A Mountain of Fire, or a Mountain of Water? Late 16th-Century Land Conflicts Relating to the Popocatepetl Volcano

Friday, January 4, 2019: 10:50 AM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton)
Megan McDonie, Penn State University
Popocatepetl in central Mexico presented a paradox to the Nahua and Spanish inhabitants who lived at its base during the late sixteenth century. Its volcanic activity spread large quantities of ash across its eastern slopes, creating a productive landscape. At the same time, the constant ash fall reminded local inhabitants of the potent and destructive energies that churned beneath the earth. This paper considers how Spaniards and Nahuas conceived of the Popocatepetl’s topography in suits regarding land ownership. Through evaluation of testimonies from property disputes over the volcanic terrain, this paper reveals that Nahuas and Spaniards had distinct understandings of the region’s ecology, which worked in favor of Nahua litigants. Nahuas had lived at the base of Popocatepetl for centuries and claimed the land up to the volcano’s peak. Communities relied on the ravines descending its slopes for fresh water and managed its ash fall to create productive spaces; some areas offered fertile fields, while others were suitable for animal grazing. Spanish landowners, who were new to volcanic terrains, slowly acclimated to this topography. They drew upon their own experiences and Nahua knowledge, soon realizing that Popocatepetl provided more sustenance than destruction. However, they often disregarded the various ways in which Nahuas engaged with this terrain; this oversight cost them their claims to the land. Ultimately, these land conflicts surrounding Popocatepetl reveal the volcano’s vital importance for Nahuas, while showcasing the volcano’s effect on the dynamics of colonization and cultural survival.