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  • Postconquest Coyoacan: Nahua-Spanish Relations in Central Mexico, 1519–1650
  • Kevin Terraciano
Postconquest Coyoacan: Nahua-Spanish Relations in Central Mexico, 1519–1650. By Rebecca Horn (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1997) 356 pp. $55.00

Horn addresses a major issue in Latin American and colonial studies—how the Spanish invasion and consequent changes affected native peoples. Horn has chosen the great Nahua altepetl (local ethnic state) of Coyoacan, Mexico, as her subject of study, using a rich collection of Nahuatl- and Spanish-language sources to consider changes from the 1520s to approximately 1650. A prominent neighbor of Tenochtitlan, now engulfed by Mexico City’s urban sprawl, Coyoacan was one of many populous Nahua (Aztec) settlements in the Valley of Mexico.

Those unfamiliar with the field of early Mexican history should note that native-language philological studies, attracting scholars from various disciplines for the last three decades, has enhanced our understanding of native cultures during the colonial period, especially the Nahuas. In most of Mesoamerica, native nobles drew upon a pre-conquest tradition of pictographical writing and, trained by friars, adopted alphabetical writing in their own languages. In this work, Horn has made full use of Nahuatl sources generated within Coyoacan, especially records pertaining to the sociopolitical organization of the altepetl and to issues of land and labor. But she also followed the activities of Spanish-speaking peoples in the area, noting their interactions with Nahuas. Horn is the first historian to consider both ethnic groups together in a full-length study, building upon the indispensable contributions of Gibson and Lockhart. 1 The former relied upon local Spanish-language documents for a history of colonial central Mexico, whereas the latter based his work entirely on native records. As Lockhart’s [End Page 360] former student at UCLA, Horn contributed her own findings on the complex altepetl of Coyoacan to his larger project on the Nahuas; now she extends those findings by examining land tenure and labor in an area of intensive Spanish immigration.

The first of the book’s two parts examines the “formal” political and economic relations of Coyoacan, outlining changes in the organization of the altepetl and its government, introducing Spanish provincial authorities, and highlighting how native labor and tribute were channeled to Spaniards in the sixteenth century. The second part, titled “Landholding and the Market Economy,” describes Nahua households and landholding, traces the development of Spanish estates through the purchase of Nahua lands and labor, and shows how Nahuas were drawn into the new money economy. For the early post-conquest period, Horn observes that contact between the two groups occurred mainly at the institutional level, moderated by those organizational structures of the altepetl on which colonial institutions were based. By the end of the sixteenth century, interactions occurred at a more individual level, unattended by native authorities and outside of traditional institutions. As the basis of the economy shifted from a reliance on tribute, changes in production that did not rely upon the altepetl moved the arena of contact to Spanish estates in the countryside.

The study of land and labor reveals this process and its far-reaching implications for the creation of a complex society outside of the Spanish city, and the incremental dispossession of native lands. Horn found that the Spanish acquisition of Nahua lands in Coyoacan accelerated after the decline of the encomienda (a royal grant of native labor and tribute to a Spaniard), especially when the native population suffered from a virulent wave of epidemics in the 1570s. Numerous small landholders built up sizable estates piecemeal while contending for water rights to irrigate their new lands. As demand for Spanish goods in Mexico City increased, the indigenous population continued to decline, finally stabilizing at about 10 percent of its preconquest total by 1650. As Nahuas were drawn into the money economy, a growing non-Nahua population paid small sums of money for valuable plots of land to meet the demand for Spanish goods. Horn demonstrates the process of privatization and purchase by tracing individual Spanish estates, analyzing Nahua land records, and calculating average sale prices of Nahua lands.

Studies of native cultural change tend to emphasize either sudden transformation and loss, characterized...

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pp. 360-361
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