Original Indigenous Villages and Their Spiritual Conquest

Indigenous Villages Hidden Within Mexico City


Contemporary Mexico City is not just a formerly small Spanish Colonial city that has slowly grown into a huge, modern metropolis. It is an amalgam that consists not only of the Spanish Colonial Centro Histórico and the Francophile colonias built at beginning in the late 19th century and other, newer neighborhoods built across the 20th century. In addition, like islands scattered across the lake that once nearly filled the Valley of Mexico, at the city's historical core are well over one hundred ancient indigenous pueblos, villages, and altepetls, ruling city-states. (See our page: How Mexico City Grew From an Island into a Metropolis)

Beginning more than 2,000 years ago, they were established on the shores of the five lakes in the Valley of Anahuac and on some of the islands as well. Tenochtitlan, the altepetl of the Mexica (Meh-SHE-kah/Azteca) was the last one established, in 1325, and was built on a group of such islands because all of the rest of the land was already under the control of various altepetls. When the Spanish arrived in 1519, the Mexica of Tenochtitlan had come to rule all the other altepetls and villages in the Valley and others beyond, what we now call the Aztec Empire.

So once Cortés, together with many indigenous allies, had defeated Tenochtitlan, he and the Spanish not only had to transform Tenochtitlan, the center of power, into a Spanish city, they also had to transform a geographically extensive civilization and culture. This meant implementing a program of radical reconstruction of the culture—i.e., of the peoples' customary ways of being and their organizing beliefs—in what has been called the Spiritual Conquest.

Landmarks of the Spiritual Conquest
Remarkably, to this day the landmarks of the Spiritual Conquest remain standing, not only across Mexico, but across Mexico City. They are the ubiquitous churches and chapels established by various groups of Spanish Catholic friars—Franciscans, Domincans, Augustinans and others, many surrounded by still thriving communities who trace their origins to indigenous roots. 
Although, in the blog, the various pueblos are presented in the order we encountered them, here we list them beginning with Tepeyac, the site of the vision of the Virgin of Guadelupe, the quintessential embodiment of the union of the two cultures and follow that with the arrival of the Franciscans and Cortés' organization of the original Tenochtitlan into a Republic of the Indians. surrounding the Spanish traza, quarter, by adopting its preexisting indigenous structure of campans or quarters which, together, they designated San Juan Tenochtitlan.
From there we present the pueblos orginally scattered around the valley, grouped according to their current delegaciones or alcaldías (boroughs) which are a relatively modern organization of the city, created in 1928. We list the delegaciónes/alcaldias
here in alphabetical order. Each link leads to a page listing the originally indigenous villages that we have visited in that delegación/alcaldia with links to our posts about them.  
Mexico City's Sixteen Delegaciones or, since 2016, Alcaldías
 Tepeyac and the Virgin of Guadalupe
We start our tour in the most potent, quintessential embodiment of the process of Mexican reincarnation, in what was once the village of Tepeyac, north, across Lake Texcoco from Tenochtitlan and connected to it via a causeway. It is now in the Alcaldía of Gustavo A. Madero. The village had a temple dedicated to the goddess Tonantzín, the earth mother of birth and death. 
According to tradition, on a Saturday, December 9, 1531, Juan Diego, a Náhua peasant who had been baptized as a Roman Catholic Christian, was passing by the hill of Tepeyac headed toward the causeway to get to the Franciscan mission at Tlatelolco, an island just north of Tenochtitlan. He was stopped by the appearance of a young, morena, brown-skinned, woman who addressed him in Nauhuatl, his native language. She was an advocación (particular role as advocate) of the Virgin Mary who said she should be known at the Virgin of Guadalupe and that she was adopting the people of Nueva España for her own special care. Her basilica and several other churches now occupy the ancient site of Tepeyac
The Franciscans: Where It All Began
In 1522, Cortes asked Emperor Charles V to send monks to Nueva España to evangelize and convert the natives. The Emperor, whose father was an Austrian Habsburg and mother the daughter of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of the emerging nation of Spain, had been born in 1500, in Ghent, Flanders, part of the Habsburg Netherlands, and had grown up there.
In response to Cortés's request, Charles consulted his old Flemish mentor, now Pope Adrian VI, who selected the Franciscan order to undertake the mission. The two then chose Jean Glapion, a French Franciscan stationed in Flanders, to lead a group to the New World. He, in turn, selected three Flemish brothers to go with him. In the summer of 1522, the four traveled to Spain, where Glapion died in September. The other three left for Nueva España on May 31, 1523, and arrived in Veracruz on August 13. Twelve other Franciscans, all Spanish, came the next year. 
Centro's Four Original Indigenous Quarters and Tlatelolco (10 posts)
After Cortés had defeated the Mexica (Azteca) of Tenochtitlan, he removed all the city's indigenous inhabitants and razed the central section of temples and palaces in order to build a Spanish city. It was known as la Traza Español, the Spanish quarter. It is now the Centro Historico, in the Alcaldía Cuauhtémoc. But then he was faced with a question, "What do we do with los indios, the Indians?" Cortés's answer was to adapt the existing the Mexica organization of the city to Spanish purposes.
In keeping with traditional indigenous culture, the Mexica had divided their city into four campan, quadrants or quarters around the central governmental-religious center. In these four campan, now around the Traza española, Cortés settled the indigenous tribes who had been his allies in defeating the Mexica. This entire area was named the Indian Republic of San Juan (St. John the Baptist) Tenochtitlan. Each of the four original campan, called parcialidades by the Spanish, was assigned a Catholic saint's name appended to its existing Nahuatl name. This page presents summaries of and links to posts about each quarter, qhich are now exxentially comprise North, East, South and West Centro. The page also includes the separate area of Tlatelolco, north of Tenochtitlan to which the surviving Mexica were confined by Cortés. It, too, is now in Alcaldía Cuauhtémoc.

The Delegaciones/Alcaldías and Their Originally Indigenous Villages

Turning our attention outward from Centro, with its five subdivisionsand the Alcaldía of Cuauhtémoc, we move on to locate and visit as many of the originally indigenous villages as we can find which are now merged into one or another of the sixteen delegacions/alcaldías. Links to our accounts of each pueblo and its fiesta are grouped on pages according to the delegacion/alcaldía they are in:
The sixteen Delegaciones or Alcaldías (boroughs) of Mexico City
Álvaro Obregon (3 posts)
Álvaro Obregon is a long delegacion/alcaldía, running from north to south on the west side of the city. Its northern end lies on the Valley floor and is modern urban, centered around the Spanish colonial villages of San Ángel and Chimalistac, which were once originally indigenous villages, but were take over by wealthy Spanish for haciendas and country homes. The southern portion rises into the Sierra de las Cruces mountains. Half-a-dozen original pueblos continue to persist among the evergreen forests in these mountains.
Azcapotzalco (1 post)
In the 13th century CE, the Tepaneca people, a Nahuatl-speaking tribe led by a chieftain called Matlacoatl, established a village he named Atzcapotzaltongo on the southwest shore of Lake Texcoco. Remains related to that culture have been found in the area and dated between 1200 and 1230 CE. During the 13th century, the village grew into an altepetl, city-state, and gradually expanded its control over the southwest side of the Valley of Mexico and, by the 14th century, over the entire Valley. The alcaldía is now at the northwest end of Mexico City. To date, because of its distance from Coyoacán, where we are based, we have only visted one original pueblo, Santiago Ahuitzoltla. The delegación contains twenty-one orginal pueblos and barrios, the most of any in the city. So, we definitely want to get to more. 
Benito Juárez (5 posts)
Benito Juárez was created as a delegación in 1941, just south of Delegacíon Cuauhtémoc, both created out of the Central Department (which had been created in 1928). It's eastern side was formerly lakebed. Its western side contains a number of originally indigenous pueblos. Because of its closeness to Centro and the amount of open land that arose with the drying of Lake Texcoco, the delegación is predominantly modern, middle to upper-middle class apartment buildings, with its residents holding the highest average level of education and income of all the delegaciones. Nevertheless, a number of churches built by Spanish monks in the 16th century, or their replacements, still stand where there were a number of original indigenous villages. Some of these pueblos still hold onto their identity via their traditional patron saint fiestas, a merger of Roman Catholic and indigenous traditions created in the 16th century. 
Coyoacán (20 posts)
What is now the historic center of Delegación/Alcaldía Coyoacán is la Villa Coyoacán, so named by Hernán Cortés in 1521 to make it an official Spanish village under his rule. It was originally an indigenous village with a long and complex history. The first settlement, established around 200 CE, is now in el Barrio Concepción, just east of la Villa. It was likely taken over by the Tolteca, the earliest Nahuatl-speaking tribe to enter the Valley they called Anahuac after they had first taken over a pre-existing village on the peninsula separating Lake Xochimilco, to the south, from Lake Texcoco to the north. They named that settlement CulhuacánThe Place of the Old Ones. They maintained the settlement in Concepcion for five hundred years, until it was abandoned in the mid-12th century for unknown reasons.
Two hundred years later, by 1350, the Tepaneca, based in Azcapotzalco, had pushed south into what had been Tolteca territory. West of the abandoned la Concepción site, they built a larger village where the present Villa Coyoacán is located. It is possible they gave it the Nahuatl name of Coyoacán (Place of the Coyotes). The Mexica of Tenochtitlan subjugated Azcapotzalco in 1428 and took control of all its subject villages, including Coyoacán. The Delegacion/Alcaldá Coyoacán contains many other originally indigenous villages which still continue their identity and traditions. 
Cuajimalpa (2 posts)
Cuajjimalpa is the most western of the delegaciones, lying high in the Sierra de las Cruces mountains. Its average altitude is 9,000 ft (2,750 meters) above sea level — that's about 2,000 ft. above the Valley floor. The top of the ridge is at 10,000 ft. (3.050 meters). Before the Spanish arrived, the Tepaneca of Azcapotzalco had established villages in the mountains, dedicated mostly to cutting firewood and making charcoal for sale to pueblos in the Valley of Mexico below.
Despite the northern end of the delegación being taken over by the international skyscrapers of the 21st century, three origianally indigenous pueblos continue their existence. We have made it to one, San Lorenzo Acopilco, for its fiesta. We have also visited the Carmelite hermits' monastery of Desierto de los Leones
The first Catholic chapel in Cuajimalpa was 1536, under the direction of Don Vasco de QuirogaHe was a member of the Second Audiencia, a commission sent by King Charles I (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) in 1530 to govern Nueva España, thus replacing a badly functioning First Audiencia whose leader, Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán, turned into a conquistador and ravaged the western part of Nueva España.
De Quiroga, a church lawyer, was struck by the abuse the indigenous people were enduring from the conquistadores who, under Hernán Cortés' initiative, were seizing their land as encomiendas, land grants. The native people residing on these lands were forced to work for the encomenderos, the grant-holders. Quiroga left the Audiencia in 1532 to begin to set up "hospital" towns, refuges modeled on St. Thomas More's book Utopia (published in 1516), where the indigenous could live safe from abuse. He establishe the first hospital town in the Sierra de las Cruces, naming it Santa Fe (Holy Faith). The pueblo still exists not far from Pueblo San Lorenzo Acopilco, whose fiesta we attended. The chapel in San Lorenzo is only four years younger than the one in Santa Fe, which has been destroyed.
Cuauhtémoc (1 post)
Outside of Centro there are no other original pueblos in modern Delegación/Alcaldía Cuauhtemoc, except for one that is virtually forgotten. Semi-secluded in what is now the northeast corner of Colonia Roma, in the southwest of the delegación, is a barrio that, when the Spanish arrived, was a fishing village on an island in Lake Texcoco. Now known as La Romita, Little Rome, it was originally the Pueblo Aztacalco, House of the Herons in Nahuatl. To distinguish their ancient, but now otherwise anonymous barrio, the residents have turned to a long-standing tradition in Mexican art, murals painted on the walls of their houses.
Gustavo A. Madero (1)
Gustavo A. Madero. (GAM, as it is commonly referred to) is the city's northernmost delegación, forming the "stem" of the city's pear shape. This "stem", which seems an odd extension of the city when seen on maps, is a consequence of its being a narrow valley bounded on both sides by the Sierra de Guadalupe mountains. On the other side of these mountains is the State of Mexico. The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe sits in the delegación, on what used to be a point of land projecting south into Lake Texcoco
One August, an announcement appeared for the patron saint fiesta in Pueblo San Bartolo (Bartholomew) Atepehuacanin GAMChecking our map source, we found San Bartolo Atepehuacan was easily accessible from the Ring Road. So we made plans to go. From its current location, we knew that the original pueblo of Atepehuacan was not far west of Tepeyac, the current site of the Basilica. To our surprise, we found out that Atepehuacan turns out to have been an island, the northern-most in the bay in which Tenochtitlan and many other island villages were was also located. The Mexica connected it via a short causeway to a long one from Tenochtitlán north to the village of Tenayuca.
Iztacalco (3 posts)
Delegación/Alcaldía (mayoralty, borough) Iztacalco, is the smallest delegación or alcaldía (borough) in the city (9 sq. miles). Immediately southeast of Delegación Cuauhtémoc (Centro Histórico's location), it has major highways and avenues surrounding and crossing it, so it is easy to access. San Matías church, from the 16th century, is the central church of the original pueblo, which was originally an island in Lake Texcoco. The pueblo has seven barrios, Santa Cruz, La Asunción, San Miguel, Los Reyes, San Sebastián Zapotla, San Francisco Xicaltongo and Santiago Atoyac, has its own chapel and its own patron saint fiesta.
Iztapalapa (17 posts)
Delegación/Alxaldía Iztapalapa is one of the largest in area and the largest in population, nearly 2,000,000 people, most of them part of the explosion of population that took place in the Federal District in the 1960s to 80s. However, it contains a number of original pueblos, grouped in various parts of the current delegación. Most were on the original peninsula between Lakes Texcoco and Xochimilco; some were on islands in Lake Texcoco.
Magdalena Contreras (1 post)
One day, some time ago, chatting as usual with a taxi driver, we asked where he lived, hoping as always when we ask that it would be somewhere we hadn't been and wanted to go. "Magdalena Contreras," he replied. Excitedly, we told him of our desire to visit one or another pueblo there during a fiesta. He said he would be happy to come to Coyoacán, at least a half-hour drive from the entrance to his delegación, pick us up and take us wherever we wanted to go in the borough, then return us home. His first name was Venacio.
Then, this July, the opportunity to go to Magdalena Contreras arose. One of the patron saint days of the month is for Santa María Magdalena, the supposed prostitute who repented her sins to Jesus and became a loyal follower. There are several pueblos in Mexico City dedicated to her. One happens to be Santa María Magdalena Atlitic in Magdalena Contreras, called simply Pueblo La Magdalena for short. 
So, we made arrangements with Venacio and early on the designated Sunday morning, he arrived as scheduled at our building and we set off to his home territory. The entrance to the delegación is marked by an arch, as many individual original pueblos are. Shortly after entering, we begin a gradual climb up the lower slopes of the Sierra de las Cruces mountains. A wide main street runs pretty much straight through various colonias and pueblos. María Magdalena Atlitic lies at the far southern end of the inhabited northern half of the delegación. Just beyond, the mountains rise up steeply, covered with an evergreen forest. They take up the other half of the delegación
Miguel Hidalgo (2 posts)
When Cortés arrived in the Valley of Anahuac in 1519, the area that is now the Delegación/Alcaldía of Miguel Hidalgo, on the southwest shore of Lake Texcoco, was populated with Nahuatl speaking people who called themselves Tepaneca. A hundred years earlier, it had been under the rule of the Tepanec atepetl of Azcapotzalco, just to its north.
However, in 1428, when the ruler of Azcapotzalco died and a power struggle erupted between possible replacements, Tenochtitlán and Texcoco, an atepetl on the east side of the Lake, decided it was their opportunity to ally against the city that dominated them. One of the villages in the area, Tlacopan, joined them against its overlords, thus becoming the third member of the Triple Alliance.
 Milpa Alta (2 posts)
One of our goals, our "bucket list", that has emerged as we developed Mexico City Ambles and started visiting original indigenous pueblos in the spring of 2016, was to get to all sixteen of the delegaciones (boroughs), now called alcaldías (mayoralties). We readily got to the majority, which are accessible by the Metro or via taxis along main highways and avenues. By the beginning of this year, we had made it to fiestas in about sixty pueblos in twelve of the delegaciones.
We had visited each of the other four once, but not to attend a fiesta in a specific pueblo. These four are on the periphery of the city: Atzcapotzalco in the northwest, Cuajimalpa and Magdalena Contreras in the mountains in the west and Milpa Alta (High Field) in the southeast — all are a challenge to get to from our central location in Coyoacán
Finally, this spring, during Carnaval season, we got the opportunity to attend a celebration in Milpa Alta, in Pueblo San Antonio Tecómitl, but before we present our experience there, we need to introduce the delegación/alacaldía.
Tláhuac (5 posts)
In 1222 CE, a Nahua group founded Cuitláhuac—the present San Pedro Tláhuac—on a small island between lakes Xochimilco and Chalco. After Cortés' defeat of the Mexicas in 1521, the Franciscans built the church of St. Peter the Apostle on the site of an indigenous temple on the island. Until the 1980s, Tláhuac was a rural borough of concisting of San Pedro Tláhuac and six other original indigenous villages that originally stood on the shores of the two lakes, surrounded by chinampas, man-made islands for growing crops. During the last thirty years, the demographic pressure from Mexico City has resulted in the borough's rapid urbanization, but the seven native pueblos from pre-Conquest times remain its core
Tlalpan: (6 posts)
Tlalpan is the largest delegación of the city in area, much of it unpopulated natural preserve. Original pueblos are scattered across the populated area of the north and on the slopes of Mt. Ajusco, the tallest mountain within the city at nearly 13,000 ft. It is here where city and country life meet. 
Venustiano Carranza (3 posts)
Venustiano Carranza lies to the east of Delegación/Alcaldía Cuauhtémoc. Before the Spanish began draining Lake Texcoco to protect Mexico City from flooding, the area was all lake, with a few islands. Two of the islands are still-functioning, originally indigenous pueblos, one of them right next door to Mexico City's International Airport. Talk about a contrast in time and cultures!
Xochimilco (6 posts)
Xochimilco—“field of flowers” in Nahuatl—is now a delegación, or borough, in southeastern Mexico City. A UN-designated "World Heritage Site" famous for its canals and chinampas, these so-called "floating gardens", man-made islands used for growing flowers and vegetables for sale in city markets. These chinampas have a thousand-year history. But their current fame centers around the canals and the trajineras, flat boats, that carry tourists though parts of the labyrinth. But behind this very Mexican-style show for tourists, Mexican as well as foreign, there is a long history and a very different side to Xochimilco.

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