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Everyday Life: Spanish and Mexican Settlers

Everyday Life: Spanish and Mexican Settlers


Spanish America. When Americans headed west in the nineteenth century, they were not entering virgin land. Native Americans, of course, had lived in the West for thousands of years, but Spanish settlers and their descendants had also lived there for two centuries. Much of the area that would become the American West was part of the viceroyalty of New Spain when the nineteenth century opened. Although Indians had inhabited the territory for countless generations, the area was not densely populated. Many colonists regarded the region as a distant backwater of an empire centered in Spain. In 1800 a Spanish mining engineer commented that the people of central Mexico speak with as much ignorance about the regions immediately to the north as they might about Constantinople. Despite their relatively small numbers, colonists in California, New Mexico, and Texas created a distinctive culture marked by social hierarchy and patterns of deference.

Stereotypes. Citizens of the United States and Spanish and Mexican settlers often regarded each other with hostility. Americans regarded the Spanish and Mexican inhabitants of the region as ignorant, lazy, and superstitious. Spanish observers, for their part, commented unfavorably on the Americans who entered the region. After Mexico ceded California, New Mexico, and Texas to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, these stereotypes did not disappear, and hostility remained. In later years some Americans would reverse the value judgment of the stereotype. Rather than condemning the Spanish and Mexican colonists of California as lazy, they would look back on an imagined golden era of carefree, gracious, and welcoming Spanish settlers.

Negative Stereotype

Albert Pike, an American who passed through the Southwest in 1831, presented his view of a dance in New Mexico. His description suggests the negative stereotypes held by Americans;

On the evening after my arrival in the village, I went to a fandango. I saw the men and women dancing waltzes, and drinking whiskey together. It is a strange sighta Spanish fandango. Well dressed women(they call them ladies)harlots, priests, thieves, half-breed Indiansall spinning round together in the waltz. Here a filthy, ragged fellow with a half shirt, a pair of leather breeches, and long, dirty woolen stockings, and Apache moccasins, was hanging and whirling round with the pretty wife of Pedro Vigil; and there, the priest was dancing with La Altegracia, who paid her husband a regular sum to keep out of the way, and so lived with an American. I was soon disgusted; but among the graceless shapes and more graceless dresses at the fandango, I saw one young woman who appeared to me exceedingly pretty. She was under the middle size, slightly formed; and besides the delicate foot and ancle [sic ]and the keen black eye, common to all the women in that country, she possessed a clear and beautiful complexion, and a modest, downcast look, not often to be met with among the New Mexican females.

Source: Albert Pike, Prose Sketches and Poems Written in the Western Country, edited by David J. Weber (Albuquerque: Calvin Horn, 1967), pp. 148-149.

Womens Fashions. In the early nineteenth century, womens dress in colonial New Mexico varied according to status. In 1832 a Missouri trader commented that the female peasantry wore simple, handmade clothing, often in blue or scarlet, while women of rank more commonly wore fashionable European dress. Fashionable Spanish clothing included the mantilla, or lace head covering held up by a tall comb. The comb, or peineta, might be made of ivory, gold, silver, or other metal. Both common and elite women wore shawls that covered the head and body. An expensive shawl might be made of fine wool and fringed with silk. After the establishment of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821, trade with the United States increased, and American goods became more widely available. As the influence of the United States increased and as New Mexico passed into American hands, womens fashions gradually came to reflect these changes.

Dances. Various forms of dance were popular among Spanish and Mexican settlers in California. Dances might be events that any member of the community could attend or formal balls open only to members of the elite. One early settler recalled that at informal dances the elderly people danced the contradanza while younger people waltzed and performed Spanish folk dances. Formal balls, known as fandangos in early years, were one of the few places where unmarried young men and women could meet, under the watchful eye of their elders. At such balls men and women sat apart from each other, and young people were expected to behave respectfully toward their elders. As the population of Spanish California grew, formal balls were increasingly restricted to the elite. These events came to be called bailes rather than fandangos, and the term fandango began to be used to refer to the dances of the lower classes.


Carmen Espinosa, Shawls, Crinolines, Filigree: The Dress and Adornment of the Women of New Mexico, 1739 to 1900 (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1970);

David J. Langum, From Condemnation to Praise: Shifting Perspectives on Hispanic California, California History, 61 (Winter 1983): 282-291;

Anthony Shay, Fandangoes and Bailes: Dancing and Dance Events in Early California, Southern California Quarterly, 64 (Summer 1982): 99-113;

David J. Weber, ed., Foreigners in Their Native Land: Historical Roots of the Mexican-Americans (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1973);

Weber, The Spanish-Mexican Rim, in The Oxford History of the American West, edited by Clyde A. Milner II, Carol A. OConnor, and Martha A. Sandweiss (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 4577.

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