Mita Labor in the Andean Highlands

For many centuries prior to the Spanish conquest, the indigenous peoples of the Andean highlands had employed a system of reciprocal labor exchange known as mita (MEE-ta). Literally translating as “turn work” or a “turn” of labor, mita was integral to the system of ayllus, which in the absence of markets constituted the principal mechanism by which individuals, families, and communities exchanged goods and services.

Mita was also the principal way in which pre-Columbian Andean states, including the Inca, secured the labor necessary for the construction of roads, agricultural terraces, warehouses, temples, and other public works.

In the aftermath of their conquest of the Inca, the Spanish came to employ a modified version of the mita labor system, which by convention is generally referred to as mita (rather than mit’a) labor. The differences between the two systems were profound.

In the preconquest mita system, even the lowliest peasant could be assured of a minimal level of subsistence, just as highland communities were ensured an adequate number of workers even after local notables (kurakas) and the imperial state had siphoned off the specified number of mita laborers (mitayos).

Under Spanish rule, the mita system was essentially shorn of much of its reciprocal qualities, while demands for labor intensified dramatically. Especially after the reforms instituted by Viceroy Francisco de Toledo in the 1570s, the mita labor system became, in effect, a system of forced labor in which the state demanded that communities (now called repartimiento) contribute as many as one-seventh of their able-bodied labor force at any given time to work in the silver and mercury mines, in workshops (or obrajes), in agriculture and ranching, and in many other capacities.

Combined with the devastation wrought by the violence of conquest and the epidemic disease that raged throughout the highlands, causing precipitous population declines for which periodic censuses failed to account, the mita labor system emerged as one of the most fearsome and brutal institutions of the entire colonial period.

Mita Labor
Mita Labor

Overall, the Spanish state was less concerned with fostering conditions under which individuals, families, and communities could reproduce the conditions of their own existence than with extracting the greatest quantity of labor in the shortest possible time.

The results of this transformation, for ordinary Andeans, were horrific. Communities were drained of their most productive workers, who were gone for months at a time, making it far more difficult for them to meet their tributary quotas “in kind” (e.g., in corn, textiles, and sundry other goods).

This presented a new imposition, since before the conquest the Inca state and its agents had required communities to contribute mita labor exclusively, not goods. Mitayos, often accompanied by their wives, children, and other relatives, were often subjected to the most brutal working conditions imaginable, especially those assigned to work in the silver and mercury mines.

Females who accompanied mitayos during their turn at labor became vulnerable to rape and other abuses, while other family members were frequently assigned to secondary tasks by colonial authorities, further depleting the quantity of labor available to the larger community.

The abuses of mita labor continued throughout the colonial period and were a major contributing factor in the many revolts and uprisings that rocked the Andean highlands in the decades and centuries after the consolidation of colonial rule in the 1570s.