IV. The Early Modern Period, 1500–1800 > H. Latin America, 1500–1800 > 8. The Spanish Colonial System, 1550–1800 > e. Social and Cultural Evolution
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
e. Social and Cultural Evolution
The upper crust of society was composed of the high colonial officers, both civil and ecclesiastical, and wealthy Spanish and creole merchants. Mine owners, despite their economic importance, rarely achieved a high social standing. Creoles, descendants of Spaniards but born in American domains, resented the preference for Peninsulars in appointments to higher and lesser office, but both groups belonged to the República de Españoles (Commonwealth of the Spanish) and were connected through kinship, marriage, and business. Several universities were open to colonial male students: the Royal University of Mexico (1551), San Marcos de Lima (1551), St. Thomas de Aquinas in Santo Domingo (1558). Women could follow religious careers, but professing required a costly dowry only the wealthy could afford. Nuns belonged to the elite and were far more highly regarded than married women. Very few Indian or mestizo women reached the status of nun. Lower-class women worked as retailers, street vendors, servants. Marriage was under the jurisdiction of the Church. Divorce was allowed, but wives had to show proof of continuous mistreatment and cruelty to qualify. Authorities created special houses (casas de recogidas) to shelter fallen women and virtuous women without means of support.  1
The population of the viceregal capitals and other cities included a high level of slaves, who worked as domestic servants and in artisanal trades to support their masters. Urban Indians lived in segregated neighborhoods near the downtown areas of Lima and Mexico City.  2
Several individuals attained distinction through their religious piety and cultural pursuits. The first Spanish-American saints belong to this era: St. Rosa de Lima (1586–1617), St. Mariana de Jesús (1618–45), St. Felipe de Jesús (1572–97), martyr of the conversion of Japan, St. Martín de Porres (1579–1639), a mulatto. The Church became the main patron of the arts and architecture. The famous Gothic cathedral of Santo Domingo (1514–40) was planned by Alonso Rodríguez. Francisco Becerra, a Spanish architect working in Lima, Quito, and Cusco, planned the cathedral of Puebla (1576–1626), which was inaugurated in 1649 by Bishop Juan de Palafox. Becerra also began to build the cathedral of Lima in 1569. The cathedral of Mexico was initiated in 1573, according to Claudio de Arciniega's design. Although consecrated in 1667, it was completed only in 1813 by Valencian sculptor Manuel Tolsá. The cathedral of Cusco was consecrated in 1654. Local schools of painting developed in Mexico, Quito, Cusco, and Lima. Many Spanish-American authors gained widespread recognition, among them Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1539–1616), Juan Ruiz de Alarcón (1580–1639), Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–95), and Pedro de Peralta y Barnuevo (1663–1700).  3
Despite the importance of cities as political and cultural centers, rural areas were predominant. Indians constituted the República de Indios (Commonwealth of Indians) and were supposed to live separated from Spaniards to avoid abuse. The Indian kurakas, or caciques, formed the upper crust of the population. Many Indians chose to dissociate themselves from Indian communities to avoid forced labor and tribute and migrated to other rural or urban areas, becoming forasteros. The Mestizo population, distributed in urban and rural areas, became peasants, squatters, wage laborers, servants, and artisans and were exempted from tribute. Spanish authorities and rural parish priests frequently owned haciendas and textile mills in Indian towns, compelling Indians to labor for them. Clerics often denounced Indian religious practices as pagan or idolatrous. Despite campaigns of repression, native beliefs survived and mixed with Christian beliefs.  4
In plantation areas, slaves frequently rebelled against their bondage, fleeing to liberated zones where they created free settlements. Colonial authorities tried to prevent the spread of marronage, sending raids against maroon villages or making treaties with them. Some slaves managed to obtain freedom by manumission or by self-purchase, becoming free people of color. Free and slave blacks re-created their African religious beliefs and influenced popular culture, especially in the Caribbean, circum-Caribbean, and coastal areas of Mexico and the Pacific.  5
The Bourbon campaign to reform colonial government by prohibiting office purchases adversely affected the position of upper-class creoles, who saw themselves displaced in favor of Peninsular bureaucrats. The institution of intendant diminished the power of the viceroys but did not increase the influence of elite creoles.  6
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.