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The Americas 58.3 (2002) 355-393

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Public Works And Local Elites:
The Politics Of Taxation In Tlaxcala, 1780-1810*

James D. Riley


In the winter of 1791-1792, meetings were being held in all of the principal towns of the Mexican province of Tlaxcala. Decisions had been reached that something had to be done about the recurring flooding of the Zahuapa river in central Tlaxcala and, independently, about the lack of an adequate water supply for the southeastern provincial town of Huamantla. As a result of these meetings, two independent projects began both of which were locally conceived and, more importantly, locally funded. In a burst of civic pride groups of Spanish vecinos (landowners and merchants who claimed Tlaxcala as their home) and Indian communities collaborated in constructing and financing these improvements. The work on the Zahuapa lasted until 1802, and the work to supply water in Huamantla was ongoing in 1810 when the Hidalgo revolt interrupted it. What is interesting about these decisions is not the success of the projects themselves--the first failed badly and the second was foundering when aborted--but rather what they highlight about the way Spanish and Indian leadership in local communities interacted politically in the late Bourbon period, both with each other and with Bourbon officialdom.

This is a subject about which we know very little. To date, the study of local political community has concentrated on indigenous institutions and political culture, 1 while virtually ignoring creole-controlled political structures [End Page 355] such as cabildos. 2 Moreover, the literature regarding eighteenth-century interactions between Indian and Hispanic groups concentrates almost exclusively on conflicts over land, labor, and other resources, leaving the overwhelming impression that their divergent goals and these conflicts made it impossible for the different ethnic communities to ever find common ground and work together. 3

That there was violence and conflict cannot be denied, but to emphasize tensions and stresses without a counterbalancing exploration of shared concerns and values seems to distort the realities of late-eighteenth century life. 4 [End Page 356] At the very least, the lack of consideration of this topic is an important lacuna in the literature. By the eighteenth century, Indians and non-Indians were living together in the countryside and routinely interacting peacefully in a whole range of ways in small towns in central Mexico. Understanding the quality of these relationships, and ideas of community that connected ethnic groups, is important to understanding the racial and political issues that confounded Mexican development after Independence.

A second area of politics about which there has been little study is the appreciation of the Bourbon state in the rural provinces of New Spain. While there is an abundant literature on the political impact of the Bourbon Reforms in Mexico, much of it focuses on the structures of Bourbon imperial administration, issues related to imperial finances, the functioning of imperial bureaucracies, and the conflicts between the Bourbon state and Creole elites that had an impact on the revolutions for Independence and the formation of Creole political ideas. There are few studies of day-to-day relationships between Bourbon bureaucrats and the populations they controlled. 5

Examining the development of public works projects offers a window on both the issue of shared ideas of community and on the experiences of local communities with Bourbon authority. 6 Urban modernization was high on the [End Page 357] agenda of Bourbon officials and their reports of the institutional and physical improvements they initiated have greatly influenced our attitudes toward local government in the late colonial period. John Lynch's 1957 study of the La Plata region was the first to use these reports and his conclusions are still widely accepted.

Lynch described the intendants as energetic modernizers who, following their royal instructions, carried through substantial civic improvement projects and revitalized urban institutions. 7 What was noteworthy about Lynch's presentation of these issues was its emphasis on the agency of the Bourbon officials. Whether in Asunción, Salta, Potosí, Córdoba or Buenos Aires, it...


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