Colonial Quito, today the capital of Ecuador, was a bustling city in the Spanish colony of Peru, which covered most of South America. In Quito, the business of selling the food and home goods that city dwellers needed to survive was divided between two groups of people: the pulperos, licensed male Spanish colonials who ran shops, and the gateras, Native women who peddled their goods in the streets and marketplaces.
Historians are not entirely certain why Quito developed such a large population of gateras. Some believe that the gateras grew out of a pre-European contact tradition of women selling produce in Native communities. When the Spanish asserted their authority over the countryside and established Quito, these Native women may have naturally migrated to the city and adapted their business practices to fit the Spanish economy. Other historians put forward that the gateras arose from marginalized Native communities needing to sell their extra crops to support their families. In this theory, women were better able to regularly attend the markets because Native men had to spend a portion of every year working for the Spanish. Regardless of their origins, by the early 1600s the markets of Quito were dominated by gateras, and by the 1640s, the pulperos were worried that these women might put them out of business.
The gateras had a few advantages that made them an economic threat. First, as Native women, they were exempt from paying taxes to the Spanish government. Second, as street peddlers, they did not have to pay licensing fees to the city council. These first two advantages meant that the gateras could sell their goods at lower prices than the pulperos, attracting more business. Third, the gateras were legally entitled to the free services of a Spanish attorney to represent them in any court cases. This so-called Defender of the Indians was usually a much better attorney than any the pulperos could afford to hire. Finally, the gateras were a useful market tool for Spanish landholders and merchants—they allowed the Spanish elite to avoid paying sales tax. Technically this was illegal, because gateras were only supposed to sell items grown by Native communities, but enough people made money this way that the city council turned a blind eye.
The battle to control Quito’s market economy began in 1642, when the pulperos appealed directly to the royal government for an intervention. They complained that the gateras were selling products they had no right to sell, and their low prices were robbing the pulperos of their rightful business. The pulperos made the case that the gateras should not be allowed to sell items like bread, cheese, and cloth because the government was not able to collect any taxes from their earnings. The government was sympathetic, and ruled that the city council should restrict the gateras to selling grain, fruit, and vegetables. Any woman caught selling forbidden items would have her all of her goods confiscated, and if she persisted, she would be fined a hefty sum and whipped 100 times in the center of the marketplace. The pulperos were satisfied with their victory.
But the gateras were too well established in the community to be curbed for long, and in 1654, the pulperos made another appeal to the colonial government to try to stop them. This time, the gateras banded together and requested that the Defender of the Indians represent them in court. Their attorney argued that the gateras were poor Native women just trying to support their families; no one was getting rich from being a street peddler, even if they sold “upscale” goods. The attorney also pointed out that the gateras had been selling these forbidden goods for decades, and the community had come to depend on them. Finally, he argued that the gateras were but one part of a larger community of Native people who worked hard for the government, and should therefore be granted this favor in recognition of all the contributions of the Native community in Peru. The government agreed, and they ruled the gateras could operate free from restrictions.
By the early 1600s the markets of Quito were dominated by gateras.
By 1666, the pulperos were desperate. They made a third appeal to the Spanish government, warning it that if the gateras were not restricted, then the pulperos would be forced out of business. Again, the gateras worked together to defend their interests, and called on the Defender of the Indians to represent them in court. This time, the government tried to please both parties. It ruled that the gateras could sell any consumable product except silk, Spanish clothing, beef, soap, and salt. No one was happy with this outcome. The pulperos were frustrated that the ruling solidified the gateras claim to legitimately sell a wide variety of products, and they immediately contested the decision. Meanwhile, the gateras who specialized in selling salt also contested the decision. They argued that salt was no different from any other food that the gateras were already allowed to sell, and they provided receipts that showed they had voluntarily been paying taxes on their salt sales as a gesture of goodwill to the government. The tax receipts put the government in an awkward position. The law exempting Native women from taxation had been passed to distinguish Native people as a separate and lower class than Spanish colonials. If the gateras were voluntarily paying taxes, and the government approved that action, it would put the gateras on the same level as Spanish shopkeepers. But the receipts also demonstrated that the gateras had been participating in the salt business for years, and cutting them off suddenly might cause further problems in Quito’s markets. In 1667, the government issued its final ruling on the dilemma: the gateras could continue to sell salt, because it was a consumable product and they were not responsible to pay any taxes on it. Furthermore, the taxes that the gateras had already paid were to be refunded, because they had been collected illegally. This was a huge victory for the gateras. They now had government approval to sell a variety of food and home goods without paying taxes, and they had a legal example for expanding their products in court by proving that they were consumable. They could also continue to sell their goods at lower prices, because they were still exempt from the taxes and fees that the pulperos were subject to. Their collective effort had paid off. In an era defined by the wholesale disenfranchisement of Native people, the success of the gateras of Quito stands out as a moment when Native people used the institutions of the Spanish government for their own advancement.