“The Great Indian Migration: Transferring Culture, Religion and Technology in New Spain”
Rosalba Delgadillo Torres
National Institute of Anthropology and History
In 1521, the Spaniards, led by Hernan Cortes, a Spanish explorer, conquered the Aztecas and claimed the land for Spain. The Aztecas, also known as the Mexicas, are the people from where Mexico gets its name. They, along with six other tribes, spoke Nahuatl and came from a mythical place called Aztlan or Chicomoztoc. A place believed to have existed somewhere in northwest Mexico and New Mexico. The Mexicas came from a large group of Teo-Chichimecas, who at the time worshipped one god. They traveled south and settled in the Anahuac valley on an island on Lake Texcoco. Here they constructed the beautiful city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan which today is the present day Mexico City, and created the great Mexica Empire. The Tlaxcaltecas came from the same group of people. They settled east of the Anahuac valley in the Puebla – Tlaxcala valley. The Mexicas became very powerful and conquered almost all of the surrounding tribes, one of the few exceptions were the Tlaxcaltecas, who were their neighbors. For various reasons the Mexicas, did not conquer the Tlaxcaltecas. They remained very fierce enemies. This hurt the Mexicas because the Tlaxcaltecas sided with Cortez. In 1519, after three battles with the Spaniards, the Tlaxcaltecas united with them and helped them conquer the Mexicas. The Tlaxcaltecas helped them form the New Spain. Soon after the Spaniards conquered the Mexicas, they found silver north of Mexico City in the present state of Zacatecas and San Luis Potosi. This encouraged the expansion of the Spanish conquest into northern Mexico and southern United States, known as the great Chichimeca. The Spaniards needed a safe route for the transportation of silver from the mines to Mexico City. This route came to be known as “El Camino de la Plata”, or “the silver road.” This road was later expanded north reaching present day Santa Fe, New Mexico and later known as “El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro” or “The Royal Road of the Interior Land.” The indigenes people that lived in the Great Chichimeca were the Chichimecas, who were hunter-gatherers. The Spaniards registered more than 100 groups.
The Spaniards could not defeat the Chichimecas so they brought other native people from central Mexico to help pacify them. Among some of the people they brought were the Tlaxcaltecas, their allies. Between the 6th and 9th of June 1591, a group of about 1000 people, consisting of 400 families, left Tlaxcala to help the Spaniards with the pacification of the Chichimecas. The Tlaxcaltecas settled in those areas taking advantage of their privileges. Some advantages that the Tlaxcaltecas had over the other natives were the “Capitulations”. They negotiated with the king of Spain for these capitulations which gave the Tlaxcaltecas, which traveled north into the New Spain, certain rights. Among them were that they were considered noblemen, they could ride horses, they could carry guns, and they could own land. By this time, around 1591, the Franciscans, along with other Spaniards, had taught the Tlaxcaltecas Christianity, taught them skills and trades brought from Europe, and of course the Tlaxcaltecas had their own skills and trades learned from their ancestors.
Along with the soldiers, the sailors, and the merchants that came from Europe, the priests came to catechize. The Franciscans were the first to arrive in Mexico in 1522, the Dominicans in 1526 and later the Augustans’ in 1535, the Jesuits in 1572 and the Carmelites in 1585. They all contributed to the evangelization of the native people in Mexico. As well, they contributed to the well-being of the people. Cortez had two Franciscans when he arrived in 1519, who were the first to baptize in prehispanic México. In 1524, twelve Franciscans, imitating the twelve apostles of Jesus, arrived in Mexico to evangelize Mexico City, Tlaxcala, Tezcoco and Huexotzinco. In 1527, Franciscans arrived in Florida with Panfilo de Narvaez. But the start of the missions began in 1565 in the regions of present day Georgia and Florida, where they Christianized a lot of native people. They got to New Mexico in 1539 and later went into Arizona where they worked with the Apaches. About 1690, the first Franciscan missionaries were sent from Queretaro, in Mexico to work the areas in the Rio Grande River and around San Antonio, in Texas.
The Franciscan monks contributed to New Spain, to the indigenes people by doing missionary work; educating the native people in Christian catechism and doctrine. Some of them learned the native languages, like Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Mexicas. The Franciscans created the School of San Jose de los Naturales in Mexico City, the first school set up by the Europeans in the Americas. They also built hospitals to treat some of the endemic diseases.
The work of the Catholic Church was not simply evangelization, the priests, monks worked closely with the natives although they were exploited because according to some Spaniards the natives were not rational beings. But the friars bravely claimed that the indigenes people were worthy of respect. The Bishop from Tlaxcala obtained from the pope in 1537, the “Sublimis Deus” which brought recognition to the native people. The preoccupation for the good of the people was not only spiritual, but also material. The monks helped bring drinking water, made aqueducts, and created canals. Many of the religious people died in their quest to Christianize some of the more difficult tribes that lived in the northern part of Mexico and southern part of the United States. Many missions were built in these areas.
The Tlaxcaltecas took with them their traditional fiestas. They traveled with the recently adopted catholic devotions and transferred the images of San Esteban, Saint Michael the Archangel, San Francis, San Antonio and Our Lady of Assumption, among others, putting the names of their patron saints to the towns and villages. As well, to take advantage of the acceptance of the catechization of the natives, the monks used music, song, theatre and dance, activities that were realized within the liturgical calendar. The native people had their own dances prior to the Spanish conquest and what the monks did was to incorporate the catholic doctrine into the dances. They used such dances as “Los Matachines” which represents the rivalry between Catholics and pagans in which the catholics win. The other dance, “Moors and Christians”, accomplishes the same thing. They also celebrated the Christmas fiestas. These dances still continue especially during the 12 of December and the 3rd of May. These dances take place in Texas, New Mexico, and Nevada as well as many areas in Northern Mexico.
The Tlaxcaltecas, a group of catechized farmers and capacitated in different skills and trades were taken north by the conquerors, readapting them to the geographic conditions and climate of the territory they went to populate. Some of the skills and trades they practiced were these:
The native people had their own construction techniques. They had been building pyramids for thousands of years. They used rock and adobe for construction, and eggs and cactus as an adhesive. They utilized organic products, such as corn stalks, organ cactus, sticks, and agave. They used them to make roofs, walls, and borders. They constructed canals and dams using rocks and dirt. From the Spaniards, they learned the use of the arch, the use of the dome or vault, the use of bricks, flat roofs and the use of cement.
This activity brought the utilization of the tools, like the plow. The crops were mainly the corn, bean, ayocote, squash, chayote, chilacayote, aguacate, tomato, a variety of hot peppers and agave for pulque, among a lot of other things, all of which depended on the climate and local terrain.
The Spaniards brought livestock from Europe and taught the natives how to utilize them. The Tlaxcaltecas, having gained the capitulations, owned livestock and used them to plow and grow crops. They had use of the meat, milk, and leather. They also had the use of pork and mutton.
The horse had a great impact on the indigenous culture. They used the horses for travel, hunting, carrying their goods and for their wars. The first horses used by natives were the ones that got away from the Spaniards. The Tlaxcaltecas that went north were unique in that they were the only native people who had been given the right to use them.
Also, they brought chickens, ducks, and geese. They used the meat, eggs and feathers. And of course, they used the local birds, such as quail, doves and turkeys.
Basket weaving was prehispanic and a necessary activity to help store and transport seeds, and to carry processed foods. They made baskets of different sizes. They wove petates to sleep on and bury their dead. These woven objects were made of cattails, roots, cane, and sticks.
With the harvesting of grains, it was necessary to grind them to make flour and tortillas. They used prehispanic objects like the metate and molcajete to grind their seeds.
They made pots, pans, grills, and spoons, among others for cooking and storage of grains and seeds. They took their traditions with them.
The native people living in Mesoamerica were weaving cotton, fiber from the agave plant, rabbit fur, and feathers from tropical birds. The women were the weavers and the Spaniards found their work very beautiful. They wove clothes and blankets.
The Spaniards brought other fibers and techniques that were learned from the Franciscans. They brought wool, silk, and linen and taught the native people how to weave with the Spanish loom. With the Spanish loom, they were able to weave larger objects, such as blankets, curtains, and carpets, among other things.
The Tlaxcaltecas were very good woodworkers. They constructed many utensils of wood. They also constructed drums from wood which they still play during fiestas. This benefited the Spaniards when they had the church alters decorated with wood-carved relief and decorated with gold.
When the Spaniards arrived, the Mexicas Empire was at the height of success. They had a very complex religion and an army very well organized with a hierarchal structure. Their city, built on a lake, had a very well structured society.
In the final part of the 16th century, the people that inhabited the lands of northern México and the southwestern United States, the Chichimecas, had their culture. The conquerors arrived; in 1540, they found silver and gold and built forts and missions, improved roads and mined the minerals. And the Mesoamerican’s served as a means for the conquerors to introduce their religion, culture, and technology into the New Spain.
The Franciscans were very instrumental in the catechization, the teaching of reading, writing, and trade skills. They also taught arts, dances, songs, musical instruments, and theater for the indigenes. They also participated and supervised the construction of churches, buildings, bridges and canals. They also built the first schools to educate the native people and hospitals to help in the treatment of diseases.
However, the conquerors couldn’t appease the Chichimecas that lived north of Mesoamerica, so they brought pacified people to help suppress them. Among these people were the Tlaxcaltecas whom had won certain rights, the capitulations, from the king of Spain. The rights won by the Tlaxcaltecas gave them powers almost equal to the Spaniards. They used these powers to possess land, own livestock, and use weapons. These made it possible to gradually change the inhabitants from a hunter-gatherer nomadic people to an agriculture one.
The natives that were used by the Spaniards were instrumental in the mining of minerals, construction of buildings, bridges, roads, and starting agriculture. They brought to the Great Chichimeca things learned from their ancestors as well as skills and trades learned from the Spaniards. They brought their own way of cooking food, they used different construction techniques, and began the use of agriculture; they brought livestock and learned to use them to work the fields; and used them as food and learned to use their by-products. They brought a different kind of basket weaving, the use of stone utensils, the making and use of ceramic dishes and the use of textiles.
During the three hundred years of the Spanish conquest, the Tlaxcaltecas enjoyed more rights and privileges than the other native people, but actually, they very often had to remind the conquerors about their privileges because they fell to honor many of them.
Finally, the culture that arrives at the Great Chichimeca was a mixed culture; a culture mixed by Mesoamerica and Europe.