Gregory Rodriguez in his book, Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds, Vintage Books (New York) 2008, examines the complexities of Mexican-American heritage as it relates to the cultural and political future of the United States. Much of the information provided in the following pages reflects the results of his research and analysis.
Although it is beyond the scope of this course to examine in detail the Spanish conquest of the New World, it is important to realize that whereas the Spanish conquered, killed, and enslaved many indigenous people in the New World, they also sometimes intermarried (and cohabited) with Native American women, thereby producing racially-mixed children. Western European immigrants on the other hand, while perhaps initially a little less brutal, were also far less inclined to produce children with native people. In part, this is because Western European immigrants, such as the Pilgrims in 1620, came to North American as family units. They intended to put down roots, start farms, and build communities. Therefore, husbands, wives, and children all emerged from the boats as families. Conversely, the Spanish came to the New World in search of riches for the Spanish Crown. Most served as soldiers or worked to convert the Indians to Christianity. In any case, they normally did not bring along female companions from Spain. Therefore, whereas they were not particularly interested in building their own farms and new communities, they were interested in procreating, and therefore interacted with the indigenous women.
When Hernan Cortez (with about five hundred men) sailed from Cuba to Mexico in 1519, he was commissioned to explore and conquer new territories. He landed at Cozumel on Mexico’s eastern coast and was greeted by friendly Mayan people. The Mayans told Cortez that several years earlier, two Christians had been captured in Yucatan. Cortez sent some of his soldiers to look for these men, and they soon found them living very different lives. Both men had initially become slaves in a Mayan community. One of them remained a slave, refusing to mingle with the local people. The other, however, adopted Mayan ways, married the daughter of the village chief, and became an important leader in his own right. The soldiers returned with the one man, but could not convince the other to leave his Mayan wife and children to once again become part of New Spain. Cortez was amazed by this because, like most of his fellow Spaniards, he could not imagine why anyone would choose to live the life of a pagan.
The Governor who sent Cortez on his mission posted orders that prohibited blasphemy, playing cards, and sleeping with native women. Nevertheless, from the outset, Cortez and his men had intimate relations with indigenous women. In fact, tribal leaders sometimes gave women to them as peace offerings. Before the women were distributed among the higher ranking officers, a priest baptized them, making them the first females in New Spain to become Christians (whether they were actually aware of it or not). Some of them became fluent in Spanish and served as translators for Cortez and his men. One in particular (Marina) came to be known as the voice of Cortez. Eventually, she bore Cortez’ son, who was made a Knight of the Order of Santiago (a prestigious Spanish military order).
Of course, not all contact between Spanish men and indigenous women was romantic. In some cases, the men simply took the women they wanted. Nevertheless, many native women also joined with Spanish men by choice. In any case, the women traveled with their men, tended to them, and bore their children (and this was probably more significant than all the other impacts of Spain on the New World).
After Cortez conquered the Aztec, the numbers of marriages between Indian women and Spanish men continued to grow. Additionally, many Spaniards took native women as concubines. The Spanish crown soon found it necessary to deal with interracial marriage in New Spain. At one point, the crown even encouraged such marriages so as to make sure there would be increasing numbers of Christians in the New World. At the same time, the King sought to close the brothels so as to encourage Spanish men to take Christian, Indian wives.
Over the course of many years, unions (both formal and informal) between Spanish men and indigenous women created a growing racially-mixed population. Initially, Mestizos (people of mixed-racial origins) did not form a new community that was separate from the Indian and Spanish societies. Despite their mixed blood, they lived either as Indians or as Spaniards. Those born within wedlock, or who were adopted by their fathers, were absorbed into the first generation of Criollos (Spanish born in the New World). Moreover, these Mestizos were often raised as Spanish gentlemen and ladies. The Crown liked this idea because it greatly increased Spanish influence in Mexico.
The majority of Mestizo children, however, were not raised as Spanish aristocrats. Instead, they were most often the products of casual unions and were generally rejected by Spaniards and Indians alike. In fact, the term “Mestizo” initially carried with it a derogatory meaning. Eventually, however, Mestizos were recognized as a distinct group, although major distinctions remained between those born in wedlock and those who were not. In any case, Mestizos came to be thought of as a separate group; neither Spanish nor Indian. At about this same time, African slaves began to arrive in New Spain. The Crown imported slaves in order to shift the burden of slavery from the backs of indigenous groups.
Slaves in Mexico were given the worst tasks, and they were initially prohibited from having sexual relations with people of other races. Despite this, however, African men often took Indian women as mates, and their offspring were born as free men and women. Conversely, when both parents were slaves, the children were born into slavery.
The growing number of “Black” children in New Spain worried the Spanish authorities. They saw a potential for Mestizos and Africans to unite against the Crown. So rapid was the growth of the mixed population, that in only a generation, the number of Zambos (people of mixed Black and Indian ancestry) and Mulattoes (people of mixed Black and European ancestry) outnumbered Africans in New Spain. Moreover, despite efforts to contain it, the mixing of the races in Mexico has continued from the days of Cortez to the present.
After 1550, Spanish leaders attempted to prevent Indians from interacting with Mestizos and with Spaniards. In 1578, the Spanish crown issued a royal decree forbidding Mestizos, Mulattoes, and Africans from living among the Indians. Soon after this, the Spanish colonials imposed an inflexible system designed to keep the races apart. This, however, was mostly ignored by the people of Mexico who had been mixing for almost a century.
Shortly after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, an Indian convert to Christianity claimed to have witnessed a miraculous vision of a “Brown Virgin.” Soon thereafter, a shrine to this Virgin (of Guadalupe) was erected near Tepeyac (about four miles north of Mexico City) on land that had once been the site of the Aztec temple of Tonantzin (the Aztec mother of the gods). By 1622, when a new shrine was constructed, the Virgin of Guadalupe was well-known for her healing powers. Soon shrines were built in her honor all over the Valley of Mexico. Eventually, Guadalupe became the protective spirit of the Indians in Mexico. This cult of Guadalupe was the result of the indigenous practice of fusing their traditional beliefs with Christianity. Moreover, the Virgin of Guadalupe was eventually adopted by almost all Christians in Mexico, and she became a symbol of New Spain’s independent identity from Spain. Thus, Criollos (Spanish people born in the New World) began to identify more closely with their place of birth than with Spain, and by embracing the “Brown Virgin,” they were putting down roots. Eventually, the Virgin of Guadalupe was declared the patron-saint of New Spain.
Although the majority of Mexico’s population is of mixed blood (primarily Indian and European), indigenous people and indigenous cultures remain even today. The Yaqui, for example, have maintained their identity despite years of conflict (violent interactions with the Mexican government occurred even as recently as the mid-twentieth century). This is also true of a number of other indigenous groups including the Mayan Indians of Chiapas. Therefore, while people of mixed blood eventually came together to form the dominant culture of Mexico, many native people remained isolated and culturally independent.
In contrast to the United States, there are no Indian reservations in Mexico, although some groups have been granted tracts of land upon which they have been allowed to establish Ejidos (communal farms). For the most part, however, they have been granted no special privileges. Instead, they have come under increasing pressure to assimilate, and they have continued to lose their land.
In the eighteenth century, Mexico was not without a caste system. In fact, there was a large formal list of racial categorizations for people from mixed backgrounds. People who were Spanish and Indian were called Mestizo, a child born of a Mestizo man with a Spanish woman was called a Castizo, and a child born to a Castizo woman and a Spaniard was considered a Spaniard. A union between a Spanish woman and a Negro would beget a Mulatto, while the children of a Spanish father and a Mulatto woman would be called Moriscos. If a Spaniard fathered a child with a Morisco, the child would be called an Albino, and the children of a Spaniard and an Albino would be called, Torna Atras. This cast (casta) system was ambitious and expansive in that it created a name for almost every possible racial combination.
At the mid-point of the seventeenth century, priests in Mexico began to use the most common designations of the (casta) system in their marriage records, and starting in the early years of the eighteenth century, they also specified the race of infants in baptismal books. Moreover, while the Church discouraged interracial marriage, at the same time, it protected freedom of choice in legitimate marriages. Therefore, despite imperial decrees and discouragement, interracial marriage continued in Mexico.
Immediately after the Spanish conquered Mexico, the European elite generally avoided intermarriage, and some brought women from Iberia to the New World to be their wives. They did this because, in sixteenth-century Mexico, office holders were required to be of pure Spanish stock. Therefore, intermarriage with Indian or African women offered few advantages. On the other hand, high-ranking Spaniards and commoners alike did not stop having intimate affairs with non-Spanish women. Thus, interracial mixing tended to occur primarily outside the bounds of matrimony. This was also true of the Spanish lower classes, not because they held the prejudices of the elite, but because throughout the colonial period in Mexico, they generally ignored the institution of marriage altogether. As a result, illegitimacy rates at that time were extremely high throughout Mexico. In the mid-1500s, fifty-eight percent of all children in Guadalajara were born to unmarried parents.