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The recent history of México, that of the last five hundred years, is the story of permanent confrontation between those attempting to direct the country towards the path of Western civilization and those, rooted in Mesoamerican ways of life, who resist. GUILLERMO BONFIL BATALLA The source of the divisions that so weakened México during the war with the United States lay deep within the past. Their cultural and demographic roots originated during the Spanish conquest. Those conquerors never became a numerical majority in the land they called Nueva España. Hernán Cortés and the few hundred Spaniards who invaded central México in 1519 entered a territory then populated by an estimated 18,300,000 people.1 Even after the savageries of the conquest and the ravages of disease, the colonists and their descendants remained a minority. Three centuries after the first encounter between the two civilizations, 1810 census figures showed that the indigenous (indígena) people comprised 60 percent of México’s population with the remaining inhabitants classified as mestizos (22 percent) or white (18 percent).2 Initially, the indigenous population proved so numerous that the Spanish succeeded in destroying central México’s dominant state, the THE FORMATION OF A DIVIDED NATION Levinson_Wars_text_new_WarsLayoutNew4.11.05 10/18/13 2:08 PM Page 1 Aztec Empire, only after establishing alliances with rival indigenous groups, who also sought the destruction of that polity. Once that particular conquest stood completed, the most immediate and important task of the new rulers consisted of defining the relationship between themselves and their far more numerous indigenous allies. Unlike their North American counterparts, the Mexican tribes possessed centuries of experience functioning in both urban environments and in settled agricultural communities. Writing admiringly of their capacities , Cortés told his king, “I will say only that these people live almost like those in Spain and in as much harmony and order as there, and . . . it is truly remarkable to see what they have achieved in all things.”3 The Spanish considered the indigenous peoples an essential component of the colony’s economic life. The manner in which they would be governed posed an interesting question and a considerable challenge for the colonists. The Spanish first replaced the administrative superstructure of the Aztec Empire with their own, leaving intact the indigenous jurisdictions from the level of tlatoani (county) downward.4 These pre-conquest structures served as the basis of the succeeding jurisdiction, the cabecera. Consequently, the native peoples retained some of their territory as well as a measure of economic and cultural autonomy within a colony structured as a subservient component of a major European empire. While the Spanish authorities initially demanded tribute and forced labor from the cabeceras, the colonists subsequently sought to extend their control over remaining lands that the original inhabitants deemed their own.5 That effort to deprive many indigenous communities of the space that formed the basis of their society severely exacerbated relations between the conquerors and conquered. Also, the Spanish concept of property as 2 Wars within War Levinson_Wars_text_new_WarsLayoutNew4.11.05 10/18/13 2:08 PM Page 2 being owned by individuals could not be reconciled with the communal control of property that was the hallmark of the indigenous village. Ownership of the land proved to be one source of tension between the westernized and criollo minority and the uneasy indígena communities. Of the other concepts that reinforced divisions within colonial society, none proved more disastrous to the future course of México than did the racial and caste prejudices embodied in the concept of limpieza de sangre. Literally translated, this phrase means “cleanliness of the blood.” In Spain, to be of clean blood first meant that one possessed no Muslim or Jewish antecedents. However, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the definition of impurity expanded to include other groups that did not belong to what the Spanish deemed the core and corps of civilized nations. Initially, some colonists thought the indigenous inhabitants were so inferior that the question of whether or not they possessed souls remained a subject of dispute among them. At a debate in Valladolid, Spain, in 1550, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda set forth the position of many of the colonists. Deeming the indígenas to be “as children are to adults,” he concluded that they were “little men in whom you will scarcely find even vestiges of humanity.”6 Consequently, Sepúlveda argued that they “require, by their...


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