Puebla, the Spanish and Indian Republic of Los Angeles

Puebla de los Angeles was initially conceived as a repiiblica de espanoles, a city reserved for a Spanish and criollo population, which became a regional urban node concentrating the colonial political, cultural, and religious influence exerted over the Indigenous population in the region. In every way, this is a fitting description for Puebla de los Angeles. However, at the same time, it is necessary to place and give credit to the enormous importance that the urban Indigenous communities had in the City of Puebla, given that they shaped the city as much as the Spanish community did and were also just as responsible for the city’s success. Given this, it is fair to say that the City of Puebla de los Angeles was, in reality, a republica de espanoles and a series of repiiblicas de indios coexisting within the same urban layout.

As a civitas - a gathering of citizens with a series of institutions and corporations representing them - Puebla was many repiiblicas in one. Simultaneously, urbs - an urban material fabric, including its urban form - was one single entity where a series of civitas or repiiblicas coexisted; however, not in equal terms or on equal grounds. This condition goes well beyond the repiiblica de indios - repiiblica de espanoles binary. At the very least, it proves that those labels were useful in describing a form of judicial and political model, as they were both based on an elected ruling cabildo that administered judicial, financial, and political decisions. However, it also proves that this paradigm was relatively ineffective in achieving a segregationist model, which was another of its objectives. Despite the coexistence of both models within the same urban agglomeration, the Spanish elite occupied the top of the social pyramid, and geographically speaking, they occupied the central part of the urban layout. In contrast, the bulk of the Indigenous population occupied the peripheries. Although, as the city’s history progressed, this condition became porous, as we find Spaniards and criollos living in traditionally Indigenous barrios, or mestizos (those of mixed race) living in the spaces reserved for the Spanish and criollos.

The history of the urban Indigenous communities of Puebla begins with the choice of the site for the city, given that, as mentioned earlier, negotiations occurred with the most important Indigenous fiefdoms to proceed to occupy the site for permanent settlement. With the city founded and when Juan de Salmeron granted Puebla’s Spanish settlers the benefit of encomienda or native labor to attract more Spanish settlers to the new foundation, negotiations with the repiiblicas de indios took place on December 5, 1532, to agree on the terms for the encomienda. Initially, the agreements (signed with the guardianes or representatives of the Franciscan monasteries of Cholula, Tlaxcala, Huejotzingo, and Tepeaca as witnesses) specified that labor was to be provided in exchange for waiving tributes paid in kind, specifically the payment of maize.68

As a result of those negotiations, groups of young native men from different Indigenous towns and villages in the region would travel to Puebla weekly, remain in the city performing work (mostly related to construction) during the week, and travel back to their hometowns on the weekends. Provisions allowed for temporary housing in the city’s peripheries for those waves of weekly labor. Eventually, however, those lodgings became permanent, as Indigenous people decided to migrate to the city and settle in it. Additionally, once the encomienda agreements concluded after some years, it was agreed that the Spanish who desired to contract labor from the Indigenous workforce would have to provide a salary. For this reason, for many native families at that point, migrating to Puebla became an attractive alternative.

Toward 1540, the Indigenous communities had congregated around three parishes administered by mendicant orders. The barrio of El Alto congregated around the Franciscan monastery located on the eastern bank of the San Francisco River, which was populated by Tlaxcalans; the barrio of Santiago, in the southwestern sector of the town, was populated by Cholulans; and the barrio of San Pablo, in the northwestern sector, was populated by Texcocans and Tlatelolcans. Although the term barrio, a Spanish-language word, is employed to designate these sociopolitical units, in reality, what lay behind the Indigenous barrios was a hybrid or syntactic concept of political-social order. Before the Europeans arrived in the Mexican heartland, Indigenous urban settlements were characterized by what scholars have defined with the concept of the altepetl, a Nahua ethnic state. Although it is impossible to summarize the pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican urban tradition herein, it is worth discussing, albeit briefly, the concept of urbanity in a native culture representative of today’s central Mexico: the Nahua culture. The Nahuas, who made up the bulk of Puebla’s Indigenous presence during the sixteenth century, possessed a sense of landscape and territoriality that differed significantly from that of Europeans. First, the territorial-community unit that defined an urban center was the altepetl, the guiding concept of Nahua territoriality, distinguished and defined by its community organization forms.

The altepetl

The altepetl was constituted, according to Bernal Garcia and Garcia Zambrano, by a series of elements. First, by a territorial or urban unit, then by a series of institutions that guaranteed said unit’s existence, and finally, by having a ruler of lineage or a tlatoani. On the other hand, it also required an architectural or essential infrastructural core, constituted in its simplest elements by the temple or teocalli, the palace or tecpan, and even the market or tianquiztli. The altepetl as a communal settlement was, in turn, divided into neighborhoods or calpolli (also identified as tlaxilacallis by scholar Luis Reyes), which were, effectively, reflections or “microcosms” of the altepetl itself and provided the altepetl with tribute and labor.69

In this way and taking the altepeme (the plural form of altepetl) as urban- community units of different sizes, populations, and extensions, the main difference between European, sixteenth-century urbanism and the Nahua conception of urban settlements is mainly contained in two ideas. On the one hand, the porous and fluid character of what constituted the geographical boundaries of an altepetl, which, although they held within their limits (as mentioned, made up of the teocalli, the tecpan, and the tianquiztli), the residential areas or calpollis were more difficult to define or understand from a Western understanding of urbanism. The calpolli can be identified in contemporary terms as residential settlements of low population density that were more rural than urban. They were more rural because the residential units had farmland that surrounded them, lacking a grouping pattern, unlike the urban traces that the Spaniards employed in their urban foundations, where the residential units were arranged densely in clearly defined plots within an urban trace.

The second element that differentiated the concept of Nahua urbanism from the European conception was the intimate relationship that the altepeme established with the landscape in which they settled and that surrounded them, namely, hills, mountains, mounds, trees, streams, rivers, and any other bodies of water. The altepetl’s resources did not merely fulfill the purpose of satisfying material needs, in other words, natural resources did not exist only to be exploited for the benefit of a community. Instead, the topographic and geographical elements constituted the mythical-religious sources that informed the urban-architectural configuration of an altepetl and its location. Further, the symbols that were taken from the landscape provided meaning and continuation to the cosmological vision of the alte- petl’s inhabitants. It is fundamental to note that the altepetl had its conceptual equivalents - not exact translations, but very close in definition - in other Mesoamerican cultures such as the Totonac, Zapotec, Mayan, Huastec, Mixe-Zoque, and others.70 The Nahua and different Mesoamerican cultures had points in common regarding the worship of the landscape - for instance, the conception of topographic elements and cosmogony that divided the universe, both physical and mythological, into simple geometric elements, namely, the notion of the world’s four directions as well as the center as a geometric position (which referred to the central axis of the universe, conceived as a mountain or sacred hill) and mythological-geometric elements such as the columns of the universe. Together, these elements fed the Nahua cosmogony and other Mesoamerican cultures and informed urban and architectural decisions.71

However, the introduction of European urban traditions inevitably caused the dramatic transformation of Indigenous urban and architectural understandings and practices. In this way, their notions of space and territoriality and the intimate relationships they established with the landscape and territory sometimes completely collapsed or were dramatically altered. In either case, the introduction of European ideas related to space and time evidences the dramatic alteration of the Mesoamerican cultures’ cosmological vision at the time of contact with Europeans.

 
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