The Culture of New Spain: the Rise and Fall of Mexico
The conquest of New Spain defined contemporary Mexican culture to a great degree. But that conquest has been ongoing and did not stop with the conquistadors and the implementation of Catholicism and Spanish customs in Mexico. From the time Columbus brought the Spanish flag to the West Indies (1492) to the 19th century, New Spain was informed by a Catholic culture and the Mexican Aztec culture was suppressed. In the 19th century onward, the Spanish Catholic culture began to be dominated by the American liberal culture of the United States. The glories of New Spain were lost in revolts and revolutions. The Cristero War of the 20th century proved a major turning point in the battle between New Spain's ideals and 20th century liberalism. The conquest of New Spain by the conquistadors brought many new influences into Mexico -- but so too did the infiltration of Mexico by the United States, which had by the 19th century surpassed Mexico in terms of Industrial and military strength. A new era had begun, a new power shift taken place. The Aztec Empire was conquered by the Spanish Empire, the Spanish Empire in New Spain was conquered by the United States Empire in the 20th century (Stone, Kuznick). This paper will show how at the end of the 16th century Mexico was one of the most powerful civilizations in the West, yet by the 20th it was being ruled by a puppet regime whose strings were pulled by the great nation which had arisen in the north.
Spain and Tenochtitlan
The roots of New Spain grew out of Imperial Spain, which was at its height in days of Queen Isabella. Spain itself had grown out of the Castilian kingdom and the Muslim invasion in the Middle Ages. Spaniards spoke Castile and were Roman Catholic in belief (rather than Muslim). Everywhere the Spanish Empire expanded, the religion of the Spanish Empire took root -- whether in the Philippines or in New Spain (Mexico).
With the death of Isabella, the Spanish Empire began a slow decline. Its power and glory extended all across the globe, but its wealth was diminishing. Nonetheless, Spain's influence in Mexico was just beginning to be felt. This influence had many facets. It reshaped the culture of Mexico for a great long time. But it also dealt with various conflicts within that time. Some of the conflicts had to do with the Aztec culture it replaced.
The Aztecs had founded Mexico City in 1325. To them it was known as Tenochtitlan. By the time the conquistadors arrived in the early 16th century, the Aztecs had developed an Empire which stretched from the Pacific coast to the Gulf of Mexico. The Aztecs reigned supreme in this area -- but the Aztec empire had its own problems, problems which the leading conquistador Hernando Cortes was able to use to his advantage, when he landed in Mexico in 1519.
The actual history of the conquest of the Aztec Empire is difficult to relate for the fact that so many differing accounts exist -- that and the fact that reports to Imperial Spain were often designed to make events look more favorable (Fitch). By most accounts, however, the invading Spanish conquistadors were taken as gods by the Aztecs, led by Montezuma. While this may be a simplistic rendering of historical detail, it does provide an insight into what was surely a disproportionate match of strength between Aztec and Spanish.
Cortes and his soldiers were welcomed into the Aztec Empire by Montezuma, who showed them his temples, built in honor of their divinities. Catholic priests were with Cortes and the Spanish displayed small amount of reverence to what they surely would have considered "devils." In fact, it is most likely that Cortes and his men displeased Montezuma with their lack of respect for what the Aztecs considered to be sacred. Here was a major conflict between the two meeting cultures: the Aztecs viewed the divine in a much different light than the Catholic Spanish. It was part of Cortes plan to conquer the Aztec Empire by instituting the religion of his land -- Catholicism (Pratt-Chadwick 41).
While the Aztec Empire was plenty strong, it was not exactly what might be called a "unified" empire. Also, the Aztec culture suffered detrimentally from the practice of human sacrifice. Cortes had hoped that he could peacefully wrest control of the land from Montezuma without resorting to war. His plan rested on the implementation of the Catholic religion. However, Catholicism had difficulty taking hold in the Aztec society and did not do much to win Cortes the rule he wanted. Thus, he decided to use the Aztec Empire's weakness in his favor. Since the realm was deeply divided on account of the enemies which the Aztecs had made over the years, Cortes sought the help of these groups and employed divide and conquer means in order to bring the Aztec structure to a crumbling halt (Pratt-Chadwick 90).
At the same time, Cortes reportedly engaged rather underhandedly with Montezuma, an engagement which led to the Aztec leader's death. The conquistadors laid siege to Tenochtitlan, which fell after more than two months' time. The Aztec Empire was finished. The conquistadors labeled the new land "New Spain" (Pratt-Chadwick 97).
The culture of New Spain was one in which racism, religion, slavery and politics all intermixed and mingled. Activists like the Dominican friar Bartoleme de las Casas reviled the treatment of the native Mexicans at the hands of some rather rough Spaniards. Spain herself had some things to say about the culture that was to be established in New Spain: "The Spanish Crown in its Royal Orders for New Discoveries of 1573, decreed that Indians should be taught 'to live in a civilized manner, clothed and wearing shoes…given the use of bread and wine and oil and many other essentials of life….Instructed in the trades and skills with which they might live richly" (Engstrand 13). Las Casas had been urging for just such a thing. He was an example of the way a devout Catholic missionary tried to organize the conquering Spaniards and convince them to treat the natives in a manner befitting their dignity as human kin.
The problem was that in New Spain, gold and glory often became the drive for those coming to the New World -- not God and glory. Las Casas himself had reportedly come to New Spain in order to get rich, but what he saw in New Spain "caused him to undergo a complete change of both mind and heart" (Vickery 2). Slavery was rife in New Spain. The conquistadors enslaved the natives and forced them to work so that wealth might be accrued. Las Casas himself owned slaves -- but when a Dominican refused him absolution in the confessional, Las Casas suddenly saw the light: he was part of the problem. He would go on to convert and urge a new ordinance in New Spain.
It did not help that New Spain was dubbed "Satan's dwelling place" (Rabasa 152) by the conquistadors, who saw the Aztec culture as one in the service of the Devil himself. Pre-conquest Mexican culture could indeed be a savage culture, especially in regards to the human sacrificing which took place. However, not all Mexico participated in the savage practice, and this is one reason division existed in the land.
There was still quite another facet to Tenochtitlan. At the height of its power at the end of the 15th century, the city was enormously rich, thanks to the tributes it collected from the realm. It had developed aqueduct systems, by which water was brought into the city. It had drainage systems, by which water was removed. It had roads and lanes and marketplaces where goods of all kinds from all over the Empire could be purchased or exchanged.
To establish its power, Tenochtitlan had to defeat the nearby monarch of Tlatelolco. The city became the center of the Aztec Empire, the center of trade and commerce, the center of the culture's religious practices, and the center stage of Montezuma's reign. The city was rich and beautiful and struck Cortes and his men as such. Yet, when the Cortes and his men arrived, the Mexican culture underwent a dramatic shift, and the city of Tenochtitlan was cut off from the Empire. The Spaniards seized it.
The biggest Spanish influence on the Mexican culture was, of course, a religious one. But Mexican culture also transformed into the culture of New Spain thanks to the Spanish language. A new language and a new culture, so the Spanish believed, would help bring the savage Mexicans to a proper civilization. As Nancy Fitch states, "The Spaniards believed language and evangelization were the keys to making the natives 'Spanish'" (Fitch).
Another big influence was that of the legend of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In 1531,…