On April 22, 1519, Hernán Cortés pulled his ship into harbour in the seaside port of Veracruz and renamed the country “New Spain”. Thus began Spain’s 300-year rule of Mexico. Cortés’ first order of business was to take over the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, and after a brutal, lengthy war, he succeeded in 1521. It took another several hundred years before Spain had control of the entire Aztec empire, however, as the proud civilization did not surrender easily.
I like to imagine the look on Cortés’ face as he entered the first market in Tenochtitlan, a place where thousands of Aztecs traded, sold and ate things he’d never seen before, such as pineapple, avocado, squash, pumpkin, papaya, tomatoes, chillies, tortillas, dozens of kinds of corn, vanilla and, of course, chocolate. Soon, these new ingredients were on ships back to Spain and, in return, new settlers arrived with Spanish staples such as domesticated farm animals – chickens and their eggs, cattle for beef and milk, and pigs for ham and cooking lard. They also began to cultivate wheat, rice, nuts, garlic, grapes and olive trees for oil. The latter unfortunately failed in the Mexican climate.
As Spanish rule extended its borders across Mexico, the conquistadores desperately sought the fabled “El Dorado” or “City of Gold”, and excavated extensive silver mines in cities such as Zacatecas in their quest. The high-ranking officers and nobles placed in charge of ruling New Spain forged new architectural infrastructure in the traditional Spanish style, highlighting important new buildings with silver detail.
The Spanish also brought priests and nuns to Mexico, building beautiful cathedrals and convents as they converted the indigenous people. It was largely thanks to these nuns, who planted gardens near their convents, and the local girls, who helped them in the kitchen, that Spanish and Aztec foods began to fuse, adapting Spanish ingredients to Mexican recipes and vice versa.
The former Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, became the centre of the Spanish conquest, and so the languages, arts and literature also reflect both cultures. Unfortunately, Spain ordered the destruction of nearly all historical Aztec records, so the only traditional heritage evident today is that which has been carefully passed down through the generations. After hundreds of years of oppression, Mexicans with Aztec descent are still fiercely proud of their history.
Mexic-OH! fact Prior to the Spanish landing in Mexico, the smell in the royal courts of Europe was truly disgusting; they rarely showered, regularly over-ate and infrequently brushed their teeth. After discovering vanilla in Mexico, Cortés sent it back to Spain, where its popularity quickly spread across Europe and led to the French perfume industry.