Rise of Criollo Identity in Mexico Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After defeating the Aztecs, the Spanish divided the population of New Spain into two separate legal entities, one for Spaniards and the other for indigenous peoples. By the end of the sixteenth century, however, the Spanish, African, and indigenous cultures had become intermingled. This mixing of cuisines, art, and customs produced a distinctive variant of Spanish civilization, called criollo, that would blossom into full-fledged Mexican consciousness by 1810.

Summary of Event

In the Kingdom of New Spain New Spain , the Spaniards and their descendants of unmixed Spanish lineage constituted the ruling class and technically enjoyed legal equality. Those born in New Spain called themselves criollos, and some Spanish immigrants caught the “criollo spirit,” identifying more with their American habitation than with their homeland. The word derived from the verb criar, which can mean to breed, raise, rear, or nourish, and it signified the vitality of the new and distinctive culture that developed among the immigrants and indigenous inhabitants of New Spain. [kw]Rise of Criollo Identity in Mexico (1604-1680) [kw]Mexico, Rise of Criollo Identity in (1604-1680) [kw]Criollo Identity in Mexico, Rise of (1604-1680) Cultural and intellectual history;1604-1680: Rise of Criollo Identity in Mexico[0340] Colonization;1604-1680: Rise of Criollo Identity in Mexico[0340] Mexico;1604-1680: Rise of Criollo Identity in Mexico[0340] Criollo culture

One of the Spaniards who caught the criollo spirit was Bernardo de Balbuena, Balbueno, Bernardo de who was born in Valdepeñas in the early 1560’s and was educated in Mexico City. While in Jamaica, Balbuena wrote Grandeza mexicana Grandeza mexicana (Balbueno) (1604; the grandeur of Mexico), which described Mexico as a floral paradise populated with beautiful women of superior intellect. This 1604 text helped to found a sense of a distinctive Mexican or criollo identity. The paradise described in the book had been the perfect setting for the appearance of the Virgin Mary to an indigenous youth at Tepeyac, a hill outside Mexico City, in 1531. By the middle of the seventeenth century, criollos had named the apparition the Virgin of Guadalupe, Guadalupe, Virgin of because the image resembled the pictures of the Virgin of Gualdalupe in Extremadura, Spain. The Virgin of Guadalupe became regarded as the spiritual mother of all of the ethnic groups in Mexico. Catholicism;Mexico

When Balbuena died in 1620, he was the bishop of Puerto Rico. He received his education in one of the many schools established in New Spain by the Catholic Church to prepare criollos for the priesthood. The most famous of the schools was the Royal Pontifical University Royal Pontifical University (later renamed the University of Mexico), run by the Augustinian order. Education;Mexico Modeled after the University of Salamanca in Spain, the Royal Pontifical University began enrolling students in 1553. By 1650, there were about six thousand priests, both diocesan and secular, from the Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian, and Jesuit orders. Most of the priests were criollos, but most of the bishops were Spaniards.

One of the criollos who became a Franciscan priest was Philip of Jesus Philip of Jesus , who was born in Mexico City in 1572. He entered the Reformed Franciscan Convent of Santa Barbara in Puebla, Mexico, but left after one year, moving to Manila in the Philippines, where he returned to his vocation. While on a return voyage to New Spain, Philip’s ship wrecked on the coast of Japan. When the survivors refused to renounce Christianity, they were crucified on February 5, 1597, at Nagasaki. Philip of Jesus was beatified on September 14, 1627, and canonized on June 8, 1862, as the Patron Saint of Mexico City. He was the first North American to become a saint in the Catholic Church. Martyrs;Franciscans in Japan North America;Catholicism and

The criollo priest Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora Sigüenza y Góngora, Carlos de earned secular renown as a scholar and a writer. Born in Mexico City on August 20, 1645, Sigüenza y Góngora was home-schooled by his father, who had been tutor to King Philip IV. Sigüenza y Góngora took vows as a Jesuit in 1662 in Tepotzotlán and, after being expelled from the College of the Holy Spirit in Puebla, he enrolled in the Royal Pontifical University. He was later appointed to the university’s chair of mathematics and astronomy. An avid student of the indigenous past, he learned indigenous dialects and amassed an impressive collection of documents and artifacts. He reconstructed the Aztec dynasties and studied Mesoamerican mathematics, astronomy, and cosmography.

Sigüenza y Góngora also produced significant literary works. Primavera Indiana Primavera Indiana (Sigüenza y Góngora) (1668; Indian spring) and Teatro de virtudes políticas Teatro de virtudes políticas (Sigüenza y Góngora) (1680; theater of political virtues) both glorify the American past and Aztec emperors. In other writings, he speculated about a link between the apostle Saint Thomas and the Aztec deity Quetzalcóatl. He regarded the conversion of the Mexican Indians as the greatest accomplishment of the Spaniards. His literary and scientific works, including a map of Pensacola Bay, circulated widely in Spain and combined with Balbuena’s works to establish Mexico as a center of Spanish culture.

Although individual criollos distinguished themselves as leaders in the literary realm, full-blooded Spaniards—both on the Iberian Peninsula and in New Spain—continued to regard the mass of criollos as second-class Spaniards, because they were born in a distant realm populated by gente vil (despicable people). The Spaniards had conceived of New Spain as one land inhabited by two nations, meaning two homogeneous ethnic groups with common languages, customs, and physical features.

From 1600 to 1700, the white population of New Spain grew from about 60,000—including peninsulares and criollos—to about 400,000 Population growth;New Spain . The indigenous population dropped to a low point of 1 million in 1625 and began to recover thereafter. By 1646, there were 35,089 blacks in Mexico and more than 100,000 Afromestizos, people of mixed African and indigenous or Spanish ancestry. Persons with mixed ancestry were presumed to be illegitimate. The Spaniards placed them in an indeterminate category between the Spanish and Indian nations and referred to them as belonging to the sociedad de castas, or caste society. Spaniards regarded themselves as racially superior to the Indians and the castes and superior to the criollos because of their birth in the caste-ridden Americas.

Criollo resentment toward Spanish attitudes was fueled by economic conditions in the seventeenth century. The Spanish crown declared bankruptcy in 1575, 1596, and 1607, and Spain entered a period of prolonged economic depression. Spaniards continued to dominate the bureaucracies of the Catholic Church, the government, and the military, but Spain could no longer support their imperial enterprises in the Americas. Criollos began to take the lead in developing the economy of New Spain. They expanded the viceroyalty’s activities in mining, ranching, textiles, sugar, and finances. While Spain stagnated, New Spain flourished; yet, the Spaniards treated the criollos and Mexican society with contempt. In turn, the criollos despised the Spaniards and referred to them as gachupines, an insulting word of uncertain meaning but thought by some to refer to the spur on fighting cocks. Criollo resentment of Spanish contempt would fuel the Mexican independence movement.


Criollo accomplishments in all realms of society continued to go unrecognized and unrewarded by the Spaniards from the seventeenth century to the end of the colonial period. During Spain’s first constitutional crisis in 1808, the criollos, despite their resentments, largely remained loyal to the vacated throne until the return of King Ferdinand VII. Emblematic of Spain’s attitude toward the criollos was King Ferdinand’s refusal to reward Agustín Iturbide for suppressing a rebellion. Iturbide received neither a knighthood nor a commission in the Spanish army, partly because he was a criollo.

During the second Spanish constitutional crisis in 1821, Iturbide joined forces with the castas, who had also been born and reared in New Spain. Iturbide agreed with the Afromestizo leader Vicente Guerrero to break from Spain, end the caste system by establishing a single legal code for all Mexicans, and retain the protected status of the Catholic Church. The criollo affections for their true homeland and their sense of autonomy as a society that had been developing since the turn of the seventeenth century made possible this independence movement. After taking a critical leadership role in the movement, criollos made themselves the elite class of the new nation of Mexico, which became a country with a heterogeneous population governed by autonomous institutions.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bennett, Herman L. Africans in Colonial Mexico: Absolutism, Christianity, and Afro-Creole Consciousness, 1570-1640. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. Study focusing on African slave society, particularly in the cities, and the creolization of free persons of African descent.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boyer, Richard. “Mexico in the Seventeenth Century: Transition of a Colonial Society.” The Hispanic American Historical Review 57, no. 3 (August, 1977): 455-478. Important article that first drew scholarly attention to the emergence of the mestizo character of the society that became Mexico.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Jonathon C. Latin America: A Social History of the Colonial Period. 2d ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2005. The four chapters in Part 2 of this very fine text use scholarship since the Boyer article to treat seventeenth century Latin America, including New Spain. Extremely helpful reading lists at the ends of the chapters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lafaye, Jacques, et al. La Pintura de Castas [Painting Castes]. No. 8, 2d rev. ed. With translations by Lorna Scott Fox et al. Mexico City: Artes de Mexico y del Mundo, 1998. Insightful discussions of the evolution of colonial society with more than forty photographs of paintings illustrating fifty-three of the castes that emerged from the mixing of Europeans, Africans, Indigenes, and their offspring in Mexico.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; Philip IV. Criollo culture

Categories: History