In the year 1623, so the story goes, a man in the dusty village of San Juan de los Lagos in western Mexico was teaching hisyoung daughters to do acrobatic tricks on the trapeze. To make the show more compelling, he had the girls perform the tricks above several swords affixed in the earth and pointing menacingly toward the heavens. One of the girls fell, was impaled on the swords, and died instantly. The small corpse was taken to a nearby temple, where an old woman named Ana Lucia, renowned for her piety, was caretaker. Ana Lucia took a moth-eaten statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception out of a closet, where the parish priest had hidden it, for he was embarrassed by its sorry condition. When Ana Lucia placed the statue on the child’s chest, the girl was at once restored to full life and vigor. Soon after, a mysterious boy appeared by night and transformed the decaying statue into a beautiful and flawless image of the Virgin, then disappeared without asking for payment. The townsfolk assumed he was an angel.
The miracle transformed the rude village of San Juan de los Lagos into one of Mexico’s most popular religious sites. Each year thereafter, between December 1 and 9, thousands of pilgrims would descend on the small town to pay their respects to the miraculous figure. In 1810, a hundred thousand souls were expected to attend, most of them desperately poor Indians. Those Indians, it could safely be assumed, would have little to lose, and they would loathe Spaniards. The thought of so many Indians gathered in one place, all of them seething with hatred for Spaniards, in the grip of religious fervor and quite possibly drunk, was irresistible to a small group of American-born whites conspiring to overthrow the government.
This, they reckoned, was the perfect time and place to start a revolution.
Indians and Castes
Although the conspiracy to launch the revolution from the festival of San Juan de los Lagos was ultimately foiled, the veryfact that such a plan was laid raises several key questions. Why did Indians bear such ill will toward Spaniards? Was therea natural link between popular religious fervor and violence? What reason did whites have to imagine the Indians would be willing to fight their revolution for them? Would Indians and whites fight with the same goals in mind?
Relations between Europeans and Indians began with violence, race prejudice, and exploitation, and the pattern of those relations did not change in their fundamentals over the three hundred years of the Spanish colony. The Spaniards who conqueredthe indigenous civilizations of Mexico were not professional soldiers, but rather armed entrepreneurs out for wealth and glory. There was not enough gold in the new colony to satisfy those conquerors, and when Tenochtitlán, the opulent capital of the vast Aztec empire, fell to the invaders in 1521, the discovery of Mexico’s rich silver mines was still more than two decades away. The only rewards available, then, were Indians and land. For the Spaniards land had no value without Indians to work it, so royal authorities parceled out the Indians to the conquistadors in the form of grants known as encomiendas. A grant of encomienda allowed the grantee—known as an encomendero—to demand tribute and labor from a specified number of Indian villagers. The demands made on the Indians were often extraordinary, helping to accelerate the appalling decline in their numbers. Waves of epidemic disease swept through the Americas, killing, in some areas, nine out of every ten people. The decline in the native population deprived the Spaniards of labor, but it also freed up quite a bit of land, which the Spaniards hastened to claim. The Spanish American hacienda—an infamous and durable institution that produced crops principally for the Spanish cities and mining camps—was thus born.
The encomiendamdash;the first mechanism the Spaniards used to exploit Indians—was largely ended by the late 1500s, but new forms of exploitation, such as labor drafts and peonage, supplanted it. The essential feature of the system was fixed: Indians worked; whites enjoyed the benefits of their labor.
Catholic missionaries who arrived in New Spain to convert the Indians to Spain’s rigid version of Catholic Christianity tended, at least in the early years of the colonization, to see the natives as God’s providential compensation for the tragedyof the Protestant heresy, a vast multitude of souls ripe for salvation. The harvest of so many souls would surely, in their view, be the harbinger of the millennium, that thousand-year period foretold in the Book of Revelation during which Satanlanguishes in prison while Christ rules the world, preparing for the fearsome battles of the world’s final days.
Given the high stakes, the missionaries were understandably zealous in their efforts. About sixty Franciscan missionaries claimed to have converted five million Indians to Christianity after only twelve years in Mexico; one friar boasted of having baptized 1,500 in a single day. Obviously, these "conversions" left the Indians with an extremely imperfect understandingof orthodox Christianity. As late as 1792, one village priest estimated that among his flock of five thousand, fewer than ahundred could mutter even the simplest of prayers. Priests visited remote villages infrequently, so villagers seldom heard mass, took communion, or confessed their sins. Babies went unbaptized, couples lived in sin, and the dead were buried without the proper Christian rites. Secular education was likewise deficient. Village schools were fairly common throughout Mexico by the late colonial period, but their impact was minimal, undone by poverty and Indian resistance. Most Indians in Mexico were never assimilated into the world of the whites.
This is not to say that the Indians were irreligious. In fact, religion penetrated every facet of life. It was a lively, naive folk Catholicism full of spirits in the earth, saints in the heavens, witchcraft, magic, and miracles. From time to time, prophets and messiahs would appear claiming to work miracles and promising an earthly paradise in the offing. One commonobject of veneration, surprisingly, was none other than the king of Spain. The Indians may have despised Spaniards in general, but they revered the distant king, a figure no less abstract or perennially popular than God himself. When the conspirators of 1810 planned their revolution, they decided to rally the people not to revolution, but rather in defense of the king—"The Indians," explained one of the movement’s leaders, "are indifferent to the word liberty."1 During the rebellion rumors ran among the Indians that the Spanish king was in Mexico, that he wore a silver mask, or rode in a black coach, or was invisible, or was in many places at once.
The Spanish regime’s failure to integrate the Indians into their world was ultimately unfortunate, but entirely deliberate.The early missionaries were convinced that the Indians were perpetual children in need of extraordinary protection and guidance lest they die out or succumb to the corrupting influences of white society, and they worked tirelessly to sway the Spanish king to their belief. The sage advice of Mexico’s first viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza—"Treat the Indians like any other people, and do not make special rules and regulations for them"2mdash;accordingly went unheeded. The society that the friars helped bring into existence was formally segregated into two orders, or "republics": the republic of Spaniards and the republic of Indians. The republic of Indians consisted of villages, many of them created by the missionariesto provide refuge from the ravages of plagues. Those newly created villages were designed to facilitate supervision and conversion, with priests acting as father figures and crucial intermediaries between Indian and white societies.
Starting in the 1530s, the crown of Spain decreed that Indians should have permanent and inalienable possession of croplands, pasturelands, and woodlands, which they were to use mostly to provide for their own needs; they also were exempted from some Spanish laws and taxes, and were granted more lenient treatment by the courts on the grounds that, as irrational creatures, they could not be expected to understand and obey the conventions of polite society. Indians were not to dress in European clothing, ride horses, or bear arms. Apart from priestly supervision and white demands for labor, the Indian village was largely self-governing, with traditional native authorities overseeing the distribution of land and water and defendingvillage interests in law courts set up specifically to hear Indian complaints. Indians were required to pay tribute, a burden from which whitesmdash;who became the de facto nobility of the New World—were exempt. The system was intended to perpetuate inequality, in accordance with the Spanish conviction that God designed human society along hierarchical lines. Whites, in this conception, were gente de casta limpia, people of pure lineage; Indians were gente sin razón, people incapable of reason; and blacks, who were brought in increasing numbers to the colonies to labor in mines, plantations, and workshops, were in-fames por derecho, legally debased.
This neat separation of the races was soon rendered little more than an ideal, or a fantasy of social engineering. The pristine system imagined by the missionaries could not withstand the trend toward race mixing that began early in the colonial period, when European women were scarce and white men saw Indian women as, by definition, sexually available. The mixing ofthe races—Indian, African, and European—continued throughout the colonial period and beyond. By the late 1700s,nearly a quarter of the population of the viceroyalty of New Spain consisted of "castes," or people of mixed race, whose legal and social status was maddeningly ambiguous. In the official conception of things, the castes were simply not supposed to exist, so it is not altogether surprising that policy toward them was incoherent. At times they were barred from public office, the clergy, and the honorable trades, while at other times they were admitted; some were required to pay tribute, but others were not. Most became artisans or laborers, but some aspired to high status. Late in the colonial period, a fortunate few were able to purchase certificates declaring them white for most legal purposes. Ambiguous though their condition was, they were the most dynamic and fastest-growing segment of an increasingly complex, multiracial, multicultural society.During the eighteenth century, whites, jealous of their "purity" and the privileges it entailed, took to devising a new andbizarre taxonomy of races in hopes of preserving a rigid, if complicated, racial hierarchy. Some such taxonomies claimed torecognize as many as twenty distinct, identifiable "races." One’s status declined as one moved further from the ideal of "pure" whiteness.
Indians and castes did not necessarily inhabit the same world, and they did not necessarily get along well with one another; but they tended to share a deep and abiding resentment of the whites who discriminated against them. They resented Spaniards in particular.
Creoles and Spaniards
The Indians and castes were not alone in resenting Spaniards. White society was itself divided between those who had been born in Spain ( peninsulares or, less politely, gachupines) and those who had been born in America (criollos, or creoles). Although that division was often smoothed over by intersecting interests, it could also be deep and bitter. The division was not necessarily a matter of simple bigotry: the notion of "hierarchies and classes" was an essential ingredient of the worldview that underlay Spain and its empire, a set of cherished ideas that, in the era of independence, would clash violently with the radical notion that all men are created equal. Hierarchies and classes, in the words of an official statement made in 1806 by the Council of the Indies—the supreme governing organ for the Spanish American colonies—were "of the greatest importance to the existence and stability of a monarchical state, since a graduated system of dependence and subordination sustains and insures the obedience and respect of the last vassal to the authority of the sovereign." Such a system was especially necessary in America because it was far from Spain, and filled with people of "vicious origin and nature, [who were] not comparable to the commoners of Spain and constitute a very inferior species."3
Creoles, who considered themselves a kind of New World nobility, chafed at being dumped into a category with their dark-complexioned countrymen. Spaniards discriminated against creoles from the beginning of the colony, resenting their pretensionsto equality, and seeing them as inherently dim-witted, lazy, unreliable, and obnoxious. The upper ranks of the bureaucracy and clergy were closed to them, even though some creole families gained considerable wealth and, at least in the eyes of creole society itself, status. The wealthiest creoles, many claiming descent from conquistadors and encomenderos, held impressive titles of nobility and vast entailed estates, and they married into the most exalted Spanish families. Roughly fifty such families lived in Mexico by the late eighteenth century. Beneath them were creole merchants, lawyers, priests, craftsmen, farmers, and ranchers, all of them demanding respectability within the colonial system. But the Spanish government did its best to limit the creoles’ opportunities and to rig the system against them. During the sixteenth century, the best creoles could do politically was to dominate the cabildos, or town councils, but they managed to use these lowly positions to maximize their own advantages, often in defiance of royal commands. It was during this time that creoles developed their resentment toward Spaniards. Thomas Gage, an English monk who traveled to Mexico in the early seventeenth century, wrote of creoles "who do hate the Spanish government, and all such as come from Spain; and reason they have for it, for by themthey are much oppressed, and are always watching any opportunity to free themselves from the Spanish yoke."4
Despite the tensions between them, there was one area where creoles and Spaniards were able to agree: they both lived in mortal fear of the Indians and castes, and believed that Spain’s conservative traditions—respect for hierarchy and authority, strict adherence to orthodox religion, a king with unhindered and unquestioned power—must be maintained if themasses were to be kept under control. During what whites—creole and Spaniard alike—thought of as normal times, the traits that they esteemed most highly in the masses were docility, obsequiousness, and deference, though they seem to have understood, perhaps at some submerged level, that the mood of the masses could quickly turn ugly, and that the whites might well become victims of centuries of repressed anger. In normal times, whites—Spaniards and creoles together—enjoyed a near monopoly on weapons, riches, prestige, and power, but they were at the apex of a squat pyramid, surroundedby bitterly oppressed people who inhabited a world they did not understand. In the words of one historian, in Mexico "therewere Indians, castes, nobles, soldiers, priests, merchants and lawyers, but there were no citizens."5
A Golden Age of Sorts: The Seventeenth Century
During the 1600s, the creoles experienced an agreeable reprieve from the elaborate pecking order upon which the imperial system was theoretically based. In theory, the power of the monarchy was absolute, the king sitting near the apex—together with the pope, but one remove from God himself—of a pyramid, his royal wishes passed down along a smooth chain of command involving royal councilors and colonial officials and ultimately shaping the lives of the humblest of the king’s subjects. But even during the heyday of the empire, the mechanisms of royal control were far from perfect. As one viceroy put it, "God is on high, the king in Madrid, and I am in Mexico." In practice, governing the American colonies was always a complexand often corrupt process of negotiation, compromise, and accommodation. The real business of the colonies got done not through well-oiled bureaucratic machinery, but in backroom deals and bribes, disputes and agreements among interest groups, claims and counterclaims among the functionaries of overlapping jurisdictions, and favors granted to cronies and kinsmen. Laws, it seemed, were made to be ignored or evaded—obeyed only as a last resort. It was, in the words of one historian, "a workable compromise between what the central authorities ideally wanted and what local conditions and pressures would realistically tolerate."6
The extent of effective royal control grew more attenuated with time. That had much to do with the colony’s principal reason for existence, at least as far as the crown of Spain was concerned. During the 1540s, rich veins of silver were discovered in the provinces of Zacatecas and Guanajuato, several hundred miles north of Mexico City. From that point onward, the obsessive focus of the Spanish government was on getting silver out of American ground and into Spanish coffers, while losing as little as possible along the way. To that end, the Spanish regime devised an oppressively rigid system of trade, only tosquander much of its windfall defending the Catholic Church during the religious wars over the next century and a half. Meanwhile, Spain’s elites stubbornly adhered to the medieval notions that God was the source of all truth, that science was pernicious, that war was the only fitting occupation for a gentleman, and that productive labor was for rubes. Spain’s rulingclass was, by most measures, the most parasitic, intellectually bankrupt, and resolutely mediocre in Europe, helping to ensure that Spain fell further and further behind the rest of Europe in developing its productive capacities. During the seventeenth century, while England was laying the groundwork for the industrial revolution, Spain seemed to be moving backward. Although Spain jealously guarded its absolute monopoly on trade with its American colonies, it could not begin to supply the sorts of goods that colonists needed, wanted, or demanded. In exchange for American silver, the Spaniards were able to ship a handful of agricultural products—wine and olive oil, raw wool—along with some iron implements and crude textiles. The bulk of what they sent—products that the colonists, a captive market, had to purchase at often scandalously inflated prices—was in fact produced in the countries of northern Europe and reexported from Spain. By 1680, fully two-thirds of Spain’s silver was being sent directly to foreigners to pay for these products, and foreigners exercised nearly complete, albeit indirect, control over Spain’s colonial commerce.
By the mid-1600s, Spain seemed to have entered into a mortal decrepitude. It had been defeated in war; lost portions of itsvast empire to the English, French, and Dutch; had primitive agriculture and little industry, a shaky currency, and a demoralized population ravaged by wars and plagues. Nothing symbolized Spain’s decline more poignantly than the king himself. Charles II, who inherited the throne in 1665, suffered from mental retardation and bone disease, and was so feeble that he had to be breast-fed for his first six years. In later life, he was subject to convulsive seizures that experts reckoned to be the result of demonic possession, the province not of doctors but of exorcists, wizards, and visionary nuns. His sad, elongated face; his jutting lower jaw (a common characteristic of the Spanish Habsburgs, of whom Charles was the last); his oversized tongue, which made it hard for him to speak and caused him to drool; his legendary lethargy and ignorance; and his inability to produce an heir all made him the perfect symbol of the decaying empire.
Spain’s decrepitude was good news for the creoles. It meant that those Spanish fleets that took American silver to Spain and brought overpriced goods to the colonies did not sail regularly, and some years did not sail at all, creating wonderful opportunities for smugglers who sold goods at a fraction of the price charged by the Spanish monopoly merchants. Silver continued to be mined in significant, if declining, quantities, and more and more of that silver stayed in the colony. Creole merchants found it relatively easy to avoid paying many taxes and duties, and to evade the byzantine restrictions Spain placed on its trade. Likewise, Spain’s inability to supply its colonies with necessary goods meant that colonists were able to step into that void, manufacturing substantial quantities of textiles and other goods. Spain, always jealous of its commercial monopoly, had impeded trade among the colonies themselves, but during the seventeenth century colonists were able to develop a lively intercolonial trade in livestock products, sugar, cacao, and textiles. The colonists now found themselves with greater economic opportunity than ever before.
Spain’s decline also brought political benefits. Increasingly desperate for funds, the Spanish government placed one political office after another up for sale. The process began with lowly notarial offices in the mid-1500s, but by the time of Charles II creoles were buying their way into practically every office in the colony. While creoles generally found themselves outbid for the middling but highly profitable position of alcalde mayor—a local official who was able to enrich himself from his near monopoly on financial dealings with Indian villages—they were eventually able to dominate the powerful audiencias, high-level governing bodies whose authority in the colonies was second only to that of the viceroy. By 1770, creoles held six of the eight judgeships on the Mexico City audiencia. Creoles also happily purchased whatever the Spanish regime was willing to sell: titles of nobility, certificates legitimizing patently illegal land titles, extensions of encomienda grants, pardons for crimes, legitimacy for illegitimate children, the right to contract forbidden marriages, and bonds to prop up the government. Such transactions were ultimately damaging to the royal treasury—many of the political offices that were sold carried salaries that continued to be paid long after the purchase price had been redeemed—and they further weakened Spain’s grip on its faraway colonies and convinced the colonists that they had the right and the ability to govern themselves. They also led to an unfortunate conviction that political influence and social status were commodities to be bought and sold.
The 1600s saw a few welcome developments for the lower ranks of Mexican society as well, though their lives remained hard. The terrible decrease in the Indian population in the decades after the conquest, tragic though it was, reduced competitionfor land and water and other resources, allowing Indian communities to live relatively unmolested, and their dwindling numbers gave them some real power. The encomiendas and forced labor drafts disappeared in most areas by the first quarter of the seventeenth century. In place of coercion, some landowners and mine operators found themselves obliged to offer relatively high wages and other perks to attract workers. Indians generally needed cash to make their tribute payments, so many gravitated toward the larger Spanish cities and mines, and to the farms that surrounded them, receiving cash, credit, and land in exchange for their labor. Mine workers were allowed to keep quantities of silver ore known as partidos. The Spanish and Indian races remained, of course, profoundly unequal. But the Indians’ increased bargaining power and the steady increase in the mixed-race population tended gradually to soften the lines between the all-powerful and the utterly powerless.
Some modest blurring of Indian and creole identities occurred as some Mexicans, eager to differentiate themselves from Spaniards and to claim a proud lineage, took to celebrating the glories of the Aztec empire, so cruelly destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors. Some, such as the mestizo historian Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl and the creole intellectual Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, elaborated theories that freed them, symbolically at least, from Spanish tutelage. Loath to credit the Spaniards with transmitting the true faith to the New World—the one great gift that none could possibly gainsay—Ixtlilxochitl and Sigüenza insisted that St. Thomas the Apostle had in fact traveled throughout the Americaspreaching the gospel. In Mexico, according to one theory, he had gone by the name of Quetzalcoatl, a Mesoamerican deity generally associated with wisdom and benevolence. Over time, in this view, the Indians had drifted from the faith, but the Spaniards could at best take credit only for reminding the Indians of what, at some submerged level, they already knew, ratherthan for pointing them in a new direction entirely. Mexicans who believed such fantasies were reassured that the Spaniards had in fact given them nothing but centuries of oppression, and that the true natives of their land were not unworthy.
Rich or poor, Indian or creole, Mexicans of every race and class enjoyed the taste of independence, dignity, and self-rule they got during the seventeenth century, and they were therefore all the more disgruntled when the Spaniards began systematically to revive and perfect the despotism of the empire. Their resentments would eventually lead to the chaotic and bloodyrevolution for independence.
Excerpted from The Mexican Wars For Independence by Timothy J. Anderson.
Copyright © 2009 by Timothy J. Anderson.
Published in 2009 by Hill and Wang A division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.