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.
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.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.
The Spanish crown claimed to wield sovereignty over Mexico’s vast geographic territory from around 1521 to 1810, though many regions remained beyond Spanish influence. As part of Spain’s ongoing effort to exert political and economic control, royal representatives (such as secular and ecclesiastical bureaucrats and military personnel) attempted to create and maintain a stratified social order. Colonial society was meant to resemble a kind of pyramid, with Indians (the legal name for indigenous vassals) and foreign slaves at the bottom and a small group of colonists and their descendants at the top. To preserve this social organization, secular and ecclesiastical law distinguished between people based on their ancestry or purity of blood (related to religion, ethnicity, and race), sex, and legal standing as either free vassals or human chattel. Spanish men of old Christian blood had the most rights and privileges, and slaves the fewest. This framework existed in the secular and ecclesiastical courts and in the highest corridors of Spanish political power, especially in Mexico City and other urban centers like Puebla and Guadalajara.
The reality of social relations on the ground, however, bore little semblance to the archetype. Mexico had an extraordinarily diverse population, including indigenous peoples of different ethnicities (in the majority), Iberians, and forced migrants from Africa and Asia, who mixed and interacted with one another in complex ways. People followed innumerable life trajectories and faced diverse challenges, most of which had little to do with the constraints of the colonial governing system. To think that Spanish social constructs, such as the caste system depicted in eighteen-century paintings, shaped the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people who lived in Mexico during three centuries of colonial rule is to overlook historical contingency and to exaggerate Spain’s imperial perspective. This article illustrates the paths taken by individual men and women—some merely to survive and others to achieve great social standing—in an overall effort to see beyond the categories used in colonial documents and understand Mexico’s social organization from people’s actual experiences.