Litigious Paupers: Natives and Colonial Demands in Tlaxcala, 1545-1800
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Tlaxcala, a small area of the Spanish empire located in what is now central Mexico, became a complex juncture point between Europeans and native peoples who responded to Spanish aggression, which was characterized by exploitative labor systems, with violence, flight, and litigation. Because of the pivotal role of Tlaxcalan allies in the conquest, it was one of the first places where the Spanish forced natives to adopt a cabildo, or municipal council. The structure of indigenous institutions facilitated the change to Spanish styled government. In many ways the municipal council was a bridge between both populations since the elected native officials had close contact with Tlaxcala and its constituent communities as well as with the imperial bureaucracy of Spain. My dissertation examines the dynamic nature of colonial society that made the interconnected experiences of natives from all socioeconomic classes significant since nobles defended laborers in court, made labor arrangements with them, or exploited them in similar ways as the Spanish. I argue that the largely autonomous indigenous town council officials acted as negotiators and in the process disrupted and shaped the labor and tribute demands of the crown. Moreover, laborers grew adept at representing themselves in court as the colonial period wore on since their labor was in high demand and Spanish settlers encroached upon their land. In addition, the presence of African slaves influenced the argumentation of indigenous litigants. Plaintiffs made compelling arguments in which they defined their freedom based on that fact that they were not enslaved. The legal system functioned as a battleground for natives, but it also represented a form of control. However, the indigenous population chose to interpret the courts as a legitimate tool at their disposal and in the process transformed the colonial experience.