Although persons of European birth, called peninsulares, stood atop the social hierarchy, they never constituted more than a tiny proportion of the population of Spanish America. Unlike in the later British empire, Indian inhabitants always outnumbered European colonists and their descendants in Spanish America, and large areas remained effectively under Indian control for many years. Like the later French empire and unlike the English, Spanish authorities granted Indians certain rights within colonial society and looked forward to their eventual assimilation. Indeed, the success of the Spanish empire depended on the nature of the native societies on which it could build. In Florida, the Amazon, and Caribbean islands like Jamaica, which lacked major Indian cities and large native populations, Spanish rule remained tenuous.

The Spanish crown ordered wives of colonists to join them in America and demanded that single men marry. But with the population of Spanish women remaining low, the intermixing of the colonial and Indian peoples soon began. As early as 1514, the Spanish government formally approved of such marriages, partly as a way of bringing Christianity to the native population. By 1600, mestizos (persons of mixed origin) made up a large part of the urban population of Spanish America. In the century that followed, mestizos repopulated the Valley of Mexico, where disease had decimated the original inhabitants. Over time, Spanish America evolved into a hybrid culture, part Spanish, part Indian, and in some areas part African, but with a single official faith, language, and governmental system. In 1531, a poor Indian, Juan Diego, reported seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary, looking very much like a dark-skinned Indian, near a Mexican village. Miracles began to be reported, and a shrine was built in her honor. The Virgin of Guadalupe would come to be revered by millions as a symbol of the mixing of Indian and Spanish cultures, and later of the modern nation of Mexico.

An illustration from the Huexotzinco Codex (1531) depicts Mexicans providing products and services as taxes to the Spanish conquerors. The banner of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus reflects the early spread of Christianity. The people of Huexotzinco, a town near Mexico City, had aided Hernan Cortes in his conquest of the Aztec empire. The codex was part of a successful lawsuit, endorsed by Cortes, in which the Indians challenged excessive taxation by colonial officials.

Four Racial Groups, taken from a series of paintings by the eighteenth-century Mexican artist Andre's de Islas, illustrates the racial mixing that took place in the Spanish empire and some of the new vocabulary invented to describe it. Top left: The offspring of a Spaniard and Indian is a mestizo. Right A Spaniard and a mestiza produce a castizo. Bottom left: The child of an Indian and a mestiza is a coyote. Right: And the child of an Indian man and African woman is a chino.

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