29 May

Heartland med

An Excerpt from my, “Walking Mexico’s Colonial Heartland”.

Life in the Streets and Plazas of Colonial Mexico

During the 16th and 17th centuries little was known about the spread of disease and the need for sanitation. The streets were open sewers full of garbage, discarded clothes, dead dogs and cats, broken crockery, and any other disgusting thing that came to hand, all thrown down from the windows of the houses on either side. The masters of the houses lived on the upper floors. The first floor was for animals and servants.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that they began to illuminate the streets and plazas at night. When forced to leave their homes in the dark, the nobles were preceded by their negro slaves carrying flaming torches. Many a poorer resident, coming home in the dark, found himself drenched with unspeakable filth thrown out of an upper story window.

The plazas were open air markets full of pig stys, chicken coops, sheep and goat pens, and cows waiting to be milked. There were slaughter houses with no regard paid to the rotting blood that spilled on the paving stones. The overwhelming numbers of stray dogs, living off the refuse, were surpassed only by the flies swarming over everything.

Everywhere balconies jutted out over the streets below. Balconies full of drying laundry; their rotting wooden windows and broken panes of glass occasionally falling on the heads of passersby.

Ground floors were frequently used as stores, and display counters were often shoved right to the front doors of the houses forcing people to stand in the street to buy, obstructing passage to the milling throngs of people on market days. These throngs were also forced to dodge and duck hanging merchandise and signs to avoid banging their heads.

Not only were the poorly paved streets full of buyers and strolling vendors, but also horses, mules, and donkeys grazing on the sidewalks or in the middle of the street, leaving steaming piles of manure in the path of unwary promenaders.

There was an abundance of beggars. The blind and the lame dragged themselves along showing their disgusting limbs and sores. And the poor, in rags, brought down not only by their miserable salaries but by vices (alcohol and gambling the most predominant), giving rise to thugs and thievery, which filled the jails with prisoners and cemeteries with corpses.

The prisoners were paraded through the streets being publicly whipped for their offenses on their way to the gallows or prison. Sent to their fate by the Sala del Crimen, el Tribunal de la Acordada, or by the Santa Inquisición.

Also in evidence on these same streets were the severe clerics in elegant robes or black capes. Franciscan friars, Dominicans, Carmelite nuns, and others in their impressive habits. The nobles and the rich promenaded on foot in ostentatious clothes, or in sedan chairs, on horseback, or in carriages accompanied by their negro slaves uniformed in colorful silks.

Processions of sisterly orders, altar societies, and other groups paraded on their way to convents, and churches carrying their colorful, silken standards or embroidered icons of saintly figures. These processions were the most popular forms of entertainment, and as such were magnificent. On high holidays the streets were filled with processions of penitents, bare to the waist, whipping themselves bloody.

Bells rang incessantly, especially during fiestas, as if each church, convent, or monastery were in competition with all of the others. The noise got so bad that laws were finally passed forbidding the ringing of bells except at appropriate times.

The town criers posed on horseback and announced by trumpets, would read aloud the edicts of the Viceroys or Alcaldes for all to hear and take note of. Barkers in fancy dress would announce the coming of the cockfights, bullfights, circuses, tumblers, etc.

Even though the atmosphere was very pious, the private lives of the city’s citizens were not. Prostitution and every other vice flourished, and consciences were eased with large donations to the Church.

Then in the 18th century the colonial cities changed morally and materially. Filthy canals were filled in, streets were paved, public bathrooms were built, water hydrants were provided for the citizens, streets were named and houses numbered, free schools were instituted, bell-ringing was further limited, and public nudity was abolished.

Streetlights were ordered to be provided by the inhabitants of the houses in their doorways and windows. By the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, city police were providing protection for the citizens. In 1722, the first national newspaper was published, and in 1805, the first daily emerged.

Public libraries were opened and the intellectual life of the great city began in earnest, with conversations and discussions in the first cafes that opened along the boulevards.

Beneficial institutions such as the Monte de Piedad, the national pawn broker; Hospicio de Pobres, poor houses; and the Casa de la Cuna, homes for unwed mothers were opened.

The main plaza was cleared, the canals filled in, and a statue of Carlos IV was erected, making the plaza “more artistic and beautiful”.
This was the way the colony of Nueva España lived during the 300 years of Spanish colonial rule. Showing equal respect for Saints and King, the city received its coat of arms in 1523 from Carlos V., and it was given the title of: “Muy Noble, Insigne Y Leal Ciudad” in 1549. And in 1680 by Royal seal the city council was conferred honors which were confirmed and approved on November 4, 1728 by Felipe V.

But there were periods of great agitation for political or religious reasons, great calamities, and natural phenomenon:

The execution of the Avila brothers, precursors of the Independence movement, had taken place in 1566.

Food riots in 1642 and 1692 which caused the uprising of the ..”indios, mulattos, and other castes.” and the burning of the Royal Palace and the government house.

The flood of 1629, during which masses were held on the rooftops and people went about in canoes.

The snowstorms that covered the city in a deep blanket of white in 1711, 1767, and 1813.

The expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain and its territories in 1767, the Spanish crown’s most severe action against the interests of the Church, plunged Nueva España into mourning and many protestors were flogged, imprisoned, or executed. The Bourbon Crown of Spain’s respnse to this was a proclamation:

The subjects of the Great Monarch who occupies the throne of Spain should learn once and for all that they were born to obey and remain silent, and not to think or give their opinions about high matters of government.

The Año de Hambre in 1785; and the Aurora Boreal in 1789, which filled the city with terrible fear since it had never been seen before.



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