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The Limits of Racial Domination

Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660–1720

R. Douglas Cope

Publication Year: 1994

     In this distinguished contribution to Latin American colonial history, Douglas Cope draws upon a wide variety of sources—including Inquisition and court cases, notarial records and parish registers—to challenge the traditional view of castas (members of the caste system created by Spanish overlords) as rootless, alienated, and dominated by a desire to improve their racial status.  On the contrary, the castas, Cope shows, were neither passive nor ruled by feelings of racial inferiority; indeed, they often modified or even rejected elite racial ideology.  Castas also sought ways to manipulate their social "superiors" through astute use of the legal system.  Cope shows that social control by the Spaniards rested less on institutions than on patron-client networks linking individual patricians and plebeians, which enabled the elite class to co-opt the more successful castas.
     The book concludes with the most thorough account yet published of the Mexico City riot of 1692.  This account illuminates both the shortcomings and strengths of the patron-client system.  Spurred by a corn shortage and subsequent famine, a plebeian mob laid waste much of the central city.  Cope demonstrates that the political situation was not substantially altered, however; the patronage system continued to control employment and plebeians were largely left to bargain and adapt, as before.
     A revealing look at the economic lives of the urban poor in the colonial era, The Limits of Racial Domination examines a period in which critical social changes were occurring.  The book should interest historians and ethnohistorians alike.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii


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pp. ix


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii

This book would not have been possible without the help of many friends, teachers, and colleagues. Colin Palmer introduced me to the study of colonial Mexico and to the issues around which my work revolves. My dissertation advisers, Steve J. Stern and Thomas E. Skidmore, provided indispensable criticism and encouragement at every stage of the ...

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pp. 3-8

The fall of Tenochtitlan opened a vast new stage, continental in size, for Spanish imperialism. Appearing on this stage was a varied cast of characters, most of whom, a few decades earlier, had been unknown or of limited relevance to Europeans. The land's inhabitants, in all their millions, posed the first and most central problem of definition ...

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1. Race and Class in Colonial Mexico City, 1521-1660

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pp. 9-26

Like so many other great cities, past and present, colonial Mexico City was a study in contrasts. Stunning wealth and wretched poverty, elegance and squalor, and sophistication and ignorance all existed side by side. The capital's dark underside was inextricably woven into the fabric of daily life. The poor were not tucked away into hidden slums; they ...

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2. Life among the Urban Poor: Material Culture and Plebian Society

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pp. 27-48

For the modem visitor to Mexico City, choking on exhaust fumes and anxiously checking ozone levels, it may be some comfort to know that pollution, in one form or another, is an age-old problem. Insalubrity plagued the colonial city as well,1 though seventeenth-century contaminants were far less insidious than their modem counterparts. Filth ...

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3. The Significance and Ambiguities of "Race"

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pp. 49-67

Beneath Mexico City's facade of power and authority—symbolized by the grandeur of the city's palaces and churches and by the geometrical regularity of its broad avenues-lay the messy vitality of the urban poor. Plebeian society was a reality: in the streets, marketplaces, and taverns, in servants' quarters, ramshackle apartments, and ...

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4. Plebian Race Relations

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pp. 68-85

On September 1, 1699, a young man named Domingo Velasquez, who wished to take holy orders, went to the Mexico City cathedral to locate his baptismal partida. To his embarrassment, he found his record in the register of casta baptismals. Protesting that this "was an error by the person who made the said entry," Velásquez quickly assembled ...

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5. Patrons and Plebians: Labor as a System of Social Control

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pp. 86-105

Very little is known about the laboring classes in colonial Mexican cities. The simplest questions remain unanswered. For instance, how did employers procure labor? How were workers recruited into their jobs? Historians have found copious documentation on formal labor systems, such as the repartimiento, urban guilds, and debt peonage. But too ...

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6. The Fragility of "Success": Upwardly Mobile Castas in Mexico City

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pp. 106-124

As home to the infamous "thieves' market," Mexico City's plaza del volador witnessed more than its share of crime and violence. But a particularly gruesome sight greeted early arrivals on the morning of June 28, 1698: the dangling corpse of Benito Romero, a well-known mulatto merchant. At first glance, it seemed puzzling that Romero should ...

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7. The Riot of 1692

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pp. 125-160

In the seventeenth century, New Spain and its capital seemed to epitomize the order, stability, and continuity of the colonial system. Even in the midst of Spain's collapse as a European power, a steady stream of peninsular bureaucrats maintained an imposing and virtually unchallenged state apparatus in Mexico. Earlier scholars tended to ...

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pp. 161-168

In 1763, Miguel Cabrera, Mexico's most renowned artist, executed an unusual series of paintings. At first sight, each painting seems a normal family portrait, with husband, wife, and child. On closer examination, a striking feature emerges: each family member belongs to a different race. Cabrera's entry into the genre of pintura de castas, which enjoyed an ...

Appendix: List of Casta and Indian Wills

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pp. 169-170


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pp. 171-200

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 201-210


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pp. 211-220

E-ISBN-13: 9780299140434
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299140441

Publication Year: 1994