Social Integration and Structural Change in Colonial New Spain

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With the conquest of Mexico and the establishment of colonial New Spain came widespread change. The conquistadors, the newly established Spanish government, and the Church flipped the social order upside-down and established new structures in every aspect of the natives' lives. Those who, in the old order, were wealthy and well-respected struggled to survive while the lower class fell even farther. Under the new system people of all classes and ranks—whether well-respected, royal, or poor—had to find a way to survive. The newly implemented social and economic structures in New Spain forced people of varying previous social status to make major adjustments in order to integrate as a means of survival.

One important example of social integration in New Spain is well illustrated in Donald Chipman's article "Isabel Moctezuma: Pioneer of Mestizaje." The daughter of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma, Isabel was the princess of an empire. She was destined for greatness within the old order, but with the conquest and the fall of the Aztec Empire came changes within the social structure and Isabel would survive through means she would have in nowise applied in her past life—compliance to the new Spanish regime and falling subject to several Spanish men who would have otherwise been socially inferior. Through her relationships with men of the Spanish conquest Isabel became "a symbol of great legal and sociological importance to the Hispanization and Christianization of Mexico" (Chipman 217). As the wife of prominent men Isabel would be a model of the Hispanicized Indian woman. It was this image that women across New Spain were expected to emulate. As Chipman says, it was this image and the principles on which it was founded that would "provide a solid matrix for a new society" (219). Isabel was an intelligent woman of status and she did not abandon her old life without just cause and apt reward. With the conquest came new and important legal principles established by the crown that meant "that Spanish law took precedence over any natural rights of Indian inheritance" (Chipman 218). Isabel realized that without integrating into this new and foreign social order she would lose everything that she was entitled to under the old order. Surely, a princess such as herself would be entitled to not only unfathomable social status, but riches beyond compare. However, the conquistadors took these rights away from her and had she not integrated into their order through her marriages to prominent conquistadors she may not even have gained what small encomienda she did. She became an example "of a devout Catholic and Hispanicized woman who had bridged the worlds of Spaniard and Indian" (Chipman 222). Her conversion was a symbol of great importance to Indians across Mexico. It may not necessarily have been Cortes's original intention to make her a tool of social propaganda—a symbol of success through integration and assimilation—but that is what she became. Had it not been for Isabel's decision "to link her destiny with that of the Spanish conquerors who had destroyed her nation and to contribute to the establishment of a new society on Mexican soil" (Chipman 225) she probably would not have had the great success she did after the conquest. She certainly would have become just another fatality mentioned briefly if at all in historical text. Rather she has become a symbol of success and survival through her individual assimilation.

It is extremely important to examine how the conquest and the structural changes implemented in colonial New Spain affected not only the wealthy, but the common people, the lower class. This objective is well undertaken in Solange Alberro's article "Juan de Morga and Gertrudis de Escobar: Rebellious Slaves." Alberro accurately assess that "blacks and mulattoes generally held Indians and mestizos in low regard" (168). Because this was the social order of the era and region Juan was disrespectful to...
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