Race & Ethnicity

The Spanish conquest and colonization of Mesoamerica added new layers to the great diversity of ethnicities in the region, bringing Caucasians and Africans into the mix of the already diverse ethnic range of Native peoples, who spoke many different languages and had some of their own customs even if they also shared some characteristics with other indigenous communities. As time went on, Asians gradually entered the scene, too, given that the Spanish galleons crossed back and forth from Acapulco to the Philippines, largely for the purposes of trade but also eventually introducing laborers to the colonies.

Indigenous Groups

Remember, Nahuas were those who lived in the central Mexican highlands.  Mixtecs and Zapotecs were the most numerous in the area of Oaxaca, but there are sixteen different languages spoken in Oaxaca still today, evidence of the great ethnic diversity that has always characterized the region.

Indigenous communities were also internally stratified.  Community leaders received tributes (taxation), passed some off to the emperor and kept some for themselves.  Tribute payers tended to be heads of households (or, if single, paid a half portion, which suggests that wives were responsible for helping produce perhaps half the tribute for the household).  Nahua emperors built up a huge empire through conquest and then started extracting tributes from “conquered” communities (not in the sense of totally destroyed, by any means, just as that did not apply when the Spanish followed a similar model).  They wanted to introduce their gods to these communities.  They wanted them to remain productive so that they could pay tributes.  This pattern would continue under Spanish colonialism, but it was centuries old when the Spanish invaded in 1519.

For a vivid pictorial manuscript showing Aztec/Nahua conquests and tributes, see the free, online Codex Mendoza.

Slaves were known in pre-Hispanic times and after the arrival of Europeans.  But indigenous slaves became fairly rare in Mesoamerica after Spanish colonization.  Africans slaves became more the norm.

See the Wikipedia page about Aztec slaves for an image of the pre-Hispanic graphical representation that shows them with a wooden yoke or collar.  And a brief summary about Aztec slavery in English.  And here’s a web page about Aztec slaves intended for children’s eyes.

Some outside observers see all indigenous people in the Spanish colonies as slaves.  Really, in fact, their labor was tapped by the colonizers, but they were more likely to have to provide rotary draft labor through institutions called the repartimiento and encomienda.  They could still spend time in their own communities, farming their own lands, which meant a great deal to them and distinguished them from slaves.

Indigenous communities continued to have their own nobility for a time, especially when those elites were willing to cooperate with European colonizers, who would then recognize their status.  Gradually, however, indigenous people lost resources and status.  Europeans became more numerous and acquired more resources, and the colonizers eventually came to see Native peoples as an undifferentiated mass of “peasants” (campesinos).


Spaniards were an ethnic minority over the entire Spanish colonial period in Mesoamerica, and yet they held the power and accumulated wealth. The fact that indigenous communities were accustomed to being conquered by other Native groups contributed to their acceptance (to some extent) of the new Spanish overlords.  Also, indigenous communities were fairly separate and autonomous, and they rarely banded together to fight off the Europeans.  Uprisings tended to be local affairs with a specific focus, such as a contested boundary line or a dreaded labor draft.

Gradually, there arose a distinction between Spanish immigrants and those Spaniards born in Mesoamerica whose parents or grandparents were from Spain.  Well into the Spanish colonial period, a hierarchy between Iberian-born and locally-born Spaniards began to emerge.  The locally born Spaniards were called criollos. Those born on the Iberian Peninsula (occupied by the kingdoms Spain and Portugal) were called peninsulares.  Some competition arose between criollos and peninsulares (or, in English, creoles and peninsulars) for the highest positions in the Spanish colonies in the Americas, with peninsular-born Spaniards holding the best jobs.  These tensions increased with the growing sentiment that independence from Spain would be desireable.  The Independence movement was kicked off in 1810, and was successful in 1821.  Of course, the locally-born Spanish minority continued to hold power and major social change did not occur.


Spaniards began having mixed-heritage offspring fairly early on in the conquest and colonization period. In fact, rape in conquest was fairly common. But other sources for mixing arose when elite indigenous women were seen as desireable marriage partners (because they might come with privileges for taxation and labor drafts among the local communities).  Spanish nobles and overseers would also take advantage of indigenous women servants in the domestic sphere.  The child that was born of both Spanish and indigenous heritage was labeled a mestizo (male) or mestiza (female).

Spanish Conqueror Raping an Indigenous Woman, Diego Rivera mural, National Palace

Spanish Conqueror Raping an Indigenous Woman, Diego Rivera mural, National Palace


The first Africans brought in to the Spanish colonies tended to be small in number and worked as domestic servants and overseers.  They were more likely to know Spanish, be able to gain their freedom, and they had a higher status than slaves who were put to work on agricultural plantations or in the mines. The latter became more numerous over the three hundred year period of the Spanish colonial experience, but they tended to be concentrated in the tropical lowlands or around concentrated centers of mineral deposits, such as silver.  Still, Africans were less numerous in Mesoamerica than, for example, in the Caribbean.  To get an idea about Nahua views of Africans, visit the free online Nahuatl dictionary and enter the search term African.

Spaniard orders African overseer to flog an indigenous lord for falling short on tributes (Peru)

Spaniard orders an African overseer to flog an indigenous lord for falling short on tribute payment (Guaman Poma de Ayala, indigenous author of colonial Peru)


Spaniard with his African slave muleteer (Peru)

Spaniard with his African slave muleteer (Guaman Poma, Peru)


Spanish colonizers also took advantage of subordinate African women, especially slaves, and produced mixed-heritage offspring that came to be called mulatos in Spanish. These people could have a slightly lower status than mestizos, in part because some mestizos descended from indigenous nobility (and their Spanish heritage was also perceived as a potential positive).  Mulatos were more likely to descend from slave labor.

As people of mixed heritage came to mix with one another — for example, a mestizo uniting with a mulata, and having a child — new labels emerged for these various permutations of mixing.  The names got very inventive, but they also continued to show an inherent racism that gave preference to lighter skin or more European features. As these labels proliferated, there was also a push back that resulted in a broad mixed-heritage label being used widely: castas.  A casta was a person of indeterminant mixed heritage.

Historian Peter Bakewell has developed what he calls a castas “Thinksheet,” an exercise that has students look at paintings of castas’ mixtures, read statements that convey some of the racist thinking of the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, and think about attitudes.  Who may have painted these paintings, why, for whom?  For those who understand Spanish, what is conveyed in the ethnic labels?  Are people of color portrayed in a negative light (as more violent, for example, or more prone to alcoholism)?  Was that a perception or a reality?

Mexican DNA Today

Recent research findings (NBC News, June 12, 2014, summarizing an article in the journal Science) emphasize the huge diversity in Mexicans’ DNA.  Strong distinctions relate to the fact that people in different parts of Mexico have different types of indigenous heritage, and indigenous ethnicities are numerous and diverse.  In the U.S. we tend to lump together our Mexican immigrants as “Chicano,” “Hispanic” or “Latino,” and we tend to ignore the fact that they have a very significant indigenous heritage. Ironically, our MeCHa groups rarely mix with our Native American Student Union groups.  DNA research does recognize the European and African contributions to Mexican heritage (creating mestizaje), but what is most significant is the lasting and notable importance of their native heritage.  The article points to lung function as varying widely based on the native components in the DNA. Thus, we have before us more physical evidence of indigenous survivals, despite some mixing.

 Curricula and Other Resources for Teaching