Spanish settlers generally lived in towns and cities. The population of Mexico City grew so quickly that by 1550 it was the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world. Colonial cities were centers of government, commerce, and European culture. Around the central plaza, or square, stood government buildings and a Spanish-style church. Broad avenues and public monuments symbolized European power and wealth. Cities were also centers of intellectual and cultural life. Architecture and painting, as well as poetry and the exchange of ideas, flourished in Spanish cities in the Americas.
To meet the Church's need for educated priests, the colonies built universities. The University of Mexico was established as early as 1551. A dozen Spanish American universities were already educating young men long before Harvard was founded in 1636 as the first college in the 13 English colonies.
Women desiring an education might enter a convent. One such woman was Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (sawr HWAN uh ee NES deh lah krooz). Refused admission to the University of Mexico because she was female, Juana entered a convent at around the age of 18. There, she devoted herself to study and the writing of poetry. She earned a reputation as one of the greatest poets ever to write in the Spanish language.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a Catholic nun, appears at her desk in this painting from the 1700s by Miguel Cabrera. She defended women's right to learn and was recognized as an important writer.
Although Spanish culture was dominant in the cities, the blending of diverse traditions changed people's lives throughout the Americas. Settlers learned Native American styles of building, ate foods native to the Americas, and traveled in Indian-style canoes. Indian artistic styles influenced the newcomers. At the same time, Europeans taught their religion to Native Americans. They also introduced animals, especially the horse, thereby transforming the lives of many Native Americans.
Africans contributed to this cultural mix with their farming methods, cooking styles, and crops. African drama, dance, and song heightened Christian services. In Cuba, Haiti, and elsewhere, Africans forged new religions that blended African and Christian beliefs.
In Spanish colonial society, what determined a person's social rank?
Spanish exploration, colonization, and expansion had a long-lasting impact on Native Americans, Europeans, and others beyond these two groups. By establishing an empire in the Americas, Spain dramatically changed the pattern of global encounter first set in motion by European exploration of Africa's coasts. For the first time, much of the world was now connected by sea routes, on which traveled ships carrying goods, people, and ideas.
In the 1500s, Spain acquired enormous wealth from its American colonies. Every year treasure fleets sailed to Europe loaded with gold and silver. These riches helped make Spain the most powerful country in Europe. At the same time, the French, English, and Dutch jealously eyed the Spanish treasure fleets and defied Spain's claims to the Americas.
The conquest of the Americas brought suffering and death to many Native American peoples. Although many converted to Christianity and adopted some Spanish ways, others resisted Spanish rule for centuries. For centuries, the Maya fought Spanish rule in Mexico and Central America. Long after the death of Atahualpa, revolts erupted among the Incas.