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  • Mexicanos and the Meanings of Ladino in Colonial Guatemala
  • Laura Matthew

In Guatemala today, ‘indigenous’ and ‘ladino’ are typically understood as mutually exclusive categories. Being indigenous means belonging to an ethnic group with roots in the precolumbian past, such as the Maya or Xinca. Being ladino is, in the modern usage, an identity of negation: that is, not indigenous, whether one arrives at that identity through full or partial descent from Europeans and/or (often less admitted) from Africans, or through abandonment of indigenous culture and language. ‘Indigenous’ is associated with conquest and internal colonialism, while ‘ladino’ is associated with full citizenship in and affiliation with the Guatemalan nation-state. The bifurcation of contemporary Guatemalan society into these opposing camps is often belied in people’s daily lives. Nevertheless, it reflects and feeds into undeniable ethnic tensions that were exacerbated during the country’s recent civil war.1

Historians of Guatemala have increasingly challenged this contemporary ethnic dichotomy by pointing to the social and political construction of the term ‘ladino’ over time.2 During the colonial period, they note, it was possible in Guatemala and throughout Spanish America to be both ladino and indigenous, simultaneously. ‘Indios ladinos’ described Maya and other native peoples who spoke Spanish and/or wore European dress, but who nevertheless remained within the so-called Indian republic created by colonialism. Colonial-era indios ladinos were generally viewed more favorably by the Spanish than their less hispanized counterparts; how they were viewed by their indigenous neighbors depended on whether they deployed their skills on behalf of or against their particular Indian community.3 As early as the seventeenth century, however, a parallel usage of ‘ladino’ emerged in Guatemala to describe the castas, mixed-race descendants of Africans, Indians, and Spaniards who were considered part of the Spanish (as opposed to Indian) republic under colonial law. Even as the older meaning of hispanization persisted, by the eighteenth century the term ‘ladino’ broadly referred to all castas regardless of their particular placement—for instance, as mulatto or mestizo—within the casta system. These ethnic ladinos became the enforcers of postcolonial republican policy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, much of which maintained the segregation between indigenous and non-indigenous Guatemalans. The lines between indígenas and ladinos hardened, as did the ethnic definitions used to describe them.

Here, I argue that the changing meanings of ‘ladino’ accommodated a fundamental division between colonizers and colonized that has resonated—and been manipulated—in Guatemala since the sixteenth century. I explore this idea through a group that effectively straddled the colonizers/colonized divide for more than 300 years of colonial rule: the Mexicanos of Ciudad Vieja, Guatemala. Descendants of Nahua, Zapotec, and Mixtec warriors and colonists who invaded Maya territory alongside the Spanish, the Mexicanos were reputed to be a particularly ladino group of Indians who not only spoke Spanish, but who actively supported the colonial project. For this support, the Mexicanos received tribute exemption, the right to bear arms, and freedom from forced labor. They celebrated the conquest annually alongside colonial officials who recognized their allegiance to the Spanish Crown. Perhaps most importantly, as both Indians and conquistadors the Mexicanos enjoyed political primacy within Ciudad Vieja itself.4 All this reaffirmed the Mexicanos’ multiple colonial-era identities as Indians (people indigenous to Mesoamerica and subject to colonial rule), ladinos (who affiliated themselves with the world of the colonizers), and from the Maya point of view, colonizers themselves.

As time passed, however, the Mexicanos confronted new definitions of the term ladino that contradicted, even threatened, the Indian status upon which their political power and juridical privileges as conquistadors depended. On the eve of Guatemalan independence from Spain, the Mexicanos therefore insisted that they remained both Indians and conquistadors and had not become ethnic ladinos, even as they reminded colonial authorities of their aid in the conquest and spoke Spanish almost exclusively. In many ways, the Mexicanos perfectly illustrate Linda Lewis’s contention that the colonial world was not simply divided between “rulers and ruled,” but was defined by the “interpenetrating worlds of colonizers and colonized.”5 But their rejection of the ethnic label ‘ladino’ also suggests the power of the colonizer/colonized...

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