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Mita, a colonial Andean system of rotating forced Indian labor assigned by the state to designated beneficiaries. The Spanish conquerors derived the mita from the Quechuan mit'a, whereby Andean society made temporary assignments of workers for community projects.

Viceroy Francisco de Toledo (1569–1581) established the colonial mita, issuing laws regarding the size of the draft levies, the wages to be paid the workers, and the frequency with which an individual worker served. Without approval of the crown (which remained ambivalent about the morality of coerced labor but willing to profit from it), Toledo instituted a formal mita for the silver mines and mills at Potosí between 1572 and 1575. Each year it mobilized over 11,000 Indians from the highland provinces between Potosí and Cuzco. Toledo established another important mita at the Huancavelica mercury mines. Particularly before the catastrophic decline in the indigenous population, viceregal officials occasionally assigned mitas to other mines and to Spanish towns, making cheap but unspecialized labor available to other sectors of the colonial economy. Such a mita provided textile sweatshops in Quito with much of their labor.

The mitas coerced reluctant Indians into participating in the colonial economy and subsidized economic production through low wages. Mitayos (mita workers) sometimes stayed on to earn the higher wages paid free labor. By the 1700s, the number of mitayos who worked at Potosí or Huancavelica was only a tiny fraction of the assigned quota. Some villages successfully resisted fulfillment of the mita obligation. Other villages paid colonial administrators to hire substitutes from the pool of voluntary laborers. Thus, free labor was available, but the Spaniards preserved the mita because it subsidized mining through low wages. Poor ore quality at Potosímade production unprofitable without the mita subsidy during the eighteenth century.

The mita elicited opposition on humanitarian grounds, but many complaints about it also came from priests, governors, kurakas (Indian leaders), and landowners who wanted to retain the Indians for other forms of economic exploitation. The cortes of Spain finally abolished the mita in 1812, but it survived at least into the nineteenth century. Clorinda Matto de Turner's 1889 novel Aves sin nido shows how forced labor in the form of pongos is extracted from Quechua speakers. The pongo system has survived in fact until the present day.

Other regions of Latin America had similar systems of forced labor such as the tequitl in the Nahuatl-speaking territories of Central Mexico.

See alsoHuasipungo; Mining: Colonial Spanish America; Slavery: Indian Slavery and Forced Labor.


Aquiles R. Pérez, Las mitas en la real audiencia de Quito (1947).

Guillermo Lohmann Villena, Las minas de Huancavelica en los siglos XVI y XVII (1949), esp. pp. 91-100.

David L. Wiedner, "Forced Labor in Colonial Peru," in The Americas 16, no. 4 (1960): 357-383.

Enrique Tandeter, "Forced and Free Labour in Late Colonial Potosí," in Past and Present 93 (1981): 98-136.

Peter J. Bakewell, Miners of the Red Mountain: Indian Labor in Potosí, 1545–1650 (1984), esp. pp. 54-105.

Jeffrey A. Cole, The Potosí Mita, 1573–1700: Compulsory Indian Labor in the Andes (1985).

Additional Bibliography

Matto de Turner, Clorinda, Torn from the Nest. Ed. Antonio Cornejo Polar. Trans. John Herman Richard Polt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Premo, Bianca. "From the Pockets of Women: The Gendering of the Mita, Migration, and Tribute in Colonial Chucuito, Peru." The Americas 56:4 (April 2000): 63-93.

Tandeter, Enrique. Coercion and Market: Silver Mining in Colonial Potosí, 1692–1826. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993.

                                     Kendall W. Brown