- Historic Sites
The Emergence Of Modern Mexico
April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
After the conquistadors came priests, soldiers, and bureaucrats, and they established ineradicably the Spanish presence in Mexico. Towns were founded with Spanish names, Spanish plazas, and Spanish cathedrals. From these seats of power a small group of native Spaniards and a larger number of créoles governed the numerous Indian and mestizo peasantry. Most of the real power was in the hands of the native Spaniards, or peninsulares , who had nearly exclusive right to the top posts in government, the Church, and business. Of the sixty-one viceroys appointed over the years to act as chief representative of the Spanish crown, only three were créoles. This situation produced a growing tension between créoles and peninsulares, and eventually led to open warfare in the independence movement. The tension was heightened by the conflict between Spanish theory and local practice in the treatment of the Indians, whose welfare and conversion to Christianity were chief concerns of official policy. After the conquest there developed the encomienda system, a kind of de facto slavery by which Indian villages were “entrusted” to powerful créoles. According to laws introduced by the Spanish crown in the early sixteenth century—over the protests of the créoles—the encomiendas were to be gradually abolished; but they did not finally become illegal until the eighteenth century. Even then, they lingered on until after independence in the form of debt peonage. Peninsulares, créoles, and even mestizos shared in the administration of the Church, which had been made virtually a branch of the State shortly before the conquest by special papal concessions to the Spanish crown. Although it often came into conflict with créole landowners when playing its role of defender of the Indian, the Church grew vigorously. Some nine million baptisms were performed in the colony’s first fifteen years, and by the end of the colonial period it owned more than half the real property and capital of the country. Many of the lower clergy enjoyed the affection of the Indian and mestizo peasants, while bishops and archbishops were often feared and disliked as members of the privileged ruling classes. Everything considered, Spain compares not badly with other colonial powers of the day. Europeans visiting Mexico found the Indians no worse off, on the whole, than peasants in Europe. The system of government had certain virtues. The viceroyalty was one of the few posts never sold to the highest bidder, even in the dimmest days of the Spanish crown. Until the end of the eighteenth century viceroys were carefully selected and, with rare exceptions, were highly qualified. On the other hand, many of the lower officials were appointed according to patronage and were frequently incompetent.
“Long live Our Lady of Guadalupe, down with bad government, death to the Spaniards.” These words were shouted to his Indian and mestizo parishioners by the créole priest of the village of Dolores, near Guanajuato, early on a Sunday morning in 1810. Mexicans now celebrate the date, September 16, as their Independence Day. The priest was Father Hidalgo, whose liberal views had led him to join a group of conspiring créoles impatient with Spanish power and privilege. But what he unleashed was a wild popular outburst against all power and privilege. His followers grew into an unruly, untrained army that ravaged central Mexico. On September 28, Hidalgo stood helplessly by at Guanajuato as his mob invaded the Alh’f4ndiga (above), a massive granary, and massacred in hot blood the créoles and peninsulares—men, women, and children—who had hidden there. After ten months of disorderly warfare, Hidalgo was captured and executed, and his movement degenerated into skirmishing and banditry. In 1813 a mestizo parish priest, José Maria Morelos y Pav’f4n, started another independence movement. A better soldier and administrator than Hidalgo, and more systematic in his ideas about social and political reform, he soon gained precarious control of much of central Mexico. He initiated reforms reducing clerical and military privilege, but in 1815 he met the same fate as Hidalgo, and by 1817 the colonial government had suppressed the independence struggle except for sporadic insurrections in two states. After seven years of fighting, Mexico still lacked a Washington to take command.