The relevance of the city in the early modern Hispanic world
The story of how urbanism played a crucial role in the colonization of New Spain begun when the conqueror Hernan Cortes arrived on the coasts of the present-day State of Veracruz. Indeed, when Cortes and his men landed on the Gulf of Mexico’s shores in February 1519, Cortes proceeded to judicially establish a city council, or cabildo, consisting of his most trusted associates. This cabildo then proceeded to elect Cortes as its head. Through this tactic, Cortes established a legal precedent: the founding of la Villa Rica de la Veracruz, on Good Friday, 1519. In this way, he provided his expedition with legal standing in the face of the opposition that Cortes would face from Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, Governor of Cuba, for sailing against the Governor’s orders. At least symbolically, this act inaugurated the urban colonization of New Spain by establishing - in Cortes’ eyes and in those of the Spanish Crown’s - a legal claim to the territory of what would later constitute New Spain.7
With Cortes and his troops’ image in mind, we see how the city was understood primarily as an assembly of people and the institutions they upheld as a group, and only secondarily as an urban fabric. This is a notion that is deeply entrenched in the Classical tradition. In his now-classic study, Richard Kagan identifies the concepts of mbs and civitas as central to understanding the city during the Spanish Renaissance. Under this lens, mbs refers to the physical aspects of the town. At the same time, civitas is a term employed to describe the citizens, the cives, of the city - in other words, the body politic of a community.8
The notion of civitas resonates with Aristotle’s Hellenistic understanding of the polis as laid down in his work Politics (written in the fourth century
BCE), in which he affirms that the ultimate purpose of living in a community is to live “happily and nobly.”9 Further, the Roman writer and politician Cicero (106-43 BCE), in his De re publica (On the Commonwealth), defines the city as the dual combination of citizens and material fabric.10 Cicero writes that the result of people gathering to live together, as is the natural condition of humankind, is to form a commonwealth (res publica), “an assemblage of some size associated with one another through agreement on law and community of interest,” and the resulting physical settlement of the commonwealth is called the urbs.n Another relevant source that shaped the understanding of the city in Spanish medieval and Renaissance culture is Christian theology. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE), a highly influential figure among New World missionaries, in his celebrated Civitas Dei (The City of God), defines what a commonwealth or res publica is: “An assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love.”12 In Iberian culture, as Kagan has noted, a pervasive influence on urban thinking was Isidore, Archbishop of Seville (c. 560-636 CE). In his magnum opus Etymologiae (The Etymologies), Isidore affirmed that the city, the civitas in his original Latin, was, in effect, “a multitude of persons united by a kinship that receives its name from the civibus (the citizens), which is to say the people that inhabit the urbis (the city). Therefore, the term urbs designates the city’s material fabric, while civitas makes a reference not to its stones but its inhabitants.”13
The understanding of European urban culture did not change dramatically for centuries. During the medieval period, Thomas Aquinas (1225— 1274) wrote that humankind’s “natural” way to live was in society. Aquinas makes the point that man is a “social animal” and that it is “natural for man ... to live in a group,” and this is because Aquinas believed that a community’, which united many people’s abilities, would ensure that everybody’s needs would be satisfied.14 For Aquinas, cities would need to follow the laws created by humankind, but he insisted on the preeminence of God’s laws.15
Such a long and established cultural tradition regarding the importance of cities must have influenced the Spanish colonizers’ attitudes regarding their relevance and convenience. On the one hand, it was critical for the colonizers to gather the Indigenous peoples of New Spain in cities - people who preferred living in scattered communities throughout vast territories - to try to control their labor, their bodies, and their cultural practices. On the other hand, it was paramount for the Spanish to exercise political and administrative control over the territories inhabited by an overwhelming majority- indigenous population by establishing cities for European colonizers and their offspring. An example of this is the City of Puebla de los Angeles.