Life Story: The Gateras of Quito

Indigenous Women Defend their Rights in Colonial Peru

The story of Indigenous market women in colonial Quito who fought in court to preserve their rights.

Colorful oil painting of a Native South American woman wearing a gold necklace, a white lace sleeved blouse, a red skirt, and a black overcoat standing next to a basket of large tropical fruit on a wooden stand. Fruit-filled trees and water are visible in the background.
Indian Woman in Special Attire (India e traje de gala)

Vicente Albán, Indian Woman in Special Attire (India en traje de gala), ca. 1783. Photo © Museum Associates/ LACMA Conservation, by Yosi A. R-Pozeilov.

Colonial Quito was a bustling city in the Spanish colony of Peru, which covered most of South America. In Quito, the business of selling food and home goods was divided between two groups of people. The first group, called the pulperos, were Spanish male colonials who had licenses to run shops. The other, called the gateras, were Indigenous women who peddled their goods in the streets and marketplaces.

By the early 1600s the markets of Quito were dominated by gateras. 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 Indigenous communities. When the Spanish asserted their authority over the countryside and established Quito, these Indigenous women may have naturally migrated to the city and adapted their business practices to fit the Spanish economy. Other historians think that the gateras arose from marginalized Indigenous communities needing to sell their extra crops to support their families. In this theory, women were better able to regularly attend the markets because Indigenous men had to spend a portion of every year working for the Spanish. Regardless of their origins, by the 1640s the pulperos were worried that the gateras might put them out of business.

The gateras had some advantages that made them an economic threat to the pulperos. First, as Indigenous 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 sold the goods of the Spanish elite without paying sales tax. Technically this was illegal, because gateras were only supposed to sell items grown by Indigenous 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 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 only grain, fruit, and vegetables. Any woman caught selling forbidden items would have her all her goods confiscated. If she was caught a second time, she would be fined a hefty sum and whipped a hundred times in the center of the marketplace. The pulperos were satisfied with their victory, but not for long.

In 1654 the pulperos made another appeal to the colonial government to try to stop the gateras. But 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 Indigenous women just trying to support their families. He explained that 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 Indigenous people who worked hard for the government. As such, they should be granted a favor in recognition of all the contributions of the Indigenous community in Peru. The government agreed. 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’ right to legitimately sell a wide variety of products, and they immediately contested the decision. 

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 been voluntarily 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 Indigenous women from taxation had been passed to distinguish Indigenous 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. They were not required 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 foods and home goods without paying taxes. They also had a new legal way to expand what they could: all they had to do was prove that any new product was 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 Indigenous people, the success of the gateras of Quito stands out as a moment when Indigenous people used the institutions of the Spanish government for their own advancement.