The Americas 57.2 (2000) 289-290
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Cheryl Martin has produced an excellent regional history that addresses some of the main questions that have guided the historiography of colonial New Spain over the last quarter century. As announced in the title, this is mainly a social and political history constructed around the rich documentary records of local governance in San Felipe el Real de Chihuahua, but one that takes into account the economic cycles of silver production, profitability, and decline in the longue durée of Mexican [End Page 289] mining history. It is worth noting that while Robert West's classic study of Parral (1947) focused on the geographic and demographic parameters of mining production and labor, Peter Bakewell's detailed research on Zacatecas (1971) brought new evidence to bear on the issue of New Spain's century of depression, and David Brading's work on Guanajuato (1971) addressed the organization of credit and labor, Martin's work directs our attention to the social milieu of a frontier city in terms of class, ethnicity, and gender. Her central questions arise from earlier work in historical demography by Robert McCaa on Parral and Michael Swann on colonial Durango, concerning the degrees of mobility and social conservatism in frontier communities.
The colonial history of Chihuahua emerged in the eighteenth century, after earlier silver cycles at Zacatecas and Parral, and parallel to the spectacular growth of silver output in Guanajuato during the second half of the century. Martin's study is concerned principally with the social hierarchies that intersected in this frontier villa, while her main lines of inquiry take into account the economic issues that have informed previous histories of colonial mining centers: the organization of labor, merchant lines of credit, and prices for silver and basic foodstuffs. Martin made excellent use of local archives to construct periods of economic expansion and decline as well as to develop her ideas concerning governance and the negotiation of social differences and ranking. She drew significant social profiles from judicious comparative readings of Chihuahua, Parral, and Mormon microfilm collections. Her stories of conflict, negotiation, and maneuvering for power center on the cabildo, drawn mainly from local court cases.
Given the strong historiographic foundation for colonial mining in northern Mexico, it is somewhat surprising that Martin chose to compare labor relations in Chihuahua with Mexico City and England, but did not build explicit comparisons with other mining regions of New Spain, except in her discussion of the elimination of pepenas and partidos (Chapter 3). Her concluding chapter addresses a different historiographical tradition, one dealing with cultural changes in Hispanic-indigenous relations and the general tenor of Bourbon political and social reforms in late eighteenth-century Mexico. Martin argues, interestingly, that the history of Chihuahua signals significant social mobility and blurring of racial lines during the early eighteenth century, but persistent conservatism that accompanied the economic decline of the villa of Chihuahua during the closing decades of colonial rule. Her view from the periphery suggests that frontier communities are not necessarily more open or flexible than the parent societies from which they arose and, moreover, it points to new questions concerning the pace and direction of change in the core and fringe areas of Spain's North American empire.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign