The Americas 59.3 (2003) 424-425
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Leslie Offutt's study of late colonial Saltillo is a carefully researched and well-written snapshot of this important agricultural and commercial center of northeastern New Spain. She begins with a collective portrait of Saltillo's merchants. As in so many other towns throughout the Spanish empire, peninsulares, especially those from northern Spain, figured prominently in the local economy of Saltillo, but they also joined with their creole counterparts to create a cohesive merchant community reinforced by ties of marriage and compadrazgo. Next, she examines patterns of land tenure and production, examining large haciendas as well as smaller holdings. Given the crucial importance of irrigation in agricultural production and the abundance of land, the value of a property was measured not by acreage but by water allotments, so many days or hours per month. The most interesting element of the two chapters on land is her discussion of multiple-owner haciendas, estates that at [End Page 424] one time may have had a single owner but had been subdivided as a result of Iberian inheritance laws and financial troubles of owners. A number of these haciendas were well on their way to becoming rural hamlets comprised of small landowners. Her final chapter turns to local politics, outlining the composition of the town's cabildo and its interaction with royal officials. Here too peninsulares played crucial roles.
Based on the author's 1982 dissertation, the book very much resembles the many other regional studies that dominated scholarship on colonial Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, many of her findings will come as no surprise to those familiar with this historiography. Although her analysis of land tenure is very informative, her conclusion that landholding patterns in northern New Spain were far more complex than those originally sketched by François Chevalier is hardly new, nor is her point that successful merchants often diversified their operations by becoming landowners. Many readers will find in this book a welcome respite from post-modern jargon; words such as "discourse" and "subaltern" are entirely absent. Nonetheless, the book could have benefited from a more extensive consideration of recent scholarship that has provided significant insights on the dynamics of late colonial society. The chapter on politics, for example, focuses exclusively on local elites, and then only in the performance of the official duties and not in their ceremonial roles. The only reference to their philosophy of governance is the author's observation that like their contemporaries in Chihuahua they took their self-defined civic responsibilities seriously. Beyond her observation that credits extended to employees failed to bind them to their jobs, workers appear in her discussion of rural Saltillo only as indicators of the size and complexity of hacienda operations.
The reviewer's responsibility, however, is not to outline what the author might have written but to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the book in front of her. Offutt's intent is to describe how those who dominated economic and political life in late colonial Saltillo kept their agricultural and mercantile enterprises afloat and how they functioned as cabildo members and crown appointees, and she does a competent and thorough job. Still, she could have done more to place Saltillo in its regional context by making better use of the extensive new work in Borderlands historiography. For example, she frequently cites the pivotal role of the town's annual trade fair, but could have strengthened her argument with a fuller discussion of recent work on the late colonial development of Texas, evidently a principal market for vendors who converged on Saltillo each September. The economic repercussions of shifting boundaries, as Spain first acquired and later lost Louisiana, could have made her rather static analysis much more dynamic. To her credit, though, she does position her work in the general framework of Borderlands studies by...