In many records of colonial Mexico, the terms república de indios (republic of Indians) and república de españoles (republic of Spaniards) appear with great frequency, often in legal and social contexts that assume two self-contained and fully segregated social or territorial units, one populated by Indians, the other by Spaniards, mestizos, Africans, criollos, and other non-Indian subjects. However, the various social, economic, and political practices recorded in colonial documents suggest that, while initially these two terms referred to two highly differentiated groups of people, by late colonial times this differentiation had been lessened in some domains (large settlements and their neighboring areas) and increased in others (in frontier regions and geographically isolated communities). Therefore, the term repúlica de indios should be regarded as a bureaucratic concept for a set of legal dispositions-not always coherent with social realities—through which the Spanish Crown attempted to maintain a politically expedient territorial, legal, and social division between indigenous and nonindigenous peoples.
Fundamental Traits of the República de Indios
The scholar David Brading has pointed out that, in his 1516 Memorial, that Bartolomé de Las Casas presciently argued for the major social and political features that came to characterize the pueblo de indios (town of Indians): segregated indigenous villages directly controlled by Crown officials, with a church and a hospital governed by a qualified priest, and a population subject to rotating, periodical labor obligations related to community needs and to labor-intensive colonial enterprises such as mining and manufacture. To this general framework, one should add land-tenure laws that restricted the sale of indigenous communal or private land to vecinos (non-Indian subjects), and land-tenure patterns that emphasized communal landholdings but allowed elites and influential Indian townspeople to usufruct some portions of land (i.e., to enjoy the fruits of another’s possession). The Indian community could be a cabecera (the head of the smallest colonial administrative unit) or a sujeto (a dependency). Cabeceras had a resident priest who managed the doctrinal education, mass, and public registers and visited the sujetos periodically.
Indigenous people were accorded a separate status in legal and religious terms from that of all other colonial subjects. The rationale for this division rested on several factors. The rational and moral capacities of Indians as human beings were doubted by the theologian Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, defended by Las Casas, and eventually acknowledged by the Vatican; as colonial subjects, Indians were regarded as vulnerable and accorded the status of minors under the protection of the Crown; as new Christians, Indians were expected to falter in some observances of the faith. In the first half of the sixteenth century, before the dual legal spheres were formalized, Spanish law treated Indians as jurisdictional subjects: they filed suits in the Royal Audiencia and were tried and punished for idolatry, sorcery, and apostasy by apostolic inquisitors Martín de Valencia in Tlaxcala, Bishop Juan de Zumárraga and Visitador Tello de Sandoval in Nahua central Mexico and Oaxaca, and Diego de Landa in Yucatán.