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The Hacienda in Mexico

The Hacienda in Mexico
Translated by Mardith Schuetz-Miller; foreword by Elena Poniatowska

The first detailed architectural study of these rural communities.

Series: Roger Fullington Endowment in Architecture

January 2003
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156 pages | 11 x 11 | 32 color photos, 89 halftones, 39 line drawings |

The Mexican hacienda was a work place, a residence, a place of leisure and of religion—in short, a closed and self-sufficient rural world in which landowners and workers engaged in agricultural and livestock production. Constructed and modified from the sixteenth until the beginning of the twentieth centuries, they are today some of Mexico's architectural treasures. The hacienda's layout and buildings, though derived from earlier Spanish forms, constitute a uniquely Mexican vernacular architecture that deserves to be widely known and celebrated.

The Hacienda in Mexico is the first detailed architectural study of these rural communities. In this beautifully illustrated book, Daniel Nierman and Ernesto Vallejo present color and black-and-white photographs, site plans, building plans, and elevations to document all aspects of the hacienda—the compound, big house, chapel, spaces for production, materials and construction methods, and architectural details. In the accompanying text, they discuss each of these elements, as well as the hacienda's historical development and the ways in which its productive activities shaped its architecture.

To produce this work, the authors traveled extensively in the states of Hidalgo, Tlaxcala, and San Luis Potosí, photographing and drawing haciendas, interviewing their owners and state and federal authorities, and researching in hacienda archives. This in-depth treatment of the hacienda clearly identifies the architectural elements that make it unique, while adding a new chapter to architectural history and to the history of New Spain.

  • Foreword by Elena Poniatowska
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. The Hacienda through Time
  • Chapter 2. Two Forces
  • Chapter 3. The World of the Hacienda Reflected in Its Architecture
  • Chapter 4. The Compound
  • Chapter 5. The Big House
  • Chapter 6. The Chapel
  • Chapter 7. Spaces for Production
  • Chapter 8. Materials and Construction Methods
  • Chapter 9. Considering Details
  • Chapter 10. Conclusion
  • Plans
  • Maps: Locations of Haciendas
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Daniel Nierman is Professor of Architecture, Composition, and Visual Communication at the Universidad Iberoamericana, UIA, and Creative Director and founder of DNP Advertising in Mexico City. Ernesto Heliodoro Vallejo Diaz, an architect who graduated from the Universidad Iberoamericana, UIA, has been a teacher of architecture workshops at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the Universidad Anahuac del Sur, both in Mexico City. At present, he is practicing his profession by running his own construction company, founded in 1992. Mardith Scheutz-Miller is an independent scholar in Tucson, Arizona, who has researched and written extensively on the archaeology, ethnohistory, history, and colonial architecture of New Spain.


The hacienda, an institution intimately linked to our country's past, has been the subject of several studies. These works have approached the hacienda from different viewpoints: historical, economic, and political. However, the architecture of the hacienda has never been the focus of attention. It is for this reason that we, as architects and Mexicans, decided to undertake this investigation with the aim of opening another road toward awareness of our architecture.

From the vast range of Mexican haciendas we decided to work one geographic area, which we considered sufficient to establish the constants that one can assume, with a certain validity, are true of all the others. These similarities stand out even more among the many differences that we observed in the sample that was the object of our study. The haciendas we studied are located in the states of Hidalgo, Tlaxcala, and San Luis Potosí. They are representative of centers of agricultural and livestock production and were constructed and modified from the sixteenth until the beginning of the twentieth century.

To accomplish our task, we planned a course of action to familiarize ourselves with the world of the hacienda and to work out the basic concepts of this institution from an architectural point of view. We first undertook reconnaissance visits of haciendas that allowed us to observe and distinguish the different characteristics. Then we conducted a bibliographic survey that permitted us to identify and classify the information we obtained from this complex world. Once our data were interpreted, we created a register composed of photographs, written observations, and drawn elevations. To this point, the paths we followed were general. Nevertheless, the character of our work obliged us to try diverse procedures and to make use of the most varied sources of information--from the review of old plans to consultation of modern databases, from conversations with those in charge to interviews with the actual owners of the hacienda archives, from municipal functionaries to state and federal authorities.

To accomplish the first visits, we had to travel more than 15,000 kilometers, because the information we had on any given location--plans, lists, historic accounts, catalogues--did not always correspond to present-day maps. In these sometimes unfruitful travels, however, we also came across some haciendas unknown to us. As we became more deeply engrossed in our study, we needed the approval and authorization of the proprietors more and more to take photographs and to make drawings and measurements.

The result of this work--expressed through the plans, photographs, and written information--sustained our initial goal: to discover the architectural constants in the world of the Mexican haciendas. Later, with a view that these results could be useful to others, we opted to present the data in this form.

Thus, our initial hypothesis, with which we presumed we would find architectural elements specific to Mexico, in an institution so singularly ours, was amply proved.

The hacienda, an institution of agrarian exploitation, was one of the important pillars of Mexico's economic life from the colonial period until the Revolution and, along with encomiendas and mining, a fundamental element in Mexico's colonization. Their antecedents date to the medieval forms of production consolidated during the reconquest of southern Spain by means of repartimientos and encomiendas. These grants, given to the noblemen of northern Spain in return for their sustaining the armed forces and protecting the Divine Cult, were still present in the memory of the conquerors of Mexico. "These forms of colonization found in the New World an appropriate context for their implantation that had its origins in diverse factors within the social and economic evolution of the Aztec Empire. The factors that logically paved the way for the Spaniards," Chevalier tells us, "pertained to the development of the livestock industry, agriculture, and the distribution of lands within the indigenous communities."

Livestock raising in pre-Hispanic Mexico did not count as a means of production, since working animals were almost nonexistent. Agriculture had developed in the fertile and well-irrigated zones along the banks of rivers and lakes. Such limited occupation of the land left great empty spaces for the reproduction and grazing of the Spaniards' livestock. Prior to the arrival of the conquerors there already existed a marked tendency toward the establishment of territorial dominions in the hands of the pillis, or nobility, to the detriment of the clans, or calpullis. "This existence of individual ownership in Aztec society, as well as its tributary relationship with its governed territories, further facilitated the way for the Spaniards, who replaced the old masters in the receipt of tribute and substituted the new Spanish nobility in possession of the land."

The reactivation of the economy in the recently conquered colony was based on precious metals, which provided true wealth and was also the only monetary exchange with Europe. The rich silver deposits of Mexico propelled a colonial expansion into unpopulated and arid areas, since these outposts were separated from each other and from the capital by thousands of kilometers. Moreover, in 1529, cédulas of concession appeared whereby the Spaniards had the right to receive tribute and the services of Indian labor. The encomiendas were of diverse magnitude: some comprised great expanses with thousands of tributaries, and others were only small villages lost in the mountains. Each establishment was not only a place consisting of a plaza, a church, and a cluster of houses, but also represented a moral body, a community of medieval traditions jealous of its autonomy and rights--an institution. Through the encomiendas was channeled a labor force necessary for the development of mining and agriculture.

The Spanish state, eager for resources, sought the most efficacious means of protecting the routes to the mining operations and did so in part by facilitating the establishment of small settlements devoted to agriculture and stock raising along the length of these routes. These settlements came to benefit from the demand for provisions and livestock required by the mining communities.

As early as 1523 the king recommended to Cortés that he award Spaniards of recently founded cities "their holdings of caballerías or peonías, according to the person's status." Some Spaniards, however, not wanting to be judged of inferior rank, already considered themselves caballeros or hidalgos. The area of caballerías was "10 fanegas for sowing wheat, or 43 hectares," and peonías were five times smaller. Owing to the scarcity of vegetables, fruit, and cereals of peninsular origin, principally wheat, since 1529 these labor grants were intended for the cultivation of this cereal under the terms of the encomienda--to the point that a cultivated caballería and a wheat field were synonymous during the first half of the sixteenth century. The more remote cities granted titles of ownership without the confirmation of superior authorities, and as the landholders formed quickly into local oligarchies, land concessions expanded into haciendas in many cases. In the mid-sixteenth century, a name was coined to designate agricultural operations: "farms for taking away labor and bread." These arose from the labor services taken away from the encomenderos after 1549 and redistributed among Spaniards who cultivated wheat. "This system of repartimiento signaled a notable improvement for the Indians because they were no longer obliged to work by a master, but by representatives of the justice system, who did not have the same interest in Indian labor as the encomenderos and only proportioned the manpower that they considered would be beneficial to the 'Republic' of the Spaniards."

During the epoch of heavy labor, judges in charge of labor distribution authorized Indian teams from villages near the farms to perform the work. A parallel work force was made up of free Indians who hired themselves out on their own initiative. These workers were detained by their masters for long periods of time on account of not being able to repay the advances given them. Although this type of servitude pertains more to the seventeenth century, and later to the nineteenth, at this time a new economic form typical of haciendas began to develop.

Early on, the Spaniards showed dissatisfaction with a single caballería. Sometimes, thanks to multiple grants, other times, through sale to favored Spanish beneficiaries, to Indian caciques, or else by cornering unoccupied lands, they began to form properties of three, eight, fifteen, eighty-six caballerías and even more. These estates were not dedicated solely to agricultural production. In many instances, they were combined with the raising of sheep or hogs, and the ranch was designated for "husbandry and livestock," and in addition to their caballerías, took in extensions for pasturage comprising one or several 780-hectare sites.

"Estancias were not occupied year-round by the owners; some Indians or Negroes lived on them, but not always the Spanish family. A 1569 statistic shows that only 200 Spaniards, out of the 8,000 who inhabited the capital, regularly lived on the 150 estancias owned by the archbishopric of Mexico."

Discounting some very important ranches or some sugar plantations, grand constructions were reserved for urban residences, at least until the late seventeenth century. This explains why there are no traces of farm buildings. They were generally constructed of adobe, rarely of stone, and thatched with straw or shingled--in contrast to the grand sugar plantations, such as one belonging to Cortés which in 1549 was already of impressive size. From early on, sugar plantations called for a new kind of farming operation in which the natives were integrated and conformed to a new type of social organization. These plantations were almost completely self-sufficient, and from the sixteenth century onward became the forerunners of the classic Mexican haciendas.

The predominant factor in the formation of the grand properties in Mexico was livestock raising, according to Chevalier. "The new continent offered favorable environments for the rapid increase of livestock. The existence of large open spaces was well established, since from the initial colonization of New Spain, the Castilian traditions of common grazing and transhumance were put into effect."

The growth of the herds reached such magnitude that ranchers very quickly lost control over them. The principal consequence of this problem was the invasion of Indian agricultural fields by livestock, which the authorities showed a certain willingness to ignore for the sake of livestock increase.

About the sixteenth century a new term appeared in Mexico "that defined the limit of man and loose herds: the estancia, the etymology of which evokes very different concepts than transhumance and common grazing. The word estancia implies the birth of certain rights over places so designated. Its early sense was precise and denoted a site designated for livestock, as one sees in the acts of the cabildo of Mexico City between 1527 and 1530."

"Spaniards interested in dedicating themselves to the breeding of livestock should appeal to the ayuntamiento to receive an acknowledgment of the determined 'site or seat.' The beneficiary would then have the right to prohibit any other livestock owner from establishing a new center for that purpose within one league roundabout for sheep or cows and a half league for hogs. Ranchers were prohibited from placing their establishments any closer than a half league from fields already cultivated by natives or farmers."

Estancias were divided into two groups: those for cattle (large livestock) and those for sheep, goats, and hogs (small livestock). The areas fixed about 1567 were 1,750 hectares for large livestock and 780 hectares for small livestock. Here the estancia took on its definitive form and was an important step toward the final makeup of haciendas. Since livestock raising was becoming, after mining, the principle economic resource of the country, it was advantageous to encourage it--above all in distant regions--by bestowing titles in the form of grazing. It is worth mentioning that such issues were not precarious concessions, but definite and transmissible rights guaranteed from this time forward by the direct representative of the king of Spain. Estancias, like caballerías, were subject to sale or transfer. The monopoly of lands was not always in response to purely economic factors. Dominions were not always extended to increase wealth, but in some instances to dominate, to be the lord and master of the region, like the "rich men" of Old Spain who were leaders and chiefs more than capitalists.

The country faced a depression toward the seventeenth century because of the reduction in the native population, who fell victim to the great epidemics, and the decline in mining due to the peninsular monopoly of mercury, bringing the country to near collapse. Everyone seemed to cling to his acquired positions, and thus were determined the characteristics of the great haciendas, which tended toward feudal forms of production. Great entailed estates were consolidated, and limited commercial development contributed a patriarchal character to life on certain haciendas.

"These economic changes brought about other consequences: the disappearance of the conquistador-encomendero, the priest-evangelist, and the ethnic natives as central protagonists of the historic process. In the new economic and social configuration of the viceroyalty, the leadership role was now in the hands of merchants, miners, agriculturalists, and ranchers; the secular church; and the functionaries of the Crown. . . . In the seventeenth century, the Mexican countryside ceased to be an Indian countryside and became a mestizo countryside, a new countryside in which different ethnic groups created a new population and new ways of life."

"In all these new forms of agricultural colonization, the master of the hacienda, the rancher, the proprietor of sugar plantations, and their legions of majordomos, overseers, administrators, cowboys, shepherds, and farmers constituted the leading group of new populations. Their social role in the rural environment was overwhelming and incontestable, and their power over workers and the indigenous communities was curbed only by priests and religious clerks. In all interior settlements, villages, and cities, they shared positions in the cabildo with merchants and civil servants." Nevertheless, these lords and masters realized only slim incomes from their vast holdings, because this rural aristocracy did not preoccupy itself with the economic yield of their lands, mainly because, since the sixteenth century, these dominions had been heavily mortgaged to the benefit of the church, which received 5 percent of their annual income. Before the last third of the seventeenth century, the big privileged importers of commerce were multiplying their entitled estates, acquiring titles of nobility, constructing palaces and churches, and founding convents and colleges.

During the second half of the eighteenth century, this "equilibrium" found itself threatened. Although the native, mestizo, and creole populations grew rapidly, the growth in silver production, in the commerce that followed the strength of mining operations, and, finally, in agriculture and livestock production caught up with the development.

Opportunities increased because cities such as Mexico, Puebla, Guadalajara, and others grew and because mining centers like Guanajuato, Pachuca, and Zacatecas became cities. Freedom of commerce, and the fact that Veracruz was no longer the only port, favored trade. Abolition of the privileges in the trade with Europe in the years 1779 to 1789 obliged one part of the Mexican nobility that had benefited from the import business to augment their income from their haciendas and, consequently, to modify the structure of the same.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, diverse laws regulated the work of the Indians and established their rights, as well as the obligations of employers. Punishments were severely prohibited, advances to the Indians of more than five pesos were prohibited, and accounts between proprietors and laborers were verified every four months. Indians were free to work wherever they chose. Laws of 1767 and 1789, the work of Viceroy Matías Gálvez, were strengthened to eliminate servitude for debts.

In 1804 the Spanish government secularized the mortgages of the church, with the intent of benefiting itself. This caused uneasiness and anger among the creole hacienda owners, many of whom came to embrace the cause of independence.

The mentality of the hacienda owner had become so deep-rooted that following independence, although large entitled estates and primogeniture were abolished, they failed to disappear and survived under the form of co-ownership.

"In the nineteenth century, the wars of independence and the civil wars tend to create a climate of insecurity, and the hacienda is often converted into a fortified place or refuge, and bodyguards and private armies reappear. As Don Luis Chávez Orozco notes, peons are given equal legal treatment as other citizens, thereby losing the benefits of protective laws, and debt peonage becomes widespread again."

In 1856, one of the great Reform Laws, the Lerdo Law, decreed the expropriation of the great landholdings of the Catholic Church, with the aim of distributing the lands and creating a class of small independent farmers. However, since the property was put up for sale, only the rich hacienda owners were able to acquire it, augmenting their possessions and consolidating them into the great latifundios. "During the Porfiriato, the policy of increasing the latifundio at the expense of the native communities was continued, as was observed in the issuing of the decree of December 15, 1893, and the law of March 26, 1894. The first authorized the creation of teams of surveyors to measure, divide, and evaluate vacant lands. . . . The results of the application of this decree were disastrous for the communities and the small proprietors, since they were unaccustomed to registering their titles, and unregistered properties were included within the 'vacant lands.' In this circumstance, the survey of the vacant lands turned into a means to concentrate landownership. Of the 38,249,377 hectares that had been surveyed by the year 1889, 12,693,980 hectares were given to the surveyors as payment and 14,681,980 hectares were sold at a very low price, and generally to friends of Díaz and members of his cabinet, leaving the nation only 12,300,000 hectares."

To debt peonage, which was common in the country during the Porfiriato, we need to add that of leasing, which was widespread in the haciendas from the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. Through this system, with its marked traditional nature and precapitalist traits, lessees had use of the land according to the wishes of the hacienda owner, and in exchange for the parcel allotted to them by the owner as a lease, they paid him in labor or in kind with a share of their crop, with the excess destined for their own consumption. "To the foregoing types of labor should be added 'los meseros,' a category of employees paid in money, though they also received additional payment in kind. These were essentially salaried employees who had the entire confidence of the hacienda owner and occupied positions essential to the organization."

"The hacienda as a productive unit, intended from its beginning to produce goods for the local market, continued to fulfill this commercial role during the Porfiriato. The progressive consolidation of a capitalist economy in the Porfiriato provided the haciendas with expanded markets, increased production, and the consequent alteration of their internal structure."

"The tendency toward a market economy that appeared at the end of the nineteenth century was favored by external demand, the establishment of railroads, and the suppression of internal tariffs. It's interesting to note that from 1892 to 1910 exports increased more than three times. The hacienda, as the producer of foodstuffs for domestic consumption, adapted partially to the Porfiriato economy, which continued adhering to market necessities while maintaining in large measure its traditional features. It resorted to the monopoly of landownership as a means of cornering the market for its products and to the utilization of the land and workforce, because of their abundance and reduced cost, rather than to the investment of capital to improve tools and techniques of cultivation."

The latifundios survived the Revolution, although not with the same relationship to production, until the late thirties, when President Cárdenas passed the law of Agrarian Reform.