Chapter OneThe Greatest Indian City in the World: Caste, Gender, and Politics, 1750-1821
Quetzaltenango ... is the greatest Indian city in the world.... [It] is rich with her own atmosphere, a city of thousands of Indians living in brick and adobe houses, dressing, most of them, in the clothes of the modern world, and yet its streets have grown here from the goat-tracks of a prehistoric Indian village.-WALLACE THOMPSON, The Rainbow Countries of Central America, 1926
Quetzalteco Indians in general are applied to agriculture ... and it is very rare to find those who do not have forty or more cuerdas planted with wheat, corn or potatoes. Many who live in the town are inclined toward the commerce of pigs, woolen goods and other products which they transport to Guatemala and as far as the province of Sonsonate, San Salvador, San Miguel and Esquipulas. They have enough land, sheep, horses and oxen and a sufficient number of mares. Like all of their kind, they are inclined to drink, but not so much that they neglect their work and trade. As a result they respect authority ... and are becoming Ladinos. It is the opposite case with Ladinos, only a tenth of whom apply themselves to agriculture and commerce with honor and Christian thoughts. The rest of them lie, drink, gamble, and deceive. It is shameful to see their children without clothes, confused, poor, and sick. -Royal assessment, 1817
Between the later half of the seventeenth century and the Bourbon Reforms of the eighteenth, a segment of Quetzaltenango's K'iche' population constituted itself as a landholding class. The ability of K'iche' elites to secure property rights-which in turn allowed them to thrive as farmers, merchants, traders, and artisans-reinforced their cultural and political authority within the larger colonial framework. This interplay between class and caste power allowed Quetzalteco K'iche's to effectively respond to and at times best various threats to their economic and political well-being.
The emergence of a regional Creole elite, the commodification of land and labor, and the end of Spanish colonialism devastated many similar Mayan communities. In Quetzaltenango, however, the uneven spread of agrarian capitalism and the slow, torturous making of a nation-state was accompanied by the creation of new forms of indigenous power and survival. This chapter will examine the colonial political economy that allowed for indigenous resiliency. It will explore how K'iche' elite men used their overlapping roles as political leaders and family patriarchs to successfully participate in an expanding regional market. Contrary to royal predictions, rather than bringing about a loss of caste identification, this participation explains how, well into the twentieth century, Quetzaltenango remained, at least in the prose of one excitable traveler, "the greatest Indian city in the world."
Land and the Long Seventeenth Century
The first decades (1524-41) of Spanish rule in Guatemala were years of plunder and confusion. Xelaju, or for that matter the nearby K'iche' capital of Utatlan, was no Tenochtitlan. The subjugation of western Guatemala took place early enough in the Spanish conquest so that the promises of riches to be found elsewhere were not unreasonable. Memories of Mexico and dreams of El Dorado led the conquistadors to treat the first pillaged settlements as little more than bivouacs and their inhabitants as forced conscripts. Pedro de Alvarado himself led expeditions of Spanish and Indian soldiers and slaves through what is now El Salvador into the Andes. Native uprisings, Spanish rivalries, and rumors of easy wealth the next region over created a volatile climate, and Alvarado's impulsive, vicious, and autocratic rule provided little incentive for colonial settlement.
Following Alvarado's death in 1541, the Crown, anxious to move from a conquest to a colonial society, dispatched a corps of royal bureaucrats to the highlands and confiscated many of the encomiendas (grants of tribute-paying Indians) handed out by Alvarado and his rivals. After decades of pillage, warfare, forced migration, and demographic collapse, Indians were forcibly resettled in congregaciones (concentrated populations). Administrative districts were carved out and a semblance of colonial order was imposed. Yet with little mineral wealth and a shrinking labor force and tribute population, Guatemala, particularly its Western Highlands and Pacific coastal lands, would remain politically and economically marginal.
In the town of Quetzaltenango, K'iche' principales took advantage of a weak state and prolonged economic contraction to standardize their land claims within the Spanish legal system. Of all the town's recorded land transactions prior to 1687, 53 of the 65 caballerias (in Quetzaltenango, 111 acres) were claimed by Spaniards. Yet following 1687, of the 139 caballerias taken, 88 were claimed by K'iche's. All told, Spaniards took 104 and K'iche's claimed 100 caballerias.
Under Spanish colonial law each Indian congregacion was to receive and hold in common title one league (roughly equal to thirty-nine caballerias) of ejidal land, usually comprising pasture, agricultural and woodland. In Quetzaltenango, within what was commonly called the town's ejidos existed a complex mix of private and corporate land tenure and use.
The town sits in the southwest corner of an extended highland plain ringed by volcanoes and mountains. Its borders comprise the majority of the valley's arable land; its southern limits reach up into the eastern folds of the volcanoes Santa Maria and Cerro Quemado, which separate the valley from the Pacific piedmont and lowlands. The majority of Quetzaltenango's indigenous peasant population farmed milpas (small subsistence corn, bean, and squash parcels) of ten to forty cuerdas (sixteen cuerdas equals one acre), while relying on the rocky, mountainous forest land-bosque-for their wood, water, and pasture needs. Many of these small plots were within what could be considered the ejido proper-land within the municipal limits held and administered corporately by the indigenous cabildo. In Quetzaltenango, the cabildo did not charge rent for these lands. After several generations, peasants often came to regard their milpas as their property-to be sold, mortgaged, and passed on to heirs. A sector of the K'iche' population owned farms or ranches of up to five hundred cuerdas, which they planted with corn, wheat, and beans and on which they kept pigs, sheep, goats, and cattle. And a smaller number of Indians claimed large tracts of land ranging from one to up to ten caballerias in size. At times these K'iche' landlords would not cultivate their holdings themselves but would rent it to either Spaniards or other Indians.
The securing of property rights provided a select group of K'iche's with protection from both a capricious regional economy and a rapacious aspiring Creole class. Landholding K'iche's were able to engage with an expanding market on fairly good terms: continued subsistence production not only underwrote their commercial activity, but it also provided Indians a refuge when the economy contracted, as it did in the decades before and after independence. Further, population growth in the nineteenth century began to limit access to the town's commons. On the one hand, more and more Indians were using the town's ejidos, and, on the other, Ladino land encroachment was reducing the total amount of land available for use. Absolute subsistence rights came under threat. K'iche's who held title to their land, however, were less vulnerable to these threats than were poorer macehuales (commoners) who relied on the commons for wood, pasture, and milpa.
Commerce and the Emergence of the City
By the turn of the nineteenth century, the city of Quetzaltenango had been transformed from a colonial administrative backwater (the town had often been omitted from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century maps) into a thriving regional commercial, political, and military center with a rapidly growing nonindigenous population. By 1797, the Crown, recognizing the city's importance, established a post office, gunpowder, saltpeter, and tobacco agencies, a consulate, and the offices of sales tax collector and land judge. By the onset of the Napoleonic Wars, three militia companies were established that comprised nearly eight hundred men and consisted of Spanish officers and Mestizo troops.
An expanding regional market created by the indigo boom and Bourbon economic reforms led Altenses to invest in the cultivation of wheat and the manufacture of textiles. Demand for highland products further increased when a 1773 earthquake destroyed Santiago (the colonial capital of Guatemala and today known as Antigua) and disrupted the economy of Guatemala's central valley. By the end of the eighteenth century, Quetzalteco wheat and textiles reached the northwestern provinces of southern Mexico, north into the mountain towns of the Cuchumatanes and the Verapaces, south to the coastal plains of the Pacific, and east to the capital, El Salvador, and Honduras. The majority of goods were sent to Nueva Guatemala (the new capital), where they were either shipped to Nicaragua and Costa Rica or sold for retail in the stores and markets of the city. Other shipments went to smaller provincial centers such as Retalhuleu, Esquipulas, and Solola, where they would then be divided into smaller wholesale lots for sale in Indian communities. Trade often increased in the month prior to a village fiesta-Mazatan in November, Esquipulas in December, Chiantla in January, and so on. Spanish, Mexican, German, and Italian merchants (recall the Genoese who went out to placate Carrera) set up businesses in the city. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, there existed in the city over one hundred stores selling local and imported goods, including luxury items such as Iberian wine, clothes, and furniture.
On another less celebrated level, regional trade took place through extensive indigenous routes connecting village plazas. This commerce centered around weekly or twice-weekly village market days and, like the larger wholesale trade, took advantage of the Catholic liturgical calendar to trade during fairs and fiestas. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, visitors to the city gushed at what was described as the most bustling plaza second to Guatemala City, stocked with a variety of goods reflecting the ecological diversity of western Guatemala. From the Pacific lowlands, Indians brought fish, citrus, cacao, salt, cotton, cattle, panela (residue produced from the milling of cane), and sugar. Corn, which on the coast had two annual growing cycles, supplemented the highlands' single harvest. K'iche's from the town of Zunil, which straddled the coast and the highlands, traded cotton, sugar products, and citrus in exchange for wheat and livestock. Communities populating the Quetzaltenango and Totonicapan valleys traded pigs, poultry, wheat, corn, vegetables, beans, and fruits. Northwest of the valley, Mam communities raised livestock and traded corn and limestone (used in the making of cornmeal for tortillas and tamales, as well as in construction). Cantel, with its large reserves of pine and fertile soil traded wood for fuel, furniture, and construction. Mames from the mountain towns of the Cuchumantanes supplemented the region's own wool supply.
Regional Relations of Production
Due to Los Altos's peripheral economy and its consequent weak regional state apparatus, labor relations by the end of the eighteenth century in and immediately around the town of Quetzaltenango were not coercive. While forced labor drafts in the form of the infamous repartimiento were periodically levied following the decline of cacao and the Bourbon Reforms, they never became the primary mode of labor relations in the communities surrounding Quetzaltenango. In addition, royal financial exactions in the city were not particularly burdensome. K'iche's did have to support parish priests, maintain the church and convent, and pay liturgical fees and occasional emergency taxes, but they were exempted from the tithe and the alcabala (royal sales tax). And while there was a tax charged on goods sold in the plaza, it was irregularly and ineffectually enforced. As to the tribute, by 1766 Quetzaltecos were paying annually one and a half pesos, in addition to a quantity of corn, wheat, and poultry. By 1796, however, the payment in kind had been eliminated and Indians now paid only the one and a half pesos.
What resulted, at least to a degree, was the formation of relatively noncoercive agricultural and artisanal relations of production. Elite Creoles and Spaniards never gained monopoly control of the textile and agricultural trade, either in terms of supply of raw material, production, transport, or markets. At least until the early twentieth century, local K'iche' families dominated the city's wool supply (supplemented by traders from Huehuetenango and the Sija-San Marcos valley), herding large flocks of sheep on private and city property. The extension of subsistence and commercial cultivation did not cut into the amount of private and common land available for pasture until the beginning of the twentieth century. Furthermore, although no extensive documentary evidence exists, judging from the number of complaints by indigenous traders over the establishment of toll taxes at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the supply of cotton from the coast was likewise controlled by Indians.
Throughout the late colonial period, as the regional textile industry developed, some wealthy Hispanic (and K'iche') entrepreneurs provided credit or material-wool or cotton, dyes, and machinery-to indigenous and Hispanic families in exchange for a share of the finished products. These merchants would then ship their goods in large wholesale lots to the capital and other provincial centers. This "putting out" system, however, never managed to gain control over the city's artisan sector. By 1797 there existed in Quetzaltenango thirty wool and cotton textile workshops employing 190 masters and apprentices and producing over 107,520 yards of fabric a year, as well as a large number of unregistered K'iche' workshops. According to inventories in K'iche' wills, textile-producing households often maintained access to the array of resources-land, sheep, machinery, labor, and dyes-needed for textile production.
Neither could Creoles establish a monopoly over cargo labor. At the turn of the eighteenth century, wholesale wheat and textile exporters were having difficulty conscripting mule drivers to carry their freight. In 1804, for instance, the Audiencia (royal government based in Nueva de Guatemala) granted the Spaniard Juan Antonio Lopez, perhaps the wealthiest farmer and merchant in Quetzaltenango, permission to conscript two hundred mules and drivers to ship his wheat harvest to the capital. K'iche's from nearby towns (the K'iche' pueblos to the east of the city controlled the transport industry) refused the request, arguing to the Audiencia that the two and half to three pesos they would receive for the six-day trip was not worth their time. The royal prefect complained that it was nearly impossible to get Indians to fulfill labor obligations because of the money they were making hiring themselves out to individuals willing to pay more than the Crown-sanctioned four reals a day. The Audiencia reversed its previous decision, and Lopez was forced to negotiate privately with the teamsters.
Generally, the social relations governing the city's textile industry structured commercial agricultural production as well. Spaniards and Creoles profited from wheat in three ways. First, they cultivated the crop on their large estates, using a mix of wages and debt to procure labor. While evidence is sketchy, it appears unlikely that Quetzalteco peasants were forced, through pressure on their subsistence capacity, into peonage. Even as population density climbed and commercial cultivation expanded, the majority of the K'iche' population still had access to subsistence production. Rather, debt relations seem to parallel those described by John Tutino for the Bajio region of central Mexico. Estates had to offer high wages, food, and secure conditions in order to create and maintain a labor force. Debt functioned more as incentive than coercion. Quetzalteco workers could therefore "insult" (as the corregidor once put it) planters by demanding relatively high wages.