Some of the most remarkable visual records of colonial Mexico are the series of paintings called “caste” paintings, illustrating every racial combination of Spanish, mestizo, black, Native American, and other types thought possible in the New Spain of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Casta paintings were always created in a series, and each picture usually contains a male-female couple and at least one child. Occasionally more than one child and even other animal or human figures are depicted. At the top or bottom of the painting is an inscription that explains the racial mix shown in the image. At least 50 groups of these paintings have been identified, although very few survive today in complete series.
De Espanol y Negra, Mulato (From Spaniard and Black, Mulatto), attributed to Jose de Alcibar, c. 1760 Denver Art Museum: Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer Photo (c)James O. Milmoe
In the course of the fifteenth century, the Aztecs conquered an empire centered in the Valley of Mexico (present-day Mexico City, after the drainage of most of the valley) but encompassing Mesoamerica from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting state, far more centralized than the preceding Teotihuacán and Toltec city-states, commanded a large extent of territory and thrived on the trade in raw materials that were brought in from both coasts of their empire. Bernal Díaz, born in 1492 in Spain, would join the Spaniards in the “conquest” of Mexico, but he also left behind vivid eyewitness accounts of occupied Aztec society in the sixteenth century. Among them is this description of the market in Tlatelolco, one of the central cities at the heart of Aztec imperial power.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain, trans. J. M. Cohen (Baltimore: Penguin, 1963), 232–234.
The Inquisition was well established in Spain at the time of Cortés’s conquest in the 1520s. A tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition came in the conquistadors’ wake, ultimately established at Mexico City in 1571 with authority to regulate Catholic morality throughout “New Spain.” Most of the Inquisition trials concerned petty breaches of religious conduct, but others dealt with the much more serious crime of heresy. In November 1598, the Inquisition became alarmed about the rise of a group who believed that the Day of Judgment was at hand. Among the group denounced to the Holy Office was Marina de San Miguel, a Spanish-born woman who held a high status due to her mystical visions. Her confessions, offered between November 1598 and January 1599, reveal the degree to which confessions of “deviance” could be extorted from a victim. In March 1601, Marina was stripped naked to the waist and paraded upon a mule. Forced to confess her errors, she was sentenced to 100 lashes with a whip.
Jacqueline Holler, “The Spiritual and Physical Ecstasies of a Sixteenth-Century Beata: Marina de San Miguel Confesses Before the Mexican Inquisition,” in Richard Boyer and Geoffrey Spurling, eds., Colonial Lives: Documents on Latin American History, 1550–1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 79–98.
After the conquest of the Aztec imperial capital of Tenochtitlan, Spaniards turned their attention to the productive farmland in the surrounding countryside, which was inhabited by Nahuatl-speaking native people. By the late sixteenth century, Spaniards began to expand rapidly into this territory. They acquired estates in a variety of ways, from royal grants to open seizure of property. Nevertheless, the purchase of plots of land from individual Nahuas was also common—although sometimes the sellers came to regret the transaction and petitioned higher authorities for redress of their grievances.
Rebecca Horn, “Spaniards in the Nahua Countryside: Dr. Diego de León Plaza and Nahuatl Land Sale Documents (Mexico, Early Seventeenth Century), in Richard Boyer and Geoffrey Spurling, eds., Colonial Lives: Documents on Latin American History, 1550–1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 102–103, 108–109.
With a handful of untrained and poorly equipped soldiers, Hernán Cortés overthrew the powerful Aztec civilization between 1519 and 1520. Born in Spain around 1485, Cortés decided to inform the king of Spain (and Holy Roman emperor) Charles V of his achievements, in a series of written updates. Despite their ostensible purpose, these “letters” were designed for more than the edification and delight of the emperor. Like Julius Caesar’s dispatches from the Gallic Wars of the 50s BCE—in which at least one million Gauls were killed and another million enslaved—these accounts were designed for broad public consumption. Each letter was sent to Spain as soon as it was ready, and it seems likely that Cortés’s father, Martín, arranged for their immediate publication. Over the course of these five published letters, although Cortés developed a persona for himself as a conquering hero and agent of imperial power, he also exposed the ruthlessness and brutality of his “conquest” of Mexico.
Hernán Cortés, Letters from Mexico, ed. and trans. Anthony Pagden (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), 72–74.
Bartolomé de las Casas
A Dominican friar, Bartolomé de las Casas (ca. 1484–1566) wrote his Short Account to open the eyes of King Philip II of Spain as to the atrocities committed in newly discovered Latin America. For this early devotion to the protection of what would be called “human rights,” de las Casas was appointed “Protector of the Indians.” The text itself can be difficult to read—the crimes against the indigenous populations are recounted with a matter-of-fact tone that seems at odds with the level of horrific detail provided. De las Casas argues that this inhumane activity must cease for two reasons: first, because “Indian” souls would not be saved through conversion; second, because Spain would suffer God’s wrath as a result of these sins.
From Bartolomé de Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Trans. Nigel Griffin. London: Penguin Classics, 1993, pp. 9–13, 15–7, 127–8.
Abstract and Key Words
As part of the annihilation of the Aztec civilization after Cortés conquered Montezuma's empire, the Spaniards burned the Aztec archives. Surviving examples of Indian codices are thus rare. Although this manuscript claims to date from the early 1500s, it is part of the so-called "Techialoyan" land records created in the seventeenth century using old methods to substantiate native land claims with the Spanish regional authorities. These "titulos primodiales" were essentially municipal histories that documented in text and pictures local accounts of important events and territorial boundaries. The text on the right page, written by an Aztec notary, is in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and still widely spoken throughout Mexico and Central America.