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Indigenous Mine Workers in the Guanajuato-Michoacán Region: Labor, Migration, and Ethnic Identity in Colonial Mexico, 1550-1800


This dissertation examines the participation of indigenous workers in the colonial mining industry of the Guanajuato-Michoacán region and the impact that this industry had on those workers and their communities of origin. In the present-day states of Guanajuato and Michoacán, Mexico, there existed a vibrant and lucrative mining economy throughout the colonial period (1521-1810). Michoacán’s mining industry produced a steady supply of copper and silver, and Guanajuato is best known for its extremely wealthy silver mines, especially after the mid-eighteenth century, when it became the world’s greatest producer of silver. The region’s mining industry created a very competitive labor market in which mine owners used different strategies to recruit and retain a labor force. Although mine owners paid many workers for their labor, the industry also relied on coerced forms of labor, including slavery, encomienda, repartimiento, and debt peonage.

Many scholars who have studied the economic significance of the mining industry in the region, and its impact on the world economy, have not adequately examined the composition of the labor force. Those who have studied the labor force have focused on particular mining centers, overlooking the regional context within which the mines operated. Miners competed with one another and with other industries for workers. This competition put considerable pressure on the region’s indigenous communities to provide the bulk of the labor force. Also, labor demands led many people to migrate, altering the demographic composition of the region. Using a regional history approach and ethnohistorical methodologies, the dissertation examines the nature of the labor institutions that were utilized to recruit workers to the mines, and the impact of the mining industry on indigenous workers and their communities. Ultimately, this dissertation uses a variety of original sources to highlight the important role that indigenous men and women played in the mining industry of Guanajuato, and the persistence of an indigenous identity in this mining town. My findings contribute to the fields of labor history, ethnohistory, and mining history.

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