the hard work—the spinners, weavers, masons, shoemakers, bakers, farmers, and laborers—plugged along as best they could at the city’s least desirable margins.
Despite its faults, New Spain lasted three times longer than the Aztec empire. By most contemporary measures, both Oaxaca in particular and New Spain as a whole were prospering in 1800. The native and mixed-blood labor force was completely subjugated and increasing, and the galleon fleets were carrying home increasing tonnages of silver, gold, and cochineal worth many millions of gold pesos. Spanish authorities, however, failed to recognize that Mexico had changed in 300 years.
Criollos, the New Mexicans
Nearly three centuries of colonial rule gave rise to a burgeoning population of more than a million criollos—Mexican-born descendants of Spanish colonists, many rich and educated—to whom top status was denied.
High government, church, and military office had always been the preserve of a tiny but powerful minority of peninsulares—European-born Spaniards. Criollos (kree-OH-yohs) could only watch in disgust as unlettered, unskilled peninsulares (derisively called gachupines—wearers of spurs) were boosted to authority over them.
Although the criollos stood high above the mestizo (mixed native-Spanish), indígena, and black (African Mexican) underclasses, that seemed little compensation for the false smiles, the deep bows, and the costly bribes that gachupines demanded.
Mestizos, Indígenas, and African Mexicans
Upper-class luxury existed by virtue of the sweat of Mexico’s mestizo, indígena, and black laborers and servants. African slaves were imported in large numbers during the 17th century after typhus, smallpox, and measles epidemics had tragically wiped out as much as 90 percent of the indigenous population. In Oaxaca, a small African-born black population of around 2,000 in 1650 rose gradually to approximately 10,000, both pure and mixed, by 1800. Although the African Mexicans contributed significantly (crafts, healing arts, dance, music, drums, and marimba), they had arrived last and experienced discrimination from everyone.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition