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READ: Religious Syncretism in Colonial Mexico City

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  3. What were some strategies used by the Spanish to try to convert the indigenous population?
  4. What were some things that motivated some Aztecs to convert?
  5. How is the Lady of Guadalupe an example of religious syncretism, according to the author?

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Religious Syncretism in Colonial Mexico City

An exhibit of several sculptures worshipping a god-like figure. Some are bowing down and some are reaching out.
By Bennett Sherry
After Spanish conquistadors sacked the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in 1521, they tried to convert Mexico City's indigenous people to a new religion. Results were mixed.

Gods on boats

The Columbian Exchange was a system in which plants, animals, people, and diseases were sent across oceans, transforming societies all over the globe. But the Columbian Exchange wasn't just biological. It was also a cultural exchange. When people sailed across oceans, they carried more than what was in the ship's cargo hold. They brought their gods with them.
Millions of people made the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. Many were forced. Many others came as colonizers seeking to impose their way of life―and beliefs―on those they encountered. But this wasn't a one-way cultural exchange. Religious syncretism is when different belief systems from two or more places blend to create something new. In this article, we'll explore one part of the cultural exchange that took place after 1500: the Spanish conversion of Mexico City's indigenous people. Though the Spanish conquerors sought to force conversions, the processes of religious syncretism were much more complex. How did Christianity change Mexico City? How did Mexico City change Christianity?

Layers of belief in Mexico City

Below is a picture of the Plaza del Zócalo in Mexico City. That big church is the Metropolitan Cathedral, a center of Mexican Catholicism. But this square was once also the center of the Aztec religion. Just across the street from the Cathedral lie the ruins of Templo Mayor, the most important temple in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán. This one area in Mexico City has served as a center of Aztec belief, Catholicism, and Mexican nationalism. For centuries, the ruins of an indigenous temple lay buried in the shadow of a Catholic cathedral. Though this view might look like it represents Christianity paving over and obscuring indigenous religion, the real story is more complex. What other aspects of indigenous faith might lie hidden beneath the surface?
A large, open plaza in Mexico City. In the background is a great castle, and the plaza is lined with palm trees. Many tourists are milling around the plaza.
The Plaza del Zócalo and the Metropolitan Cathedral, Mexico City. Public domain.
Photo of ruins of brick and stone structures. In the background is a great cathedral topped with tall steeples.
The ruins of Templo Mayor. Notice the Metropolitan Cathedral just across the street. By Michel Rudoy, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Strategies of conversion

The Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, sacked Tenochtitlán in 1521, dismantling the city's temples and pyramids and renaming it Mexico City. Historians often describe the motivations of the Spanish conquistadors as "Gold, God, and Glory." They sought to win treasure, spread Christianity, and bring glory to themselves and the Spanish Empire. Let's focus on the second "G"—God.
The pope, as leader of the Catholic religion, played a large role in European politics in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Spanish were able to get the pope's support for colonial expansion by promising to convert Indigenous Americans to Catholicism. Spanish efforts to convert indigenous peoples launched a process of conquest, resistance, and negotiation that would last for centuries.
Soon after Cortés defeated the Aztecs, Catholic missionaries arrived in Mexico. Missionaries are people who travel to foreign places to promote their religion and try to convert people to it. One of the top priorities for the Spanish was Christian conversion. They worried that people would rally around indigenous priests and their religious symbols to organize revolts. Thus, Spaniards burned the temples, symbols, and books of the Aztec and other indigenous peoples. Often, when they tore down a temple, Spanish missionaries built a Catholic church over its ruins, using the stones of dismantled pyramids.
A model shows impressive structures facing one another. The structures are flat-topped pyramid shapes. On top of the pyramids are great structures or buildings.
A model of what Templo Mayor might have looked like before the Spanish conquest. By Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0.
The early years of the Spanish conquest were brutal. The Spanish not only forced their religion, but they also forced people into slavery, tore families apart, and killed those who resisted. This started a cycle of indigenous resistance and Spanish violence. Indigenous peoples also watched millions in their communities die from European diseases that their immune systems were not prepared to fight. The Spanish, who had stronger immunities to the diseases they brought, had a lower mortality rate. This led many indigenous people to question the protection provided by their gods, motivating some to convert willingly.
Furthermore, Spanish missionaries' subtle methods were often more effective than the brutal actions of the conquistadors. For example, in Mexico City, missionaries took the sons of Aztec nobility from their families, moving them to new Christian schools, where they were taught Catholic doctrine and obedience to colonial authority.
A painting depicts a baptism. Many men stand as onlookers as a man is bowed town toward a well of water.
An eighteenth-century painting of the baptism of Ixtlilxochitl II, ruler of Texcoco. Ixtlilxochitl was an early convert to Catholicism, and he forced his people to convert. When his mother refused, Ixtlilxochitl threatened to burn her alive. Public domain.

Indigenous strategies

The conversion of the Americas often gets called a "religious conquest". But conversion was more than conquest and resistance. It was also a negotiation that blended elements of both religions. Some indigenous peoples were more receptive to Catholicism because they saw similarities with their Aztec religion. For example, each had a strong priestly class with a hierarchical structure and shared similar symbols and rituals. Just like the Spaniards, the Aztecs imposed new gods on conquered peoples as a political tool. So, societies in Mesoamerica were familiar with the concept of adopting the gods of their conquerors. The Spaniards might have expected total conversion, but indigenous peoples often did not totally abandon their old rituals and gods. Thus, Catholic missionaries, to their frustration, often found images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary alongside statues of Aztec and other indigenous gods. As you'll see later in this article, evidence of syncretism can still be observed in modern Mexico.
Some indigenous people converted because they sought the protection of priests against the cruelty of conquistadors. One of the best known was the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, who convinced the Spanish king to ban the enslavement and abuse of indigenous peoples. For many other indigenous people, conversion was an opportunity. Becoming Christians gave indigenous people a better position in colonial society. Regardless of the motivations, conversion was not a simple act of acceptance or rejection.
A drawing shows the horrific atrocities committed by the Spanish. Indigenous people are shown tied up and being beaten.
An illustration for a later edition of Bartolomé de las Casas’ book, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. The book portrayed Spanish atrocities committed against indigenous peoples throughout Latin America. Public domain.

Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

Perhaps, the most important examples of religious syncretism in Mexico City is the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. According to later accounts, in 1531, an indigenous man named Juan Diego had a religious experience on the Hill of Tepeyac, on the north side of Mexico City. He claimed to witness visions of the Virgin Mary, who spoke in the indigenous language Nahuatl. In his vision, Juan Diego claimed she directed him to build a church, and that her image miraculously appeared on his cloak. Juan Diego convinced the Catholic clergy to build a shrine and church, which they dedicated to "the Virgin of Guadalupe." By the seventeenth century, the shrine was a popular pilgrimage site. The image of the Lady of Guadalupe emerged as an important symbol of belief, especially for indigenous converts, who saw her as their protector.
Some historians argue that this story was a Spanish conversion strategy to justify the building of a Catholic church on the ruins of a shrine to the Aztec mother goddess, Tonantzin, also a protector. Other historians claim that this tradition is the result of syncretism between the worship of the indigenous Tonantzin and the black Virgin of Guadalupe of Extremadurastart superscript, 1, end superscript. Eventually, the piety for these two religious images blended into one.
Very old artworks. On one side, a bust of a figure decorated in large, beaded jewelry. On the right, a painting of a woman with her eyes closed and her hands closed in prayer position. Around her are golden beams of light.
Left: a statue of Tonantzin. By Thelmadatter, CC BY-SA 3.0. Right: The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe that Spanish accounts claim appeared on Juan Diego’s cloak. Public domain.
Whatever the truth, the Catholic Church embraced the story of Juan Diego and the apparition as the popularity of the virgin soared among both Spanish and indigenous communities. Eventually, the Catholic Church named Guadalupe the patron of the Americas and the original small chapel has expanded into a modern massive basilica. The Lady of Guadalupe also became a symbol of Mexican nationalism. Revolutionaries carried her image into battle during the Mexican War of Independence in 1810 and again during the Mexican Revolution in 1910. The Basilica is visited by 20 million people each year―more than visit the Vatican in Rome.
Photograph of tourists viewing great historical buildings. A rounded building with a turquoise-colored roof is on one side, and on the other side is a great cathedral topped in gold and red domes.
The basilica during the annual celebration in December. The Hill of Tepeyac—where the original shrine to Tonantzin and later the Lady of Guadalupe—rises behind the basilica. By Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata, CC BY-SA 4.0.
The Lady of Guadalupe is an example of the complicated negotiation between indigenous belief and colonial conversion. This place served as a pilgrimage destination for centuries before the Spanish arrived, and it remains so centuries later. The Spanish destroyed a shrine to an Aztec mother goddess and replaced it with a shrine to the mother of Jesus. In images, she is portrayed in a European style but with dark skin. She stands on a moon, wreathed by the sun—important elements in the Aztec religion. Indigenous converts adopted the Lady of Guadalupe as their protector, and some still call her Tonantzin. They might have been praying to a different figure, but they were praying for the same reasons and at the same site as their ancestors. And three centuries later, Guadalupe remained a symbol of Mexican unity.

Blending religions

As indigenous communities converted, beliefs and rituals blended. Catholic missionaries appropriated (re-used for their own purposes) indigenous symbols, and converts brought old practices to the new religion. Indigenous festivities fell on the same days as Catholic holy days. The Catholic practice of confession merged with similar indigenous rituals. Indigenous symbols were incorporated into Christian crosses. The sacrificial basins once used to collect blood during human sacrifices were repurposed for baptisms. And, as Catholic doctrine was translated into Nahuatl, the languages of faith blended.
Religious syncretism created a new Catholic culture in Mexico. In 2020, Mexico is the second-largest Catholic nation on Earth, behind only Brazil. Latin America is home to 425 million of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. The current Catholic Pope, Francis, was born in Argentina. And every year, millions of Catholics make the pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, to pray at a site that once held a shrine to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin.
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in History from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a Research Associate at Pitt's World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

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    How did Christianity change Mexico City? How did Mexico City change Christianity?
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