The very nature of Spanish colonization meant that New Spain brought together people from different cultures, ethnicities, religions, and attitudes. Mexico City was the meeting place of all these various populaces. Before the conquest, Tenochtitlan had neighborhoods composed of residents from various parts of the empire. Apart from the many indigenous cultures, colonization also meant the addition of Spaniards, Africans, and Asians, some of whom were enslaved and others simply migrants. The result was a culture that expressed itself both in high and popular culture with a melding of elements—a joyous cacophony that reflected its mestizo nature. This culture was played out not only in institutional settings such as the viceregal court, ceremonies, the theater, and in church but also in the streets, parks, and taverns that dotted towns and cities. Although culture, to a certain extent, reflected New Spain’s hierarchical nature, separation between high and low was never absolute. In the cathedral, as in many other institutions, popular pursuits and music infiltrated the formal singing. This pattern of cultural slippage prevailed within many areas of daily life as the colonial world of New Spain layered pastimes and pursuits from its many constituents.
James A. Garza
The history of foreign travel to Mexico has been dependent on the country’s political, economic, and social conditions. Travel restrictions, banditry, the condition of transportation routes and ports, political stability, revolution, and the development of a tourist industry have all played a role in how travelers have written about Mexico. Despite periodic challenges, Mexico has proven to be an alluring destination for foreign travelers since the colonial era. Men and women have journeyed to Mexico for different reasons, some on official business and others for pleasure or to escape their lives back home, and in turn have produced numerous accounts that have served to attract more visitors and have functioned as a valuable source of information on the everyday life of Mexico’s peoples. Still others have traveled to Mexico for conquest, and while their motivations were violent, their journals have served as a guide for those interested in retracing the same routes. Travelers have depicted landscapes, communities, peoples, and practices; offered insight into important historic periods; and depicted Mexico as exotic, bountiful, primitive, or dangerous.
This historical topic is divided into three distinct eras: the colonial period, the 19th century, and the 20th century. The Spanish Crown restricted foreign travel to Mexico during the colonial era (1521–1821), resulting in the relative scarcity of accounts from the period. Foreign travelers during this period were conquistadors, clerics, officials, or explorers, all with varying degrees of literacy. During the 19th century, foreign travelers came in three overlapping waves: the early republic era (1821–1840), when most were either investors or diplomats; the middle period (1830–1870), an era dominated by soldiers, travelers, and archeologists; and the Porfiriato (1876–1911), when investors and wealthy tourists flooded Mexico. The 1910 Mexican Revolution marks the beginning of Mexico’s 20th century and two distinct periods of foreign travel, both influenced by state power and violence. The revolutionary and state-building era (1910–1946) saw foreign travelers as primarily war journalists and writers exploring the effects of the revolution’s social and cultural measures. After World War II, foreign travelers encountered the tourism era (1946–1968), a period under the influence of a burgeoning state tourism industry. Despite this challenge, travelers, many of them writers, carved out their own niches.
The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition of Mexico City was in between 1569 and 1820. Its task was to regulate the moral life of the society of New Spain and it was authorized to punish offenders. The crimes that were usually persecuted were acts against the Catholic faith (heresy, blasphemy, sorcery, and idolatry) or against accepted morality (indecency, bigamy, sexual harassment, homosexuality, and sedition).
The Court placed limited attention to the sones de la tierra (sounds of the land) from 1766 to 1819. The sones were sung dances that were eventually considered unsuitable and were denounced for various reasons: the lyrics of the songs contained vulgar words or heretical or blasphemous concepts, the steps of dances were indecent, the choreography implied actions that parodied known acts of the Christian liturgy, or by some combination of these factors.
The archive of the Inquisition of Mexico is practically the only source of information on music and street poetry in the cities and towns of the colony.
The sones de la tierra are the origin of the current cultural music genre called son mexicano, the most significant part of the traditional music and poetry of the country.
The sones de la tierra of the Baroque period and the current Mexican sones have three basic elements: music, poetry, and choreography. The music is based on recurrent rhythmic-harmonic patterns (ostinato) on which instrumental or vocal improvisations are made. Each determined pattern generates a son with a specific name. Thus, it is possible to speak of sones typical of the Baroque period (chacona, zarabanda, chuchumbé, and saraguandingo) or in present-day Mexico (bamba, maracumbé, petenera, and oaxacado). Some can be documented both in the 18th century and in the 21st century (matachines, fandango, panaderos, and zacamandú).
The poetry of the sones is based on the active principle of the copla, a poetic form based on the octosyllabic quatrain in various modalities (seguidilla and décima). The current Mexican variants are directly related to the Spanish poetry of the Golden Age.
The dance of the sones is performed mainly in couples who dance without having physical contact, using different steps whose main characteristic is the zapateado.
The archive of the Inquisition of Mexico mentions some sixty sones. The complaints and interrogations of the Court provide information about the sung lyrics, the ways of dancing, the people who practiced them, their geographical distribution, and some social attitudes regarding their use. This information shows that the sones de la tierra were common throughout the territory of New Spain and were practiced by people of almost all social classes.
The study of the sones de la tierra allows us to understand the existence and behavior of the different variants of the Mexican sones of today, which represent one of the fundamental elements of Mexican culture.