Colonialism in Mexico: The Spanish Arrival
Around the year 1500, Mesoamerica began to experience the first waves of western colonialism. Seeking to expand their empire and claim new territories, Spain sent thousands of men or “conquistadors” to all corners of the “New World” to conquer the land and its people in the name of God and the crown.
Pre Colonial Peoples
In 1325, the Mexica, a once nomadic people, founded their home on top of what was then Lake Texcoco and established the town of Tenochtitlan, present day Mexico City. The Mexica culture put great importance on two things that would later lay the foundation to their civilization: religion and warfare.
Over time, the Mexica formed military alliances with dominate groups in the area and assimilated aspects of their cultures. In its prime, the Mexica or Aztec empire was highly developed in terms of education, agriculture, commerce, architecture and art.
They were a ruthless warrior society who constantly sought to wage war against other indigenous groups both near and far. The Aztec’s military strength allowed them to eventually conquer most of central and southern Mexico.
Once a group was conquered, they were either established as “altepetl” or city-states that regularly paid tribute in the form of goods and labor, or they were taken as prisoners to be used in religious sacrifice.
While city-states were expected to conform to Aztec social practices, they were allowed to keep the religious practices and beliefs they held prior to being conquered. When the Spanish arrived, they expected the same approach to be taken with them. However, they were greatly mistaken.
When the Spanish and Aztecs finally met, a series of events unfolded that would lead to the eradication of Native American language, beliefs and people. Hernan Cortes, the infamous conquistador, landed in Mexico in 1519 along with his 600 men, including priests, dozens of horses, and gun power.
With the help of translators, the Spanish quickly learned that many of the indigenous groups in the area resented the Aztec empire for having conquering them. Looking to exploit these feelings, Cortes formed alliances with thousands of native alleys before marching off to Tenochtitlan in search of conquest.
To their surprise, the Spanish were quite welcomed by the Aztecs and their emperor Montezuma II. The Aztecs had several gods and goddesses in their pantheon and they worshipped them daily in large and dramatic public displays that relied heavily on human sacrifice.
Cortes and his men pleaded with them to accept Christianity as their new-found faith and stop the worship of their “false” and “demonic” Gods, which they considered idolatry. Montezuma was dismissive of Cortes and is loosely quoted to have responded with,
“I understand what you have said to my ambassadors about the three gods and the cross, and what you preached in the various towns through which you passed. We have given you no answer, since we have worshipped our own gods here from the beginning and know them to be good. No doubt yours are good also, but do not trouble to tell us any more about them at present.”
Never the less, the Spanish were persistent in trying to change Montezuma and his advisors’ minds on the matter. For weeks, they spent their time touring Montezuma’s palace, city, and temples as honored guest while also being showered with extravagant food/meals and gifts made up of precious metals, stones, fabrics and materials.
Seeing such great abundance and wealth, the Spanish began to strategize ways to gain access to Tenochtitlan, its people and its resources. Through means of manipulation and betrayal, they were eventually able to seize control of the Empire and establish a sense of dominance and authority.
Religion and Power
There are several ways in which religion and power can intersect. In the case of the Aztec empire and Mexico as a whole, the Spanish used religion to justify using violence to dominate the indigenous people physically, politically, socially, and culturally.
The violent Christianization of the Mesoamerican people’s ancient religious practices began with the act of their enslavement. Soon after the colonies were formed, the Spanish did their best to erase all traces of indigenous religions.
They did this by destroying religious temples, ceremonial sites and ancient texts. All of this coupled with the introduction of European diseases that would wipe out nearly 90 percent of the native population, was enough to almost completely eradicate Mesoamerican beliefs and culture.
Those who remained were completely stripped of their native identities and were forced into assimilating Spanish/Catholic values and practices. Of course, not all pre-colonial practices were abandoned by the indigenous people, they were simply reshaped/reframed to fit into Christianity.