Viceregal Mexico

By Jessica Chilián
Photography “Epopeya del pueblo mexicano” (1935) National Palace of Mexico.
Mural. By Diego Rivera

Reading Time: 4 minutes


The expansion of New Spain

After the fall of Mexico – Tenochtitlan, the captains of Cortes dedicated themselves to conquering more remote lands. They occupied a large part of the territory of Mesoamerica, from Honduras to Nayarit. Conquerors such as Pedro de Alvarado, Diego de Mazariegos and Cristobal de Olid headed for the lands of Central America; others, such as Nuño de Guzman and Alonso de Avalos, took the western route, and fewer, the northern route. From the exploits of the latter, the kingdom of Nueva Galicia, the Nuevo Reino de Leon, Nueva Vizcaya and Nuevo Santander, regions baptized with the names of old Spain, would emerge. The discovery of rich silver mines in Guanajuato and Zacatecas caused an exodus of Spanish and indigenous settlers in search of fortune to the north of Mexico.

Hallucked by the gold rush, daring explorers to the states of California, Colorado and Oklahoma, in what is now the United States, where they claimed to have found golden cities in the middle of the desert. The nomadic tribes of the arid zones caused constant damage to the settlers as they assaulted the roads that communicated the main towns and stole the livestock from the ranches. To subdue them, soldiers were sent and forts were created, called presidios, in which the Spanish could take refuge. The pacification campaign in the north, known as the Chichimeca war, lasted more than fifty years and the Tlaxcalans, Otomi and Aztecs collaborated in it. In this contest the conquered became conquerors, even some indigenous people acquired lands and titles of nobility.

The New Spain society of the 16th century

The 16th century was a period of abrupt and profound transformations. In this century the foundations of the Mexican nation were placed on the ruins of the old pre-Hispanic manors, in this key period the indigenous forms of organization and government were used to establish the New Spanish dominion. Throughout the entire sixteenth century, the indigenous people were the majority population, despite the great mortality caused by the epidemics. In the Indian villages, the caciques and nobles of yesteryear continued to govern their communities. The tributes that previously paid to the Aztec tlatoanis and priests, now went to the delegate, the king and the Church. The indigenous way of life continued to be based on their ancestral crops, although the introduction of domestic animals such as pigs and chickens enriched their diet somewhat.

Despite the protection of Spanish laws and the friars, the natives became victims of abuse by mayors, regidores, ranchers, landowners, delegates, and miners, hungry for wealth and power. In the cities the Europeans dedicated to the commerce and government of New Spain were concentrated, including the court of the viceroy, who was the representative of the Spanish Crown in New Spain. In addition to the indigenous and Spanish authorities, there was a third power: The Church. Friars and clergymen taught Christian dogma and morals; they ruled at religious festivals and processions; they organized the construction of churches, convents, and chapels and administered the wealth of indigenous and Spanish people through savings banks, as well as money from the brotherhoods dedicated to a saint.

The baroque stage

Considered by some researchers as “the forgotten century”, the 17th century was a time of economic settlement and relative peace. The efforts of conquest and evangelization had passed, except in the deserts of the north and in the jungle areas of the south of the country. In the center of Mexico, cities were growing, fed with silver from the mines, trade, cattle from ranches and the work of artisans. In the countryside, the indigenous population, which had declined steadily throughout the 16th century, began to slowly recover. Some of these indigenous people, who resented the lack of means of subsistence, fled their communities towards the cities and the Spanish estancias. Without roots, they became related to people of other races and customs; the result of this mixture was a new racial group known generically as mestizo, which was neither Spanish nor indigenous, but Mexican.

Without land or wealth, the mestizos had to manage to live. Some were employed as laborers, foremen, or muleteers, others as artisans, merchants, or bricklayers, and some more engaged in begging and banditry. The miscegenation was biological and cultural. Pre-Hispanic, European and African ideas merged in such a way that it is difficult to recognize their origin. Even within the Catholic Church itself some indigenous customs penetrated. From the minds of the architects and the hands of craftsmen a new style emerged: New Spain Baroque. The profound religiosity of the time was expressed in the temples, chapels and convents scattered throughout Mexico, in the decorative richness of their facades and the sumptuousness of their altarpieces and altars.

Age of Enlightenment

In the early eighteenth century, colonial society seemed to have stagnated. In New Spain’s courts, waste, superficiality and corruption prevailed, noble titles and government positions were bought and used for personal enrichment. The economy grew slowly and the number of poor people rapidly, famines, abuse by caciques, tributes imposed on the towns filled the streets of the cities with beggars and vagabonds, and the fields of bandits. The new Bourbon dynasty, which replaced the Austria at the beginning of the century, began to fundamentally modify the Viceregal government. Under the postulates of enlightened despotism, which proposed a government for the benefit of the people but without their participation, the influence and power of the king in the colonies increased. The Court of the Acordada emerged to hunt down and capture bandits.

The parcels disappeared. An autonomous fiscal system of the Viceregal government was created. The single issue of currency was achieved and trade was liberalized. The first formal army of New Spain was created. In the new secretaries and offices, public officials sent from Europe replaced the nascent Creole aristocracy. The Bourbon reforms caused a new boom in the colonial ones. Mining and commerce developed rapidly and with them increased the income of the Spanish Crown and the Viceregal government. Thanks to the new wealth, sumptuous temples and great palaces were built, roads, bridges and public works were built, and the colonization and evangelization of the north of the country was again financed. The arts and sciences flourished, and the new liberal ideas of European thinkers such as Newton, Descartes, and Voltaire spread.

Source: “Viaje por la historia de México”
Author: Luis Gonzalez y González
Publisher: FCE – Fondo de Cultura Económica