Mexico, Colonial

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In August 1521 the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlán was in ruins; its inhabitants had fled; the last Aztec ruler, Cuautemoc, was a prisoner of Hernán Cortés. The Spaniards faced the task of rebuilding the destroyed city and of winning over the inhabitants of the area, inimical and distrustful after all the destruction. The Castilians in their simple faith felt it imperative first to eradicate idolatry and superstition among the native people. However, they had no idea of the vastness and ruggedness of the territory, of the varieties in climate, and of the lack of political and linguistic unity.

Early Missionary Activity. On Aug. 13, 1523, two Franciscan priests, Tecto and Aora, and Brother Pedro de gante arrived in New Spain from Flanders. On May 13, 1524, "the Twelve," led by Martín de Valencia, arrived with power granted by the pope to establish the Church in New Spain. Gradually, hundreds of Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians came. To facilitate the work of evangelizing, they divided the territory, with Mexico City as the center: the Augustinians, to the northwest and south; the Dominicans, to the southeast; and the Franciscans, to the north and northeast. The Franciscans also went into Yucatán. When the Jesuits arrived, they were given charge of the extreme northeast of present-day Mexico, but they continued on to the present states of Nuevo León and Coahuila and the vast territories of modern Texas and New Mexico.

Franciscans. This order grew so quickly that by the beginning of the 17th century it was organized into five provinces: Mexico City, Mérida, Valladolid (now Morelia), Guadalajara, and Zacatecas. To educate their missionaries they also built six apostolic colleges: Querétaro, Guadalupe de Zacatecas, San Fernando de México, Orizaba, Pachuca, and Zapopan, whose history had been written by Isidro Félix de Espinosa and Juan de arricivita. The Franciscans gave to New Spain 19 bishops, among them Fray Juan de zumÁrraga. They wrote hundreds of works in the native tongues, of which Beristáin lists 522, not all verified. Motolinía, Sahagún, Mendieta, Augustín de Vetancur, Alonso de la Rea, Pablo Beaumont, Antonio Tello, José de Arlegui, and Diego de Landa wrote histories and chronicles, rich in data, on the pre-Cortesian history as well as on the development of the apostolate and the discoveries and conquests.

Dominicans. In 1526 the first Dominicans arrived; but five of them died that same year, and four returned to Spain. They made progress little by little and eventually formed four provinces: Santiago de México (1536), San Vicente de Chiapas y Guatemala (1551), San Hipólito de Oaxaca (1595), and Puebla (1656). In those first years they distinguished themselves by defending the native Mexicans as rational beings. They also filled important offices in the Inquisition and in the university. They gave 19 bishops to New Spain, including the first bishop to come to Mexico, Garcés (1452?1524); the famous lascasas; and the enterprising Alcalde (170192). They had two excellent historians: Agustín Dávila Padilla and Antonio de Remesal.

Augustinians. In 1535 seven Augustinian fathers arrived, the advance group of those who were to work especially for the conversion of the Otomies in Huasteca and in the present state of Guerrero. Some of their magnificent monasteries are still standing, such as Acolman, Actopan, and Ixmiquilpan. They were bold builders and able organizers of native communities. Alonso de la Veracruz was noted for his learning. Of the eight prelates whom the order gave to New Spain, the viceroy-archbishop Fray Payo Enríquez de Rivera (167081) was exceptional. Juan de Grijalva, Esteban García, Diego Basalenque, Juan González de la Puente, and Matías Escobar were Augustinian chroniclers.

These three religious orders converted millions of native people who lived on the central plateau and began to Christianize other regions. At the beginning of the 18th century there were 351 monasteries with 2,396 priests: 1,218 Franciscans, 527 Dominicans, and 651 Augustinians. The secular clergy did very little at first. Of those who came to New Spain only a rare few had the qualifications necessary for an arduous life. Most of them served in the curia or in the cathedrals of the six dioceses, which Charles V quickly obtained from the Holy See. Important in the conversion of the natives was the devotion to Our Lady of guadalupe, which spread throughout the land and by the 17th century was the characteristic devotion of the Mexican people.

Problems in Evangelization. The obstacles that the missionaries encountered were greater than the first volunteers had anticipated. The country was immense and bristled with mountain ranges. The sea coasts were hot and unhealthy. Only one area in the central plateau, the region ruled by the Aztecs, was relatively civilized. In the rest of the country the linguistic, tribal, and cultural differences were almost infinite. More than 500 different languages were spoken. More problematic still were the native religious practices. The Aztecs had syncretized the religions of the tribes they dominated, and their cult had become a confused conglomeration of polytheistic, animistic, and astrological beliefs, which resulted in all kinds of sacrifices, rites, and magical and superstitious practices. Especially abhorrent to the Spaniards was their common practice of human sacrifice. The religious beliefs and practices of the rest of the country also varied immensely. In those first years the barriers seemed impregnable. The missionaries attributed the tenacity of the natives in clinging to their ancestral customs to the special dominion of the devil. Some missionaries thought they saw in native rites or images vestiges of remote Christian teachings, an ingenious misinterpretation that many were to follow two centuries later.

The bravery of the Spanish conquistadores and the backing of the crown made the work of evangelizing much easier. In every town a church with its monastery or rectory was built at royal expense. Spain paid the traveling expenses of the missionaries and maintained them in their Christianizing work (see patronato real), even though some Spanish settlers by their greed and evil conduct made the religion they professed odious. The results of the first 50 years of evangelizing were amazing. At the end of the 16th century the population of the entire central plateau had been converted to the Christian faith. It is impossible to say how many were baptized. The missionaries speak of millions. Modern sociologists have not been able to find a satisfactory explanation with reliable statistics for the undeniable phenomenon of the depopulation of the country. Studies of the Berkeley school hold that a population of 20 million when the Spaniards arrived fell to 2 million by the end of the century. The laments of the missionaries over the disappearance of the native peoples were not exaggerated. The clash of cultures brought ravaging epidemics and a rapid decline in the number of natives. All who survived became Christians. The Church, led by Zumárraga and the first Bishop of Michoacán, Don Vasco de quiroga, founded hospitals and various charitable institutions throughout the country.

Inquisition. To protect the purity of faith of the discoverers and conquistadores, among whom were descendants of half-converted Jews, the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition, established in Santo Domingo, delegated Martín de Valencia. He was to stamp out all superstitious practices and any heresy that arose among the Spaniards and to punish natives who fell back into idolatry or into shameful sins. After some time and various changes, on Nov. 4, 1571, a tribunal with all powers was established in Mexico City. By 1575 the native peoples were exempt from its jurisdiction. During its first century of operation the Inquisition prevented Judaism or Islam from taking root, resisted the habit of blasphemy and pseudomystical aberrations, and averted the entrance of Protestantism. With a strong hand it suppressed bigamy among Christians and the scandalous conduct of some priests. At the end of the 17th century it began to decline and almost confined its activities to the task of preventing censored books from entering the country. During the 296 years it functioned in Mexico, the Inquisition turned over to the secular authority for capital punishment 43 guilty persons. The rest were imprisoned for a time.

Education. The bishops and religious of New Spain established schools in the new villages. In the shadow of the first cathedrals, monasteries, and churches, elementary education was given, and the arts and trades brought over from Spain were taught. All were admitted free of charge, with no distinction of caste or race. Pedro de Gante had more than a thousand native students in his school. The first Franciscans, with the approval of the viceroy and bishop, tried to prepare the sons of the native chiefs even for Holy Orders in the famous college of Santa Cruz de Tlaltelolco (1536), but the efforts were premature. Many centers of learning opened in the 16th century. Mexico had a university in 1553. Printing was introduced by the Church. In 1539, the first book known to have been published in the New World, the Breve y más compendiosa doctrina Christiana en lengua Mexicana y Castellana, appeared. It is not improbable that many others were published before this. Books on dogma and asceticism and on theoretic and applied science, especially grammars and vocabularies in the native languages, came off the presses by the hundreds.

Work of the Jesuits. The coming of the Society of Jesus in 1572 brought great benefits. During the two centuries they worked in Mexico, until they were expelled in 1767, the Jesuits founded 25 colleges, 11 seminaries, and six houses for priests and extended their missions throughout the northeast of the country (Sinaloa, 1591; Tepehuanes, 1596; Pimería, 1687; Lower California, 1697). Famous among the missionaries were tapia, kino, salvatierra, and pfefferkorn. The Creoles received their education from the Jesuits during those two centuries. From this resulted many vocations for the secular clergy, which made it possible to transfer to them the parishes, conducted by religious during the 16th century. These transfers were made not without disturbance and bitter feelings. The rigid attitude of the bishop of Puebla, palafox, caused rancor, and he went to the extreme in clashing with the Jesuits. Early Jesuit historians were Pérez de Rivas, Florencia, and Alegre.

17th-century Mexican Society. Many monasteries of other religious orders, Mercedarians, Carmelites, those of St. Hippolitus, etc., fostered Catholic life among the descendants of the Spaniards. By the middle of the century the central section of the country was Christian. Churches and monasteries abounded; in towns and haciendas and ranches Christian life flourished, and if some vestige of paganism persisted among the native Mexicans incorporated into the civilized world, it was not tolerated in public. Spanish culture thrived, especially in Mexico City. Among the most notable representatives were Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (165195), the learned priest Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (16451700), and the talented playwright Juan Ruiz de Alarcón. Famous painters also plied their art, such as Baltasar de Echave, Luis and José Juárez, and Miguel Cabrera. Along the coasts and in the mountainous regions of the north and south, the spread of Christianity was slow and difficult. Because of the lack of statistics, it is impossible to give the number of Catholics in New Spain at the start of the 18th century. There were eight immense dioceses with their prelates, cathedral chapters, and seminaries; innumerable parishes; monasteries; Catholic colleges, hospitals, and charitable institutions. The native Mexicans numbered scarcely 3 million; the Spaniards reached 1 million; and the castes (or persons of mixed blood), another million. Since Catholicism was the official religion and the only one acceptable, all were Catholics, although not equally educated in the faith.

Effects of the 18th Century in New Spain. The decline of Spain, already far advanced in the reign of Charles II (16651700) and made worse by his death, which brought on the War of the Spanish Succession, halted almost completely the progress of Catholicism in New Spain. Greater evils were brought on by the regalistic government of the ministers of Charles III (175988), who in 1767 expelled the members of the Society of Jesus, bringing ruin to their missions, colleges, and apostolate. The Jesuits were, so said the viceroy in charge of their expulsion, the object of blind devotion on the part of all the inhabitants who rose in protest against the expulsion. The Oratorians, Dominicans, and Franciscans also suffered in having to take over the work of the Jesuits at a time when vocations were not plentiful. Anticlerical and anti-Catholic movements of the enlightenment, then in vogue in France and in Spain, weakened the faith of the educated classes. The missions were falling in ruins. Peace and social quiet were disturbed by the news of U.S. independence and by reports of the French Revolution.

Weakening of Church Discipline. Those same ministers of Charles III supporting the anticlerical and anti-Roman tendencies then prevalent used the Patronato Real and the concordat, recently held by the king with the Holy See, to place in episcopal sees and in key positions of the Church persons completely subordinate to political interests. The Inquisition, which had lost much of its former zeal, degenerated into an instrument of political suppression. Among the upper classes the anti-Christian Enlightenment unsettled the basic Catholicism, which had been typical of the Creole society. From the end of the 18th century vocations decreased in number and quality, and monasteries declined. Among both the religious and secular clergy more and more individuals lacked apostolic zeal and the basic Christian virtues. The authority of the Church was undermined in many of its representatives.

Educational Influence of the Enlightenment. When Baron Alexander von Humboldt visited New Spain on his expedition of 1799 to 1804, he was agreeably surprised at the economic, cultural, and artistic progress, which was steadily approaching the level of that of the mother country. Because of the efforts of the learned priest castorena y ursÚa, Mexico had a newspaper, which printed the political and cultural news from Europe. The university still flourished and had made great progress in the natural sciences and in mathematics. The erudite José Antonio Alzate published periodically information on the scientific progress in Europe and also worthwhile studies and observations of his own.

During those same years the canons of Mexico, Eguiara y Eguren and Beristáin, compiled and published excellent bibliographies, veritable catalogues of religious, theological, philosophical, linguistic, and scientific publications of the three centuries of New Spain. But theological and philosophical studies were at a low level; the expulsion of the Jesuits and the implacable opposition to their books and teaching had caused confusion among students. Yet the Jesuits had early introduced experimental sciences in Mexico and even some modern philosophical trends. Their expulsion contributed also to a weakening of the traditional love for the Spanish crown, since many of the exiled belonged to the most Christian Creole families. The opposition between the Creoles and the Spaniards born on the Peninsula increased. Humboldt said it was very marked. The government of Charles IV (17881808) was discredited even more by the blunders and venality of certain governors sent to Mexico and by the law through which the Crown expropriated the capital of charitable institutions. This brought harm and failure to the farmer and to the Creole businessman.

Napoleonic Period and the Mexican Revolt. In such circumstances it is not at all surprising that the agitation in Spain caused by the invasion of Napoleon and the upheaval in all of Spanish living from 1808 to 1814 should have had repercussions in the American dominions and especially in Mexico. The news of the insurrection of Aranjuez and of the renunciations in Bayonne disturbed the inhabitants of New Spain. In the capital two opposing groups were formed: one side was for autonomy and wanted the viceroy, assisted by a junta of representatives, to take over all power; the other side, completely dedicated to the interests of the Peninsulars, imprisoned the viceroy and appointed an old soldier, Garibay, to hold command until the central Spanish junta named a new viceroy. The first one chosen was the archbishop of Mexico, Lizan y Beaumont, who tried to ease the tension of souls, without however preventing the formation of juntas in different parts of the country to plan for independence. At the threat of capture of the plotters in Querétaro, the parish priest of Dolores, Miguel hidalgo, resolved to start an armed rebellion, which took on the character of a religious and a class war with the slogans "Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe" and "Mueran los gachupines." This succeeded in arousing a large part of the working class of Bajío. The excesses perpetrated by this horde in Guanajuato, Valladolid, and Guadalajara caused a deep rift in the country between the insurgents, who feared that the government of Mexico would sacrifice the legitimate interests of the country and surrender to the French, and the people of law and order, who could not believe that authority should be compromised by the outrages and atrocities committed by the rebels in arms. These excesses justified the position taken by the religious authorities of Valladolid, Mexico City, Puebla, and Guadalajara, who excommunicated the leaders, guilty of taking prisoners and mistreating persons consecrated to God.

The number of priests and religious who took an active part in the prolonged war for independence (181021) has been greatly exaggerated. Of the 7,000 clerics and religious in New Spain, only 161 have been verified as revolutionaries; of those, 37 were shot. Especially in the first years of the war, 1808 to 1815, cruelty was widespread and the excesses and outrages defiled the army of insurgents as well as those who tried in the name of government to suppress the rebellion. From the time when the parish priest Morelos, the genial guerrila, was shot until the rebellion of 1821, the insurgents were reduced to bands of guerrillas in the mountains and along the coast. When Mexico learned of a new rebellion in Spain under the leadership of Riego and that Ferdinand VII was forced to promulgate the Constitution of the Cortes of Cádiz, condemned by the Church, Agustín de Iturbide, a general in the service of the viceroy, and Vicente Guerrero proposed their Plan of Iguala. This gained the support of almost all the military leaders, even those of the insurgents in arms, and the approval of the entire country. On Sept. 27, 1821, the army, called the Army of the Three Guarantees, proclaiming as the basis of Mexican independence religion, union, and independence, entered the capital in triumph. On the following day the independence of Mexico was solemnly proclaimed. The crown of the new kingdom was offered to an Infante of the House of Bourbon, and Iturbide meanwhile presided over a body of regents. Although the Catholic religion was proclaimed as official, the Church had ended the secular rule of the Patronato through which the Spanish crown had supported the work of evangelizing, educating, and doing good works, with an enormous outlay of money and with constant protection. A most grave problem, therefore, confronted the hierarchy of the Church and the government of the new nation.

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[d. olmedo]

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Mexico, Colonial

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