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Justice as Checks and Balances: Indigenous Claims in the Courts of Colonial Mexico

January 31, 2020 - 12:30pm to 1:20pm
Bolivar House, 582 Alvarado Row, Stanford, CA


Why did colonial powers establish courts to address Indigenous grievances? Under which conditions did these rulers decide to rule in favor of Indigenous claimants, even at the expense of their own state agents? This paper addresses these questions by studying the legal battles between Indigenous communities, Spanish settlers, and local bureaucrats in the General Indian Court of colonial Mexico (GIC). Vivanco will apply an existing framework developed in the judicial politics literature to understand how the Spanish Crown allowed, and even encouraged, the Indigenous population to raise claims against local bureaucrats. Moreover, he will offer a theoretical contribution to this literature by defining the scope conditions under which autocratic regimes might also use the judicial system to constrain local elites. To further explore the decision-making process of this colonial court, he developed a model that predicts that the GIC offered favorable rulings to Indigenous claimants in a strategic way. He predicts that a favorable ruling was more likely in cases that involved colonial agents, were related to land invasions or physical abuses, and originated from areas where local elite power was high and Indigenous population more vulnerable. He provides empirical evidence of the strategic use of the colonial court using a mixed-methods approach including paleographic transcriptions, human coding, and text analysis of a novel dataset of more than 30,000 judicial claims. These results have implications for our understanding of both the development of Indigenous legal autonomy in colonial history and for the more general strategic development of judicial power in autocracies. One plausible, yet controversial, implication is that Indigenous communities had more tools to resist oppression during the colonial period than following the rise of the nation-state.

Edgar Franco Vivanco is an NCID and MIDAS postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan. His research agenda explores how colonial era institutions and contemporary criminal violence shape economic under-performance, particularly within Latin America. Using a multi-method approach which combines statistical analysis, archival research, GIS, text analysis, machine learning, and survey experiments, his historical work examines the strategies that Indigenous communities have used to survive colonial rule. These strategies range from violent collective action to active collaboration, and from voluntary isolation to cultural assimilation. Edgar is preparing a book manuscript based on this research agenda. His research on modern-day violence in Latin America examines the different ways that criminal groups interact with the state and society, as well as how they respond to police interventions. Edgar holds a PhD in Political Science at Stanford University and an MA in Public Policy and Educational Policy from Stanford. During 2018-19, he was a pre-doctoral fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL). Edgar is a collaborator with the Poverty, Governance, and Violence Lab at Stanford University, and with the Digging Early Colonial Mexico project at the University of Lancaster.


Event Sponsor: 
Center for Latin American Studies
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