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Alcalde Vs. Mayor: Translating the Colonial World

  • John F. Schwaller (a1)


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.”



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1. Siete Partidas, Partida IV, Título 27, ley 1.

2. Academia Española, Real, Diccionario de la Lengua Española, 22nd ed. (Madrid: Editorial Espasa Calpe, 2001), p. 93.

3. “La persona constituida en la Dignidad de Juez, para administrar justicia en el Pueblo en que tiene la jurisdicción.” Nuevo Tesoro Lexicográfico de la Lengua Española (1726 edition), p. 176, http://buscon.rae. es/ntlle/SrvltGUILoginNdle [accessed October 18, 2012].

4. “Presidente de la ayuntamiento de cada pueblo o distrito municipal, encargado de ejecutar sus acuerdos, de dictar bandos para la buena orden, salubridad y limpieza de la población, y de cuidar de todo relativo a la policía urbana.” Nuevo Tesoro (1884 edition) p. 44

5. Góngora, Mario, Studies in the Colonial History of Spanish America, Southern, Richard, trans. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 86.

6. Throughout this essay I have done some generalizing in order to better focus on the unique features of the colonial alcalde.

7. In the audiencia of Nueva Galicia, at least at the outset, the justices held the compound title of oidor alcalde mayor. The title indicated that while they were high court justices, they were lesser in authority than the justices in Mexico City. Parry, John H., The Audiencia of New Galicia in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1948), pp. 3537.

8. Phelan, John L., The Kingdom of Quito in the Seventeenth Century (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967), p. 127.

9. Recopilación de las leyes de Indias, Libro 2, Tit. 17, ley 3.

10. Recopilación, Libro 2, Tit. 17, ley 21 (June 23, 1571).

11. Recopilación, Libro 2, Tit. 17, ley 28 (May 28,1527); Borah, Woodrow, Justice by Insurance: Tlie General Indian Court of Colonial Mexico and the Legal Aides of the Half-Real (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 7778

12. Góngora, Studies, pp. 94–95 and following; Recopilación, Libro 5, Tit. 2, ley 1.

13. Parry, John H., The Sale of Public Office in the Spanish Indies Under the Hapsburgs (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953), pp. 14.

14. Recopilación, Libro 5, Tit, 2, ley 14 (September 22, 1560).

15. Recopilación, Libro 5, Tit. 2, ley 37 (November 20, 1569, and seven additional occurrences).

16. Recopilación, Libro 5, Tit. 3, ley 1 (1537). In addition, there is an extensive bibliography on the inner workings of the town councils in the Americas. For Mexico, a useful study is Porras Muñoz, Guillermo, El gobierno de la ciudad de Mexico en el siglo XVI (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, 1982), p. 69.

17. Parry, Sale, pp. 49, 59–60.

18. Góngora, Studies, p. 100; María, José Capdequi, Ots, El estado español en las Indias, 3rd. ed. (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Econòmica, 1957), p. 69; and Porras Muñoz, El gobierno, pp. 71–72.

19. Preston Moore, John, The Cabildo in Peru Under the Hapsburgs (Durham: Duke University Press, 1954), pp. 231232 and following.

20. Haskett, Robert, Indigenous Ruler: An Ethnohistory of Town Government in Colonial Cuernavaca (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991), pp. 104106.

21. Lockhart, James, The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), pp. 3537.

22. Terraciano, Kevin, The Mixtees of Colonial Oaxaca: Ñudzahui History, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), pp. 192193; Horn, Rebecca, Postconquest Coyoacan: Nahua-Spanish Relations in Central Mexico, 1519–1650 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), pp. 5561; and Cline, S.L., Colonial Culhuacan, 1580–1600: A Social History of an Aztec Town (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1986), p. 39. Haskett, Terraciano, Horn, and Cline all did graduate study with James Lockhart, so it might not come as a surprise that they agree on this point. But at the same time all four drew heavily on native documentation and derived their conclusions from those data.

23. Wrightman, Ann M., Indigenous Migration and Social Change: Tlie Forasteros of Cuzco, 1520–1720 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), p. 16.

24. Spalding, Karen, Huarochirt: An Andean Society Under Inca and Spanish Rule (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984), p. 216.

25. David Cook, Nobel, People of the Volcano: Andean Counterpoint in the Coica Valley of Peru (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 85.

26. Restali, Matthew, The Maya World: Tucatec Culture and Society, 1550–1850 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), pp. 6869.

27. Farriss, Nancy M., Maya Society Under Colonial Rule: The Collective Enterprise of Survival (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 232.

28. Lutz, Christopher H., Santiago de Guatemala, 1541–1773: City, Caste, and the Colonial Experience (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), p. 16.

29. Hunefeldt, Christine, Lucha por tierra y protesta indígena: las comunidades indígenas del Perú entre colonia y república, 1800–1830 (Bonn: Bonner Amerikanische Studien, 1982), pp. 3036. This pattern has been described in a variety of works. In each case the details of the emergence of the alcalde as executive officer differ, but the outcomes are strikingly similar. The acquisition of executive responsibilities by the alcalde in native villages in eighteenth century New Spain also seems to have occurred, but has been less well documented. Yanna Yannakakis, personal communication, January 25, 2012.

30. Walker, Charles F., Smoldering Ashes: Cuzco and the Creation of Republican Peru, 1780–1840 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), pp. 6263 and following; Serulnikov, Sergio, Subverting Colonial Authority: Challenges to Spanish Rule in Eighteenth-Century Southern Andes (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), p. 25.Serulnikov also uses the term ‘Indian mayor’ to describe the alcalde varayok.

31. The third definition for ‘vara’ in the Diccionario de la Lengua Española of the Real Academia is: “Bastón que por insignia de autoridad usaban los ministros de justicia y que hoy llevan los alcaldes y sus tenientes [a staff that ministers of justice used as a symbol of their authority and which today alcaldes and their assistants carry],” 22nd. ed. vol. 2, p. 2270.

32. Preston Moore, John, The Cabildo in Peru Under the Bourbons (Durham: Duke University Press, 1966), pp. 193194.

33. Definition for ‘mayor, n.,’ OED Online, Oxford University Press (December 2011), http://www. [accessed October 18, 2012].

34. “Para el gobierno interior de los pueblos habrá ayuntamientos compuestos de alcalde o alcaldes, los regidores y el procurador síndico, y presididos por el jefe político donde lo hubiere, y en su defecto por el alcalde o el primer nombrado entre éstos, si hubiere dos,” Obras/cl812/12260843118006070754624/index.htm [accessed October 18, 2012], This passage applied to both peninsular and New World contexts, although the jefe politico position was found only in the Iberian Peninsula. In general the local magistrate, or subdelegado by this period, would be the colonial equivalent.

35. “Habrá en los pueblos alcaldes y Ayuntamientos. Los Ayuntamientos serán nombrados por los vecinos a quienes la ley confiera este derecho.”ón_española_de_1876 [accessed October 18, 2012]. The 1876 constitution was far less precise in defining offices and responsibilities, but it was expected that the implementing legislation would provide those.

36. Gibson, Charles, Spain in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), p. 97.

Alcalde Vs. Mayor: Translating the Colonial World

  • John F. Schwaller (a1)


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