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date: 24 June 2017

Social Organization of Colonial Mexico

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.