Law, Land, and Legal Rhetoric in Colonial New Spain
A Look at the Changing Rhetoric of Indigenous Americans in the Sixteenth Century
This chapter examines the changing legal rhetoric of an indigenous community as it sought to assert land claims during the sixteenth century in the colonial Spanish courts. The community that I examine, Tlaxcala, became frustrated by the behavior of a handful of Spanish settlers, and sued to evict them from their province. Concurrent with their court case, the native leaders petitioned the Crown to issue royal mandates on their behalf. To effectively assert their legal and political agenda, Tlaxcalans accessed Castilian rhetoric. They adopted it to their own purposes, and adjusted their arguments to the changing political milieu of the empire. Although one cannot neatly fit the legal rhetoric of the Tlaxcalans into rigid stages or boxes, three identifiable strategies are evident in their petitions and court cases. First, immediately following the conquest, the native elite relied on the rhetoric of loyal service and noble subjects. By mid-century, the rhetoric of loyal service gave way to a second rhetoric which appealed to Castilian notions of good government or buen gobierno. Finally, toward the end of the sixteenth century, arguments of buen gobierno were replaced by arguments regarding the misery and suffering of the common native population. Through their strategic legal and political activities, the Tlaxcalans effectively preserved much of their lands and natural resources.
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