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Social Stratification in Central Mexico, 1500-2000

Social Stratification in Central Mexico, 1500-2000

Based on fifty years of ethnographic fieldwork, as well as extensive archival research, this is the most complete study of the historical evolution of Mexico's class system currently available.

June 2009
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280 pages | 6 x 9 | 20 photos, 3 maps, 8 tables |

In Aztec and colonial Central Mexico, every individual was destined for lifelong placement in a legally defined social stratum or estate. Social mobility became possible after independence from Spain in 1821 and increased after the 1910–1920 Revolution. By 2000, the landed aristocracy that was for long Mexico's ruling class had been replaced by a plutocracy whose wealth derives from manufacturing, commerce, and finance—but rapid growth of the urban lower classes reveals the failure of the Mexican Revolution and subsequent agrarian reform to produce a middle-class majority. These evolutionary changes in Mexico's class system form the subject of Social Stratification in Central Mexico, 1500–2000, the first long-term, comprehensive overview of social stratification from the eve of the Spanish Conquest to the end of the twentieth century.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One concerns the period from the Spanish Conquest of 1521 to the Revolution of 1910. The authors depict the main features of the estate system that existed both before and after the Spanish Conquest, the nature of stratification on the haciendas that dominated the countryside for roughly four centuries, and the importance of race and ethnicity in both the estate system and the class structures that accompanied and followed it. Part Two portrays the class structure of the post-revolutionary period (1920 onward), emphasizing the demise of the landed aristocracy, the formation of new upper and middle classes, the explosive growth of the urban lower classes, and the final phase of the Indian-mestizo transition in the countryside.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part One: Historical Overview
  • Chapter 1. Estates and Classes
  • Chapter 2. Race and Ethnicity
  • Chapter 3. Haciendas and Their Workers
  • Part Two: The Postrevolutionary Period (1920-2000)
  • Chapter 4. The Upper Classes: Aristocracy, Plutocracy, Political Class, and Prestige Upper-Middle Class
  • Chapter 5. The Middle Classes
  • Chapter 6. The Urban Lower Classes
  • Chapter 7. The Indian-Mestizo Transition: From Ethnic Estates to Social Classes
  • Chapter 8. Expression and Social Class
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Index

Hugo G. Nutini is University Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. He has authored and edited numerous articles and books, including The Mexican Aristocracy: An Expressive Ethnography, 1910–2000 and Social Stratification and Mobility in Central Veracruz.

Barry L. Isaac is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of Cincinnati. With Nutini, he is the coauthor of Los Pueblos de Habla Nahuatl and was also the series editor of Research in Economic Anthropology from 1983 until 2000.


This book presents the first longitudinal and comprehensive overview of social stratification in Central Mexico, embracing the time span from just before the Spanish Conquest up to the present (1500-2000). Central Mexico was the heartland of the Aztec Empire when the Spaniards arrived in 1519, and it is still the country’s economic and political motor. It comprises the present states of Guerrero, Mexico, Morelos, Hidalgo, Tlaxcala, Puebla, and Veracruz, as well as the Federal District (Distrito Federal), which includes Mexico City (see Maps 1 and 2). Although Central Mexico encompasses only 11.3 percent of the national territory, its 41.5 million inhabitants in 2000 constituted 42.6 percent of the national population of 97.5 million (INEGI 2003: 5-9).

We combine historical and ethnographic materials to construct our portrait of this core area. Students of Mexican anthropology and history will be familiar with Nutini's more than forty-five years of ethnographic work in the area, some fifteen of them devoted specifically to social class (see Nutini 1995, 2004, 2005). His rich experience is complemented by Isaac’s historical research on the Aztec and early colonial periods, as well as his firsthand observations of Mexican politics and economics, especially among the lower-middle and working classes of Mexico City, during the past twenty years. In short, our approach is eminently anthropological, combining structured interviews and participant observation, but it also reaches deeply into history.

In both Mexico and the United States, the social stratification system that frames every individual's worldview and life chances remains poorly understood, even among highly educated people. This is so because—in the words of William Lloyd Warner (1960: v), a pioneer in the study of social stratification—"no teacher teaches us the hard facts of our social-class system." Indeed, the topic of social class has become the last taboo in the United States, in education as well as in politics, while in Mexico the subject has lost the prominence that it enjoyed in the social sciences there during the 1970s and early 1980s. Even international agencies typically avoid using the concepts of class and stratification, because these terms are thought to evoke dangerous "notions of conflict, privilege, and exploitation" (Portes and Hoffman 2003: 42).

Thus Warner's lament remains largely true today. We hope that this book will serve to fill that educational gap, because neither the past nor the present is intelligible in Central Mexico—or, for that matter, elsewhere in our hemisphere—unless we understand its evolving social stratification system, which has shaped its politics, economics, and racial-ethnic relations. Especially important is the transition from a legally defined, hereditary estate system to the more fluid class structures of the present day (see below and Chap. 1). Yet, while the stratification system has undergone fundamental changes during the period of this study, these changes have always been incomplete, even in response to changes in official policies. In fact, an important lesson we hope to convey in this book is that political regimes, even the strong ones of the twentieth century, have only a limited ability to alter national social systems.

Central Mexico is an especially interesting and instructive region for a longitudinal study of social stratification. Historically, the area saw the rise of the Aztec Empire in 1430 and its dramatic overthrow by a Spanish-led force of rebelling Aztec subjects in 1521. Upon the ruins of the former empire, the Spaniards established a multiethnic and multiracial colonial state that endured for three centuries. When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, one of its first official acts was the abolition of the colonial casta system of racial classification that had attempted to separate the "mixed" (Indian-African-European) majority from both the light-complexioned ruling stratum and the indigenous peasantry. Legally, at least, the whole structure of hereditary estate stratification (see below) that had been in force throughout the colonial period was struck down, leaving only classes as macro-social building blocks. In practice, remnants of the estate system endured in a few locales, known as "refuge regions," until late in the twentieth century.

In 1910-1920 Central Mexico was an important crucible of the great Mexican Revolution. The area's most famous revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata, helped to transform the struggle into a genuine social revolution that aimed to change the country's economic and social systems, as well as its political structure. An eventual outcome of the social aspect of the Revolution was the extensive agrarian reform carried out by President Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1930s. The essence of that reform was the expropriation of large landholdings, typically without reimbursement, and their redistribution to peasant communities.

Agrarian reform brought the downfall of Mexico's landed aristocracy, which had been the undisputed ruling class since independence in 1821. By the 1950s, over 80 percent of the remaining aristocrats had relocated to Mexico City, where they flourished for another decade as a prestige class, even though they had lost their political influence and much of their wealth. Most important, they served as the model of high society for the rising plutocrats, who had become wealthy in manufacturing, commerce, and finance. During the 1980s, this new plutocracy displaced the aristocracy as the dominant class of the country's superordinate social stratum.

The prosperity enjoyed by Central Mexico's plutocrats during the 1980s and 1990s stood in sharp contrast to the increasing hardship experienced by the urban lower classes, which had become the area's majority social component during the 1970s. The lower stratum's paltry incomes were eroded by sharp devaluation of the Mexican peso in 1982 and 1995, driving up the prices of most consumer goods. At century's end, the urban lower classes also were facing two new problems: (1) a "neoliberal" reform that abolished, reduced, or redirected many of the federal social welfare programs that had subsidized their livelihoods; and (2) job displacement as the result of globalization.

Our account of these momentous developments is divided into two parts. Part One (Chaps. 1-3) concerns the period from the Spanish Conquest of 1521 to the Revolution of 1910. Of course, we did not set out to write a narrative history of Central Mexico. Rather, our aim is simply to depict the main features of the estate system that existed both before and after the Conquest, the nature of stratification on the haciendas that dominated the countryside for roughly four centuries, and the importance of race and ethnicity in both the estate system and the class structures that accompanied and followed it. Part Two (Chaps. 4-8) portrays the class structure of the postrevolutionary period (1920 onward), emphasizing the demise of the landed aristocracy, the formation of new upper and middle classes, the explosive growth of the urban lower classes, and the final phase of the Indian-mestizo transition (from ethnic to class stratification) in the countryside.

Chapter 1 introduces the concepts estate and class. Estates, rather than classes, were the primary hierarchical social divisions from the emergence of the world's first states about five thousand years ago until the late eighteenth century. Estates were legally defined strata, each with its own rights, privileges, and duties and each associated with particular occupations. The basic estates were nobility and commonalty, but finer distinctions were usually present also. Estate membership was typically hereditary, in the sense of a lifelong identity ascribed at birth, and ambiguities of assignment were minimized by estate endogamy, or marriage within one’s birth stratum. Estate stratification provided the dominant social framework for both Spain and the Aztec Empire in 1521, the time of the Spanish Conquest of Central Mexico. Classes can be distinguished within major estates, but classes did not become the major building blocks of national societies until the overthrow of estate-based legal systems. In Europe, the French Revolution of 1789 is usually seen as the watershed in this regard. In Mexico, the corresponding date is 1822, the year following the overthrow of Spanish colonial rule.

That the classes of class-based societies are not legally defined has important ramifications for both the members of these societies and the social scientists studying them. For the former, social mobility is now possible to an extent that would have been unimaginable in estate-based polities. Thus, upward social (class) mobility is a major life goal of many individuals and families, and the fear of downward mobility is always present. For the social scientist, the legal indeterminacy and social mobility of class-based societies means that there is no "fixed" definition of the basic stratificational unit, the class or set of classes.

Chapter 1 lays out some tools for conceptualizing this complexity, the most important being the distinction between real and nominal classes. Real classes are existential divisions recognized or acted upon by the members of the society, whereas nominal classes are strictly analytical distinctions drawn by the researcher. As we shall see, a complete analysis of present-day Central Mexico requires using both concepts.

Chapter 2 explores the factors of race and ethnicity in the stratification of Central Mexico, covering the entire five-hundred-year period. Spanish colonial society was divided into three social estates that were initially defined on the basis of physical race: Spanish conquerors-rulers, Indian commoners, and African slaves. This system’s racial basis eventually created administrative chaos, as widespread interbreeding resulted in a demographic majority of mixed people who could not be assigned automatically or unambiguously to any of the original three estates.

During the 1630s or early 1640s, the colonial regime tried to rescue the estate system by creating an intermediate estate of castas for mixed-race people, distinguishing up to sixteen named categories. For instance, the Spanish-African mixture was called mulato (from mulo, or mule), while the mulato-Spanish combination was morisco (from moro, or Moor), and morisco-Spanish parentage resulted in a salta atrás (throwback). The Catholic Church was required to maintain separate vital registries for Spaniards, Indians, and castas, but even this new classification system was soon overwhelmed by the increasingly convoluted family histories. After about 1750, many parishes effectively compressed their registries into two books, one for Indians and one for non-Indians—the two catchall census categories that are still used today. The entire estate system, along with its racial classifications, was finally abolished in 1822, following independence from Spain in 1821.

The racial and ethnic situation in Central Mexico remains complex today. First, no more than 10 percent of the present population is still classified as Indian in national censuses, and only a small fraction of 1 percent identify themselves as Afro-Mexican. Second, there is no strict correlation between social classes and either ethnicity or race at the regional or national level. At the same time, the upper social stratum is typified by light skin color and other European physical traits, and standards of beauty and physical appearance are still essentially European. Racial/ethnic discrimination remains widespread but is often very subtle. For instance, parents at all social levels typically favor their light-skinned offspring, and upwardly mobile individuals often try to accentuate their European heritage or appearance.

Chapter 3 covers the period of the hacienda's dominance over the countryside (roughly 1570-1940). Haciendas were large farms and ranches typically administered by small staffs of trusted employees (empleados de confianza) who managed much larger numbers of wage workers. The hacienda was the fourth of a succession of rural institutions designed to harness Indian labor for Spanish enterprises. The first was slavery, from which Indians were largely exempted (except as judicial punishment or debt indenture) in 1542. The second was the encomienda, a grant of Indians who owed both labor and material tribute (tax) to the Spanish grantees (encomenderos). The encomienda was the major mechanism of exploiting Indian labor from the 1520s to 1549, when the institution was redefined legally as requiring tribute but not labor.

To replace the labor that could no longer be recruited through the encomienda, in 1550 the colonial administration introduced the third mechanism: the repartimiento (lit., "division," "dividing up"). Up to 2 percent of the adult men of an Indian village were to be assigned to work on Spanish enterprises at any one time but for no more than one week continuously and no more than four (nonconsecutive) weeks per year. These restrictions quickly rendered the repartimiento inadequate, as the number of Spanish enterprises multiplied while the Indian population continued to shrink. Increasingly, hacendados (hacienda owners) recruited Indian laborers directly, offering them cash wages and permanent residence on the haciendas, which excused them from repartimiento duties. The repartimiento was becoming a dead letter in the countryside by 1632, when agrarian work was excluded from its purview. Thereafter, haciendas recruited their laborers through a combination of wage incentives and various types and degrees of coercion. As noted above, the hacienda system continued to dominate the countryside until the 1930s, when President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) expropriated vast amounts of hacienda land and redistributed it to peasant villagers.

Chapter 4 is devoted to the four classes of Central Mexico's upper stratum: aristocracy, plutocracy, political class, and the apex of the upper-middle class. Together, they constitute less than 1 percent of the population today (see Table 0.1). At its height the aristocracy never amounted to more than 2 to 3 percent of the national population, and its proportion had dwindled to about 0.5 percent by independence in 1821 and to a minuscule 0.25 or so on the eve of the Revolution of 1910 (Nutini 2004: 11). It is even smaller today, comprising some 750 households, or a total population of about 5,000 individuals—roughly 0.005 percent of the national population of 97.5 million and 0.01 percent of Central Mexico's 41.5 million inhabitants in 2000.

The plutocracy arose from the middle classes after the 1910-1920 Revolution, especially in the period 1920-1950. From the outset, its investments were mainly in industry, commerce, and finance rather than the agrarian enterprises that were the aristocracy's economic foundation. Map 3 shows, in fact, that there was relatively little overlap between the new plutocracy's cities of origin and those in which the old aristocracy had been based.

The plutocracy is Mexico's present ruling class. Unlike the political class, which holds elected or appointed offices and actually exercises the functions of government, the ruling class exerts a strong, often determinative, behind-the-scenes influence on both those who govern and those who obey, without holding formal political positions. Countrywide, the plutocracy numbered about 2,000 households, or some 13,000 to 14,000 individuals, in 2000 (Nutini 2004: 44-49). Most of the country's wealthiest plutocrats have their main residences and/or principal investments in Central Mexico, especially in Mexico City.

The political class consists of present and former political officeholders, and the most influential members of this class have held high federal offices in Mexico City. The political class has always been small, comprising about 1,500 households (perhaps 7,000 to 10,000 individuals) at any time. From 1929 until 2000, they were almost entirely affiliated with the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which was so dominant that it was widely referred to as the "official party" during that period.

The smallest component of the upper stratum is the apex of the upper-middle class, which we call the prestige-UMC. Before the Revolution of 1910, these elite families provided social support to the aristocracy, principally by swelling the number of guests in attendance at aristocratic social functions. Although wealthy and prominent in their own right, these families had neither the aristocracy's huge wealth nor its distinguished ancestry. Nevertheless, through long association with the aristocracy, the prestige-UMC assimilated a large proportion of its refined manners, tastes, and behavior. When the aristocracy fled the provincial cities after the Revolution, the prestige-UMC became the local upper class and served as the model for upwardly mobile provincial families, including the nascent provincial plutocracy.

Chapter 5 discusses the middle stratum, in which we distinguish three classes: upper middle (excluding the prestige-UMC), solid middle, and lower middle. We analyze each according to phenotype (observable "racial" traits), occupation, income, housing, formal education, kinship organization, compadrazgo (ritual kinship), class consciousness, and religiosity. Here, we comment only on the first three aspects, as our aim is simply to provide some initial guidance.

Members of the upper-middle class consider themselves and are generally regarded by others as "white," although the class includes some individuals of light mestizo appearance ("mixed," showing some Indian and/or African ancestry) and about 5 percent with dark mestizo features. The solid-middle class presents the obverse phenotypic profile: predominantly mestizo, usually light skinned but including many individuals with noticeable Indian/African or European phenotypes. The lower-middle class, like the adjacent working class in the lower stratum, is overwhelmingly mestizo, and many of its members have very prominent Indian and/or African features. There are also a few criollos (very light-skinned mestizos) and a sprinkling of individuals with a fully European physical appearance in these two classes. Thus, while there is a very striking increase in the proportion of European features as one goes up the social class scale in Central Mexico, there is sufficient variation within each class to prevent "race" (phenotypic perceptions) from playing a determinant role in interclass relations.

Among the upper-middle class are many business owners and (in provincial cities) farmers, as well as top-ranking professionals (primarily lawyers, physicians, accountants, and engineers). The solid-middle class is more varied in terms of occupation. It includes many professionals (mostly physicians, lawyers, engineers, architects, dentists, accountants, and agronomists), owners of medium-sized businesses and farms, middle-level bank officials, and well-placed government bureaucrats. The lower-middle class includes some relatively well paid blue-collar workers, especially independent tradesmen (e.g., electricians, mechanics, plumbers) and those holding unionized factory jobs, but it consists mainly of white-collar workers (e.g., teachers, nurses, store clerks, office workers) and owners of small businesses. The latter are a mixture of white-collar and blue-collar workers, actually, as they typically work actively in their own service-oriented enterprises, such as small retail outlets, bars, butcher shops, bakeries, beauty salons and barbershops, tanneries, upholstery shops, and parts and repair shops (automotive, hydraulic, agricultural).

In provincial cities, the upper-middle class has an annual disposable household income of U.S.$100,000 to $200,000 (in 2000 dollars); in Mexico City, the range peaks at about U.S.$300,000. Solid-middle-class income ranges from about U.S.$150,000 annually to as low as U.S.$15,000. In the lower-middle class, two trends are readily evident. First, its most affluent members are business owners, whose 2002 incomes in the Córdoba, Veracruz, area were in the U.S.$7,800 to $36,000 range (see Nutini 2005). Second, this class's blue-collar workers often earn more than its white-collar employees. For instance, schoolteachers earned about U.S.$2,250 to $5,000 and shop clerks around U.S.$1,050 to $1,800 in the Córdoba area in 2002, while independent tradesmen netted U.S.$4,200 to $6,600 and unionized factory workers made about U.S.$3,800 to $7,200 (Nutini 2005).

Chapter 6 covers the urban lower classes. Mexico's population has been predominantly urban and nonagricultural since the late 1960s. The majority of this urban population belongs to the lower stratum, in which we distinguish two classes: a working class and a marginal class (see Table 0.1). Generally, the working class holds relatively steady, blue-collar jobs in the formal economy, while the marginal class's employment is sporadic and/or in the informal (unlicensed, untaxed) economy. Many members of the marginal class are periodically self-employed service providers (plumbers, carpenters, masons, etc.) or street vendors, while many others (especially women) are home-based pieceworkers for the garment, toy, plastics, electronics, and other industries.

There is a great deal of movement of people between these types of employment and much fluidity of membership between the two lower classes, making generalizations difficult. Not only might today's wage-working shop laborer be tomorrow's self-employed street vendor, or vice versa, but different members of the same household may be engaged in quite different modes of livelihood. What is indisputable, though, is that the hallmark of the urban lower classes is their poverty. Accordingly, much of Chapter 6 is devoted to a discussion of the origins, persistence, and measurement of urban poverty, as well as the survival strategies that enable the masses of poor people to cope with their precarious economic situation.

Chapter 7 concerns the most profound cultural, ethnic, and stratificational transformation in twentieth-century Mexico: the Indian-mestizo transition in the countryside and provincial towns. (In this context, mestizo—from mestizar, "to mix"—denotes Mexico's dominant culture.) This ongoing transition involves the final breakdown of vestigial estate stratification rooted in colonial-era ethnic relations and its replacement by social class stratification along national lines. It also entails a nationalization of identity, from traditional Indian villager to modern Mexican (or regional) citizen. Ethnic self-awareness has not disappeared, of course; in fact, it is often revitalized in reconfigured form in response to regional or national political agendas. Nevertheless, for millions of people who formerly made economic, political, religious, and lifestyle choices primarily within the framework of village-Indian identity, social participation in general has become mainly a matter of class and geography, not ethnicity.

The cultural transformation that lay at the very heart of the Indian-mestizo transition was and is more complex. Of course, it involved such readily observable changes as the adoption of contemporary national-urban clothing, housing, furniture, tools, machinery, occupations, and so on, and the acquisition of some degree of fluency in Spanish. More important, though, it entailed the demise of most of that syncretic amalgam of Spanish, indigenous, and African elements that emerged during the seventeenth century as "Indian" culture and then persisted, albeit with constant adaptations, through much of the twentieth century. A crucial element of this transformation was the change from a deeply sacred to a much more secular approach to life.

Chapter 8 features an aspect of social stratification that has received all too little attention. We refer to this as expressive culture (or behavior), or simply expression. The defining quality of expression is that its motivation is basically noninstrumental, or nonutilitarian. A universal of human culture, it is readily observable in such domains as art, music, play, games, manners, etiquette, dress, and adornment, although it can be part of virtually any type of behavior or aspect of culture. For instance, it often colors such utilitarian arenas as religion, economics, warfare, and politics, and it also serves as an important boundary marker for social groups (e.g., clubs, lodges, sports teams, schools) and social strata (whether castes, estates, or classes).

In fact, expression is the aspect of social stratification that is most immediately and directly perceived, and it is the primary way in which the members of a social stratum initially recognize one another and, in turn, are recognized as distinctive by nonmembers. More generally, all social groups have expressive arrays, which they share to greater or lesser extents with other such groups. This is true of both real and nominal social classes, although for real classes the arrays are more distinctive, because some parts of them serve as social boundary markers.

Historically, and even as recently as the early to mid-twentieth century, the most elaborate arrays of expressive culture in Central Mexico occurred at the very top and the very bottom of the rural stratification system—among aristocratic hacendados and traditional Indian villagers. The aristocratic expressive array was most elaborate in household accoutrements and skills and in leisure activities, whereas the traditional Indian array was focused on religion. As we point out in Chapter 7, mestizoization of village Indians reduces or even destroys much of their distinctive expressive culture, and much of what remains is highly secularized, even commercialized, and often trivialized as "old-fashioned customs." In Chapters 3 and 8, we note that the elaborate aristocratic expressive array also is fading, along with the demise of the traditional aristocracy and its supportive partner, the prestige-UMC.

The entire Mexican stratification system is rapidly evolving. The traditional system, in which expressive factors were highly significant in social class formation and boundary maintenance, is giving way to an emerging system in which structural factors such as power, wealth, formal education credentials, and occupation are the main determinants of class membership. At the very top, the traditional expressive refinements have been trumped by materialistic conspicuous consumption—everything from ostentatious mansions to private airplanes and the latest sound and visual equipment—requiring an annual disposable income of at least U.S.$1 million. At the very bottom of the national system, traditional village Indians have largely adopted the culture of the national lower classes, and even the formerly pronounced rural rusticity, which was still quite noticeable at midcentury, has largely disappeared.

The Conclusion focuses on two aspects of the present stratification system of Central Mexico. The first is its increasing "classlessness." This term, which apparently was first used with reference to the United States, is not as radical as it might appear at first blush. Basically, it refers to the replacement of real classes by nominal classes in postindustrial societies. The "mass" aspects of these societies—mass formal education, mass production, mass communications, mass geographic mobility—and substantial social mobility have led to an unprecedented extent of cultural blending that buffs out the once-visible boundaries of classes, regions, and adjoining countries.

The second topic is the persistence of a lower-stratum majority or, stated negatively, the failure of the great Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) and subsequent governmental efforts to produce the middle-class majority envisioned by social philosophers and visionary politicians. We discuss the main causes of the persistence of this situation through the end of the twentieth century, as well as some of the early-twenty-first-century forces that will almost certainly ensure its continuation into the foreseeable future.


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