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Chapter 4: How Contact Changed the New World

For the New World, contact with Europe meant the conquest of the Mexica capital of Tenochtitlan by Hernán Cortés and the fall of the Inca empire to Francisco Pizarro. It also meant the deaths of millions from diseases to which they had no immunity. Yet despite these calamities, New World culture did not disappear and indigenous Americans remained as powerful a force as the Spanish in shaping the culture of the Americas.

Learn how indigenous cultures survived after the Spanish conquest.

Answering the Queen's Call

In response to Queen Isabella's call to convert the peoples of the Americas, waves of Catholic missionaries flooded the New World, only to find that the people living there already had their own deeply held beliefs. As a result, the New World cultures gradually blended their native beliefs and Catholicism to create new spiritual traditions, images, and symbols.

One example involves the now-legendary experience of Juan Diego, an early Indian convert to Catholicism. According to tradition, in the winter of 1531, Diego heard a woman's voice calling him from a hillside overlooking Mexico City. The woman had a serene countenance and was outlined by a luminescent glow. She also had native features, spoke Nahuatl, the pre-Columbian language of the Mexica, and looked very much the way the Mexica depicted Tonantzin, their revered fertility goddess. She told Diego that she was Mary, the mother of Jesus.

The woman that Diego encountered in the form of an indigenous goddess came to be called "Our Lady of Guadalupe," the most important Catholic icon in the Americas. As the centuries passed, this story served as a kind of creation story for the Catholic Church in Mexico. But it is also a quintessentially Mestizo story, in which Catholic and native spiritual traditions became so thoroughly fused that it is difficult to tell one where one begins and the other ends.

The appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Tepeyac, this is something of great importance. It reveals that she existed, and, most important, among indigenous Mexicans. Think about it. Why did she appear to an Indian? Why didn't she appear to a member of a religious order? Why did she appear to an Indian? That is something wonderful. - Enrique Fernández

The Sistema de Castas

The Spanish tried to impose not only their religion, but also their bodies on the peoples of the New World. Sexual violence against native women by Spanish men was common during the conquest and, when the fighting was over, the almost total absence of Spanish women in America led some conquistadors to seek unions with native noblewomen.

At first, there was no clear way to identify children born of these unions to a Spanish and a native parent. Then the word "Mestizos," which is Spanish for "mixed," came into use.

As late as 1570, there were only 25,000 Spanish households in the entire New World, facing a vastly greater native population that threatened to demographically swallow them whole. To preserve their wealth, power, and identity, the Spanish took a page from the way they had treated Muslims and Jews in Spain and created a caste-like system in the Americas.

Discover how Spain promoted unions with indigenous people to create their empire.

The "Sistema de Castas" was a complex system of ethnic classification that placed pure blooded Spaniards from Spain in the top group. Below them were the creoles, those of Spanish ancestry born in the New World, and "Castizos," who had one Mestizo parent and one Spanish parent and were three quarters Spanish. Then came the "Mestizos," who were fifty percent Spanish.

So what did these terms mean? Well, it could determine whether you could be a priest, whether you could enter the university, whether you could enter religious guilds, whether you could enter certain religious orders, whether you could become a nun. In other words, the terms had actual social consequences and, taken as a whole, they were meant to create this hierarchical society based on ancestry, based on blood. - María Elena Martínez

African Branch of the Family Tree

The "Sistema de Castas" also had to account for a group of people whose ancestors came from an entirely different branch of the Mestizo family tree: the Africans. Not long after the Spanish arrived in the New World, they began bringing African slaves with them to work in the ports and the mines.

Free blacks from North Africa participated alongside the Spanish in the conquest of the Americas, some as conquistadors themselves, and Africans made vital contributions in every sphere of life in the New World. But as the Spanish imported more slaves, they began associating all people of African ancestry with slavery. Thus, the Africans, together with the so-called "barbaric" or uncivilized Indians, were placed at the bottom of the social system.

But Africans, too, began having children with Spaniards and Castizos, Mestizos, and indigenous Americans. This mixing eventually made it impossible to keep track of who was who and ultimately doomed the Sistema de Castas.

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