The alcalde, the most important official in the Spanish municipality, acted not only as the chief executive in a Spanish town, but also functioned as a judge of minor cases and as the head of the ayuntamiento, or town council. His responsibilities combined components of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. One of his primary duties was to act as a judge. Though his judicial authority was limited to lesser civil and criminal issues, in practice he handled most judicial matters occurring within the limits of his jurisdiction. The major exceptions to this were those cases involving military or ecclesiastical courts. Most alcaldes lacked any formal training in the law and generally relied on unwritten Spanish tradition to resolve disputes. The decisions reached by the alcalde were not final and could be appealed to the ayuntamiento, the justicia mayor, who served as chief assistant to the governor, or to the governor himself.
The alcalde served as the chief officer of the ayuntamiento. Although he held an equal vote, his authority extended beyond that of the other regidors, or councilmen (see REGIDOR). The alcalde not only officially issued laws for a municipality but also held the authority to arrest and punish those who violated city ordinances. In addition, he served as a link between the governor and city officials. He sent reports and requests to colonial administrators and acted on instructions from higher authorities. In a paternalistic manner, he took whatever measures he deemed best for the city. He served many different functions, such as supervising local records and helping to determine the use of municipal lands. Though the alcalde was generally chosen by the regidors, he could be appointed by the governor or directly elected by the people. Larger cities often provided for the election of two alcaldes, with the one receiving the most votes regarded as higher in rank.
The term alcalde generally referred to the alcalde ordinario, or municipal administrator, but other officers also received the title. The alcalde mayor, also known as the justicia mayor, assisted the governor in the administration of a district. He was responsible for Indian relations, the regulation of public travel, and a variety of other duties.
Neither the independence of Mexico nor the increasing number of American immigrants in Texas changed the alcalde's position. Despite cultural difficulties, immigrants adapted easily to the Spanish system of local government. American alcaldes functioned in the same manner as their Mexican counterparts until the Texas Revolution. See also SPANISH TEXAS.