Selection 2: An Italian Priest Describes Social Relations in Mexico City

Mexico City was the capital city of the Viceroyalty of New Spain and one of the largest cities in Spanish America. Its architecture featured large public plazas, fountains, and churches, and it was the seat of power for bureaucracies of church and state that dominated public life in colonial Mexico. In 1770, when Philadelphia, then the largest city in British North America, had about 30,000 people, Mexico City was more than three times as big, with a population approaching 100,000.

llarione de Bergamo was an Italian priest sent by his religious order to Mexico in 1761 to solicit donations for missionary work in Tibet. The fact that a friar in Italy would travel all the way across the Atlantic to seek financial support for a mission in Central Asia is testimony to New Spain’s reputation for wealth and opulence. Bergamo spent five years in Mexico, and shortly after returning home, he recorded his impressions of its people and landscape in a manuscript intended for friends and family. Bergamo, like many visitors to New Spain, was intrigued by the social order that developed around the intermarriage of Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans. As a priest, he was also interested in how the Mexican Inquisition enforced orthodoxy on such a diverse population and in the tense labor relations between Spanish owners and Indian laborers in Mexico’s mines.

Credit: Robert Ryal Miller and William J. Orr, eds., Daily Life in Colonial Mexico: The Journey of Friar Ilarione da Bergamo, 1761-1768 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), 88-89, 90-92, 115-116, 151-152, 161-163.

The city of Mexico has more than one hundred and thirty thousand inhabitants [in Bergamo’s time, it was likely closer to 100,000]. Moreover, such is the daily concourse of other people from the city and other surrounding towns that there is a continual ebb and flow of people in the streets and plazas, providing the semblance of a continual fair. There are numerous plazas, and in practically all of them there is a fountain in the middle spurting water. The principal plaza, though, is the one with the cathedral and viceroy’s palace, where people primarily gather to carry on their trade. And the immense variety of things sold here—for food, clothing, and every other human use—and the mechanic arts are a sight to behold. Indeed, any kind of item for whatever use a person might deem necessary can be found here. This huge plaza is filled with shops made of boards, which, if need be, can be quickly lifted [and removed]. In the middle of this plaza is a very lovely fountain, with jets of water soaring to a considerable height. Here, too, a gallows consisting of four columns is invariably erected off to the side. There are various districts with their arcades all lined with stores full of merchandise. Various canals from the lake, which they call acequias, enter the city. Through them the Indian folk from nearby places convey in their canoes items of all kinds like vegetables, lumber, wheat, flour, charcoal, fruits, and many other things, which are consumed daily in Mexico City.

In the districts where there is no canal or acequia there are subterranean water conduits, which perennially supply not only public fountains but many houses as well, these benefitting from a well-constructed receptacle in their courtyard. This water, which fills the need of the entire city, is conveyed in a canal [i.e., an aqueduct] seven leagues from the city, built entirely of arches and rather elevated in some places.

***

For the quality of its buildings, ornaments, and wealth of its churches, it [Mexico City] can be said to vie with the finest cities of Italy. It is true that there are no grand palaces, as in Rome and its outskirts, because they cannot erect massive buildings since the foundations are not completely solid. But in their interior, perhaps, they are richer for the sumptuousness of their ornamentation. All the houses of this city are of stone and brick and whitewashed. Viewed in perspective, they are of fine architecture, with well-ordered balconies, windows and soffits in Chinese style, magnificent gates, courtyards with marble columns, and spacious and commodious entrance stairways painted between one step and the next in checkered fashion so that, viewed from a certain distance, the entire stairwell looks as though it were covered with cloth. The only defect the houses have is that they are not proportionate in height, though I have seen various ones five stories high. Most, though, have three. The rooms located on the floor by the door are where the serving people dwell. Above them are the rooms they call entresuelo, where there are stores of merchandise, because here practically everyone is a merchant. Finally, there are the masters’ quarters. Though not very wealthy, all have their forloni [vans or hauling carts] or coaches because these Mexican gentlemen are so dainty that they would not go on any outing unless they went by coach ...

As for the women, it is true that they are very beautiful and of a fine disposition, spirited, pretty, and with considerable rhetorical talent, so that they far surpass out Italian women. But they are ambitious (as in every other country), proud, dainty, and indolent. Many favor the Europeans (who are called gachupines), and they more willingly marry them, even though impoverished, than their own compatriots called creoles, even though wealthy. They view them—that is, the creoles—as lovers of mulatto women, from whom they have imbibed bad customs with their milk. Consequently, the creole men hate the Europeans.

The women adopt the Spanish style of dress—that is, the ladies as well as the merchant and artisan women who can [afford to]. The rest are attired as their status permits. Because there are different castes of people, each person thus dresses not only on a level with her wealth but also according to her caste. If a woman is an Indian, though wealthy, she dresses in accordance with Indian custom, however opulently; if she is mulatta, according to mulatto custom, etc. I regret having lacked familiarity with the design so that I could provide an illustration of those women’s dresses, which certainly are a matter of curiosity in some cases, perhaps more so than in the case of Greek women.

The mulattos are born of white and blacks and vice versa. The mestizos are those who are born of Spaniards with Indian or creole women, and vice versa, so that they have a varied physiognomy. Thus, there are six castes of people in this realm: Europeans, creoles, mulattos, mestizos, Indians, and blacks.

***

Generally speaking, the creoles, Indians, and mestizos, along with mulattos, are sluggards, drunkards, thieves, swindlers, and lechers—and that is also true of the women. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that there are people of every status, sex, and condition who are very good Christians, are generally charitable, and give alms. They are cordial, though somewhat averse to foreigners. Though they have an inherent esteem for the Spaniards, they confuse them with other Europeans, whom they all call gachupines, using another term for the others. In view of the affection and esteem for them, it is generally appropriate to pass as gachupín, but not particularly as Italian, French, or German, et cetera.

Ordinarily their songs are quite shameless, but still worse are their dances, which include rather indecent gestures. Three kinds of fiestas are conventional in the realm. The first is the festivity, properly speaking, where they dance French-style. Here aristocratic and polite society is involved, and there are no disorders or scandals. The second they call saroas [i.e., soirées], in which there is a medley of songs, music, dancing, drunkenness, and other ills. The third, finally, is the so-called fandango, which is the most universal one among the common people and where, for the most part, they perform the dances they call the chuchumbe, bamba, and guesito, which are all quite indecent.

The climate of this country is more hot than temperate. Brandy consumption, foods heavily seasoned with pepper, and popular custom (introduced, in my opinion, by the first conquistadors, as the historical accounts make clear) have resulted in a universal epidemic as far as women are concerned. For it has been attested to me many times by various people of probity that the majority of young people who marry (referring here to the common people) are not virgins. The main evidence of this is the great abuse prevalent in those lands of living amanee-bao [i.e., amancebado], as they put it, which in Italian means living in concubinage. Great are the numbers of those who pass through life in such a wretched state, including quite decent people, too, whom their superiors, both spiritual and temporal, are unable to reform. And very frequently these people, wretched in spirit after having been together awhile, separate, not out of a sense of obligation but due to a change in fortune or inclination. And thus so many women marry having children without having had a husband, and hence the country is rife with illegitimate progeny.

***

... 1 do not want to overlook a minor episode, which occurred in March 1768. On a certain predetermined day, in the church of Santo Domingo eight live relics were exposed, not to communal veneration but to public derision. They were a heretical blasphemer, an obdurate Calvinist, an idolatrous Indian woman, a witch, a bigamist, a secular cleric with only minor orders who had celebrated some masses, a lay brother of a certain order who had said mass, and an obdurate Jew. All of them were then exposed all day long to public view in the presbytery of the spacious church of Santo Domingo. To this end, the main altar with some other accessories had been removed to allow a good view of these culprits. The reason for their condemnation was publicized by a placard on their chests. All day long they suffered the scorn, derision, and gossiping of the people. Nevertheless, some of them endured this with great composure, as though it meant nothing. Moreover, such were the alcoholic drinks administered to them (because on such occasion they are given all they ask for) that some of them were partially intoxicated.

The following day they were all led through the open streets of the city, accompanied by police and escorted by soldiers and all the officials of the Inquisition, both priests and regular clergy, and laypersons, too, all of them on horseback. The throng of people was beyond number. Riding a young donkey, each culprit was wearing on his or her head a long cap shaped like a horn, formed of cardboard, except for the two who had celebrated mass, who went with their heads uncovered. On his chest each one wore a sign listing his or her offense. Around the neck of the idolatrous woman they hung a tiny idol, and each person was accompanied by an Indian in the guise of an executioner, who, with a wooden stick in hand, dealt each one light blows on the back from time to time. After this event they were all returned to the prisons of the Inquisition. I do not know what happened afterward because a few days later I left Mexico City for Italy. According to the laws of Spain, some them ought to have been burned alive.

***

I will conclude the subject of mining with a brief account of an uprising that occurred in 1766 in Real del Monte [a mining town northeast of Mexico City], where I was living. There were some dissensions, the reason for which 1 do not know, that erupted between the mineworkers and officials acting on behalf of the owner, Don Pedro Romero de Terreros. Before long, on a certain day, a large number of Indians gathered in this mining camp. All of them were mineworkers, not just from this location but from other nearby areas as well. The intention of these people (as was later determined) was to kill the owner, i.e., Señor Terreros, and all of his officials and burn down the mines. Had this occurred, it would have been their own ruination and that of the whole country as well. But God did not permit such ravaging to occur.

So, on August 15, [1766,] this day set by that rabble for the total destruction of Real del Monte, many of them gathered in the mine of San Cayetano. There, after some quarrels between them and a miner, or mine official, they stoned him so that he died a few hours later. When the alcalde mayor or podestá of Pachuca, a young man recently arrived from Spain who happened to be there, attempted to bring these people to a halt by drawing his sword, they flung themselves on him with such ferocity and cruelty that they left him there dead, completely crushed by stones.

Señor Terreros, having heard about the uprising and the two fatalities that had already occurred, hid in a room where he kept plenty of fodder for the horses, burying himself up to his neck in this. However much the rebel Indians tried to hunt him down and kill him, they could not find him. It was necessary for the parish priest to lead a procession with the Blessed Sacrament, which I also accompanied, so as to convey Señor Romero de Terreros from his hiding place and guide him into the church, underneath the baldachin [canopy over an altar], as a sanctuary for himself and his general foreman. It was a gratifying sight arriving in certain places with the Blessed Sacrament. There were many women and children, [and] listening to their wailing and weeping one would have thought it was the final day [of judgment].

While all this was going on, other women, enraged like their husbands, were going about tossing lighted embers onto the piles of straw of the mines to set them ablaze. There was no damage, thanks to the diligence of a few individuals. The insurgents moved on to a house where they believed a certain mine official was hidden, whom they had vowed to kill. They smashed in the door and windows and went inside, but they did not find the one they were looking for. They moved on to the jails, ecclesiastical as well as secular, forced them open, and removed all the prisoners, their accomplices.

Then they passed on to Pachuca, where they did the same thing, i.e., forcibly liberated all the prisoners. They then headed to the home of the foremen of the mines to burn it down. Those estranged individuals only desisted from their design because some Reformed fathers, who have a monastery in that town, had promptly arrived on the scene, loudly threatening to bring down the wrath of God, while hoisting a crucifix above their heads.

The matter ended with the mines being closed down for some time, and the first to experi-ence the devastation were the instigators of the uprising. As day laborers in the mines with no other means of livelihood, they were compelled to suffer from the damage they themselves had wrought.

Some troops were sent up from Mexico City with orders to put down the revolt. Some [instigators] were hanged in Mexico City; others less culpable were sent to labor in the garrison. And finally 1 made my little rounds, not finding alms at this time except by happenstance.

1 have mentioned a few things about the mines, but there is a lot more that could be written about them ... 1 will only say that, after these lands were conquered by the Spaniards, such was the quantity of gold, silver, and other precious articles coming from there that all Europe has felt the effects and still feels the benefit.

 
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