The Conquest of Mexico is typically explained in terms of European military superiority, and although this offered an advantage to the forces arrayed against the Aztecs, it was merely part of a broader picture required to understand their downfall. Indigenous political circumstances played the key role in the Conquest, which can best be understood as an Indian victory over other Indians. The Spaniards represented less a conquering force, with which other native groups opportunistically allied, than an opportunity for groups opposed to the Aztecs to employ the relatively minor Spanish forces to multiply their own superior military strength. The Spaniards recognized their own pivotal role and shifted much of the timing of the conquest to sustain it. Other circumstances of the Spanish arrival, including the massive population loss from the accompanying smallpox, did play a role, but one that was primarily understood and used against the Aztecs by the allied Indians. So ultimately, the Conquest can be best understood as an Indian victory over other Indians, but with the Spaniards manipulating the outcome to ultimately win the peace.
For three centuries New Spain was one of the great jewels of Spain’s colonial empire, producing wealth for immigrants and the Crown. The brunt of the labor was performed by indigenous Mexicans, often under duress, but natives also succeeded in seizing opportunities to promote their interests. It is tempting to portray the economic history of Mexico as a simple story of domination of colonial subjects by their European rulers, and indeed historians have often resorted to this straightforward rendition. This article, while certainly presenting the conventional wisdom, presents a more complex story, highlighting debates among historians on a wide range of issues, from the experiences of indigenous people to the profitability of colonialism. What follows is a general presentation of New Spain’s economy.
From a geographically, environmentally, linguistically, and ethnically highly variable Mesoamerica, Spain created a core region within her American territories. But for New Spain’s indigenous inhabitants (Mexica or Nahua, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Maya), despite experiencing demographic catastrophe, political and religious subjugation, and labor exploitation during and after conquest, native cultural patterns and agency influenced the reshaping of governance and community (the latter into pueblos de indios), economy, and spiritual and social life during the period of colonial rule. Because environments, indigenous languages, patterns of political, economic, and spiritual organization, ways of structuring family life, varieties of cultural expression, and forms of interrelationships with Spaniards varied so much, indigenous people did not experience a single New Spain. Instead, a multiplicity of New Spains emerged. These indigenous New Spains would play different roles during the independence period, which led to a protracted struggle, further impoverishment, and growing isolation in the new nations of Mesoamerica but cultural survival as well.
Rosalva Loreto López
The process of establishing women’s convents in Hispanic America must be understood as the result of converging expectations from the crown, the church, and important laypeople who were interested in re-creating a Catholic world in the cities of the New World. The importance of women’s convents depended on the regular clergy as well as the secular, both of whom were invested in replicating their own religious identity. The role of families was also critical in the processes of establishing and populating the fifty-eight convents, as it was the nun’s families who expanded their networks of power, pedigree, and the reproduction of their own lineage by way of these institutions. Finally, the study of convent wealth is also essential to understanding the mutual dependence between the urban growth of cities and the expansion of these women’s institutions.
Kristian J. Fabian and David T. Orique
A variety of useful digital resources provide material for enriching the study of Christianity in New Spain (colonial Mexico). Such records, covering the period from the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521 until Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in 1821, reside in the growing digital collections in Mexico, the United States, and Europe. These repositories—such as the national archives in Mexico and Spain; specialized libraries in the United States, like the Library of Congress or the Newberry Library, university-based collections; and Mexican religious institutional sources—have searchable databases to help users in their research of Christianity in New Spain. Knowing how to navigate these databases and which keywords to use will help users find their way through the morass. Some collections also have a thematic organization around such topics as colonial art and architecture (where one can find information about churches, convents, and monasteries), indigenous pictorial manuscripts (which will illustrate the constructions of community churches, baptism activities, and the like), printed texts of all kinds (doctrine, sermons, information about indigenous religious beliefs and practices, and so on), and Inquisition records.
Nahuatl is the Latin American indigenous language having the largest number of colonial documents. As with other colonial documents, the study of these manuscripts requires mastery of the language as well as the relevant historical and philological sources. The emergence of digital repositories in Mexico, the United States, France, and other countries has made hundreds of digital images available to scholars who would not have had access to these sources otherwise. Digital repositories also contain additional tools such as morphological parsers and dictionaries. These allow users to upload new images, transcriptions, and translations, turning digital archives into veritable platforms for scholarly exchange. The irruption of digital repositories promises to effect substantial changes in the field of Nahuatl studies.
Digital Resources: Power of Attorney, A Digital Spatial History of Indigenous Legal Culture in Colonial Oaxaca, Mexico
“Power of Attorney in Oaxaca, Mexico: Native People, Legal Culture, and Social Networks” is an ongoing digital research project that constructs a geography of indigenous legal culture through digital maps and visualizations. The
“Power of Attorney in Oaxaca, Mexico: Native People, Legal Culture, and Social Networks” is an ongoing digital research project that constructs a geography of indigenous legal culture through digital maps and visualizations. The Power of Attorney (
The multiscalar narrative of the Power of Attorney project speaks to multiple audiences, and the digital multimedia format allows visitors to further tailor their interactions with information. The site operates on many levels. It provides maps and visualizations based on original research, data culled from primary sources that can be used as a research tool, historical and geographical background information, information about how to read letters of attorney, and microhistorical narratives of power of attorney relationships. For undergraduates learning about the relationship between Spanish administration and pueblos de indios, the maps and visualizations provide an at-a-glance overview of the spatial and social connections among Indian towns, ecclesiastical and viceregal courts, and the court of the king in Madrid from the perspective of an indigenous region rather than a top-down perspective. Graduate students and scholars interested in the production of notarial records in native jurisdictions, social history and ethnohistorical methodology and the relationship between local and transatlantic processes can explore the maps, visualizations, and data in greater detail. An educated general audience interested in the history of Oaxaca’s native peoples can find a general introduction to the region, its history and geography, and the long-standing relationship between Mexico’s native people and the law.
Bradley Skopyk and Elinor G. K. Melville
The onset of Spanish imperial rule in Mexico in 1521 had profound consequences well beyond the political and cultural spheres. It also altered Mexico’s environment, reconstituting the region’s ecology as new fauna, flora, and microorganisms were added and as the population dynamics of native Mexican biota fluctuated in response to Old World arrivals. While the consequences of myriad interactions between native and non-native species were vast and complex, it was the decimation of indigenous persons by pathogens that was one of the first biological consequences of colonization (in fact, occurring first in 1520, one year before the fall of the Aztec state) and one of the most important. Mexican human populations were reduced by 80 to 90 percent, effecting cascading ecological consequences across the physical and biological geography of Mexico. Forests regenerated, terraced slopes degraded, and much of the Mexican landscape lost its anthropogenic aspect. Simultaneously, ungulate introductions transformed Mexican flora and likely initiated soil erosion in some regions that, when transported to fluvial environments, disrupted the flow of rivers. On the other hand, pigs, sheep, goats, horses, and other ungulates altered plant communities through selective seed dispersion. New economic pursuits such as brick making and silver mining increased demand for heat energy that, in an unprecedented manner, encouraged intensive forest usage and, probably, regional deforestation, although empirical data on historical forest cover are still lacking.
Severe climate variability, of a scale not experienced for at least five hundred years and perhaps many millennia, occurred simultaneously with colonial-induced ecological change. A significant conquest-era drought was followed by one of the coolest and wettest periods of the Holocene; a strong pluvial in the Mexican context lasted from 1540 to around 1620. Subsequent anomalies of both temperature (cold) and precipitation (either wet or dry) occurred in the 1640s and 1650s, and from the 1690s until about 1705. Together, these climate anomalies are known as the core Little Ice Age, and initiated agrarian transitions, hazardous flooding, prolonged droughts, epidemics, epizootics, and recurring agrarian crises that destabilized human health and spurred high rates of mortality. Soil degradation and suppressed forest cover are also likely outcomes of this process. Although debate abounds regarding the timing, extent, and causes of soil and water degradation, there is little doubt that extensive degradation occurred and destabilized late-colonial and early-Republic societies.
During his breathtaking 19th-century scientific explorations of New Spain (as Mexico was known under Spanish rule), illustrious German scientific traveler Alexander von Humboldt crammed a lifetime of scientific studies into one extraordinary year: exhausting inspections of three major colonial silver mines, prodigious hikes to the summits of most of Mexico’s major volcanoes while taking scientific measurements and botanical samples, careful study of hitherto secret Spanish colonial archives in Mexico City, and visits to recently uncovered archaeological sites of pre-Hispanic cultures. Humboldt wrote voluminously about his Mexican experiences and is an indispensable source of insights into the colony of New Spain on the eve of its troubled birth as independent Mexico a decade later.
Jaime E. Rodríguez O.
The independence of New Spain was not the result of an anti-colonial struggle. Rather, it was a consequence of a great political revolution that culminated in the dissolution of the Spanish Monarchy, a world-wide political system. The movement was an integral part of the broader process that was transforming antiguo régimen societies into modern liberal nation states. The new country of Mexico that emerged from the break up of the Spanish Monarchy retained many of the shared institutions, traditions, and practices of the past. Although political ideas, structures and practices evolved rapidly after 1808, antiguo régimen social, economic, and institutional relationships changed slowly. Throughout this period of transformation, new political processes and liberal institutions merged with established traditions and practices.
Two broad movements emerged in the Spanish World, a great political revolution that sought to transform the Spanish Monarchy into a modern nation state with the most radical constitution of the 19th century, and a fragmented insurgency that relied on force to secure local autonomy or home rule. These two overlapping processes influenced in a variety of ways. Neither can be understood in isolation.
Raquel G. Paraíso
Among the many musical traditions of Mexico, the son is one of the most representative of the richness and diversity of Mexican culture. Son (or sones) is a generic term that describes both a complex of genres and the various regional subgenres that make up that complex. Son is a type of traditional music performed by small ensembles, with or without singing, and danced. It serves to entertain, but is also performed at celebratory occasions and festivals as well as in rituals. Although sones appear throughout Mexico marked by regional differences in both instrumentation and performance styles, they share common characteristics that define the genre as a whole, musically (i.e., their rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic structures), lyrically, and choreographically. Because of the particular cultural traits and sociocultural contexts that each son subgenre encompasses, it can be argued that regional sones are a powerful expression of Mexican regional musics, cultures, and social identities.
Born as a hybrid genre out of the intermixing of European, American Indian, African, and Afro-Caribbean musical elements and contexts, Mexican sones have moved through time defined by many as a symbol of Mexican identity, even if the very concept of that “Mexican identity” has changed over time. What might be called the son’s “Golden Age” lasted from the 1890s until the middle of the 20th century. By the 1960s, sones were in serious decline all around Mexico: they had lost the favor of their audiences, old performers had passed away, and new generations did not engage with these musical traditions. Cultural politics contributed to selective processes through which some son subgenres faded away. Sociopolitical processes from the 1930s to the 1980s contributed to the re-contextualization of the Mexican son through modified versions of sones staged and broadcast in theatres, radio stations, and film productions. Post-revolutionary nationalism, the music industry, and folkloric ballets created these new versions and exercised an ideological control that both affected popular musical expressions and shaped musical tastes. Changes in urbanization and life conditions transformed social relationships and furthered this intense transformation.
With fewer performance occasions and little support from either the government or private patrons, several regional son subgenres became thin and isolated, with minimal projection outside their regions. In the 1980s, some of the son subgenres underwent a renaissance owing to various private and official initiatives that infused new life to the music. This article provides an overview of the son, past and present, connecting the relevance of this musical style with the social history of the country.
On August 13, 1521, the Spanish conquistadors and their native allies seized Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. The Spaniards succeeded because they had forged alliances with the Tlaxcalans and other indigenous self-governing communities (altepetl) to fight the Aztecs. After the conquest these communities continued their traditions, and the Spaniards largely replaced Aztec leadership with their own. In addition, the friars and the secular church converted the natives to an extent, and together with the crown they foiled the conquistadors’ attempts to become liege lords with jurisdiction. The process culminated in the New Laws of 1542, which curbed the encomienda, a grant to Spaniards that comprised several Indian towns paying tribute. A society of social bodies evolved, composed of municipal councils, lay brotherhoods of churches, and others, complete with their own laws and jurisdictions. Then a series of silver strikes beginning at Zacatecas in 1546 drew settlers into the Bajío north of the former Aztec and Tarascan empires. The local natives resisted initially, and when peace came, they and the settlers created a dynamic early capitalist economy that invigorated other regions. The frontier expanded when animal herds moved further north beyond the mines, and the zone of Spanish influence grew to the south as well.
In 1540 Spanish conquistadors and their indigenous allies began occupying the northwestern Yucatan Peninsula, and they took Tiho/Mérida in 1542. The Yucatan, the Bajío, and the other regions that composed colonial Mexico successively integrated into a global commercial network spanning Europe, Africa, and Asia. The crown and the merchant guild (consulado) in Seville sought to capture the burgeoning Atlantic commerce within the fleet shuttling between Seville/Cadiz and Veracruz and restrict the silver flowing from Acapulco to Asia via the Philippines. Yet market forces defied most of the rules they put in place. Merchants from Asia settled in Manila; Peruvians docked in Acapulco; and the Dutch, French, and English competed with fleet merchants or operated contraband trade from the Caribbean islands to New Spain. In the 18th century, the crown loosened trade regulations within the empire and continue curbing the autonomies of social bodies. A series of investigations (visitas) shook New Spain, and more compliant viceroys and officials appeared, while the friars lost over one hundred parishes (doctrinas) during the mid-century. The king expelled the Jesuits in 1767; registered ships sailing individually replaced the fleet in 1778; and in 1786 José de Gálvez introduced the intendants in New Spain. As the empire transitioned toward a territorial state, Napoleon imprisoned the Spanish king (1808). In 1810 Miguel Hidalgo and a popular following unleashed the War of Independence. As the conflict unfolded, the legitimacy of the old order crumbled, and the empire dissolved in 1821.
The Spaniards had little idea of what to expect when they set foot in North America. Mexico, as the region is known today, was in the 16th century a vast territory with a grand history. Inhabited by diverse peoples for millennia, great civilizations had risen and then fallen, only to be supplanted by others.
The term “Mesoamerican” aptly describes the majority of peoples who lived in or near Mexico, for they shared many culture traits that depended not only on local resources but also on their ingenuity in exploiting all that was available. Food, technology, ball courts, monumental architecture, calendars, and record keeping are practices that characterize Mesoamerica. And in most instances, trade, whether local or long distance or by foot or canoe, served to join different groups across the land through an exchange of commodities, ideas, and the people themselves. Best known, and it might be said the first among many, are the Maya and the Aztecs.
Salvador Rueda Smithers
As a monument and museum, Chapultepec Castle is today an emblem for Mexicans. It signified a double synthesis of memory: the building tells the history of the old Military College and the residence of Mexican rulers before the building became a museum. Its interior spaces, the objects of its collection, and the 20th-century murals recount and construct the shared history of Mexicans over the last 500 years.
European empires would have not existed absent private enterprise both licit and illicit. Private traders, in the first instance, sustained colonies by conveying the labor and merchandise that planters required in exchange for the exports that colonies produced. Moreover, those colonies would not have existed in the first place absent private initiatives since European states in the 16th and 17th centuries customarily lacked the administrative and fiscal resources and often the inclination to oversee such projects. Individual or corporate adventurers, though, did possess such resources and inclination; legitimate operators secured government authority for their activities pursuant to charters that drew upon medieval forms and granted extraordinary powers to their recipients. Under the terms of these documents, grantees pursued public purposes—as they would be called today—that their activities entailed in conjunction with their pursuit of profit. The results of this practice included the establishment of colonies that spanned the Atlantic basin from the Madeira Islands to Newfoundland to Brazil; the emergence of colonial leaderships who pursued their own agendas while they ingratiated themselves into trans-Atlantic political cultures; and incessant conflict over territorial and commercial agendas that involved indigenous people as well as Europeans. Other operators did not bother with legitimacy as they pursued smuggling, piracy, and colonizing ventures that also contributed profoundly to imperial expansion. The domestic and international friction generated by these activities ultimately brought increased state involvement in overseas affairs and increased state ability to direct those affairs.
Rediscovering the Aztecs and Mayas: Field Exploration, Archaeological Exhibits, and National Museums
Kevin M. Gosner
In the last decades of the 18th century, with the visit in 1784 of José Antonio Calderón to the Maya ruins at Palenque and the discovery in 1790 of the statue of Coatlicue and the Stone of the Sun in the central plaza of Mexico City, the study of ancient Mexico entered a new era. In the century that followed, teams of field surveyors, mapmakers, graphic artists, and artifact collectors worked across central and southern Mexico as well as in Guatemala. Some were commissioned by the Spanish Crown or later by national governments; many arrived from England, France, Germany, and eventually the United States. Early on they worked side by side with geologists, geographers, and field biologists as part of natural history expeditions, accumulating collections of artifacts that would be displayed in curiosity cabinets and early museums alongside trays of colorful butterflies and stuffed tropical birds. And then, as foreign travel books won popular audiences in Europe and the United States, and as international investors arrived in Mexico and Central America, archaeology also was taken up by enthusiastic amateurs looking to sell books, build private collections, or organize international trade fairs.
For serious students of ancient history, field exploration and advances in archaeological record-keeping transformed a body of research and scientific speculation that since the 16th century had been dominated by theologians, historians, and philologists, who studied Spanish chronicles and native language annals but paid scant attention to the remnants of material culture. In the process, Aztecs and Maya were rediscovered as historical subjects, their histories disconnected from that of contemporary Indian peasants and recast as rivals to the great civilizations of the Old World. Ruins of monumental architecture, recovered artifacts in sculptured stone or finely crafted metals, and ancient texts inscribed on wooden lintels and bark cloth were reclaimed as part of national patrimonies to be protected by new state agencies and displayed in modern museums. On January 20, 1911, the International School for American Archaeology and Ethnology formally opened in Mexico City, and this formative period in the archaeological study of ancient peoples ended. Manuel Gamio introduced the study of stratigraphy to fieldwork practices in Mexico and the discipline was transformed once again.
When the anthropologist Paul Kirchhoff proposed a new definition of Mesoamerica in a landmark study from 1943, the first common characteristics he identified were technological and agricultural: the use of the digging-stick (coa) and “the construction of gardens by reclaiming land from lakes (chinampas).” For thousands of years, Native peoples across Mesoamerica drew on their technological innovations to devise bountiful kinds of farming that have been as diverse as the environments in which they were created. All of their farming systems required some degree of intervention in nature, be it through domesticating plants, tilling the soil, or altering the physical environment by making terraces and harnessing water supplies. On an essential level, then, technology and agriculture went hand in hand. Of the many kinds of Mesoamerican farming, the one that arguably modified the environment the most was a distinctive kind of wetland agriculture in which Nahuas—or Aztecs, the speakers of the Nahuatl language—constructed raised garden beds, known as chinampas, in the shallow, freshwater lakes of the Basin of Mexico.
At the heart of this zone of wetland agriculture was the ancient city of Xochimilco. There the raised gardens filled the surrounding lake of the same name, and eventually came to cover a vast area of some 120 square kilometers. The construction and the intensive cultivation of the chinampas required a considerable investment of time and effort, a good deal of technical expertise, and the mastery of specialist skills and knowledge, including hydrology and engineering so as to manage water levels in the lakes through complex irrigation works. The intensive farming of the fertile, well-irrigated gardens, which could be cultivated year round, yielded sizable harvests of maize and other crops. So productive was chinampa agriculture that scholars have considered it one of the most abundant kinds of farming ever devised. As a technological innovation and environmental adaptation, the chinampas were crucial to changes in Mexican history: they generated surpluses sufficient for urbanization and the rise of Tenochtitlan, one of the early modern world’s great cities, as well as the expansion of the Aztec Empire. The chinampas remained important for the provisioning of the capital long after the Spanish conquest, and in spite of the desiccation of the Basin of Mexico, they are still cultivated in a few places today.
Antonio López de Santa Anna (b. Xalapa, February 21, 1794; d. Mexico City, June 21, 1876) was one of the most notorious military caudillos of 19th-century Mexico. He was involved in just about every major event of the early national period and served as president on six different occasions (1833–1835, 1839, 1841–1843, 1843–1844, 1846–1847, and 1853–1855). U.S. Minister Plenipotentiary Waddy Thompson during the 1840s would come to the conclusion that: “No history of his country for that period can be written without constant mention of his name.”1 For much of the 1820s to 1850s he proved immensely popular; the public celebrated him as “Liberator of Veracruz,” the “Founder of the Republic,” and the “Hero of Tampico” who repulsed a Spanish attempt to reconquer Mexico in 1829. Even though he lost his leg defending Veracruz from a French incursion in 1838, many still regarded him as the only general who would be able to save Mexico from the U.S. intervention of 1846–1848. However, Mexicans, eventually, would remember him more for his defeats than his victories. Having won the battle of the Alamo, he lost the battle of San Jacinto which resulted in Texas becoming independent from Mexico in 1836. Although he recovered from this setback, many subsequently blamed him for Mexico’s traumatic defeat in the U.S.-Mexican War, which ended with Mexico ceding half of its territory to the United States. His corruption paired with the fact that he aligned himself with competing factions at different junctures contributed to the accusation that he was an unprincipled opportunist. Moreover, because he authorized the sale of La Mesilla Valley to the United States (in present-day southern Arizona) in the 1853 Gadsden Purchase, he was labeled a vendepatrias (“fatherland-seller”). The repressive dictatorship he led donning the title of “His Serene Highness” in 1853–1855, also gave way to him being presented thereafter as a bloodthirsty tyrant, even though his previous terms in office were not dictatorial. Albeit feted as a national hero during much of his lifetime, historians have since depicted Santa Anna as a cynical turncoat, a ruthless dictator, and the traitor who lost the U.S.-Mexican War on purpose. However, recent scholarship has led to a significant revision of this interpretation. The aim of this article is to recast our understanding of Santa Anna and his legacy bearing in mind the latest findings. In the process it demonstrates how important it is to engage with the complexities of the multilayered regional and national contexts of the time in order to understand the politics of Independent Mexico.
While several indigenous languages from the Americas have been alphabetized and written, no Native American language has such an extensive corpus of historical texts as Nahuatl, the language of the Nahuas or Aztecs of central Mexico. Writing in Nahuatl but using Latin letters, colonial Nahua scribes or tlahcuilohqueh produced an unparalleled outpouring of texts throughout the colonial period. Prior to the Conquest, the Nahuas recorded information in codices, which consisted of pictographic glyphs painted on sheets of bark paper, analogous to European books. They thus readily perceived the parallels between their pictographic codices and European alphabetic texts and quickly saw the utility and potential of the new technology. All that was needed was an introduction to European writing techniques. For the most part, this came in the form of friars, some of whom established schools for elite Nahuas, such as the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco in the latter part of the 1530s. Some Nahuas likely also learned writing from professional Spanish scribes as well. These students of the friars and lay Spaniards would soon teach other Nahuas to write, such that only a few years after the opening of the Colegio, Nahua scribes, working entirely on their own, were producing written texts. These scribes then taught others, and by the 1550s Nahuatl alphabetic writing became a self-sustaining, independent tradition that touched nearly every corner of the Nahua world. Alphabetic writing overtook indigenous glyphs, and by the 17th century most Nahuatl texts were entirely alphabetic. Last wills and testaments made up the bulk of scribal output, along with other “mundane” Nahuatl documents of financial, legal, or governmental matters, which have proven highly illuminating to historians. There were also annals; local histories stretching back to preconquest times; and plays, songs, and speeches (huehuehtlahtolli). Nahua scribal culture thrived until the 19th century, when opposition to it from both the Spanish Crown and, later, the independent Mexican nation made Nahuatl texts obsolete and superfluous.
Mexico had an exceptionally diverse population during the 16th and 17th centuries, including Indigenous peoples of different ethnicities (in the majority), Iberians, and forced migrants from Africa and Asia, who related to one another in complex ways. Society—a group of people living in a community—was configured differently in each place, based on geographical location, local customs, property distribution, and a myriad of other factors. Faced with such different contexts, historians have tended to generalize about social organization (the way people interacted) from the perspective of the men who produced the most sources. Colonial statutes and official correspondence convey the attempts of Hapsburg officials to maintain a hierarchical social order, but property records reveal a more fluid reality. The acquisition of wealth and achievement of social status by non-Spaniards frustrated colonial ideals for a stratified society that correlated to ethnicity. The success of imperial governance, to the degree it was achieved, depended on its flexibility and how it allowed people to benefit from the colonial economy and to achieve social mobility.