Introduction
On December 15, 1806, the pardo shoemakers Mariano Camara and
Juan Josef Frutos wrote to the fiscal of the audiencia of Buenos Aires
to protest a recent decision by one of the city’s two alcaldes. The
alcalde had assessed every shoemaker in the city sixteen and a half
pesos to liquidate the accumulated legal costs associated with a long
and unsuccessful effort to create a guild of shoemakers.1 Camara and
Frutos complained that they were not even apprentices seventeen
years earlier when a group of master shoemakers, no longer active
in the trade, incurred the first of these legal fees.2 In many ways this
is an unexceptional case, two men of humble circumstances appeal-
ing to Spanish colonial authorities to void an unfavorable judgment
by a municipal officer. Historians of Spanish America have long used
cases like this to suggest the myriad ways that indigenous groups,
slaves, and free plebeians skillfully used Spanish law and legal in-
stitutions to protect customary practices or historic rights, demon-
strating in the accumulation of examples the possibilities for human
agency in a range of Spanish colonial settings.
While identifying themselves by calidad and occupation, tradi-
tional markers for social status in the Spanish colonies, Camara and
Frutos simultaneously sought to escape consequences that attached
to another important component of identity and status for the urban
plebe, membership in a corporate craft organization. The back story
to their appeal reveals a broad swath of the plebeian experience in
late colonial Buenos Aires. The leaders of this craft first proposed the
creation of a guild to Viceroy Juan José Vértiz y Salcedo (viceroy,
1778–1784) in 1779 but quickly dropped this idea in the face of un-
anticipated opposition from the cabildo. The shoemakers renewed
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