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  • Alcalde vs. Mayor:Translating the Colonial World
  • John F. Schwaller (bio)

In studying the nuances of any legal term from the colonial period in Latin America it is always good to have recourse to the Siete Partidas, the compilation of royal law promulgated, and some say written, by the famous thirteenth-century Castilian monarch, Alfonso X, often called "The Wise." As it was put in the Siete Partidas:

Y por ello dijo Aristóteles que si los hombres hubiesen entre sí verdadera amistad, no habrían menester justicia ni alcaldes que los juzgasen porque la amistad les haría cumplir y guardar aquello mismo que quiere y manda la justicia.1

And that is why Aristotle said that if men were to have true friendship among themselves, they would have no need for justice nor alcaldes to judge them, because friendship would make them fulfill and comply with the same things that justice would require and demand.

It is quite clear from this seminal statement that the alcalde was some sort of judge in Spanish royal law. Yet in recent years some scholars have begun to use the English word 'mayor' as a fit translation for the word. This essay seeks to explore the meaning and connotations of the term alcalde as used in colonial Latin America and to explore that usage in an effort to better understand the semantic shift over time.

Everyone is familiar with the difficulty of translation. For many words there is no simple one-to-one equivalent. At best we deal in close approximations. From the moment the first Spaniards arrived in the New World, they had to confront issues of translation. Similarly, scholars whose mother tongue is different from the language of the region they study must devote long hours to becoming comfortable in the new language. In our work and writings we all [End Page 391] strive to depict events in a manner consistent with the broad environment in which those events occurred. This problem is exacerbated when dealing with times far distant from our own, such as the colonial period. The word alcalde carried its own rich context in colonial places and times, which can exacerbate the difficulty of its translation.

The word is of Hispano-Arabic origin, clearly indicated by the prefix al- that adorns many such words; the prefix derives from the definite article. The Hispano-Arabic word in turn derived from a precise Arabic origin, qād, ī, meaning judge.2 The word appeared in the first edition of the dictionary of the Real Academia Española de la Lengua in 1726, and the definition provided at that time was fairly simple and concise: "the person constituted in the office of judge, to administer justice in the town in which he holds jurisdiction."3 After this entry, and two examples of the word in context, the dictionary listed 18 different types of alcaldes in 16 separate entries. The common element among all of them was that each referred to a judge of some type. Some were judges in the King's household (alcalde de casa e corte); others served in high courts of justice (in the audiencia, as alcalde del crimen); and others served in rural areas with various functions (among them, alcalde de la Hermandad, de la Mesta, mayor). The alcalde ordinario, or common (ordinary) judge, served in a local municipality.

In 1884, the Royal Academy listed a principal definition different from that of judge. In that year, the 'judge' wording was replaced by "President of the governing council of each village or municipal district, charged with implementing its decisions; proclaiming orders for the good order, health, and cleanliness of the population; and caring for everything relative to the city police."4 Clearly, this more recent definition describes a position that is administrative within the context of a municipal corporation and at the same time represents a membership role in a municipal council, which approximates the American institution of mayor.

The Alcalde Comes to the New World

The legal code applied in colonial Latin America was equally clear in the set of meanings it attached to the word alcalde. Indeed, the Recopilación de leyes [End Page 392] (1681...


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