Agrarian Rebellion and Defense of Community: Meaning and Collective Violence in Late Colonial and Independence-Era Mexico

Article excerpt

Riot at Atlacomulco

On the evening of 1 November 1810--All Saints Day--a riotous crowd in the village of Atlacomulco, in the Toluca area about sixty miles to the northwest of Mexico City, attacked the home of don Romualdo Magdaleno Diez, a local peninsular-born Spanish merchant and landowner.(1) Magdaleno Diez himself, along with his Spanish-born estate administrator, was killed by the mob in the action of that evening, and his son and son-in-law executed the following day in the town square and cemetery. The riot was fuelled at least in part by widely current rumors that an army of gachupines (European-born Spaniards) was advancing on the town to slaughter its non-European inhabitants, and that the baker in Magdaleno Diez's employ had at his master's command poisoned the bread he was making that evening.(2)

According to a number of witnesses (including don Romualdo's wife and adult daughters, left virtually destitute in the aftermath of the attack) the ethnically mixed crowd of local Indian peasants and mestizo townsmen had advanced on the Magdaleno Diez home from the village plaza at about 8 p.m. that evening, throwing stones when in sight of the house ". . . with the greatest fury, and to such an extreme that [the stones] appeared [to fall] like hail." Despite entreaties to reason by the family and servants, the rioters quickly smashed down the doors with axes and entered the courtyard, where they encountered don Romualdo holding a rosary and a prayer-book. The unfortunate man was seized immediately by a number of hands in the crowd, and dispatched with a lance-thrust which drenched his now-hysterical youngest daughter in her father's blood. As don Romualdo slumped to the ground mortally wounded, members of the crowd attacked him with stones and clubs. His eldest daughter

. . . saw her father fall to the ground, and so many [men] throw themselves on him that she could distinguish none of them; but she did see that they gave him so many wounds, and so many blows with sticks and stones, leaving him covered with stones, that they left him in a wretched condition, almost unrecognizable (casi sin figura corporal).

His son Jose Antonio, seeing he could do nothing to aid his father, ran from the house toward the home of the village priest, seeking sanctuary while brandishing a passport or safe-conduct from Father Miguel Hidalgo (the nominal leader of the anti-Spanish rebellion which had just six weeks before engulfed central Mexico).(3) His flight availed him nothing, however, since a number of the pursuing rioters caught up with him near the plaza and wounded him gravely even while he clutched the knees of the local vicar, imploring his protection. The next day Jose Antonio and his Spanish-born brother-in-law were dragged from the town jail where they had spent the night (the son by this time nearly dead from his untreated wounds) and executed by a large crowd of Indian villagers from the neighboring hamlet of San Juan de los Jarros.

The fearful violence directed against Romualdo Magdaleno Diez and his household may have been spontaneous in the sense that it was unexpected, but it certainly did not spring out of a social vacuum. For more than three decades before 1810 the relationship of Magdaleno Diez with local villagers had been one of almost unrelieved antagonism, chiefly over the issue of land ownership. Arriving in the district in the early 1770s or so, don Romualdo had purchased his first hacienda by 1776, and was subsequently to buy other property. He certainly appears to have been one of the most aggressive and grasping of local hacendados (estate owners), enclosing and engrossing land, manipulating local politics and justice to favor his own economic interests, and even turning to extra-judicial violence when formal institutional means failed or moved too slowly to suit him.(4)

Yet in these practices and in his habitual conflict with local Indian peasants and other landowners he was by no means alone. …