The creation of a town: Puebla de los Ángeles as an urban and theological experiment (c. 1530s–1580s)

Puebla de los Angeles as an urban and theological experiment (c. 1530s-1580s)

The city as a missionary and colonial endeavor

The only first-person account we possess of the founding of the City of Puebla de los Angeles comes to us via Friar Toribio de Benavente, a.k.a. Motolinia (c. 1490-1569),1 a Spanish missionary who arrived in New Spain in 1524.2 A few years after his arrival to what would later be known as the Viceroyalty of New Spain, Motolinia became one of the protagonists in the founding of a city that, as initially planned, was meant to be an ideal agrarian community.

This missionary would work with Juan de Salmeron, an oidor or judge, a member of the second Audiencia - a judicial governing body - and representative of the Spanish Crown,3 to create this community. As they imagined it, these hypothetical settlers would be Spanish immigrants, not conquistadors, but rather peasants from Spain. They would grow European crops and raise European livestock, and their exemplary lives would showcase the best aspects of Christian life from the Iberian Peninsula to the natives of the region. However, as Puebla’s history progressed, this idealist agenda was never realized. Instead, Puebla became the viceroyalty’s second most important city just a few decades after its founding. Despite the unexpected result, analyzing Puebla’s creation is relevant, as it allows us to understand the process of town creation and development in the context of the recently subjugated central territories of New Spain in the first half of the sixteenth century.

Motolinia’s collected writings, commonly known as Memoriales and written toward the mid-sixteenth century, contain a chronicle of the city’s founding day. It starts with a description of how, early in the morning of April 16, 1531 (he erroneously wrote 1530 in his manuscript), the small number of future settlers of the city, all Spanish immigrants arrived at the site. The friar then mentions the arrival of large groups of Indigenous people from the neighboring towns of Tlaxcala, Cholula, Calpan, and Tepeaca - important Indigenous fiefdoms in the region - who were tasked with building temporary housing for the Spanish settlers to aid in the tracing of the city and to help clear the land (see Figure 1.1).

A map of the Puebla Region showing some of the principal urban Indigenous fiefdoms in the area, the principal topographical features, and other Spanish foundings

Figure 1.1 A map of the Puebla Region showing some of the principal urban Indigenous fiefdoms in the area, the principal topographical features, and other Spanish foundings.

In Motolinia’s words: “The Indians arrived singing and waving rheir flags, ringing bells and banging drums, while others, like boys, were performing various dances. It seemed as though they were already banishing the Devil and calling upon the angels, whose town they were about to build.”4 While Motolinia’s chronicle of the city’s founding is a relevant testimonial, not only as a rare, first-person account of creating a city in the New World, it also reveals a series of tensions and contradictions that occupied the minds of missionaries and colonizers in the New World. For one, the missionary characterizes the creation of the city as a hierophantic event. In other words, the Franciscan describes the establishment of the town as having decisive religious implications. Fie goes as far as describing the future city as a place that would be the abode of angels - God’s emissaries. Moreover, as tempting as it would be to interpret his discourse as inflamed religious rhetoric, the angelic references were not mere hyperbole at all. In reality, for Motolinia, the act of founding a new city in the New World meant advancing the notion that, at the heart of the colonization and evangelization of New Spain, the city was the beacon of Christian civilization. What is more, the city, as the missionary suggested, was the artifact that could cast light on a territory previously inhabited by natives ignorant of the “true faith,” naive practitioners of what appeared to him and his brethren to be “evil” religious rituals.

In effect, the creation of cities amounted to the literal transplantation of political, social, and economic institutions, what Richard Morse deemed the “mystical body” of Iberian culture.3 Besides the concerns over converting the native populations, the founding of urban settlements was also the strategic operation by which the Spanish missionaries and colonizers came to control the territories and newly subjugated peoples of central New Spain. The city was the vehicle through which they deployed their institutions: the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown’s laws and ordinances. What is more, through these institutions, the colonizers imposed their understanding and ordering of the territory, the world, and the universe at large on the subjected native peoples. The mere intention of analyzing the founding of a city such as Puebla provides a window into the Spanish evangelization and colonization of the New World through a specific lens that places the creation of urban centers at the heart of the complicated mechanisms of Spanish colonization in New Spain. By extension, it is equally vital to comprehend the scale and magnitude of the whole endeavor. By 1574, scholar George Kubler’s estimates that about thirty Spanish administrative cities had already been established, mostly in the central and southern territories of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.6

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