Latin American Studies The Indigenous Population and Justice System in Central Mexico and Oaxaca
Ethelia Ruiz Medrano
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 May 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0106


The forms of justice that the colonial authorities applied to the Indians reflect the distinct contours of peninsular history. Castilian law had been deeply influenced by both Roman law and the law of medieval Europe, as reflected in the Siete Partidas in particular. The Spanish had evolved a flexible judicial system notable—since before the conquest—for incorporating alien cultural elements, especially from the Moors and Jews who had lived in the territories that made up the Kingdom of Castile. In this sense Woodrow Borah’s work Justice by Insurance: The General Indian Court of Colonial Mexico and the Legal Aides of the Half-Real (Borah 1983, cited under Colonial Mexico) offers an important legal overview of how the colonial justice system applied to indigenous people of New Spain. Recently some specialists have shown that indigenous traditional practices and customs worked their way into the colonial justice system, demonstrating that native populations also participated actively in shaping the apparatus of justice in the Indies. This process of mutual accommodation required certain things from the Indians. In the first instance, to engage the civil and judicial authorities entailed the adoption, on their part, of a posture of respectfulness. In addition, they necessarily had to take an interest in learning how the technicalities of the Spanish legal system might be employed to their advantage and how to protect themselves from the weaknesses of their own legal position. In the 16th century, apart from a small number of isolated cases, the Indian communities never openly rebelled against the colonial authority. Such narrow spaces for negotiation as were open to them, the courts being a prime example, afforded the Indians some release from the psychological pressures and social tensions they were subjected to, arising from the oppressive conditions they lived under as a result of Spanish domination. Understandably, they used every tactic possible to wring favors out of this legal space for negotiation, a key concept that has been employed in the 21st century by very few specialists studying New Spain’s indigenous colonial population, including Ethelia Ruiz Medrano and Susan Kellogg in their work Negotiation with Domination: Colonial New Spain’s Indian Pueblos Confront the Spanish State (see Ruiz Medrano and Kellogg 2010, cited under Relations with the Spanish Population and Administration) and Ruiz Medrano 2011 (cited under Colonial Mexico). Through this analysis we can better understand that the justice colonial system brought permanent change to most colonial indigenous communities. As Susan Kellogg’s Law and the Transformation of Aztec Culture, 1500–1700 (Kellogg 1995, cited under History and Philology) has demonstrated, through the analysis of numerous Indian trials, the legal system served as an important mechanism for transforming Nahua society, which eventually altered its concepts of gender, inheritance, genealogy, and more.

Justice before the European Conquest

To know and understand how the system of justice worked in Mesoamerica prior to the Spanish Conquest is a very complex undertaking; understanding this system is made even more difficult by the fact that the system undoubtedly varied in its application from region to region. And in this sense we have more information about what we can understand as a system of justice from the Nahua of central Mexico. Another important problem is that we know much more about the colonial indigenous justice system (especially because of the abundant written sources) than we know about the precolonial justice system in Mesoamerica. From the foregoing, an interesting fact or distinction emerges; namely, that members of the nobility were tried in a different venue from the rest of native society, and in all judicial affairs the nobility were judged solely by other nobles. In contrast, disputes among commoners were resolved by judges of lesser rank. In this world, apparently, justice was differentiated on the basis of social class, a state of affairs that, as will be seen, would change during the colonial period. Judging from the works under Primary Sources it seems a special court existed in the royal sanctum to hear testimony regarding “criminal activities”: this court was called tlacxitlan, a term that means “beneath, or at the foot of” something, perhaps signifying in this context that those asking for justice are reaching up to a higher power from a low position. In this court were encountered “the oidores, or lord judges, and chief nobles” who had the responsibility of judging criminals and—should they choose—of sentencing them to death, which could be carried out in a number of different ways. Or, by their verdict, the guilty might instead be banished or imprisoned; the court decisions that the nobles made apparently also included granting freedom to slaves. It is interesting to note in this description that the Indian judges were nobles who possessed the authority to hand down harsh judgments—even the authority to impose, for example, a public death by stoning—against other persons who belonged to the same class; in this court, evidently, the only people who were tried and faced judgment were those who belonged to the nobility (see Dibble and Anderson 1950–1982, cited under Primary Sources). To act as judges, then, the tlatoani appointed nobles as well as non-nobles who had distinguished themselves in war and in capturing slaves. They also appointed people who had been educated in the schools run by priests and who had acquired learning and displayed the ability to listen and to express themselves intelligently. These appointees also possessed good memories, were not given to drunkenness, and upheld the honor of their family line (see Dibble and Anderson 1950–1982, cited under Primary Sources). It was only in exceptional cases, involving difficult disputes, that the tlatoani reviewed the testimony and—in consultation with some of the judges—rendered the verdict himself. From the available evidence, then, it is clear that justice in pre-conquest Mesoamerica was administered through a complex system grounded in the organization of the various altepetl, which controlled the greater part of this region (Mexico-Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan). At the same time, local differences undoubtedly existed within the general scheme.

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