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The ability of the nobility to shore up its position in the face of demographic decline reached its limits in the seventeenth century. Xochimilco’s ongoing financial troubles, which had their twin origins in population loss and the dislocations brought by climate extremes of the Little Ice Age, further destabilized relations across class lines, as did the criminality of a ruling class that had become estranged from the old collective bonds of the community. examines labor drafts and town finances and presents a microhistory of crime and political violence to explain political change. The upheavals were part of a wider, global crisis of the seventeenth century. With the passing of the old dynastic rulers, an alternative basis for authority came into being. By the century’s end, a new cohort of officeholders came to dominate local government whose authority came to rest on good stewardship of the city’s finances and resources. Lineage and esteemed ancestry ceased to be key factors in local politics as non-native peoples began to assume positions of power at a time increasing ethnic and racial complexity.
The book concludes by examining striking cultural continuities as expressed in language. The final chapter reveals how Nahuatl documentary traditions retained much of their vitality and importance. The sources themselves underwent changes, in orthography and content, that amounted to departures from earlier forms of written expression. These changes reflected the autonomous local traditions of documentary production in Native communities. At the same time, though, the sources also exhibited a remarkable degree of resilience and stability in its vocabulary and grammatical structures. Surprisingly the sources exhibited few of the common signs of Hispanic influence in which Native speakers could now be expected to incorporate not only Spanish nouns as loanwords in Nahuatl but also verbs, particles, and other grammatical elements. All of these innovations remained conspicuously absent from Xochimilco’s Nahuatl records. Xochimilco thus remained a predominantly Nahua place at the end of the colonial period, in terms of demographic orientation, even as it also successfully preserved many aspects of its rich cultural heritage.
The fourth chapter reconstructs the population history of the Nahua community in Xochimilco for the entirety of the colonial period. Having established the timing, rate, and extent of demographic change, the chapter traces the implications of population decline for social relations. The chapter argues that epidemics and subsequent interventions by the government in the tribute system, incomplete and unsuccessful though they were, represented an assertion of royal authority, one that provided opportunities for Nahua nobles and commoners to contest and renegotiate their relationships with each other and with the colonial administration. These changes proved to be especially threatening to the nobility. In response, the dynastic rulers sought to reassert their own political power within the altepetl, although their success owed much to the efforts of noblewomen in securing and harnessing economic assets to their families’ advantage. They also contracted valuable strategic marriage alliances that bolstered, if only temporarily, their families’ positions in the face of so much loss of life.
On Tuesday, March 24, 1579, a Spanish magistrate arrived at the lakeshore. Acting on an order from the viceroy, he set out in a canoe for the small island community of Santa María Magdalena Michcalco, located near the great causeway dividing Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco. The short journey took him from the deeper pool at the dock facilities into a maze of narrow canals. The waterways traversed dozens of rectangular artificial gardens that rose above the lake’s shallow waters. Local, indigenous farmers cultivated these horticultural plots all year round, and if not preparing maize for one of their half dozen annual harvests, they would have been tending to their crops of chiles, squash, tomatoes, and other vegetables. Stretching into the distance with the many gardens were water willows whose root systems, partially visible from the canoe, held together the edges of the aquatic gardens.
As the native-language sources suggest, the history of Xochimilco and the chinampa districts still exhibited a great deal of continuity at the end of the colonial period. The area’s residents were predominantly Nahuas and they retained their demographic superiority by a wide margin over non-Native peoples. The Nahuas still spoke Nahuatl, of course, and they continued to bequeath chinampas, grain bins, and other indigenous items to their heirs in documents set down in their own language. The Nahuas resided in tlaxillacalli, those subunits of the altepetl which, itself, remained intact (as did the civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions that relied on it). The Nahuas’ communities were still located in the same, broadly recognizable landscape, one that stretched from the lakes to the sierras. Unlike Lakes Zumpango and Xaltocan to the north of the Basin of Mexico – which had essentially dried up – Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco were still deeply lacustrine environments (devastatingly so, at the frequent times of flooding). Much of the water management program persisted, including the dams and embankments and the hydraulic compartments as well as the ancient causeways of Mexicalzingo and Tlahuac, the latter having been renovated in the late eighteenth century.
Examining the vibrant commercial sector of the economy as well as the busy transportation network that supported it, the third chapter demonstrates how canoes and pack animals enabled artisans and traders to reach local and distant markets. The transportation infrastructure also contributed to the ongoing vitality of exchanges in markets as well as the survival of specialist craft industries and commercial networks that connected Xochimilco to the wider global economy. Crucial to the provisioning of Mexico City, canoes and the dock facilities became key resources in the political economy of central Mexico even as haciendas increasingly replaced Nahua communities as the main source of Mexico City’s food supply by the early eighteenth century. Competition and conflicts developed among different interest groups, among them merchants, colonial officials, ecclesiastics, and Nahua communities, and the rowers of canoes emerged as key figures in the transportation system who could bargain and negotiate from a position of strength.
The chapter traces the rise from the distant pre-contact past of the modified lake environment through the Post-Classic Period when the Native American peoples founded their altepetl, or city-states, until their conquest first by the Aztec Triple Alliance and then by Spaniards. The chapter covers the Spanish--Mexica War and demonstrates that it had vital a hydraulic dimension. While the siege of Tenochtitlan has long been understood as a naval battle, the analysis presented here follows the precedent of the New Conquest History in underscoring the contributions of Nahuas to the outcome of the conflict, particularly when it came to specialist knowledge of the Basin of Mexico’s hydrology and strategic efforts to defeat the enemies by turning the engineering works against them. The chapter concludes by tracing continuities into the mid-sixteenth century, especially with the survival of the altepetl and its foundation for colonial-era jurisdictions, including that of the cabildo, or town council, which Nahuas readily adopted and made their own. In so doing, they preserved control over the water management system even as they adapted to new colonial realities.
This chapter addresses the history of chinampas, agriculture, and the rise of rural estates known as haciendas. It examines the construction, cultivation, and distribution of chinampas as well as the dispersed pattern of landholdings and the complexities of land tenure. The chapter observes the conspicuous absence of Spaniards and other non-Native peoples as the owners of chinampas. The chinampas became a source of contestation within the indigenous community, though, since claims of the communal, usufruct rights to chinampas rubbed up against efforts by the nobility to shore up their holdings through private ownership. In the sixteenth century, demographic decline and the competing demands of the colonial government, anxious about provisioning Mexico City during periods of food insecurity, forced a restructuring of land tenure classifications. At the same time, Spaniards received grants to establish ranches away in the nearby hills where they and Nahuas introduced livestock. As a consequence of all this, a distinctive historical geography came into being, with chinampas and intensive, small-scale horticulture in the lakes, and extensive pastoralism in the upland areas.
The sixth chapter examines how Native communities and haciendas adopted livestock rearing and, in particular, cattle ranching as a new economic activity within the lakes. Responding to the rise of the urban market for meat as well as the demographic decline within Native communities, residents of the chinampa districts expanded into the waters of the lakes in new and destabilizing ways. Alongside the chinampas, many of which survived and retained their value, haciendas and Native communities now fashioned pastures from the swamps. As they pushed further into the lake, pastoralists instituted new environmental management practices and constructed new hydraulic engineering works of their own. At the same time, the colonial administration, responding to renewed fears of flooding in the capital, increasingly intervened in the southern lakes’ hydrology. These new forces for change, when combined with higher rates of rainfall because of renewed climate extremes, undermined both the ecological autonomy and the flood defenses of the Nahua communities, portending of wholesale environmental transformation if not ruination on the eve of Mexico’s Independence.
Now notorious for its aridity and air pollution, Mexico City was once part of a flourishing lake environment. In nearby Xochimilco, Native Americans modified the lakes to fashion a distinctive and remarkably abundant aquatic society, one that provided a degree of ecological autonomy for local residents, enabling them to protect their communities' integrity, maintain their way of life, and preserve many aspects of their cultural heritage. While the area's ecology allowed for a wide array of socioeconomic and cultural continuities during colonial rule, demographic change came to affect the ecological basis of the lakes; pastoralism and new ways of using and modifying the lakes began to make a mark on the watery landscape and on the surrounding communities. In this fascinating study, Conway explores Xochimilco using native-language documents, which serve as a hallmark of this continuity and a means to trace patterns of change.