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Religious Influences in Colonial Mexican Society

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The Catholic Church was an integral part of colonial Mexican life. The Spanish conquest led to the conversion of the indigenous populations, which then led to a blending of the Catholic tradition with that of the indigenous religions. Catholicism became a part of everyday life for the populations of colonial Mexico and because Catholicism is a hierarchal religious tradition, it reinforced the pre-existing social class structure within the Spanish kingdom. The minorities continued to be excluded from certain aspects of society, including religious positions and education. Both of which were greatly influenced areas of colonial society by the Catholic Church. The church was deeply involved in most, if not all aspects of colonial Mexican life including influencing politics, education, and other local social issues. The Spanish conquest of the Americas was one of great expansion in more ways than one. The Spanish crown not only added new areas of the world to their kingdom but simultaneously spread Christianity throughout this New World. The Catholic Church, a powerful institution in its own right, with the dedicated word of European missionaries, the growth of the religion led to the conversion of much of the indigenous populations in the Americas. The missionaries built missions and had haciendas that created environments in which the Catholic religion was a fundamental incorporation of life, so as to convert the indigenous population. The missionaries also built schools and universities to educate the Spanish colonials. The University of Mexico was one of the first universities in colonial Mexico and provided the education needed to be a physician, a lawyer, and any other career that required a degree in colonial times.
Only men were allowed to attend universities in this time period and religion definitely played an integral part in the education of the male youth of colonial Mexico. The professors at these universities were great Spanish intellectuals that were sharing their knowledge of subjects with the New World. This is illustrated in one of the Documenting Mexican History documents, “the brilliance of their wisdom they are the first to free the New World from the cloud of ignorance with which it was obscured, and to confirm the Indians in the faith and worship of God, so that an ever stronger integrity is transmitted to posterity…” (Documenting Mexican History, Document 6.1) This quote displays the belief that European knowledge, being taught to colonial youth would help to convert the Indians and therefore also improve colonial society as a whole and also improve this newly discovered part of the world. Convents provided community centers for religion and culture and they also provided some of the few places for the education of girls . Religious education centers were important in the communities in which they were based and were one of the few the ways to receive an education in colonial Mexico, either through a monastery, a nunnery or a university.
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was one of the most proclaimed intellectuals of her time, wanted nothing more but to attend a university to further pursue her studies but being a woman was not allowed. She only was able to pursue her passion of learning by becoming a nun, where she studied theology. In a letter to the Bishop of Puebla, Sor Juana tells of her thirst for knowledge. “…I began to badger my mother with pleas that she let me put on men’s clothing and go to Mexico City, where I could live with some relatives and attend the university. She would not do it, and quite rightly too…” (Documenting Mexican History, Document 6.4) Women in this day only had two options: to either become married or to join a convent. The Catholic Church is a hierarchal religion that only allows men to move up and women are only allowed to become nuns. The colonial caste system was had many contributing factors including race, wealth, and even gender. Race and gender were the two big deciding factors. Women and indigenous peoples were the minorities. Indigenous women had no real career choices; marriage seemed to be their only option until the Convent of Corpus Christi was founded, which allowed for noble Indian women who wanted a religious profession, to become nuns. (Documenting Mexican History, Document 7.2) One example of the respect that is given to any person in the religious career field is the respect that is given to the character of Periquillo from Fernadez de Lizardi’s novel, The Mangy Parrot for his choice of profession. In the story, the main character, Periquillo, decides to become a friar and join a monastery because his father demands that he must decide on a career path. His friend tells him to become a cleric would be his best option because being a cleric is not difficult and it is still a respectable position. His parents are elated at his decision to become a cleric because even though they are not wealthy, becoming a part of the Church is one of the most respected careers a person could take in colonial Mexico. Even though the character of Periquillo already had a degree, he became a friar to continue his learning of theology. When Periquillo is on his way to join the monastery, it is celebrated like a parade. All of his family members were ecstatic with his chosen career path. People in a religious profession in colonial Mexico were usually the intellectuals and were extremely revered by people.
Religion in colonial Mexico was what defined everyday life. The belief that a religious career was equivalent to a well-matched marriage for the wealthy proves how highly regarded the Catholic religion was in this time period. Religion in colonial Mexico acted as an equalizer of sorts but also reinforced the social class system that existed in Spain. The Spanish colonial populations were all about the conversion of the indigenous peoples to Christianity. The union of the Spanish expansionists and the need for the Catholic Church to expand as well led to the extremely Christian influenced lifestyles of colonialists. The religion helped the spread of the state and the state reciprocated by helping the growth of the Catholic religion in the New World.

Lizardi, Fernandez de. The Mangy Parrot. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1851.

Documenting Mexican History – Week 6 and 7 History 156A Lecture 10

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