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Half Real: Presence and Absence in Mexico's Juzgado General de Naturales

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 August 2022

Bianca Premo*
Professor of History, Florida International University, Miami, Florida.


This article centers on the materiality of Indigenous legal interactions with the viceroy in the special colonial court, the Juzgado General de Naturales, which was located, at least ostensibly, inside the viceregal palace in Mexico City. The partial destruction of the palace during a riot in 1692—a year that roughly bisected Spanish colonial rule in Mexico— serves as a focal point for exploring the dynamic history of personal encounters and physical space in the viceregal jurisdiction from the court's founding in the late sixteenth century through the eighteenth century. It surveys the architectural features of the palace, traces the viceroys’ disappearance from audiences with Indigenous subjects at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and charts native petitioners’ own growing reliance on proxies and papers rather than appearances in the court. By focusing on physical presence within the Juzgado’s operation, the court reveals itself as a space of absence and abstraction as much as pomp and procedure.

Forum: The Everyday Materials of Colonial Legal Spaces
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Society for Legal History

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1 Nemser, Daniel, Infrastructures of Race: Concentration and Biopolitics in Colonial Mexico (Austin: University of Chicago Press, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Leiby, John S., “The Royal Indian Hospital of Mexico City, 1553–1680,” The Historian 57 (1995): 573–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and James Richard Same, “The Royal Hospital of Saint Joseph of the Indians of Mexico City” (Master's Thesis, Loyola University Chicago, 1969).

3 Richard Kagan and Fernando Marías date the painting to 1695, but Andrew Konove suggests that it captures the palace's condition at least a decade later; see Richard L. Kagan and Fernando Marías, Urban Images of the Hispanic World, 1493–1793 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 163; and Konove, Andrew, Black Market Capital: Urban Politics and the Shadow Economy in Mexico City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018), 27CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Borah, Woodrow, Justice by Insurance: The General Indian Court of Colonial Mexico and the Legal Aids of the Half-Real (Oakland: University of California Press, 1983)Google Scholar; Owensby, Brian P., Empire of Law and Indian Justice in Colonial Mexico (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For more on the status of miserables, also see Thomas Duve, “Venerables y miserables. Los ancianos y sus derechos en algunas obras jurídicas del S. XVII y XVIII,” in Homenaje a Fernando de Trazegnies Granda, Vol. 1, ed. Jorge Avendaño Valdés (Lima, n/p: 2009), 367–88.

5 It's important to note that these viceregal solutions were frequently issued by writs of “amparo,” an extension of medieval protections, in which contentious litigation was to be settled by judges in the high court. See Andrés González Lira, El amparo colonial y el juicio del amparo mexicanos (antecedents novohispanos del juicio del amparo (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1971); Owensby, Empire of Law; Rafael Sánchez Vásquez, “Juzgado General de Indios: Paradigma para hacer menos desiguales los desiguales durante la Nueva España,” in Historia y Constitución. Homejaje a José Luis Soberanes Fernándes, vol. 2, ed. Miguel Carbonell and Oscar Cruz Barney (Mexico City: Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas, 2015), 447–92.

6 Cañeque, Alejandro, The King's Living Image: The Culture and Politics of Viceregal Power in Colonial Mexico (New York: Routledge, 2004)Google Scholar; Owensby, Empire of Law, 57.

7 Iván Escamilla González, “Permanence and Change in Mexico's Viceregal Court,” in A Companion to Viceregal Mexico City, ed. John F. Lopez (London: Brill, 2021), 215–36.

8 Ibid., 222.

9 See Sylvia Sellers Garcia's comments on the “space-time continuum” that documents traveled in Distance and Documents at the Spanish Empire's Periphery (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013). Other works in this vein include Yannakakis, Yanna, The Art of Being In-Between: Native Intermediaries, Indian Identity, and Local Rule in Colonial Oaxaca (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008)Google Scholar; Burns, Kathryn, Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)Google Scholar; “Making Indigenous Archives: The Quilcaycamayoc of Colonial Cuzco,” Hispanic American Historical Review 91 (2011): 655–89; Rafael Diego-Fernández Sotel and Víctor Gayol, coords., El gobierno de la justicia: Conflictos jurisdiccionales en Nueva España, s. XIV-XIX (Michoacán, 2012); de la Puente Luna, José Carlos, “The Many Tongues of the King: Indigenous Language Interpreters and the Making of the Spanish Empire,” Colonial Latin American Review 23 (2014): 143–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar; José Carlos de la Puente Luna, Andean Cosmopolitans: Seeking Justice and Reward at the Spanish Royal Court (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018); Caroline Cunhill and Luis Miguel Glave, coords., Las lenguas indígneas en los tribunals de América Latina: Intérpretes, Mediación y justicia (Bogotá: Institution Colombiano de Antropología e Historia, 2019); and Yannakakis, Yanna and Premo, Bianca, “A Court of Sticks and Branches: Indian Jurisdiction in Colonial Southern Mexico and Beyond,” American Historical Review 124 (2019): 2855Google Scholar.

10 Bianca Premo, “Legal Writing, Civil Litigation and Agents in the Spanish Imperial World,” in The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History (online publication), ed. William H. Beezley, 2017,; and The Enlightenment on Trial: Ordinary Litigants and Colonialism in the Spanish Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

11 Christoph Rosenmüeller observes that the “viceregal palace is largely understudied,” Corruption and Justice in Colonial Mexico, 1650-1755 (New York: Cambridge, 2019), 198.

12 Borah, Justice by Insurance, 69.

13 Cañeque, The King's Living Image, 203.

14 This move mirrored the restrictions on travel for legal business that had been implemented in Peru under its fifth viceroy, Francisco de Toledo. See de la Puente, Andean Cosmopolitans, esp. 66-7; Novoa, Mauricio, The Protectors of Indians in the Royal Audience of Lima: History, Careers and Legal Culture, 1575-1775 (Leiden: Brill, 2018)Google Scholar. For a comparison of the development of special Indigenous access to Spanish judges in the two regions, see Borah, Woodrow, “Juzgado General de Indios del Perú o Juzgado Particular de Indios de el cercado de Lima,” Revista Chilena de Historia del Derecho 6 (1970): 129–42Google Scholar.

15 Archivo General de Indias, Carta del Virrey Gaspar de Zúñiga y Acevedo, conde de Monterrey, Mexico, 24, no. 6, 1598-04-15, f. 12: “alguna quiebra que resultava en el decoro de una lugar Thiniente de VMagd por verle hazer audi[en]c[i]as publicas como a un juez hordinario y sobre causas de muy poca ymportançia proveyendo peticiones y substanciando pleitos a vista de mocha gentes ansi de calidad como hordinaria notando cada uno lo que le parecia.”

16 Osorio, Alejandra, “The King in Lima: Simulacra, Ritual, and Rule in Seventeenth-Century Peru,” Hispanic American Historical Review 84 (2004): 447–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Cañeque, The King's Living Image, 36.

18 Borah, Justice by Insurance, 202.

19 Owensby, Empire of Law, esp. 52–53.

20 On the notary Juan Manuel de Soria and his office, see Victor Gayol, Labertintos de justicia: Procuradores, escribanos y oficiales de la Real Audiencia de México (1750-1812), Volumen I, Las reglas del juego (Zamora: Colegio de Michoacán, 2007), 67. I have consulted this very office's records for Teposcolula in the Archivo General de la Nación-México (hereafter AGN-M), Alcaldías Mayores, Teposcolula, and examples of the generic nature of the archive can be found in expedientes 345, 334, 99. Note that a 1717 report revealed that, even when conferring with Audiencia ministers in what was known as the real acuerdo, the viceroy had no official sala but crammed into an antechamber to his bedroom; Rosenmüeller, Corruption, 199.

21 AGN-M, Indios, 1687, vol. 29, expediente 290 f. 237v, Se ordena a los alcaldes mayores, tenientes y demas [sic] justicias de la ciudad de Mexico procure se remitan a la corte las aves y demás cosas que con motivo de las pascuas de navidad se regalan a los ministros de S. M. Mexico; AGN-M, Indios, 1727, vol. 51, expediente: 159 ffs. 169-170v, El virrey aprueba la elección de oficiales de república de la villa de Ixtlahuaca y sus sujetos, hecha para este año en las personas que se expresan y manda se notifique a los naturales que la contradijeron, que pena de dos meses de carcel no ocurran con informes siniestros, Ixtlahuaca.

22 Rosenmüller, Corruption, esp. 60.

23 I conducted this search using the AGN-M's catalog compiled by Linda Arnold.

24 See, for example, AGN-M, Indios, 1714 vol. 22, exp. 27 35v-36v, “por si o por sus procuradores” (“themselves or through their procurators”).

25 Yanna Yannakakis, Power of Attorney in Oaxaca: Native People, Legal Culture and Social Networks. (accessed June 9, 2022).

26 Eusebio Bonaventura Breña [sic] in Recopilación sumaria de todos los autos acordados de la real audiencia y sala del crimen de esta Nueva España, 1st ed. facsimilar (México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas, 1981), 201, footnote: “no puedan mezclarse dichos Apoderados, sino que precisamente se han de dirigir los Indios interesados por medio de los Procuradores de esta Real Audiencia o Agentes titulados.” On the Madrid ruling, see Gayol, Víctor, Laberintos de Justicia: Procuradores, Escribanos y Oficiales de la Real Audiencia de México (1750-1812), Volumen 2, El juego de las reglas (Zamora: Colegio de Michoacán, 2007), 405–8Google Scholar; and Premo, Enlightenment on Trial, 92–94.

27 Carlos Sigüenza Góngora, “Alboroto y motín de los Indios de México,” 500 Años de México en Documentos, (accessed November 1, 2020).

28 One eighteenth-century chronicler commented on search for a place for the Juzgado at mid-century when reporting that the viceroy Marqués de Croix (1766–71) converted a theater inside the palace, which once hosted small concerts and other performances, into a combined space for the “Juzgado de Indias” [sic] and the tribunal for the merchant's guild, Diego García Panés, Diario particular del camino que sigue un virrey de México desde su llegada a Veracruz…, ed. María Lourdes Díaz-Trechuelo Spínola (Madrid: Centro de Estudios Históricos de Obras Públicas y Urbanismo, Ministerio de Obras Públicas, Transportes y Medio Ambiente, Centro de Estudios y Experimentación de Obras Públicas, 1995), 109.

29 Osorio, “The King in Lima.”

30 Exbalin, Arnaud, “Riot in Mexico City: A Challenge to the Colonial Order?Urban History 43 (2016): 215–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The viceroy seems to have lost some public standing over the course of the eighteenth century, but this seems not to have dissuaded Indigenous subjects from using the Juzgado; Escamilla González, “Permanence,” 230.

31 More, Anna Herron, Baroque Sovereignty: Carlos de Sigüenza y Gongora and the Creole Archive of Colonial Mexico (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 202CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 “Vista de la Plaza mayor de México, reformada y hermoseada p[o]r disposic[ió]n d[e]l Ex[celentísi]mo S[eño]r Virrey Conde de Revilla Gigedo en el año de 1793,” Archivo General de Indias, Mapas y Planos, México, 446.

33 Sigüenza Góngora, “Alboroto y motín.”

34 I harvested this quote from the excellent work on the riot by Prada, Natalia Silva, “Estrategias culturales en el tumulto de 1692 en la Ciudad de México: Aportes para la reconstrucción de la historia de la cultura política antigua,” Historia Mexicana 53 (2003): 563Google Scholar: “que ha de ser [sic] voto de Cristo que todos estos golillas que no sirven más de pedir papel y echar al obraje han de morir.”

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