The Woman Who Turned Into a Jaguar, and Other Narratives of Native Women in Archives of Colonial Mexico
Lisa Sousa


Chapter One


When illustrating the offerings that Nahuas made to the goddess Chicome Coatl at her temple at Cinteopan, the indigenous artist beautifully rendered the complementary and interdependent relations of men and women. His drawing shows young men presenting corn stalks, representing their agricultural labor, and young women carrying atole (a corn beverage), symbolizing their responsibility for preparing food and drink. The gifts highlight men’s and women’s gender duties and mutual obligations to their households, communities, and deities. The distinctive clothing and hairstyles mark their gender, age, and status. The location of the women in the lower register of the image, seated, and of men in the upper register, standing, corresponds to native cosmologies in which the earth (lower) is conceived of as female and the sky (upper) as male. The balanced composition of the image and the symmetry in the presence and number of men and women reveal the parallel and complementary organizing principles of indigenous social and gender relations.

Archival narratives from colonial Mexico both confirm and contradict the idealized view of gender relations in the ritual depicted in the temple of Cinteopan. The rich historical record in Mexico reveals a broad range of Mesoamerican women’s daily activities, which were vital to the social, economic, and spiritual life of the community. As tribute-paying commoners, they can be seen spinning yarn, weaving cloth, grinding corn, making tortillas, and providing service in the homes and on the lands of native elites and Spaniards. They emerge as market vendors, some with significant investments in native and Spanish goods. Many women appear as property owners, who inherited and bequeathed lands and belongings. They stand out as wives who, if necessary, tried to force their husbands to fulfill marital obligations. Some even appear as legitimate native rulers, or cacicas, of their local states. Other indigenous women confronted and fought with outsiders to protect the people and resources of their communities throughout central and southern Mexico. And yet so many of their stories are unknown to us and remain to be told.

This book offers a social and cultural history of indigenous gender relations in colonial Mexico from these many different perspectives, beginning with the Spanish conquest in the 1520s and ending in the first half of the eighteenth century. I examine cross-cultural patterns in women’s roles and status, focusing primarily on four native groups in highland Mexico: the Nahua people of central Mexico, who spoke Nahuatl; the Ñudzahui (Mixtec) people of the Mixteca Alta in northwestern Oaxaca; and the Bènizàa (Zapotec) and Ayuuk (Mixe) peoples of the Sierra Zapoteca in eastern Oaxaca. I do not claim to address the histories of all indigenous groups in highland Mexico. I do not include the Maya of Yucatan, Chiapas, and Guatemala, or the many other culture and language groups of Mesoamerica, such as the Otomi. Nonetheless, at the time of the conquest, the groups that are the focus of the study—the Nahua, Ñudzahui, Bènizàa, and Ayuuk—were among the most populous, sedentary civilizations in Mesoamerica, and they shared countless defining social, cultural, and political traits, despite differences in language and sociopolitical organization. The peoples of highland Mexico also shared a common history under colonial rule. In the first two or three generations after the conquest, the Spaniards introduced far-reaching changes in native communities by establishing town councils, parishes, and a new tribute system, and by bringing a new material culture, domesticated animals, and diseases. Much of this history of native women and men under colonial rule considers, on the one hand, pragmatic acceptance, adoption, and adaptation of Spanish institutions, concepts, and practices and, on the other hand, rejection and resistance that has often been overlooked.

The broad geographical and temporal scope of this study enables me to trace similarities and differences in women’s roles and status among some of the major culture groups of central Mexico and Oaxaca.1 The long period from 1520 to 1750 corresponds to the periodization of several important works on native society and culture at the corporate level. Furthermore, with some notable exceptions, much of the recent scholarship on Mexican women has focused on either the postclassic period (pre-1519) or the late colonial (post-1750) and Independence (1810–1820s) periods, leaving the first two centuries of colonial rule to a handful of scholars.2 This work seeks to help fill in this gap.

In writing this book, I have five principal objectives. First, I seek to contribute to Mesoamerican women’s history by considering indigenous women from across the social spectrum, both commoners and elites, especially in rural communities where most indigenous people lived in this period. The existing scholarship on gender in the colonial period focuses overwhelmingly on Spanish and casta (racially mixed-heritage) women’s status in the family and marriage, and especially on elite urban women.3 Despite their very significant contributions to the study of women, these works examine women’s status within a framework of Spanish custom and morality and do not specifically address indigenous gender relations. For some groups, including the Bènizàa and the Ayuuk, little or nothing has been written on indigenous women’s lives under colonial rule. This book breaks new ground by integrating their experiences into a broader discussion of gender relations in central Mexico and Oaxaca. My focus on women does not overlook the fact that women’s status must be considered in relation to men’s. In fact, the historical record confirms that the household was the basic social unit in which men and women lived their lives as partners much more so than as individuals.

Second, I examine the formation and expression of gender identity in highland Mexico. I show how a binary gender system was imposed through roles, rituals, and behavior as a way to order and streamline the more complex realities of gender ambiguity, instability of the body, and variation in personal traits. I consider how concepts of femininity and masculinity influenced the idealized roles of women and men, and how gender ideology was tied to social, political, and economic power. I consider how gender dynamics shaped interactions in the household and community and among indigenous peoples and other ethnic groups.

Third, I place social relations in the household at the center of analysis. In doing so, I seek to shift the focus away from colonial institutions, such as the cabildo (municipal council), and predominately male actors, both Spanish and indigenous, in order to better understand the contributions that women made to their societies and cultures and to provide a more intimate, internal view of communities.

Fourth, I consider the impact of Spanish institutions, social customs, and cultural attitudes on indigenous gender relations and women’s status. I am especially interested in how Christianity, monogamous marriage, patriarchal gender attitudes, the colonial tribute system, and legal culture, for example, altered social relations in communities. Spaniards, mestizos, and Africans are not as prominent in this study, reflecting the milieus that I encountered in the sources, which originated mainly in native communities. Nonetheless, this investigation considers the presence and influence of nonindigenous people in cabeceras (head towns) and nearby cities, and thus sheds light on interethnic relations and interactions in New Spain.

Fifth, I show how understanding indigenous women’s history is vital to our understanding of the early modern Atlantic World. Aside from Malinche and Pocahontas, native women are rarely mentioned in narratives on the colonial encounter and the development of new societies in the Americas. Many scholars have not fully appreciated the fact that indigenous women and men produced the wealth in Mexico (and many other places) that stimulated further European expansion, settlement, and immigration; financed the early African slave trade; and established the patterns of economic production based on the exploitation of cheap labor and the extraction of natural resources that were key components of the emerging Atlantic World.

This study draws on a rich collection of archival, textual, and pictorial sources to identify and trace changes in women’s economic, political, and social status in colonial native societies and to consider the extent to which Spanish gender and sexual ideologies influenced native attitudes and practices in the first several generations after contact. These sources represent more than a hundred communities in central and southern Mexico (see Maps 1.1 and 1.2). The records were written in native languages (mainly Nahuatl and, to a lesser extent, Tíchazàa and Ñudzahui) and in Spanish. Native-language sources reveal categories and concepts that are often obscured by Spanish or English translations and therefore are critical to this study. Whenever possible, I have tried to use documents generated by indigenous peoples themselves rather than rely on the commentaries of Spanish observers. My sources include indigenous- and Spanish-language formal texts and speeches, confessional manuals, doctrinas, grammars, criminal records, last wills and testaments, land documents, inquisitorial proceedings, late sixteenth-century questionnaires (Relaciones geográficas), and pictorial writings. Many of the texts, although written after the conquest, refer to ancient traditions, society, and history, contributing a wealth of information on the postclassic and early colonial periods.

Map 1.1. Central Mexico
Map 1.2. Mixteca Alta and Sierra Zapoteca regions of Oaxaca

Most of the sources used in this study, however, were written at least two generations after the conquest and so reflect some degree of Spanish influence. After the initial decades of contact, most indigenous people of highland Mexico operated in a native-Christian context, often making it difficult to distinguish between Spanish-Christian and native ideals. Still, in most cases the community remained the locale of indigenous cultural practices and Mesoamericans vastly outnumbered Spaniards outside of cities, especially in southern Mexico. Therefore we can reasonably observe many indigenous patterns in the record that reflect native concepts and practices, particularly in regions where few Spaniards settled. Changes in ideology and social relations are less pronounced than changes in native governing institutions. I argue that it is possible to identify and trace patterns in indigenous gender relations and ideologies across the colonial period, aware that native cultures and value systems responded to dynamic, complex processes of change. Indeed, the same ideals and morals that were affirmed in formal speeches and life-cycle rituals were contested in household conflicts and disputes mediated by native and/or Spanish officials.

Since all the sources from this period were written by men, male perspectives color commentaries on society and gender in New Spain. Nevertheless, by reading these accounts critically, we can use them to reconstruct in part the roles and status of women. Even when shaped by colonial legal formulas, careful reading of the documents sheds light on gender relations and women’s legal and economic status. Women’s voices can be recovered in testaments, petitions, and testimonies from a variety of archival collections.4 Although we might expect that women in this period appealed to the patriarchal ideology of Spanish magistrates and priests, we see many examples of their assertion of gender rights and articulation of marital expectations that did not conform to the attitudes of colonial elites. I use thousands of observations drawn from incidental information, especially from criminal records, to discern patterns of labor, social networks, and gender dynamics. I have tried as much as possible to integrate these voices and insights into the text by using abundant examples and quotes.

The book’s title, The Woman Who Turned Into a Jaguar, is derived from a Zapotec man’s 1684 court testimony in which he tried to justify his assault on his wife that led to her death. His captivating tale of the nahualli (a person who has the ability to transform into an animal) transformation of his wife, discussed in Chapter 2, exemplifies the many types of surprises that historians find in the colonial record. It also reveals the persistence of indigenous concepts and practices one hundred and fifty years after the Spanish invasion and how documents generated in colonial courts can diverge significantly from legal formulas and the calculated strategies of Spanish lawyers. In this case, the Zapotec man’s testimony elicited scorn and skepticism from the Spanish judge, revealing a clash of worldviews between indigenous community members and colonial authorities that appears time and time again in the colonial record. Finally, the story offers a reminder that the perspectives of witnesses and authors shape testimonies, statements, and texts in the colonial archive.

Competing narratives in the historical record articulate different perspectives that confirm and contradict, complement and complicate, formal texts and prescriptions of gender roles and behavior. Many previous studies of native women in preconquest and colonial Mexico have turned first and foremost to prescriptive texts, such as speeches in the Florentine Codex; some do not venture far beyond these sources in their analysis. Such texts represent conservative, idealized roles that fail to provide a comprehensive view of women’s activities, and yet they still reveal values essential to reconstructing aspects of native ideology. Preconquest and colonial pictorial manuscripts provide another dimension to topics represented in the many genres of alphabetic writings.5 By reading a wide variety of sources, I have exposed certain biases and filled in gaps left by other records. Thus, archival documents, formal texts, and images, when read against each other, shed light on a range of views and conflicting perspectives of gender rights and obligations. The use of many different source types allows me to consider multiple criteria in the analysis of gender relations. I liken my methodology of integrating fragments of information from different perspectives to a woman’s work of spinning thread and weaving cloth. The sources are the raw materials, which I sort and spin into threads of evidence, and then weave into patterns that tell a coherent, complex story of indigenous women’s lives.6

This project has been informed by historiographical developments in two veins of colonial Mexican scholarship: women’s history and ethnohistory. Ethnohistorical, and especially indigenous-language based, studies have emphasized the complexity and diversity of Mesoamerican culture before and after the conquest and have revealed the many forms of adaptation that indigenous social and political structures underwent at the corporate community level under colonial rule, in the face of massive depopulation and Spanish demands for wealth and labor. I have been particularly influenced by the work of my mentor, James Lockhart, and his many collaborators and students who have used indigenous-language notarial records, including last wills and testaments, land titles, and election records, to reveal social categories, political structures, and modes of organization, and to show how Spaniards built upon preexisting indigenous institutions to establish colonial rule.7 I have also benefited from the studies of the evolution of Nahua cultural expression and language change through philological analyses of native-language annals, theater, speeches, and the like.8

In addition, this book has been shaped by the growing literature on women’s history and gender studies in pre-Hispanic and colonial Latin America. There is an impressive corpus on women, gender, and sexuality in Spanish America that, although mainly focused on Spanish and casta women, sheds light on gender ideology, marital relations, honor systems, and women’s economic activities and legal status.9 Studies using native-language archival records to examine the family and land tenure in sixteenth-century Mexico, sociopolitical organization, and other topics, broke new ground by documenting women’s agency.10 The work of scholars in art history, archaeology, and anthropology on women in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, and that of historians of sexuality in colonial Mexico have also helped me think through some of the complexities and ambiguities of gender ideology.11 The chapters of this book offer contributions to this rich scholarship in ethnohistory, women’s history, and gender and sexuality studies.


In an early seventeenth-century Nahuatl-language model dialogue intended for the instruction of friars in the art of Nahuatl rhetoric, the author includes the speech of an elder noblewoman (cihuapilli) who laments the collapse of the nobility, massive depopulation, and disruption to the social order brought about by Spanish colonial rule. She reminisces:

Back when I was growing up there was an infinite number of them [rulers and nobles]. And how many noble houses there were, the palaces of the former nobles and rulers! It was like one big palace. There were countless (minor) nobles and lesser relatives, and one could not count the commoners who were dependents, or the slaves; they were like ants. But now everywhere our Lord is destroying and reducing the land; we are coming to an end and disappearing.

In iquac nihualnozcali huel . . . centzontli; yhuan quezqui catca in tecpilcalli in intetecpan pipiltin tlatoque catca in iuh ce in tecpancalli, amo çan tlapohualtin tepilhuan in teixhuihuan catca: auh amo onmopohuaya in tetlan nenque macehualtin, noce in tlatlacotin; yuhquin tzicatl onoc. Auh in axcan ye nohuian motlalpolhuia motlalcanahuilia in totecuiyo ye tontlami ye tipolihui.12

Although the speech is rhetorical, it is not difficult to imagine Nahua elites, who saw their power, prestige, and wealth diminish under colonial rule, making such a profound statement. The cihuapilli goes on to recall the hierarchy of nobles who were clearly distinguished from commoners and slaves, and the many distinct peoples who lived in various city-states throughout the Valley of Mexico. She describes the gender-specific socialization and training of elite girls and boys educated by elder women and elder men, respectively, in temple schools. The ruling class, in her memory, maintained order by meting out harsh punishments for moral transgressions. The society that she remembers had clearly defined roles and places for nobles and commoners, men and women, and elders and youth.

The cihuapilli’s speech reveals the organizing principles of Mesoamerican societies and reflects some of the dramatic changes that marked the first century of colonial rule. Sedentary groups lived in densely populated states, called altepetl by the Nahua, ñuu by the Ñudzahui, and yetze by the Bènizàa, that were scattered across the hills and valleys of highland Mexico.13 The Ayuuk term is not yet known because these people used Nahuatl as a lingua franca during the colonial period and therefore adopted the term altepetl in their documents.14 The population of these states ranged from several hundred to tens of thousands. Mexico Tenochtitlan, the largest Nahua altepetl at the time of contact, had as many as 200,000 inhabitants. These Mesoamerican states shared a number of characteristics, including clearly defined borders; a ruling dynasty, defined elite, and social hierarchy; a tribute system; a sacred temple or natural feature that was home to the principal local deity (or deities); and a shared ethnic identity and belief in a common origin and history within each state.15 The peoples of highland Mexico practiced similar forms of pictorial writing and shared agricultural and ritual calendars.

There were other significant differences among the Mesoamerican peoples of highland Mexico. For example, although the Ñudzahui ñuu were structurally similar to the Nahua altepetl, the two developed unique governing institutions that are especially relevant to this study. Ñudzahui elites and commoners recognized both male and female rulers (masc. yya toniñe; fem. yya dzehe toniñe), whereas the Nahuas showed an overwhelming preference for male rulers (sing. tlatoani).16 The right to rule in the Mixteca was based on the principle of direct descent from a ruling male and female, with noble status outweighing considerations of gender. The term cihuatlatoani (female ruler) did exist in Nahuatl in the sixteenth century, but the rulership was held by a man at the time of conquest and, in any case, female rule was an exception and may have occurred only as a result of disruption in dynastic descent.17 The Bènizàa peoples also favored male rule, although the Zapotec language (Tíchazàa) also apparently included terms to designate female rulers, coquitao xonaxi, and noblewomen, coqui xonaxi or xonaxi xini joana.18

As suggested in the cihuapilli’s speech quoted previously, in addition to status differences, gender and age were fundamental social categories that shaped an individual’s roles and responsibilities. For example, participation in life-cycle and sacred rituals, tribute duties, and the division of labor were all determined by considerations of gender and age. In turn, gender and status were constructed through labor regimes, dress and adornment, and speech and gestures.

Spaniards gravitated toward the socially stratified and politically complex indigenous groups of highland Mexico who offered natural resources, material wealth, and labor. The Spanish-led conquest of Mexico Tenochtitlan in 1521 gave way to a protracted war in “New Spain” that lasted for decades. The conquest of the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca was complete by the 1530s; the Bènizàa, Ayuuk, and other groups in the Sierra Alta were not “pacified” until the 1550s.19

The political, religious, and economic institutions vital to sustaining Spanish rule were built on indigenous communities.20 In the immediate postconquest period, the tribute system of the altepetl, ñuu, or yetze formed the basis of the encomienda, a grant of tribute and labor given to a Spaniard (called an encomendero) as a reward for his participation in the conquest or his service to the crown. The encomienda became the principal tie between the native and European populations in the early colonial period. During the mid-sixteenth century, the cabildo, or Spanish-style town council, which was staffed by native noblemen, was established in the most prominent states of the region, which were designated cabeceras or “head towns” in the new administrative order. The cabildo provided some continuity in terms of the political authority of nobles, and it established a system of indirect rule. Each state was also designated a parish, and by the 1620s the largest and/or wealthiest states had monastery complexes, often built on the ruins of the preconquest ceremonial center.

As the cihuapilli’s speech suggests, contact with Europeans and Africans brought on waves of epidemics that decimated the indigenous populations of Mesoamerica. Labor abuses, the brutality of warfare, and disease reduced them by approximately 90 percent in the first century of colonial rule. It is important to note, however, that, despite this massive depopulation, the indigenous peoples constituted the majority of the population in New Spain throughout the colonial period.21 This incredible fact had implications for the possibility of indigenous cultural vitality across time.

More than any other native group in New Spain, the Nahuas of central Mexico came into immediate and sustained contact with Spaniards, most of whom settled among Nahuas in the Valley of Mexico and surrounding areas, where the prospects of profit were greatest, near trade routes that linked the mining regions of the north with the Atlantic port. In contrast, relatively few Spaniards went to more remote regions, such as Oaxaca. In the Mixteca Alta, for example, in the colonial jurisdiction of Teposcolula less than 5 percent of the total population was non-native by the end of the eighteenth century.22 In Villa Alta, the center of Spanish settlement in the Sierra Alta, there were only around a hundred and fifty Spaniards by the mid-eighteenth century.23 Many types of change resulted from the extent and nature of contact with the European population. Indigenous groups in regions where the Spanish presence was minimal were less affected over time than groups in central Mexico, especially the Basin of Mexico. Still, no group was immune from Spanish competition or influence.

Studies of indigenous societies under colonial rule have shown that managed change initiated by the Spaniards occurred mainly at the corporate level.24 Aside from dogged efforts to eliminate polygyny, Spaniards did not attempt to reorganize the native societies of central Mexico and Oaxaca at the household level—in reality, they could not have done so. People continued to live in nuclear or multifamily residences throughout the colonial period. Nor did Spaniards attempt to redefine social relations in the household. Women continued to own land, pay tribute, participate in the local economy, and possess legal status, although women’s status was certainly affected over time. Furthermore, Spaniards did not need to reorient the division of labor practiced by sedentary peoples of Mesoamerica as Europeans did among semisedentary and nonsedentary groups of northern Mexico and much of North America.25 The Mesoamerican division of labor in which men farmed and women wove cloth and carried out other activities, corresponded to European notions of appropriate gender roles. In fact, Spaniards profited by leaving the division of labor intact and by exploiting preexisting tribute mechanisms to extract wealth. The survival of fundamental aspects of social organization contributed to forms of indigenous cultural maintenance and recreation, even under the strains of colonial rule. I argue that Mesoamerican concepts of family, marital obligation, and sexuality exhibited remarkable continuity throughout the colonial period, even in areas of extensive contact with Spaniards. Over the course of several generations, Spanish gender systems, marital roles and expectations, and attitudes toward sex exerted a notable impact on native attitudes and practices, but the changes did not simply replace indigenous lifeways. Only after centuries of sustained interaction did changes in native values and gender relations become apparent, but they were often uneven and seldom comprehensive.


Many Mesoamerican groups possessed distinct responsibilities and privileges, yet not one was entirely independent or self-sufficient. Despite social differentiation and hierarchy, each group was recognized as an integral part of the whole. Power struggles and fissures erupted between and within groups, but social relations were articulated in idealized terms of reciprocity and complementarity. In other words, the distinct contributions of each group or individual were considered necessary for the survival of the community. Reciprocal exchange through feasting and tribute created balance and maintained cooperation across social boundaries. Although nobles enjoyed a privileged status, they were obligated to provide for commoners. Elders and youth were other interdependent, paired groups that performed distinct yet complementary roles in the ritual life of the community. The fundamental principles of reciprocity and complementarity, as well as hierarchy, also shaped gender relations in highland Mexico.

Scholars have used complementary to describe several cultural characteristics of Mesoamerica.26 In some contexts, the term refers to the combination of male and female traits in a single god or the pairing of male and female deities in Mesoamerican religion. This combination is sometimes discussed in terms of duality. Complementary also describes the way that men and women “completed” each other to achieve a certain status, such as adulthood, and it refers to the gendered tasks that men and women jointly performed to produce goods and services for the community. In this study, I use complementary (or complementarity) to describe a system in which men and women possessed distinct roles and responsibilities considered necessary for the well-being of their households and communities. Complementary social relations were naturalized and projected back into time immemorial through gendered mythologies of the deities. Susan Kellogg defines the concept concisely: “Complementary gender relations were frequently expressed through parallel structures of thought, language, and action in which males and females were conceived of and played different yet parallel and equally necessary roles.”27 These parallel structures are evident in Mesoamerican kinship systems, certain institutions, the division of labor, the socialization of children, cosmology, and the organization of ritual. Images drawn by native artists frequently depict men and women assembled in separate groups, like the image discussed in this chapter’s opening, graphically revealing how space and labor were conceived as parallel, gendered spheres.

In many cases, however, concepts of complementarity, duality, and parallelism failed to promote full equality between men and women and, in fact masked gender hierarchy, inequality, and difference. For example, males almost exclusively occupied the most visible positions of local authority in all regions considered here except the Mixteca. Family structure and the organization of labor also reflect a degree of male dominance. Throughout central Mexico and Oaxaca, most heads of household were male. Although their authority over the legal and economic matters of the adult members of the household was circumscribed, men appear to have organized the labor of other household members. The colonial record reveals numerous cases of violence against women in indigenous highland Mexican communities, in which hierarchies of status differentiated the experiences of the elite and commoners. Despite these findings, however, based on my analysis of a wide variety of sources from more than a hundred Mesoamerican communities, I do not accept the characterization of gender relations in Mesoamerica as patriarchal.28

Patriarchy is a system that clearly elevates men above women and invests political, social, and economic power in the hands of the eldest males of households. Although it has assumed many different forms in response to specific cultural and historical contexts, some of its general features include the following tendencies: deriving a woman’s social identity from her affiliation with the family patriarch, either her father or her husband; in the European context, investing authority in the eldest male; denying women independent legal status so that they cannot produce or witness legal documents or legally represent themselves in court; and denying women economic equality so that they cannot own property or carry out economic transactions without permission from a legal guardian (usually a husband or father). Evidence of these fundamental characteristics of patriarchy does not appear in the sources that I use to analyze Mesoamerican gender systems.

Finally, in some contexts gender had no bearing on one’s rights and responsibilities, especially in terms of legal status and economic activities. Community membership, either through birth or marriage, and adulthood—not gender—determined who had economic and civic rights and responsibilities. Thus, women, like their male counterparts, could hold land, order their own testaments, witness legal documents, initiate criminal and civil suits, and participate in local rituals. They also shared the obligations of paying tribute as required of all community members. In a more abstract sense, Mesoamericans did not make essentializing distinctions between male and female personality traits. Both men and women could be considered, for example, hard-working, capable, providers or dishonest, adulterous drunks. Mesoamericans believed that a person’s characteristics and fate were determined primarily by his or her date of birth, not biology.

Evidence of native women’s status and activities in central Mexico and Oaxaca that emerges in the data collected for this study suggests the existence of overlapping gender systems of complementarity (along with the related concepts of duality, parallelism, and segregation) and hierarchy. In certain legal and economic contexts, gender was not a determining factor in gaining access to resources or institutions. The competing dimensions and discrepancies in these ideologies defy simplification and point to openings for conflict over gender rights, obligations, and status.


The chapters of this book examine multiple themes that, when considered together, provide a balanced and complex view of gender relations in highland Mexico in colonial times. Chapter 2 draws on theories of the body, gender performativity, and dress to show how gender was inscribed on the body to create the appearance of difference, which in turn shaped all social relations. The chapter considers, on the one hand, the fluidity of the body and gender identity and, on the other hand, the rituals and daily practices that imposed a binary system of gender. I am especially interested in the cultural construction of gender and the ways in which complementarity and parallelism shaped daily interaction.

Chapters 3 and 4 explore interrelated themes concerning marriage, a nearly universal institution in native communities practiced by nobles and commoners alike. Chapter 3 analyzes betrothal and nuptial ceremonies and practices. It also considers how Spanish attempts to eradicate native practices of serial monogamy and polygyny, and to enforce Christian monogamous marriage, altered indigenous concepts and customs. Chapter 4 first analyzes the social, political, and economic significance of native marriage to shed light on marital expectations and obligations. It then examines marital conflicts and domestic violence that developed in failed relationships. Formal and informal attempts to resolve disputes illustrate cultural expectations and attitudes about one’s rights within a relationship. My analysis reveals a complex process of negotiation among husbands and wives, their households and social networks, and local native officials, in which women sometimes aired their grievances before the community. Spanish legal and ecclesiastic magistrates became involved in conflicts that turned extreme or violent, usually when a woman was beaten or killed.

Chapters 5 and 6 address sexuality. Chapter 5 examines indigenous sexual ideology and attitudes based on my analysis of Mesoamerican metaphors and symbols used to discuss and represent sexual matters. It also considers how Spanish friars adopted some of these indigenous concepts in their efforts to promote Christian morality and, in turn, how Spanish mores, Christian teaching, and colonial law affected native sexuality. Chapter 6 studies sexual crimes, including adultery and rape, and their prosecution in preconquest and colonial times. Adultery and rape were considered serious transgressions, and illicit sexuality was a central concern of indigenous moral teachings. My findings suggest that Spanish attitudes regarding virginity had very limited influence on indigenous values and customs in highland Mexico in the colonial period.

Chapters 7 and 8 reconstruct the organization of labor and the way that shared labor arrangements and other acts of sociability among households shaped community relations. Chapter 7 addresses the gendered division of labor in the household and in the community. I compare women’s daily activities as described in archival records with idealized descriptions of their lives in prescriptive texts from the period, revealing significant discrepancies between observed and prescribed behavior. Whereas idealized sources locate women’s work exclusively in the home, I show that women’s duties, including laundering, selling in markets, working in fields, and healing the sick, took them out of the household on a daily basis. I also demonstrate that men, especially artisans, frequently worked within the home. My discussion of work thus challenges the gendering of “public” and “private” space that is implied in prescriptive texts. In addition, I use descriptions of artisans and symbolic analysis of the goods that women produced to understand the value placed on women’s work. I also consider how increasing Spanish demands for labor and tribute and the development of a money economy shaped women’s roles and status.

Chapter 8 investigates household relations, focusing on family organization, ritual kinship, and residence patterns. My analysis of economic, ritual, and political activities carried out in the household advances arguments in Chapter 7 refuting assumptions of a strong division between public and private space. I argue that household and community were in fact two interrelated spheres. Because women’s work and activities were often conducted in the home, assessing the nature of household and family structure is essential for understanding the relative position of women in Mesoamerican societies. The chapter also examines how ritual kinship created multidimensional webs of relations among households and provided important social networks for women.

Chapter 9 studies women’s participation in public protests and acts of civil disobedience, including riots. I show how threats to the integrity of the household and community, including increased demands for tribute and labor, led men and women to seek legal redress, to protest, and at times to rebel against colonial authorities. Women often organized acts of resistance, such as refusing to pay tribute, and assumed leading roles in local riots. This chapter argues that women engaged in local political and economic struggles and that their defense of homes, communities, and allies reveals a broader consciousness among women that has not been explored in previous studies.

Chapter 10 reiterates the book’s major arguments and places the study’s contributions in the context of existing scholarship on Mesoamerican ethnohistory and women’s history. The chapter considers the evidence for both major changes and continuities in indigenous social and gender relations in rural communities of central Mexico and Oaxaca between 1500 and 1750, brought about by increasing contact with other cultures and institutions. Finally, I include a glossary of native- and Spanish-language terms used in the book.

Throughout, I use terms that the subjects of this study would use to describe themselves and their languages, as well as the names more commonly used in the literature: Nahua for the peoples of central Mexico who spoke Nahuatl; Ñudzahui for the peoples and language of the Mixteca Alta, also known as Mixtec; Bènizàa for the peoples of the Sierra Alta, commonly referred to as Zapotec, who spoke Tíchazàa; and Ayuuk for the people of the Sierra Alta, also called Mixe, who used Nahuatl as a lingua franca to write colonial documents. Men and women of highland Mexico most often would have referred to themselves as members of a particular community. For the sake of simplicity, I use placenames that are used today, aware that indigenous groups used (and in some cases continue to use) their own names in their own languages. At times I use native or indigenous to distinguish between the original individuals and groups of highland Mexico and the Spanish, African, and mixed-race populations. These distinctions were central to colonial legal, political, and economic institutions in Spanish America, as yndios and yndias were burdened with certain obligations, judged in special courts, restricted from various privileges, or designated to fill local offices, among other things.

I have reproduced many indigenous-language terms and passages in this work. All passages follow the original orthography, with spacing adjusted to grammatical norms established in the sixteenth century. Overbars and abbreviations are resolved, but no punctuation has been added to the original passages. I use italics for the first use of foreign-language terms in each chapter. When I use native-language transcriptions and translations that have been published by other scholars, I indicate this reproduction in the footnotes.


1. The literature on Maya women in preconquest and colonial times suggests that there were significant similarities and differences that merit further consideration. See especially Clendinnen 1982; Hunt and Restall 1997; Sigal 2000; Joyce 2000; Few 2002; and Komisaruk 2013.

2. The main exceptions are Cline 1986; Kellogg 1995, 2005; Schroeder, Wood, and Haskett 1997; Terraciano 2001.

3. Especially relevant to this work are Arrom 1985; Behar 1989; Boyer 1995; Gutiérrez 1991; Lavrin 1978a, 1978b, 1989a, 1989b, 2008; Seed 1988; Stern 1995; Twinam 1999.

4. Of course, historians must also consider the context in which archival sources were created in order to detect women’s voices from the historical record. For interesting discussions of the use of testaments for ethnohistory, see Kellogg and Restall 1998 and Christensen and Truitt 2016. See also Chaudhuri, Katz, and Perry’s 2010 collection on writing women’s history and Davis 1987 for a discussion of archival testimonies as narratives.

5. For an examination of the discrepancy between images of Nahua women performing rituals in pictorial manuscripts and discussions of their roles in alphabetic texts, see Brown 1983, who concludes that although women were often depicted participating in ceremonies, their roles were not elaborated in written texts.

6. Sousa 2010.

7. Lockhart 1982, 1991, esp. 1992; Lockhart, Berdan, and Anderson 1986; Anderson, Berdan, and Lockhart 1976; Cline 1986; Wood 1984, 2003; Schroeder 1991; Horn 1997; Haskett 1991a, 2005.

8. Lockhart 1981; Karttunen 1982, 1983; Karttunen and Lockhart 1976, 1978, 1980, 1987; Anderson 1997; Burkhart 1989; Sell and Burkhart 2004; Sell, Burkhart, and Poole 2006; Sell, Burkhart, and Wright 2008.

9. Many excellent works have been published since the 1970s, including Boyer 1995; Few 2002; Gauderman 2003; Gonzalbo Aizpuru 1991; Gonzalbo Aizpuru and Rabell Romero 1994, 1996; Lavrin 1978b; Lavrin 1989a; Lavrin 2008; Muriel 1982, 1992; Powers 2005; Seed 1988; Stern 1995; Silverblatt 1987; Twinam 1999.

10. For the Nahuas, see Cline 1986; Kellogg 1995; Schroeder, Wood, and Haskett 1997. For the Ñudzahui, see Terraciano 2001.

11. Most of the scholarship on women in pre-Hispanic Mexico focuses on the Maya and Nahua regions. See, for example, Dodds Pennock 2008; Klein 1994, 2000, 2001; McCafferty and McCafferty 1988, 1991; Joyce 2000; Rodríguez-Shadow 1997; Brumfiel 1991; Gero and Conkey 1991. For sexuality, see Lavrin 1989a; Olivier 2004; Sigal 2000, 2003, 2011.

12. Karttunen and Lockhart 1987, 146–147. (Here I rely on Karttunen and Lockhart’s translation and transcription).

13. For a description of Nahua sociopolitical organization, see Lockhart 1992 (esp. chap. 2); Haskett 1991a; Horn 1997. Terraciano 2001 (esp. chaps. 4, 6) discusses Ñudzahui sociopolitical structures. I have identified the yetze (or queche as spelled in Córdova and in documents from the Valley of Oaxaca) in a survey of Tíchazàa-language records from the Villa Alta jurisdiction. For more on colonial administrative jurisdictions, see Gerhard 1972.

14. For a discussion of Nahuatl as a lingua franca, especially in the south of Mesoamerica, see Dakin 1981, 1982, 2009. Terraciano examines the use of Nahuatl as a lingua franca and in the transition to Ñudzahui-language writing in Oaxaca (2001, 45–48).

15. Both the Nahua and Ñudzahui states, altepetl and ñuu, respectively, were further subdivided into constituent parts that rotated responsibilities and privileges associated with the ethnic state. Sometimes two or more Nahua altepetl and Ñudzahui ñuu were unified through conquest, intermarriage among ruling elites, or military alliances to form complex states. In some instances, many of the small local kingdoms of highland Mexico formed larger confederations, which sometimes reached the proportion of “empires.” Because Sierra Zapotec sociopolitical organization is less understood at this time, it is unclear whether the yetze was subdivided or whether multiple yetze could be combined to form more complex units. Michel Oudijk suggests that because the Bènizàa had recently migrated into the Sierra Alta, perhaps only fifty-two or fewer years prior to the conquest, they had yet to form large lordly establishments or develop elaborate systems of marriage alliance and state formation (2000, 224–225). Still less is known of the internal complexity of Ayuuk sociopolitical organization.

16. See Alvarado for the Ñudzahui (1962 [1593], fol. 188v) and Molina for the Nahuatl (1992 [1571], fol. 140v, Nahuatl to Spanish (N–S)). Also see Terraciano 2001 for a comparison of Nahua and Ñudzahui ruling traditions (165–169).

17. Gillespie 1989; Schroeder 1992.

18. Córdova 1987a, fol. 377. The general term for a male ruler was coquitao and for a male noble was coqui or joana in Tíchazàa. Oudijk notes that the glosses on the Lienzo of Tabaá, a colonial pictorial history and map painted on cloth, identifies the male rulers as coque and their wives as xonaxi (2000, 186).

19. Terraciano 2001, 3; Chance 1989, 16.

20. Lockhart 1992; Haskett 1991a; Horn 1997a; Terraciano 2001.

21. Lockhart and Schwartz 1983, 342.

22. Terraciano 2001, 3.

23. Chance 1989, 35.

24. Gibson 1952, 1964; Haskett 1991a; Lockhart 1992; Horn 1997a; Restall 1997; Terraciano 2001.

25. Rothenberg 1980; Deeds 1997.

26. For more on this discussion, see Monaghan 2001, 287.

27. Kellogg 1997, 125.

28. For the emergence of this debate, see Nash 1978, 1980, and McCafferty and McCafferty 1988. See also MacLachlan 1976.