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Of course, while technology and military strategy helped assist the Spaniards in their conquest of Mexico, one cannot overlook how important European diseases were in the conquest of the New World. Diseases such as the bubonic plague, measles, smallpox, chickenpox, typhus, and influenza had been circulating in Europe for approximately 2000 years. These diseases are referred to as virgin soil epidemics, because the populations at risk had no previous contact with the disease and were, therefore, immunologically almost defenseless (Crosby). When the Spaniards brought the diseases to the New World, these diseases spread in approximately 50 years, helping decimate a population that had no time to develop any immunity to the diseases the disease cycle furthered colonization by killing large numbers of indigenous people, freeing up their land for use by the colonists. For example, the smallpox epidemic of 1520 had a mortality rate of up to 50% for the indigenous people, and that was not an unusual mortality rate for the epidemics and pandemics in the colonization period (Prem). Moreover, belief in indigenous religion suffered because of the disease, making the indigenous culture more vulnerable to hegemony. Finally, the diseases killed many of the record keepers, priests, and other educated members of society, making it difficult to find contemporaneous documents written by indigenous people. This depopulation is a central factor in Spain's ability to colonize Mexico, because it left a huge labor shortage. For example, Spain actually purchased a lot of the land in Mexico from the indigenous people, because disease and battles had so thoroughly decimated the indigenous population (Lecture 9).
While the physical decimation of the native population was a crucial element in the colonization of Mexico, it was only part of the dehumanization of the natives. Another crucial element was the enslavement or virtual enslavement of much of the native population. In many discussions of the colonial Americas, the treatment of imported African slave laborers has received considerable attention, while there has been a minimization of the impact that conquest and colonization had on the indigenous people. Although many indigenous people were treated as de facto slaves, the reality is that in 1502 Spain prohibited the enslavement of Christian natives. However, while "Indians" could not be enslaved, their forced labor could be put to use, and a system known as encomienda "granted Indian labor and tribute to individual Spaniards" (Lewis). Eventually the practice of encomienda was outlawed, but the practice of forced labor continued; natives were simply forced to work for the state rather than for individuals (Lecture 6). This forced labor had severe consequences for the native population, because it diverted laborers from agricultural pursuits and made the society extremely susceptible to famine (Livi-Bacci).
While the law treated mulatto and black slaves and freemen more harshly than mestizo or native people, both groups faced considerable restrictions of their rights. In addition, because race was a very fluid construct in colonial Mexico, factors such as wealth, social status, and honor could have more impact on one's standing than actual race (Lecture 11). However, that does not mean that race was unimportant, because it could be virtually impossible for one to attain honor if born into a certain social class. Furthermore, Spaniards did have identifiable racial stereotypes. For example, Spaniards believed that blacks were superior workers, which, combined with the fact that there were more Indians available for the workforce, led to the result that blacks and mulattoes oftentimes held specialized positions, frequently superior to Indians (Lewis). Furthermore, colonial Mexico developed a caste system that reflected European ideals of race and identity, which placed Spaniards in the uppermost positions and conquered Indians in the lowest position, which mixed-race people and blacks somewhere in the middle (Chance and Taylor). Miscegenation had benefits for the mixed-race children, because lighter skin and more Caucasoid features generally meant higher status (Chance and Taylor). Therefore, even after the initial conquest, the indigenous people faced destruction of their own culture, since it was deemed inferior and lowly by the conquering Spaniards.
Finally, while the impact on individual natives was significant, one must not overlook the broader picture of Spanish colonization of Mexico, because the colonists made it impossible for the natives to return to a pre-colonial way of life. The importing of Old World resources and agricultural practices had a tremendously negative impact on the New World. It has long been assumed that the Spanish developed the best possible means of exploiting New World resources and did so in an intentional and systematic manner (Melville). However, a careful examination reveals that they did not. Instead, the colonists made Mexico less productive. For example, in pre-colonial Mexico, 90% of the people lived off of Mexico, and goods were transported through human labor, which meant that food was locally produced (Lecture 8). The main food crops were corn, beans, and squash. Both beans and squash helped protect the land, beans by returning nitrogen to the soil, and squash by protecting against erosion. The indigenous people relied upon a wetland system of agriculture known as chinampa, which was the most enhanced and technologically advanced system of agriculture in the world, at that time. In contrast, the main Spanish crops were olives, grapes, and wheat. In addition, the Spaniards relied upon stock animals, which meant that they transported things with stock, and also that they used manure to fertilize the land (Lecture 8). All of these changes made a huge environmental impact on the land.
For example, at the time of conquest, the Valle del Mezquital was densely populated and had a variety of different ecosystems with a wide variety of vegetation and less desert. Today, the Valle del Mezquital is largely a desert wasteland (Melville). More importantly, those changes occurred during a short period in the sixteenth century, and could be directly attributed to the conquest because the conquest led the Spaniards to convert that land to be used for grazing, caused the collapse of the indigenous population, and post-conquest sheep grazing caused significant ecological changes (Melville). In fact, it is important to remember that a colonist-induced change in the natural resource base, not the initial resources, are what made the Valle del Mezquital into one of the most economically depressed regions of Mexico (Notes 10/28/2008).
While romantics would suggest that the native cultures in Mexico were very resilient in the face of conquest, the reality is that those cultures faced tremendous disruption and exploitation that has irreparably harmed them. To understand how profound those changes are, one can look to various different areas of modern Mexican life. For example, the vast majority of modern Mexicans self-identify as Catholic, revealing the almost total eradication of native religious practices. More startling are the changes in the Valle del Mezquital, which has been transformed from a lush and fertile area into a desert wasteland. More difficult to describe is the modern class system in Mexico, which can certainly trace its roots to the caste system that developed in colonial Mexico. All of these changes show that colonization had a profound and negative impact on…[continue]
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