When Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan for Spain in 1521, the Spaniards intended to build a new society in Mesoamerica. Gone would be the Indigenous religious practices and systems of political organization. In their place, the conquistadores sought to construct a hierarchical, European-style society, with the Roman Catholic Church reigning supreme.
Indigenous Mesoamericans played roles on all sides of the conflict. The Aztecs, or Mexica, fiercely resisted the Spanish, while other ethnic groups and city-states collaborated with the invaders in the hope of attaining their own power. For three centuries, what is now the country of Mexico was under Spanish colonial rule. Independence would not come until 1821.
But what was life really like in Mexico during this three-hundred-year-long colonial era? The realities of life were complex, to say the least. By studying colonial Mexico, we can better appreciate the complexities of past societies — and learn about how events centuries ago have shaped the present.
1. Religion in Pre-Colonial Mexico Differed Significantly from Christianity
Mesoamerican religions featured a plethora of gods and spirits, covering all elements of nature. Nobody knows today exactly how many gods Mesoamericans worshipped, but they likely numbered in the hundreds. Similar to ancient Greece, there were regional differences in worship, with some gods revered more than others in certain parts of Mesoamerica.
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Yet there were some broader similarities between the kinds of gods worshipped. For instance, the Mayas of southern Mexico and the Aztecs of the central highlands both placed great importance on a rain deity. For the Mayas, this was Chaac, while the Aztecs recognized a god named Tlaloc. Both deities could be benevolent or vengeful, capable of assisting in agriculture or bringing about natural disasters. The Mayas and Aztecs also had a preeminent creator deity in the form of Kukulkán and Quetzalcoatl, respectively.
One important aspect of Mesoamerican religion involved blood sacrifice — the sacrifice of human beings to appease the gods. Both the Mayas and the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice, but the Aztecs became particularly known for it in the following centuries. In large, theatrical ceremonies, the Aztecs offered war captives or even children to their gods. Some accounts of human sacrifice may have been exaggerated by the Spanish later on in order to justify harsh colonial rule.
2. Disease Was Rampant After the Spanish Invasion
Unfortunately, the Spanish invaders also brought along an invisible menace — disease. Pathogens like smallpox and measles — previously unknown in North America — devastated the peoples of Mexico, taking many more lives than actual combat. These diseases also affected the European arrivals, albeit to a lesser extent due to prior exposure back home. To be sure, disease in colonial Mexico was intimately connected with hard, forced labor and societal inequalities. Millions of Indigenous people across Mesoamerica succumbed to illness in the decades following the Spanish conquest.
One particularly devastating epidemic in colonial Mexico was the cocoliztli epidemic, which ravaged the central highlands in the 1540s. Between five and fifteen million Indigenous people may have perished — the single highest death toll from a disease outbreak in Mexican history. Even today, geneticists aren’t entirely sure what caused this plague. Compounded by an intense drought, the pathogen responsible may have been a strain of salmonella or even an unidentified local virus. So, was cocoliztli accidently brought over from Europe, or was it an indigenous disease? For now, the scholarly jury still has not reached a verdict.
3. Spanish Efforts to Impose Catholicism Initially Saw Mixed Results
Before the sixteenth century, Spain was not a unified country. Muslim rulers controlled much of the Iberian Peninsula between the eighth and fifteenth centuries. Many Iberian Christians resented Islamic rule, and starting in the thirteenth century, they began to lead military campaigns against the Muslims. In 1491, the final Iberian Muslim ruler, Muhammad XII, surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabella, ending the conflict.
After the end of this so-called Reconquista, the Spanish Crown was determined to spread the Catholic religion to newly conquered areas across the ocean. The Franciscan order was the first religious organization to arrive in Mexico, while the Dominicans and others would follow within ten years of the conquest. All of these religious orders sought the conversion of Indigenous ethnic groups to the gospel of Christ.
It would seem to us that the missionaries were successful. After all, Catholic elements remain potent symbols of mainstream Mexican culture today. However, the reality of their conversion effort was a little more complicated, especially during the early colonial period. Although the Spanish did eventually eradicate human sacrifice, many friars complained about the continued observances of other Indigenous religious practices. These practices were often conducted in secret, away from the eyes of colonial authorities.
One of the most important primary sources from early colonial Mexico is the Florentine Codex. Compiled by Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún and indigenous Nahua scribes and informants, the codex consists of twelve books. Over two thousand paintings depict scenes of Nahua history and contemporary life. Some scholars have described Sahagún as the forefather of modern anthropology for his research methods.
It is important, however, to keep in mind that Sahagún’s interests in overseeing the Florentine Codex were evangelical in nature. As a Franciscan friar, he wanted to convert the Nahuas to Catholicism. He also became suspicious of Nahua conversion efforts over time, believing them to be largely superficial. In Sahagún’s mind, the Nahuas most likely continued to practice their old religious beliefs and rituals under the guise of Christianity.
4. Colonial Artwork Reflected a Huge Diversity of Perspectives and Social Views
In colonial Mexico, art often took center-stage. Mexican colonial art initially focused on religious topics, closely following the Roman Catholic tradition. Many churches had grand, ornamented interiors, similar to church buildings in Europe. Some scholars have even labelled mid-colonial architectural styles as “Mexican” Baroque.
In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, artistic subject matter broadened to include secular topics. Scenes such as the Virgin of Guadalupe and the works of painters such as Juan Correa and Miguel Cabrera were joined by non-religious depictions of life. One genre that took off in the eighteenth century was the casta painting, which depicted interracial unions among Spaniards, Indigenous people, and Africans. These paintings seem to have reflected colonial elites’ focus on categorization and racial mixing — a reflection of the European Age of Enlightenment.
Although the old scholarly view that the paintings depicted a colonial caste system has fallen out of prominence, art historians today do believe that casta painters and patrons had elitist motivations. Ethnicity was an element of social status in Spanish America, and eighteenth-century Spanish nobles were eager to show off their standing by any means.
5. Mexico Became the Midpoint Between the Atlantic and Pacific Worlds
Modern Mexico has both Atlantic and Pacific coasts. In colonial times, this inevitably meant that the region would be the center of a complex network of trade and cultural exchange. The viceroyalty of New Spain actually included much more than just Mexico and Central America; the Philippines also fell under its political umbrella. As the midpoint of this international network, colonial Mexico developed a cosmopolitan culture, featuring peoples and goods with origins from all corners of the globe.
One fascinating episode that demonstrates New Spain’s globally connected nature is the story of Hasekura Tsunenaga. A Japanese samurai and convert to Catholicism, Hasekura aimed to travel from Japan to Europe in order to meet with the Pope. He and his entourage sailed across the Pacific, landing in the Mexican city of Acapulco in January 1614. The nobleman then traveled across Mexico before sailing across the Atlantic for Spain and Rome. A Nahua historian, Chimalpahin, wrote about Hasekura’s arrival in Acapulco, recounting a violent encounter between a Japanese swordsman and a Spanish soldier. Although Hasekura did not stay in Mexico for long, Chimalpahin claimed that some of his entourage did stay behind. Where could their descendants be now?
6. Colonial Mexico Had Some of the World’s Most Diverse Demographics
As the center of Spanish colonial authority in the Western Hemisphere, colonial Mexico was undoubtedly a dynamic society, filled to the brim with demographic diversity. While the European colonization of Mesoamerica led to millions of Indigenous people’s deaths from war and disease, their numbers did recover somewhat as time went on.
Spanish settlers included both devoted Catholics and secret Jews, who had to keep their religious beliefs hidden out of fear of state persecution. Enslaved people from Africa added still more to New Spain’s demographic mix. Finally, Asians — particularly from the Spanish sphere of influence in the Pacific — were shipped to Mexico in smaller numbers after the late sixteenth century.
In some contrast to the situation in British North America, racial and ethnic intermarriage were more readily acknowledged in New Spain. This situation was not without its problems; society still viewed Spanish-born residents and those with wealth as more important than ordinary people. Africans in particular were at the bottom of the social hierarchy. However, rates of intermarriage were evidently high enough to leave a permanent imprint on Mexican culture. Millions of Mexicans today identify as mestizo — a Spanish term referring to people of mixed ethnic ancestry.