The Spanish conquest of Mexico 1490's-1740's

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The Spanish conquest of Mexico 1490's-1740's a case study in linguistic imperialism
Axley, Allison P
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vii, 135 leaves : ; 28 cm


Subjects / Keywords:
Spanish language -- History -- Mexico ( lcsh )
Language and languages ( fast )
Spanish language ( fast )
Languages -- Mexico ( lcsh )
Mexico ( fast )
History. ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )
History ( fast )


Includes bibliographical references (leaves 134-135).
General Note:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Statement of Responsibility:
by Allison P. Axley.

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Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
Auraria Library
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
41462334 ( OCLC )
LD1190.L58 1998m .A95 ( lcc )

Full Text
Allison P. Axley
B.S., University of Kansas, 1991
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities

This thesis for the Master of Humanities
Degree by
Allison P. Axley
Has been approved
Kent Casper

Axley, Allison P. (M.H)
The Spanish Conquest of Mexico 1490s-1740s: A Case Study in
Linguistic Imperialism
Thesis directed by Professor Frederick Allen
This thesis accounts the evolution of the Spanish language
in Mexico to its current status as the official language of that nation.
The process of becoming the official language of Mexico was an
arduous one. Though the Spanish were poor imperialists, they were
able to impose the most lasting kind of imperialism of all in Mexico:
linguistic imperialism. However, this only occurred after hundreds
of years of the Spanish Crowns attempts at imperial ruling in the
colony of New Spain. Though the physical conquest of Mexico
may have been swift, the linguistic conquest took over 200 years to
reach completion. Ironically, this is the legacy of Spanish
imperialism in Mexico today: the existence of Spanish,, the language
of Spain, in the nation of modem Mexico. This thesis traces the slow
journey that Spanish took to become the official language of Mexico
beneath the administration of the empire from Spain.
After the physical conquest of Mexico, Spain began the
more lasting and deeply felt cultural conquest. Part of this
domination included the imposition of both the Catholic faith and the
Castilian language onto the Amerindians. The cultural conquest of
New Spain is a complex issue, for in it is entwined the inherent
relationship between faith and language. Conversion and language,
as demonstrated in the evolution of the Spanish language in New
Spain, went hand in hand. The missionaries, the regular clergymen
who became so characteristic of colonial Latin America, became
responsible for the religious education of the Amerindians, and
therefore, linguistic policy inadvertently fell into their hands.
Teaching the faith was their primary goal, and they sought to achieve
it through whatever means necessary. The battle came down to
pragmatism versus principle: the Spanish Crown hoped for the
quick cultural conversion of the Amerindians, while the
missionaries, so far away across the Atlantic Ocean, sought spiritual
conversion through communication in native tongues. Ultimately, it
was this discrepancy between policy and practice that inhibited
Spain from effectively establishing complete imperial authority in
New Spain.

This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates
thesis. I recommend its publication.
Frederick Allen

The Settlers................................ 58
The Eccesiastics..............................63
The emergence of the language
Background to a linguistic
5. LINGUISTIC IMPERIALISM....................... 84
Overview: 1521-1550...........................84
Advertent and Inadvertent Linguistic Policy:
Policy vs. Practice
1550-1728................................... 87
6. LEGACY OF IMPERIALISM.........................114
Cultural Grafting.........................114
Linguistic Grafting.......................117

ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY................. 129


1.1 Example Arabic Loan Words
in Modem Spanish..........................15.
4.1 Example Arawak Loan Words
in Modem Spanish..........................79
4.2 Example Caribe Loan Words
in Modem Spanish..........................80
4.3 Example Nahuatl Loan Words
in Modem Spanish..........................83
5.1 History of Linguistic Policy
in New Spain..............................87
6.1 Example Spanish Words Adapted
by Amerindians in New Spain..............120
6.2 Percentages of Population Speaking
Indian Languages and Spanish,
Indian Languages Exclusively,
and Spanish Exclusively..................125

The Spanish conquest of the New World stands out as one of
historys most brilliant imperial conquests. The conquest itself,
though swift and thorough, would not be complete until almost the
end of Spains imperial rule in the New World. For it was not until
the closing days of the Empire, the latter half of the eighteenth
century, that the one, strongest legacy of the Spanish finally fully
seized New Spain. This one legacy is the language of Spain,
Spanish, and its presence in modem Mexico, and, indeed, the
majority of Central and South America, is the lingering heritage of
Spains once awesome imperial conquest.
Few could have imagined that Spain, a newly unified state that
had appeared quite literally out of nowhere, could have ever
acquired such a vast empire and, consequently, made such a lasting
impression and influence on so many peoples. Today, the Spanish
language boasts more than 200,000,000 speakers in 20 different
countries and is fast becoming the second-most widely spoken
language on the planet1 Such a presence would certainly not have
been achieved if it were not for Spains imperialistic past It is out
of the conquest of the region of Castile that the Spanish language
1 Canfield, Lincoln D. Spanish Pronunciation in the Americas.
(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 1.

spread across the Iberian Peninsula and then across the Atlantic
Ocean into the New World. The widespread use of modem Spanish
must, therefore, be due to the imaginative and heroic past of imperial
Though Spain had achieved political conquest relatively easily,
the most lasting consequence of its presence in the New World was a
more difficult and much slower conquest that took hundreds of years
to finally achieve. The linguistic conquest of Mexico did not occur
until Spain had all but lost the colony of New Spain. By the end of
the eighteenth century, the language of Spain had covertly become
the official language of New Spain. Though it had yet to be
recognized as such, it had inadvertently become the necessary
instrument for success in New Spains society. This last and most
significant conquest of New Spain took over 200 years to achieve,
but to understand how it finally did occur requires a broad
understanding of the history of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
Spain, having just been created through the marriage of
Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castile, was enjoying newfound
strength. The Catholic Kings, as they have been called, sought to
unify the new nation of Spain in every way: politically, religiously,
and culturally. The political unity came both from the union of the
two kingdoms of Aragon and Castile through their marriage in 1469
and the momentum of the Reconquista that was finally complete
with the capture of Granada in 1492. Religiously, the kingdom was
becoming more and more unified and pure through the

commencement of the Inquisition, ordered by the King and Queen
also in 1492. In imposing the Inquisition, The Catholic
Kings...undertook to purify Spanish society and bring Castilian
together in a spirit of Christian unity.2 Lastly, they sought to unite
their new kingdom culturally. In this sense, the King and Queen
attempted to unify and give identify to the new country by
Castihanizing it The Golden Age had begun, and a strong
intellectual spirit had come over Iberia, one that showcased its
creativity and would become the strength of this new state. While
Moorish Spain had flourished in its diversity, the new kingdom of
Castile would have conformity throughout.
Part of the cultural conformity was linguistic. As Castile grew
to be a more powerful kingdom, Castilian become the official
language of the diverse regions brought under the standard of Castile
during the Reconquista.3 Castilian became the official language of
the new united Crown of Castile. Following the southward-moving
path of the Reconquista, Castilian, backed by the political strength of
Castile, established itself as the standard at the cost of other regional
Romance dialects such as Leonese, Aragonese, and Catalan. Its
establishment as the standard was largely due to the cause and
effect between Castiles robust intellectual spirit and the successful
2 Heath, Shirley Brice. Telling Tongues: Language Policy in Mexico
Colony to Nation. (New York: Teachers College Press, Teachers
College, Columbia University, 1972), p. 6.
3 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 5.

domination of its language and culture over that of other parts of the
Iberian Peninsula. 4
After 1492, Castile extended this successful domination of its
language and culture abroad. Castilian imperialism carried its
language and culture across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World
via the Spanish conquistadors, ecclesiastics, and settlers who
colonized Spains empire. The first voyages to the New World put
the Spaniards in contact with the natives of the Caribbean, who were
the first indigenous peoples to introduce the Europeans to the
peculiarities of the New World. They had names for the many
objects that seemed like novelties to the Europeans, which the
conquistadors and settlers quickly adapted into their own
vocabularies. With subsequent voyages, the conquistadors moved
further west into Mexico and south into Latin America. They
encountered groups of indigenous Indian tribes in Mexico united
under the powerful Aztec Empire, an empire that Heman Cortes and
his several hundred soldiers took in bloody conquest in 1519.5
After the physical conquest and domination, the Spanish began
the more deeply felt and longer lasting cultural conquest. Part of the
cultural domination of Mexico included the imposition of both the
Catholic faith and the Castilian language, both of which would come
to replace the natives religion and their languages. The spread of
4 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 7.
5 Elliot, J.H. Imperial Spain, 1469-1716. (New York: Penguin, 1963),
p. 62.

the Spanish language, the forced conversions of the Indians to
Christianity and the imposition of the Spanish law are not mutually
exclusive. Though the Crown vacillated in policy for the first two
hundred years of Spains empire, their underlying hope was that
Spanish culture would be completely transplanted into the empire.
They believed that only educated, Castilian-speaking Christian
natives would be properly fit to be subjects of the Crown of Castile,
so educating the Indians in the culture and religion of Castile was
necessary so that they could better serve the Crown. From the
beginning, the Spanish believed that the indigenous peoples of the
empire were uncivilized and not rational. Such a view led the
Spanish to assume that their European culture was more legitimate
and civilized, by their terms, and made it quite easy for them to
dismiss pre-Columbian civilizations. By this assumption, the
Spanish felt that imposing their European culture upon these
uncivilized peoples was neither unreasonable nor inappropriate.
Peggy Liss noted that .. .with religious instruction came teaching of
obedience to, indeed near veneration of, the Spanish monarchy. 5
The missionaries became responsible for both the linguistic and
religious education of the Amerindians. Throughout the duration of
Spains domination in New Spain, linguistic policy was unclear and
contradictory; the missionaries beliefs on how to best educate the 6
6 Liss, Peggy K. Mexico Under Spain 1521-1556: Society and the
Origins of Nationality. (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1975), p. 123.

natives in the Christian faith was not in agreement with the Crowns
hope to quickly Castilianize the natives in the Castilian culture.
Teaching the faith in the natives own languages was the preference
of the missionaries, despite the Crowns early insistence that
Castilian culture be completely transplanted into New Spain. The
battle came down to pragmatism versus principle; the results of this
battle can be seen in the failure to make lasting coherent linguistic
policy throughout most of the duration of the empire. The
discrepancy between the missionaries practice and the Crowns
policy inhibited Spain from effectively establishing her frill authority
in New Spain.
Though the Spanish could not maintain their physical empire
in Mexico, their cultural impact is still greatly felt today.
Catholicism has mixed with the indigenous faiths of Mexico and has
created a uniquely Mexican version of the Catholic faith. And the
Spanish spoken in Mexico today has many nahuatlisms, or loan
words from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec, in modem Spanish.
These remnants from the ancient Aztec language have permanently
altered the Castilian that was transported to Mexico in the original
conquest. Indeed, the most lasting effect of Spanish imperialism is
the Spanish language that is still spoken in Mexico.

The Spanish conquest of the New World did more than bring a
new people to a new world; it transported with its people an old
world culture that gradually infiltrated the New World. It is
interesting that it was the Spanish, the peoples from the historically
imperialistic Iberian Peninsula, that would now become the
conquerors of a new land and a New World. From the earliest days
of Iberias history, the region had been the point of encounter for
many peoples. The Romans, then the Visogoths, the Moors, and
finally the Jews, among many others, had all been drawn to the
Iberia. The Castilians, the most recent victors of Iberia, had just
dispelled the Moors, who had dominated there since 711, and created
the new nation of Spain. In its youth, this new country had much on
its side: it retained much of the imaginative spirit and innovative
spirit left over from the highly successful Moorish Spain, but it
failed to hold on to the same spirit that had vaulted it to fleeting
The Moors (Africans or Arabians of Moslem persuasion) had
cultivated in Iberia an invigorating world and added to it They grew
a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and highly successful society. Much
7 Eleook, W.D. The Romance Languages. (London: Faber and Faber
Limited, 1960), p. 220; Roberts, J.M. A Concise History of the World.
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 142.

of the success of this world came from the Moors ability to draw
from their highly diverse resources that existed in Iberia. Unlike the
Castilians that would eventually expel diversity, the Moors
flourished because of it, drawing from the intelligence and
resourcefulness of Jews, Hispano-godos (Latin-speaking descendents
of Romans or Visogoths), Berbers, and Arabs alike. The Moors not
only tolerated the diversity that existed in Iberia, they cultivated it,
allowing Jews, Christians, and Arabs to worship freely in
synagogues, cathedrals, and mosques. In contrast, Christian Spain
would not only fail to welcome diversity, it would take great strides
to extinguish it completely. Catholic Spain was isolated, fearful, and
extremely intolerant What resulted was a sense of paranoia that
weakened Spain and ultimately aided in its inability to achieve the
kind of greatness it seemed so destined to during the short days of
imperial Spain. 8
The great diversity of peoples inhabiting Al-Andalus, as
Moorish Spain was called, worshipped their own gods and spoke
their own tongues. Although Al-Andalus was governed by the
Moors, Iberia was not totally controlled by them. Despite the
political domination of a non-romance language speaking people,
Iberia remained a polyglot world in which most Hispano-godos who
remained after the fall of Rome two centuries earlier were not forced
to give up their native language, a developing version of modem
8 Elliot, J.H. Imperial Spain, pp. 66,128.

Spanish.9 The preservation of the Latin-based vernacular was
largely due to a group of Spanish-speaking Christians, known as
Mozarabes, who lived in Iberia during Moorish occupation. Due to
this group, Latin remained the language of business, of the
marketplace, of the home and of the family ; it was used by all men
and was the sole language of informal discourse of the Mozarabes.
Arabic, on the other hand, rose to official status in Iberia and was
the language of administration, literature, and of high-ranking
families of Moorish descent. Indeed, Hispano-godos citizens of
Moorish Spain had no reason to be discontent with the change of
rules (from Visogoth to Arab).. .They constituted the population of
the great towns, and in the country there was plenty of room for both
possessors and invaders. They had their own bishops... and they
were fueled by their own laws and courts, and they enjoyed the use
of their own language.10
For over 700 years, between 711 and 1492, Christians,
Moslems, and Jews cohabited peacefully in Iberia, creating a multi-
cultural experience that was completely unique to Western Europe at
the time. Carlos Fuentes notes in his book, The Buried Mirror, that
while Moors and Christians were, indeed, opposing forces, they
gazed at the other across twilight frontiers, doing battle, but also
mingling, trading culture, blood and passion, knowledge and
9 Entwistle, William J., MA. The Spanish Language, Together With
Portuguese, Catalan, and Basque. (London: Faber and Faber, 1936), p.
10 Entwistle, The Spanish Language, pp. 106, 112, 126.

language. 11 A real blending of culture occurred in Moorish Spain,
which helped this pluralistic culture flourish. This time could be
described as consistently changing, constant give and take between
the many peoples who inhabited Iberia. Moorish Spain used
algebra, the concept of zero, and brought paper, cotton, sugar cane
and the palm tree to Europe. Aware of and open to other cultures
contributions, the Moors were able to assimilate Greek philosophy,
Roman law, and Byzantine art into their world. Unlike the
Castilians who followed them, the Moors did not expel the great
diversity of their culture. On the contrary, they drew on the
resources of the people they dominated.12
What evolved from this wealth of shared ideas was Spanish
Humanism, a distinctively Castilian philosophy bom from the free-
thinking, strong intellectual spirit that had emerged in the later
fifteenth century. Humanists looked to the classics and sought to
revive the intellect from classical Greece and Rome. Such a revival
lay the framework for humanism to shape the way many Europeans
were coming to think about both their world and the past. The
Reniassance gave birth to the new humanistic perspective, which
made the present look better, more advanced, more progressed
than the past, thus making the future seem shapeable, controllable,
something that was not predetermined by destiny but that could be
11 Fuentes, Carlos. The Buried Mirror. Reflections on Spain and the
New World. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992), p. 52.
12 Fuentes, The Buried Mirror, pp. 52-53

shaped and molded by man himself. The new, reclaimed Spain was
bom from humanism, and its power as a new nation was
strengthened from it and the ideas of the Renaissance spirit in Spain
and throughout Europe. Fueled by such empowering philosophy, the
young kingdom of Spain truly felt all was possible. In completing
the 700-year Reconquista, Spain had already achieved the
unachievable. The marriage of the Catholic Kings created a strong
monarchy; this and the fall of Granada to the Castilians in 1492
combined to poise the new kingdom for greatness. In defeating the
Moors and thus completing the Reconquista, Spain was now a
unified kingdom. Evil had been expelled and the Inquisition,
instituted also in 1492 would ensure religious conformity. In many
ways, the year 1492 was, indeed, the crucial year for the new state
of Spain.13
The Christian Reconquest of Iberia began very early on in
Moslem domination. It began early in the eighth century, when a
Christian revolt began under King Pelayo in Castile. Gaining
strength, the movement spread and capitals of Christiandom were
established, first at Cangas de Onis, and then at Oviedo. The city of
Leon was united with the small, Christian kingdom for a short time
in 1037, but circumstances kept the two kingdoms, Castile and Leon,
from a permanent union until 1217. In the meantime, Alfonso VI,
adding to the momentum of the Reconquista restored the city of
13 Fuentes, The Buried Mirror, pp. 79,84; Roberts, A Concise History,
p. 344.

Toledo to Christiandom in 1085. Leon and Castile were finally
permanently joined into one crown under Fernando EH and Alfonso
X, however, it was not until 1469 that Isabel of Castile married
Ferdinand of Aragon that the unity of the two kingdoms into one
Spain was sealed. 14
While the Catholic Kings were trying everything in their new
power to unify the nation, the nation was unifying itself through the
spread and continued usage of a widely used vernacular that had
traveled the course of the Reconquista southward throughout Iberia.
This language, the language of Castile, had, like the Reconquista,
claimed Spain for itself, overtaking other languages on its path to
official status. It, too, would climax in the year 1492, when it was
declared the perfect instrument of empire by Antonio de Nebrija in
the prologue to his book La Grammatica de la Lengua Castelana.
In his book, Nebrija assembled the grammar of Castilian and
dedicated it to Queen Isabel.15 Coming from the humanist
perspective, Nebrija looked back to the classical languages of Greek
and Latin. In calling the Castilian language the perfect instrument
of empire, he was attempting to elevate Castilian to the status of
Latin, a language that, to him, also had an imperial power as well.
He had great expectations for both the nation and the language of
14 Enwistle, The Spanish Language, p. 138; Spaulding, Robert K.
How Spanish Grew. (Berkeley: The University of California Press,
1971), pp. 63-65.
15 Elliot, J.H. Imperial Spain, p. 128.

Castile. His words are ironic and prophetic, for it is the language of
Castile, modem Spanish, which proved to be the most powerful
imperial force in Spains empire.
As the Reconquista spread and claimed more and more of
Iberia, the Castilian language was already exhibiting its ability to
work as an instrument of empire as it moved southwest and
gradually brought Castilian to the commanding position as the
emerging language of Spanish.16 Castilian Spanish traveled with
the Reconquista, gained strength and power, and overcame two other
Latin dialects that existed in Moorish Spain, Leonese and
Aragonese, to become the new language of not just Castile but of all
of Spain. As Castilian built momentum and spread further
throughout Iberia, Spaniards became accustomed to hearing its
accent, and it gradually was deemed acceptable for narrative and
other literary use.'7
Castilian became the standard of both Castile and, gradually, to
other areas of Iberia, through its dispersion via the Reconquista.
Further, its permanence was guaranteed by the use of the new
printing press, and it continued to be the standard in politics,
academia, and art. It also spread by the productivity of Castiles
cultural domination. 18 Heath speaks of a cause and effect
relationship between Castiles robust intellectual spirit and the
16 Spaulding, How Spanish Grew, p. 70.
17 Entwistle, The Spanish Language, p. 107.
18 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 7.

successful domination of its language and culture over that of other
parts of the Iberian Peninsula.19 The spirited, imaginative intellect
of Castile, represented in its language, vaulted its culture and its
language into widespread acceptance and usage throughout the
newly formed kingdom of Spain.
Castilian evolved from Latin while it coexisted with Arabic, the
language of the Moors who dominated Iberia for most of its post-
Roman history. Certainly the Arabic influence cannot be
overlooked. The Mozarabes, through their day-to-day use of the
Latin-based vernacular, made easy the passage into Spanish of a
considerable Arabic vocabulary. 20 There are some 4,000 Arabic
words in modem Spanish, and most Arabic-influenced lexicon deals
with administration, societal organization, industry and commerce.
There is only the lightest trace of Arabic influence in the syntax of
modem Spanish.21
Melvyn C. Resnick cites many examples of words loaned to
Spanish from Arabic, most of which begin with al-, the article
established by the Moors language. The initial letter z- is also
common to many Arabic loan words Spanish.
19 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 7.
20 Entwistle, The Spanish Language, p. 127.
21 Entwistle, The Spanish Language, p. 127; Resnick, Melvyn C.
Introduccion a la historia de la lengua espanola. (Washington D.C.:
Georgetown University Press, 1981), pp. 14-15.

Arabic loan words in Spanish
English equivalents
Interestingly, words like arroz, azucar, algodon, and algebra must
have been created during Moorish occupation, as they are the words
for things that the Moors brought to or created while in Iberia.
These example words demonstrate how Moorish imperialism has
effected modem Spanish. The700-year presence of the Moors in
Iberia has had a major impact on the lexicon of modem Spanish, but,
ironically, many of these lexical examples are relatively unknown in
Spanish-speaking America. 22
Castilianizing the new united kingdom meant bringing
conformity throughout Spain, and the language of Castilian became
a kind of instrument, as Nebrija termed it, in this task. Just as the
fall of Granada unified Spain politically and the expulsion of the
Jews and the institution of the Inquisition unified it religiously,
Castilian provided linguistic, and, therefore, culture unification. In
22 Resnick, La historia de la lengua espanola, p. 14.

these terms, the language played an imperialistic role, for it, like
Christianity, had claimed Spain for itself. Linguistic conformity was
needed to help bring Spain to greatness, however brief. Isabel and
Ferdinand saw the need to impart policies of unification, both racial
and religious, in their kingdom. These policies eventually traveled
with the conquistadors to the New World.23
23 Liss, Mexico Under Spain, p. 15.

After having been so inward-focused with the war of the
Reconquista, in 1492 Spain now seemed confident and ready for
more outward thinking. So when approached by an unknown
Genoese sailor named Cristobal Colon, the Cathoic Kings were
intrigued and eager to listen to his strange claim that the quickest
journey to the East was to travel West. Though Columbus
approached Isabel and Ferdinand several times, the King and Queen
were too consumed with the Reconquista to consider Columbus
proposal. Finally, after the fall of Granada and lured by Columbus
promises of riches and fame that lay ahead in the Orient, Isabel and
Ferdinand accepted his seemingly bizarre ideas. Columbus had
initially approached King Henry of Portugal, the most obvious
choice, as Portugal had already seemed poised for imperial
expansion. Portugal declined his proposal, but Spain was more
prepared mentally to take on the risk of backing Columbus and his
intriguing ideas. The King and Queen felt they had little to risk.
Should Columbus actually make true his claims of riches, all the
better for the Crown; if he returned empty-handed, or even if he did
not return at all, the Crown had really lost nothing. They advanced
him a loan and, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, now the once
isolated country was on the verge of becoming a world power. Any

lands that would be discovered on his expedition were to be claimed
in the name of Spain, and Columbus was to be given the title of
Governor of any such lands. Spain now seemed poised to overcome
Portugal in the race to establish a direct sea link between Europe and
the Orient, which would ensure control of commerce with the East.24 *
And so, on 3 August, 1492, Columbuss modest fleet of three
ships, the Pinta, the Nina, and the Santa Maria, set sail for the Orient,
heading west, not east. However, on October 12, 1492, when
Columbus and his men finally reached land after sixty-six days at
sea, they had not reached Asia, as Columbus had mistakenly
believed. They had, in reality, landed on the tiny island of
Guanahani, one of the Bahaman Islands, which Columbus named
San Salvador, in honor of Jesus Christ, the Holy Savior. The
inhabitants of the island, naked, armed with primitive weapons, and
speaking their native language Arawak, swam out to meet the
strange intruders. The Arawaks were a peaceful tribe who inhabited
the Bahaman Islands, parts of Cuba, and Haiti (the future site of
Hispaniola). They traded along the coastlines of these islands via
their long canoes; this characteristic mode of transportation became
the first Indian word introduced into Spanish, and even appears in
Columbus diary entry for 26 October, 1492 and in Nebrijas
Dictionarium ex hispaniensi in latinum sermonem in 1493. The
Arawaks were placid, but their eagerness to meet the Spaniards and
24 Fuentes, The Buried Mirror, pp. 85, 87; Williamson, History of Latin
America, p. 7

their friendliness only enhanced Columbus desire to conquer them.
He noted in his journal that they were unskilled with their weapons
and would be easy to subjugate.25
Little on San Salvador impressed Columbus, and so, in search
for more human habitation and hoping to reach Japan, Columbus
explored the other islands of the Bahamas. He reached modem
Cuba, landing there because he hoped it was Japan. He did not stay
long there, for he learned of an extremely aggressive native tribe
who lived at the eastern end of the island, the Caribe. The Caribes
were cannibals and were much more aggressive than the Arawak.26
Columbus therefore sailed onward, still searching for Japan and
a people fit to be subjects of the powerful Spanish Crown. He
reached an island that he thought resembled Spain; it was the island
on which modem Haiti and the Dominican Republic are situated. He
decided that now would be a good time and place to create a
settlement, so he claimed the island and named it Hispaniola. The
island was inhabited by the Taino tribe, who shared several
commonalties with the Arawak tribe from Guanahani. They, too,
spoke Arawak, and were also considered by the Spanish to be quite
friendly. In addition, the chief of the tribe, Guacanagari, governed
25 Entwistle, The Spanish Language, p. 239; Fuentes, The Buried
Mirror, pp. 85-86; Resnick, La historia de la lengua espanola, pp. 133-
134; Williamson, The Penguin History of Latin America. (London:
Penguin Books, 1992),p. 8. A& E Home Video. Biography:
Christopher Columbus Explorer of a New World. New Video Group,
26 Williamson, History of Latin America, p. 8.

with some resemblance to a kingship, which led Columbus to
mistakenly believe that he was drawing closer to old world
civilization, and, therefore, to Japan or China Based on such false
confidence in the inhabitants of Hispaniola, Columbus established
the first Spanish settlement, Navidad, left twenty-one Spaniards
there to oversee it, and set sail back to Spain on 4 January, 1493
aboard the Nina.27
Columbus returned to Spain as a hero. Isabel, who perhaps
remained Columbus biggest supporter throughout his explorations,
and Ferdinand were anxious to continue the explorations Columbus
began, and sent him back to the New World later in 1493. He
returned with a rather unsavory group of Spaniards who
accompanied him to settle the new lands. Many, if not most, of
these future settlers had to be coaxed into coming to the New World;
several were even convicted murders who were granted clemency in
return for going to the Indies to settle them. This initial group of
settlers is important to the colonization of the Indies and of the
empire, for it was the caliber of men that left Spain to settle the New
World that made the settlement process so disastrous for the natives.
They were unconcerned with the rights of the natives, and were
solely concerned with their own well being and success.
27 Entwistle, The Spanish Language, p. 239; Resnick, La hisoria de la
lengua espanola, p. 134; Williamson, History of Latin America, p. 9;
A & E Home Video, Christopher Columbus

Unfortunately, this first arrival of settlers became characteristic of
future emigrants and their relationships with the Amerindians.28
Columbus and the settlers reached the Indies on 25 September,
1493, intending to establish a permanent colony. But when they
reached Hispaniola, the situation was dire. The natives there had
grown frustrated with the Spaniards; they had greeted the Europeans
with great welcomes, but began to feel slighted by the poor treatment
they received in return from the Spanish. The natives were quick to
give away the gold that hid beneath their native lands, for to them, it
held no value. The Spanish were lustful in their desire for the gold,
and began to abuse and enslave the natives in order to mine it more
quickly. In addition, they had greatly mistreated the native women,
who they mistakenly believed were simply being given to them.
Out of revenge, native Tainos killed the Spaniards Columbus had
left behind and completely destroyed Navidad. Upset by what he
had found on Hispaniola, Columbus left and continued sailing
eastwards, finally establishing a colony he called Isabel. He began
an explorative expedition in which he returned to Cuba and then
went to Jamaica. In September, 1494, he returned to Isabel, and
found growing tension among the Spaniards he had left there.29
Columbus was desperate to quell the quickly rising troubles
in the New World. So far, the settlement process had been
28 A & E Home Video, Christopher Columbus.
29 A & E Home Video, Christopher Columbus; Williamson, History of
Latin America, p. 10.

disastrous, mostly due to the poor relationships that were being
formed with the natives of the Indies. Unfortunately, Columbus
solutions to the new problems he encountered only initiated the
struggles between the Spanish and the natives that would come to
plague the Spanish throughout the existence of the empire.
Believing that the rights of the Spanish superceded those of the
natives, Columbus established policies that set precedent for further,
equally oppressive governance in the empire. For example, when
some unruly Spaniards were hoping for quick rewards for their part
in the colonization of Isabel, Columbus, Viecroy of the Indies, a
title granted to him in his initial agreement with Ferdinand and
Isabel in 1492, authorized them to go further inland to search for
gold and capture natives to work for them. He also decided to send
off about 500 natives back to Spain, hoping that this might begin a
profitable slave trade between Europe and the Indies and, therefore,
improve the trading prospects in the Indies. This was a disaster;
roughly 200 natives died en route to Spain and the others died
quickly in Spanish trading markets. Enraged, natives of Hispaniola
revolted against the Spanish, but were quickly put down by the
superior Spanish warfare techniques. In the settlements in the
Indies, enslavement quickly was employed to serve two purposes: to
mine for the gold that the native lands promised and to subjugate the
natives. All boys over the age of 14 were forced into slavery.
Clearly, Columbus early decisions in the governance of the colonies
only foreshadowed the problems that would continue to plague the

empire. The natives were never dealt with appropriately from the
start, which only initiated the persistent problems that characterized
the settlement of the Spanish Empire.30
Columbus returned to Spain in March, 1496, and his
popularity with both the settlers and the Crown was definitely
waning. In the colonies, his ability to govern was becoming more
and more questionable, and the Crown was becoming less impressed
with his endeavors in the New World. It would take him two years
to convince the Crown to allow him to return, which he finally did in
May, 1498. He reached Trinidad in My and went on to Venezuela
He realized Venezuela was the tip of a separate continent, but was
very disappointed that it was not the Orient, the object of his search
and that which had eluded him during the ten years of his
exploration of the New World. His disappointment overshadowed
his own realization of the magnitude of what he had indeed
accomplished.31 He finally returned to Hispaniola, and, like his
return to Isabel four years earlier, Columbus found the Spaniards
disagreeing amongst themselves. Though the Spanish had
established the settlement of Santo Domingo in his absence, they had
also nearly destroyed it, leaving it as ungovernable as Isabel.
Columbus was horribly frustrated, but still attempted to control the
situation. He failed to do so, and what little authority he had
30 A & E Home Video, Christopher Columbus; Williamson, History of
Latin America, p. 11.
31 Williamson,, History of Latin America, p. 11.

maintained quickly eroded. Spaniards became unwilling to follow
the lead of an Italian, and Columbus was arrested, chained, and
banished from the very lands he had discovered.32
Clearly, the Spanish had grave difficulties in governing the
New World even from the earliest days of the empire. First in the
settlement of Navidad, and then in Isabel, the Amerindians
attempted to defy the imposed power of the Spanish. Williamson
explains this difficulty as inherent; the Spanish and the natives were
culturally programmed into their own respective cultures, and the
expectations of the other remained unknown and misunderstood.
Neither culture could understand the other. The peoples of the
islands used a barter system in which gold was purely decorative
rather than the precious commodity that the Spanish considered it to
be. Operating on a classical European monetary economy, gold was
of extremely high value, and the Spanish would go to great lengths
to find and mine it. Of course, this required labor, the natural source
of which was the native population. This significant difference in
perspective would be the major problem of the Spanish Empire in
America, and the problems that plagued Columbus ability to
effectively govern would outlive him and continue to plague the
Spanish as they attempted to control and civilize the natives of the
lands they conquered.33
32 A & E Home Video, Christopher Columbus', Williamson,, History of
Latin America, p. 11.
33 Williamson,, History of Latin America, pp. 12-13.

The Crown granted Columbus one last explorative voyage
to the New World in May, 1502. In failing health, he returned to the
lands he had discovered and continued his fruitless search for the
sea link to Asia Though the sea link was never found, this fourth
and final voyage was particularly useful for the Spanish, as it helped
them better understand the geography of the territory that Columbus
had claimed for them. Columbus returned to Spain in November,
1504 as a broken man, outcast of the society for which he had
changed destiny. He died 20 May, 1506, still unaware of the
incredible magnitude of his explorations and the impact they would
ultimately have on world history. Though his explorations opened
up indigenous society to enslavement and exploitation, his
accomplishments still cannot be undervalued. They were awesome
and history changing. Though he was unable to govern the New
World, his vision and determination alone had created it
Columbus final voyage to the New World in 1502 marked the
end of the explorative phase in the conquest of the New World.
Columbus and his voyages only opened the door to the settlement of
the New World. His initial four explorative expeditions to America
from 1492 to 1504 were followed by more imperialistic voyages by
the conquistadors. Future settlements were established as beach
heads for conquest. Panama, founded in 1519, became the first
Pacific base of the Americas and is where Pizarros conquest of the
Inca was launched. Conquistadors later penetrated the two major
native American civilizations, the Aztec of Mexico in 1519 and the

Inca of Peru in 1531, and established the New World Spanish
Empire. While Columbus can be called the man who discovered
America, the conquistadors, as well as the settlers and religious men
who followed, can truly be called the men who conquered
Columbus, though initially described by Ferdinand and Isabel
as unimpressive and unstable, shared the same determination and
courage of the future conquistadors. Like them, Columbus was also
driven by the desire for fame, the thrill of discovery, lust for gold,
and the duty to evangelize.35 Having been influenced by the pride
and patriotism created by the Reconquista, the conquistadors who
followed Columbus to the New World and who, indeed, conquered it
for Spain, were human symbols of the pride of the new Spain. Like
the new kingdom from which they hailed, they embodied a new
imagination and creativity. As conquistadors, they not only believed
themselves to be representative of the Crown and of their new
Spanish civilization, they, indeed, were symbols of the new state.
They took pride in expanding the boundaries of their great Spain and
believed that conquest of new lands was both glorious and righteous.
They may have professed righteousness and glory, they were often
just as unsavory as the settlers who followed them to settle the land.
35 Fuentes, The Buried Mirror, p. 87.

Rebellious and daring, they came to find greatness for Spain as well
as riches and feme for themselves.36
Heman Cortes was no exception. He embodied all of the
characteristics of the quintessential conquistador: he had been
schooled in warfare and was both prepared and anxious to face
whatever might await him in the New World. At nineteen years old,
the hildago (a minor noble) from Extremadura arrived in the
Caribbean ready for the glory of conquest. Like other conquistadors,
he was strong-willed and determined. His determination, which has
been described as virtually Machiavellian, stemmed from his intense
desire to improve his destiny from that of an hidalgo in Spain. The
hidalgo class was a social standing that was of noble stature, though
not aristocratic and certainly not as wealthy. Consequently, they
were quite well- represented on expeditions to the New World, as
members of the aristocracy left the exploring of the New World
mostly to lower classes and did not participate in either the conquest
or the settlement of the empire. Like many other conquistadors who
also were of this social class, Cortes was eager to try his luck in the
New World, for he felt he had little to lose at home in the Old
World. Achieving greatness for his countiy would surely bring
wealth, fame, glory, and improved social status, and these things
could only be acquired in the New World. Cortes motivations were
not completely altruistic desires to bring glory to Spain; he, like
36Fuentes, The Buried Mirror, p. 85. Liss, Mexico Under Spain, 19.

many conquistadors, was searching for personal wealth and glory as
The future conquerors of the Americas were typically
Castilian, embodying all those Castilian attitudes that had helped
Spain reclaim herself from the Moors in the Reconquista and expel
evil from Iberia. However, the positive aspects of the Castilian
attitudes were accompanied by negative ones; the pride and creative
energy that were reflective of Spain at this time were accompanied
by paranoia and prejudice that also arrived in the New World via the
conquistadors. Cortes, like other conquistadors, believed it was part
of his duty to spread his faith and convert the natives of the New
World to Christianity. To him, he had a dual mission in the New
World: to discover and conquer new lands, and to spread the faith
and save the souls of the heathen indigenous population. Even
before leaving Spain, Cortes and the conquistadors were planning
not only a physical conquest of new lands, but also a spiritual and
cultural one as well.38
When Cortes finally met the Amerindians of the Aztec Empire,
he seemed well prepared to outwit and outfight his adversaries. At
the end, when the Aztec had finally been defeated, it was clear that
Montezuma and the Aztecs, indeed, most of the peoples that
inhabited Central and South America, were really no match for the
37 Elliot, Imperial Spain, pp. 6,64. Fuentes, The Buried Mirror, p. 11.
Williamson, History of Latin America, p. 17.
38 Elliot, Imperial Spain, pp. 63,64; Fuentes, The Buried Mirror, p.
113; Liss, Mexico Under Spain, pp. 21, 22.

Castilian conquistadors. They were dwarfed by the sheer physical
power of the Spanish expedition. The Spanish were far less
numerous but, being mounted and possessing guns, were far better
armed than the Aztecs, and, perhaps more importantly, they were
better armed mentally and emotionally than they Aztec. They came
armed with a fierce Castilian pride, a courageous attitude, and a
heritage of experienced warriors that the Aztecs simply would not be
able to quell. The conquest of the Aztecs, and perhaps that of all
America, too, was successful not solely due to the sheer strength of
the Spanish. Rather, it sprang from the momentum created by the
Reconquista of Iberia, and the conquistadors were a product of the
attitude that stemmed from it. They were ambitious, strong-willed,
patriotic Christian fighters who were eager to be heroic for their new
Christian nation. Their mentality was to conquer and win, and they
possessed both the attitude and the arms to achieve exactly what they
set out to. Their Castilian, Christian attitude most assuredly gave
them a conspicuous upper-hand.39
The Aztec, scholars claim, had yet to peak as a civilization.
Since it was young and quickly growing, it was caught in a perilous
and untimely moment when it was simply incapable of properly
defending itself from so powerful an adversary. The Aztec Empire
had only emerged early in the fifteenth century, perhaps around the
year 1427, less than seventy-five years before the coming of
39 Elliot, Imperial Spain, p. 65.

Columbus and less than 100 years before Cortes arrival. However,
an empire had been built over many years preceding the Aztec rise to
power. It had begun when the Mexica, a nomadic Chrichimec tribe
from the northern prairies of Mexico, settled near Tula. They
adapted Toltec influences, settled on the shores of Lake Texcoc and
integrated their tribe with the surrounding peoples. Despite their
amalgamation with different peoples, the Toltec retained their
unique tribal identity. They were driven out by the Culhuacan tribe
and finally established their own tribal homeland on an island in
Lake Texcoco.40 The Mexica established their capital in the city of
Tenochtitlan in the mid-fourteenth century. Later the Spanish
would describe this impressive city as a kind of Venice in
America.41 Within a century, probably by the year 1427, this
beautiful city, modem Mexico City, became the center of the
brilliant imperial civilization known as the Aztec Confederation.42
The Aztec Empire was created when the Mexica tribe joined
forces with two neighboring tribes, the Texcoco and the Tlacopan.
This triple alliance formed what was called the Aztec Confederation,
but the Mexicas of Tenochtitlan remained the dominant power
within the triumvirate. A Mexica emperor, Itzocal, who expanded
the Empire by conquering the former Tepanec lands, led the new
40 Elliot, Imperial Spain, p. 65; Liss, Mexico Under Spain, p. 22;
Williamson, History of Latin America, p. 42.
41 Williamson, History of Latin America, p. 43.
42 Williamson, History of Latin America, pp. 42-43.

Aztec Empire. The infamous Montezuma, who also continued the
expansion of this new great imperial power, succeeded Itzocal. He
took the Aztec Empire into the Oaxaca region of Mexico, occupied
by Mixtec tribes. Foreshadowing the fate of his own civilization, he
took these Mixtec cities with terrible massacres and quickly replaced
them with Aztec ones.43
Aztec society consisted of two distinctly separated classes: the
nobles and the commoners. The aristocracy, warriors, priests,
governing officials and other land owners made up the noble class
and lived in great luxury, while workers and farmers made up the
less fortunate and more impoverished commoner group.
Commoners who shard the same heritage grouped themselves into
communities know as calpullis. Artisans and merchants consisted of
a small, middle stratum, and there also existed subclasses of the
landless calpulli and slaves. Aztec society was very stratified, harsh,
and rigid. Once assigned to a social caste, an Aztec Indian would
most likely spend his entire life there. As perhaps a lingering legacy
of the Aztec, this mentality of caste immobility is reflected in the
contemporary Mexican psyche ,44
Unless an Aztec was lucky enough to be among the
nobility within the Aztec Empire, his life was extremely difficult.
The commoners were farmers, laborers, or trade workers who lived
43 Williamson, History of Latin America, p. 43.
44 Liss, Mexico Under Spain, p. 22; Williamson, History of Latin
America, p. 44.

in virtual poverty with a very poor quality of life. Though members
of this caste did not have an easy life, they did have their freedom.
There were several ways in which one could be forced into slaveiy.
Laborers of the empire could be forced to sell themselves into
slavery, and peoples captured in battle could be taken as slaves, be
forced to work for the state, or serve in the military. 45
The ramifications of Aztec conquest were gruesome at best.
Aztec imperialism was based on extortion. Not only were peoples
captured by the Aztec forced to pay tributes to the Aztec, their land
was taken from them and redistributed to Aztec nobles. Goods from
their civilizations, such as jade, gold, and jaguar skins, served as
booty and were taken back to Tenochtitlan as tangible signs of Aztec
glory. The Aztec were ferocious warriors who raged through
Central Mexico, claiming every civilization they could for their
growing empire. Peoples caught in their imperial conquests faced a
discouraging future. They could be taken as slaves, or, worse yet,
become human sacrifices of the Aztecs violent religion. Mass
executions and human sacrifice were both typical threats used to
extort money and land from conquered tribes. The Aztec Empire
was simply a grouping of conquered peoples taken by the Aztec tribe
and governed with the most traditional imperial policies.46
45 Williamson; History of Latin America, p.44.
46 Fuentes, The Buried Mirror, pp. 101-102; Hansis, Randall. The
Latin Americans: Understanding Their Legacy. (Hew York: McGraw-
Hill, 1997), p. 37; Williamson, History of Latin America, pp. 43-45.

What resulted was a grouping of the many peoples who had
been conquered by the Aztec and incorporated into their growing
empire; this amalgamation was perhaps the most brilliant
civilization of the America. The people practiced a unique religion,
Nahuatl, which remains today somewhat of a mystery. This violent
religion worshipped at least 126 different gods and relied on human
sacrifice to appease them. The Aztecs imperial tendencies were also
justified, defended, and, indeed, called for by this complex faith.
The Aztec proudly established themselves as the sole heirs of the
Toltec, and, in doing so, they were giving their rule the need to
expand sacred affirmation.
Because the Aztec Empire was the result of the merging of
three tribes and the capture of many more, many different
indigenous languages existed throughout the Aztec Kingdom. Most
natives in the Aztec Empire spoke one of four major languages:
Nahautl, the language of the Aztec tribe and the most prominently
used language; Zapotek; Mixtek; or Hia Hiu, spoken by the Otomi
Indians, as much of a linguistic enigma as Basque, because it was
completely unlike its neighboring languages. This multi-linguistic
world would later be the cause of many problems for the Spanish,
for they struggled with their own attitudes toward native languages
and with the establishment of linguistic policy in the Spanish
Empire. The indecisiveness of the Spanish would eventually lead to

a great deal of problems in the governing of the natives and then-
social placement within the Empire.47
Hindsight has tended to make the Aztec look like innocent
victims in the terrible consequences of Spanish imperialism. In
reality, neither the Aztec nor the Maya, another Pre-Columbian
group of tribes who inhabited and dominated Mexicos Yucatan
Peninsula and parts of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El
Salvador until the mid-eighth century when their major cities were
mysteriously abandoned, were particularly civilized by either
medieval or modem standards. When realistically assessed, Pre-
Columbian America was neither a peaceful Eden nor a barbaric
wilderness. Indigenous life was brutal and humane, capricious and
prudent, cooperative and competitive, elegant and erode, just like
elsewhere.48 Though the Spanish have historically been punished
for their imperialism and the forced assimilation of the indigenous
population to their Spanish culture, their sins and the same ones
committed by the Aztec. Moreover, the Spanish, like the Aztec, may
have even believed that their imperial pursuits were somehow being
commanded by their God. Consequently, they felt that they were
acting forthright and virtuously by teaching the natives the more
civilized ways of their European society and Christian faith.
47 Entwistle, The Spanish Language, p. 235. Fuentes, The Buried
Mirror, p. 102; Williamson, History of Latin America, p. 43-45.
48Hansis, Randall. The Latin Americans, p. 41.

Bernal Diaz even commented on how the Spanish shed the native
tendencies to commit human sacrifice and other obscene acts.
Like Aztec imperialism, Spanish imperialistic thought prescribed the .
complete domination of a conquered people in the form of cultural
assimilation and exploitation; as brutal as they may perhaps seem,
they were realistic byproducts of imperialism, which was accepted as
common practice for the time.49
The Spanish, of course, would later capture the Aztec Empire,
but, like the Aztecs, they believed they were improving the lives of
the peoples they captured by conferring upon them the benefits of
their own civilization. However, but again, also like the Spanish,
Aztec imperialism had little concern for the rights of the conquered
peoples. They forced tribute payments from the peoples of captured
territory, took goods and valuables from the territory back to their
own land, took privately owned territory and redistributed it for for
themselves, and greatly mistreated the peoples of the conquered
territory. Both the Aztec and the Spanish believed it was their duty
to culturally enrich the lives of the peoples of conquered territory;
they were, both groups believed, improving those civilizations by
imposing the righteousness of their own cultures upon them.
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the Aztecs were well on their
way to becoming a forceful imperial power throughout Mexico.
43 Hansis, The Latin Americans, p. 39; Picon-Salas, Mariano, Irving A.
Leomard, Trans. A Cultural History of Spanish America: From
Conquest to Independence. (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1962), pp. 23-24; Williamson, History of Latin America, p. 47.

However, in April, 1519, a relatively small army led by Heman
Cortes would dramatically alter what seemed to be a great destiny
for the Aztec Empire. Cortes had arrived in Hispaniola in 1504 at
the age of nineteen and had successfully established himself in New
World society. He had aided in the conquest of Cuba and, in reward
for his bravery in battle, had already achieved two ecomiendas,
(natives working on farms or estates that were placed under the care
of a Spanish settler) from the Governor, Diego Valazquez.
Valazquez, who in 1517 was searching for a fit replacement of his
cousin to lead a third expedition into Tenochtitlan, seemed
impressed, though somewhat wary, of Cortes and his reputation.
Perhaps somewhat reluctantly, Valazquez appointed Cortes to head
the expedition. Cortes accepted with enthusiasm and quickly
assembled a group of volunteers to accompany him on the
expedition. An ambitious opportunist, Cortes was anxious for
departure, and set sail earlier than the planned departure from Cuba
on February 18,1519, with eleven ships, some 500 men, sixteen
horses, and some artillery consisting of 14 cannons and 13 muskets
rifles. However, these seemingly meager resources, and perhaps
some other, less obvious advantages that the Spanish held, enabled
Cortes to embark upon and achieve perhaps the most fascinating
imperial conquest in all of history. 50
50 Burkholder, Mark A., and Lyman L Johnson, Colonial Latin
America, Second Edition. (London: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp.
35-36; Elliot, Spanish Imperialism, p. 63; Williamson, History of
Latin America, p. 19.

From Cuba, he made the short trip to Cozumel Island off the
coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Here he encountered a Spanish
shipwreck victim named Jeronimo Aguila who had learned the
language of the Maya while stranded on the island since 1511.
Further up the coast, some natives he had encountered gave Cortes
the one gift that would become perhaps the most valuable asset in his
fight against the Aztec: an Indian woman who spoke both Mayan
and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Her name was Malizin,
though she became known to the Spaniards as Dona Marina, and
together with Aguila, the Spanish possessed the vital key they
needed to successfully plan and carryout the conquest of the Aztec.
Translating for Cortes, Aguila and Dona Marina provided him with a
major advantage over the Aztecs and placed him into an excellent
position to assess the nature of their Aztec opponent Ultimately, the
translators helped Cortes to devise an informed strategy for his plan
for conquest51
Not only did the Spanish have the advantage of language on
their side, but they also utilized some other advantages which
ultimately made them victorious over the Aztecs. Certainly the
weapons they possessed aided their cause; they came armed with
cannons and muskets, and while cannons and shoulder-guns may not
seem particularly intimidating, the Aztecs only possessed slings,
51 Burkholder, Colonial Latin America, p. 36; Elliot, Imperial Spain, p,
17; Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 10; Williamson, History of Latin
America, p, 19.

spears, some two-handed swords, and bows and arrows. And While
the Spanish were greatly outnumbered (the Aztec Empire is
calculated to have numbered over 10 million at the time), the sixteen
horses they brought with them gave them the advantage of mobility.
However, it is logical to assume that even the obvious benefits of
weapons and horses were not the deciding facto that enabled the
Spanish to destroy a young, thriving empire 10 million people
Scholars have surmised that, indeed, the decisive factor was not
the physical weapons the Spanish possessed but the mental ones, the
attitudes and experiences of these professional warriors that came
from thousands of miles away to take on the native Amerindians of
the New World. The Conquistadors were professional soldiers,
schooled in warfare and thirsty for fame, gloiy, and gold. Long
before arriving on the mainland of Mexico, they had overcome other
adversaries in the Caribbean, often taking the defeated natives with
them in their future conquests. The common belief held by most
conquistadors was their inherent invincibility and superiority over
their heathen adversaries. Though these men were often illiterate
and not of strong character, it was their faith in their Christian God
that made them superior to their opponent, and they would fight
52 Elliot, Imperial Spain, pp. 63,66; Williamson, History of Latin
America, p. 17.

passionately and fiercely to protect and spread both the faith and
culture of Castile.53
Armed with such strength, Cortes arrived in the Yucatan
Peninsula and proceeded westward, towards the interior of Mexico,
encountering groups of Amerindians on the way. The Spanish had
little trouble subjugating these natives and quickly overcame any
resistance they met. The defeated natives did not seem anxious to
remain loyal to their leader, Montezuma, who had ruthlessly and
violently subjugated them. Since they also failed to correctly
perceive the great threat that the Spanish posed for their indigenous
culture, these natives often joined forces with the Spanish and were
incorporated into Cortes troops. They were also quick to
familiarize Cortes with their emperor Montezuma, and warned him
that the Aztec emperor was allegedly planning his own strategy to
destroy the Spanish. Such stories did not intimidate Cortes, but they
did help him to understand and more effectively strategize.54
Joined by these new allies, Cortes continued inland and
founded his own city, Vera Cruz, just off the coast of the Gulf of
Mexico and at the outermost border of Aztec territory. Though here
he was warned by some Aztec Indians to turn back, his expedition
advanced towards the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, which was, at
the time, the most densely populated city in the New World. It was
33 Burkholder, Johnson, Colonial Latin America, pp. 63,66;
Williamson, History of Latin America, p. 17.
34 Burkholder, Johnson, Colonial Latin America, p. 36.

en route from Vera Cruz to the capital that Cortes learned of political
divisions that existed within the Empire. Apparently there was little
unity within the Empire due to resentment that many subjects felt
towards the imperialistic Montezuma. Not only was Cortes
unconcerned by the alleged strategies the Aztec leader was planning,
he was also quick to exploit any hostility that existed for his own
gain. He quickly allied with the disgruntled Aztecs, not informing
them of his real plans for the Empire, but joining forces with them
against Montezuma.55
The Spanish continued on, across the chain of volcanic
mountains that run southeast into the Valley of Mexico, finally
arriving at the brilliant island city and the center of Aztec
civilization, Tenochtitlan. The Spaniards were awestricken by the
citys beauty and luster, reportedly calling it dreamlike and
enchanting. Bernal Diaz recorded the Europeans reaction to the
fabulous sight:
And when we saw all those cities
and villages built in the water, and other great
towns on dry land, and that straight and level
causeway leading to Mexico, we were
astounded. These great towns and cues
(temples), and buildings rising from the
water, all made of stone, seemed like an
enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis.
Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it
was all not a dream.. .It was all so wonderful
that I do not know how to describe this first
Williamson, History of Latin America, pp. 17-18.

glimpse of things never heard of, seen or
dreamed of before.56
Indeed, the city greatly impressed the Spanish with all its grandeur.
Natives floated peacefully down its canals, and great pyramids arose
amidst the winding streets. Despite their great fascination with
Tenochtitlan, the Spanish were not distracted form achieving what
they had come to do.57 On arrival, the Spanish were met by several
hundred Aztec chiefs who wore cotton loin cloths and were further
adorned with striking turquoise jewelry. After the Aztec ritual of
exchanging gifts, the chiefs led Cortes to the emperor Montezuma
himself, forty years old, tall and thin, wearing a cotton girdle around
his waist and sandals reportedly sprinkled with pearls and soles of
Scholars still question exactly why Montezuma so trustingly
allowed Cortes and his men onto the island city of Tenochtitlan at
all. If, as the many natives Cortes had met and rallied for his cause
had claimed, Montezuma was, indeed, planning a trap for the
Spanish, or, at the very least, some sort of offensive strategy to
combat Cortes, why did he so willingly allow the Spanish into the
city? Scholars disagree. Some, such as Williamson, have surmised
56 Prescott, William Hickling. Prescotts Histories: The Rise and
Decline of the Spanish Empire, selected and edited and with a
biographical introduction by Irwin R. Blackner. (New York: The
Viking Press, 1966), p. 189.
57 Burkholder, Johnson, Colonial Latin America, p. 39; Williamson,
History of Latin America, pp. 18-19.
58 Prescott, The Rise and Decline of the Spanish Empire, p. 186.

that Montezuma was, indeed, planning a trap for the Spanish, and
that his hospitable treatment of them was merely a ploy to entrap the
Spanish exactly where he wanted them, thus giving him the upper
hand in a game of psychological warfare. Though this may have
been his plan initially, it is still uncertain if he intended to allow the
Spanish to proceed so far into the city. It can be said with a great
deal of certainty that Montezuma did believe that Cortes was the god
Quezalcoatl who was returning to reclaim his kingdom, which was
an Aztec belief. Still, it is difficult to believe that this myth was
truly impacting Montezumas decision-making; he was, after all, an
aggressive leader chosen by his people, who must have demonstrated
some strong leadership skills in order to reach the elected position of
emperor, and that it is somewhat unlikely that he would have been
so prone to allowing religion and myth to taint his judgement. As
such, it still remains unclear how myth was playing into
Montezumas decision-making, or if his great misreading of the
situation with Cortes was simply due to poor judgement59
Though Cortes was slightly wary that he was walking into a
trap, he continued, and accepted accommodations provided to him
and some 400 men by Montezuma himself. The Spanish were
treated with courtesy, but after about a week of accepting the Aztec
hospitality, Cortes finally made his move and seized Montezuma and
took him hostage in the very quarters he had provided for the
59 Williamson, History of Latin America, p. 18.

Spanish. During Montezumas incarceration, the Spanish were quick
to take advantage of their first pillage of Aztec culture. They stole
gold from their quarters and destroyed Aztec statues and idols,
replacing them with Christian altars. Indeed, this time was
advantageous in many ways for the Spanish, as it allowed them to
strategize and manipulate power, both that of Cortes and of
Montezuma, the latter whose was deteriorating rapidly, to their own
Unfortunately, it was at this critical point that Cortes was
forced to return to Vera Cruz. An opposing faction of Spanish led
by Panfilo de Navaraez had landed at Veiy Cruz. Cortes was forced
to deal with this situation, so he set off for the coast leaving Pedro de
Alvarado in charge of overseeing the Spanish garrison and the
holding of Montezuma Navarez had arrived with a large force of
Spaniards from Cuba to find and punish Cortes for his
insubordination to Velazquez. However, Cortes arrived at Vera
Cruz and smashed the majority of the Narvarez force in a surprise
night attack. Convincing the remaining troops that siding with him
would surely bring them fame and fortune, he fortified his cause
with new forces and quickly headed, now reinforced with more men,
back to Tenochtitlan.61
60 Burkholder, Johnson, Colonial Latin America, p. 39; Fuentes, The
Buried Mirror, p. 114; Williamson, History ofLatin America, p. 19;
Williamson, History of Latin America, p. 19.
61 Burkholder, Johnson, Colonial Latin America, p. 39; Williamson,
History of Latin America, p. 19.

When Cortes finally returned to Tenochtitlan, he found the
situation he had left had become quite dire. Growing popular
disapproval among the Aztec of their leader had dramatically
increased, and the now reduced Spanish force that Cortes had left
behind was unable to effectively deal with the increasingly
irrepressible subject people. Shortly after Cortes return,
Montezuma died, allegedly stoned to death by his own subjects who
had grown quite belligerent towards their leader who had by now
lost most, if not all, of his authority. The death of Montezuma
greatly hindered Cortes; strategy of psychological warfare. He was
now forced to reorganize, but his men had suffered many casualties
during his absence and provisions were running low. His only
option, he believed, would be to withdraw from Tenochtitlan, and
the best way to do that was to escape in darkness. On 30 June, 1520,
however, the remaining Spanish army and Cortes fought their way
out of Tenochtitlan, suffering enormous casualties and losing much
of the loot they had amassed from Montezuma and the other natives
they had encountered in their conquest this far. The Aztecs
displayed tremendous strength, thoroughly attacking the Spanish at
most points in their escape route. During this battle, which became
known as the Noche Triste (The Sorrowful Night), Cortes reportedly
lost some 400 men and 4000 native allies that had sided with the
Spanish. Though this terrible defeat disheartened and disappointed
Cortex, he vowed to return.62

Cortes retreated to the city of Tlazcala where he planned a hill-
scale attack of Tenochtitlan, his only option after such horrible
defeat in the Noche Triste. For six months, Cortes remained in this
safe-haven, resting, reorganizing, and replenishing his provisions
and forces. He was able to recruit more natives to join in the final
assault on the Aztec and constructed 13 brigantine (two-masted)
ships that would enable him to surround the island city and cut off its
access to food and water from the mainland. These ships were then
disassembled and taken with the rejuvenated Spanish forces to the
Valley of Mexico in December, 1520 when the Spanish spent
another three months reassembling the ships and further preparing
for battle.62 63
In April, 1521, Cortes launched his offensive on
Tenochtitlan. The layout of the city caused the initial combat to be
costly in terms of lives lost. Tenochtitlan was a maze of narrow
streets showcasing the grandeur of Aztec architecture. Accordingly,
Cortex changed plans, and instead of laying siege to the city, he
decided to storm and completely raze it However, it was not only
the change of strategy that ultimately guided the Spanish to victory,
but another unexpected and misunderstood ally that joined the
Spanish forces in Vera Cruz and returned with Cortes to
62 Burkholder, Johnson, Colonial Latin America, pp. 40-41; Fuentes,
The Buried Mirror, p. 116. Williamson, History of Latin America, p.
63 Burkholder, Johnson, Colonial Latin America, p. 41; Williamson,
History of Latin America, p. 20.

Tenochtitlan.: the small pox virus. The virus had traveled to
Tenochtitlan via an infected Spanish soldier who had joined Cortex
in Vera Cruz. Previously unknown to Amerindians, the virus spread
quickly through the confines of the besieged city, further weakening
an already exhausted population. It is assumed that more natives
died from small pox than from battle, and the Spanish, who had
previously been exposed to the disease, remained virtually
untouched by the deadly virus. Finally, on 13 August, 1521, after
Cortes and his Old World forces had essentially destroyed the city he
and his army had once described as the most brilliant in the world,
the remaining Aztecs surrendered and the Spanish began an empire.
One great empire would be built atop the destruction of another.64
64 Prescott, The Rise and Decline of the Spanish Empire, p. 188;
Burkholder, Johnson, Colonial Latin America, pp. 41 -42; Williamson,
History of Latin America, pp. 20-21.

What the Spanish had now achieved was phenomenal. The
conquest of the Aztec Empire was, in the words of Hugh Thomas
(quoted from Fuentes, one of the worlds greatest battles. In this
battle, the Spanish, relatively underarmed and under the leadership
of the capricious Cortes, managed to destroy what was perhaps the
greatest center of Amerindian civilization. The confrontation
between the Aztec and the Spanish was not simply a physical battle
between guns versus spears, but perhaps the greatest cultural clash
between civilizations that history has even seen. But really, the job
had just begun. Now that the Aztecs had been dealt with, Spain
began to more firmly establish her presence in the New World. In
less than 50 years, Spain had risen out of Moorish rule in Iberia to
crown of major world empire. For capturing an empire does not
alone create one, and Spain had now only completed part of its
conquest. In total, it would take three generations for Spain to
discover, conquer, and colonize the vast territory of the New World
that was now theirs to govern and mold.65 Here was a virgin
continent, occupied only by tribes of naked savages, or by the easily
subdued and semi-barbarous native states of Mexico... (it was) free
65 Fuentes, The Buried Mirror, pp. 115-116; Harring, C.H. The
Spanish Empire in America. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World,
1947), pp. 1-2.

from traditions and inhabitions of any Old World society, a tabula
rasa on which Spanish sovereigns might impress their own
conception of royal autocracy.66
Indeed, the task of colonization that now lay before the Spanish
seemed exciting, enticing, and overwhelming. This task had rarely
been done before in world history; they would be the first to take an
unknown people from a previously unknown territory and shape it
precisely to their own specifications determined by the Spanish
monarchy. A rare opportunity discovery had been given the
Catholic Kings. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Spain
had fallen under complete control of its patriarchal monarchy. Even
the Catholic Church was under the kings authority, and all law,
political and religious, was passed down by the Crown. Now with
the taking of the Aztec Empire by Spain, the monarchy would
impose both the political and religious laws onto the virginity of
the newly discovered and conquered America. This would be the
third stage of conquest, the stage of colonizing and establishing a
truly new world.67
Spain called the colony New Spain, and its presence there grew
over the next thirty years. During the 1530s and 1540s, the main
goal was civilizing New Spain. Much of the native land was seized
by the Spanish during the 1530s, and natives were beginning to be
66 Hairing, The Spanish Empire, p. 4.
67 Harimg, The Spanish Empire, p. 3.

incorporated into the labor force, usually as slavers or as held
encomiendas. Natives were also forced to pay tribute by the
viceroys government of New Spain. By the 1540s, native slavery
was on the rise, and natives held in encomienda were being forced
to work harder than ever. Epidemic and plague between 1545 and
1548 had all but destroyed the indigenous population, and only some
six million natives remained in central Mexico after the 1540s.
Despite several native revolts from 1546 through 1550,native
resistance began to fade, and by the beginning of the reign of Phillip
II, native leaders had gradually begun to accept the notion of Spanish
dominion and the ideals of imperialism that now prevailed in then-
The years that followed conquest were littered with problems,
for the natives, the settlers, and the monarchy alike. The Crown
greatly struggled with determining its governmental role in New
World society. From their discovery, the Indies were considered
to be exclusively belonging to the Crown. This would seem to
imply, then, that any and all law, political or religious, effecting the
Indies would, like in Iberia itself, be in the hands of the Spanish
monarch, despite the fact that the empire itself was not technically
Spanish or even part of the Kingdom of Castile. As areas of the
68 Liss, Mexico Under Spain, pp. 123-124.

empire gradually fell to the SpanishNew Spain, for example, in
1519- they were given titles, or viceroyalities, that deemed them
separate kingdoms in and of themselves but combined with Spain
under the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Castile. Given this
organization, the empire was more than a collection of simple
colonies of Spain, but was actually part of the Crowns kingdom.
Such a classification gave the king, them, absolute power over the
empire, as he alone was the absolute proprietor of the Kingdom of
Castile and those in the empire as well. As subjects of the Crown,
the Amerindians, many of which were the former subjects of the
Aztec Empire, were now forced to accept that ever privilege and
position, economic, political or religious, came from him.69
In order to more efficiently oversee the territoiy, the Crown
organized the newly acquired area into small administrative regions.
The two major empires that the Spanish acquired, the Aztec and the
Inca, were formed into tow new viceroyalties; the former Aztec
Empire and all of the Spanish provinces north of the isthmus of
Panama became the viceroyality of New Spain, and the former Inca
Empire and all of Spanish occupied South America except for the
northernmost coast of Venezuela constituted the viceroyality of
Peru. Smaller units inside the viceroyalities, called audencias, were
69 Harring, The Spanish Empire, p.5

formed, which were further divided into provinces. The smallest
administrative area was called the municipality.70
Such organization would in a sense break down the vastness
of the empire and make it easier to rule from Iberia. It also meant
that the peoples inhabiting it had been quite frilly incorporated into
the legislative holdings of the Crown. Indeed, the Crown was
attempting to assert its governmental presence in the colonies and
laying the foundations for frill Castilian legislative power. Imperial
presence was years in the making; though most administrative
programs were, in effect, functioning in the empire by 1535, Castile
had a great deal of difficulty establishing lasting imperial control of
New Spain..71
Perhaps it was that the Crown so unexpectedly came onto such
a vast empire that made it vacillate so drastically in administering it
Policy may have come from the Crown, but it was very often
revoked shortly thereafter, or, more commonly, not properly carried
out or even completely ignored by the Spanish settlers and
ecclesiastics in New Spain. One of the Crowns earliest and surely
most difficult issues to legislate was slavery. Initially, Queen Isabel
strongly disliked the idea of slavery in Spains territory and forbade
it. However, the nature of the work that was required to mine the
70 Burkholder, Johnson, Colonial Latin America, pp. 70,72; Harring,
The Spanish Empire, pp. 69-70.
71 Burkholder, Johnson, Colonial Latin America, p. 71.

gold that the New World promised was too arduous for the settlers
themselves to perform, so the need for labor became urgent.72
Isabel may have forbade slavery from the throne in Castile, but
the need for free labor force still existed, and some sort of system
had to be established. Out of response to Isabels forbidding of
slavery, Christopher Columbuss successor as Governor of
Hispaniola, Nicolas de Ovando, developed the encomienda system,
which seemed to meet the needs of both the settler and the native. It
cleverly skirted being called slavery but still allowed for the much
needed forced labor to work the mines for gold and the fields for
crops. It distributed natives to Spanish settlers, putting the native
under the direct supervision of a settler with the understanding that
the Spaniard would help care for, Christianize, and Castilianize the
native in return for his labor. Many conquistadors, including Cortes,
recognized the system as simply a disguise for slavery; Cortes had
attempted to keep the encomienda system out of his newly acquired
colony of New Spain, but despite his initial rejection of the idea, its
maintenance was authorized in 1528 by the first audencia of New
Spain. Once officially established in New Spain, conquistadors and
other meritous settlers were given jurisdiction over some natives
who would beheld in encomienda as free persons.73
Despite this classification, to settlers, this system was
nothing more than a disguise and excuse for ruthless exploitation,
72 Elliot, Imperial Spain, p. 70.
73 Haning, The Spanish Empire, p. 47.

both physical and cultural, of the natives. While the natives
freedom was to remain intact, the system was barely
distinguishable from outright slavery.74 What little instruction the
encomenderos did provide was rather superficial and incomplete, so
that the souls of the natives remained unsaved and their lives
remained largely unchanged despite the Castilian dominion in their
land. Despite Isabels dislike of the use of the natives for unpaid
labor, the Crown approved the establishment of the encomienda
system. This was a traditional labor system that had existed in Iberia,
and it was preferable to slavery in the eyes of the Queen. Its
transport to New Spain represented the aristocratic remnants of
medieval Spanish society finding its way to the New World. The
culture of New Spain that resulted was characteristically rigid and
traditional. Moreover, it was not congruent to the ideals of free
wage labor, which was something that the Crown had hoped to
establish early on in the empire.75
However, the settlers of New Spain, quite aware of the distance
that the Atlantic Ocean granted them from the Crown, were quick to
abuse the conditions of the ecnomienda system. When the
Dominican missionaries arrived in Hispaniola in 1510 to lay the
foundations for Christianizing the natives, they were appalled by
74 Elliot, Imperial Spain, p. 70.
75 Elliot, Imperial Spain.,p. 70; Hansis, The Spanish Empire, p. 42;
Picon Salas, A Cultural History of Spanish America, p. 50;
Williamson, History of Latin America, p. 14.

what the encomienda system had become. They quickly took their
concerns to the throne itself, their protests became the catalyst for
the Laws of Burgos in 1512. They were created in attempt to make
right the treatment of the natives by the Spanish settlers. Primarily,
they laid out the importance of fair pay rates for native laborers and
insisted upon the royal supervision of the encomienda system so as
to keep it free from abuse and exploitation. It specifically required
that any Spaniard who had fifty or more natives in his possession
must provide for the salvation of their souls, as well as for the profit
and utility of their persons and the conservation of their fives.76
Though this law was largely ignored by the settlers, its importance
in the history of the Spanish Empire is still quite significant. It was
bom from the first battle between the missionaries and the settlers of
America. This was only the first time the missionaries, in the
defense of the rights of the natives, protested to the Crown and
caused it to legislate on its behalf. They encomienda system existed
in the Americas until it was essentially outlawed in the Leyes
Nuevas of 1542, despite this and further protests by the missionaries
who were consistently fighting against the settlers for the rights of
the natives.77
It was the New Laws, of the Leyes Nuevas, of 1542 that
enabled the Crown to more clearly set forth and enforce its
expectation in New Spain and throughout the empire. The settlers of
76 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 8.
77 Williamson, History of Latin America, p. 14.

New Spain, so desperate for labor, had little remorse for exploiting
the natives for unpaid lab or. As stated previously, they had greatly
abused the encomienda system, manipulating it to Ml exploitation of
the natives rather than providing education and protection for the
natives as they were supposed to. The Leyes Nuevas came about
after the infamous Friar Bartholome de las Casas, a Dominican
missionary whose voice of support for the rights and fair treatment
of the natives became the loudest and most powerful of Spanish
imperialism, convinced Charles V to outlaw the encomienda system
in the empire. Las Casas saw that the system was not only failing to
meet neither the educative nor the religious needs of the natives, but
that it was actually denying them their simple physical needs as well.
In short, the encomienda system that was, in theory, set in place to
protect the natives was, in reality, actually harming them. Las Casas
claimed that the settlers had not the time nor the initiative to properly
educate or even care for the natives in their possession; the charges
set forth nearly half a century earlier in the Laws of Burgos were
clearly being ignored by the settlers of New Spain.78
Charles Vs Leyes Nuevas of 1542 were created in response to
the concerns of Las Casas, and served as a sort of call for sweeping
reform that truly was aimed to recreate and reorganize the young
empire. Of primary importance, it formally and legally ended the
encomienda system, formally instituting all natives of the empire as
78 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 12

subjects of the Spanish Crown. The Leyes Nuevas also set forth the
guidelines under which Charles V could consolidate the vast Spanish
territorial holdings and establish his sovereignty over all people and
lands that had been claimed by Spain. By ending the encomienda
system and recognizing the natives as subjects, he now had direct
authority over them.79
Now that the Crown was attempting to place itself so firmly
into the territories the conquistadors had claimed, it would begin to
implement its more long-term goals for its empire. The implied
message of the Leyes Nuevas was not so much that the Crown was
cognizant of the poor treatment that the natives had suffered thus far
and wanted to make right such a poor situation. Rather, it was that
now the Crown was beginning to recognize the magnitude of the
empire the conquistadors had claimed for Spain, and now wanted to
assert some of its power. Charles V, who characteristically ruled
with the long-term vision of the empire in mind, saw the economic
and political benefits of Castilianized natives. His advocating
education for the natives was hardly altruistic; there was a
usefulness of education, for it would create educated subjects, who
so would surely be more submissive and easier to rule from all the
way across the Atlantic.80
79 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 13.
80 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 14; Madariaga, Salvador de. The Rise of
the Spanish American Empire: The Indispensable History of the New
Worlds First Colonial Empire. (New York: The Free Press, 1947), p.

Legislation from this point on was still difficult to uphold and
often ignored by settlers. However, the Leyes Nuevas of 1542 mark
a turning point in the administration of the empire. Charles Vs
long-term vision for the empire was now being carried out, and he
expected natives to accept the culture of civility of Castile. This is
the point from where the final conquest, or the cultural conquest, of
America began. Legislation for the expanded empire tried to
guarantee that social and cultural habits -not only of infidels at
home, but also of Indians abroad -be shed in favor of Castilian
Christian practices.81 From conquest did not simply mean a
physical presence in New Spain. Rather, it meant a forced
imposition of the Castiian civilization onto the virtual nakedness of
The last conquest of America is surely the most dramatic and
most lasting of all. Consequently, this conquest took over 200
years to complete. Signs of Castilian cultural gradually established
themselves in New Spain, and today, though Spain no longer has any
political claim to Mexico, the administration of its empire over 500
years ago has created a lasting Spanish presence there that will
forever remain the legacy of Spanish imperialism. After the Spanish
took Mexico in the conquest of the Aztec Empire, it set forth the
transplanting of the institutions and the ways of life of the Castilian
to the very different conditions of the new continent82 The culture
81 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 7
82 Elliot, Imperial Spain, p. 67.

of Spain was very intentionally being transplanted into Mexico
through the administration of the empire. Edmundo OGorman,
quoted by Fuentes, could not have been more precise when he
claimed that America was not discovered, it was invented.83
The Settlers
How this invention of Mexico occurred is much embedded
both in the history of the administration of the Spanish Empire and
the people who came from Spain to settle it. Having perhaps been
unprepared to rule such an immense territory which was inhabited by
such vastly different peoples, the Spanish Crown did not always
make the wisest administrative decisions. Certainly the disguising
of slavery through the encomienda system was one of its mistakes.
However ruthless, or naive, the Crown may have seemed for having
authorized such a system in the first place, it believed that it was,
indeed, acting in the most Christian way it possibly could given the
nature of the work that was required to mine gold, and, more
importantly, the nature of the men who had gone to the New World
to settle it. These were not particularly decent men; they were
typically single men, hoping to escape the confines of the fuedal
system of Spain, to make a fresh start and hopefully gain wealth and
83 Fuentes, The Buried Mirror, p. 124.

Unlike the settlers of North America, the settlers of New Spain
did not come with families hoping to farm the land by their own
hands. Rather, they came eager to exploit both the land and the
natives of the Indies for their own profit. Fiercely driven by the
desire for wealth, they often acted capriciously, with little concern
for the Crown and its wishes. They were hardly concerned with the
rights of the indigenous natives, and had little remorse for exploiting
them through forced labor.84
From the very start, the men who came to New Spain from
Spain were desperately searching for a better lot in life and were out
only to better themselves. They had little intention of taking root
and settling permanently there, so the natives, whom they regarded
as alien, uncivilized, and barbaric, were quite easy to abuse and
exploit. Opportunity and wealth drove these men; when they had
achieved a conquest, some chose to settle, others quickly returned to
Spain with any booty, such as gold or other New World
commodities, they had won. Still others waited for new entradas
(enterprises of conquest) to come along. After the initial settlement
of New Spain, there was constant replenishment of Spanish
emigrants who came across the Atlantic looking for work, hoping for
land and a better lot in life that the New World, not Spain, could
provide. While at first a few men from Cortes social caste in Spain,
the hildago class, came over, emigrants throughout much of the
84 Momer, Magnus. Race Mixture in the History of Latin America
(Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1967, p. 15; Williamson,
History of Latin America, p. 80.

sixteenth century consisted mainly of laborers, artisans, traders,
soldiers, and sailors. There was an intentional lack of aristocrats in
this surge of emigration, but during this time even some African
slaves and mulattoes (Afncan-Amerindian mixed-blood) from Iberia
began to populate New Spain. Most of the Spanish emigration was
in relatively small numbers, and there were not systematic
colonization patterns, nor was there a federal Spanish regulating
agency to oversee or administer the colonization of the empire.
Once in New Spain, these men were given a virtual carte blanche to
do whatever they pleased. The distance from the Crown granted by
the Atlantic Ocean made rulings from it almost unnoticeable to the
settlers; for them, disregarding royal policy in the empire was very
easy and often the norm.85
By and large, the goals of the settlers were adventure, wealth,
and simple setf-fulfillment. Even the men who chose to stay and
settle gained social advancement that they probably would not have
found in Spain. Because the Spanish settlers tended to colonize
regions that were already densely populated by natives, they
advanced to the top of the social stratum of imperial society.
However, most natives were able to remain separate from the
Europeans, either in their native pueblos (areas within urban centers
populated by New Spains natives), in congregaciones (villages
created for the Amerindians where they could be taught the
85 Hairing, The Spanish Empire, p. 200;. Williamson, History of Latin
America, pp. 77,80-83.

fundamentals of Christianity), or in missions in rural areas of the
country created for them by Spanish friars. In Spanish New World
society, natives fell to the bottom of the social stratum, even below
the African-Amerindian mixed bloods known as mulattoes.
Naturally, fidl-blooded Spaniards from Iberia, regardless of how
unsavory their character, occupied the top of the structure, with their
off-spring constituting the second class, known as criollos.
Mestizos, or the cross-breeding of Spanish and Amerindians, created
the third class, which was the most populous group in New Spain.
Despite the fidl-blooded Amerindians low-ranking within New
Spains social structure, they were considered to be lower -class
subjects of the Spanish Crown rather than slaves in a conquered
land.85 86
The one member of society that is conspicuously absent from
this description of the social stratum in New Spain is the friar. In the
history of imperialism, the presence and, indeed, importance of
missionaries in the empire is quite unique to that of the Spanish. The
role of the missionary in the Spanish Empire is critical; they were
typically appalled by the exploitation that the natives received from
the Spanish settlers, and their distaste for this behavior was loudly
voiced to the Crown. From the earliest days of the empire, the
missionaries were in constant battle with the settlers over the rights
85 Loprete, Carlos A. and Dorothy McMahon. Iberoamerica: Sintesis
de su cmlizacion. (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1965), pp.
108-109; Williamson, History of Latin America, p. 100.

of the indigenous. For the conquistadors and settlers of New Spain,
had much more on their minds than the well-being of the alien
population of the land they had conquered and sought to exploit for
their own benefit. It was perhaps the manner in which the empire
was first administered, with neglect and vacillation, that made it so
chaotic and uncontrolled during its earliest years. Historically, the
colonization of New Spain had been a strange mix of private
initiative and governmental order. The conquistadors hurried across
the Atlantic from Spain seeking fortune and adventure; the Crown
then tried, unsuccessfully at most times, to install order and royal
presence in the areas claimed by the conquistadors. However, what
the Crown failed to recognize was that the very characteristics that
made the conquistadors successful at conquest-audacity,
capriciousness, and ferocity- made them extremely difficult to
govern. Once under Cstilian dominion, the Crown attempted to
exercise the authority that it rightly had in the territory, but very
often the settlers either disregarded the Crowns order of disobeyed
it completely. And since the settlers of New Spain and the empire
were not typically of high social stature in Spain (many of them, like
those on Columbus second voyage, were even criminals), they were
unconcerned with the Crowns laws passed on to them from all the
way across the Atlantic. If the Crown was searching for a way in
which to civilize and Christianize the peoples of New Spain, the

conquistadors and settlers, as the failure of the encomienda system
proved, were clearly not the answer.87
The Ecclesiastics
For the Crown, the choice people who could be held
responsible for protecting, civilizing, and Christianizing the
Amerindians came to be the ecclesiastacy, who were sent to provide
missionary work in the empire. The large distance from Spain
granted the opportunity for misconduct in New Spain. What resulted
was blatant disobedience of royal policy and ruthless exploitation of
subjugated natives. The monarch never intended for such
exploitation to exist, and in an effort to better oversee the activities
of the settlers, European missionaries were sent over to civilize and
protect the natives from the selfish exploitation of the Spanish
settlers. Unlike the settlers, the missionaries were not on a self-
fulfilling mission for riches or adventure, nor were they so quick to
judge the natives as barbaric and uncivilized. The focus of the
ecclesiastics was not on exploiting both the natural resources and
native labor of the territoiy for their own self-fulfillment Rather,
the clergy was willing to perform the civilizing goal that the
Crown had set for the New World and for New Spain. For they were
not part of the traditional feudal system that the settlers were not
ironically recreating in New Spain. They were part of the more
87 Harring, The Spanish Empire, pp. 79,82.

utilitarian, less traditional culture that embraced the native
substratum and sought to blend it into the emerging culture of the
New World.88
The clergy was separated into two groups: the regulars, known
as friars, who were members of some group of a European religious
order, and the seculars, or the parish priests and prelates who were
servants of the Catholic Church but not associated with any religious
order. It was their job it was to run community parishes perform
religious rites, administer sacraments, and perform Mass, and they
answered to the bishops who were the leaders of the Catholic Church
both in Spain and in the colonies. By and large, the regulars were
well-schooled in the fifteenth-century humanist tradition. Such
training gave them an open-mindedness that welcomed the
differences of the indigenous cultures, preventing them to only see
them as the settlers did: as barbaric and uncivilized. In New
Spain, they established themselves typically outside of large
populated areas, and the seculars, who were much less numerous,
ministered mostly to Spaniards within municipalies.89
The first friars to arrive in the Indies were of the Italian order
of Franciscan. They arrived in the Indies as early as 1500, but it was
not until 1524 that they finally arrived in New Spain. The
Dominicans, a Spanish order, arrived in Santo Domingo in 1510.
88 Harring, The Spanish Empire, pp. 82, 172. Picon-Salas, A Cultural
History of Spanish America, p. 50.
89 Harring, The Spanish Empire, p. 172; Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 21.

After the conquest of Mexico, a group of twelve Franciscan friars
arrived in Vera Cruz in 1524, followed by twelve Dominicans in
1526. Other followed, including the Augustinians in 1533 and the
Jesuits who arrived in 1568 and established their missions in the
northern section of Mexico, thus completing the era to which Liss
refers to as the missionary thrust of the conquest of Mexico. At
first, the Dominican Order stood out as the real champions for the
rights of the natives, but later importance and the influence of the
Franciscans and the Jesuits surpassed that of the Dominicans, and
they became the most active missionary Orders.90
The missionary began its critical role in the Spanish Empire
from their earliest imperial pursuits. Friar Bernal Boyl,
accompanied by twelve other friars from various Orders, was aboard
Columbus second voyage to the Indies in 1493. These men began
the missionary work that was to become so characteristic of the
Spanish Empire. Unlike the settlers, most missionaries, but not all
(some were as vicious and cruel as the settlers) tended to follow the
lead of the first man to question the rights of the natives in the New
World, Antonio de Montesinos, who saw the cruel treatment of the
natives on the island of Hispaniola in 1511 and asked: .. .by what
right do you keep these Indians in cruel servitude?... Are these not
90 Harring, The Spanish Empire, pp. 171, 172,212; Heath, Telling
Tongues, p. 22; Liss, Mexico Under Spain, p. 123; Picon-Salas, A
Cultural History of Spanish America, p. 48. Williamson, History of
Latin America, p. 99.

men? Have they not rational souls?91 De Montesinos words
sparked an largely contested dispute over the rights of the natives
between the regular clergy and the settlers. His ideals were
championed by many subsequent members of the regular clergy, but
perhaps the one man that stands out as the voice for the indigenous
was Dominican Friar Bartholeme de las Casas.92
Las Casas arrived on Hispaniola with Ovanda in 1502,
following his father who was an estate owner on the island. He
received his religious orders in 1510, and then accompanied
Valazquez in the occupation of Cuba. There he received an
encomienda, (it was customary that members of the Orders could act
as encomenderos). However, he came to conclude that the system
was criminally cruel, and spent the rest of his life championing the
natives rights cause. He went to New Spain in 1531 and was
entitled Protector of the Indians and, later, in 1543, became Bishop
of Chiapas. Throughout his time, his voice was loud, his opinions
notorious both in New Spain and in Castile. He continuously
trekked across the Atlantic, ensuring that the Crown was aware of
his ideology and exerting an enormous influence in its legislation
and policy making. It was out of response to his concerns that
Charles V shifted the responsibility of the natives education from
91 Fuentes, The Buried Mirror, p. 125.
92Harring, The Spanish Empire, p. 170.

the encomenderos to the missionaries in the Leyes Nuevas of 1542.
Las Casas and other missionaries came to play a pivotal role in
New Spain. Their presence in New Spain became evangelical but
also quite utilitarian. Friars, many of them barefoot and clad in
patched homespun, were of tremendous help to Charles V, one of
the most powerful European rules, in imposing Spanish domination
over New Spain.93 94 From very early in the Spanish Empire, and
certainly by the time of Charles Vs rule, there was a duality to the
mission of the friar in New Spain. Their presence was, indeed,
evangelical, but it also helped Spain more strongly and permanently
establish herself in New Spain, for the missionaries alone drew the
Indians into the imperial system that was now governing New Spain
and helped to pacify them through religious education and eventual
conversion to both the religion and culture of Spain.95
Because they were so important in the civilizing of the New
World, European missionaries were enticed to leave their work and
study in Europe to go to the New World. Hoping to avoid the
disastrous problems between the heathen savages that Columbus
and his men first encountered in the Indies, the Crown was anxious
to get on with the task of evangelizing New Spains Amerindians.
93 Harring, The Spanish Empire, pp. 44-45; Heath, Telling Tongues, p.
13. Liss, Mexico Under Spain, p. 70.
94 Liss, Mexico Under Spain, p. 69.
95 Harring, The Spanish Empire, p. 172; Liss, Mexico Under Spain, p. 69.

The Spanish Crown summoned European missionaries to New Spain
and offered to transport them to the Indies free of charge by
viceroyals and bishops. Once there, they were provided living
quarters and most necessary supplies also by the Crown. Thus, then-
obvious tie with the Crown makes the question of exactly who the
missionaries answered to convoluted. While they were associated
with the Catholic Church, their organization was not as clear-cut as
that of the secular clergy. The inherent relationship between Church
and State ultimately made them accountable to the Crown itself, an
association that would hinder the progress of both groups imperial
goals as the empire progressed. Their spread of Christianity quickly
penetrated New Spain, and bishopric offices began to be established
into each new colony. Clement VII was the first Bishop to serve
New Spain. He was appointed to the office in 1519 and served the
Cozumel/Yucatan area Later the bishopric office of New Spain
moved to Tlazcala in 1525 and then finally to Puebla de los Angeles.
Forty years later, there were at least seven bishopric dioceses in New
Spain, and by 1574 there would be over 75 of what Harring calls
religious houses in New Spain.96
In New Spain, the various missionary orders were designated
sections of territory in which they were to provide protection and
religious education. Trained in traditionally fifteenth-century
humanistic philosophy, there were skilled linguists. Despite this,
96 Harring, The Spanish Empire, pp. 170-173; Williamson, History of
Latin America, p. 64.

they were hardly prepared for the tremendous linguistic
differentiation that existed throughout New Spain. The former Aztec
Empire may have united its subjects politically, but linguistically,
they were extremely independent Knowing this, bishops divided
New Spain into sections, each one to be taken by friars from various
The Franciscans were put in charge of the areas of Puebla and
the Mexico City region because of their early experience with
Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec themselves. They spread out to
the east and west of Mexico City. The Dominican Order was put in
charge of the area south of Mexico City (the modem states of
Morelos and Puebla) and of the Oaxaca Valley. The Augustinians
chose to establish themselves in areas that were desirable due to
proximity to Mexico City or to favorable climate and agricultural
potential. Therefore, their area was somewhat scattered and random:
south of the Dominican missions at Morelos and Puebla, north into
what is now the modem state of Hidalgo, and west atMichoacan.
The Jesuits did not arrive in New Spain until relatively later,
reportedly in 1568, but upon arrival, went out and established
missions mostly in unpopulated frontiers of New Spain, mostly in
the area of Nueva Bizcaya.98
97 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 21.
98 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 22; Williamson, History of Latin America,
p. 99.

The friars were the real link between the natives and
Castile. In their respective, mostly unpopulated, territories, they
established missions and built churches, seeking to teach, protect the
natives and rid them of their gold gods and heathen ways through
religious education and eventual conversion. Though formal
education was not formally put under their responsibility until the
Leyes Nuevas in 1542, even prior to this they still inadvertently were
exerting an enormous influence over the natives and their cultural
education. Though they were serving a dual mission, both to pacify
the natives, the primary workforce in New Spain, and to educate
them in the principles of the Christian faith, the friars themselves
were most focused on the latter. They took their charge quite
seriously, embracing it with enthusiasm and innovation, always
using what they, not the Crown, considered be the most useftd and
effective ways to bring the Castilian culture into the lives of the
natives. Unlike the settlers of New Spain, the friars saw the natives
as rational beings, an ideology that helped the missionary culture
grow and increase its influence with royal imperial policy."
Due to the failure of the encomienda system. the responsibility
of educating the natives fell, perhaps by default, on to the
missionaries. The Leyes Nuevas of 1542 formalized this charge.
To the Crown, they seemed to be the logical choice to serve as the
educators of the natives. They were unconcerned with national pride
or patriotism to Castile, and their primary aim was to spread the
99 Liss, Mexico Under Spain, p. 70.

faith. The Franciscans had established schools for Amerindians in
New Spain as early as 1523. Their most influential school, La
Escuela de San Francisco, was established by Franciscan Fray Pedro
de Gante. However, perhaps the most well known and controversial
native school was the secondary school, Colegio de Santa Cruz,
which was established in 1536 in Tlaltelolco, the native quarter of
Mexico City. Bom out of the humanistic tradition, this school
focused on the teaching of the classics, including Latin, rhetoric,
logic, philosophy, and music. It lasted only twenty years because of
controversy over its teaching of Christianity through Latin.. These
two schools represent only two examples of the missionaries early
attempts to establish formal education for the natives in New
The role and importance of the friar cannot be underestimated
in the history of New Spain. Their need grew quickly out of the
Crowns desire to have both educated and Christian citizens both in
Iberia and in the colonies. For it was the Crowns rule was all-
encompassing: religious, military and political adherence were all
one in the same, and the clergy would be the best vehicle through
which to spread this belief. The relationship between throne and
alter, sealed by the marriage of Isabel and Ferdinand in 1564, gave
the Crown the authority over the Church.Under their charge, the
missionaries were to educate the natives in Christianity, good
100 Haring, The Spanish Empire, p. 209. Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 16.

customs, civility and the Castilian tongue.101 Such conformity to
the culture of Castile would not occur in schools or through formal
teaching; it would happen gradually, over the first two centuries of
the empire. Though this task would not be a simple or easy one, but
it would create the most lasting imperial force in all the Spanish
The charge to provide religious education to the natives was so
much more complex than neither the Crown nor the missionaries
realized. Differences in ideology gradually began to arise in the
relationship between the Church and Crown, primarily the
missionaries confidence in the rights of the natives versus the
Crowns belief that it was destined to control and subjugate them.
However, the more troublesome problem, broad linguistic diversity,
was also becoming a very real issue that only worsened the
ideological tensions. As the missionaries gradually settled into the
various regions to which the Orders were designated, it came to be
realized that New Spain encompassed extremely diverse linguistic
conditions that would make the task of teaching the faith very
arduous. Because pre-Columbian New Spain was populated by so
many different tribes, each having its own tongue, the Orders were
walking into a veritable Tower of Babylon. The various tribes that
inhabited the jurisdictions of the Orders all spoke different
languages, thus making communication extremely difficult, if not
impossible. In their jurisdiction, the Franciscans encountered
101 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 14.

speakers of Nahuatl, Otomi, Matlalzina, and Tarascan. The
dominion of the Dominican Order put them into contact with
speakers of Mixtec, Zapotec, and Chontal. The Augustinians, whose
jurisdiction was somewhat random, met with the most number of
tribes and therefore the most number of languages. They
encountered Otomi, Haustec, and Totanac in the eastern section of
their dominion, Tarascan and Matlalzinca in the Michoacan area,
and the languages of Tlapanec and Ocuilec in what is now the
eastern-border of the modem state Guerrero.102
This was perhaps the most perplexing issue that
Christianizing the native posed for the ecclesiastics sent to
evangelize. How could they teach Christianity with such a divisive
language barrier ? From very early on, even bishops were aware that
it would be language that would create the biggest problem for the
evangelical goals of the Crown. It came to be known that the natives
were understanding veiy little of what was being preached to them;
how could they be expected to shed their heathen ways for a
Christian God that they did not fully understand? Language would
make the Christianizing of the natives very difficult, but the
humanistic missionaries would find ways to solve the problem.
Such solutions also came to have a heavy impact in the developing
linguistic policy of New Spain.103
102 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 32; Williamson, History of Latin
America, pp. 64-65.
103 Harring, The Spanish Empire, pp. 171-173.

The emergence of the language problem
The language problem in New Spain was a complex one. It
was more of an issue than simply Spanish versus Nahuatl, the
language of the Aztec. What really existed in New Spain was a
collection of various Indian tongues (at least eleven encountered
throughout the missionaries dominions) that had been spoken by the
many tribes conquered by the Aztec who became part of the Aztec
Empire. If the Spanish intended to convert New Spains natives,
they would first have to communicate with them. Clearly, the issue
of Christianizing was not as simple as it may have seemed; language
and conversion went hand in hand.104
No one understood this dilemma more than the missionaries,
who had come to New Spain to provide religious instruction to the
natives. They were prepared to do so through whatever means
possible. Because their goal was conversion to the Christian faith
rather than to the Castilian culture, they were willing to learn the
many indigenous languages of New Spain and instruct the natives in
their own tongues. To the missionaries, the use of native languages
was a matter of necessity, not of principle, and they understood from
104 Madariage, The Rise of the Spanish-American Empire, pp. 30-31.

the start how the use of native languages in the teaching of
Christianity would lead to more complete understanding of the faith,
which was the goal of the missionaries.105
Native education, or perhaps it would be more appropriately
called Christianization, had to be indiscriminately and thorough.
This education was primarily administered by religious men and was
primarily for religious purposes. From early on in the plan to
Christianize, no real effort was made to teach the natives the
Castilian language. This was not a concern of the Crowns until
Charles Vs reign in the mid-sixteenth century when the long-term
goals for the empire began to dictate royal imperial policy. Until this
point, language was not an issue, for it was of primary importance to
teach the natives the fundamentals of Christianity. It was believed
that this could be done easier and render more complete
understanding of the faith if instruction was delivered in the natives
languages. Therefore, the earliest solution to the language problem
was to surrender the spread of the Castilian language for the more
pragmatic sustained use of indigenous languages.106
This solution was accepted by the missionaries, who had
been trained in the humanistic tradition of fifteenth-century Europe.
They were quick to recognize the cultural and academic value of the
natives languages and their contribution to the world culture. Not
105 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 22.
106 Madariage, The Rise of the Spanish-American Empire, p. 31.

only were they prepared to learn these languages and preach in them,
they published grammars and dictionaries for them as well. In
coding the native languages, missionaries were in essence
validating them. In addition, universities opened departments and
assigned chairpersons to oversee the teaching of native languages
mostly to missionaries and administrative officials. In the mid-
sixteenth century, the missionaries recognized the aesthetic value of
Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec. They began to propose its
institution as official language of New Spains natives, citing many
of its attributes, such as its unique ability for precise expressiveness,
in their argument However, the future linguistic policy of New
Spain would eventually render the indigenous languages less
important and less needed, and the sociolinguistics that evolve in the
colony by the mid-eighteenth century to make the Spanish the
conquering language over those native to the area107
Background to linguistic imperialism
With the arrival of the religious men to spread the faith,
language quickly became a real issue. Teaching Christianity was
really a matter of linguistic importance, for it could not be taught
without first coming to some sort of linguistic policy. What
language, the natives or Castilian, would be used to teach the
107 Heath, Telling Tongues, pp. 15, 18, 19,25. Madariage, The Rise of
the Spanish-American Empire, pp. 31-32.

Europeans religion? Like much imperial legislation, the Crown
greatly vacillated in establishing linguistic policy.
The territory that the Spanish claimed was, indeed, vast. So too
was the diversity of the aboriginal peoples who inhabited the
territory both before and after Columbus arrival. Such diverse
peoples created a broad linguistic diversity in the Spanish Empire.
Of the indigenous tribes who inhabited North and South America,
there existed some 123 speech families, all of which were
independent of each other and respectively unique. Twenty-six of
these languages existed north of the Rio Grande River, in the modem
day United States, twenty more existed in Central America, and
seventy-seven were in South America. The Spanish, who, once
having claimed much of this large territory and established their
dominion, now not simply wanted to communicate with the speakers
of these diverse languages, they intended to teach the complex
fundamental of Christianity to them. Their task would clearly not be
a simple one.
Beginning with the Columbus first arrival in the Indies, the
Castilian began to encounter many of these languages. Columbus
first arrived in the Bahaman Islands, and language of that first native
tribe, the Arawaks, was the first of these many languages
encountered. Their language, like their tribe, was called Arawak and
it began the process of giving names for the many novelties the
Spanish were encountering for the first time. Indeed, many of the
new things that the Spanish were seeing and experiencing for the

first time begun to be referred to using their Arawak names, and
gradually, they found their way into the everyday vernacular of the
speakers of Castilian.108
The novelties that Columbus and the Castilians he brought with
him to the New World were previously unknown to both them and to
the peoples and culture of Castile. Therefore, the names of these
things were provided by the culture from which they came. (Table
4.1) Arawak, being the first tribe encountered, has had perhaps the
greatest impact on the lexicon of modem Spanish. The words it
donated into Spanish are generally accepted to the first American
loan words and are used in the lexicon of modem Spanish and in all
parts of the Spanish-speaking world, including modem Spain.
Interestingly, the words were donated into Spanish because they
provided names for cultural novelties that the Castilian language had
no words for because the Castilian culture had never been exposed to
such novelties.109
108 Spaulding, How Spanish Grew, pp. 232-235.
109 Resnick, Historia de la lengua espanola, p. 134.

tuna fish
sweet potato
chili pepper
Columbus did not stay long in the friendly Arawak territory.
He went on to explore other islands, quickly encountering the much
less friendly Caribe tribe on the island of modem Cuba. These
Indians were fierce warriors and cannibals, and their language,
Caribe, actually consisted of two separate speeches, one for men and
one for women, Like Arawak, it too provided the names for
previously unknown novelties of its culture which were then
incorporated into the speech of the explorers and later transported to
the rest of the Americas and back to Spain. (Table 4.2) Caribe is
now extinct, but its influence on Spanish survives in its loan words
These words and the things they represent had never been seen or
experienced by the European explorers. Though neither Arawak nor
Caribe had the prestige nor wide-spread use as the Aztec languages
or the Incan language, Quechua, they experienced a wide diffusion
throughout the developing Spanish-speaking world due to the
conquistadors and missionaries who quickly adapted these words

into their own vocabularies and then spread then outward with their
conquests and missionary work.110
manatee fish
As Columbus and the initial explorers further explored the
Indies, he encountered more and more peoples and their different
languages. They brought with them the loan words they had
borrowed from previous tribes and languages encountered, mostly
those of the Arawak and the Caribe, therefore exposing these words
to new linguistic conditions and introducing their usage to them. In
Honduras, each individual village spoke it own unique language,
making the region linguistically quite complex. The Honduran
linguistic condition was quite representative of many others of
Central America. Such languages could not contribute much that
was serviceable to the invaders, who borrowed freely again only
when they encountered the high culture and simplified linguistic
conditions of central Mexico.111
110 Spaulding, How Spanish Grew, pp. 234-235. Resnick, Historia de la
lengua espanola, p. 135.
111 Spaulding, How Spanish Grew, pp. 234-235.

Though the Aztec Empire of central Mexico consisted of the
amalgamation of various Amerindian tribes under the imperial Aztec
Confederation, the four principle languages of the Empire would
donate to the entire Spanish-speaking world many names for objects
common to all Spanish America. Nahuatl, the langauge of the
imperial Aztec, was by far the most prevalent language in the Aztec
Empire. Other langauges, which were spoken by the Amerindians of
the tribes who had been conquered by the Aztec included Zapotek,
Mixtek, and Hia-Hiu, a highly unique and mysterious language
spoken by the Otomi Indians of Mexico. These four languages
constituted the four principle languages of the Aztec Empire, but, as
the missionaries discovered, many other minor languages existed in
tribes that had yet to be conquered by the Aztec of in tribes that still
retained their own native tongue despite Aztec dominion.112
The impact of the languages of the Aztec Empire, primarily
that of the Nahuatl language, cannot be underestimated. The Aztec
Empire was essentially the first encounter that the Europeans had
with a complex society or a relative civilization by European terms
in the Americas, so it offered them a great deal of culture which had
to explained and named. Since the Aztec civilization was more
civilized in European terms, it offered many new objects which
had not been known in the Antilles, and the circumstance that
Mexico belongs to a distinct floral and faunal region caused the
112 Heath, Telling Tongues p. 22. Spaulding, How Spanish Grew, p.

Spaniards to learn here many new names of animals and plants.113
Since this was the earliest major conquest in the creation of the
Spanish Empire, it had perhaps the greatest impact on both the
Spanish that would eventually develop in Mexico and that of the
entire future Spanish-speaking world. As the conquistadors explored
the new territory and began to incorporate the many new words they
had to use to call the many new objects, plants and animals they
were encountering, Such words gradually became quite
commonplace and were later taken on further conquests and
missions and spread throughout the remains of the Incan Empire in
Pem and the rest of Spanish occupied South America.114
Indeed, many of the objects the Spanish witnessed for the first
time in the former Aztec Empire are now known as quintessential^
Mexican. (Table 4.3). Nahuatl, the primary language used in the
empire, has loaned to Spanish words for many of its best-known
cultural contributions to world civilization at large. These do not
just represent linguistic loans to the Spanish language, but also
cultural loans to the Castilian culture.115
113 Spaulding, How Spanish Grew, p. 235.
114 Spaulding, How Spanish Grew, p. 235.
115 Resnick, Historia de la lengua espanola, p. 135.


Overview: 1521-1550
The making of rational linguistic policy was slow in coming.
The conquest of the Aztecs was completed by 1520, but it was not
until 1550 that the first official linguistic policy was actually passed
down by the Crown. Until then, the inhabitants of New Spain,
primarily the settlers and the missiories, determined the language
policy. The settlers, who occupied the top of the social stratum in
New Spain, conducted their business in Spanish. The missionaries
were having much success in learning the native tongues and
preaching Christianity with them. Spanish was the language of
Spanish society and commerce, and native languages remained
intact, being used by both European missionaries and Amerindians
in the religious sect of society.116
These early years were conspicuously absent of royal presence.
The settlers abused the encomienda system, taking its free labor and
ignoring their responsibilities to care for and educate the natives
under their care. Convinced by Las Casas and other ecclesiastics
that change was urgent, Charles V passed the Leyes Nuevas in
1542. This law ended the encomienda system and placed the
responsibility of native education formally onto the missionaries.
116 Heath, Telling Tongues, pp. 18-20.

Charles V was perhaps strongest ruler of imperial Spain, and unlike
his predecessors, he recognized Spains long-term vision for the
empire and ruled accordingly. As such, in 1550 he made perhaps his
most intrusive royal decree. Despite strong opposition from
clergymen, he decreed that all natives be Castilianized and learn
the Castilian language. Charles V believed that subjects of the
Spanish Empire would be easier to control if they were Spanish-
speaking. His policy was clear, and probably would have been the
most effective imperial policy if it had been adhered to by New
Spains missionaries. Because they so strongly believed that the
natives could best learn Christianity in their own languages, the
missionaries blatantly disregarded this law and continued to carry
out religious education in the indigenous languages of New Spain.117
Though Charles made his wishes clear, the friars continued to
learn, teach and preach in native tongues. They employed translators
or interpreters to communicate the faith to the natives in Nahuatl,
then translated for the friars. They continued this process, teaching
Christianity either through Amerindian students who had become
bilingual or by using such resources to learn the languages
themselves and teaching in them. Meeting with initial success, the
friars became encouraged and realized what a powerful tool they
possessed in the learning of native languages.118
117 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 20.
118 Heath, Telling Tongues, pp. 18-19. Madariage, The Rise of the
Spanish -American Empire, pp. 31-32.

Had it been followed, Charles Vs 1550 decree would have
done much to guarantee Spains imperial hold on New Spain. This
was a critical point in the empires history; the land had been taken,
and the Crown was now attempting to govern it. However, by
ignoring the kings decree, the settlers and the missionaries did not
allow the Crown to justly exercise its power. The Crown was simply
attempting to extend the culture of the mother culture to the colonies.
This was standard imperial practice for the day, and it would have
brought unity and conformity to the colonies that, like Charles
believed, would have made governing easier and more effective.
Charles was more concerned with the long-term welfare of the
empire than with the immediate, more pragmatic methods that the
missionaries were employing. To continue to spread of indigenous
languages was simply postponing the inevitable; he was confident
that Spain would retain its foothold in New Spain, and that natives
would not only have to surrender to the religion of Spain, but to its
language and culture as well. Charles had acknowledged that there
was, indeed, a great need to teach the natives Christianity, but he had
concluded that it had been successfully taught and that it was now
time to take the most crucial step in the process of ftill conquest It
was time to begin the Castilianization of the Amerindians. His
successor, Phillip II came to set a dangerous precedent in 1565 when

he capitulated to the missionaries and began the pattern of vacillation
that became characteristic of the linguistic policy in New Spain119
Linguistic imperialism, which is the lasting impact of Spanish
imperialism, was very slow in coming, and it only occurred after
close to 200 years of vacillation and indecision. As Table 5.1 shows,
the various kings throughout Spanish imperialism each attempted to
create policy that he thought appropriate, often contradicting both
past and subsequent policy. By 1728, when Charles II passed the
final decree ordering that Castilian be made the official language in
New Spain, Spanish had already inadvertently achieved official
status. Despite royal policy, the inhabitants of New Spain-the
settlers, the ecclesiastics, and the natives, had determined over the
200 years of Spanish dominion that Spanish would be the official
language in New Spanish society.
TABLE 5.1: History of Linguistic Policy in New Spain
Advertent and Inadvertent Linguistic Policy:
Principle versus Practice 1550-1728
1550: Charles V
1565: Phillip II
1570: Phillip n
1603: Phillip ffl
1634: Phillip IV
1728: Charles II
All Spanish
All indigenous
All indigenous
All Spanish
All Spanish
(in response to Amerindians
formal plea in that same year)
Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 19

During the first 50 years of Spanish dominion in New Spain,
and actually well into the eighteenth century, friars remained
convinced that the most meaningful and efficient conversion of the
natives would have to come through preaching in their native
tongues. Consequently, they never adhered to the Crowns earliest
wished that the natives be taught to speak Spanish. They blatantly
disregarded Charles Vs 1550 decree in which he ordered that all
Spanish subjects of the Empire leam Spanish. It was thought that
the indigenous languages were more functional and practical, and by
using them in the instruction of the faith, it would expedite
conversions and make more thorough their understanding of
Christian doctrine. It was with this argument that the missionaries
confronted Phillip II, and it was under this belief that the King
contradicted Charles Vs 1550 decree and ordered in 1565 that all
missionaries leam the respective languages of the natives under their
educative charge.120
Like the settlers, the friars we well aware of the distance and
freedom from the Crown that the Adantic Ocean granted them.
They, too, were quick to disregard any royal policy that was passed
down with which they did not agree. And so, despite the 1550
decree, the missionaries ignored Charles wishes that Amerindians
leam Spanish and continued with their own techniques to preach and
spread the faith. The kings long-range view represented in his
perhaps overly idealistic language policy of 1550 was hardly viable
120 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 20.

with the realities of day-to-day life in New Spain. Consequently,
Viceroy Luis de Velasco, in agreement with Fray Rodrigo de la
Cruz, proposed to Phillip II in 1558 that the best way to unify the
native population, linguistically at least, would be to make Nahautl,
the language of the Aztec, the official language of the natives of
New Spain. His plan included the establishing of a school in
Guadalajara to serve as the center in which Nahuatl would be taught
to young natives from all regions of New Spain. Once these few
natives were skilled in Nahuatl, they would return to their homes and
begin to spread the standard Nahuatl among their own tribes.
Valescos plan would help combat a serious problem which the
missionaries were increasingly facing: the difficulty in becoming
skilled in all of the respective languages of the various tribes under
the missionaries charge. This would be too challenging a task for
even the well-trained missionaries. Faced with such diverse
linguistic conditions, the missionaries linguistic diversify was too
challenging for the missionaries, despite their extensive humanistic
training and good intentions.121 /
The various jurisdictions that the missionaries held throughout
New Spains unpopulated territoiy put them into contact with at least
eleven native languages. In order to effectively reach all the natives
of these various tribes, the missionaries would soon became
convinced that they greatly needed to reduce the number of
121 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 21.

indigenous languages spoken in New Spain. They reasoned that the
most efficient way to unite the natives-linguistically, at least-would
be to finish what the Aztec had just begun: by spreading the Nahuatl
language throughout New Spain. Undoubtedly, the natives would
learn Nahualt easier than they would learn Castilian.122
Though Phillip II was presented with this problem in 1558, he
did not legislate according to the concerns of Fray de la Cruz until
1570. After some 50 years of pleading the regulars finally won the
battle over language. In a striking reversal of his fathers 1550
decree, Phillip II decreed in 1570 that Nahuatl be the official
language of New Spain. Such a move first required that the king
realized that not only his fathers 1550 decision to order that all
natives learn Castilian had failed, but so too had his own 1565 edict
in which he ordered the missionaries to learn the respect languages
of the natives under their charge. Certainly the spread of
Christianity was the primary motivation for Phillip; this being the
case, he finally realized that there could not exist enough polyglot
missionaries to be able to supply religious education in all native /
tongues. To assume so would be naive, but still there needed to be
an effective and efficient means by which missionaries could reach
and convert natives. Phillip turned to the only solution that was left,
and in July, 1570, decreed that all Indians shall learn one language,
122 Heath, Telling Tongues, pp. 23-24.

and that shall by the Mexican tongue (Nahautl), since it can most
easily be established as the universal language of the Indians.123
Unlike the earlier decrees, Phillips saw to it that his was
actually being upheld in New Spain. Under his mandate, no regular
or secular could attain ecclesiastic office without knowledge of
Nahuatl, nor could clerics who did not know the language of the
Aztec be allowed to take charge of any mission or parish. Also
under mandate of the king, the University of Mexico was ordered to
appoint a chairperson of Nahuatl, thus providing royal recognition of
the language as a field of study and financial backing form the
Crown should funds not be found to support the office of department
From the years 1570 to 1592, Phillip II supplied the ordinances
that forced Nahuatl to be the link between indigenous religions and
Christianity.125 He provided the royal forced that was needed to
make Nahuatl the path that connected the missionaries to their
heathen students. It seems somewhat ironic that in the beginning,
the native languages themselves were being used as the primary tool /
in the spiritual conquest of New Spain, The natives themselves
provided the tool with which the Spanish would take their faith from
them and force that of the Spanish onto them. The continued use of
123 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 26.
124 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 27.
125 Heath, Telling Tongues, p. 27.

native tongues, particularly that of Nahuatl, helped the Spanish
achieve yet another conquest of the Amerindians: the spiritual
However, neither the Crown nor the friars had considered the
long- term effects of sustained usage of native languages in New
Spain. Once young children had been schooled and achieved
literacy in either their native language or Nahuatl, the Crown found
itself in a difficult situation. Non-Spanish-speaking native children
served as a reminder that the Crowns long-term vision was
becoming more out of reach as more natives clung to and
perpetuated the use of their own languages. Consequently, like so
many times earlier in the course of governing the empire, changing
policy seemed eminent
Language was being exchanged through schools. Education in
the empire was not a simple issue. Though both the Crown and the
clergy had similar goals-to convert and Castilianize the native
population-one question constantly remained: which language,
Spanish, Latin, or indigenous, would be the most effective in /
meeting the goals of both the missionaries and the Crown. The need
for schools arose from the regular clergys need for linguistic
assistants, or natives who were trained in Latin or Spanish who could
then serve as an interpreter for the friars. Such secondary schools, or
colegios, were founded from very on. But it was the Colegio of
Santa Cruz de Hatelolco that brought about both the most successes
and the most opposition. It opened in 1536 with support from New

Spains first bishop, Fray Juan de Zumarraga and its first viceroy,
Antonio de Mendoza The regular clergy who ran the school taught
both Nahuatl and Latin, claiming that knowledge of Latin would
allow the students to understand the Bible. Moreover, they would
then be able to help preach to other natives and even translate
scriptures into Nahuatl. The teaching of Latin, the, helped spread
Nahuatl, for it would be the Aztec language in which the faith was
being preached by natives.126
The teaching of Latin produced native missionary assistants
who were able to use their knowledge of Latin to translate scripture
into Nahuatl and then preach to the natives. The knowledge of
Castilian, on the other hand, produced natives that served a more
secular need in the society of New Spain. Since Castilian was not a
major part of the curricula in many of the colegios established in the
first hundred years of the empire, few natives learned the language.
Any mastery of Spanish probably cam through daily interaction in
Spanish-speaking secular New Spain, or, occasionally, through
formal instruction in a few colegios. Some Franciscans eagerly /
taught a handful of young natives to speak Castilian, hoping that, as
bilinguists, they could translate Spanish texts into Nahuatl and thus
make available more reading materials for native students learning
Nahuatl. The few natives who had learned Spanish tended to fill
more secular needs in society, often working with governmental or
judicial services in New Spain. The teaching of Latin in colegios,
126 Heath, Telling Tongues, pp. 28-29.