The cargo system (also known as the civil-religious hierarchy, fiesta or mayordomía system) is a collection of secular and religious positions held by men or households in rural indigenous communities throughout central and southern Mexico and Central America. These revolving offices, or cargos, become the unpaid responsibility of men who are active in civic life. They typically hold a given post for a term of one year, and alternate between civic and religious obligations from year to year. Office holders execute most of the tasks of local governments and churches. Individuals who hold a cargo are generally obligated to incur the costs of feasting during the fiestas that honor particular saints.
Where it is practiced, there is generally some expectation of all local men to take part in this cargo system throughout their lives. Office holders assume greater responsibilities as they grow in stature in the community. Such progression requires substantial financial resources, but eventually an individual who holds a requisite number of posts in service to his community retires and joins a group of elders instrumental in community decision-making, including appointing people to cargos.
The origins of the cargo system are tied to the efforts of Spanish missionaries to convert indigenous peoples of the Americas to Christianity while at the same time forestalling their cultural Hispanicization. After the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica in the 16th century, many Indians were forcibly relocated to pueblos, which like Spanish villages contained a church as the town center. Priests were one of many special interest foreigners who had control over the political and social affairs of indigenous peoples, and they had dominion over many of these pueblos and had the authority to keep other colonists out. The priests were mindful that much of their influence over the Indians stemmed from the priests' ability to speak Indian languages. Despite a 1550 royal edict calling for native peoples to be taught the Spanish language, missionaries continued to minister to them in Nahuatl and other local languages, thus preserving a major source of Indian dependency on the church. The colonial church did not insist on excessive Catholicization of existing indigenous practices, so long as there was no clear conflict between the two.
Because the missionaries were small in number, they increasingly placed religious responsibilities in the hands of trusted members of the villages. The village mayor or alcalde was charged with the responsibility of leading the villagers in a procession to Sunday Mass. Over time, these processions were conducted with greater ceremony, making use of trappings such as crosses, incense, and music.
On occasion drawing on a Spanish institution called the cofradías, the priests created a hierarchy of village posts in order to better organize the religious and civil lives of their Indians. Indigenous people filled these roles, which in theory gave them greater status within the community. These roles, however, also placed economic obligations on their recipients and the clergy used them as a way to exercise control over the villagers. Villagers were obligated to organize efforts to discharge debts related to cost of food, wafers and wine for the Mass and payment of the priests.
- Chance, John K.; William B. Taylor. Cofradías and Cargos: An Historical Perspective on the Mesoamerican Civil-Religious Hierarchy. American Ethnologist, Vol. 12, No. 1. (Feb., 1985), pp. 1-26.
- Dewalt, Billie R. Changes in the Cargo Systems of MesoAmerica, Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 2. (Apr., 1975), pp. 87-105.
- Friedlander, Judith. The Secularization of the Cargo System: An Example from Postrevolutionary Central Mexico (in Research Reports and Notes). Latin American Research Review, Vol. 16, No. 2. (1981), pp. 132-143.