Clothing of Indian and Mestizo Women of the “Indian Conquistadors”

By Robert Munson April 2017

 The question has often come up regarding the clothing worn by the women of the Tlaxcala, Mixtec, and Zapotec Indians who allied themselves with the Spanish to conquer the Aztec Empire. These women frequently became wives of Spanish soldiers. These marriages were usually of the Baragania secular contract nature. Only 25 percent of these marriages were church sanctified with the blessing of the Holy Sacraments. The church did not recognize the Baragania contract, but Spanish civil law considered it to be a legal, binding contract for both the man and the woman to provide all the legal requirements of the marital state.

The Tlaxcala (and presumably, Mixtec and Zapotec) tribes recognized the legality of Barangania as it meshed with traditional practices of former enemies sealing their peace by marrying their women to the former opposing tribe. Indian spiritual or holy rites regarding marriage are not known but were probably agreeable to the Baragania format. In any case the church would not have recognized pagan rites any more than they would the Baragania contracts.

The Indian tribes were nominally baptized Catholic Christians, and thus could receive the church  sanctified sacraments of marriage. There is some question as to just how much the Indians understood and/or bought into Christianity, but that issue is addressed elsewhere.

So, what did these brides wear? What did the Mestizo women who came from these marriages and married more Spaniards wear?

The Spanish who conquered the empire in Central America recognized two things: One, they admired the Indian warriors as brave men, skilled with their weapons; foes and allies worthy of Spanish respect. Two, the Spanish armor, metal weapons, firearms, and horses provided the spearhead of conquest, but Indian warriors were the spear shaft which destroyed the enemy armies. The army with which Pedro de Alvarado invaded Guatemala in 1524 numbered 270 Spaniards and 7,000 Indian warriors commanded by their own Caciques (Captains). These men were respected as equals, the Caciques were “men of authority.” The native ranks were respected, the Caciques were recognized as the hidalgos of their people and thus called “Dons” and the women of Cacique families were accorded the honorific title “Dona.” They were referred to as the “Indian Conquistadors.”

We know that the Indian warriors, as late as 1550, continued to wear the cloth armor and all the trappings of their tribe in combat. The one Spanish piece of equipment the Indians adopted wholeheartedly was the metal sword. It was obviously the ultimate weapon. In councils they continued to wear their native garb. But what about the women? Did they continue to wear the Indian Huipil or did they adopt the camisa, cuerpo, and falda (chemise, sleeveless bodice, and overskirt) of the Spanish? In this regard it is perhaps of interest to note the observations of Harry Franck, a teacher who wrote a book in 1910 entitled Four Months Afoot in Spain. This book records Franck’s experience of the lives of rural Spain 360 years after the conquest of Central America.

Franck notes that in 1910 women of hamlets and small towns continued to wear their traditional folk costume of the immediate area in which they lived and had worn back in the times of the Reconquista. But they wore them only for Sunday Mass, festivals, and the weekly market day. For daily wear at home, they still wore the basic camisa, cuerpo, and falda. Modern Victorian and Edwardian European fashions were worn by women of all classes only in the big cities. If the highly conservative Spanish had not changed by 1910, did the Indian/Mestizo wives wear the high fashion of the 16th century Spanish at Mass, festivals, and market days and revert to the Huipil at home?  Probably in the Central American rural hamlets, villages, and small towns this was the case. But in the provincial capitol, Santiago, all classes who could afford it probably followed the tradition noted by Franck in 1910: wearing the latest fashions of the dominant society, the Spanish, on a daily basis. This was part of reminding the Spanish that the Indians were “Indian Conquistadors” equal to the ruling Spanish.

The adoption of Spanish styles probably increased as all classes wanted to be identified as “Conquistadors” because this was a source of power in the new regime. This became especially important as the Indians and Spaniards who had fought side by side to win the empire died off.  The Huipil probably came to be regarded as the clothing of the lowest classes only. The erosion of Indian status and rights went into high gear when men who had never fought for the empire came flooding in, looking to carve out their own estates. These bureaucrats regarded the Indians as nothing more than defeated natives occupying valuable Spanish land, not honored allies with property rights. The death knell of Indian rights began with the New Laws initiated in Guatemala in 1542. More and more it became important to be viewed as Spanish, not Indian, and clothing was by far the most visible expression of being Spanish not Indian.

Ultimately, the 1609 Law of Colonization destroyed even the rights of the grandchildren of the men who had created the empire. If you did not have verified pure Spanish blood, you could not own land.

Finally, the rebozo, so ubiquitous today, did not exist in the 16th century.

Last revised 18-Aug-22