The colonial period of mexico 1500-1800 essay sample

The arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s and their subsequent colonization of Mexico, brought about considerable changes in the indigenous patterns and ways of life of the local Mexican people. Spanish colonialism affected all aspects of Mexican life, from their customs and traditions, including religion, celebrations and art to class structure. Depending on the perspective from which the Spanish colonial influence is viewed, the influence it has had on Mexican society may be considered either positively or negatively. Indeed the imposition of an alternate way of life on a people that had a pre-established way of life and customary practices may be construed in a negative light. From the perspective of the conquerors, their ‘ discovery’ of Mexico was a positive event, resulting in a change from out-dated and uncivilized practices to more civilized practices.

Colonial Aztec Society

Prior to the Aztec and the Spanish conquest, Mexico was home to the matlatzinca people. They were the original inhabitants who the Aztecs eventually conquered in the 15 th century. The Aztecs, according to Tomaszewski (2005), were people from the legendary city of Aztlan who migrated south into the valley of Mexico. They eventually grew stronger and defeated the central city of Mexico, Azcapotzalco, and formed their own government and civilization.

The origin of the Aztecs is uncertain, but evidence of their own tradition suggests that they were a tribe of hunters and gatherers on the northern Mexican plateau before they appeared in Mesoamerica around the 12th century. They may have migrated south, settling on islands in Lake Texcoco and in AD 1325 founded Tenochtitlán, the chief state. The main reason for which they later became one of the largest empires was their remarkable system of agriculture, featuring intensive cultivation of all available land, as well as elaborate systems of irrigation and reclamation of swampland; “ picturesque city of pyramids, mile-long floating roads, aqueducts, animated marketplaces, and one hundred thousand residents” (Prométour, n. d.). The empire was highly productive and continued to expand, interrupted in 1519 with the appearance of Spanish explorers. The ninth emperor at that time, Montezuma II (reigned 1502–1520), was taken prisoner by Hernán Cortés and died in custody. His successors, Cuitláhuac and Cuauhtémoc, were unable to stave off Cortés and his forces, and, with the Spanish capture of Tenochtitlán in 1521, the Aztec empire ended.

Thus, long before the conquest of Spain, the indigenous society of Mexico, the Aztec communities, were already established communities with established social relationship. Historians note that despite varied conceptions of collective responsibility, these indigenous communities often worked land cooperatively and had various forms of community service built into their societies.

However, the Spanish considered these relationships to the land and to each other backward and thus forced the conquered people to adopt the Christian concepts of civilization and service. The Spanish sought to transform the ways of life of the Aztecs communities but these indigenous people largely rejected their efforts although many of them also adapted the Spanish Catholic concepts into their ideas of community.

Different Races in Mexico during the Colonial Times

According to Levine (n. d.), different Indian races inhabited Mexico for centuries. Among these races, six were considered to be the most influential, namely, the Olmecs, the Teotihuacans, the Toltecs, the Mayans, the Zapotec/Mixtecs, and the Aztecs. The Olmec civilization, according to Lavin (1999) was made-up of four diverse eras. Olmec I existed during 1500- 1200 B. C. Olmec II during 1200- 600 B. C., while Olmec III, 600- 100 B. C. and the post classic 100 onwards. Lavin (2006) pointed out that during the Olmec period they made many advances in including agriculture. The Olmec, according to Lavin (2006), is somewhat like a typical Indian group today.

The Teotihuacán existed around 1200- 100 B. C. and was the largest city comprising of 125, 000 at its height. However, this race collapsed in AD 700 and the reason for the collapse remains a mystery, except that their civilization was an advanced industrial and religious society (O’Halleran, 1999). The Maya civilization, according to O’Halleran (1999), was believed to be the origins of the Aztecs. Their contribution to the development of the Mesoamerican civilization was in written language, arts, and architecture. Nevertheless this race collapsed in AD 900. Similarly, the Toltec shared religious beliefs with the Aztecs, implying similarity in their religious life and culture.

Figure 1 – Retrieved March 4, 2008, from http://www. history. com/minisite. do? content_type= mini_home&mini_id= 1099

Living Conditions

Living conditions during the colonial period were miserable for two reasons. First, rampant and dreadful diseases that killed hundreds of thousands of Aztecs significantly affected the people. Second, there was no peace as sporadic rebellions, attacks, and wars continued to dominate the society, reducing the population from about 8, 000, 000 to 2, 000, 000 (Radar Tours, n. d.).

What life was like for Indians: Life for the Indians during colonial times was difficult as their colonizers treated them unjustly. The indigenous people remained impoverished while the Spanish land owning class absorbed all the wealth of the country through its mineral and natural resources. Life for the Indians during the colonial times, The Washington Post Company (2008) records, was of under privilege, depression, and poverty.

Means of Transportations : There seemed to be not enough records of transportation facilities during the colonial period of Mexico but it would be quite probably that animals were utilized during this time for land transportation, and ships and boats for sea travel.

The Five Social Classes

There were five social classes during the colonial period of Mexico. The Gachupines were the most distinguished and most influential. According to Estrada (2006), gachupine is the same term as peninsulares applied to high royal officials and prelates, which were generally men of learning, mostly professionals and lawyers, and they had the best jobs, ruled in government, and led the church. They were tactless and discriminating (Estrada, 2006). Criollos on the other hand were Spanish born outside of Mexico particularly in the new world. This group was next to the gachopines. The criollos were the sons and daughters of the conquistadores who were born in the new world. They held an indistinguishable place in the society because of their color. They were neither white nor brown to be categorized as Indians or mestizos, however, they could take advantage of advanced education in law and medicine. Thus, they also held crucial positions.

The mestizos were of mixed blood or offspring of Spanish born with non-Spanish mother or father. Mestizos comprised the largest part of the colonial population. They were in a class a bit higher than the Indian societies but they were also the most confused due to their vague identity, and were discriminated by the gachupine and the criollos. The fourth class were the Indians who were indigenous people, descendants of the Aztec communities. They were called Indian or perhaps Indio to emphasize their being natives and they were victims of injustice, oppression, and exploitation. The fifth social group was the Negros who were probably the lowest society of people during the colonial times in Mexico. The term Negro was a Spanish term meaning black. They were also the most discriminated against and the most oppressed people through slavery. The Negro class was the source of the forced labor for Spain and important for mining in areas such as Guanajuato, San Luis, and Hidalgo. Negros were used mostly for slave labor in these mines, which were extremely dangerous.

Colonial Mexican Art

At the time of conquest, the indigenous artists had some established traditional art, but they were nonetheless influenced by the concepts brought in by the Europeans. However, there were some remote areas that were unaffected by the European dominance: southern and interior South America (especially tropical forest and desert regions), lower Central America, tropical forest Mesoamerica, and northern Mexican desert regions without mining potential. The indigenous people continued to practice the dominant art forms of – weaving, pottery, metalworking, lapidary, feather work, and mosaic – unaltered even in the postcolonial era.

In areas more directly in contact with European influence, indigenous artists were taught by friars. Faced with a growing body of converts, the priests needed to create more “ houses” of God and they definitely needed the natives’ help. These buildings were really nerve cells for the conversion of indigenous towns. In the early art of this period, the personal creativity of Indian artists was not encouraged; most works had European pieces as models.

Art forms in colonial Mexico were several, given the different establishments. The main centers were in Peru and Mexico, where there were skilled native artisans and relatively strong political organizations. The style of Spanish mixed with indigenous elements flourished until the last quarter of the 18th century, when a current of neoclassicism invaded Latin America. The Colonial period meant not only Europeanization from political and economical points of view, but the natives were also introduced to European art, especially painting, and building techniques. Later, any gifted native artists became developed skills in religious oil paintings, modeling religious figures in wax, and the art of polychrome wood sculptures. The natives loved to use vivid colors, mostly red, blue, yellow tones, which is later be replicated within the Mexican Baroque style.

Baltásar de Echave the elder (c. 1548–1620) is considered the first great Mexican artist; he founded the first native school in 1609. His Agony in the Garden (begun 1582) is an example of a Renaissance work with a Spanish character (Pierce, Gomar & Bargellini, 2004).

Figure 2 – Balthasar de Echave Orio, The Good Samaritan

Toward the middle of the 17th century painting declined, and sculpture and architecture gained ascendancy; the dominant style in both was the Churrigueresque (named after José Churriguera), a fanciful form of the baroque (Santiago de Compostela Cathedral was built in this style), but Mexican plateresque art and architecture also appeared. The 18th century produced a large number of artists such as José Ibarra and Miguel Cabrera. A period of academic art followed, producing no very distinctive works; this period of imitation was broken at the close of the 19th century by the painter José María Velasco, whose landscapes again reaffirmed a national style.

Figure 3 – La Glorificación de la Fé Cristiana, Copper Oil Painting by José Ibarra. Retrieved March 4, 2007, from http://www. artnet. com/Artists/LotDetailPage. aspx? lot_id= 7DAE432CCAC36DA7

Figure 4 – God the Father and Christ, 17th century, Mexico baroque art piece. Retrieved March 4, 2008, from http://instructional1. calstatela. edu/bevans/Art454L-44-Puebla/WebPage-Info. 00008. html

Mexican music during colonial times was also well developed. Drums, flutes, gourd rattles, sea shells and voices were all used to make music and dances. This ancient music is still played in some parts of Mexico. Much of the traditional contemporary music of Mexico was written during the Spanish colonial period. Folk songs called corridos have been popular in the country since the 16th century. Their themes were inspired by events such as the Mexican revolution, or themes of pride, romance, politics, poverty and others.

Catholicism in Colonial Mexico

After the successful expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain, the Catholic Church was regarded as an arm of the Spanish Government. In honor of having gotten rid of the Moriscos, the Pope granted Spain authority over the Church in Spanish domains and thereby the conquering of Mexico was not only to increase the size of the Spanish Kingdom but also to enlarge Christendom as a whole. It should be noted that in this process of proliferation of Catholicism, many facets of the Aztec religion were completely wiped out. Native temples, artifacts, and more were destroyed in an effort to ‘ cleanse’ the Aztecs of their ‘ vile’ religious practices. The first missionaries to arrive in Mexico were members of the Franciscan Order (Hudson, n. d.).

Figure 5 – The erection of the first cross in New Spain by the twelve friars from the order of St. Francis. From Robert MacLean. (2003). Book of the month: Historia de Tlaxcla . Retrieved March 4, 2008, from http://special. lib. gla. ac. uk/exhibns/month/jan2003. html

The first twelve Franciscan friars arrived in Colonial Mexico in 1523 and 1524 and begin the process of converting the indigenous people to Catholicism and by 1559, there were over 300 Franciscan friars in Colonial Mexico (Palfrey, 1998). The custom of the Indigenous peoples was to accept the religion of conquering tribes and so, thusly, the friars did not face much resistance in converting them to Christianity. Although the Franciscan friars were successful in their attempts at introducing Catholicism to the Aztecs, many natives still practiced aspects of their ‘ pagan’ faith (Palfrey, 1998).

During the colonial period, the Spanish conquerors founded charitable organizations linked to the church that provided services including hospitals and education. They also established political systems in an attempt to make all of the native inhabitants Spanish subjects. According to Tomaszewski (2005), the highest level of political organization was the encomienda, who took charge of large existing native states dividing them among various encomiendos or rulers, and combined smaller native states into one territorial unit. The rulers of these political units were responsible for converting the native people to Christianity and making them vassals of the Spanish crown.

The Aztecs according to Palfrey (1998) were not resistant to adopt Catholicism. Early friars noted that some of the ideas of Catholicism coincided with Aztec beliefs. The Aztec people worshiped a goddess named Tonantzin so it was quite easy for them to substitute the worship of Tonantzin with the veneration of the Virgin Mary. The religion of these native people relied heavily on human sacrifice; this reality of bloodshed in the name of religion caused the concept of the symbolic drinking of Christ’s blood in celebration of the Holy Eucharist to be accepted readily, although probably more in the literal sense rather than symbolic. The early Mesoamerican people also tended to reinterpret facets of the Catholic faith to suit their former religious beliefs (which probably made these foreign ‘ Catholic’ ideas seem more logical to them).

For instance, the indigenous people (much to the abhorrence of the clergy) reinterpreted the concept of the Holy Trinity to reflect a belief that the Father God, son Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit were three distinct deities with Jesus being the one true God between the three. The natives also conceived the idea that God and Mary were a kind of male-female pair jointly responsible for creation itself (Terraciano, 2001). Many Catholic holidays were combined with native Aztec celebration by the natives as well.

The Catholic holiday All Souls Day, the day when intercessory prayers are said for departed loved ones, closely coincided with the Aztec ritual day in honor of departed ancestors. The newly-converted natives combined the two holidays which resulted in a festival day known as ‘ The Day of the Dead’ which is still observed today. The Day of the Dead is marked by people donning decorative skull masks and dancing in honor of their departed loved ones. People also visit the graves of the dead, decorating them with flowers and candles and eating food that their relatives enjoyed while still alive. Sugar skulls, made with the names of the dead person on the forehead, are also eaten by a relative or friend.

Figure 6 – A photo of a woman holding a candlelight vigil at the elaborately decorated grave of a loved one

Education in colonial Mexico

In addition to introducing the natives to the tenets of the Church, the Spaniards also undertook the task of educating them. The friars made great efforts to learn the Aztec language which helped them to spread Catholic dogma and ideas to the native populace. The Franciscans were often advocates for the native people of Mexico. They strongly opposed subjecting the Aztecs to the Spanish legal code as they believed that it would confuse them and hinder efforts by the friars to get the natives to accept Catholicism as their own religion. The friars’ influence in the jurisdiction practices of colonial Mexico was limited, though, because of an aspect of the Papal grant of power to the Spanish Crown.

Under the Papal grant, there were to be secular clergy in colonial Mexico who would serve under their bishops back in Spain. The missionary orders, on the other hand, were designed as self-governing bodies under the separate authority of their superiors. Secular priests were prohibited from interfering with the missionary orders on the penalty of ex-communication. Thusly the secular clergy began to work hand-in-hand with civil authorities during the colonial period (Palfrey, 1998). Because the missionary friars labored independently of the civil authorities, they often enjoyed a greater influence over the indigenous people.

Not only did the friars seek to educate the Aztecs, they also sought to learn from them too. As natives learned to speak and read Spanish, they were used as translators converting European texts into the native language for distribution to the masses. As well, friars and Aztecs often worked together to recreate the destroyed Aztec codices and translate numerous Mesoamerican glyphs which defined historical and political events of the Aztecs. The friars and their native students, in effect, worked together to ensure that the historical evidence of the Aztec culture was not totally wiped out by the Spanish colonization efforts.  The work to educate the Aztecs was not without cost however. As the literacy rate within the native populace grew (and the understanding of the native tongue by the Franciscan friars), so did suspicion and contempt of the Spanish government. As a result of the translation projects and high rates of literacy, indigenous people were stripped of their literacy rights. They were not allowed to own books and were not allowed to draw or paint without permission of Church authorities (Romano as cited in Securing a space, 2007).

Evidently the arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico brought about tremendous changes and impacted the lives of the indigenous people who had already established their societies in the region. The influences brought in by the Spanish were visible in all aspects of the Mexican society. In education, religion, lifestyle, art and government the influence of the Spanish was clearly visible. The indigenous peoples were not readily accepting of the new practices introduced by the Spanish and attempt to modify these to suit their own beliefs and ideas. What resulted were eclectic styles in religion, art and other areas. The indigenous people resisted what they could and what they had little or not control over they ensured that their own traditional practices were also displayed. Mexico today is now a mixture of the original inhabitants and those who have entered its borders since Spanish colonialism began.


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