New Spain, an introduction

An introduction to the Viceroyalty of New Spain; speakers: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, the main cathedral in Mexico City, which stands on the ruins of the old Aztec capital but was transformed into a new capital, the capital of New Spain.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:17] New Spain was a Spanish viceroyalty. A viceroyalty is basically a political entity under the Spanish crown, and it was ruled by a viceroy.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] This is the stand-in for the king.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:27] Let’s go back in time a little bit and talk about the events of the Spanish conquest that led to the establishment of this viceroyalty of New Spain.

Dr. Zucker: [0:35] We can begin with Columbus bumping into the Americas as he’s trying to get to what he would have called the Indies; that is, to Asia.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:43] Decades later, Hernán Cortés had heard these tales of gold and so illegally left Cuba, arrived on the coast of Veracruz, the Gulf Coast of Mexico, and made his way inland. As he did that, he encountered numerous people who were angry at the Mexica, or the Aztecs, whose capital city was here in Tenochtitlan, what today is Mexico City.

Dr. Zucker: [1:05] So Cortés was really off on an adventure to enrich himself, and what he found was one of the largest, most impressive cities in the world.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:13] We have lots of accounts of what happened during those years, but in the end, in 1521, the Aztecs were defeated by the Spaniards and we have the beginning of what we call New Spain.

Dr. Zucker: [1:23] It was important for the Spanish that they convert the Aztecs and the other peoples here to Christianity, to Catholicism. They, of course, imposed political order and took control of the vast natural resources of the American continents.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:36] One of the clearest ways that they tried to signal this change in political and religious order was building on top of former pagan temples or sites. The earliest cathedral was actually constructed using stones from the sacred precinct of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan.

[1:52] You see this across New Spain. The earliest Christian buildings are typically made reusing former Indigenous temple stones.

Dr. Zucker: [2:00] And they were built by Indigenous peoples. The labor was Indigenous, the materials were Indigenous, but of course the religion was imported. And these weren’t any Christians, these were Spanish Catholics that had recently and successfully retaken Spain from the Muslims.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:16] This reconquest atmosphere is something that came across the Atlantic with the Spanish Conquistadors. This strategy of building on top of former pagan temples and reusing the stones is a strategy that we see being employed in Spain. A great example would be the Great Mosque of Córdoba, which now has a Christian church built and placed inside of it.

Dr. Zucker: [2:37] Just as the Spanish used force to retake Spain from the Muslims, the efforts to Christianize here in the New World were violent and resulted in tremendous bloodshed.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:47] That, coupled with epidemics — the introduction of, say, smallpox here to the populations of the Americas — were devastating.

Dr. Zucker: [2:54] Let’s spend a moment talking about the scope of New Spain. New Spain reached as far north as Northern California. Think, for instance, of the name San Francisco, Saint Francis, or as far south as Central America.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:07] If we think of the width of it, not only California but reaching all the way to Texas, so you have this vast territory. What you typically see, though, is people referring to the Spanish viceroyalty of New Spain as colonial Mexico. it’s typically used as a shorthand term.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] The Spanish wanted control of this land, not only because they wanted to convert these souls but because of the incredible wealth that was here.

[3:29] The Spanish imported gold. They imported silver from the New World, but they also imported a whole series of new foodstuffs, including corn and tomatoes, and potatoes from South America.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:39] And chocolate.

Dr. Zucker: [3:40] And cochineal, which was an insect that produced a brilliant red that was sought after.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:46] There were trade networks going from New Spain to Asia, particularly through the Philippines in Manila, so you have this vast global network of trade.

Dr. Zucker: [3:54] New Spain was a central point between the Atlantic trade and the Pacific trade.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:59] Eventually, New Spain will become a very cosmopolitan place, because you not only have many different European peoples and Amerindian peoples but you also have peoples from Asia and a significant number of enslaved Africans here.

Dr. Zucker: [4:13] When we look at the art of New Spain — of this incredibly sophisticated and complex culture that has its roots in complex Indigenous cultures, that has the overlay of the conquering Spaniards, that has imports from East Asia, from Europe, and becomes tremendously wealthy — we look at an art that is truly original, that draws globally but produces something that the world had never seen before.

[4:35] [music]

Vistas: visual culture in Latin America, 1520–1820

James Oles, Art and Architecture in Mexico (London: Thames & Hudson, 2013)

Painting a New World, exh. cat., ed. Donna Pierce, Denver Art Museum (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004) (available online)

Tesoros, Treasures, Tesouros, the Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820, exhibition catalogue (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2006)

Kelly Donahue-Wallace, Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America, 1521–1821 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008)

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "New Spain, an introduction," in Smarthistory, February 24, 2017, accessed July 18, 2024,