Perceptions of Spanish Justice: Metaphor, Translation, and Legal Memory in Colonial Oaxaca

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 12:00 PM
Columbia Hall 2 (Washington Hilton)
Yanna P. Yannakakis, Emory University
The Spanish legal system provided the architecture of Spanish colonial administration in the Americas.  From the early years of colonialism until Independence (and beyond) native people participated actively in the system as litigants, witnesses, interpreters, and legal agents, and in their role as municipal officers, as courts of first instance.  Influential scholarship has suggested that the reason that native people – and more broadly, colonial subjects – sought recourse to colonial courts with such frequency was that first, colonialism exacerbated tensions and conflicts within native society which found expression in the courts, and second, native people believed that colonial courts could provide them with a modicum of “justice.”  I suggest that this view, which adopts the perspective of Iberian legal philosophy, is only part of the story.  According to Spanish legal custom, “justice” as dispensed by the Crown and its representatives was meant to insure the protection and defense of the poor and “wretched,” balance the competing interests of colonial subjects, and preserve social peace.  But how did native people – especially those who lived far from Spanish colonial centers -- perceive and engage colonial notions of “justice”?  This paper approaches this question through a close analysis of the rhetoric of thirty Zapotec language criminal records (memorias), produced by municipal councils of Oaxaca’s northern sierra from the mid 17th through early 18th centuries, and which recount the misdeeds and moral transgressions of community members. Emphasizing the use of Zapotec metaphors to craft the memorias and their Spanish translations produced by a court interpreter, I analyze popular perceptions of law and how those perceptions were translated into Spanish discourse for use in the courts.  In doing so, I contribute to our understanding of the place of notarial writing, metaphor, and translation in the construction of legal memory in northern Zapotec communities.
<< Previous Presentation | Next Presentation