By the time of the Anglo invasion of Mexico, starting with the Texas “Revolution” in 1836, the formation of a Mexican national identity was in the distant future. The original aboriginal peoples of modern-day Mexico reflected a complex blend of cultures to the extent that Michael C. Meyer and William L. Sherman, historians of Mexico, argue that, “[b]ecause of the great diversity in aboriginal Mexico, it is perhaps misleading to refer to any group as the ‘mother culture.’”
Three dominant pre-Hispanic cultures arose within Mexico’s present boundaries - the Teotihuacáno culture in the Valley of Mexico, the Zapotec culture around Monte Albán in present-day Oaxaca and the Maya societies in the Yucatan peninsula. These societies were less “empires” in the sense of the European model but loose confederations with similar languages, religious systems and agricultural practices.
The “Aztecs” who would serve as the cultural/racial symbol of Mexico in the post-Revolutionary era, in the words of Meyer and Sherman, were “upstarts, latecomers on the scene [of pre-Hispanic Mexico] . . . their rise to great power occurred less than a century before the advent of [Spanish military commander Fernando] Cortés in 1519.”
Though the Mexica tribe, who would lend their name to the Mexican nation, created a confederation that dominated central and southern Mexico, their empire never absorbed the loose Maya confederation in the Yucatan, the southern Pacific coast, the significant independent realms of the Tarascans and Tlaxcalans in the northeast, nor the nomadic “Chichimecs”in the semi-desert region of Northern Mexico. The peoples of the short-lived “Aztec Empire,” for the most part, shared the Nahuatl language and the broad outlines of a philosophy that has been condescendingly seen as “fatalistic” but that actually acknowledged cycles in the natural world and applied that rhythm to human society.
Time was cyclical, fortunes (with time) reversed, and the separation of the natural and the supernatural developing among Europeans of the 16th century did not exist in the Aztec world. Regardless of these broad similarities, as Meyer and Sherman point out, “[t]he so-called Aztec Empire was really a loose coalition of subject city-states that paid tribute to the imperial center. The lords of Anáhuac were not particularly desirous of colonizing conquered areas with their own people or of imposing their own political system; nor were they cultural imperialists. Rather, the collection of tribute, which kept the Valley culture prosperous, was their main concern.”
The “empire” Fernando Cortés perceived at the time of his conquest of the Valley of Mexico was largely a fiction. The Spanish conquistador was able to utilize deep divisions within the Aztec confederacy to speed his conquest of the realm from 1519-1521. The Aztecs were, in fact, an ethnic mélange that might be better understood as a trading association rather than a single people. The issue of ethnicity grew more complex after the conquest. The native population, with no previous exposure to European viruses, died by the millions after pandemics of smallpox and other European diseases.
The native population in the Valley of Mexico alone dropped from pre-Conquest population estimated by some scholars at 25 million at the time of the conquest to about one million a century later. The survivors of the old indigenous communities, inevitably blended, creating new identities. The “Indians” did not confine their interbreeding to each other. The conquistadors left their wives and children in Spain, miscegenating widely with the native population, creating a population of “mixed bloods” generally termed mestizos.
The new mestizo population could be broken down even further into three subcategories: euromestizos of Spanish-Indian heritage who adopted a primarily Spanish culture; indomestizos of Spanish-Indian heritage who maintained an primarily “Indian” culture; and afromestizos whose heritage came partially from the African slaves brought to the Valley of Mexico by the Spanish conquerors. If the afromestizos had a primarily Spanish-black heritage, they were generally designated as mulattos. Those whose heritage was black-Indian were labeled zambos. The Spanish administrators would develop and even more complex vocabulary to describe mixtures between these groups.
The Spanish identity itself was not without complexity. Modern-day Spain had been born in 1492 - only 27 years before Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs - when the Moslem forces in Granada fell to Christian forces led by the monarchs of Castille and Aragon, Isabella and Ferdinand. The Iberian peninsula had witnessed a dizzying history of conquest and had been peopled by a colorful spectrum of colonizers over the centuries, with Celts, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Jews, Arabs, Berbers and Gypsies making modern-day Spain their home and adding their culture and chromosomes to the Iberian cultural mix.
Iberia had been a colony of Arab and black Moslems for eight centuries, starting with the initial invasion in 711. Ethnic diversity, however, came to be associated with ideological and religious impurity during the long, bloody and bitter Reconquista. The Holy Office, or Inquisition, was founded in Castille and reactivated in Aragon under Ferdinand and Isabella mostly to monitor the religious orthodoxy of conversos ¬ - Jews and Moslems who had converted to Christianity. The sincerity of such conversion was perennially doubted by the now victorious Catholic forces.
One of the first acts of Ferdinand and Isabella after the final reunification of the kingdom was to force remaining practicing Jews to convert or leave the country. Jews and Arabs represented an impurity to be cleansed from Spanish society. As historian Edwin Williamson notes, the expulsion decree laid a foundation for Spanish racial ideology in the Western Hemisphere. “ . . . [T]he widespread popular concern with limpieza de sangre [purity of blood], the notion that family honor depended on the absence of any taint of Jewish or Muslim blood,” Williamson notes, “passed to America in the form of a prejudice against marrying persons of color (a prejudice which in no way inhibited having sexual relations with them.)”
Spain entered the Valley of Mexico with a newly-minted national myth hailing the pure-blooded Christians who had vanquished the non-European heathens in their midst. The new national myth allowed the Conquistadors and their descendants to collaborate on an act of collective amnesia, allowing Spaniards whose inheritance reflected vast ethnic and cultural diversity to recreate themselves as whites destined to dominate their pagan African slaves and the non-believing Indians occupying the new colonies in the West.
A complex racial hierarchy evolved which placed Spanish-born “whites” at the top. These Spanish transplants received ecomiendas - the tribute of Indians as well as their free labor. Spaniards filled top government posts and the clergy and were accorded the highest social status. Immediately beneath then were the crillos - whites born in the “New World.” Ethnically, physically and culturally indistinguishable from the Spanish-born pennisulares or gauchupines, the crillos found themselves demoted by virtue of their place of birth. “It was commonly held by those born in Europe that America’s environment was somehow detrimental, that the climate was enervating and corrosive, and that the atmosphere produced beings who were physically, mentally and morally inferior,” Meyer and Sherman write. Pennisulares suspected crillos of being innately lazy, irresponsible and unintelligent. Thus, Spain’s newly forming racial ideology produced divisions even between “whites” in the American colonies.
Nevertheless, crillos still found themselves in a relatively powerful position in the new society of New Spain. Crillos acted as the middle managers of New Spain, occupying respectable levels of authority in the church and royal bureaucracy, with many prospering in ranching, agriculture and mining. As time passed, the crillos greatly outnumbered the pennisulares. Legally eligible for all offices, they nevertheless encountered a glass ceiling. Still, the crillos were valued over the various mestizo groups. “ . . . [M]erely by virtue of their lighter skins they were considered superior to the darker masses below them,” Meyer and Sherman write.
Even after New Spain had become Mexico and political control had passed from pennisulares to crillos, authorities would desire a greater whiteness for the emerging nation. The Anglo founders of “Texas,” with the collaboration of the Mexican authorities, clearly wanted to establish a white society in the northern provinces. By the 1830s, the authorities had grown suspicious of the North American settlers’ loyalty to Mexico. Belatedly, they blocked North American immigration to Texas, fearing the settlers were, in fact, an invading army. Still, Mexican authorities deeply desired a more European complexion for the northern state and, with the collaboration of Anglo leader Stephen F. Austin, began an effort to recruit Northern and Western Europeans settlers.
On December 5, 1831, Austin dashed a letter to James Hope who was traveling to his native England, wanting Hope to recruit Western Europeans as laborers in Robertson’s Colony. White labor, especially, would help fill the labor gap that would be created if Mexico effectively enforced its anti-slavery laws and would provide the additional benefit of infusing the “industriousness” assumed to be an innate Western and Northern European trait to the Northern Mexican landscape.
“English farmers and capitalists would greatly benefit themselves by removal to Texas -- The industrious and economical habits of the former, would advance their fortunes rapidly by agriculture, and the capital of the latter invested in Manufactures, Agriculture, or commerce would yield them an immense interest -- there certainly never was such an opening on earth for european emigrants, as it is now presented in Texas . . . By the constitution and laws of this nation slavery is forever prohibited within the mexican territory, emigrants would do well to bring a number of laborers and white servants, bound under written contracts specifying their wages and the term for which they had engaged -- such contracts will be binding and enforced in this country. It would be a good plan to bring out a number of Dutch, Belgian or German families as laborers. It is thought by some that they would be much more easily managed and more profitable, than either english, irish, or scotch laborers.”
Stephen F. Austin, no doubt, held the predominant belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority common at the time, but suspected that Dutch, Belgians and Germans, disadvantaged by language, would be easier to exploit as a labor force. In any case, they would be white enough to fulfill the racial project of both the Anglo settlers and the Mexican government.
Anglos settlers, crillos and pennisulares all agreed on the superiority of whites over the mestizo and Indio masses. With few Spanish women immigrating to the Western Hemisphere, royal authorities viewed miscegenation as a tool of conquest. Native women either entered into sexual union voluntarily or through rape. The church and the crown encouraged Spaniards to marry Indian girls, thinking through this means “superior” Spanish culture could be transmitted to a prostrate people.
Authorities especially encouraged Spanish men to marry the daughters of Indian nobility as a means of political union. After the conquest period, the marriage of Spanish men and Indian women fell out of favor. Spanish men and Indian women still coupled, in or out of wedlock, due to the lack of Spanish women. The large mestizo population that developed formed a “large, discrete group in society and it is impossible to draw easy conclusions as to their status,” as Meyer and Sherman note. Some light-skinned mestizos married well, climbing the social ladder. “Money whitens,” a bit of folk wisdom declared. “The majority of mestizos, however, were much worse off,” Meyer and Sherman write.
“A high percentage were illegitimate, especially during the sixteenth century, when the term mestizo was almost synonymous with bastard. Unrecognized by their fathers, most stayed with their Indian mothers and so became culturally more Indian than Spanish. The mestizos were, by an large, poor, uneducated, and in a distinctly inferior socio-economic class. For every mestizo who gained a comfortable place, there were a hundred others who remained culturally adrift, living in miserable circumstances and scorned by the upper class. For most of the colonial period they were grouped with Indians, blacks and mulattoes.”
Mestizos formed an ambiguous middle group in Mexican society, a bridge between the white world above and the Indian world below. In spite of the pandemics that swept the Western world, Indians remained the largest single ethnic group in Mexico up to the end of the colonial period in the 1820s. Indios suffered both physical and cultural genocide. The Spanish conquerors treated the great Indian past as matters of shame and sought to wipe out the memory of these civilizations.
“With the achievements of the Maya unknown and the splendor of [the Aztec city of] Tenochtitlán a receding memory, the Spaniards saw the Indians as an inferior people,” Meyer and Sherman note. “All too many Spaniards . . . considered the Indians simply pagans, cannibals, and sodomites. Natives were frequently described as lazy, disposed to vices, devious, and backwards.” Their nature was of such controversy that a Papal Bull (Sublimis Deus) was deemed necessary to declare the Indians were human and capable of rational thought. In 1550, a debate was held in the Spanish city of Valladolid between a famous defender of the Indios, Father Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda. The latter questioned the Indians’ humanity and argued that they were the “natural slaves” described by the pre-Christian philosopher Aristotle.
Spaniards questioned the humanity of Indians in order to justify a bloody, unprovoked conquest that had resulted in mass extermination of the native population. The Indian-as-nonhuman was a convenient tool in the agricultural economy of the emerging Mexican society. Indians were pressed into unfree labor at the behest of the encomenderos. Later, Indians were sent to dangerous work in mines or tied to near-slave labor on the massive haciendas that would become the backbone of the Mexican economy.
This sharp distinction between “whites” on one side and “Indios” and mestizos with an Indian identity had one advantage to those placed on the indigenous side of the racial divide. Indians were largely excluded from the society at large, thus allowing them to preserve large parts of their culture intact. Many Indians never became “Spanish” in culture or “Mexican” in nationality after independence. Mexican authorities would try, through economic pressure and eventually in warfare amounting to genocide to force the Yaqui Indians of Sonora in Northern Mexico to accept white hegemony. A decades-long war of extermination, ending in the deportation of Yaquis to brutal henequen plantations in the Yucatan, failed to erase the Yaqui identity.
The Maya, in similar fashion, resisted white dominance for much of the nineteenth century. Even in those aspects of life which to an outsider might seem signs of assimilation - such as acceptance of Catholicism - could become weapons of cultural resistance. Maya Catholicism was highly syncretized, a thin Vatican layer on a centuries-old Maya religious tradition. The very different world of Maya Catholicism became all too apparent during the Caste War, which lasted from 1847 until the Maya rebel capital fell to federal troops in 1901.
Facing mass death by war, starvation and disease, with captured Maya troops facing sale as slaves to Cuba, desperate Mayas rallied around the Chan Santa Cruz, the “Empire of the Cross.” This cult centering on a talking cross which promised Maya victory if the Indian army maintained cultural purity, utilized Catholic forms but was run by the traditional leaders of pre-Catholic Maya religion, the H-men, who served as oracles for thinly disguised traditional Maya deities. The bullets stopped flying after the fall of Chan Santa Cruz in 1901, but historian Nancy M. Farriss argues that the Caste War did not truly end until the death of the last Maya war leader in 1969.
The Spanish and their Mexican heirs never completely conquered the Yucatan, she suggests. “The mass of colonial documentation of many varieties leaves one with the overwhelming impression that Yucatan was, as it still is, much more “Indian” than central Mexico,” she writes. “ . . . To the extent that language shapes and reflects culture, the Maya more than held their own [in their cultural contact with the Spanish,” Farriss writes.
“Despite the considerable distance between the two groups, they required some hared system of discourse . . . The verbal language they shared was almost invariably Maya and, moreover, a Maya that did not undergo any basic structural transformation through exposure to Spanish . . . Many of the castas learned no Spanish at all . . . The colonial Maya clearly exercised a degree of choice in their responses to the social and cultural forms introduced by the Spanish, especially when these were presented without any overt compulsion . . . Their resistance . . . owed much to the absence of positive incentives, to the fact that the Maya had so little to gain from being Hispanized . . . [The Maya] entered the Spanish world at the very bottom and, moreover, knew that he and his offspring would remain their perpetually . . . Not long ago, I asked a Maya villager why he refused to send his children to school to learn Spanish. ‘Why bother?’ he shrugged. ‘They will still be Indians.’”
The Maya were one of the most visible people to resist white hegemony, but they were not unique. “The extent to which Indians were integrated into the society of New Spain depended on their proximity to Spanish population centers,” Meyer and Sherman write. “Those in isolated regions had little contact with the white men, aside from their clergymen, an occasional official, and perhaps the overseer of their encomendero. They lived in small villages, called pueblos, preserved their customs, cultivated their land, and never learned Spanish. They paid tribute to their encomenderos and took their turns at required labor, but otherwise lived in a world set apart.”
The gauchupine hatred of the Indian was certainly inherited by their crillo successors as New Spain transformed into the independent state of Mexico in 1821. One policy remained consistent. This new nation Mexico, regardless of the ethnicity of its population, was to remain a white-run country. This ideological formation would have tragic consequences for Indian tribes in the Central and North Central sections of the state of Coahuila y Tejas. Even as Mexican control of Texas slipped away in the 1830s, the government launched attacks against the Waco, Towash and Comanche Indians as well as the Tawakoni, whose traditional lands include present-day Dallas and the rest of North Central Texas.
The campaign, fought in 1831 for the most part in Central Texas, came in response to complaints from both Anglo and Mexican settlers, united in their temporary common whiteness, concerning Indian raids in Robertson’s Colony. The colony was an almost rectangular land grant including much of the Brazos River Basin and extending at an angle from near the Gulf Coast to just southwest of the present-day Dallas-Fort Worth area.
The papers of the Robertson Colony suggest that the Mexican government felt more threatened by Indians, allegedly stealing horses and murdering a small number of settlers, than by heavily armed Anglo colonizers, growing in numbers and violating Mexican laws prohibiting slavery and requiring assimilation to the Spanish language and the Catholic religion. The gauchupine/crillo elite had learned to value white skin and denigrate the Indian ethnicity shared in some part by most Mexican citizens, even at the peril of newly won “Mexican” hegemony.
The Mexican government had formed an alliance with the Comanches , but the government troops sent to punish the raiding natives proved indifferent to which Indian group they attacked. Expeditions consisting of units from the Mexican regular army, civic militia members, volunteer citizens, Indian collaborationists and the occasional Anglo American at times opened fire on friendly Indian settlements, to the apparent indifference of the commanders. Lieutenant Colonel Francisco Ruiz commanded Mexican forces at Tenoxtitlan, headquarters of the Robertson Colony along the Brazos River. While negotiating with friendly Indian nations such as the Caddos (also native to the modern-day Dallas-Fort Worth area), Ruiz offered a six-peso reward for every scalp collected from the hostile Tawakonis. Ruiz, who would later serve under the Anglo government in the Republic of Texas, wrote to his commanding officer Colonel Antonio Elosúa that he would pay the ransom for those Indian scalps out of his own salary if necessary.
“We had here Cados, Aonais, Nadacos, Couchates . . . and some other tribes. We had, in Indian style, various conferences with all of them, and in what we agreed upon they promised me that they will not have friendship with the Tahuacanos as long as they [the Tahuacanos] maintain war with the Mexicans. To prove it a party went out in search of them in order to do all the harm they could. I have promised to reward them or pay them for every scalp that they bring to me, up to the value of six pesos each, and I am in favor of keeping my promise, even if it comes out of my salary, because I can see it can do us a lot of good.
" . . . On the first of the present month there went out against the Tahuacanos a party of 40 American volunteers from [Stephen F.] Austin’s Colony, and they have not returned yet. As soon as I find out anything about the results, I will notify you for it seems that things are getting ugly for those hairless gentlemen. May it be God’s will that no a one of them will be left, with the Americans, the Indians and the smallpox which, according to the latest news given by some Indians is still taking a heavy toll among them. All of this gives hope that, within a short time, the evils that they cause will be less. I hope the same thing is happening to the Comanches.”
Ruiz’s offer of his salary to pay for scalps was somewhat hollow since he had not been paid in more than five years. His generous offer had not achieved the desired affect, in any case. On May 27, 1831, the Tawakonis, with the aid of Caddo allies, stole 19 horses from the vicinity of Tenoxtitlan. Ruiz would again write Elosúa on June 11, once more praying that disease would kill the native population.
“It seems that the Americans are getting interested in going out against the Wacos, Tawakonis and Tahuayases. I have encouraged everybody I have seen to do so, for it would be to our advantage . . . From the Keechis I have learned that smallpox has attacked the Tahuayas and Wacos, that among the former 22 have already died, and 17 of the latter, and a large number of the women and the children, with the epidemic still continuing. May it be God’s will that no trace shall remain of such a harmful family.”
The Tawokonis’ next strike daringly penetrated much further south, at the settlement of Béxar on July 15. The Indians stole eight horses this time. Another Indian raid struck Goliad on August 16, 1831. Comanches were accused of murdering a settler, Feliciano de la Garza. Later another body - that of French national Stephan Arnuad, captain of the schooner Pomona, was found just thirty or forty steps away. Mexicans and Anglos grew so alarmed at these incidents that a plea reached recently installed Mexican President Anastasio Bustamante “to send out a party of troops to pursue the barbarous Indians until they succeed in punishing them.” Bustamante, who had served with the Mexican military on the northern frontier and had personally negotiated peace treaties with the Waco and Tawokoni nations, was enraged and authorized a punitive military expedition. Manuel de Mier y Terán, military commander in Matamoros, was selected to lead the campaign.
The bodies of two more settlers, meanwhile, were located in Goliad on August 18 and August 19. Mexican military officials, meanwhile, felt they had accumulated evidence that the Comanches were behind the attacks and thus violating a peace agreement. On August 23, General Mier y Terán declared war on the Comanches. In spite of Mexican military pronouncements, the Indian raids in Texas continued. Béxar suffered yet another daring Indian raid in late September, causing the chief of the military department there, Ramón Músquiz to bemoan the long wait for a final solution to the Indian problem.
“[T]hey penetrated to the heart of the City under the shelter of the darkness of night, mocking the vigilance of the advanced parties that have been posted, and they stole some horses from the breeding pens, after they had done the same with the remudas which the parish priest, Citizen José Antonio de la Garza, had in his pens, and all the animals scattered in the fields, after having gravely wounded Salvador Díaz in the vicinity of the extinct Mission of San Juan,” Músquiz complained in a letter.
“ . . . They [settlers] are already tired of waiting for the situation to improve, and they cannot resist assassination, robbery, and finally, the complete devastation of the country by the barbarous Indians who are making war on them. Nevertheless they do not lose hope that the authorities who govern them will endeavor to effect the radical cure demanded by these evils . . .”
A number of Goliad settlers volunteered to participate in the anti-Comanche campaign. They joined the campaign of Lieutenant Manuel Lafuente, who took off from Béxar with some 200 men. On November 13, the expedition launched a surprise attack on the sleeping village of Little Chief Menchaca of the Tawakonis on the ridge between the Llano and Pedernales rivers. As the official report of the battle describes it:
“[W]e opened fire with a dense volley, and we continued to pour bullets into them so fast that within a few minutes it was necessary to cease fire because the field had been completely abandoned by the savages, who only occupied themselves with putting themselves and their families in safety, without making any resistance. The reason that we suspended fire was because, along with the teepees of the Tahuacanos there were a larger number belonging to the Comanches, and the latter Indians, when we surprised them, made themselves known by exclaiming in a loud voice ‘Comanches, Amigos Amigos Españoles’ [‘Comanches, Friends Friends Spaniards.’] Because of this fatal reunion this attack failed - an attack in which the Tahuacanos would have been punished much more severely because more of them would have been killed, and because the families of many of them would have been captured.”
The battle was brief but decisive because among the casualties was the highly esteemed Comanche chief Barbaquista and his son. The effect on the Comanche/Tawakoni rebellion was decisive. “This event, plus the surprise which left the entire tribe completely terrified, plunged all of them, especially the families of the deceased, into inconsolable sorrow, so they were permitted by the Commandant to observe their mourning according to their custom, after a conference had been held and they were satisfied that we were not to blame for these deaths, and that they alone had caused them because they had united with the Tawakonis, our enemies.” The death of Barbaquista brought an end to the Indian raiding campaigns, but more importantly the Mexican effort represents a continued commitment of the leaders of the new Mexican nation to the principals of whiteness.
In spite of its Indian origins, the Mexican government would be committed to either forcing the native population into European concepts of land tenure and into a regimen of hacienda labor. The new “Mexicans” would see the threat to their culture and their position not from the white population on the top of the racial hierarchy but from the Indians below.It would be a mistake some “Mexican Americans” would too often make after the Anglo colonists seized half of Mexico’s territory in the next seventeen years.
The Indio shared the bottom of emerging Mexican society’s racial ladder with a tiny slave population. Only a small number of African slaves were imported into colonial Mexico. As the mass epidemics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries decimated the indigenous population, the one period of slave importation occurred, some 120,000 Africans entering modern-day Mexico between 1519 and 1650. Otherwise, there was little incentive for the plantation owner in New Spain to purchase expensive slaves when so much free forced labor was available with the Indio population. A total of 200,000 Africans are thought to have entered Mexico during the colonial period. Just as the lack of Spanish women led the Spanish men in Mexico to sexually couple with Indian women, African males greatly outnumbered females in the slave population (about two men to every woman). Miscegenation became the norm in this group as well and Afromestizos quickly outnumbered “pure” Africans.
The Afro-Mexican population gradually faded from view. Through miscegenation, emancipation and the purchase of freedom by the slaves themselves, the institution of black slavery declined and would be quickly abolished once Mexican independence was established. At the end of the colonial period, Afromestizos were commonplace, but only approximately 10,000 Mexicans could be considered “black,” most of those concentrated in the Veracruz and Acapulco area. In spite of their declining numbers, Africans, like Indians, resisted white hegemony. An elderly slave named Yanga launched a revolt at the beginning of the seventeenth century in the mountains near Veracruz that lasted for thirty years. A Spanish force of 600 was sent to suppress the rebellion, but Yanga commenced a successful guerrilla campaign.
The rebellion ended in a standoff, with Yanga and his followers remaining free by agreement to cause no more trouble and to assist in tracking runaway slaves - cimarrones - which numbered in the thousands. Not long after this successful revolt, an independent black town, San Lorenzo de los Negros, was established near present-day Córdoba. If the Indian was held in contempt for most of Mexican history, the African heritage of Mexico was consigned to oblivion.
Even in the 1920s, after the Mexican Revolution had partially rehabilitated the Indian by the elevation of the Aztec to national mascot, and after Mexican intellectuals like Vasconcelos and Gamio began rhapsodizing about the “mestizo.” they were singing the praises of the indomestizo, not the afromestizo. Mexicans, and later Mexican Americans, would make little room for blackness in their racial mythology. Fractured along countless lines of class, race, ethnicity, language, and culture, the inhabitants of New Spain had little sense of being “Mexican” when independence from Spain arrived in 1821.
In addition to the already mentioned cleavages, the natal Mexican society found itself fragmented geographically. Underdevelopment of infrastructure such as roads due to royal neglect, the shortage of navigable rivers, the presence of two imposing mountain chains - the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Sierra Madre Oriental - cracked the nation into numerous tiny fragments, patria chicas or “little fatherlands” that commanded much more loyalty than the abstract concept “Mexico.” Political factor also led to the failure of a “Mexican” identity to form from its constituent parts, according to Robert J. Rosenbaum. Such a failure would constitute a major disadvantage at the time this fragmented republic encountered the Anglo onslaught in 1836. As Rosenbaum notes:
“By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the United States exhibited the characteristics of a modern nation. It was a rational bureaucracy governed by the rule of law and a depersonalized political system made legitimate by an ideology. Myth and mobility combined to make the Anglo American loyal to the United States . . .Mobility eroded regional attachments, while the myth provided the means for national identification to take their place.
“Mexicanos did not have a strong sense of nationalism, and this was especially true for the northern provinces . . a century of internal turmoil and civil war followed Mexican independence so that there was neither a consistent government nor a consistent ideology that could commanding loyalty . . . the highly stratified society, in which a powerful few families dealt with matters of government, law and trade while the majority attended to the business of survival, further mitigated against nationalistic sentiment. In the absence of nationalism, mexicano attachments formed around region, religion, race, religion, language and custom.”
Rosenbaum draws an overly broad portrait of both nations. He seems to exaggerate mobility in the nineteenth century United States and ignores the extent to which a wealthy elite in the United States controls the political culture. He also declares regionalism in the United States dead prematurely, given that the Civil War would break out among the norteamericanos little more than a decade after the invasion of Mexico. He perceptively describes the factors dividing the nascent Mexican nation at the time of the Anglo incursion, however. Mexico was less a republic than a narrowly-led pigmentocracy, a patch-work quilt of local realms in which the inhabitants were broken down into a series of racially-defined classes: pennisulares, crillos, euromestizos, indomestizos, mulattos, zambos in addition to the numerous still culturally autonomous Indian groups such as the Yaqui and the Maya.
This wild blend of identities had been held together only by the Spanish crown, and even then only weakly. Since the days of the first Catholic incursions into the Valley of Mexico, the European invaders attempted to purge the land of its memory of the pre-Hispanic past, viewed by the priests as an epoch of shameful paganism. Unfortunately, this left the suddenly emergent Mexican state with little basis for nationhood when separation from Spain occurred in 1821. The achievement of independence seemed little more than a transfer of power from the gauchupines to the crillos. None of the inhabitants of Mexico were yet “Mexican” in any meaningful sense.
“Mexico was not in a position to cope with external threats,” writes historian Juan Gómez-Quiñones. “The country was weakened by severe internal problems . . . In spite of social and occupational diversity, extreme class divisions existed within the nation. While independence had abolished the fading caste system in principle, the crillos, or ‘Mexican Spaniards,’ were generally Mexico’s dominant social and economic elite. The class stratification continued to reflect ethnic aspects. Although a tiny elite enjoyed tremendous wealth, the masses of the population were undereducated and excluded from the nation’s formal political life.”
Michael Phillips is the author of "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001" published in 2006, and "The House Will Come To Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics," co-written with Patrick Cox and published in 2010 by The University of Texas Press. His essay “Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” appears in "Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations," edited by Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León and published by Texas A&M Press in February 2011. He is currently coauthor of a new edition of "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story."