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The Americas 57.2 (2000) 269-282

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The Racial Profile of a Rural Mexican Province in the "Costa Chica":
Igualapa in 1791*

Ben Vinson III


Late colonial Mexico possessed one of the largest free-colored populations in Spanish America, numbering around 370,000 in 1793. 1 The colony's pardos, morenos, and mulattos were highly dispersed, being found throughout the major urban centers, coastal zones, rural areas, and in selected portions of the northern frontier. Studies conducted over the past two decades have assisted enormously in reconstructing the free-colored demographic profile, with particular emphasis on occupational and marriage patterns. Much of this research has resulted from sustained examinations of the caste vs. class debate, which has attempted to understand the manner in which the caste system worked in structuring colonial social relations. 2 [End Page 269] Broader, regional histories have added even more to our understanding by situating Blacks 3 within the economic, cultural, and social context of important towns and their hinterlands. 4 Institutional studies have also referenced the Afro-Mexican presence and contributions. 5 However, numerous gaps still exist in our portrait of colonial Afro-Mexicans. Notably, the Pacific coastal regions have received proportionately little attention in comparison to the area of Veracruz. This is surprising since the Costa Chica, occupying portions of the modern states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, remains home to some of the more significant concentrations of Afro-Mexicans. 6

The purpose of this article is to improve our historical knowledge of black life along the Pacific coast by focusing on information recorded for the province of Igualapa in the 1791 military census, commissioned by Viceroy Revillagigedo. Although the census does not offer an unbiased view of the region's population, since its principal design was to recruit male, non-Indian soldiers, the document still serves as one of the best means of obtaining information on race and caste in the late viceroyalty. For Igualapa, the source is particularly rich for understanding male occupational and marriage choices, [End Page 270] as well as residential habits and immigration patterns. The information on women is less complete, since they were not the focus of the enumeration effort. Nevertheless, their marriage behavior can also be gauged.

During colonial times the boundaries of Igualapa corresponded roughly to what is today considered the northern portion of the Costa Chica (see Figure 1). Agricultural and pastoral ventures thoroughly dominated the region's economic activities. The sixteenth century witnessed experimentation in raising commercial livestock and cash crops, such as cacao. Slaves were initially imported to work on the largest enterprises and through gradual processes of emancipation the number of free-coloreds gradually expanded. Additionally, free-coloreds who were already working in nearby provinces as ranchers, muleteers, gold panners, fishermen, and cane-cutters, were attracted to settle in the area. By the late eighteenth and early ninteenth centuries, free-coloreds had grown into one of the most important population [End Page 271] groups in the province. There were a total of 5,407 free-coloreds living in Igualapa in 1791, representing over 85 percent of the non-Indian population. Indeed, this made Igualapa one of the areas with the highest concentrations of Blacks in New Spain. Between 1777-1793, out of the fifty-five provinces for which the colored population can be clearly identified, only Acapulco and Xicáyan had larger concentrations with respect to their non-Indian populations. 7 Unfortunately, limitations in the census documents do not allow for a full comparative view with the indigenous populace; however, extrapolations from other sources reveal that free-coloreds had almost matched, if not surpassed their number. Tribute records taken in 1801 demonstrate that there were 2,075 Indian tributaries. Considering that women were half-tributaries and that children were exempted, we can surmise that the indigenous population probably also numbered around 5,000 individuals near the end of the eighteenth century. 8

Regardless of their heavy numerical presence, Igualapa's free-coloreds were employed in only thirteen different types of occupations in 1791, most of these of...


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