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Spanish Court Records from Late Colonial Guatemala Catherine Komisaruk* - page 2 / 14





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suggests that some of the transcriptions were fairly accurate reflections of oral testimonies and depositions.

The court records in the AGCA include those of the local and provincial civil courts, as well as those of the Audiencia. The Audiencia served in effect as a court of appeals, hearing cases brought by people whose petitions had been un- successful in the lower courts, particularly those in the capital city. In the AGCA’s holdings for the late colonial years if not the earlier period, the local and provincial court records appear to be mixed together with cases heard by the Audiencia, though the whole body of documents is kept in chronological order.

I chose not to limit my study to indigenous people, since the corpus of litigation records seems to have a certain integrity as a whole, not only because these records were all generated within a single judicial system but also because so many of the individual records include depositions by witnesses and litigants of various social ranks and identities. In this respect, the court records don’t seem to fall into completely separate categories by social group; rather, the records reflect the multi-ethnic nature of the society.

Potential of these sources

One of the major potential uses of Spanish American court records has been for the study of crimes and legal disputes themselves, as a number of important works have illustrated. In particular, a growing body of historiography has analyzed riots and rebellions or revolts, based on caches of trial records that have been found for moments (or periods) when large numbers of rioters or rebels were arrested and put on trial.2

In my work on Guatemala, though, very few of the court records I am using were generated because of rebellions. My research does bridge the moment of independence, as I have looked at records from the 1760s up to the 1840s. But in Central America the decade leading up to 1821 was marked by the relative infre- quency of localized rebellions compared with the Valley of Mexico. Indepen- dence in Central America in 1821 does not seem to have followed a particularly rebellious epoch.3 Thus my analysis of court records in Guatemala has been concerned less with crime or litigation itself, and more with information about ordinary social structures, behaviors, and relationships—information that I have been able to glean from the narratives transcribed as court testimonies or depo- sitions.4 The court records I have found contain much detail about numerous aspects of daily life, as viewed and described by mostly illiterate people whose words I have not found recorded elsewhere. The speakers range widely in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, economic status, and occupation. In Guatemala the

2As in Taylor 1979 and Van Young 2001. 3More than a decade after independence, the important 1837 political shift in Central

America did start with a revolt based in rural eastern Guatemala. In her work uncovering the social origins of this revolt, Ann Jefferson (2000) has used some litigation records to study early roots of discontent in the rebellious region dating back to the mid-eighteenth

century. 4In this respect, my approach has been similar to Lisa Sousa’s work with criminal

records from Mexico, and to Kimberly Gauderman’s work with litigation by women in Quito.

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