Indigenous Aguascalientes: The Sixteenth Century Land of War

Location and Description

The State of Aguascalientes, located in central Mexico, is one of the smallest states in the Mexican Republic. Sharing its borders with Jalisco (on the south) and Zacatecas (on the north, west and east), Aguascalientes occupies a total of 5,616 square kilometers (2,168 square miles), which represents only 0.3% of Mexico’s national territory and is the twenty-eighth largest state in terms of area. Politically, Aguascalientes is divided into eleven municipios.

a population of 1,312,544 in 2010, Aguascalientes was ranked twenty-seventh
among the Mexican states and Distrito Federal in terms of population.The
capital of Aguascalientes is the city by the same name. In 2010, the City of
Aguascalientes – as the sixteenth largest city in Mexico – had a total
population of 777,615 persons, representing almost 60% of the state’s entire

Aguascalientes is
noted for its warm mineral springs and its comfortable climate. It has been
called La Ciudad Perforada (City of Holes) because of the
labyrinth of tunnels dug in Pre-Hispanic times by an unknown Indian tribe.

Physical Description

The state of Aguascalientes
is comprised within three physiographic provinces, described below and
illustrated in the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI)
graphic on the following page:

  1. The Sierra Madre Occidental which covers 47.51% of the  state’s total landmass in the western portion of the state
  2. The Mesa del Centro — also known as the Central Plateau — takes up 48.14 of Aguascalientes’ land mass, primarily in the east
  3. The Neovolcanic Axis (Eje Neovolcánico) makes up a small stretch of the south central region of the state, which accounts for 4.35% of the state’s land mass.

Aguascalientes Economy Today

Although it is one of the smallest Mexican states, Aguascalientes holds a position of great importance in the Mexican Republic, in large part because of its strategic location within the country. With its textile, electronics and auto parts industries, Aguascalientes represents an integral part of the Mexican economy.

Located on the Anáhuac Plateau, the state
is linked by railroad to both Mexico City in the south and Ciudad Juárez in the
north. In fact, Aguascalientes’ transportation network is linked to many parts
of Mexico. A ride to Guadalajara would take approximately 2 hours and 15
minutes, while a drive north to the city of Zacatecas would take one hour and
45 minutes.

In 2017, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
of Aguascalientes was 283,073 million pesos, representing 1.4% of Mexico’s
national GDP of 20.7 million pesos. The construction, manufacturing, wholesale
and retail sectors contributed to 65.8% of the total GDP of Aguascalientes in
2017. At the same time, Aguascalientes had a total work force of almost 550,000
workers, of which 44.1% were employed in manufacturing or commerce. So, in
spite of its small size, Aguascalientes remains an important element of
Mexico’s economy and infrastructure.

La Gran Chichimeca

The Aguascalientes
of today is a successful urban area with a good economy. However in the
Sixteenth Century, when the Spaniards first arrived, it was part of a larger
area that the Spaniards called “La Gran
Chichimeca” (The Great Chichimeca)
, which also included most of Jalisco,
Zacatecas, Nayarit, Guanajuato and parts of San Luis Potosí and Durango.  Collectively, the indigenous people who
inhabited the Gran Chichimeca were known as the Chichimecas, a large group made up of several nomadic tribes that
had never been conquered by the Aztec Indians of the south. 

The Chichimeca Groups

Over time, the Chichimeca label became synonymous with the word “barbarian” among the Spaniards and Mexica, but the word also implied that they were “noble savages.” Although the Chichimeca were considered “extremely primitive in culture,” both the Spaniards and the Aztecs came to fear and respect the Chichimeca tribes as “peerless bowmen, awesomely brave, and masters of hit-and-run warfare” as they defended their ancestral homelands against incursions from the south. Professor Philip Wayne Powell – in “Solders, Indians and Silver” – discussed the Chichimeca groups in detail.

The Chichimecs were never a single people sharing a common language, but comprised several indigenous groups living through a large swathe of territory. The primary tribes occupying the Gran Chichimeca were the Zacatecos, Guachichiles, Tecuexes, Caxcanes, Otomies, Pames and Guamares. All of the Chichimeca Indians shared a primitive hunting-collecting culture. The map on the following pages shows the rough distribution of the Chichimecas across a seven-state region of central Mexico [Grin20, “Map Depicting Geographic Expanse of Chichimeca nations, ca. 1550” at Wikipedia, “Chichimeca War” (Published Jan. 4, 2012)].

The Spanish Arrival

When the Spaniards arrived in region in the 1520s, the area we now know as Aguascalientes was located in Chichimec Indian territory and represented a frontier region between three indigenous groups: the Caxcanes, Zacatecos, and Guachichiles. Caxcán farmers inhabited the southwestern portion of present-day Aguascalientes. In the north lived the nomadic Zacatecos Indians. And to the east in the largest part of the state lived the warlike Guachichile Indians.

The Caxcanes territory spread south and west through the Three-Fingers Border Region of present-day Zacatecas and Jalisco. The Zacatecos inhabited most of what is now known as Western Zacatecas. The widespread Guachichiles inhabited large portions of eastern Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, eastern Jalisco, and western Guanajuato.

Guzmán’s Deadly Expedition (1529-1530)

At the end of
1529, after serving as President of the First Audiencia in Mexico, a
professional lawyer named Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán led a land expedition from
Mexico City toward the region of Aguascalientes and Jalisco. Leading an army of
300 Spaniards and 6,000 indigenous warriors, Guzmán entered this territory and
discovered springs of thermal water and mineral deposits.

In his expeditions, Guzmán laid waste to large areas of Jalisco,
Aguascalientes, Michoacán, and Zacatecas, capturing and enslaving many Indians.
Although Guzmán was eventually brought to trial for his crimes, his reign of
terror would become a major catalyst for the Mixtón Rebellion of 1541.

In April and May of 1530, Guzmán’s lieutenants Pedro Almendes Chirinos and
Cristóbal de Oñate, spent some time exploring the territory of present-day
Teocaltiche, Nochistlán and Aguascalientes. During the 1530s, more Spanish
forces moved into the area, and soon the Spanish colonial administrators gave
this region the name Nueva Galicia, an area that comprised much of present-day
Jalisco, Nayarit, Aguascalientes, and Zacatecas.

The Chichimeca War (1550-1590)

The discovery of
silver in Zacatecas in 1546 led to a dramatic increase in the number of
Spaniards and Indians coming north to seek wealth and employment opportunities
in the burgeoning colonial economy. The numerous contacts led to the inevitable
confrontation with the native tribes in the area. During the extended conflict
known as the Chichimeca War, some areas of Aguascalientes, Zacatecas and
Jalisco became almost uninhabitable.

The Founding of Aguascalientes (1575)

From 1568 to
1580, Martin Enríquez de Almanza, serving as the Viceroy of Nueva España,
decided to establish military outposts along the merchant routes to protect both
merchants and merchandise passing through the area from Zacatecas to Mexico
City. The Viceroy believed that the garrisons would stand as a buffer against
the hostile Indians occupying the area. This led to the founding of La Villa de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción
de Aguascalientes
(The Village of Our Lady of the Assumption of
Aguascalientes) on October 22, 1575 by Doñ Gerónimo de Orozco, the President of
the Royal Audiencia and Governor of Nueva Galicia. The founding of the villa
was approved by King Felipe II, the ruling monarch in Spain.

Aguascalientes under Siege (1582-1593)

However, the
intensity of the Chichimeca War continued to increase and by 1582, the
population of Aguascalientes had dwindled to one military commander, 16
soldiers and two citizen residents. In effect, the small settlement — located
in the middle of the war zone — was under siege. But in the late 1580s, the
threat of Indian attack diminished steadily, as the Spanish authorities
attempted to negotiate a peace with the Indians of the region. The last Indian
attack on Aguascalientes territory took place in 1593, after which the threat
of hostile attack disappeared entirely and the region experienced a new peace.

Cultural Extinction and Assimilation

The Chichimeca
War and its aftermath led directly to the cultural extinction and assimilation
of the Zacatecos and Guachichile Indians. 
As the war raged on, the Spaniards had relied heavily upon their Indian
allies in many ways.  According to Professor
Powell, the friendly “Indians formed the bulk of the fighting forces against
the Chichimeca warriors.”  Elaborating on
this issue, Professor Powell wrote: “As
fighters, as burden bearers, as interpreters, as scouts, as emissaries, the
pacified natives of New Spain played significant and often indispensable roles
in subjugating and civilizing the Chichimeca country.”

time, this use of native allies by the Spaniards led to the virtual disappearance
of the nomadic tribes as they were absorbed into the northward-moving Indian
people from the south. As the Chichimeca War ended and
the Zacatecos and Guachichile Indians settled down to work for their former
enemies, the nomadic tribes of Zacatecas were gradually absorbed into the
Spanish and Indian groups that had invaded their lands half-a-century earlier.
By the early seventeenth century, the Guachichiles and Zacatecas Indians
disappeared as distinguishable cultural
. And thus, Dr. Powell concludes, “the sixteenth-century land
of war thus became fully Mexican in its mixture.”

A Tide of New Settlers (1590s)

The new-found peace of the 1590s, according to the historian Peter Gerhard, “brought a tide of Spanish settlers beginning in the 1590s, mostly cattlemen and farmers.” The indigenous population of the area was soon incorporated into the work force of the local haciendas. Because epidemics and war had reduced the Indian population of the area, many slaves were brought into to labor alongside the Indians as the small village of Aguascalientes grew in size and stature.

By 1610, the small town of Aguascalientes had approximately 25 Spanish residents, about fifty families of mestizos, at least 100 mulatos, twenty Black slaves, and ten Indians. Most of these twenty-five Spanish inhabitants are believed to have been among the founding families of Aguascalientes, bearing the surnames Ruiz de Esparza, Alvarado, Tiscareno de Molina, Luebana, and Delgado.

Jurisdictional Battles

During both colonial
times and after independence, Aguascalientes was frequently the subject of
jurisdictional battles between its neighboring states, Jalisco and Zacatecas.
In 1804, the region became a subdelegación of Zacatecas. With
the end of the Mexican War of Independence, Aguascalientes became an
independent political entity on June 22, 1821. However, soon after, in 1824,
the small territory was incorporated as part of the State of Zacatecas and for
the next 14 years it remained attached to its northern neighbor.

Santa Anna Separates Aguascalientes from
Zacatecas (1835)

However, in 1835, the ruling party of Zacatecas rebelled against the national government. Soon, Federal forces under General Antonio López de Santa Anna were making their way to Zacatecas with the intention of quelling the revolt. On May 11, 1835, the Zacatecas militia, under the command of Francisco Garcia, was defeated at the Battle of Guadalupe by Santa Anna’s forces. Soon after this victory, Santa Anna’s forces ransacked the city of Zacatecas and the rich silver mines at Fresnillo.

In addition to seizing large quantities of Zacatecan silver, Santa Anna instigated a political punishment against the State of Zacatecas for its mutiny. Less than two weeks later, on May 23, 1835, the Mexican Congress declared the formation of the Territory of Aguascalientes, separating the territory from Zacatecas and setting in motion a process that would eventually lead to statehood. The loss of Aguascalientes and its rich agricultural terrain would be a severe blow to the economy and the spirit of Zacatecas.

Santa Anna had his own date with destiny. After putting down the Zacatecas revolt, the General made his way north to end another revolt in the northern Mexican state of Texas. Months later, on Feb. 26, 1836, Santa Anna’s forces attacked and seized control of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. Two months later, on April 21, he was defeated and captured by General Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto.

The Free and Sovereign State of Aguascalientes (1857)

On May 21, 1847,
the Mexican National Congress decreed that Aguascalientes would be reintegrated
as a part of the state of Zacatecas. But, on Dec. 10, 1853, Aguascalientes was
once again granted independence from Zacatecas and elevated to the rank of a
Department. Finally, on February 5, 1857, the Federal Constitution of the
Mexican Republic was given the title El
Estado Libre y Soberano de Aguascalientes
(Free and Sovereign
State of Aguascalientes).

The 1921 Census

In 1921, the Mexican
census taken after the Mexican Revolution indicated that a total of nineteen
persons residing in the State spoke the Náhuatl tongue. However, although the
population of Aguascalientes had lost its ability to communicate in indigenous
languages, many residents still recognized a genetic and cultural connection
with their Indian ancestors.  The 1921
census asked citizens of each state to classify themselves in several
categories, including “indígena pura” (pure indigenous), “indígena mezclada con
blanca” (indigenous mixed with white) and “blanca” (white).

Out of a total
state population of 107,581, 17,961 persons (or 16.7%) claimed to be of pure
indigenous background.  Another 71,137 –
or 66.1% – classified themselves as being mixed, while 18,043 (16.77%) claimed
to be white.

Indigenous Aguascalientes (2000)

In the 2000 Mexican census, among all Aguascalientes residents who were
5 years of age or more, only 1,244 individuals were classified as speakers of
indigenous languages. These individuals spoke a minimum of thirty-five Mexican
indigenous languages, all of which were transplants from other parts of the
Mexican Republic. Of the 1,244 indigenous language speakers, only ten were
monolingual and unable to communicate in the Spanish language. In addition, 403
children between the ages of 0 and 4 were living in households headed by an
indigenous language speaker.

most widely spoken indigenous languages represented in the 2000 census
were:  Náhuatl (268 speakers), Mazahua
(109), Otomí (107), Zapoteco (84), Huichol (64), Purépecha (53), Mixteco (52)
and Maya (49).

However, according
to the estimates of CONAPO (Consejo Nacional del Población – The National
Council on Population), 3,472 persons in
Aguascalientes in 2000 were listed as being of indigenous origin, representing
only 0.4% of Aguascalientes’ total population (944,285). The largest
concentration of indigenous individuals lived in the municipio of
Aguascalientes, where 2,768 individuals were classified as “Indígena,”
representing 0.4% of Aguascalientes’ total population of 563,760. Only a third of these
people actually spoke indigenous languages. It is
likely that most of the Purépecha speakers were probably from Michoacán de Ocampo, and most of the Zapoteco and Mixteco speakers were migrants from the state
of Oaxaca. 

Indigenous Aguascalientes (2010)

In the 2010
census, Aguascalientes had the smallest population of persons 5 years of age or
older who spoke indigenous languages among all the Mexican states: 2,436. The
number of indigenous speakers 3 years of age and older was only slightly more
at 2,493 individuals. Nearly seventy-four percent of those individuals (1,790)
lived in the municipio of the City of Aguascalientes.

The most spoken
indigenous language in Aguascalientes in 2010 was the Náhuatl language, with
391 persons (15.7% of all the indigenous speakers in the state), followed by
Mazahua (176 speakers – or 7.1%), Huichol (107 speakers) and Otomí (101

Indigenous Aguascalientes (The 2015 Intercensal Survey)

In 2016, the
Mexican government agency, Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografía e
Informática (INEGI), published the 2015 Intercensal Survey, which upgraded
Mexico’s socio-demographic information to the midpoint between the 2010 census
and the census to be carried out in 2020. With a sample size of over 6 million
homes, this survey provides information on the national, state and municipio
level, as of March 15th, 2015.

One of the 2015
survey questions read “De acuerdo, con su cultura, se considera indígena?”
Essentially, Mexican residents were being asked if they considered themselves
indigenous through their culture. According to the Intercensal Survey 2015,
Aguascalientes had a total population of 1,312,544, and 11.69% of its
inhabitants – more than one in ten – identified with their indigenous ancestry,
even though only 0.25% of the population actually spoke an indigenous language.

The Lure of Aguascalientes

Since the
original indigenous inhabitants of Aguascalientes were pacified and assimilated
into the Spanish colonial society during the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries, the only languages now spoken in state are transplants from other
regions of the country. It is no surprise that Náhuatl ‒ which is spoken by 1.5
million Mexicans and over 23% of all indigenous speakers ‒ is the most spoken
language in Aguascalientes.

Today, Aguascalientes
is a state that is rich in culture, history, art and economic potential. Many
Mexican Americans look to Aguascalientes as their ancestral homeland, as the
State has been sending large numbers of its citizens north for the last hundred
years. Today, Mexican Americans and citizens of Aguascalientes are intrigued
and fascinated by the cultural and artistic lure of this beautiful state.

Copyright © 2019 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved.


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