Pre-Hispanic influence in Puebla de Los Angeles’ urban form
As we have seen thus far, for the Spanish colonizers, the orthogonal urban paradigm was a legal, technological, and even theological practice rooted in surveying traditions taken to the New World and employed in the founding of countless urban settlements. However, the influence of Indigenous urban practices in shaping Spanish cities in New Spain should also be taken into account to calibrate better the idea of Spanish and Indigenous interactions in urban and surveying activities.
In effect, it was auspicious for the Spanish colonizers that Mesoamerican cultures possessed deep-rooted ideas regarding establishing cities as centers of political and economic power. Indeed, in the pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican tradition, cities were understood as settlements with a specific population density and centers of economic and political power, generally presided over larger geographic areas whose social normative model was the altepetl.4S The altepeme (its plural form), defined by Lockhart as “ethnic states,” organized social and political systems in central, Nahua Mesoamerica, before and after the Spanish colonizers’ arrival. The simplest definition of an altepetl was a group of people “holding sway over a given territory.”49 The altepetl would possess a center, an urban core, and a series of architectural and urban features, namely temples and plazas, which embodied a series of symbols, beliefs, and ritual conceptions that integrated the physical with the sacred and the political. In this way, both the Spanish and Mesoameri- can cultures had points of convergence regarding the importance of urban centers as the repositories of sacralized political power as a requisite for legitimacy. In this legitimation process, the built urban environments acted through architecture and urban form as symbols to be interpreted and read by the inhabitants. In that arena, Mesoamerican and Spanish-European cultures shared the cultural tradition of establishing cities that acted as regional power centers.
Nevertheless, going even further, the notion that Puebla de los Angeles’ urban form was influenced - or at least partially informed - by Mesoamerican pre-Hispanic urbanism was proposed decades ago and has never been settled.50 Namely, there is a suggestive possibility that the pre-Hispanic layout of the neighboring City of Cholula, an important religious and commercial center for centuries before the Spaniards’ arrival, influenced Puebla’s urban design. Cholula possessed a series of distinct urban characteristics. For one, the archaeological and documentary evidence has determined that, shortly before the Spaniards’ arrival and as an important religious center, the city possessed a significant number of religious buildings, more so than the average Mesoamerican city.51 Secondly, Cholula could have possessed a rectilinear, orthogonal urban form that, according to Gonzalez-Hermosillo, obeyed an astronomical orientation that aligned with the sun’s winter solstice trajectory, or some 24° to the northeast.52 After the arrival of the Spaniards, a map produced by an Indigenous artist in 1581 - which represents the city synthetically, which is to say as an ordered, rectilinear grid with six Indigenous calpollis or neighborhoods, three on each side of the layout, at whose center stands the central plaza and the Franciscan monastery - has been employed to reinforce the notion that, upon the establishment of a viceregal government by the Spaniards, Cholula’s urban grid was adapted to fit the Spaniard’s requirements for an ordered city while keeping the streets’ alignment (see Figure 2.5).53
However, it is impossible given the available evidence to know precisely to what extent, if any, Cholula’s pre-Hispanic grid would have informed and influenced the colonizers’ decisions regarding Puebla’s urban form. If indeed Cholula possessed a pre-Columbian orthogonal and ordered urban design - this would have rendered it an anomaly rather than the norm in Mesoamerican urban design, as very few pre-Hispanic cities possessed orthogonal urban forms.34 However, the fact remains that both cities, Puebla and Cholula, possess urban grids that share the same inclination at approximately 24° to the northeast, to the point that if streets running east- west in Puebla were extended northwestward, they would meet Cholula’s at practically the same angle. The urban blocks, likewise, share practically the same dimensions too.
Even if Cholula lacked a gridded or rectilinear urban design, Cholula’s largest pre-Hispanic temple, the Tlachihualtepetl (Manmade Mountain), is aligned at approximately 24° NE-SW - virtually the same alignment as
Figure 2.5 An anonymous map of the City of Cholula, close to the City of Puebla.
The map was done for the Relaciones Geograficas; a geographical survey carried out by the Spanish Crown (1579-1585).
Source-. Courtesy of the Benson Latin American Collection, LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies, and Collections, The University of Texas at Austin.
Cholula’s and Puebla’s urban grids - which remains an intriguing fact since the pre-Columbian temple’s alignment points to the idea that the Tlachihual- tepetl structure could be a vestige of Cholula’s pre-Columbian urban design, and further, that the gigantic structure’s alignment could have been taken into consideration when deciding on both cities’ renewed alignment. After all, when Salmeron, Motolinia, and the small group of colonizers moved their settlement to the western bank of the San Francisco River in the city’s second founding, Indigenous workers participated in the works involved in that endeavor, and they could also have contributed their surveying experience and knowledge in the tracing of Puebla’s gridded urban layout.
While Cholula’s Tlachihualtepetl fulfilled astronomical religious considerations, as it is aligned to coincide with the sunrise on the winter solstice,55 Puebla’s inclination would have fulfilled practical purposes such as those cited by Mendez Sainz. These would be issues such as stormwater runoff into the river and protection against prevailing northern winds.56 Still, the identical urban imprint on both cities and their similar rectangular grids highlight the fact that Puebla, although it built an identity and mythology based on Iberian technological prescriptions, legal land title-granting practices, and Christian symbolic statements, continues to be tied - in sharing Cholula’s urban astronomical inclination - to a pervasive Indigenous context that informed Puebla’s creation and guaranteed its existence and success as a viceregal city, as the city’s Indigenous inhabitants became the driving force behind the city’s future success.