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.
Michele McArdle Stephens
The Caste Wars of the Yucatán tore apart the peninsula between 1847 and 1901. While the violence was not constant throughout the more than five decades between the start and conclusion of the war itself, the threat of rebel hostilities was ever present. Scholars have debated the origins of the war for many decades, with most recent academic treatments focusing on heavy tax burdens, poor working conditions for Yucatán’s peasantry, and the loss of land that occurred during the second half of the century. Tensions between political leaders exacerbated relations with the Mayas in particular and the peasantry more generally. The emergence of the breakaway state of Chan Santa Cruz, in the southeastern part of Yucatán, allowed rebel forces to coalesce between 1850 and the early 1870s. Here, a “Speaking Cross” oracle gave direction to the rebellious Mayas, who crushed their enemies and exacted revenge against those who would not support their cause. The emergence of Porfirio Díaz as President of Mexico in 1876 led to a gradual “reconquest” of the areas held by the cruzob, or “people of the Cross.” By 1901, the Mexican military ended the Caste Wars, though violent episodes still marred Yucatán until the early 1930s.
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.
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.
In the late 19th century, Mexico’s ancient ruins captivated much of the world. European and American explorers trekked through what was often touted as an “American Egypt” in search of pre-Columbian artifacts to display in private collections and museums. Mexicans similarly hunted after the remains of the Indian past, as their country witnessed a heightened interest in the excavation and exhibition of ancient artifacts during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, the period commonly known as the Porfiriato (1876–1910). The Díaz regime embraced the indigenous past in order to present Mexico as a nation with ancient and prestigious roots. It took control of pre-Hispanic relics and ruins through archaeology, a discipline that was thought to give Mexico the coveted aura of a scientific, cosmopolitan, and modern nation. The Díaz regime gave unprecedented support to the National Museum in Mexico City, the nation’s most important institution for the study and display of Indian antiquity. Museum scholars such as Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, Alfredo Chavero, and Antonio Peñafiel, worked on building and organizing the archaeology collection as the government intensified the process of accumulating artifacts in the capital. One of the central figures in this process was Leopoldo Batres, the head of the General Inspectorate of Archaeological Monuments of the Republic. Batres brought antiquities to the museum, helped organize the archaeology collection, and built the Gallery of Monoliths, the nation’s premier showcase of pre-Columbian relics. He also carried out excavations at ruins throughout the country and reconstructed several archaeological sites, including Xochicalco and Mitla. His most famous (and most controversial) work took place at Teotihuacán, where he rebuilt the Pyramid of the Sun, turning Teotihuacán into the nation’s first official archaeological site, a project made to coincide with the centennial celebration of Mexican independence in 1910.
María L. O. Muñoz
The political history of indigenous peoples in Mexico during the 20th century is complex, particularly because it intersects with changing local, state, and federal government projects aimed at exclusion, inclusion, assimilation, integration, homogenization, and multiculturalism. Focusing only on such government initiatives, however, muddies the analytical waters, as doing so tends to silence forms of resistance, accommodation, reaction, adaptation, and the agency of first peoples and communities. Oftentimes this approach assumes a complacent population at the mercy of a predatory state or a subject people in the care of a paternalistic state. In recognition of the danger of accepting state-driven indigenismo projects as the defining criteria of native people’s histories during the 20th century, this article parallels glimpses of state-driven indigenismos with indigenous forms of regional and national organization in defense of individual and collective interests, as expressed in works that have emerged over the last twenty-five years. By no means are the themes covered in this article indicative of the breadth of the concerns, ideas or political, social, and economic interests of native peoples. Rather, its intent is to juxtapose histories of indigenismos and indígena mobilizations and organization after 1940 to illustrate how the government attempted to shape its “revolutionary” vision after 1920 and the ways in which indigenous communities themselves also engaged, or did not, in this process for a number of reasons, collective and individual.
As Mexico’s minister of public education from 1921 to 1924, José Vasconcelos played a prominent role in efforts to create a new national identity expressing the 1910 Revolution’s goals of an inclusive society and equitable nation, opportunities created through education, and shared cultural expressions. Vasconcelos has been widely praised for his educational campaigns, especially in the countryside, among indigenous communities, and for his literacy programs in the city. According to these recent interpretations, his efforts as minister of public education have been both over- and underestimated. Nevertheless, the revolutionary national identity that he helped to foster with his discussion of mestizaje in La Raza Cósmica (The Cosmic Race; 1925) has since been ingrained into everyday life and culture.
Natasha S. Varner
The India Bonita Pageant of 1921 marked a critical moment in Mexico’s revolutionary identity formation. This serialized pageant hosted by the Mexico City newspaper, El Universal, also played a major role in the formulation of indigenous “authenticity,” as defined by race, material culture, gender, and sexuality. The aims of the pageant were at least superficially focused on celebrating indigenous peoples, but it ultimately narrowed popular understandings of what it meant to be indigenous through its focus on select visual markers of indigeneity. It thereby discursively erased portions of the indigenous population that did not conform to these parameters. The pageant also played into broader efforts to solve the so-called Indian Problem by situating ideal indigeneity in the rural past, favoring Aztec heritage over other indigenous identities, and positioning Mestizos as the race of the future. Ultimately, this attempt at indigenous inclusion was part of broader revolutionary identity projects that sought to isolate and erase one problematic part of the population under the guise of celebrating it.
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.
The Departamento de Bellas Artes (DBA; Department of Fine Arts) was founded as one of the departments of the Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP). It had a Music Section, which centered its activities on teaching music, at all levels in the entire country, with socialist ideology and under the firm belief that the fine arts should be part of the education of the people. To do so, it defined a repertoire of songs and their arrangements that was coherent and had a nationalistic discourse. The selection of songs was taken from diverse sources, some of which were the result of bibliographic research, mostly done in the DBA, but the important groups of melodies and songs that were sung in schools and adult choruses came from the National Music Archive, which was created to be the foundation and massive sample compilation of Mexican music. The composers and researchers at the time had little or no idea what the characteristics of indigenous music was; and to create nationalistic music and national dances, they needed references of what was Mexican, what was traditional. The archive was a massive and ambitious project, and the DBA was a national institute with the authority to write to all the governors in the country asking for references of folk music, local fiestas, and traditional dances, of which composers and researchers knew very little. Composers and musicians participated in sending in samples of scores or lyrics, then institutional programs were designed for rural teachers to compile music in distant regions and towns. Much of the material that was sent in was well known songs, popular ranchera music, and the indigenous music that was expected to create teaching and nationalist programs required so further research. Much of the music used in the educational programs derived from contributions made by rural teachers, and the indigenous music was compiled by few specialists who travelled only with their ears, pencils, and paper and returned with a rough selection of melodies that outlined the indigenous music of Mexico. Other sources of reference, music scores and dance descriptions, came from official events and dance contests held by the DBA in Michoacan, Hidalgo, Estado de México, and Mexico City.