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A New Life in an Old City

Life for the colonists of New Spain got easier as the colonies became less dependent on Spain. In the early days of colonization everything had to be brought over by ship and death rates were high. As the colonies became more self-sufficient more colonists came and life began to look and feel a lot like the Old World. The Spanish set up towns and cities that were mirrored after the ones they had left behind. El Paso, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Salvador, San Fernando, and Nogales-the last two names you probably know better as Memphis, TN and Vicksburg, MS.

Let's take a closer look at Mexico City (the old Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán) to get a better idea of what life was like for the thousands of Spanish colonists who moved to towns of New Spain during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. The floating city of Tenochtitlán that had so awed Cortez and his army began to be filled with Spanish colonists who flocked to the capital city of New Spain.

The temples had been torn down and replaced with Catholic churches. The golden gods of the Aztec had been melted down into coins. Some reports tell us that many Indians, angry that their gods did not protect them from disease and war willingly became Catholics. The Spanish enlisted the Indians to rebuild the city. Some did willingly, others by force. Abuse of the Indians was so common that the Pope spoke out against it. The Aztec homes were being replaced with Spanish style adobe houses.

More and more the Mexico City began to look and feel more like Madrid than Tenochtitlán. As the population grew, Lake Texcoco was drained and filled in. In modern times hardly any of the old lake remains. The main plaza where the people stoned Moctezuma to death was now the center of social life for Mexico City. The old market where Aztecs once traded cocoa beans for feathers, obsidian, and rabbits still remained but merchants called out their goods in Spanish rather than Nauatl. The main market accommodating thousands of people came to buy their daily supplies from the charcoal vendors, fruit vendors, or grab a quick meal from the Cabeceros who operated a portable restaurant where meat was cooked on the spot. 

You might be asking yourself what happened to all of the water that once filled Lake Texcoco? When the Spanish began draining the lake in the 1600s to make room for settlers, you might say that engineering and geography weren't their strong suits.

Every time it rained parts of the city would flood, once for up to 5 years! Standing water was breeding ground for mosquitoes and disease. During the rains people would hold handkerchiefs to their noses from the smell of the swampy water and rotting vegetation.

The Spanish built a grand canal to drain away rainwater; 60,000 Indians worked on the canal which was one of the greatest engineering feats of the day. But the canal wasn't maintained and fell into disrepair. It took the Great Flood of 1642, (which flooded the city for five years) to get the city leaders to decide to do something about the problem. The canal was repaired and more dikes and canals were added but flooding continued to remain an issue. Finally, in the 1900s the problem was solved by a massive engineering project that added more canals, dredged rivers, and built dams to contain the water. Ironically, the project worked so well that a city that could not contain the water now can't keep up with its people's need for water.

The Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral was begun in 1573 atop the ruins of the Aztec temple complex of Templo Mayor
How did life change after the Spanish conquest of Mexico?
Templo Mayor, actually the top of a pyramid and the spot the Aztecs considered the center of the Earth, discovered in 1978 on the Zocalo, Mexico City, Mexico, Jan 2010

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