Velasco Murillo on Corbeil, 'The Motions Beneath: Indigenous Migrants on the Urban Frontier of New Spain'

Laurent Corbeil
Dana Velasco Murillo

Laurent Corbeil. The Motions Beneath: Indigenous Migrants on the Urban Frontier of New Spain. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018. 288 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8165-3765-5.

Reviewed by Dana Velasco Murillo (University of California, San Diego) Published on H-LatAm (January, 2020) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

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The end of the sixteenth century, with a few exceptions, witnessed the founding of the majority of New Spain’s silver mining towns. Of these, several key sites developed into the colony’s most significant urban centers. In Mexico’s near northern central highlands, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and San Luis Potosí became regional poles. Their money economies and freedom from some of the most onerous burdens of colonial rule drew large numbers of indigenous migrants who provided the backbone of the labor force of the mining and municipal economies. But indigenous peoples were far from simply workers. Recent scholarship has illustrated the extent of the indigenous footprint in the urban fabric, undermining the paradigm of the “Spanish” city. Laurent Corbeil’s The Motions Beneath: Indigenous Migrants on the Urban Frontier of New Spain offers a fine case study of the role of native peoples in the development of urban life in San Luis Potosí.

Corbeil’s work is a social and ethno microhistory of indigenous San Luis Potosí in its first forty years, roughly 1591 to 1630, as the site developed from state-sponsored indigenous settlements to a thriving commercial and administrative hub. The book mainly focuses on the first twenty years (1590-1610), a period that provides insight into the daily experiences, the personal relationships, and the social ties of the first generation of immigrants. The waning of the Chichimeca War (1586-90) brought ore-rich lands traditionally held by the region’s autochthonous peoples, Zacatecos, Guachichiles, and Tepehuanes, into the Spanish orbit. By the early 1590s, as Chichimeca peoples involved themselves in their own postwar reconstruction efforts on reducciones, or resettlement communities, indigenous immigrants from all over New Spain arrived in San Luis Potosí and its hinterland, seeking out new opportunities in what was then a small fledgling frontier town.

Corbeil’s work on this multicultural population is a welcome contribution to the ethnohistorical field. In kind with other mining towns, Spanish protagonists and the mining complex have received the bulk of the scholarly attention on San Luis Potosí.[1] But this region also has been dominated by studies on the state-sponsored migration of groups of Tlaxcalans to the area, according them an inflated influence on the development of this frontier zone.[2] Corbeil’s study highlights the prominence of other ethnic groups, particularly Nahuas, Otomis, and Tarascans, who in sheer numbers alone had as great a bearing on shaping the frontier landscape. These three ethnic groups hailed from eighty-six documented communities of origin and represented 64.1 percent of San Luis Potosí’s native population in parish records. The settlement of the northern mining district was very much, as other scholars have illustrated, the product of a voluntary, individual-driven indigenous diaspora with roots in western and central Mexico. It was also a female space where women found work and possibly some social freedoms on the urban frontier as evidenced by unorthodox domestic arrangements and personal relations. Corbeil explores the lives of these women within the scarce source base. In revealing that San Luis Potosí was a city of women, he contributes to recent works that undermine the traditional argument that mining societies were primarily the domain of men.[3]

The native population of women and men who lived in cities identified themselves as vecinos or municipal residents. Scholars have often described these peoples using the term “urban Indians.”[4] These studies uncovered the civic and personal lives of native peoples as they navigated Spanish rule in an Iberian setting. Native communities and religious and civil organizations evolved in San Luis Potosí alongside the Spanish residential and commercial area. Corbeil’s work, however, is less interested in corporate indigenous institutions, possibly because they do not really begin to evolve until 1610. A final chapter examines indigenous peoples acting as a corporate body, leaving the reader with ongoing curiosity about this period and process.

Corbeil’s primary objective is to understand how “indigenous identities were built and refashioned” in this ethnically plural space during the foundational period (p. 18). Corbeil tackles this question through microhistorical approaches, focusing on qualitative records, personal experiences, and a shorter time frame (as opposed to the longue durée). Using local archives, Corbeil draws from biographically detailed parish and criminal records that highlight the complex personal, social, and labor connections that arose between native peoples. His intimate depictions of urban indigenous life—on haciendas, at markets, in public plazas—reveal the daily interactions between the diverse native groups that shaped larger urban Indian identities. Some native peoples were trilingual. Exogamous marriages and informal unions were common and some haciendas housed populations that were as cosmopolitan as those of any street corner in the viceregal capital. Place of origin, however, remained a powerful factor in the formation of social networks. The field has moved away from paradigms depicting native peoples as deracinated urban subjects toward more nuanced arguments stressing their ethnic fluidity and adaptability. The Motions Beneath provides cogent evidence of these dynamic identities at the micro level. 

But as the book’s title declares, The Motions Beneath is not solely focused on the city (“San Luis Potosí” is not even included in the title) but on the manifold human locomotions around the urban zone. Studies have pointed to the sheer amount of indigenous migration generated by the conquest. Indigenous movement was particularly pervasive in frontier zones.[5] However, Corbeil’s microhistorical approach allows him to depict migration as a holistic process rather than to present it as a static phenomenon with one starting and one ending pole. Frontier conditions facilitated and incentivized: long and short distance travel, movement within the city, and return trips to communities of origin. Thin populations and labor-hungry money economies meant that the Crown rarely interfered in these human crossings, offering native peoples, already freed from tribute rolls, a modicum of agency on the urban frontier. This approach considers push factors in a literature that has traditionally prioritized pull factors. Corbeil diligently collates Peter Gerhard’s work on New Spain (A Guide to the Historical Geography of New Spain [1993]) to correlate Tarascan, Otomi, and Nahua migration waves to San Luis Potosí with forces in the communities of origins that could have made relocation appealing, such as epidemics, forced resettlement, land encroachment, and encomiendas. The amount of movement that occurred on this “urban frontier” in this period alone makes it clear that migration was the “motion beneath” the settlement of the near northern mining district.

The Motions Beneath is a welcome addition to recent studies on mining, urban Indians, and migration. In particular, its micro-biographies of indigenous individuals offer the reader a glimpse of their experiences at the edge of empire that are often absent from more structurally oriented studies.


[1]. See, for example, Guadalupe Salazar González, Las haciendas en el siglo XVII en la región minera de San Luis Potosí (San Luis Potosí: Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí, 2000).

[2]. See, for example, Eugene Sego, Aliados y adversarios: Los colonos tlaxcaltecas en la frontera septentrional de Nueva España (San Luis Potosí: Colegio de San Luis, 1998); Leslie S. Offutt, “Defending Corporate Identity on the Northern New Spanish Frontier: San Esteban de Nueva Tlaxcala, 1780-1810,” The Americas 64, no. 3 (2008): 351-75; and Sean F. McEnroe, From Colony to Nationhood in Mexico: Laying the Foundations, 1560-1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[3]. Jane Mangan, Trading Roles: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Urban Economy in Colonial Potosí (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); Dana Velasco Murillo, “Laboring above Ground: Indigenous Women in New Spain’s Silver-Mining District, Zacatecas, Mexico, 1620-1770,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 93, no. 1 (2013): 3-32; and Allison Bigelow, “Women, Men, and the Legal Languages of Mining in the Colonial Andes,” Ethnohistory 63, no. 2 (2016): 351-80.

[4]. See Felipe Castro Gutiérrez, Los indios y las ciudades de la Nueva España (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, 2010); Dana Velasco Murillo, Urban Indians in a Colonial Silver City: Zacatecas, Mexico, 1546-1810 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016); and Mark Lentz, Murder in Mérida, 1792: Violence, Factions, and the Law (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2018).

[5]. Cynthia Radding, Wandering Peoples: Colonialism, Ethnic Spaces, and Ecological Frontiers in Northwest Mexico, 1700-1850 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997); Laura E. Matthew, Memories of Conquest: Becoming Mexicano in Colonial Guatemala (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); and Velasco Murillo, Urban Indians.

Citation: Dana Velasco Murillo. Review of Corbeil, Laurent, The Motions Beneath: Indigenous Migrants on the Urban Frontier of New Spain. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020. URL:

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