Mexico and Central America: Native Peoples, 1600–1800 A.D.

  • Relief Block with Coat of Arms of Cholula
  • Relief
  • Cherub (?)
  • Saltillo Serape


1600 A.D.

1650 A.D.

1650 A.D.

1700 A.D.

1700 A.D.

1750 A.D.

1750 A.D.

1800 A.D.


Indian populations are subject to Spanish rule, directed through Mexico City, capital of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Native social, economic, and political institutions are replaced with a full array of Spanish establishments. Remote areas, especially along the Caribbean coast of Central America, remain outside direct Spanish control throughout the period. Some are eventually colonized by England (Belize and the Mosquito coast of Nicaragua). Spanish is the official language and Catholicism the state religion. Membership in the Catholic Church is required of loyal subjects. Native devotions, including conspicuous objects and sacred practices, are destroyed or forbidden. In Mexico, the economy is based on mining and agriculture. The land is largely owned by a growing number of wealthy criollos (Spaniards born in the Americas). Large landed estates, or haciendas, and lavish city residences are built. Indian complaints about mistreatment and loss of land lead to changes in the labor laws. Wage labor is established, although most Indian communities are landless, even losing their role as suppliers of food to the growing colonial cities with the commercialization of farming and animal husbandry. The emerging colonial elite begins to seek more freedom from the Spanish crown.

Growing prosperity in New Spain leads to a strong demand for works of art, from painting and sculpture to furniture, ceramics, and silver objects. Churches, smaller than the earlier massive mission examples, display exuberant ornamentation on their facades and richly carved altars inside. Native artists, having received European training, continue their crafts.

Key Events

  • ca. 1620

    Miracle shrines and images associated with Indians, especially those of the Virgin Mary, are built in many parts of Mexico, among them Our Lady of Guadalupe (Valley of Mexico) and Our Lady de la Soledad (Oaxaca).

  • ca. 1630

    Native populations are at an all-time low; signs of recovery begin at mid-century.

  • ca. 1650

    In central Mexico, indigenous picture writing is supplemented with writing in Nahuatl, the language of the Valley of Mexico peoples, modified by Spanish grammar and the addition of foreign words.

  • ca. 1660

    A printing press is installed in Santiago de Guatemala.

  • ca. 1665

    French settlers are established in northwest Hispaniola. The French West Indies Company takes control of the area. Growing numbers of African slaves are imported to labor in plantations.

  • 1671–73

    Panama City continues to attract English raiders; it is destroyed by the Welshman Henry Morgan and rebuilt.

  • 1676

    The Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala is founded in Santiago de Guatemala.

  • ca. 1680

    In Mexico, the creole Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645–1700), a Jesuit by training and a university professor, regards himself as a Mexicanist and scholar of the indigenous peoples of New Spain. He amasses a substantial collection of manuscripts relating to them.

  • 1692

    Angered by food shortages, abuse, and injustice, a revolt breaks out in Mexico City. Mobs burn the Viceroy’s Palace and City Hall.

  • 1697

    The Itzá Maya, the last independent Maya polity located in Lake Petén Itzá, northern Guatemala, falls under Spanish rule.

  • 1700

    Bourbon rule in Spain begins; reforms in the colony lead to greater social control.

  • 1723

    The eruption of the Irazú volcano destroys the town of Cartago in central Costa Rica, where a few small Spanish settlements subsist on agriculture. There is little intermixing of races in Costa Rica.

  • ca. 1730

    In affluent towns in Mexico, from Zacatecas in the north to Oaxaca in the south, magnificent churches are erected, financed in large part by wealthy mine and land owners. The profuse decoration of finely carved stone masonry on church facades echoes the lavish interiors with their exuberant altars of silver or gilt woodwork.

  • 1737

    Our Lady of Guadalupe is made patron saint of Mexico.

  • 1739

    Panama City becomes part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada, comprising Colombia and Ecuador, with its capital in Bogotá. It is an important commercial and slave-trading center.

  • ca. 1760

    Native artisans build the Church of Santa María in the village of Tonantzintla near Puebla. In the Popular Baroque style, their own interpretation of Christian themes appears in a proliferation of colorful and gilded stucco saints, angels, fantastic creatures, indigenous flowers, fruits, and birds.

  • 1775

    A powerful earthquake destroys Santiago de Guatemala. The city is rebuilt three years later at the present site of Guatemala City.

  • 1783

    In Mexico City, the Academia de San Carlos is founded. It encourages the adoption of the Neoclassical style in art and architecture.

  • ca. 1786

    King Charles II of Spain (r. 1759–88) orders an extensive exploration of the ancient ruins at Palenque in southern Mexico. It is the first such exploration undertaken in Mexico.

  • 1790

    The monumental statue of the Aztec earth goddess Coatlicue and the so-called Calendar Stone are discovered beneath the Plaza Mayor in Mexico City. The two great sculptures are the most striking Aztec works to survive.

  • 1792

    Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras is published in Mexico by Antonio de León y Gama (1735–1802), known as the first Mexican archaeologist, describing and illustrating Coatlicue and the Calendar Stone.

  • ca. 1793

    The town of Panama is the largest on the isthmus, with a population of about 72,000.

  • Criollo resentment against royal policy grows throughout the colony, particularly in Mexico. In Santiago de Guatemala, progressives promote liberal economic and political ideas. The Gazeta de Guatemala is published.


“Mexico and Central America: Native Peoples, 1600–1800 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)