The altepetl as a social model for the Indigenous barrios in Puebla de Los Angeles

When Indigenous communities settled permanently within Puebla’s urban layout or traza, as the Spaniards termed it, they reproduced many of their cultural traditions associated with the notion of the altepetl within the republica de indios paradigm, that is, the judicial and political system that allowed a community to self-rule through the figure of the cabildo. In effect, in official Spanish documents of the period, the three initial native urban settlements in Puebla - namely, San Francisco (eventually known as El Alto), Santiago, and San Pablo - are identified as barrios. In contrast, the Indigenous documents, in turn, referred to them as altepetls or altepeme.72 Being recognized as an altepetl incorporated a certain level of self-governance regarding political, financial, and judicial objectives. Thus, each barrio or altepetl administered a series of calpollis. These communal units made up the altepetl, with each calpolli in turn standing apart from others in terms of kinship, place of origin, or other significant forms of allegiance.

In Puebla, each altepetl or barrio fell under the care of a mendicant order (El Alto to the Franciscans, Santiago to the Augustinians, and San Pablo to the Dominicans), which also corresponded to each order’s localization of their monastic complexes within the city. In the City of Puebla’s council minutes, the earliest mention of the official agreement to allow Indigenous people to settle within the urban traza dates from 1539 when the cabildo officially agreed to grant native settlers plots of land of 12 by 18 varas, or roughly 14.4 by 21.5 m. These were significantly smaller than the 50 by 50 vara plots (42 by 42 m) that Spanish settlers received.7’ All in all, however, it is also important to note how the repiiblicas de indios, understood as self- governing or semiautonomous political units, did not reach that status of self-governance until decades after the founding of the City of Puebla. When the settlements became permanent barrios, each one was administered by a cacique indio, a term employed to refer to a figure of authority. However, the republica de indios was not officially or judicially in effect, as cabildos were not being constituted nor were the inhabitants of the altepeme able to freely elect their alcaldes or magistrates.

Instead, the republica de indios and its realization follow this timeline: In 1539, we see the city council granting land plots to Indigenous settlers, and in 1552, the city’s alguacial mayor or city constable named the first alguac- iles indios, who carried out the duties of assistant constables. However, these men were not chosen by their communities, and the Spaniards effectively controlled the city’s judicial system. In 1561, the city council elected the first alcalde indio or native magistrate, and the following year, magistrates for each barrio were selected by the city council. It was not until 1601 that the republica de indios effectively materialized, as a native gobernador and a magistrate for each Indigenous barrio were elected. The gobernador oversaw the three magistrates’ work, who oversaw all the financial, judicial, and political matters involving the barrios.74

Furthermore, by the second half of the sixteenth century, the ethnic makeup of the City of Puebla de los Angeles became more sophisticated due to the presence of the African community, made up of people brought from Africa as slaves to New Spain, and which, in Puebla, reached an approximate number of 300 by 1550. The city’s elite employed members of the Black community, whether in civil or religious households, as servants and for management positions on haciendas (large, agricultural, and livestock- producing estates) or in obrajes (factories), living for the most part in the European part of the traza and prohibited from living in the Indigenous barrios.75

As the various ethnic groups that cohabited in Puebla came to solidify an urban culture and a more defined society, it is also imperative to underline that miscegenation became the norm, not just in terms of ethnicity but also in terms of cultural practices. As early as the sixteenth century, the segregationist efforts to divide the city into precincts or districts became all the vaguer and more fluid, and, at that point, poblano (Pueblan) society mostly became a mestizo one in all senses of the term.

 
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