Investigative Question

What were the effects of exchanges at Tenochtitlán / Mexico City in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries? Case study: The Virgin of Guadalupe How did exchanges at colonial Mexico City lead to the development of syncretic religious beliefs and practices centered on the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe?

It’s important for students to recognize that the Europeans did not take over China, India, Africa, and most of Asia until the nineteenth century. For this entire period, therefore, the major Afroeurasian centers — China, India, and the Islamic World — were too strong for Europeans to conquer. In lands where states were not as strong, Europeans established colonies. European armies used gunpowder weapons to defeat local resistance. Europeans became the government rulers and officials and changed the laws. They also took desirable land away from the native owners and gave it to Europeans. Often the Europeans used the land to grow tropical commercial crops for sale in Afroeurasia. Sometimes the European government and army forced the native people to work for the Europeans as well. Finally, European Christian missionaries spread through the colonies trying to convert local people to Christianity. Some states, such as Spain and Portugal, supported these missionaries and helped to force local people to change their religion; other states, such as the Netherlands, did not pay much attention to missionary activities…. To assess the impact of the Spanish conquest, Mr. Brown’s students return to the question: What were effects of exchanges at Tenochtitlán / Mexico City in the 16th through 18th centuries? … Students investigate examples of the hybrid nature of Colonial Latin America and assess the contributions of native peoples to the cultural, economic, and social practices of the region by 1750. (Two concrete examples of this are the building of the Mexico City cathedral on the location of the central pyramid, as well as other changes to the spatial geography of Mexico City, and the Virgin of Guadalupe.)

After students have learned about the dramatic changes of the Columbian Exchange and Cortes’s conquest of Mexico, they are ready to investigate the less dramatic and less one-sided changes that took place in Mexico City, Spanish New Spain, and other Spanish colonies in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. This source set focuses on the cloth image of the Virgin of Guadalupe at Tepeyacac and the development of her cult (that is, the beliefs and rituals of worshipping her.) As a blend of both Mesoamerican and Christian religious beliefs and rituals, the Virgin of Guadalupe is an outstanding example of the syncretic religion that developed in Mesoamerica. Even though the encounter between the Nahua and the Spanish was a forceful conquest, and the Spanish poured massive efforts into converting Mesoamericans to Catholic Christianity, the Nahua played key roles in shaping the religion and society of the colony of New Spain. The Spanish conversion effort was only successful because the Mexican Catholic Church incorporated and accommodated some Nahua beliefs and practices. According to the story, Juan Diego, a Nahua commoner, saw a vision of a Virgin of Guadalupe who had brown skin and spoke to him in Nahuatl. Miraculous signs (roses, the image imprinted on Diego’s cloak) confirmed Diego’s account and convinced the (soon-to-be) bishop of Mexico to build a church on the site. In many ways, this was a familiar European Catholic story, similar to visions or appearances of Mary and various saints in specific locations throughout Spain and elsewhere in Europe. Catholic clergymen followed strict church doctrine in verifying the account. However, the image and cult not only contained distinctly Nahua and Mesoamerican features, but they also emphasized many beliefs and practices — such as a protective mother goddess/saint, processions, miraculous signs, and images of multiple deities/saints — that the Mesoamericans and European Catholics shared in common. It is thus a new object (the image) and idea (the cult) that emerged from the synthesis of two cultures in and around Mexico City. This source set uses the term Nahua for the indigenous people living in the central valley of Mexico, and Mesoamericans for the indigenous people who spoke other languages. Nahua means a speaker of Nahuatl, the predominant language of the area. We avoid the term Aztec because it applied to only one of many ethnic groups in the valley, and the term is not used for the post-conquest period. Like the Spanish, the Nahua had a social hierarchy of nobles and commoners. In both societies, a small, elite group of noble families dominated the government, religious authority, and land ownership, whereas the majority of commoners were poor farmers. The nobles belonged to different states or regional areas and competed for power among themselves while living off the surplus produced by the commoners, whom they ignored. The Spanish conquest added another layer to society in New Spain: skin color. With her dark skin, the Virgin of Guadalupe appealed to the Nahua, and her appearance to a commoner signaled that she also cared about the poor Nahua. As large criollo and mestizo groups grew in size and in the desire to challenge Spanish authority, the Virgin of Guadalupe image acquired additional meanings for Mexican identity. Because the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is so rich in significant detail, and there are multiple reproductions of it in the colonial and modern periods, analysis of iconography is a central feature of this source set. Students will first compare the iconographies and beliefs of Mesoamerican and European deities/saints with the colonial images. Along with accounts of the conversion methods of the Spanish leaders and friars to provide context, students analyze the written story of the appearance of Guadalupe, paying attention to Nahua terms and references. Finally, they will analyze changes and continuities in iconography and contexts among the colonial and Mexican images.

This excerpt from an early modern chronicle account of the Spanish conquest of Maya lands presents significant linguistic challenges to students. The first challenge relates to the text type. Chronicles reported events but did not explain why people were acting in these ways. The continuous narrative style combined dialogue with declarative sentences summarizing actions.

Students can be confused about who is speaking or acting, because there are few transitional sentences explaining background or setting the stage for the following text. The sentence deconstruction chart will help students identify who is acting. A second challenge is that the chronicler decided what events to include and how to frame the events based on his perspective, but he rarely expressed bias openly. Instead the chronicler constructed the narrative to lead the reader toward an interpretation.

Students will be tempted to accept the source at face value, because it appears to be a straightforward record of events. However, chroniclers had to please their patrons. This Chontal Maya chronicler was showing the Chontal Maya leaders, his patrons, in their best light. He had to be careful not to offend Chontal Maya leaders and important people, but also not to offend Spanish officials, friars, and soldiers, since the Spanish ruled over the Chontal Maya. To do this, he switched to the passive voice in the last two sentences, when he was describing how the Chontal Maya leaders (or perhaps Spanish soldiers) enforced the friar’s order to burn the statues of Maya gods.

Chroniclers and historians often use the passive voice to relieve the actors from responsibility for certain politically sensitive events. For example, a historian might write in a textbook that “thousands of Indians were killed,” or “African Americans were stripped of their rights under Jim Crow laws” because these issues are still politically sensitive. In this case, the Chontal Maya leaders had either found and prosecuted Chontal Maya people who hid statues of Maya gods, or helped Spanish soldiers do that. Those Chontal Maya leaders were probably not proud of what they had done, especially since they did so under the threat of being militarily defeated by Spanish soldiers. The handout helps students recognize these issues and unpack the meaning hidden between the lines.


1. Explain the historical context of the text. Tell students that Spanish troops were conquering the lands of the Maya, including one subdivision, the Chontal Maya. Explain that the Spanish colonial government was eager to support the Catholic Church’s effort to convert the Maya, Nahua, and all Mesoamericans to Christianity, so friars (the Church’s preachers and missionaries) went with the troops everywhere. The friars didn’t carry weapons, but the Spanish soldiers would kill anyone who bothered or threatened a friar. The soldiers enforced the friars’ actions. Because this event happened after 25 years of Spanish rule in other parts of Mesoamerica, the Chontal Mayans knew that if they defied the friar, Spanish soldiers would enforce his orders and punish them as well.

2. Have students complete the first four columns of the sentence deconstruction chart in Part I. Then have them use that information to discuss the questions in the last column.

3. As a whole class, go over each completed chart to make sure students understand how the parts of the text function and give meaning.

4. Explain to students how authors and historians sometimes use passive voice to hide responsibility for embarrassing or unpopular actions (see Teacher Background for details.) Point out the sentences in the excerpt that employ passive voice. Review the analysis of the first sentence carefully. If students struggle with the questions, do the second sentence as a whole class as well.

5. Organize students in groups or pairs and have them complete the remaining sentences. Review as a whole class. Since this is a fairly difficult task, expect that they will make many mistakes.

6. Direct students to connect the source back to the original investigative question: What were the effects of exchanges at Tenochtitlán / Mexico City in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries?


7.9 Virgin of Guadalupe Student Handout

7.9 Virgin of Guadalupe Teacher Key

  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.


  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.