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Colonial Mexico, Race and Social Class

fall of Tenochtitlan, Juan Garrido, zambos, criollos, Spanish monarchy

The intermingling of races and cultures created a hybrid society in colonial Mexico. After the conquest, the Native American population declined dramatically due to European diseases such as smallpox and measles, to which the Native Americans had no resistance. These diseases spread quickly through the Native American population, killing large numbers of people. Estimates of the population decline vary, with the most extreme calculations suggesting a drop from about 25 million in 1519 to about 1 million by 1620.

Whatever the actual figures, the decline resulted in the emergence of a multiracial society made up of people of mixed Native American, European, African, and Asian heritage. Mestizos, or people of mixed European and Native American descent, were the biological and cultural bridge between Spaniards and Native Americans. The number of mestizos grew rapidly, as many Spanish men took Native American wives and had large families; by the 19th century mestizos would form the largest ethnic group in Mexico.

African contributions to the region began as soon as the Spaniards arrived. A free black, Juan Garrido, took an active part in the conquest of the Aztec Empire, and Hernan Cortes introduced African slaves into central Mexico shortly after the fall of Tenochtitlan. Several hundred slaves arrived in the first decade after the conquest; an estimated 200,000 African slaves were brought to New Spain over the course of the colonial period. Racial mixing and intermarriage produced a sizable population of mulattoes, or people of European and African descent, as well as zambos, who were people of African and Native American descent. By the 19th century, however, people of African descent had been almost completely absorbed into Mexicoís mestizo population.

Race was a sure indicator of social class immediately after the conquest. The highest social class was the peninsulares, a racial distinction that referred to people who were living in Mexico but had been born in Spain. The peninsulares were sent from Spain to hold the highest colonial offices in both the civil and church administrations. The peninsulares never made up more than 1 percent of the population of the colony and they held themselves aloof from the criollos (Creoles), people of European descent born in the Americas, who occupied the next step on the social ladder. Criollos were almost never given high office. The resentment of the criollos against the more privileged peninsulares became an influential force in the later movement for Mexican independence. Below the criollos were the mestizos, followed by the Native Americans and the blacks.

Gradually class became more important than race as a measure of social status in colonial Mexico. Individuals of mixed racial background who became wealthy and socially important often claimed criollo status. The number of claimants to criollo status prompted the Spanish monarchy in the 18th century to create a legal device that, in return for a fee, would establish a personís legal whiteness.

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