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The Desagüe Reconsidered:

Environmental Dimensions of
Class Conflict in Colonial Mexico

Vera Candiani

W hat does it mean to read history through environmental change? I explore

this question by thinking of change and continuity in culture, social relations,
and economy as inseparable from how water, land, and ecosystems are used by
groups of people with different aims and interests. Somewhat self-evident and
valid everywhere, this idea can explain the significance of transformations that
occurred wherever populous New World indigenous states encountered sud-
den European colonization. To address the question at a manageable scale in
a key region, this article reexamines the Desagüe, the drainage project under-
taken by Spanish colonists in the Valley of Mexico, from its inception in the
early seventeenth century to the end of the colonial era. Both the urban elites
of Mexico City and indigenes in the countryside sought to modify the valley’s
ecology and appropriate its resources, but each did so with disparate ideas about
the substance and extent of this modification and appropriation. The resulting
struggle between these competing uses of nature both determined the course
of environmental change and shaped social and class relations in the Valley
of Mexico.
Lacking a natural drainage, the Valley of Mexico is an elevated basin of five
interconnected lakes whose level rises during the rainy season and falls during
the dry months. Indigenous city-states of the region developed complex engi-
neering to manage both flooding and aridity while ensuring food production,
urban water supply, and navigation for exchange, diplomacy, and warfare. The
Spaniards took the indigenous Tenochtitlán as their own capital, which they
turned into a key seat of imperial rule. From Mexico City, they strove to orga-
nize a regional economy modeled on Iberian patterns, which required more

I thank Ted Steinberg, Alejandro Tortolero, Jeremy Adelman, Stanley Stein, Eric Engles,
New York City Workshop in Latin American History participants, and HAHR’s anonymous
readers for their encouragement and critiques.

Hispanic American Historical Review 92:1

doi 10.1215/00182168-1470959
Copyright 2012 by Duke University Press
6 HAHR / February / Candiani

extensive modification of the basin’s hydrology than that wrought by indigenous

technology. By the mid-sixteenth century the lakes were filling with eroded soil
and frequently overflowing onto the growing capital; therefore in 1607 colonial
elites approved a massive artificial drainage project to dry up the lakes and help
control flooding, the well-known Desagüe de Huehuetoca.
As an attempt to reengineer hydrological dynamics on an extremely large
scale, the Desagüe faced many natural and technological obstacles, but social
factors also interfered with the ability of urban elites to shape the environment
to suit their needs: to fix what and where land and water were and to drain
away much of the latter. The most important hindrance to drainage was the
continued existence of an autonomous peasantry, whose uses for land and water
diverged from those of both urban and rural elites. The complex, multifaceted,
and often passive resistance of the peasantry is difficult to understand through
the lens of traditional historiography, which considers the Desagüe as essentially
a product of an implicitly urban creole ingenuity. In fact, the Desagüe required
the appropriation and redeployment of rural and local indigenous technology
and labor. Land, water, and technological objects in the Valley of Mexico were
arenas of ongoing struggle over use and meaning throughout the colonial era
and beyond.

A Tale of Two Intellectual Legacies

By focusing on the state and its actors, heirs of the liberal historiographic tradi-
tion have missed important aspects of the environmental history of the region,
such as how a large-scale environmental work like the Desagüe interacted with
surrounding power and property relations. Historians influenced by this tra-
dition tend to deal with environment, science, and technology using methods
developed while it was still believed that the development of the state, produc-
tion, and industrialization (capitalist or otherwise) were inescapable and “pro-
gressive” tasks for all societies. This approach was paradoxically reinforced after
Karl Wittfogel linked irrigation hydraulic engineering to the rise of central-
ized bureaucracies, and after postmodern scholarship battered both liberal and
Marxist tools without providing replacements suitable for material studies. This
historiography sees water and land conflicts through state-related institutions
such as the market and the law and rarely strays from asking how water and land
became commodities, how common rights were eroded, and how Indians used
the colonial legal system to defend these rights.
Unfortunately, our ability to understand human interactions with eco-
systems historically is hampered by the insistence on attaching a value (positive
The Desagüe Reconsidered 7

or negative) to economic growth and state formation, which keeps the state’s
entities and actors “at the organizational core of (environmental) history.”1
Clearly these categories of analysis are important and produce fine studies of
water and land in production, urban consumption, and hygiene.2 As exclusive
organizers of inquiry, however, they obscure ecological and nonelite costs of
environmental changes triggered by engineering “public” works created to ben-
efit the “nation.” Within the broad topic of environmental engineering, includ-
ing the Desagüe, this approach has kept technicians, authorities, and “peak”
periods at the heart of narratives.3 Consequently, Latin American environmen-
tal history has found it hard to improve upon what Elinor Melville did for Mex-
ico or Warren Dean for Brazil, particularly in what John McNeill calls “material
environmental history.”4 Specific interrogations of nature are rarely driven into
the heart of traditional questions in political, economic, and social history, as
Ted Steinberg points out for US environmental history, or as David Edgerton
might have added in his critique of history of technology as overly focused on
change.5 Moreover, even with insights from studies of science and technology,

1. Ted Steinberg, “Fertilizing the Tree of Knowledge: Environmental History Comes

of Age,” review of Encyclopedia of World Environmental History, ed. Shepard Krech III, J. R.
McNeill, and Carolyn Merchant, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 35, no. 2 (Autumn 2004):
265 – 77. My parentheses.
2. For example, Bernardo García Martínez and Alba González Jácome, eds., Estudios
sobre historia y ambiente en América, vol. 1 (Mexico City: Colmex, Instituto Panamericano
de Geografía e Historia, 1999); Sonya Lipsett-Rivera, To Defend Our Water with the Blood
of Our Veins: The Struggle for Resources in Colonial Puebla (Albuquerque: Univ. of New
Mexico, 1999).
3. Among these are Louisa Schell Hoberman, “City Planning in Spanish Colonial
Government: The Response of México City to the Problem of Floods, 1607 – 1637” (PhD
diss., Columbia Univ., 1972), and “Technological Change in a Traditional Society: The Case
of the Desagüe in Colonial Mexico,” Technology and Culture 21, no. 3 ( July 1980): 386 – 407;
Richard E. Boyer, La gran inundación: Vida y sociedad en México, 1629 – 1638 (Mexico City:
Sepsetentas, 1975); Alain Musset, El agua en el valle de México: Siglos XVI – XVIII (Mexico
City: Pórtico-CEMC, 1992); Jorge Gurría Lacroix, El desagüe del valle de México durante
la época novohispana (Mexico City: UNAM, 1978). Contrast Chandra Mukerji, Impossible
Engineering: Technology and Territoriality on the Canal du Midi (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
Univ. Press, 2009).
4. J. R. McNeill, “Observations on the Nature and Culture of Environmental History,”
History and Theory 42, no. 4 (Dec. 2003): 5 – 43.
5. Ted Steinberg, “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History,” American
Historical Review 107, no. 3 ( June 2002): 798 – 820. Exceptions include Michael C. Meyer,
Water in the Hispanic Southwest: A Social and Legal History, 1550 – 1850 (1984; Tucson:
Univ. of Arizona Press, 1996); Elinor G. K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental
Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994); Cynthia
8 HAHR / February / Candiani

most environmental historians still cannot explain how environmental change

and social struggle relate to the instrumental and organizational technologies
people create to capture nature.
Working within this legacy has yielded decreasing returns for our under-
standing of human relationships with their ecosystems, at least for the colonial
period. Marxist analysis spawned powerful alternative concepts in the historiog-
raphy and rich debates, which bloomed for the colonial era around works of
Enrique Tandeter, Carlos Sempat Assadourian, Steve Stern, and Emmanuel
Wallerstein, among others. Although US environmental history often uses
Marx’s theory of value and the concept of mode of production, US Latin Ameri-
canists generally abandoned Marxism before its tradition bore ripe fruit.6 Conse-
quently, as we turned to environmental history we did so without the lessons that
Tandeter’s generation had taught, particularly in social and economic history.
These tools can lead to insights about why environmental engineering
works can function in very different ways in different parts of the world. The
Desagüe was a project of Mexico City, for a long time the largest city in the
western hemisphere but also a node in a colonial and later semicolonial set of
relationships — a locus of uneven and combined development.7 As in North
America, Latin American cities have projected these colonizing relationships
onto territories. But the Desagüe’s City of Mexico was not William Cronon’s
Chicago, its elites unrelentingly subjecting nature to autonomous metropoli-
tan dictates, because Chicago (or London, Lyons, or Milan) did not evolve as a
colonial administrative center of power collecting wealth that would be largely
lost to the territory and its societies.8 From the sixteenth century on, the hinter-
land where the colonial capital’s drainage project sat happened to be peppered

Radding, Wandering Peoples: Colonialism, Ethnic Spaces, and Ecological Frontiers in

Northwestern Mexico, 1700 – 1850 (Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 1997); see also works
in the tradition of Angel Palerm and Eric R. Wolf. David Edgerton, “De l’innovation
aux usages: Dix thèses éclectiques sur l’histoire des techniques,” Annales: Histoire, Sciences
Sociales 4 – 5 ( Jul. – Oct. 1998): 815 – 37.
6. Donald Worster and William Cronon have invoked these concepts but thought
them insufficient: Worster, “Transformations of the Earth: Toward an Agroecological
Perspective in History,” Journal of American History 76, no. 4 (Mar. 1990): 1087 – 106;
Cronon, “Models of Prophecy and Production: Placing Nature in History,” Journal of
American History 76, no. 4 (Mar. 1990): 1122 – 31.
7. I reject the connotation of “development” in this concept as progress toward
capitalism. See George Novack, “The Law of Uneven and Combined Development and
Latin America,” Latin American Perspectives 3, no. 2 (1976): 100 – 106.
8. William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York:
W. W. Norton & Co., 1991).
The Desagüe Reconsidered 9

with agricultural communities whose social organization and appropriation

of nature were neither impermeable to nor determined by the market, capital-
ism, or even the state, despite centuries of interaction with indigenous states.
Sixteenth- to late eighteenth-century merchants, rentiers, and bureaucrats of
Mexico City strove to collect the wealth of this hinterland. More determined to
achieve “progress,” nineteenth- and twentieth-century Mexico City elites tried
to create a mestizo Iowa-on-the-Lakes dominated by private-property relations
and fully commercialized agricultural production as a basis for industrializa-
tion. But their efforts never fully vanquished the peasantry and rural popula-
tions in the basin of Mexico. At the same time, rural inhabitants, even at the
height of revolutionary mobilizations, were unable or unwilling to eliminate
capitalist forces from their midst.
In Latin American environmental history, social interactions with eco-
systems have been inflected through colonial relationships specific to the
region and to the early modern era, and through specific semicolonial rela-
tionships from the nineteenth century on.9 But this should not bar northern
environmental historians from cross-fertilizing with a Latin American histo-
riography that revitalizes the concepts of mode of production, the theory of
value, and uneven and combined development. Without these concepts, we
have had difficulty imagining how the south might illuminate socioenviron-
mental processes in both the colonial world and the northern metropolises.
With them, can we transcend the prevalent mode of analyzing water and land
as mainly inputs in production, to reveal them as the essential elements of the
human-ecosystem nexus?
This article tries to answer this using the concept of use and exchange value
in the Desagüe. If the Desagüe had a clear social content, how was this class bias
embedded in the technological design of the “public work,” and what can physi-
cal structures and environmental change tell us about how these priorities con-
flicted with those of competing social classes? How can environmental history
and history of technology help explain why and how an indigenous peasantry
survived around the Desagüe but not in comparable sites? I tackle these ques-
tions by exploring labor and technological appropriation in the works and the
different meanings of water and land, and by comparison with the English fens
drainage. By looking at how people used Desagüe objects to struggle over these
different meanings and environmental change over time, instead of at the end

9. Similar notions appear in Guillermo Castro Herrera, “Environmental History

(Made) in Latin America,” (2001), H-Net (Humanities and Social Sciences Online),
10 HAHR / February / Candiani

of time, we may escape the traps of “the narrative of decline” that still pervades
much of environmental history of the Americas and beyond.10

Same Environment, Different Interests

Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the seasonal wetland environments of the
basin were central to life for indigenes, from the smallest hamlet to the powerful
city-states along the shores. Over time, commoners and state technicians engi-
neered water management systems at every scale to maximize food production,
prevent floods in urban centers, segregate brackish waters from fresh ones, import
freshwater, and ensure canoe communications. Chinampas, artificially raised hor-
ticulture beds, produced large quantities of food without sacrificing the watery
ecosystems indigenes needed as protein habitats. The chinampas required a lacus-
trine setting for moisture and nutrients, allowing production of maize, beans,
squash, amaranth, tomatoes, and chilis to exist side by side with fish-farming
enclosures in the lakes and a functioning ecosystem with shoreline vegetation
that nursed insect larvae, a delicacy for humans and aquatic animals alike. A vast
network of causeways allowed the city-states to manage the movement and com-
position of water in the basin. All these works were built with an understanding
of water and land as variable, multifunctional, and not clearly distinguished from
each other: fields became lakes in the rainy season; water was not just an irrigator
but also a medium critical for fertility-sustaining ecological processes; cities were
built but not dry, and so on. In fact, city-states like Tenochtitlán-Tlatelolco are
incomprehensible without their watery environment.
Spanish conquest did not erase these ways of using, understanding, and liv-
ing in the midst of land and water. It did import new, more fixed understandings
of land and water that were consistent with the European model of extensive
grain production and livestock rearing, and imposed city forms that emanated
from this model (not, as some writers have suggested, from some preternat-
urally antagonistic attitude toward nature). To the Spanish, the basin was an
environment hostile to urban existence. Given the centrality of the city in Span-
ish models of colonization, the City of Mexico had to be protected from this
environment at all costs. This is what the Desagüe was for.
To turn the basin into a valley in the European mold, Spanish colonists
targeted the Cuautitlán River, the biggest river feeding the basin’s flood-prone
lakes, which flowed through the northwest quadrant of the basin. It originally
discharged toward the large lake that surrounded the city (see figure 1). Although

10. See Paul Sutter, “What Can U.S. Environmental Historians Learn from Non-U.S.
Environmental Historiography?” Environmental History 8, no. 1 ( Jan. 2003): 109 – 29.
Figure 1. The Desagüe de Huehuetoca in the northwest quadrant of the basin of Mexico.
Sources: Mexico, Junta Directiva del Desagüe del Valle de México, Memoria histórica,
técnica y administrativa de las obras del Desagüe del valle de México, 1449 – 1900
(Mexico City: Tip. de la Oficina Impresora de Estampillas, 1902), vol. 2, “Carta hidrográfica
del Valle de México”; Archivo General de la Nación (AGN), Desagüe, vol. 7, exp. 2; vol. 12,
exp. 5; vol. 29, exp. 10, ff. 29–37, 91–112; vol. 30, exp. 4; vol. 32, exp. 2, f. 329; AGN
Fomento: Desagüe, vol. 1bis, ff. 213–14; AGN Tierras, vol. 287, exp. 6, f. 30; vol. 2028,
exp. 5, f. 118.
12 HAHR / February / Candiani

urban elites and colonial officials preferred a general desiccation, physical and
financial constraints imposed a drainage design that partially emptied only the
northernmost lakes of the basin (Zumpango and San Cristóbal) just before the
rainy season and diverted the Cuautitlán River into Lake Zumpango during
that season. The goal at the time was to desiccate the lowest lake around the
city, Lake Texcoco, by severing it from a great source of floodwater. Water
from the Cuautitlán River was stored in the western half of Lake Zumpango
(Citlaltepec), runoff and excess from Pachuca and Xaltocán in its eastern half
(Zumpango proper). Sluices allowed water to be drained from the latter to
Citlaltepec and from there into a canal feeding a tunnel that cut under the encir-
cling hills. This tunnel, in turn, transferred the water to the Tula River on the
other side. Together, the tunnel and canals were more than 13 kilometers long.
Finished in September 1608, the tunnel itself was almost 7 kilometers long, 56
meters deep under the highest terrain above, and up to 2.5 meters wide. It was
supplemented with a diversion dam for the Cuautitlán River whose 17-kilometer
length was built and maintained entirely at the local Indians’ expense, unlike the
Desagüe proper.11 This original Desagüe and diversion dam accrued structures
over time, increasing both the catchment area of the project and the jurisdiction
of its superintendants. The almost continual growth of the project can create
confusion: at various times in the record the Desagüe was declared “finished,”
only to restart a few years later as a supplementary canal or tunnel was envis-
aged. After the tunnel began to fail in the 1620s due to lack of maintenance,
authorities decided to turn it all into a single open trench. This massive effort
lasted from 1631 to 1789, with peak labors occurring in the periods 1631 – 37
and 1762 – 89. From 1796 until independence, new canals sought to extend the
Desagüe toward the city.
As the project expanded, townships struggled to defend their use and
access rights to water and land, which the Desagüe authorities now controlled.
Aquatic, wetland, and terrestrial ecosystems became biologically simplified,
affecting all who drew sustenance from them. Indigenes in particular wound
up subsidizing the cost of urban flood protection with various forms of labor
appropriation and curtailed irrigation rights. Although the colonists’ remaking
of the environment was not beneficial to rural populations, neither was it fatal.
Along with a class of smallholders, an indigenous peasantry did in fact survive
the Desagüe for many of the same reasons these groups survived elsewhere in

11. “Desagüe proper” in this article refers to the 13-kilometer-long device of tunnel
and entry and exit canals; “Desagüe district” refers to structures in the northwest quadrant
supplementing and articulated to this central device.
The Desagüe Reconsidered 13

Mesoamerica: they struggled to do so, and in several ways the elites (and their
Desagüe) needed them.

The Social Content of the Desagüe

The Desagüe sat not in the city itself but in a rich agricultural district of both
Spanish haciendas and indigenous communities in the northwest quadrant of
the basin, boasting “one of the largest permanent irrigation systems” and the
earliest demonstrated site of irrigation in the entire basin.12 The relationships
among the populations neighboring the Desagüe were uneasy, with colonial
haciendas consolidating around, and often appropriating, indigenous township
lands beginning in the early seventeenth century. Thus, the northwest quad-
rant’s uneven and combined development is characterized by the coexistence
in the same physical space of incompatible social classes — two groups with dis-
parate priorities competing for the definition and utilization of the same natural
elements throughout the colonial era and well into the modern period.
Through the Desagüe, metropolitan elites (who included city-dwelling
owners of haciendas) projected both an “exchange value” for water and soil
mobilized through the state-linked mechanisms of market and law and a cur-
tailed “use value.” Market and law worked together because colonial rule tried
to ensure common rights in balance with private rights while still promoting
the private over time.13 In the social reproduction of peasant communities, in
contrast, a broadly ecosystemic use value for water and soil predominated (even
as Indians gladly reached for the exchange value of land and water when they
rented their land or sold its yield at market). The value of water for peasants and
indigenes in the Desagüe region was largely ecosystemic not because these com-
munities’ use of water was less manipulative of nature, but because it tapped into
a broader spectrum of what water in combination with land encompassed. For
the indigenous population, the region provided a highly productive ecosystem
from which biomass could be removed for human use without compromising
the underlying foundations of the system’s productivity, and a wetland environ-
ment with inherent cultural value allowing, among other things, low-energy
transport by canoe. For propertied urban elites, on the other hand, water had
value only as an input in productive processes and as a conveyor of goods. Water

12. Deborah L. Nichols, “Prehispanic Settlement and Land Use in the Northwestern
Basin of Mexico, the Cuautitlan Region” (PhD diss., Pennsylvania State Univ., 1980),
10 – 12.
13. See William B. Taylor, “Land and Water Rights in the Viceroyalty of New Spain,”
New Mexico Historical Review 50, no. 3 ( July 1975): 189 – 212.
14 HAHR / February / Candiani

could become private property, and it could be allocated by various historical

combinations of market or state mechanisms. Cities are ecosystems too — and,
in the case of Mexico City, sufficiently diverse to allow urban plebeians to
extract resources from their environs on the rural model at least until the seven-
teenth century.14 But urban elites did not directly depend on wetland resources
as rural people did. As owners of commercial houses, haciendas, mines, or hold-
ers of stipendiary posts, their existence and wealth was based on rents and the
functioning of a well-oiled commercial system. As a technological device of the
urban elite, therefore, the Desagüe disregarded the ecosystemic use values that
land and water had for rural groups.
At the same time, however, rural producers, particularly indigenous com-
munities, deployed a variety of small-scale technological devices and practices
(such as irrigation ditches, lake bed enclosures, seasonal organization of work,
use of specific plants in earthen structures) to maintain, to the extent possible,
their own specific social and productive use of the regional ecology. As prox-
ies for social forms of organization (communal versus private) that rural com-
munities had developed to harness environmental resources, these objects and
practices were defended whenever Desagüe authorities condemned them. This
conflict gives these unglamorous instrumental devices and techniques a histori-
cal content.
Throughout the colonial era, the sole purpose of the Desagüe, for royal
authorities and city notables alike, was the “security, conservation and perpetu-
ity” of the imperial city, whose wealth (buildings, commercial inventory, and
the sources of rents) and colonial administrative infrastructure had to be pro-
tected from floods. Thus, unlike both pre-Hispanic and European (even Span-
ish) water management works of the epoch, the Desagüe design never integrated
economically generative uses, such as irrigation or navigation. Given the limits
on markets and potential gains until late into the colonial era, why endeavor
to move goods more cheaply and faster on a navigable canal, or produce more
grain with irrigation on former lake beds? A design with limited purposes was
the reasonable result of the priorities of the colonial elite in the viceregal capital
and also of the mother country: royal officials prioritized infrastructure that
reinforced the colonial link, such as mines, ports, fortifications, and governance.
Overall, it was not the lack of funds but the limited motivation that dictated the

14. See “Plano de Papel de Maguey,” in Priscilla Connolly, “¿El mapa es la ciudad?
Nuevas miradas a la Forma y Levantado de la Ciudad de México de 1628 de Juan Gómez de
Trasmonte,” Investigaciones Geográficas, no. 66 (2008): 116 – 34; Richard L. Kagan, Urban
Images of the Hispanic World, 1493 – 1793 (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2000), 152.
The Desagüe Reconsidered 15

shape and purpose of the Desagüe.15 Before the nineteenth century, the record
is not utterly mute about generative uses for the Desagüe: such uses did enter
contemporaries’ imaginations, but as I show elsewhere, none was pursued. The
official outlook would change as markets for products and land grew during the
Porfiriato and the prospect for greater profit overtook the simple desire to pro-
tect wealth.16 Then, it was reasonable to speed the Desagüe toward completion
with new designs and methods of work and organization.

Appropriation of Labor

To shift the cost of safeguarding elite wealth to the hinterland, Desagüe

authorities carefully selected labor and organizational and instrumental tech-
nology. Repartimiento Indians performed coerced, rotational labor (corvée) for
the Desagüe throughout the entire colonial era, unlike in the rest of the econ-
omy, where repartimiento began to dissipate from the 1630s on. Authorities
also required local populations to build and maintain as many supplementary
structures as possible. Over the entire colonial era, both the Desagüe proper
and its auxiliary structures drained significant amounts of labor from rural
and indigenous communities, labor that would otherwise have been applied to
other activities. Although labor appropriation was nearly continuous, there were
periods of peak labor demand when extraordinary numbers of Indian workers
were drafted. More than 60,000 Indians built the tunnel and canals in 1607 – 8.
Thereafter, Desagüe labor demands rose and fell with perceived flood risk;
accordingly, the decade of highest labor use was after the 1629 flood, and labor
use peaked again in the 1760s and 1790s.17 During the Desagüe’s first three

15. On Desagüe finances, see Candiani, “Draining the Basin of Mexico: Science,
Technology and Society, 1608 – 1808” (PhD diss., Univ. of California, Berkeley, 2004),
appendix 1, p. 392. On elite motivations, see Archivo Histórico del Distrito Federal –
México, Ayuntamiento de la Ciudad de México, Actas de Cabildo, sesiones ordinarias
paleografiadas , vol. 356A, f. 187; Francisco Sedano, Noticias de México: Crónicas de los siglos
XVI al XVIII, 3 vols. (Mexico City: J. R. Barbedillo y Cía., 1880), 2:24 – 28.
16. See Alejandro Tortolero Villaseñor, “Transforming the Central Mexican
Waterscape: Lake Drainage and Its Consequences during the Porfiriato,” in Territories,
Commodities and Knowledges: Latin American Environmental Histories in the Nineteenth and
Twentieth Centuries, ed. Christian Brannstrom (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution
Press, 2004), 121 – 47.
17. Some sources use financial records as proxies for incomplete labor data: Charles
Gibson, The Aztecs under Spanish Rule: A History of the Indians of the Valley of Mexico,
1519 – 1810 (Palo Alto: Stanford Univ. Press, 1964), 241; Hoberman, “City Planning in
Spanish Colonial Government,” 249; Musset, El agua en el valle de México, 208. But this
works only after showing capital investments did not replace human labor. See Candiani,
“Draining the Basin of Mexico,” chap. 6 and app. 1.
16 HAHR / February / Candiani

decades, repartimiento impacted villages near and far, siphoning off manpower
at critical points in the agricultural cycle for all producers, even beyond the
basin.18 In comparable works in Spain and other European nations, it was fre-
quently the other way around: public works engineers could hope to hire work-
ers only in slow agricultural months.19
Besides this direct labor subsidy, city elites used indirect means to shift much
of the cost of their own protection away from themselves. The most important
of these was the maintenance obligation borne by all the Desagüe’s rural neigh-
bors, the largest share of which fell on indigenous townships. Enforcement of
the obligation to maintain the Desagüe’s structures was facilitated by the fact
that indigenous people in the basin had been doing similar work using their own
analogous technologies for centuries. Although historians have successfully
explained how the keen Spanish sensitivity to religious and political features of
indigenous society enabled colonization, they still impute the settlers’ neglect
of indigenous water management structures to incomprehension of indigenous
hydraulics.20 Thanks to the Arab hydraulic legacy in Iberia, however, Spaniards
quickly recognized two things: preserving technologies that undergirded indig-
enous use of land and water would also reinforce indigenous control over these
resources; at the same time, Indian expertise in matters of water management
was considerable and could be exploited for the colonizers’ benefit.
Thanks to earlier awareness of local indigenous hydraulic skills, when the
Desagüe was built and the Cuautitlán River was diverted permanently toward
it, officials were able to require that Indians maintain their portion of the river’s
diversion dam and clean its channel every year.21 The diversion dam was made

18. Silvio Zavala and María Castelo, eds., Fuentes para la historia del trabajo en Nueva
España, 8 vols. (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1939 – 46), vol. 6, docs. 539, 542,
560, and 497.
19. Juan Helguera, Nicolás García Tapia, and Fernando Molinero, El canal de Castilla
(Valladolid: Junta de Castilla y León, 1988), 38 – 40.
20. Contrast Musset, El agua en el valle de México, and José Sala Catalá, “La localización
de la capital de Nueva España, como problema científico y tecnológico,” Quipu 3, no. 3
(Sep. – Dec. 1986): 279 – 97, with Thomas F. Glick, Irrigation and Hydraulic Technology:
Medieval Spain and Its Legacy (Aldershot, UK: Variorum, 1996).
21. Archivo General de la Nación (hereafter cited as AGN), Desagüe, vol. 11, exp. 5,
f. 7; AGN Desagüe, vol. 12, exp. 13, f. 66v. Rafael A. Strauss, “El área septentrional del Valle
de México: Problemas agrohidráulicos prehispánicos y coloniales,” in Nuevas noticias sobre las
obras hidráulicas prehispánicas y coloniales en el valle de México, by Teresa Rojas Rabiela, Rafael A.
Strauss K., and José Lameiras (Mexico City: Secretaría de Educación Pública / Instituto
Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1974), 137 – 74; Teresa Rojas Rabiela, “Aspectos
tecnológicos de las obras hidráulicas coloniales en el valle de México” (master’s thesis,
Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia [Mexico], 1974), chap. 3.
The Desagüe Reconsidered 17

of a solid core with rammed earth and various rhizome grasses, in an appropria-
tion of indigenous techniques and knowledge of the qualities of local vegetation
and soils.22 Despite its notorious vulnerability to the elements and human mis-
chief, authorities never replaced it with durable masonry as they did elsewhere,
undoubtedly because with an earthen dam they passed on the cost of building
and maintaining it to the communities who had provided the technology in the
first place.
By the 1740s, maintenance obligations applied to all earthen structures
in the Desagüe complex, excepting the tunnel, trench, and intake and outlet
canals themselves. In exchange, all participating landholders enjoyed access to
the water of the Cuautitlán River and to portions of Lakes Zumpango, San
Cristóbal, and Xaltocán. Using their own methods, villagers cleaned and wid-
ened the river channel in February, during the dry season. July and August were
reserved for the repair of earthen structures (dams, levees, and so on) because by
then the early rains sprouted the grasses that bound the earth materials in dams.
This calendar prevailed during the entire colonial period. Desagüe authorities
claimed that these were all dead times in the haciendas.23 But this was inac-
curate: clear evidence that maintenance conflicted with the agricultural calen-
dar starts to multiply over the course of the eighteenth century.24 In 1796, for
example, Indians from Tacuba and Cuautitlán complained that maintenance
duties took them away from work on their own crops.25 In 1714, Teoloyucans
estimated that if the king paid for their share of maintaining the Cuautitlán
dam and cleaning the river channel, it would cost him up to 8,000 pesos every
year.26 Prorating this figure to the entire length of the diversion dam, it turns
out the capital was saving its elites and the crown the tidy sum of 23,111 pesos
every year by shifting to the hinterland the cost of maintaining just this particu-
lar structure.27 To this sum can be added the cost of the yearly maintenance of

22. Candiani, “Draining the Basin of Mexico,” 141.

23. AGN Desagüe, vol. 14, exp. 5, ff. 15 – 20v.
24. Agricultural calendar in Gibson, Aztecs under Spanish Rule, table 25, p. 330; Teresa
Rojas Rabiela, Las siembras de ayer: La agricultura indígena del siglo XVI (Mexico City:
Secretaría de Educación Pública, 1988), 138 – 39; Arij Ouweneel, “El calendario agrícola
de la hacienda del siglo XVIII,” in Ciclos interrumpidos: Ensayos sobre historia rural mexicana,
siglos XVIII – XIX (Zinacantepec: El Colegio Mexiquense, 1998), 97 – 148; William T.
Sanders, Jeffrey R. Parsons, and Robert S. Santley, The Basin of Mexico: Ecological Processes
in the Evolution of a Civilization (New York: Academic Press, 1979), 237.
25. AGN Desagüe, vol. 30, exp. 5.
26. AGN Desagüe, vol. 9, exp. 1, ff. 134v – 138v.
27. Data in Candiani, “Draining the Basin of Mexico,” app. 3, p. 394.
18 HAHR / February / Candiani

the Pila Real (the water distribution tower) and its canals for all beneficiaries of
water derived from the river.28
Although maintenance obligations burdened non-Indians too, demography
made a difference. On both sides of the early modern Atlantic it was common
for local populations to maintain portions of nearby public works (roads, canals,
and so on).29 However, the simultaneity of Indian population decline with the
Desagüe and the open trench beginnings made the impositions of the public
work threatening to the very social reproduction of the indigenous and some
of the nonindigenous groups in the district. In subsequent times of epidemic
or other demographic shocks, maintenance obligations had severe effects on
indigenous communities. In February 1743, for example, the epidemic-stricken
townships of Tacuba and Cuautitlán requested reprieve from sending men to
the Cuautitlán River channel widening. Superintendant Domingo de Trespala-
cios y Escandón turned them down.30

Water as Economic Input: Irrigation and Conveyance

When in the 1630s urban authorities approved the transformation of the

Desagüe into a single open trench, they turned water into a critical element in
the relations between their city and the hinterland for the rest of the colonial
era due to the method of work that they chose. Instead of using machines, scaf-
folding, ramps, and animal/human energy to carry the debris out of the site, as
the Desagüe’s designer Enrico Martínez had done before, Franciscan super-
intendants of the seventeenth century used water to sweep the rubble from the
tunnel demolition. From the surface, crews began demolition along and around
the vertical tiros (shafts) that had been used to create the tunnel and now facili-
tated inspections. They threw the debris down to the bed of the tunnel below.
Comportadas (sluice openings) released water stored in western Lake Zumpango
and from the diverted Cuautitlán River to sweep the debris away.31
Because water flows adequate for rubble removal were available in the
district’s lakes and rivers only during and just after the rainy season ( June –
October), the excavation could only advance during a portion of each year.

28. AGN Indios, vol. 6.2, exp. 852, f. 208.

29. Teresa Sánchez Lázaro, Carlos Lemaur y el canal de Guadarrama (Madrid: Colegio
de Ingenieros de Caminos, Canales y Puertos, 1995), 34; Stephen S. Miller, “Lords, Peasant
Communities, and the State in Eighteenth-Century Languedoc,” French Historical Studies
26, no. 1 (Winter 2003): 55 – 85.
30. AGN Desagüe, vol. 12, exp. 4, ff. 19 – 19v.
31. Candiani, “Draining the Basin of Mexico,” 85 – 87.
The Desagüe Reconsidered 19

Despite this limitation, Desagüe authorities preferred water conveyance because

it avoided the need for devices to remove and transport debris and the tech-
nicians needed to build and maintain them, and the vastly greater number of
workers (repartimiento or otherwise) that would be required to cart out debris
year-round.32 This choice was one of the main reasons that the open trench con-
version dragged on for 150 years. More importantly, using water flows within
the tunnel/trench for debris removal meant that there was less water available
for other uses in the region. Locals had to compete with the Desagüe for water
for crops, livestock, and energy. The competition over water, however, was not
limited to its value as an agropastoral input.
The most reliable source of water was the Cuautitlán River.33 So to accom-
modate debris removal for the open trench, the Desagüe was given one-third
of the water of the diverted Cuautitlán River, as measured upriver close to the
town of Cuautitlán. Apparently, this share of water for the Desagüe was super-
imposed on an allocation that had existed since 1587, when this river’s waters had
been divided based on the caballerías of land to be irrigated (one caballería equals
425,000 square meters).34 During the dry season, a temporary and partial trans-
verse dam sent most of its water into a short eastward canal, called El Chiflón
in the twentieth century, leading to the Pila Real, whose canals (acequias) by the
1760s watered some ten haciendas, seven ranchos, ten pueblos de indios, three
Indian barrios, and a mill.35 A smaller but set proportion of water flowed past
all this toward Teoloyuca. We can deduce that after the open trench conver-
sion got under way in the 1630s, Pila beneficiaries were taking their parts from
less Cuautitlán water than before, because both Teoloyuca’s and the Desagüe’s
portions had been split off at the transverse dam. The effects of this can only
be estimated, given the hydrometry of the epoch.36 Still, from the 1740s on,
Desagüe superintendants complained that beneficiaries often violated this allo-

32. Ibid., chap. 6.

33. Below Tepotzotlán, the river carries 107 million cubic meters per year. Harold
Wayne McBride, “Formative Ceramics and Prehistoric Settlement Patterns in the
Cuauhtitlan Region, Mexico” (PhD diss., Univ. of California, Los Angeles, 1974), 33.
34. AGN Desagüe, vol. 12, exp. 13, ff. 71–71v.
35. AGN Tierras, vol. 2026, exp. 2, ff. 31 – 31v; AGN Tierras, vol. 2028, exp. 5,
f. 118; AGN Desagüe, vol. 14, exp. 5, f. 1v; AGN Desagüe, vol. 12, exp. 5, f. 50, “Lista de
los interesados en la agua de la Pila Real”; since Teoloyuca and the Desagüe did not pay
for the Pila, their water came from the main channel of the river. See also Israel Sandre
Osorio, “Del derecho colonial al derecho municipal: La distribución de las aguas del Río
Cuautitlán,” Boletín del Archivo Histórico del Agua 2, no. 5 (Sep. – Dec. 1995): 37 – 49.
36. See Jacinta Palerm Viqueira and Carlos Cháirez Araiza, “Medidas antiguas de
agua,” Relaciones: Estudios de Historia y Sociedad 23, no. 92 (2002): 227 – 51.
20 HAHR / February / Candiani

cation with clandestine breaches in the diversion dam (ladrones) to take more
water than they were allowed. Clearly the Desagüe’s appropriation of water was
significant, especially as an objective limit to hacienda productivity at a time of
increasing demand.37 Indeed, the Desagüe’s demand for water was considered so
consequential that by the middle of the eighteenth century the Cuautitlán River
was often called Río del Real Desagüe.38
The period of most intense conflict over Cuautitlán water rights was dur-
ing the Consulado of the City of Mexico’s contract to complete the open trench
works (1767 – 89). Events of this period show particularly well how conflict often
centered on specific environment-modifying objects: in this case, a set of sluice
gates. In 1770, consulado administrator Antonio Barroso y Torrubia violated
all prior dispositions on water rights in the area by installing two sluice gates
(compuertas) to control the entry of the Cuautitlán’s water into the Pila Real
and making Pila beneficiaries pay for them.39 To ensure complete availability
of water for Desagüe excavations, he padlocked every Pila outlet (toma), sending
the keys seven leagues away to Mexico City.40 This galvanized indigenous town-
ships, Hispanic hacendados and rancheros, the priest, and the alcalde mayor of
Cuautitlán — all normally at odds with each other — into a united front against
the consulado’s man. Barroso y Torrubia’s actions, they claimed, had dried
up the Pila, depriving crops, herds, and humans of water. Disease and death
were spreading. Teoloyucans complained that the Desagüe rule that prohibited
hoofed animals on the earthen dam of the Cuautitlán made matters even worse,
because now they had to drive their animals to Lake Zumpango, whose brackish
water sickened them. Viceroy Croix eventually ordered the sluices opened and
new installations built to restore the usurped water.41
This incident illustrates the conflict between the Desagüe and its neigh-
bors over the value of water as an input in production. While for any grower of
irrigated crops the most appreciable value of water was its use to enable produc-
tion where soil moisture was not otherwise adequate, for the Desagüe, water
had value only as a conveyor of mechanical energy to carry debris. But this
conflict over water’s value was the result of a decision, not a historical necessity:
authorities could conceivably have altered the method of tunnel conversion in
the Desagüe to accommodate both uses, but they chose not to. For this reason,
the tensions over water as irrigator vs. conveyor pitted the city with its Desagüe

37. AGN Desagüe, vol. 12, exp. 13, ff. 71 – 71v; AGI Mexico, leg. 2772, exp. 1, f. 7.
38. AGN Indios, vol. 26, exp. 127, cuaderno 2, f. 123v.
39. AGN Desagüe, vol. 18, exp. 9, f. 259.
40. AGN Desagüe, vol. 19, exp. 14, f. 6.
41. AGN Desagüe, vol. 18, exp. 10, ff. 1 – 19.
The Desagüe Reconsidered 21

against all the Desagüe’s neighbors. When water was valued as an ecosystem,
however, the dynamics changed.

Water as Ecosystem

Wetlands and shallow lakes are among the most productive ecosystems in the
world per unit of surface area. The more productive an ecosystem, the more
biomass humans can appropriate from it for food, fiber, fuel, construction mate-
rials, and medicines without negatively affecting the system’s function. Water is
a crucial component of many interrelated ecological cycles and processes collec-
tively responsible for an environment’s biological productivity. As long as they
remained seasonally inundated lands, the lakeshores of the northern part of the
basin exhibited these characteristics, with the added benefit that this process
of inundation, absorption, and evaporation delivered to both water and land.
Whereas indigenous hydraulic devices redirected water to maximize biological
productivity, the Desagüe’s sole aim was to eliminate water from the regional
system. As a result, its multiple structures altered the region’s hydrology more
deeply than those of its indigenous predecessors, impacting the productivity
of regional ecosystems in ways that had disproportionately negative effects on
rural groups. The Desagüe’s ecological impact was thus a factor in regional
power relations.
As noted above, for most agricultural producers in the Hispanic economy,
water in rivers and lakes had value primarily because it irrigated crops and
provided energy. For indigenous producers, in contrast, water existed both to
irrigate and to maintain the ecosystems on which their economies depended.
Water, too, was inextricable from the land beneath it in that its seasonal reces-
sion left behind enriched soils for cultivation.42 Even as they incorporated His-
panic tools and practices after conquest, indigenes of the region continued to
extract protein-rich foods and raw materials from lakes and wetlands in ways
the Hispanic population did not.43 Estimates for the Cuautitlán region on the
eve of the conquest indicate a population of at least 91,000 people, many of
whom obtained 20 to 35 percent of their foods from wetland ecosystems.44

42. Compare peasant attitudes in Richard Hoffman, “Economic Development and

Aquatic Ecosystems in Medieval Europe,” American Historical Review 101 (1996): 631 – 69.
43. Magdalena A. García Sánchez, “El modo de vida lacustre en el valle de México,
¿mestizaje o proceso de aculturación?” in Mestizajes tecnológicos y cambios culturales en México,
ed. Enrique Florescano and Virginia García Acosta (Mexico City: CIESAS / Miguel Ángel
Porrúa, 2004), 21 – 90.
44. Nichols, “Prehispanic Settlement and Land Use,” 64, 107 – 8.
22 HAHR / February / Candiani

Using a wide variety of forms of organization and tools such as nets, hooks, fish-
ing spears, canoe flotillas, and family groups on land, they harvested fish, fowl,
reptiles, insects, larvae, and algae.45 As elsewhere in Mesoamerica, each plant
and animal often had a number of uses, forming the basis of an economy that
carried over into the colonial era and beyond. Tule (Typha latifolia) for instance
provided fibers for roofing, mats, hats and shoes for sale and domestic use, and
seine nets and various traps for fishing and hunting. Biologists have identified
at least six species of wild grasses (generically called zacate by non-Indians) that
were employed to bind earthworks.46 Wetland sedges (Cyperaceae) and native
grass (Hilaria cenchroides) were used as aquatic nurseries for insect larvae — a
source of protein for both humans and waterfowl — and also twisted into rope
for canoe moorings.47 Other aquatic plants, such as the lentejilla de agua (Lemna
minor), were harvested and heaped as fertilizer on nearby chinampas.
Given indigenes’ intensive utilization of wetlands, the ecological conse-
quences of the Desagüe were more costly to them than to nonindigenous pro-
ducers. However, while the cumulative destructive impact of the Desagüe on
the indigenous “lacustrine mode of life” is undeniable, it is important to con-
sider the timing, speed, and quality of the changes. As long as physical and social
changes were not abrupt or unpredictable, the techniques developed over time
for and around these activities could be adapted to new conditions. This was
true even before the arrival of Europeans. Hydrological and hence ecological
disturbance began well before 1519, peaking in the basin during the growth of
the Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlán, Tlacopán, and Texcoco. Population growth
before conquest necessitated various adaptations and innovations, including the

45. These resources and usage appear, for example, in Bernadino de Sahagún, Historia
general de las cosas de Nueva Espanã (Mexico City: A. Valdés, 1829 – 30), vol. 3, book 10,
chaps. 12, 23, 25, 26, and book 11, chaps. 2, 3, 7, 12; McBride, “Formative Ceramics,” Part
3, Memoria de las obras del sistema de drenaje profundo del Distrito Federal (Mexico City: DDF,
1975), vol. 1; Teresa Rojas Rabiela, La cosecha del agua en la Cuenca de Mexico (Mexico City:
CIESAS, 1998), 27 – 98; Laura Roush, “El pescado en Xaltocan en el siglo XX: Un estudio
etnoarqueologico,” in Production and Power at Postclassic Xaltocan, ed. Elizabeth M. Brumfiel
(Mexico City: INAH / Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh, 2006), 248 – 54.
46. Guillermo Gándara, “Principales pastos silvestres del Valle de México y sus cuencas
adyacentes,” Agricultura 2, no. 13 (1939): 14 – 21.
47. Exequiel Ezcurra, De las chinampas a la megalópolis: El medio ambiente en la cuenca de
México (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995), chap. 2; Earle Smith and Paul
Tolstoy, “Vegetation and Man in the Basin of Mexico,” Economic Botany 35, no. 4 (Oct. – Dec.
1981): 415 – 33; Brigitte B. de Lameiras, Terminología agrohidráulica prehispánica nahua
(Mexico City: INAH, 1974), 29.
The Desagüe Reconsidered 23

consumption of insects and microfauna.48 Indigenes also developed hydraulic

agriculture and combined it with fishing, hunting, and gathering to diminish
their high environmental risk (the frequent and huge variations in biophysi-
cal conditions). These complementary activities were particularly sensitive to
change in the northwest quadrant, where environmental risk was higher than
elsewhere in the basin due to aridity.49 After the conquest, gradual desiccation
spread disruptions to water and soil ecologies over three centuries, giving com-
munities a chance to adapt. For example, as Xaltocán’s lake shrank and pasture
diminished, its people replaced dung with construction timber scraps as fuel
for their ovens (tlecuil), which also lost their lake clay ceramic comales in favor of
stone or brick components.50
Sudden disruptions, in contrast, endangered both the availability of
resources and the ability of people to change the instrumental and organi-
zational techniques used to capture them.51 Even before the Desagüe, two
such disruptions occurred as a result of colonization. The first and most sig-
nificant was depopulation from disease.52 In the Cuautitlán River region dra-
matic population declines meant that Indian villages could no longer maintain
labor-intensive terraces and other erosion-controlling agricultural structures
on slopes. In addition to facilitating Spanish land encroachment, this led to
increased sedimentation in the wetlands below, which accelerated their senes-
cence.53 The second disruption occurred as a result of the imposition of private

48. Andrew Sluyter, “Intensive Wetland Agriculture in Mesoamerica: Space, Time,

and Form,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 84, no. 4 (1994): 557 – 84;
William M. Denevan, “The Pristine Myth: the Landscape of the Americas in 1492,” Annals
of the Association of American Geographers 82, no. 3 (1992): 369 – 85; Ezcurra, De las chinampas
a la megalópolis, chap. 2; Thomas M. Whitmore and B. L. Turner, Cultivated Landscapes of
Middle America on the Eve of Conquest (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001), 45 – 49.
49. Risk definition in William T. Sanders and David Webster, “Unilinealism,
Multilinealism, and the Evolution of Complex Societies,” in Social Archaeology: Beyond
Subsistence and Dating, ed. Charles L. Redman (New York: Academic Press, 1978), 249 – 302.
50. Roush, “El pescado en Xaltocan.”
51. For time in adaptation, see Deborah L. Nichols, “Risk and Agricultural
Intensification during the Formative Period in the Northern Basin of Mexico,” American
Anthropologist 89, no. 3 (Sep. 1987): 596 – 616.
52. See Thomas M. Whitmore, “A Simulation of the Sixteenth-Century Population
Collapse in the Basin of Mexico,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 81, no. 3
(Sep. 1991): 464 – 87.
53. Thomas M. Whitmore and B. L. Turner II, “Landscapes of Cultivation in
Mesoamerica on the Eve of the Conquest,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers
82, no. 3 (Sep. 1992): 402 – 25.
24 HAHR / February / Candiani

property relations, as well as customs and laws specific to preindustrial Europe’s

mode of agrarian production. In the Valley of Mexico these importations
diminished indigenous access to and use of water.54 These effects were magni-
fied when the Desagüe rerouted the Cuautitlán River and augmented the role
of Lake Zumpango and Lake San Cristóbal as dammed reservoirs and silting
pools. The swift changes these hydrological engineering projects brought to
the basin’s ecology and people’s access to resources stressed the ability of rural
communities to adapt their technologies and practices fast enough to maintain
the earlier quantity and variety of ecosystemic uses. The Desagüe’s swift eco-
logical and social disruptions thus functioned in tandem to increase risk for
Direct evidence for Desagüe-provoked ecological and social change in the
northwest quadrant is uneven and discontinuous. To cope with this, I inter-
pret extant archival evidence in the context of comparable historical cases and
the archaeological and scientific literatures, using deduction with the socio-
historical evidence and induction and analogy with the scientific material. The
method is similar to that of anthropologist Jeffrey Parsons, who used knowledge
of physical processes in the Great Basin of the United States and the Lake Chad
region of Africa to estimate the effects of those same processes in the basin
of Mexico.55 The predictability of natural and physical phenomena makes this
method viable. All impoundments and disturbances on river basins similar to
that of the Cuautitlán River have similar effects, causing comparable changes
in the physical factors that condition life in the water (current, turbidity, tem-
perature, and oxygen levels). Similarly, the river cleaning mandated by Desagüe
rules constituted an annual ecological disturbance with predictable effects.56

54. William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New
England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), 54 – 81; Carlos Sempat Assadourian, “The
Colonial Economy: The Transfer of the European System of Production to New Spain and
Peru,” Journal of Latin American Studies 24 (1992): 55 – 68.
55. Jeffrey R. Parsons, The Last Pescadores of Chimalhuacan, Mexico (Ann Arbor:
Museum of Anthropology, Univ. of Michigan, 2006), 28.
56. These processes explained in Luna B. Leopold, Water, Rivers and Creeks (Sausalito,
CA: Univ. Science Books, 1997); J. David Allan, Stream Ecology: Structure and Function of
Running Waters (New York: Springer, 2007); Robert J. Naiman and Henri Decamps, “The
Ecology of Interfaces: Riparian Zones,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 28 (1997):
621 – 58; Mary C. Freeman, Zachary H. Bowen, Ken D. Bovee, and Elise R. Irwin, “Flow
and Habitat Effects on Juvenile Fish Abundance in Natural and Altered Flow Regimes,”
Ecological Applications 11, no. 1 (Feb. 2001): 179 – 90; Catherine M. Pringle, “Exploring
How Disturbance Is Transmitted Upstream: Going against the Flow,” Journal of the North
American Benthological Society 16, no. 2 ( June 1997): 425 – 38.
The Desagüe Reconsidered 25

Channeled rivers are barred from inundating their floodplains and thus deliver-
ing moisture and nutrients, resulting in lowered groundwater levels and changes
in the moisture content and biological activity of the soil, which in turn impact
wild and cultivated vegetation.57 Lakes interact with rivers through their flood-
plains, so river channeling diminishes fish stocks in both mediums through the
loss of spawning habitats.58 Despite the limitations of the evidence, therefore,
we can conclude that the permanent diversion of the Cuautitlán River had sig-
nificant biophysical effects.
The Desagüe’s modifications of the Cuautitlán River still enabled people
to use river water as an input in production but strongly curtailed their ability
to benefit from the river’s “ecosystem services.”59 The river carried decomposed
plants (lama) and silt that regional cultivators valued as fertilizer and obtained
through ladrones in the diversion dam that allowed floodwater fallowing (entar-
quinado).60 But these materials clogged the Desagüe tunnel and spillways, so
from the 1740s on its superintendants ordered riparian users upstream from
the Pila Real to clean out the river seasonally, which inhibited habitat regen-
eration.61 Hacendados downstream fumed about being deprived of the fertility
represented by the lama and silt.62 This suggests an ecologically impoverished
river carrying only sediment from its disturbed new channel to Lake Zumpango
and the Desagüe.
Parallel to the open trench conversion, supplementary dams, sluices, and
spillways were added in Lakes Zumpango and Xaltocán from the 1680s on
to improve Desagüe functioning. These structures changed the northwest’s

57. This process described in Luna Leopold, A Primer on Water (Washington, DC:
Government Printing Office, 1960), part 1; Charles J. Vörösmarty and Dork Sahagian,
“Anthropogenic Disturbance of the Terrestrial Water Cycle,” BioScience 50, no. 9 (Sep.
2000): 753 – 65; Mark Cioc, The Rhine: An Eco-Biography, 1815 – 2000 (Seattle: Univ. of
Washington Press, 2002), 150 – 58.
58. Geoff Petts, “Forested River Corridors: A Lost Resource,” in Water, Engineering,
and Landscape: Water Control and Landscape Transformation in the Modern Period, ed. Denis
Cosgrove and Geoff Petts (London: Belhaven Press, 1990), 12 – 34; McBride, “Formative
Ceramics,” 29.
59. Concept explained in Gretchen C. Daily, Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on
Natural Ecosystems (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1997), 1 – 17.
60. AGN Desagüe, vol. 7, exp. 4, ff. 3v, 159v; AGN Desagüe, vol. 18, exp. 3, 9 fs. See
also Martín Sánchez Rodríguez, “El granero de la Nueva España: Uso del entarquinamiento
para la producción de cereales en el Bajío mexicano,” Boletín del Archivo Histórico del Agua 7,
no. 22 (Sep. – Dec. 2002): 12 – 20.
61. AGI Mexico, leg. 2771, exp. 2, 1614, ff. 10v, 21v.
62. AGN Desagüe, vol. 14, exp. 11, f. 19v.
26 HAHR / February / Candiani

hydrology, and new rules about the proper usage of water, land, and the struc-
tures themselves restricted access. The material devices inhibited the move-
ment of water and regulated the inflow of freshwater from the Cuautitlán and
other sources, such as the Ozumbilla springs, raising the salt content of lakes.
Salinization combined with rising water temperature and manipulated lake
levels could not have failed to have negative consequences for the growth and
reproduction of all life forms: those used directly by people and those that were
part of food webs supporting species used by people.63 The periodic release of
water from the northwestern lakes into the tunnel conversion project magni-
fied these effects, and the situation worsened when Desagüe authorities allowed
these lakes to be bled into Lake Texcoco to benefit fishing there, closer to the
city.64 These ecological disruptions are difficult to track over time in archives,
so historians zoom from the archaeological and early colonial evidence to that
found in Humboldt’s Ensayo político sobre el reino de la Nueva España. Telescoping
to relatively recent environmental effects of desiccation, however, obscures how
ecology and people interacted throughout Desagüe history and detracts from
our ability to understand the limits of adaptability.
Fortunately, the historical record does offer clues about what happened
during Desagüe history, if held up to the light of pre-Desagüe conditions and
the indigenous practices described above. To a great extent, indigenous popu-
lations were able to adapt existing instrumental and organization technolo-
gies to meet changing environmental and economic conditions. Throughout
the colonial period, these populations maintained their uses of animal, plant,
and mineral resources as well as collective forms of utilization of tools and
skills. The Hispanic economy offered new market opportunities for old prod-
ucts and practices, blurring the distinction between use value and exchange
value for any given good derived from the lake system. For example, some
grasses acquired value as pasture for introduced animals, particularly sheep
in the northwest quadrant, and therefore contributed to the production of a
commodity that Indians eventually sold at market.65 Some lake communities
such as Xaltocán developed their pre-Hispanic tequesquite (sodium carbon-
ate) extraction into a postconquest industry for meat curing, soap, and dye

63. Parsons, The Last Pescadores, 26 – 28: Jacinto Elías Sedeño-Díaz and Eugenia López-
López, “Threatened Fishes of the World: Girardinichthys viviparus,” Environmental Biology
of Fishes 84, no. 1 ( Jan. 2009): 11 – 12.
64. AGN Desagüe, vol. 7, exp. 4, f. 114.
65. Zavala and Castelo, Fuentes para la historia del trabajo en Nueva España, vol. 6, docs.
76, 79 – 81, 381.
The Desagüe Reconsidered 27

manufacture.66 People in the communities of Coyotepec and Teoloyuca, who

had fished iztacmichin (white fish) in Lake Zumpango for consumption before
the conquest, sold it at market during Lent from the late sixteenth century
on.67 Indians incorporated new tools such as plows and firearms into existing
However, the Desagüe also brought about limits to flexibility and adapta-
tion by changing the ecology and hydrology of the area, as well as by imposing
rules of access and use. Not all technologies or uses of the ecosystem could be
easily adapted to work under the altered conditions. Transport is one important
example of the environmental limits to adaptability. All villages in the Desagüe
district with access to water bodies had canoes and expert punters and oars-
men like their counterparts elsewhere in Mesoamerica. We know that the tools,
skills, and collective forms of utilization related to water transport were present
throughout the colonial period because Indians from Citlaltepec, Zumpango,
Xaltocán, and San Cristóbal used canoes to transport officials during inspec-
tions of the Desagüe installations.68 Nevertheless, desiccation and sedimentation
were obviously long-term problems for waterborne connections.69 Certainly in
the short term, the Desagüe’s flushing of the northwestern lakes and manipula-
tion of the Cuautitlán threatened water transport and thus the interconnected
character of regional indigenous forms of social reproduction. Viceregal orders
repeatedly protected indigenous communities’ access to lakes Zumpango, Xal-
tocán, and San Cristóbal (in 1586, 1589, 1594, 1607, and 1667).70 In 1775 (see
figure 2), the township términos (legal boundaries) of Zumpango and Teoloyuca
still contained a tule-gathering area within Lake Zumpango. But desiccation of
the lakes changed the practical meaning of access. If Manuel Orozco y Berra
is right, and the Desagüe’s permanent diversion of the Cuautitlán caused Lake
Zumpango to retreat some 3 kilometers from Teoloyuca, then this area must

66. Antonio Lot et al., Iconografía y estudio de plantas acuáticas de la ciudad de México y
sus alrededores (Mexico City: UNAM, 2004), 24; Thomas E. Berres, “Climatic Change and
Lacustrine Resources at the Period of Initial Aztec Development,” Ancient Mesoamerica 11
(2000): 27 – 38; Manuel Orozco y Berra, Memoria para la carta hidrográfica del valle de México
(Mexico City: A. Boix, 1864), 154; Gibson, Aztecs under Spanish Rule, 338 – 39.
67. AGN Congregaciones, vol. 1, exp. 105.
68. In 1614 military engineer Adrian Boot inspected the Desagüe on canoes from local
townships. AGI Mexico 2771, exp. 2, Desagüe de Mexico, ff. 5v – 65v.
69. Nichols, “Prehispanic Settlement and Land Use,” 107 – 8; Ross Hassig, Trade,
Tribute and Transportation: The Sixteenth- Century Political Economy of the Valley of Mexico
(1985; Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 140 – 41, 211.
70. AGN Indios, vol. 6:1, exp. 230, f. 58v.
28 HAHR / February / Candiani

Figure 2. Pueblos de indios and haciendas in relationship to Lake Zumpango in 1775.

Archivo General de la Nación, Tierras, vol. 287, exp. 6, f. 30.

have already been shrinking in the 1770s, as it certainly did after efforts to drain
that lake redoubled from the 1790s on.71 It is thus clear that “access” and cus-
tomary rights on lake waters and lake beds no longer meant contiguity to them.
Overall, the Desagüe’s regulations and changes to hydrology meant that vil-
lages became increasingly isolated socially and physically, both from the source
of their gathered goods and from each other.
Moreover, all customary rights over wetland resources became contin-
gent upon the beneficiary populations (beneficiados) maintaining specific por-
tions of the public work complex. By the eighteenth century, Desagüe super-
intendants had made the right of the township of Zumpango, for instance, to
take tule, salt, ducks, and fish conditional on its building and maintaining the
earthworks that retained runoff water from Pachuca (northeast of the basin)
and other sources in Lake Zumpango, or, in the case of Teoloyuca, on its
maintenance of the Cuautitlán diversion dam.72 For similar duties on struc-
tures articulated to the Desagüe proper, the island townships of Xaltocán and
Tonanitla in Lake Xaltocán secured permits to breed fish by erecting a small
semi-enclosure in the lake.73 As the Desagüe thus filtered customary rights by
making them contingent upon maintenance duties, it also made them unreli-

71. Orozco y Berra, Memoria para la carta hidrográfica del valle de México, 171.
72. AGN Desagüe, vol. 14, exp. 6, f. 7; AGN Desagüe, 1803, vol. 36, exp. 4, f. 1.
73. AGN Desagüe, vol. 26, exp. 1, f. 169.
The Desagüe Reconsidered 29

able, since they could change at any time according to the needs of the public
Desagüe authorities also frequently forbade Indian communities to gather
or fish because of a belief that those activities were detrimental to Desagüe struc-
tures. In 1770, some Indians around Lake San Cristóbal (formed by a causeway
that separated it from Lake Texcoco) tried to restore the old ecosystemic value
of water in the lake. Despite orders forbidding them from fishing there and
damaging the earthen dam – causeway, “the Indian fishermen of the immediate
towns are in the malicious habit of opening a few holes or cuts in these repairs
[of the causeway or dam] so as to give the water some current in which to fish,”
complained the Desagüe superintendant. For that reason, he ordered them “not
to fish in the environs.”74
The Desagüe’s physical structures and regulations interfered with the
ability of rural communities to interact with the aquatic and wetland eco-
systems of the northwest quadrant of the basin. This stressed the commu-
nities’ ability to grow and extract foods and resources from the ecosystems
and to communicate and reinforce intercommunal dependencies through
exchange. In response, Desagüe neighbors who derived ecosystemic use value
from life forms in the water tugged at the public work through complaints and
material devices such as ditches, borders, and clandestine openings in dams. It
seems that as long as the corrosion of their lives was gradual, indigenes more
frequently (if less visibly) chose quotidian means of opposition to the public
work’s impositions, through work, materials, and technology. These meth-
ods were less socially costly to them than tumultos (riots) and cheaper than
lawsuits. Whenever social life seemed fundamentally threatened, however,
villages escalated their opposition.

Land as Economic Input, Soil as Ecosystem

The Desagüe’s impact on land is harder to grasp because it resulted from two
interlocking processes: the restriction of land access and use and the fixing of
the definitions and physical locations of land and water. The control of irriga-
tion water discussed above curtailed the full usufruct of land. Other strictures
targeted land use and access itself. These restrictions, which local populations
resisted, magnified the impacts on indigenous society of environmental change,
relative population recovery in the eighteenth century, shrunken land hold-
ings, and drought. Before the arrival of Spaniards in the area, the Cuautitlán

74. AGN Desagüe, vol. 18, exp. 6, 61 fs, ff. 18 – 19.

30 HAHR / February / Candiani

floodplain supported up to 8,000 agricultural hectares, making it “one of the

largest irrigation systems in the Basin.” 75 As mentioned earlier, the river, once
permanently impounded, irrigated this former floodplain through canals, but it
no longer seasonally steeped it in water or nutrients. Making matters worse, the
basin experienced prolonged dry conditions from the 1770s on, with the histori-
cally drier northwest quadrant receiving the brunt of the impact.76 Meanwhile,
earlier depopulation had reduced indigenes’ ability to show effective occupation
of the soil, enabling Spaniards to obtain land grants (mercedes de tierras) in the
area from 1563 to 1591.77 As the grants sometimes fell within indigenous town-
ship jurisdictions, indigenous landholding was already receding in the face of
advancing haciendas and ranchos by the beginning of the Desagüe.
The Desagüe assisted this process of indigenous land loss and rancho and
hacienda gain by fixing what “land” and “water” meant. Because some land
became water during the rainy season, two different agricultural regimes coex-
isted in tension in the basin, each practiced by a different class. This and the
concomitant superimposition of a peasantry and an agrocommercial landed
class are what give the region its uneven and combined development. In the
Spanish economy’s agriculture, only permanently dry land was suitable for agri-
culture. It was then rain-fed, irrigated, or artificially inundated. In indigenous
agriculture, on the other hand, the preferred land was naturally underwater part
of the year. As a result, the Desagüe had two types of conflicts with its neigh-
bors over agricultural land: those that involved Spanish and indigenous land
irrigated by the Cuautitlán River through the Pila Real, and those that involved
only wetland agriculture, which was purely indigenous.
The Desagüe began to determine early what and where “land” and “water”
were, rendering fixed what had been interchangeable. At some point in the sev-
enteenth century, superintendants declared that a chunk of Zumpango lake bed
that Teoloyucans had cultivated seasonally was now set aside as a “vessel for the
lake” (vaso de la laguna) to store excess torrential water that would otherwise rush
into the works and damage them.78 This meant land loss for Teoloyuca, because

75. Deborah Nichols and Charles Frederick, “Irrigation Canals and Chinampas:
Recent Research in the Northern Basin of Mexico,” Recent Research in Economic Anthropology,
suppl. 7 (Greenwich, CN: JAI Press, 1993), 123 – 50.
76. Enrique Florescano and Susan Swan, Breve historia de la sequía en México (Xalapa:
Universidad Veracruzana, 1995), app. 3; Arij Ouweneel, “Se quedó pachacate: Sobre las
sequías en el altiplano central de México durante las últimas décadas del siglo XVIII,” in
Ciclos interrumpidos, 67 – 96.
77. For Teoloyuca and Tultitlán, see AGN Tierras, vol. 1521, exp. 1.
78. AGN Tierras, vol. 2028, exp. 5, f. 6.
The Desagüe Reconsidered 31

this definition meant that the terrain was reserved for water alone at all times.
We can infer that this type of restriction affected all lake communities and
that they all resisted one way or another, because in 1747 the Desagüe super-
intendant felt compelled to appeal to the Audiencia in the City of Mexico for
confirmation that seasonally flooded margins in the northern lakes were vasos
de la laguna. The Audiencia obliged, also prohibiting cultivation in these areas
and ordering the destruction of any embankments or ditches within the lakebed
that impeded the expansion of water over them.79 In the 1790s, superintendant
Cosme de Mier y Trespalacios extended these prohibitions to the margins of
new canals draining Lakes Zumpango and San Cristóbal.80
A second measure reinforced this. From at least 1724 on, superintendants
prohibited cultivation on all land less than 41.5 meters (50 varas) from the edge
of the water. They correctly argued that cultivation loosened the soil at the
margins of the Cuautitlán River and Lakes Zumpango and San Cristóbal, silt-
ing them and potentially driving their water over the dams. The record shows
local Indians making efforts at this time to recapture lake beds for agriculture
during the dry season. Ironically, doing so required that they confront the resi-
dent wardens of the Desagüe, who usurped and tilled these same lake beds for
their private benefit, in spite of the silting effect.81 Haciendas, too, resented the
restriction on water-edge cultivation, because “these margins are the richest,
and between their length and distance they make up nearly four caballerías of
land; and the hacienda will lose its value as its best lands are rendered useless,” as
one administrator complained in 1748.82
Both Indians and hacendados resented these reductions of their rights to
usufruct of their land and often formed temporary common cause in complaints
against the Desagüe, as they did around issues involving irrigation water. At the
same time, non-Indian landholders had important reasons to make such alliances
against the Desagüe contingent on their own interests. One of the most impor-
tant landowners in the district until 1767 was the Jesuit Order. Unfortunately
for the indigenous communities, the Jesuits seem to have been on the good side
of the Desagüe administrators, possibly because sometimes the administrators
too were landowners in the area, and Jesuit conflicts with Indian communities
were often resolved in ways that benefited the Desagüe. The Jesuit Hacienda de
Xalpa lay to the west of Lake Zumpango, and the Hacienda de Santa Lucía was

79. AGN Tierras, vol. 1110, exp. 5, f. 14, 1784.

80. AGN Desagüe, vol. 40, exp. 1, 69 fs, f. 14.
81. AGN Desagüe, vol. 19, exp. 14, f. 6v. AGN Tierras, vol. 1110, exp. 5, ff. 1 – 35v.
82. AGN Desagüe, vol. 14, exp. 11, 33 fs, f. 19.
32 HAHR / February / Candiani

located in the Lake Xaltocán area (figure 2). Beginning in 1576, the Hacienda
de Santa Lucía impinged upon Indian land and water rights. Between then and
1767, this hacienda had disputes with 47 Indian townships in its area, some of
which (Xaltocán, Zumpango, and Ecatepec) were within the Desagüe’s juris-
diction. Unlike the Indians, the Jesuits had unlimited resources to fight local
disputes all the way to the Council of Indies, so they were usually successful.83
Jesuit success in limiting village use of and access to water and soil was
helpful to the Desagüe, for example, in a dispute involving Lake Xaltocán and
the Ozumbilla springs. Desagüe superintendants had claimed that Lake Xal-
tocán was an important receptacle for runoff and stream water during the rainy
season and a good source of the grasses used to repair Desagüe levees, and was
therefore off-limits to cultivation and livestock. Over the course of the eigh-
teenth century, however, Xaltocán Indians persistently challenged this defini-
tion by cultivating the lakebed using freshwater from the Ozumbilla springs
to combat the salinity of the soil. They brought this water into the lake with a
canal, irritating Desagüe authorities. So when in 1746 the Jesuits built a ditch
of their own to divert the Ozumbilla waters away from Lake Xaltocán and into
their Hacienda Santa Lucía, they were unwittingly aiding the Desagüe’s cause.
Xaltocán Indians protested, but Desagüe superintendant Trespalacios y Escan-
dón found in favor of whoever benefited the public work, which just happened
to be his fellow hacendados, the Jesuits.84
At the same time, Teoloyuca was fighting the Jesuits, too, because the Haci-
enda de Xalpa put property markers inside the township’s lands. The Indians
challenged this in court but eventually desisted “because it is a small portion and
they would have to spend more on its defense than it is worth.”85 Their decision
to desist is easy to understand: they claimed they were already paying for a sepa-
rate suit to recover 12 surcos (1 surco equals 1.46 square meters) of Cuautitlán
River water from this hacienda.86 Meanwhile, between its main holding and its
ranchos, the Hacienda de Xalpa had totally encircled another township (Hue-
huetoca).87 This piecemeal encroachment forced Indian townships and others
into incessant litigation, whose cost could exceed the value of the item under

83. Herman W. Konrad, A Jesuit Hacienda in Colonial Mexico: Santa Lucía, 1576 – 1767
(Palo Alto: Stanford Univ. Press, 1980), 151 – 74, app. B.
84. AGN Desagüe, vol. 13, exp. 6, 15 fs; AGN Tierras, vol. 2026, exp. 3, f. 3v.
85. AGN Tierras, vol. 1629, exp. 12, f. 38v – 39v.
86. AGN Desagüe, vol. 11, exp. 5, ff. 1 – 6.
87. Gisela von Wobeser, La formación de la hacienda en la época colonial: El uso de la tierra
y el agua (Mexico City: UNAM, 1983), 148.
The Desagüe Reconsidered 33

dispute.88 Deliberately or not, non-Indian landowners thus gradually increased

their holdings while eroding Indian coffers, in a situation where Indians needed
these resources for legal challenges to the Desagüe or its wardens.
These legal challenges increased everywhere over the eighteenth century
as a result of the gradually increasing pressure on land and water of a recov-
ering Indian population. Demographic growth, however, cannot fully account
for increasing tensions with the Desagüe. Rather than any single factor, the
interaction among population, resource access, land use, and ecology better
explains the tensions. Population growth and the concomitant need to produce
more food, combined with limitations in soil fertility and access to fertile soil,
produced increasing conflict. The desiccation of the lakes gradually increased
their alkalinity and salinity, as well as that of the soils around Lakes Zumpango
and Xaltocán. These soils, comparable to those on the eastern margins of Lake
Texcoco, are more fragile than elsewhere in the basin. In addition, part of the
cultivated Cuautitlán River plain is poor in the essential nutrients phosphorus,
nitrogen, and potassium.89 (Interestingly, Teoloyuca is the exception: could the
abundance of essential nutrients in its soil have helped the township to survive?)
As the Desagüe controlled the movement and availability of freshwater from the
Cuautitlán for its own aims, and blocked communities such as Xaltocán from
leading springwater into their lake, all within a relatively short period of time,
it thus inhibited the ability of communities to rehabilitate these soils, giving
them little room and time for adaptation. So the restrictions explained above
did more than merely reduce the amount of land that communities could cul-
tivate for food to eat or to sell for tribute obligations. They combined with the
environmental and access-right changes to threaten the package of practices
that communities had developed assuming basic continuities in environmental
conditions and common rights (different types of agriculture, gathering, fish-
ing, and hunting, and intercommunal collaboration). Individual stresses such
as population increase should thus be measured against the increased risk that
these combined changes created, which compounded the burden of an increased
number of households.
Adding the filter of technology to this combination illuminates how popu-
lation growth offered possibilities as well as greater risk. Villages located on the
alluvial plain of the Cuautitlán River depended on systems of canals, such as

88. In 1776, Indian trajineros of Chalco paid 116 pesos in legal fees to secure transit
through Mexicalzingo. AGN Desagüe, vol. 18, exp. 5, ff. 32 – 32v.
89. Salvador Sánchez Colin, El Estado de México: Su historia, su ambiente, sus recursos
(Mexico City: n.p., 1951), 358 – 59, 365.
34 HAHR / February / Candiani

those out of the Pila Real, which permanently irrigated and drained their fields.
Canals required large expenditures of human energy to construct and maintain,
but they did have the advantage of reducing the agronomic risk faced by those
whose lands were strictly rain-fed (tierras de temporal).90 We know that before
the arrival of the Spaniards, population increases both required and allowed the
development of high-maintenance but permanent irrigation and field drainage
systems analogous to those of the colonial era. This raises an intriguing ques-
tion: Did relative population recovery in the second half of the eighteenth cen-
tury both allow and require some indigenous townships in the Desagüe juris-
diction to redeploy techniques that population crisis and Desagüe pressures had
made dormant? Specifically, did these townships find it increasingly necessary
to grow crops along the lake margins using labor-intensive techniques so as to
grow more food and reduce overall agronomic risk?
There are signs this may be the case. Just as they defended their ability
to use water for gathering and fishing, Indians protected their access to lake-
margin land in both word and deed, and they did so most intensely during the
period corresponding to population recovery. In 1771, 1777, 1781, 1784, and
throughout the 1790s, Teoloyucans were particularly defiant. During the rainy
season, they gathered reeds from their tular in Lake Zumpango; in the dry sea-
son, they used borders and embankments for agricultural recoveries of the lake
bed, combining these tactics with denunciations against the Desagüe and its
employees.91 The Desagüe was a mighty opponent in court, and not even the
royal documents that had granted the Teoloyucans their access helped much
against it.92 Complaints against the public work were heard in the Audiencia, but
this court never found against the Desagüe in these specific cases. Rather, the
prohibition against cultivation within 50 varas from the edge of a bank became
the model for similar measures in the rest of the basin. In the 1770s, magistrates
in San Cristóbal, Texcoco, Coatepec, Chalco, Xochimilco, and Mexicalzingo
received instructions to have the same order proclaimed officially by the town
crier.93 The record shows Indian defiance of these prohibitions into the 1790s.
With population recovery, some Indian villages may have been trying to
reconstitute or protect labor-intensive forms of cultivation against the Desagüe.
Although I have not located pertinent records using the words chinampa or
camellón, as Spaniards called these raised horticultural beds, conflicts between

90. Nichols, “Prehispanic Settlement and Land Use,” chap. 4.

91. AGN Tierras, vol. 1110, exp. 5, ff. 1 – 35v.
92. AGN Tierras, vol. 1124, exp. 2, ff. 1 – 8.
93. AGN Desagüe, vol. 18, exp. 5, 41 fs, f. 6.
The Desagüe Reconsidered 35

the lacustrine towns of Xaltocán and Tonanitla and the Desagüe over water
appear to indicate efforts to defend or reconstitute a form of wetland cultivation
in Lake Xaltocán. At the time of conquest, some 200 hectares of chinampas
centered almost 2 kilometers southeast of the town of Xaltocán were made pos-
sible by channeling freshwater from Ozumbilla to reduce the salinity of the
surrounding lake, as we saw above.94 Later, but before the Desagüe was built and
while the city still sought flood protection by containment measures, the Span-
iards refurbished an old Aztec diversion of the Cuautitlán River toward Lakes
Zumpango, Xaltocán, and San Cristóbal and dammed its waters there. The Xal-
tocanmecas tried to stop the works, explaining that the storage dam would raise
the level of the water in their lake and thus ruin their fields (sementeras). Viceroy
Velasco thought that “it is better that a few fields be lost and not that Mexico be
flooded,” and so the works proceeded.95 Coupled with the historical precedent,
the sensitivity of Indians to the level of the lake supports the possibility of chi-
nampa activity, because an excess of water would rot them as much as a deficit
would dry them up.
By 1746 the Xaltocán Indians’ concern was the lack of water inside their
lake. One morning at the beginning of the rainy season, they marched “as a
demonstration [tumulto], with its drum, bugle and banner and making much
noise, led by the officials of the village [oficiales de república].” They were on
their way to fill in the ditch the Jesuits had dug to divert the Ozumbilla spring-
waters to the Jesuit hacienda of Santa Lucía. Since it led water away from the
lake system, the ditch was important to the Desagüe.96 But it destroyed Xal-
tocán Indians’ efforts to “industriously and skillfully” retain this water in Lake
Xaltocán.97 Desagüe superintendant Trespalacios y Escandón reported that in
December 1745 he had ordered the destruction of all the Indians’ borders and
dams that retained the Ozumbilla waters within Lake Xaltocán.98 It is clear that
the Indians were trying to maintain the level of the water in Lake Xaltocán,
since they were not sending it into irrigation ditches. This was important for

94. Angel Palerm, Obras hidráulicas prehispánicas en el sistema lacustre del Valle de México
(Mexico City: INAH, 1973), 237; confirmed in Nichols and Frederick, “Irrigation Canals
and Chinampas,” 136 – 38, and elsewhere.
95. F. de Cepeda and A. Carrillo, “Relación universal legítima y verdadera del sitio en
que está fundada la muy noble insigne y muy leal ciudad de México” (1637), in Obras públicas
en México: Documentos para su Historia, vol. 1 (Mexico City: Secretaría de Obras Públicas,
1976), 42 – 44.
96. AGN Desagüe, vol. 13, exp. 6, ff. 2 – 2v.
97. Ibid., f. 4.
98. Ibid., ff. 10 – 11.
36 HAHR / February / Candiani

maintaining the use value of plant and animal populations of that lake, and for
sustaining chinampas or other water-level-sensitive agriculture. Regardless of
the type of cultivation that these Indians were protecting, the vigorous commu-
nal defense of resources indicates that the Desagüe’s injunction against this rec-
lamation of the use value of water and land was directly threatening the viability
of the villages. In providing a common enemy, it was also a lightning rod for
village cohesion in action, counteracting to some degree the forces of internal
Xaltocán was a local center of power at the time of the conquest. Before
1519, it had expanded its chinampa area for food and tribute needs. But after the
conquest, its people resettled on the lakeshore, where they could sustain chi-
nampas with springwater after a combination of depopulation and salinization.99
Is it possible that in the period between the demise of Tenochtitlán and the
resurgence of some of the groups formerly under its domain, Xaltocán recon-
stituted a shrunken but still vital form of the community it had been before the
Triple Alliance? It seems to have been thriving with chinampa cultivation, dry
farming, and a full array of lacustrine ventures just a decade before the advent
of the Desagüe.100 This revitalization would both make possible and require the
defense of community resources against the Desagüe and its allies in the eigh-
teenth century, when resource pressures mounted.101 The case of Xaltocán may
be the most visible in the Desagüe region, but it is unlikely to be unique, given
the wetland-dependent forms of agriculture practiced by indigenes in the area.

In Closing

The significance of the Desagüe as an object through which to analyze the

environmental dimensions of class conflict in the Valley of Mexico will become
clearer with a European comparison. Unlike what occurred in the case of the
Desagüe, several European drainage projects accompanied the rapid corrosion
of the peasantry there. The drainage of the Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire
fens is a good example. From the 1630s on, English private investors, the state,
and landlords pushed large-scale drainage projects that would eventually trans-
form fenland ecology and class relations. The narrow aim of preserving existing
urban wealth that motivated the Desagüe was absent from the English drain-

99. Susan Chimonas, “Occupational History of Prehispanic Xaltocan,” in Brumfiel,

Production and Power at Postclassic Xaltocan, 169 – 94, and others in the same volume.
100. Gibson, Aztecs under Spanish Rule, 366 – 67, 446.
101. Ibid., 7, 23, 85.
The Desagüe Reconsidered 37

ages. Unlike the Mexican case, where the Spanish Crown in principle defended
communal property rights in part because royal revenue depended on it, in the
fens the Stuarts backed a coalition of investors and landlords against fenlander
control of land and water.102 The socioecological dynamics in the two cases,
however, are quite comparable.
As in Mexico, fenland villagers found both use and exchange value in their
commons: they ate and sold cheese made from milk their animals produced
on rich summer pastures; used and sold peat as fuel; gathered reeds, willow
branches, and other plants to make traps, decoys, baskets and so on; and they
used these tools to gather fish, fowl, and crops for consumption and market,
as well as to pay dues to the manor.103 Their economy was more pastoral than
agricultural, but their entire watery sustenance was affected by drainage, which
prevented the winter floods that nourished the soil with silt, compacted the peat
while exposing its anaerobic balance to corrosive oxygen, and lowered the water
Drainage projects were intimately bound with the process of enclosure of
commons used for pasture or gathering, as both were pursued for the purpose
of increasing arable land. Serious drainage projects began in the 1630s at the
expense of the rights of commoners, angering fenlanders just in time for the
Civil War, during which they rioted, holding drainage somewhat at bay until
Parliament took it over from the earlier courtier class alliance.105 As in the case
of the Desagüe, disaggregating “water” and “land” as analytical categories and
dissecting each with the concepts of use value and exchange value allows us to
see that peasant farmers and landless commoners fought the drainage over two
issues. Farmers contested the sudden loss to the gentry and the British Crown’s
allies of two-thirds of the seasonally flooded common pastures, which would

102. Joan Thirsk, English Peasant Farming (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,
1957), 109.
103. J. R. Ravensdale, Liable to Floods: Village Landscape on the Edge of the Fens, AD
450 – 1850 (London: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1974), 39 – 63; David Hall and John Coles,
Fenland Survey: An Essay in Landscape and Persistence (London: English Heritage, 1994),
Archaeological Report 1; Carolyn Merchant, “Hydraulic Technologies and the Agricultural
Transformation of the English Fens,” Environmental Review 7, no. 2 (Summer 1983):
165 – 78.
104. Robin Butlin, “Drainage and Land Use in the Fenlands and Fen-Edge of
Northeast Cambridgeshire in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in Cosgrove and
Petts, Water, Engineering, and Landscape, 54 – 76.
105. Mark E. Kennedy, “Charles I and Local Government: The Draining of the East
and West Fens,” Albion 15, no. 1 (Spring 1983): 19 – 31.
38 HAHR / February / Candiani

now become arable land instead.106 Both peasants and landless commoners
struggled to retain the ecosystemic use value of land and water and to prevent
them from becoming inputs in capitalist production of grains, valued largely as
commodities through the market.107 In other words, in both fens and Desagüe,
commoners opposed the drainers’ efforts to define and fix what and where land
and water would be.
Additionally, it turns out that dynamics of uneven and combined colonial
development were also present in the capitalist transformation of the European
countryside, where there is no reason to assume full allegiance to a nation-state,
especially not on the part of peasants and commoners, for whom notions such as
pays or countrey had to do with locality.108 Thus, both Mexican and fen drainage
were useful for a class colonization of the countryside that assisted the rise of
the capitalist mode of production, the city, and the state, penetrating into water,
land, and people with varying degrees of success.
What about the technology? Did the Great Level engineers do what the
Desagüe did in the Cuautitlán basin, appropriating fenlanders’ knowledge in
order to deploy it in a technology that could undermine fenlanders’ forms of
interacting with their ecosystems? This line of questioning is absent from the
literature, so it is hard to tell. It is clear, however, that fenlanders struggled for
control of their ecosystemic relationships through defensive measures that
appear similar to those used by Indians in the Desagüe region. They certainly
resorted to the courts and rioting, but the fenmen first defied orders by continu-
ing their customary usage of land and water; they chased surveyors and attacked
the devices by breaching dams, filling drainage ditches, burning ploughs, and
destroying fences and enclosures.109 In this way the technology itself was the
venue for social struggle over the pace, means, and extent of fen ecological
transformation. In both the Desagüe region and the fens, the relatively rapid
ecological changes imposed by the different drainage designs imposed limits on
human technological adaptability to environmental change.
The Desagüe assisted the process of land concentration in the Valley of
Mexico that was unfolding independently around it. From the mid-eighteenth

106. Thirsk, English Peasant Farming, 116 – 19.

107. Keith Lindley, Fenland Riots and the English Revolution (London: Heinemann
Educational Books, 1982), esp. chaps. 4 – 6.
108. Mark E. Kennedy, “Fen Drainage, the Central Government, and Local Interest:
Carleton and the Gentlemen of South Holland,” Historical Journal 26 (1983): 15 – 37; Eugen
Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870 – 1914 (Palo Alto:
Stanford Univ. Press, 1976), 45 – 46.
109. Merchant, “Hydraulic Technologies”; Lindley, Fenland Riots, 126, 139 – 48.
The Desagüe Reconsidered 39

century on, unrest over land and water increased in the district of the drainage:
indigenous communities were struggling to sustain or increase their “food secu-
rity,” to use current parlance, much as the fenlanders had done in England. This
involved more than demanding additional “land” and “water,” in general terms,
for increased populations. It meant protecting their ability to continue their way
of life, which depended on combining the growing of crops in different soils and
moisture conditions with the gathering and harvesting of various plants and
animals from the surrounding ecosystem. It meant also keeping these practices
and material conditions broadly within the reach of the techniques and forms of
social organization of work they had developed to capture the resources of their
surroundings — enough water for floodwater or canal irrigation, intercommu-
nal collaboration for drainage and irrigation maintenance, lake levels suitable
for canoe transport, specific plant and animal balances for nets and decoys to
work, survival of and access to good earth-binding grass species, and so on. The
correlation we should draw is not a mechanical one between population and
water and land conflicts, however. The fact that water and soil have ecosystemic
use and exchange value for communities means that their struggles were multi-
faceted and dynamic and not merely over acreage or irrigation units. Religion,
communal organization and integrity, town finances, cultural identity, and the
entire fabric of social life were wrapped up in how lands, water, and the limi-
nal space between them were used to meet food and subsistence needs. These
conflicts should therefore be read as evidence of the special stress in the town-
ships of the region that resulted from the short-term and long-term ecological
changes and access limits arising from the Desagüe project.
The Desagüe’s dependence on the willing or coerced collaboration of the
indigenous practitioners of hydraulic technologies illustrates how colonization
was impossible without technological appropriations from the indigenous realm.
Thus, corrosive as it was to the indigenous peasantry, the urban elite’s drainage
did not wipe out their way of life in the Cuautitlán area or anywhere else the
lakes and rivers persisted, in part because the Desagüe’s reliance on their know-
how sustained the vitality of technologies that undergirded relative local control
over these resources. The urban elite’s conceptualization of the Desagüe solely
as a guarantor of urban wealth and rent contributed, too. Understanding the
persistence of an autonomous landed peasantry in Mexico, in contrast to the
rapid decline of this class in parts of Europe, depends on our ability to track not
only the forms of struggle over ecosystemic resources but also the environmen-
tal implications of the limited aims of colonial elites and the nature of Spanish
colonization. Revitalizing neglected intellectual traditions would help, too.