Essay on What Factors Must We Consider When Studying How Diverse Populations (Including Indigenous People) Exerted Agency in Spanish Imperial Cities?

Published: 2021/11/24
Number of words: 1083

There are a variety of different factors which have to be considered when observing how Indigenous populations managed to exert agency in defiance of Spanish Imperial control. It can be considered that the most crucial elements which allowed for the autonomy of native populations included the use of indigenious skilled-labourers to convert and construct the new cities, the establishment of governmental structures under the native domestic elite and the fact that the endemic population provided the infrastructure and foundations for the Spanish Conquistadors to extend Spanish influence within these new cities.

Arguably, the most prevalent factor in allowing the subalterns to exert agency over the dominant Spanish colonists was the fact that the Spanish primarily relied on the labour of indigenous populations due to the lack of a sufficient skilled workforce when the conquistadors first seized native cities. In particular, Kelly Donahue-Wallace focuses on Tenochtitlan, the former capital of the Aztec Empire as a fundamental example of how there was a [1]’horrific abuse of native labour,’ and how indigenous populations were exploited under Spanish expansionist ideologies. Furthermore, she reasserts the viewpoint that despite the appalling labour the natives had to endure, it can be argued that this allowed them to exert some degree of control over the building methods and materials. For example, her argument for indigenous agency centralises on the fact that the Spanish used [2]’Stones from the Aztec temples,’ in the reconstruction of Tenochtitlan, and subsequently this can be recognised by the native population as a reassertion of their superior building capability and a means of exerting agency in the new imperial cities. Despite this, it is also crucial to consider that whilst the use of native labour could have been regarded as a means for instrumentality for the indigenous population, Kelly Donahue-Wallace also recognises that this could have been seen as a mere [3]’Symbolic act of possession,’ by the Spanish, and a seizure of former materials simply to establish a more impressive municipality and show their dominance.

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Similarly, Barbara Mundy also presents the argument that diverse populations were largely able to display capability and worth under Spanish Imperial administration, and furthermore she also focuses on Tenochtitlan and the importance of the city being [4]’built by indigenous laborers,’ as a fundamental factor in their assertion of agency. However, dissimilarly to Kelly Wallace, she also focuses on other elements, such as the creation of a separate and distinct form of hierarchical control for the native population through the establishment of a self-sufficient, [5]’indigenous government,’ which allowed the native people to separate themselves from the Spanish and subsequently granted them relative autonomy. Despite this, it is still crucial to consider that the Mexica structures of administration and rule were largely futile in comparison to the institutional structures implemented by the Spanish, yet allowed the Mexica people to feel as though their form of governance was still considerably imperative to the functioning of the city.

Another factor which was integral in allowing Mexica people to exert agency under the Spanish’s imposition of control was the fact that the native populations had already provided sufficient infrastructure for the Spanish to be able to construct a defensible and resourceful city. As an illustration of this, Kelly Wallace draws attention to how Tenochtitlan was considered an ideal site for Spanish expansion due to its [6]’reliable accessibility by land’ for ‘travel, trade and escape from native attack.’ Furthermore, the construction of the city was considered admirable by the conquistadores, who were keen to keep the rectilinear plans centralised around the midpoint plaza, and as a result this could have made the native populations content that their default design was being commended by such a strong Imperial power. Wallace also uses the examples of Cuzco and Peru to exemplify how the pre-existing structures and architecture of the cities led Spanish observers to [7]’marvel at the order and regularity of the city plan,’ and this serves to reassert the viewpoint that despite Spanish invasion the cities remained largely unchanged due to the efforts of indigenous populations to create a well executed and seemingly idyllic arrangement within the municipalities. Furthermore, Barbara Mundy reiterates this point and states that [8]‘the post conquest island shared essential features with pre-conquest Tenochtitan,’ and this serves to show how the Mexica structure was successful, and additionally can be seen as a factor which enabled the indigenous populations to exert some degree of agency.

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In conclusion, from the evidence provided by both Barbara Mundy and Kelly Donahue-Wallace it can be recognized that despite the Spanish domination and the subsequent abuse of native labour in order to reconstruct an imperial city, the Indigenous populations were actually able to establish and exert their own agency due to a variety of different factors, however most crucially was the use of indigenous labour which enabled the inhabitants to exert some form of independence through the use of Ancient Aztec materials and furthermore allowed them to provide the infrastructure for the base of the city.


Kelly Donahue-Wallace, ‘Colonial Cities’, Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America, 1521-1821, (UNM Press, 2008). P.73, p.78, p.82, p.88.

Barbara E.Mundy, ‘The City in the Conquest’s Wake’, The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, Life in Mexico City (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2015). p.73.

[1] Kelly Donahue-Wallace, ‘Colonial Cities’, Art and Architecture of Viceregal Latin America, 1521-1821, (UNM Press, 2008), p.78.

[2]Wallace, ‘Colonial Cities’, p.82.

[3]Wallace, ‘Colonial Cities’, p.82.

[4] Barbara E.Mundy, ‘The City in the Conquest’s Wake’, The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, Life in Mexico City (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2015) p.73.

[5] Mundy, ‘The city in the conquests wake’, p.73.

[6] Wallace, ‘Colonial Cities’, p.73.

[7] Wallace, ‘Colonial Cities’, p.88.

[8] Mundy, ‘The city in the conquests wake’, p.73.

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