Introduction: The Social Ecology of the
Sonoran Frontier
We shall see how the history of nature is at the same time social history.
Juan Martinez-Alier, 19911
Wandering Peoples charts a secular process of both change and continuity in
the ecological, cultural, and political relations through which the high-
land peoples of northwestern Mexico defined their world. It examines
the persistence of ethnic polity and peasant economy during the eigh-
teenth and early nineteenth centuries, in order to produce a regional
history that addresses some of the core issues of Latin American histo-
riography.2 As such, this book concerns ethnic divisions and the emer-
gence of social classes, the reconstitution of indigenous communities,
and the complexities of cultural adaptation and resistance. The main
argument concerns social stratification along ethnic, class, and gender
lines during this period of transition between the Bourbon colonial ad-
ministration and the formative years of the Mexican Republic. While
focusing on one province of northern New Spain, this study looks for
the linkages which help to explain both the incorporation of this region
into the European world economy and the ways in which the responses
of indigenous peoples modified Spain's imperial project.
The thematic sequence of Wandering Peoples follows multiple strands
of conflict in the struggle for control over basic resources in the re-
gion, a struggle that points to the ambiguity of the state in a marginal
area of the Spanish Empire. Here, metropolitan institutions developed
slowly and haltingly, conditioned by local variants in the ecological and
cultural bases of colonial society.3 Research focused on the frontiers of
empire alerts us to the historically changing quality of commonly used
categories like peasant and Indian, and helps us to identify different social
contenders for power.
The Sonoran Desert and its surrounding upland forests comprised a
number of different frontiers in northern New Spain. The provinces of
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