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The Americas 57.2 (2000) 290-292

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Trabajo, sujección y libertad en el centro de la Nueva España. By Brígida von Mentz. Mexico: CIESAS, 1999. Pp. 469. Index. No Price. [End Page 290]

This volume brings together a series of disparate but closely interrelated essays by the distinguished Mexican historian Brígida von Mentz. Each essay effectively combines new archival research with masterful syntheses of recent monographic and theoretical work by Mexican, North American, and European scholars. Unlike many works in the field, this book actually delivers more than its title suggests, for most of the essays draw exceptionally insightful comparisons with labor conditions in Europe and North America, while also shedding new light on specific aspects of the social and economic history of Mexico.

Von Mentz's essays embrace virtually all ethnic groups in colonial Mexico's sociedad de castas. Her chapter on Indian servitude in the immediate pre- and postconquest periods shows how the indigenous notion of the tlacotli, a person temporarily bound to another, evolved into the Hispanic concept of esclavo, with its assumption of perpetual servitude. Another essay describes Afro-Mexican slave resistance on the sugar hacienda Santa Bárbara Calderón in Morelos, with special emphasis on an incident in 1764, when fifty-four slaves marched all the way to Mexico City to present their complaints before the viceroy.

Her chapter on unfree labor among children and adolescents in seventeenth-century Mexico City also breaks substantial new ground. She offers a detailed review of more than two hundred apprenticeship agreements drawn up in the 1630s by the notary José Veedor, who evidently held a special commission from the cabildo to oversee such arrangements for orphans but also handled contracts for youngsters whose parents placed them out, often because they could not support them. Though a preponderance were listed as españoles, the apprentices came from all racial groups. Boys signed on with many different types of craftsmen, while girls invariably became domestic servants. Most were in their teens, though some were as young as eight or nine, and their periods of service ranged from one to five years. They typically received one outfit of clothing per year in addition to their room and board, and a few got a small cash stipend as well. She concludes that these arrangements served primarily as a cheap source of labor, with relatively less emphasis placed on the training of future artisans. Apprenticeship in Mexico City thus differed qualitatively from the institution as practiced in Europe.

Another chapter analyzes the quasi-industrial nature of work in colonial Mexican mines, silver refineries, sugar mills, and textile factories, all of which involved a certain amount of technical expertise on the part of some workers. The author sketches meaningful comparisons and contrasts with the process of early industrialization in Europe. A companion essay describes the recruiters sent by these enterprises to round up workers in the Indian pueblos, the coercive measures they employed, and the resistance that Indians often mounted against them.

One of the book's most intriguing pieces compares the evolution of unfree labor in the sugar-producing valleys of Cuautla and Cuernavaca in Mexico and the Tidewater tobacco plantations of Virginia and Maryland. Here the author draws on her many years of personal research on the former and an extensive reading of United States historians for the latter. Although we have many comparative studies of slavery [End Page 291] that focus on the Caribbean islands and mainland North America, von Mentz is one of the very few who have brought Mexico into the picture.

All of these essays suggest fruitful prospects for future research. Von Mentz's prose is at once erudite and easy to follow, and attractive color plates enhance the volume's visual appeal. Her essays deserve a wide audience, and not only among Mexicanists. Because of this book's strong comparative emphasis, Europeanists and United States historians would do well to read it also, and it is to be hoped that some publisher might consider putting these essays out in...


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