Corn Riots in Mexico City

Food shortages and racial resentment contributed to colonial Mexico’s most violent and damaging riot, as the large mixed-race and Indian racial elements of the capital went on a rampage that destroyed many government buildings and businesses.

Summary of Event

In 1692, Mexico City, capital of the large Viceroyalty of New Spain New Spain;uprisings , experienced its second major riot of the century. Both disturbances, or tumultos, involved the city’s sizeable population of underprivileged mestizos, blacks, and Indians, who took to the streets and wrought considerable destruction. [kw]Corn Riots in Mexico City (June 8, 1692)
[kw]Mexico City, Corn Riots in (June 8, 1692)
[kw]Riots in Mexico City, Corn (June 8, 1692)
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 8, 1692: Corn Riots in Mexico City[3010]
Social issues and reform;June 8, 1692: Corn Riots in Mexico City[3010]
Economics;June 8, 1692: Corn Riots in Mexico City[3010]
Agriculture;June 8, 1692: Corn Riots in Mexico City[3010]
Mexico;June 8, 1692: Corn Riots in Mexico City[3010]
Corn Riots (1692)
Silva y Mendoza, Gasper de la Cerda Sandoval
Aguiar y Seijas, Francisco de
Sigüenza y Góngora, Carlos de

By the seventeenth century, Mexico City contained large numbers of persons on the extreme margins of society who were a potentially volatile force in times of cultural stress. This situation stemmed from the racial policies and laws of the Spanish colonial system, which imposed the dominance of an elite European minority that made up less than 20 percent of the population over a large, racially diverse society. After the conquest, intermarriage (or at least child bearing) between Spaniards and Indians created a new mixed-race element, the mestizos. The ethnic situation was further complicated by the presence of African slaves and freemen, as well as a few Asians, resulting in further diversity and racial mixing. Furthermore, the dominant European group itself eventually became divided into those born in Spain (peninsulars), who were especially favored by the Crown, and a larger, American-born creole population.

Europeans embraced the concept of limpieza de sangre (an untainted pure bloodline) as a rationalization for keeping the increasing numbers of nonwhites in check and maintaining for themselves exclusive control over political and economic institutions and many professions. Creoles Creoles , whose bloodlines were often considered “suspect” by the peninsulars, were particularly responsible for the creation of a complicated, hierarchal system of racial classification containing from sixteen to forty possible categories, ranked according to the degree and type of racial mixture.

To simplify matters, all those who did not qualify as pure Spaniard or pure Indian under this system were ultimately referred to as castas. Government positions, private land ownership, higher education, mercantile trades, and the more prestigious artisan crafts became the monopoly of Spanish- or American-born whites, through laws that defined the rights and status of each of the various racial groups. Residents of New Spain who fell into the nonwhite categories were, with minor exceptions, effectively relegated to being unskilled laborers, peasants, and household servants. Many were unemployed or underemployed.

Although some enterprising castas and Indians did manage to become artisans, their situation was nevertheless unstable and volatile. In general, people of color lived in miserable conditions. The Spanish elite’s restrictions on socioeconomic activities and possibilities for advancement of the other racial groups created great urban slums and barrios whose disadvantaged inhabitants included many desperate beggars and indigent persons living by their wits outside the law as pickpockets and thieves. Meanwhile, the ruling classes viewed the debased conditions of these marginalized peoples as proof of their inferiority, immorality, treachery, and debased criminal nature.

Although the complicated hierarchal racial classifications proved rather difficult to maintain in a strict, rigid sense, the colonial masters also effectively used a system of patronage to control or subordinate the majority, nonwhite population. This practice enforced dependency on upper class benefactors and manipulated the lower classes by using favoritism in unevenly dispensing rewards, playing one group against another, and co-opting the more successful castas.

The Mexico City riots of 1624 and 1692, had several common elements. The later tumulto, however, exploded into a more serious challenge to Spanish authority. A combination of economic, social, and political circumstances contributed to the uprising. In 1691, severe rains and floods were followed by rot, blight, and failure of the maize and wheat crops. Shortages soon led to skyrocketing prices, and in 1692, maize prices reached their highest level in a century. Although Viceroy Gaspar de la Cerda Sandoval Silva y Mendoza, Silva y Mendoza, Gaspar de la Cerda Sandoval conde de Galve, and other leaders made some efforts to increase the supply of grain in the capital, these measures were not sufficient. Also, their decision not to impose price controls in hopes that a free market would lead to more supply only exacerbated the desperate situation of the poor. Food prices tripled in 1692, pushing many toward starvation. In addition, commoners believed that the authorities were guilty of corruption and mismanagement.

The situation became volatile on June 8, when rumors spread that officials had killed or mortally injured a poor Indian woman who was part of a group assembled at the city’s alhóndiga (granary). A small angry group of Indians appeared at the archbishop’s palace in the afternoon to complain and demand justice. Archbishop Don Francisco de Aguiar y Seijas Aguiar y Seijas, Francisco de told the petitioners to seek out the viceroy with this request. Shortly after 5:30 p.m. at the viceregal palace in the city’s main plaza, known as the Zócalo, the group, now numbering around 150 to 200 people, was again turned away and denied access to authority. With these channels of communication and safety valves denied, the crowd’s hitherto semi respectful attitude toward Spanish authority degenerated into contempt. The palace guards became objects of taunts and insults. By six o’clock, a riot had broken out. As the Indians began to throw stones and the word spread, both the size and the racial diversity of the mob increased. Soon, the rioters numbered in the thousands, including some lower-class whites.

After the palace came under attack, the undermanned contingent of guards charged the crowd but was turned back. The guards’ efforts to barricade the doors only prompted the mob to set those doors ablaze, and flames soon poured from every side of the doomed edifice. Crowds also burned the public gibbet and stocks, as well as the viceroy’s carriage. In a series of other spontaneous actions and separate chaotic scenes, rioters in the plaza torched the municipal buildings, including the offices of city government, the archives, and the granary. Finally, nearly three hundred stalls and shops around the plaza’s marketplace were looted and burned. Clothing, weapons, and alcoholic beverages, such as pulque, figured prominently among the stolen goods.

According to witnesses, an indescribable, menacing, raucous, earsplitting din filled the plaza. In this tumult, various threatening slogans and insults were reportedly shouted: “Long live the king and death to bad government!” “Down with the Spaniards and the Gachupines (an insulting term for peninsular Spaniards) . . . who are eating up our corn!” “Death to the viceroy and his wife!” “Death to the corregidor (governor)!” “Long live the king and death to his cuckold!” In using the latter term, the crowds insulted the manliness of the Spaniards and thereby their right to command respect. As the riot unfolded, Spaniards moved through the crowd to escape and many hid behind the bolted doors of their homes. An attempt by the archbishop to appeal to the crowd’s conscience failed. Other efforts by churchmen had mixed success but saved a few important buildings.

The riot’s momentum began to dissipate during the final stage of looting. The crowd soon started to thin out as participants headed for home with their prizes. While people dispersed, armed Spaniards began to enter the plaza after seven o’clock, killing and wounding many of those still present. By ten o’clock, the square was empty except for the bodies of the dead and wounded.

Spanish authorities quickly and brutally restored order. Roughly sixty individuals received sentences ranging from gruesome executions to whipping and public humiliation. Military forces were strengthened and new restrictions placed on Indians, who apparently made up the majority of rioters. Interestingly, many of the Indian and casta participants were artisans and represented the higher ranks of their racial categories whose position had become extremely precarious in the economic crisis.


The 1692 uprising was the most destructive tumulto in the history of colonial New Spain. Damage totaled an astronomical two million pesos. Reconstruction of some buildings was not complete until 1720. Scores of people were killed and many times that number injured. Moreover, in the riot’s initial stage, the rioters became a unified social and political force, threatening the control of the ruling Spaniards. This unity of purpose and revolutionary fellowship revealed the limits of Spanish efforts at racial control and the fragility of Spanish authority. However, without discipline, leadership, and planning, the uprising degenerated into a looting spree in which each person acted only for herself or himself; it was therefore easily extinguished.

The rioters lacked the vision and means to construct an alternative to Spanish rule. In the aftermath, many fearful commoners collaborated with the authorities by revealing participants in hopes of avoiding punishment. Within a relatively short time, when it became apparent that order was effectively restored, many of the government’s strict measures were relaxed. Nothing was done to address the real causes of this destructive and traumatic event, however. Spaniards preferred to interpret the unsettling episode not as a spontaneous uprising of economically distressed masses but as a planned conspiracy with key leaders. Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, Sigüenza y Góngora, Carlos de New Spain’s most prestigious intellectual and scientist, witnessed part of the rebellion and wrote an account. Don Carlos’s interpretation reflected a typical elite viewpoint in citing drunkenness and natural moral perversity of the so-called “lesser breeds” as important factors.

Further Reading

  • Cope, R. Douglas. The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660-1720. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994. The most complete analysis available of the Mexico City riot of 1692. A well-researched and informative treatment of racial policy and race relations.
  • Guthrie, Chester L. “Riots in Seventeenth-Century Mexico City: A Study of Social and Economic Conditions.” In Greater America: Essays in Honor of Herbert Eugene Bolton. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1968. Analysis and interpretation of these events that confirms the spontaneous nature of the 1692 riot.
  • “Tumult and Shouting.” In Many Mexicos, edited by Leslie B. Simpson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959. This chapter in a well-written monograph describes and analyzes the riots of 1624 and 1692 in Mexico City.

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