Early Modern Monday: Where In the World is Tecamachalco?

Poor Tecamachalco, so unfortunate,
it never lacks some misfortune!
Diego de Trujillo, Spanish farmer, 1581

On July 21, 1578, the small Mexican town of Tecamachalco awoke to the news of a scandal. Nailed to the door of its church was a double-faced effigy denouncing Hernando Rubio Naranjo as a Jew who should burn at the stake. In Death by Effigy: A Case from the Mexican Inquisition, historian Luis R. Corteguera recounts the nine trials that followed this incident, revealing a story of dishonor, revenge, and the Inquisition's relentless determination to defend its symbols.

The rich history of Tecamachalco, now a municipality in the Mexican state of Puebla, plays an important role in the inquisitorial investigation into the misuse of church symbols. The following excerpt from Corteguera's new book sets the stage for a drama of social anxieties and religious authority.


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The menacing effigy of San Benito stood guard, waiting for everyone in Tecamachalco to heed its warnings. Meanwhile, across from the church, Hernando Rubio Naranjo slept inside his house, unaware of the scandal that would soon spread across the region.


Before this incident, Tecamachalco had witnessed considerable turmoil of a different kind. In the Nahuatl language of the Mexica, or Aztecs, the name means “the location of the jaw of stone.” The “jaw” referred to the dual-peaked Cerro Techachales-Techalrey, which was thought to resemble an open mouth. Atop this mountain, the original settlement overlooked the four distant volcanoes that preside over the landscape: to the northeast, the massive snowcapped Citlaltepetl (Pico de Orizaba, in Spanish; 18,406 feet), the highest peak in Mexico; to the west, the Popocatepetl (17,930 feet) and the Ixtaccihuatl (17,159 feet); and to the northwest, the Matlalcueyatl (La Malinche, in Spanish; 7,400 feet).8 In 1451, Tecamachalco’s rulers resettled its population a few miles east in the central part of a ridge now known as the Sierra del Monumento. From there, Tecamachalco exerted its lordship over a broad area of rich agricultural lands and strategic commercial routes used for transporting precious stones, prized feathers, cotton, and cacao from the Gulf of Mexico, Yucatán, and Oaxaca to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Because of its strategic importance, the Aztecs set out to conquer Tecamachalco and nearby lordships; in 1466, they made them into tributaries and military allies of their great empire. The new Nahuatl-speaking lords of Tecamachalco ruled over a population of mostly Popoloca speakers, who still live in the region.

In 1520, Tecamachalco fell to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, who enslaved two thousand prisoners and gave the town to one of his soldiers as an encomienda, or grant of land. That year, Tecamachalco suffered the onslaught of the “divine rash,” or smallpox, the first of several epidemics brought by the Spanish, which, over the course of sixty years, reduced its population by 90 percent.
In 1541, the first Spanish missionaries arrived in the town, which they renamed Tecamachalco de la Asunción, after the Virgin of the Assumption. Two years later, they resettled the town downhill from the Sierra del Monumento at the southern slope of the Cerro Techachales-Techalrey, nearer the route from the Spanish cities
of Veracruz and Puebla to Mexico City. The Spanish divided the preconquest lordship and turned Tecamachalco into a smaller cabecera, a town with jurisdiction over a few nearby villages and an Indian governor with limited powers.
Real authority lay elsewhere. The principal law enforcer became the alcalde mayor (chief constable), who lived in the provincial capital of Tepeaca, eight miles west of Tecamachalco. Thirty miles northwest of Tecamachalco, Puebla was the seat of the bishopric of Tlaxcala, second only in importance to the archbishop of Mexico City. Eighty-two miles northwest of Tecamachalco, or three days’ journey by road, was Mexico City, the seat of the viceroy, the archbishop, the Inquisition, and the Audiencia, or appellate court.

Geographical Relations, a document written in 1580 for the Spanish king Philip II to inform him about the region and its history, describes much of the province of Tepeaca as dry and cold land, good for growing wheat and raising sheep, the region’s chief agricultural products. However, Tecamachalco lay on “hot land,” good for growing the traditional preconquest crops of corn, beans, and chili peppers. The region also exported the valuable cochineal for use as crimson dye.
According to the same document, Tecamachalco had well-designed, clean streets and
a plaza sloping downhill to avoid flooding and diseases blamed on excessive humidity. A nearby stream powered a mill for grinding the wheat
grown primarily north of town in the fertile valley of San Pablo, where there were seventy Spanish farmers. A second stream supplied water to Tecamachalco’s residents, who lacked the convenience of a fountain in the plaza. On that busy plaza, farmers brought their vegetable and fruit produce, Indian women sold blankets and other wares, and neighbors came to discuss business and collect tribute at the “pretty and well-built” casas reales, or town hall.

Uphill from the plaza was the Church of the Assumption—where the scandal of July 1578 took place. The church still stands today, adjacent to the ruins of the former Franciscan monastery. Construction of the monastery may have begun as early as 1543. Some of its first friars were famous for their knowledge of native languages, such as Francisco del Toral, the future bishop of Yucatán, who composed the first Popoloca grammar. The consecration of the church took place in 1551. A fire in 1557 required its reconstruction, which was completed in 1561. The church’s
architecture is typical of early Franciscan fortress-churches, which look like medieval castles with a flat facade, massive walls, and crenellatedroofs.The bell tower, built around 1591, rises above the roof on the rightside of the facade. The main church door’s Gothic arch frames the doorway.
Directly above, a smaller arch topped by a cross frames a window.

Inside the church, painted on the vaulted ceiling just past the entrance, is one of most celebrated works of early colonial Mexican art, by the native
painter Juan Gersón. Named after the medieval French theologian Jean Gerson, Juan Gersón probably descended from the preconquest lords of Tecamachalco, since he received the privilege to dress in Spanish clothes, carry a sword, and ride a horse.18 He may have studied at the monastery, where he later became lay overseer of the upkeep of the church’s single chapel. Beginning in May 1562, Gersón painted twenty-eight scenes from the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation, inspired by prints from artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein the Younger. Gersón
painted the scenes on paper made from the bark of fig trees, which were
then affixed to the vaulted ceiling below the choir loft.19 Noah’s ark, full of animals, is one of the few peaceful images among scenes of violence
and divine retribution. Whereas the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
recalled the wars, plagues, hunger, and death brought on by the Spanish
conquest, the scene of Cain about to strike a helpless Abel
was a reminder that death need not come from the hand of a stranger. On 21 July 1578, only the church’s door separated these paintings
from Hernando Rubio Naranjo’s double-headed effigy and its own
ominous warning.

Tensions occasionally disrupted Tecamachalco’s mostly uneventful existence. Across Mexico, the Spanish conquest had sought to establish an order based on the segregation of the “Republic of Spaniards,” residing
in cities and towns, from the “Republic of Indians” in the countryside. In Tecamachalco, the hundred or so “Spanish” residents lived in town near the plaza or near the church. They were mostly farmers, but there were also scribes, artisans, and traders—such as Hernando Rubio Naranjo. The seven thousand “Indians” lived in nearby villages. Under Spanish
rule, the Indian governors continued to descend from the preconquest lords who spoke Nahuatl and, like the painter Juan Gersón, could wear Spanish clothes, ride horses, and carry swords. Spanish farmers from the region gladly socialized at the home of the Indian governor, Don—the title reserved for Spanish nobles—Joaquín de Peralta, who lived in the nearby town of Quecholac. In sharp contrast, Spaniards often looked down on the Popolocas, whom they treated as servants and subjected to all kinds of abuse.

The república de los españoles was even more heterogeneous than that of the Indians. Spaniards in town came from different regions of the Peninsula, including Andalusia, the Basque country, Castile, and Extremadura. Among them, a Portuguese migrant could settle, marry a local mestiza, and have a castizo son (strictly speaking, the offspring of Spanish and mestizo parents); that son would eventually marry a mestiza and expect his share of the Indian service to which Spanish landowners were entitled. By the 1570s, the casta system developed by Spanish
authorities to establish a clear racial hierarchy was only beginning to take
shape. Yet life in a small community like that of Tecamachalco could breed
a familiarity that often wrested importance from those racial differences.
This was especially true for the poorer residents not competing for the
coveted privileges and offices that authorities sought to restrict to Spaniards.
Excluding Indian servants and black slaves, friendships and family ties were common among Spaniards—whether born in the Peninsula or in the Americas—mestizos, castizos, and mulattos. In fact, outside authorities might view poor Spaniards with the same disdain that they expressed toward the mixed-race rabble.

The slander against Hernando Rubio Naranjo points to another source of friction not predicated upon the divide that pitted Spaniard against mixed-race or Indian. Spanish origin did not soften the prejudice against impure Jewish blood dating back well before the conquest that led to legal restrictions against those who descended from Jewish converts to Christianity, the conversos, on both sides of the Atlantic. The allegation that Rubio Naranjo had inherited from his “forebears” the shameful coat of arms of “San Benito” left no doubt that his anonymous accuser, or accusers, considered his blood tainted. Yet other aspects of the insults against Rubio Naranjo pointed to what David Nirenberg has described as the
“strategic adaptation and adoption of vocabularies of hatred.” Within the
republic of Spaniards in New Spain, personal rivalries often invoked this
protean image of the evil Jew to attack enemies. In particular, the deeds
allegedly committed by the trader, hinted at by the various symbols on the
effigy, referred to the Jew as a double-crosser and a “bad Christian,” which
meant anything from seeming a shameless sinner to being suspected of
not fulfilling prescribed acts, such as abstaining from meat during Lent or
confessing, or worse.

Calling someone a judío, or a perro judío (Jewish dog), was an everyday insult intended to sting, but it did not always rise to the level of a formal
accusation of being a Judaizer, a matter over which the Inquisition claimed
exclusive authority. Inquisitors knew well the distinction between the Jew
that was merely an insult, with or without merit, and the Jew in the sense
of the Judaizer. The former did not always concern the Inquisition; the
latter certainly did. Questions of honor could therefore cause internal rifts
whose ripples might threaten the political order of New Spain. Authorities
could not allow the desire to vent anger against a neighbor to challenge the
normal channels for resolving disputes. Any unauthorized abrogation of
power, even for a good end, required punishment lest it undermine trust
in legitimate authority. The effigy with its sambenitos hanging over a pile
of wood, the additional sambenitos affixed to the church’s wall, and the
signs denouncing Rubio Naranjo as a Jew left no doubt that someone in
Tecamachalco had staged a mock execution in effigy.

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