K. Aaron Van Oosterhout

“Scrambled Indians”: Race, Identity, and Rebellion in 19th-Century Western Mexico

While much scholarly attention has been paid to the social mobility of people of color through “passing” (whether for mestizo or white), little is known of its parallel process in nineteenth-century Mexico: indianización. Rather than adopting the customs and characteristics of the dominant social class, many people of mixed African-European-indigenous descent violently fought for indio status, especially when this privileged ethnic distinction came under attack by Liberal reformers in the mid 1800s.

This paper examines the ideological and social underpinnings of the Conservative rebellion that swept western Mexico from 1854 to 1873. To outside observers, this uprising bore all the trappings of Indian revolt. After a Liberal cadre took power of the Mexican state in 1854 and prohibited communal landownership, rebel leader Manuel Lozada refashioned the region under his control—a frontier zone northwest of Guadalajara—as an “Indian” haven. He assembled commissions designed to protect plots held in common by indigenous communities; raided haciendas and expropriated disputed territory; and named his new state “Nayarit” after the nearby highlands inhabited by Cora and Huichol Indians.

What observers and even Lozada failed to acknowledge, however, was that Indians were considered extinct in this region only half a century before. War and disease had decimated the indigenous population within a few decades after conquistadors’ arrival in the 1520s. By the mid sixteenth century Spanish entrepreneurs were bringing Africans to the region to replenish the workforce, and people of African descent soon formed the majority of the frontier population. By 1814, one priest near Lozada’s future headquarters complained there were no longer any “pure” Indians living in his parish, only those “scrambled with mulattoes and Spaniards.”

In spite of this demographic shift, the frontier retained an “Indian” structure throughout the colonial period. Pueblos de indios, those institutions designed to contain indigenous populations and streamline tribute collection, did not give way to ethnically indistinct hacienda settlements or military presidios. On the contrary, descendants of slaves and other settlers freely joined dwindling indigenous reductions and kept them alive. Many were drawn by the privileges these communities offered: inalienable communal land and largely independent governance. But the concession colonial authorities granted to frontereños with the most profound impact on daily life was authority over Catholic property and worship. By the eighteenth century a spiritual economy had developed along the frontier, in which support for the priest was exchanged for control over the spending of Church funds. Even as clergy attempted to rein in certain unorthodox practices, this spiritual economy sanctified each community’s particular devotion and means of worship.

In the colony’s twilight years, however, the relationship between frontereños and civil and religious authorities changed dramatically. Instead of an integral cog in the colonial machine, frontier pueblos became a liability. Religious authorities began to view local management of Church funds as financially non-viable, and instituted austerity measures. Priests regained control over church funds, prohibiting loans and restraining social activities, suppressing “indecent” displays and drunken celebrations. Civil authorities viewed frontereños’ independence as a threat to the colonial order and arrested and exiled dozens of town leaders.

Moreover, both Church and State continued to strip away these pueblos’ rights and privileges into the independence period and beyond. As religious and civil leaders maneuvered for position in the nascent Republic, frontereños bore the strain. Political instability offered numerous openings to disaffected groups in the region, who glommed onto regional and national rebellions. Lawlessness and banditry on the frontier thrived in an environment of insecurity and, in a violent cycle, justified further uprisings and coups d’état. When Manuel Lozada emerged, offering a return to communal landownership and local control of religious worship, dozens of frontier towns contributed fighters to restore “Indian” status. The transition from African to Indian here coalesced as much around the legal codes and privileges that defined pueblo status, as the religious and social traditions of the peoples who populated these towns.

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