- Indian Lords, Hispanic Gentlemen: The Salazars of Colonial Tlaxcala
In 1773, a Mexico City expert in gold embroidery named don José Mariano Sánchez de Salazar Zitlalpopoca petitioned for a license to operate his own shop and take on apprentices. As handling precious metals was politically and economically sensitive, such professions were by law exclusive, open only to those of proven character, standing, and reputation—qualities understood to be inherited by blood. Thus, to establish his sufficiency for the license don José called forth witnesses to his family’s honor, reputation, and good lineage.1
Genealogical and character investigations were common in the early modern Spanish world, part of the required process for those seeking access to elite institutions and associations. Among other indicators of high social status, aspirants often cited noble ancestors in Spain, both real and invented, as proof of their blood quality. Yet don José was not Spanish and could not credibly establish such a pedigree. Instead, he hired a scribe in the primarily Nahuatl-speaking city of Tlaxcala, east of Mexico City, to consult its noble registry (becerro) and confirm that he was descended from don Bartolomé Citlalpopoca, a Tlaxcalan leader at the time of the Spaniards’ arrival two and a half centuries earlier (Figure 1).
The scribe also reported that subsequent generations of Salazars, up to and including don José’s own brother, had served honorably with the Tlaxcalan [End Page 1]
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cabildo, or municipal governing council. Finally, lest his indigenous origins raise suspicions among Spanish officials, the petitioner also submitted copies of royal decrees explicitly equating the legal status and rights of caciques, the hereditary lords in America’s native communities, with those of Spain’s hidalgos, gentlemen who enjoyed the privileges of minor nobility. “I am a cacique,” don José concluded, and “caciques are . . . eligible for all the ecclesiastical and secular employments and dignities customarily conferred upon the hidalgos of Castile, and can participate in any communities that require nobility.”2 Satisfied, the overseer confirmed that don José was indeed “a cacique Indian of the Tlaxcaltecos,” and, following a successful practical examination, the viceroy certified him as a master goldworker. Ironically, upon conferring his new rights, they required him to swear that he would never accept non-Spanish apprentices.3
Don José was not the first of his family to find success in a social and professional realm normally reserved for Spaniards and creoles (American-born Spaniards). Nor was he the first cacique to gain access to the privileges of Spanish hidalgos, which was not entirely unusual by the end of the eighteenth century. Yet the Salazars of Tlaxcala stand out, inasmuch as their participation in the elite institutions of New Spain did not entirely replace the political offices they held and the historical identities they proclaimed as Tlaxcalan aristocrats. That is, they were not creoles boasting (as some did) of distant and mostly abstract cacica great-grandmothers.4 Rather, they were both caciques and hidalgos, performing each role simultaneously: Nahua nobles living as Novohispanic gentlemen, Tlaxcalan aristocrats wielding intellectual, political, and legal authority within the Spanish empire.
The Salazars belonged to a handful of families in central Mexico that had managed to escape the general decline of the Mesoamerican hereditary elite by the eighteenth century.5 The late-colonial plight of the indigenous nobility was such that in 1754 the archbishop of Mexico declared that most caciques had mixed with Spaniards and “are no longer Indians”; the rest, he continued, “are poor [End Page 3] and abject,” indistinguishable from commoners, except they perhaps “do...