Landscapes of Care: Affect and Emotion in the 16th Century Testimonies of the Congregation of Xaltocan

Aztec-period pottery in the plowed fields of the former bed of Lake Xaltocan. Photo: John K. Millhauser

By John K. Millhauser, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, North Carolina State University §

Aztec-period pottery in the plowed fields of the former bed of Lake Xaltocan. Photo: John K. Millhauser

“todos los dichos Pueblesillos se junten é rredusigan en este Pueblo de Jaltocan Como su Cauezera e que tiene muy buen asiento y sano y que tienen todas sus grangerias Como a dicho e tierras Capases é abundantes en que poder todos Sembrar sus Sementeras”

All of said villages should join and be relocated to this town of Xaltocan, their principal town, which has a good and healthy location, and which has all of their livelihoods as has been said, and spacious and abundant land on which all can farm their fields.

Francisco Melendes, Spaniard and neighbor

“y de pena se moririan algunos Yndios si los redujesen a la dicha Cauezera por que en donde estan al presente estan hechos e contentos e rricos”
And some Indians would die of grief if you relocate them to the said principal town because they are happy, content, and rich where they presently are.

Ximon Peres, Native and official from Chiconautla

These are the words of individuals testifying before a Spanish judge in the town of Xaltocan, Mexico, over four hundred years ago. Their words are part of the official record of the process of congregración in which Spaniards relocated dispersed and depleted indigenous communities to nearby principal towns. The congregaciones were often framed in the rhetoric of salvation because relocation would make it easier for priests to minister to Indigenous congregants, but they could be described as one of the largest land grabs in human history because Spaniards could more readily dispossess unoccupied lands. These two passages illustrate the competing interests and discourses of Spaniard and Nahua, outsider and local, to legitimize their knowledge of the landscape, establish the boundaries of their jurisdiction over the land, and convince each other that they were best suited to care for it and its inhabitants.

Soil, water, people, plants, and animals intersected at Xaltocan’s location on an island in a salt lake. This was an unstable environment. The shorelines of the lake, the salinity of the water, and access to its many resources varied with annual cycles of wet, dry, hot, and cold as well unpredictable variation in the regional climate from one year to the next. Even prevailing winds could change the boundaries of the shallow lake from one day to the next. The flow of water was also shaped by the politically motivated actions of inhabitants throughout the region. In the 80 years between the conquest of the Aztec Empire and the congregración of Xaltocan’s hinterland populations, the lake emerged as a point of contention among indigenous groups that wanted to farm, fish, hunt, and gather reeds and salt; Jesuit haciendas with enormous herds of sheep that needed freshwater and salt licks; Spanish millers who depended on flowing water; and the people of Mexico City who sought by turns to damn or divert water from the north in order to prevent the next flood.

In a recent paper on the historical political ecology of Lake Xaltocan, Christopher Morehart and I observed that the places where people exploited local resources “became sites of habitation, identity, and political affiliation. As in other parts of the world, places carry affective power above and beyond their material uses. Attachments to these sites, as well as to economic practices among the lakes, shaped local responses to external demands over the Colonial era and into the present day” (Millhauser and Morehart 2018: 148). Here, I dig deeper into the connections among affect, environment, and local knowledge—a combination usually beyond archaeological reach, but which may be accessible in written sources. Granted, the more than 80 testimonies of Xaltocan’s congregración are far from objective. The transcripts of testimonies— assembled by four interpreters, five scribes, and countless archivists—are thick with legal jargon and only explicitly represent the interests and experiences of adult men. Nevertheless, they offer a glimpse into how the people who cared for the area negotiated the terms of jurisdiction by articulating their deep-rooted knowledge of the land to resist, accommodate, and secure advantage in an unstable environment.

How could these legal documents reveal connections among care, emotion, affect, and the environment? Scholars such as Candis Callison (2014) and María Puig de Bellacasa (2017) use care to denote individual interest (“caring about” something) and broader well-being (to “care for” something). Here, I emphasize “caring for” the environment. The language of “caring for” is often framed in terms of emotion and affect. The differences between affect and emotion are outlined in works by Sarah Luna (2018), Ian Skoggard and Alisse Waterson (2015), Kathleen Stewart (2007), and Nigel Thrift (2004). I will not resolve these differences, but I can make several observations. Affect expands beyond the individual, intense, and transitory nature of emotions. It is often intersubjective and non-discursive (felt rather than spoken) with ties to embodied experiences and sensations that are, in Sara Ahmed’s (2010) words, “contagious.” Affect can be material, spatial, and collective—think of a crowd’s mood or a landscape that is inspiring or desolate. For these reasons, affect can forge connections between past and present actors, as Niko Besnier (1995) observed in reading historical love letters.

In other words, I believe affect can help us to understand how participants in the congregación of Xaltocan deployed care in their testimonies. Furthermore, I believe that this affect remains potent today. The scribe who recorded witnesses’ testimonies did not describe emotional states or other affective qualities. Nevertheless, within the text are clues and cues of care, affect, and emotion which can resonate with readers in the present, if we look for them.

The Primary Sources

The document quoted above is a copy, made in 1711, of the original produced in Xaltocan in 1599. It is housed in the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) in Mexico City. I visited the AGN in 2010 and photographed the more than 100 pages that recorded the testimonies of Spaniards and indigenous people who sought to protect their interests in the shallow lake, swamps, and plains surrounding Xaltocan. The document records the efforts of a judge to survey the area, take a census of its communities, decide who would be required to relocate, and assign them adequate lands for their homes and agricultural fields. The judge worked with a scribe and an interpreter, who spoke Nahuatl and Spanish, to record the proceedings and ensure that locals, many of whom could not sign their names, understood the process and results. Witnesses included a local priest based in the nearby town of Zumpango, Spaniards and indigenous neighbors, and leaders from hamlets and villages slated for relocation. To make my case about care and affect in these testimonies, I briefly present evidence of three recurring themes: emotions, safekeeping, and sensations.


Although the scribe did not record the emotional state of witnesses, some testimonial language describes emotive connections to the land. For example, witnesses for the indigenous communities of San Estaban Ecatitlan, Santa Ana Nextlalpan, and Santa Maria Tonanitla claimed that moving would cause such grief and shame (pena) that some would die. In contrast, witnesses from Santa Maria Tonanitla claimed to be content (contenta) where they were and a witness from Zumpango described San Esteban Ecatitlan as a “pueblo muy alegre” (very happy town). Such appeals are uncommon in the document, but their presence suggests that emotional strategies were available and that some witnesses believed that they mattered.


If emotions were rarely recorded, intersubjective care and safekeeping were common themes. Outside witnesses, typically non-Indigenous, often couched their arguments in terms of care for the spiritual well-being of indigenous communities by attesting to the benefits of relocating communities closer to the church in Xaltocan. Two of the most common rationales were that priests would be better able to reach the sick and dying in time to perform last rites and that they could monitor and control public drunkenness and related sins. In contrast, witnesses from subject communities described how moving would harm their farmlands because they could not protect them from roaming cattle and outsiders. For them, residing near and caring for one’s farmland were one and the same and took precedence over any other considerations. Finally, witnesses explained how people from San Juan Atenango safely ferried travelers across the nearby Cuauhtitlan River when it washed out a local bridge during the rainy season. Witnesses from both sides used affective strategies when they described caring for souls threatened by sin, lands threatened by cattle, and travelers threatened by a raging river. Because these strategies played out in a struggle for power, it is worth considering how affect can be performed in ways that may or may not effectively sway the opposition. Was spiritual well-being a genuine concern among outsiders? Perhaps not. The Spaniard’s expression of care for Indigenous souls made it possible to dispossess the original inhabitants of their property. In contrast, many of the original inhabitants linked caring for the land with caring for the people who depended on it.


Finally, local knowledge of the landscape was experienced through the senses in ways that could be readily communicated and shared. Witnesses from subject communities often testified against religious arguments by explaining that they already lived close enough to the church because they could hear the church bell announcing mass. Some witnesses described the lands occupied at the time as tierra humida (either wetlands or wet/moist land) which could reflect a tactile quality and which, according to one witness, was why Santa Maria Tonanitla’s crops survived early frosts. Taste was referred to by two witnesses who described the maize grown in Santa Maria Tonanitla as sasonado, which likely referred to a salty flavor imparted by the lake’s saline soils. As with appeals to emotions, references to non-discursive and sensory sources of knowledge about the land are few and far between, but these few examples reveal intimacy and familiarity. Sensations can evoke emotions, attachment to place, and affective responses for groups sharing common experiences. They are also translatable across time and space. You and I may not be able to imagine what these towns looked like or the minutiae of daily life, but we can imagine the sound of a bell, the feel of moist dirt, or the taste of salty corn in ways that, while not universal, are intelligible.

History, Environment, and Affect

Let me return to the present and the question of affect’s transferability over time and space. It may be easy to imagine that a historical record largely written by sixteenth-century Spaniards to suit their own interests is silent about questions of care for land and people. As you may imagine, I would disagree. Michel-Rolph Trouillot identified four moments when silences enter the process of historical production: “the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance)” (1995: 26). For Trouillot, these moments are not linear steps, but rather conceptual tools that can be used to understand how gaps and silences enter the historical record.

Applying Trouillot’s typology to these testimonies, one might assume that silence on matters of care originated at the moment of fact creation when the scribe recorded the testimony of each witness. Expressions of care may have been lost in translation. Perhaps they were ignored by the scribe or untranslated by the interpreter. Without a doubt, the writing that exists today does not describe the witnesses’ attitudes, emotions, or affects—but these qualities are implicit in their testimonies. They offer a glimpse into how the people who cared for the lake and its inhabitants imagined and deployed their knowledge to resist, accommodate, and secure advantage in an unstable environment. In other words, I believe that some silence on the matter of care originated in Trouillot’s moments of fact retrieval and retrospective significance—that is, when others have tried to make sense of these documents.

The archival record can open lines of inquiry into personal experiences at a human scale and the affective ties of care for people and place. For those more historically oriented, I hope to have demonstrated the richness that is available with a close and critical reading of documents—especially that care is evident in them. For those who work in the present, I hope to have shown how the tropes, challenges, and strategies that people use in the context of care are old, deep, and widespread.

As a final note, as I worked with these documents, I observed that I held a biased view that downplayed the role of emotions in the past and limited their range to those I would expect in situations of threat or conflict. Not only did the testimonies confront me with arguments that I had to understand in terms of emotion and affect, but they also forced me to consider a wider range of sentiments than I might have otherwise imagined in a situation of such high stakes. As Michael Harkin (2003) has observed, ethnohistorians do find emotions—often strong and negative—in the documents they study, particularly in the encounter between Western colonizers and Indigenous people. But, were these the only feelings available, experienced, or expressed? The answer, obviously, is no. In these documents, affective connections to the land run the gamut from loss to enjoyment and create space to imagine a rich array of human emotions. I readily acknowledge that I have not made sixteenth-century emotions a primary subject of inquiry—that will be an effort for another day (see Sarah Tarlow’s [2012] work, for example). Past emotions may not always be accessible, but I hope to have shown how affect may, and can, be recognized and transferred across time and space.

Note: I transcribed and translated the passages that began this post directly from the 1711 copy of the visit to Xaltocan recorded in 1599. I have preserved the exact letters, punctuation, and capitalization used in the original. These documents are available at the Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City in Tierras (lands) branch (Contenedor 0695, Volume 1584, Expediente 1, Folios 21r and 79v).

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. 2010. “Happy Objects.” In The Affect Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, 29-51. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Besnier, Niko. 1995. Literacy, Emotion, and Authority: Reading and Writing on a Polynesian Atoll. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Callison, Candis. 2014. How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Harkin, Michael E. 2003. “Feeling and Thinking in Memory and Forgetting: Toward an Ethnohistory of the Emotions.” Ethnohistory 50 (2): 261-284.

Luna, Sarah. 2018. “Affective Atmospheres of Terror on the Mexico-U.S. Border: Rumors of Violence in Reynosa’s Prostitution Zone.” Cultural Anthropology 33 (1): 58-84.

Millhauser, John K., and Christopher T. Morehart. 2018. “Sustainability as a Relative Process: A Long-Term Perspective on Sustainability in the Northern Basin of Mexico.” Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 29 (1): 134-156.

Puig de la Bellacasa, María. 2017. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in more than Human Worlds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Skoggard, Ian, and Alisse Waterston. 2015. “Introduction: Toward an Anthropology of Affect and Evocative Ethnography.” Anthropology of Consciousness 26 (2): 109-120.

Stewart, Kathleen. 2007. Ordinary Affects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Tarlow, Sarah. 2012. “The Archaeology of Emotion and Affect.” Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 169-185.

Thrift, Nigel. 2004. “Intensities of Feeling: Towards a Spatial Politics of Affect.” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 86 (1): 57-78.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1995. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press.

John K. Millhauser (Ph.D. 2012 Northwestern University) is an associate professor of anthropology at North Carolina State University. His archaeological and ethnohistoric research focuses on local communities in central Mexico as they adjusted to the shifting ecological, economic, and political contexts of the Aztec and Spanish Empires. He currently serves as the secretary of the Society for Economic Anthropology and he recently co-edited Uneven Terrain: Archaeologies of Political Ecology, a volume of the Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association.

This post is part of our thematic series: Ecological Times