Fashioning the Colonial Metropolis: Asian Influences and Urban Identities in Colonial Mexico City

Nino Vallen, Freie Universität Berlin

At the end of the seventeenth century, the Mexican artist Cristóbal de Villalpando painted the main square of Mexico City. His image of the zócalo depicts approximately 1,200 persons strolling around or standing in groups outside the metropolitan cathedral or the partially ruined viceregal palace. At the center of all this activity, Villalpando located the two markets that fill most of this public space. Gondola-like boats and carts can be seen transporting merchandise to the market in the upper part of the image, while carriages and members of the city’s merchant elite flock together in the surroundings of a recently constructed market, the Parián, that appears at the forefront of the composition.

Fig. 1 - Cristobal de Villalpando - View of the Zócalo of Mexico City (1695)

Cristóbal de Villalpando’s Pinting of Mexico City’s Main Square, Late 17th Century

Named after Manila’s commercial center, this second market symbolizes the important role that global trade and consumption played in the daily life of the viceregal metropolis. Serving as a trading entrepôt located at the intersection of different long-range trading networks, it was the place where commodities could be found stemming from different parts of the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa. The market thus embodied a situation that had already been described so vividly by Bernardo de Balbuena in his famous Grandeza mexicana (1604), in which he observed that to the inhabitants of Mexico City its markets provided “of the world the best, and the most excellent of what is known and used is cooked, sold, and bargained here [1].”

Perceptions of Mexico City’s pivotal position in the early-modern globalizing world were not only the result of the circulation of commodities. Equally important were the movements of human beings. Officials from Spain or other parts of the Americas, soldiers from Italy and Flanders, merchants from Portugal, and friars from all over Europe settled in the city or passed through it on their way to the Philippines or China. On their return, the galleons coming from Asia brought to the viceroyalty Europeans and criollos, as well as travelers and migrants from East and Southeast Asia. Mexico City welcomed two Japanese embassies in 1610 and 1614, and a small Japanese community continued to live in the city during the following centuries. Filipinos, Chinese, and some Indians from the subcontinent replaced African slaves in the household of rich patricians or set up shop as traders and barbers.

Fig. 2 - View of Main Square of Mexico City in the Eighteenth Century (ca. 1769)

Mexico City’s Main Square Around 1769

These movements of commodities and people along the routes connecting Europe, the Americas, and Asia confirmed expectations of residents of Mexico City, who, after the discovery of the westbound route from Southeast Asia to the American continent in 1565, believed that their city was going to be “the heart of the world [2].” A clear sense of pride was thus derived from the city’s position at the intersection between two oceanic worlds. Indeed, signs of Mexico City’s connections to the four parts of the world served as markers of urban identities that artists and writers expressed in their chorographical depictions of the city. I use such textual and visual urban views in my research to explore the influence of trans-Pacific interactions on the self-images that residents of Mexico City produced in their negotiations over the distribution over offices, privileges, and honors.

As Richard Kagan has argued, for historians of the early-modern city chorographies are an important and attractive source. They help us to understand changing urban realities in which interactions between groups led to the development of new practices and consumption patterns, increasingly complex social stratifications, and competing urban identities. The chorographical genre enjoyed great popularity in Europe and the Americas during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Originating in the rhetorical tradition of the Late Antiquity, it was used to describe and praise cities and their inhabitants. For this purpose, early-modern chorographies combined history, geography, topography, natural history, antiquities, and genealogy with socioeconomic, political, and cultural descriptions. The resulting images and descriptions were used either for informative or decorative purposes, or were employed in the discussions and negotiations over the ‘just’ distribution of offices and privileges.

The meaning of chorographies in the context of the administration of distributive justice was twofold. First, inhabitants of the Spanish Americas used chorographies to counterbalance ideas regarding the continent’s detrimental effects on their capacities to occupy secular and ecclesiastical offices. They produced descriptions to stress that their community and some of its members – which usually included themselves – were particularly worthy of royal grace and favors. An interesting example of such efforts is the biombo that Viceroy Lope Díez de Armendáriz, the Marquis of Cadereyta, received at some point between 1635 and 1640. The four panels of this Japanese-style folding screen show several of the city’s most iconic spots, including the Alameda and the zócalo. A striking feature of this image are the gilded clouds under which the city appears. These clouds seem to be a remnant of contemporary Japanese art and, as such, they could have functioned as a means to further emphasize the exotic nature of the biombo itself.

Fig. 4 - Biombo with view of Mexico City (ca. 1635–40)

Four-Panel Biombo (1635-40) Showing Mexico City’s Most Iconic Places

But their significance could also be interpreted in a different way. Early-modern chorographies usually discuss the divine benevolence that is poured over a city and its inhabitants by means of the skies above them. Around the time this painting was drawn, the City Council had just agreed to celebrating the native martyr Felipe de Jesús. Crucified in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1597 and beatified three decades later, Felipe’s martyrdom was a sign of the divine blessing of creoles and the residents of Mexico City in particular. Moreover, as its chosen patron saint, this martyr looked from above after the interests of his city of birth. By depicting these gilded clouds, which were unlike anything existing in European traditions, the artist reinforced the link between Japan, the city, and the divine benevolence that made its inhabitants worthy, too, of royal patronage.

Fig. 3 - Anonymous artist - Biombo Mexico (ca. 1690)

Anonymous Biombo, ca. 1690

The struggle for recognition in an Empire constituted by competing cities and moving individuals thus contributed to the shaping of urban identity. However, the competition between different members of the community over common goods, power, and prestige also resulted in diverging views of the community being produced. This is the second use of chorographies in the discussion over the administration of distributive justice. They were used to underline why certain groups or members of the community deserved offices and privileges more than others. Descendants of the conquistadores for instance competed with a highly mobile imperial administrative elite and merchants over authority and recognition. In this context, they produced images of the conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan in order to keep alive the memory of the events to which they traced their claim to a privileged position.

Fig. 5 - Miguel and Juan González - Hernán Cortés’s entrance into Mexico (1698)

Miguel and Juan González (1698): Hernán Cortés’s City Entry

This resulted in urban views like the one that appears on the biombo that an anonymous artist produced around 1690 or the series of paintings that Miguel and Juan González drew around the same time. Both in their own way, these images establish a link between the conquest and the city as it looked like at the time they were drawn. The anonymous artist did so by drawing on the other side of his biombo a detailed picture of the city. The González brothers made such a connection by painting scenes of the conquest in an urban landscape that was recognizable to the current inhabitants of the city. As such, they helped to diffuse a clear message. It had been Cortés and his men who stood at the basis of the great city that Mexico was today, and it were therefore their descendants who most deserved to rule it.



Such images differed considerably from Villalpando’s view of the zócalo. In his image, the Parián forms the beating heart of the city, the place that connected the city to the world and around which life in the city evolved. This was the distinctive feature of a colonial metropolis in which wealthy and connected merchants rather than the descendants of the conquistadores were controlling public life. Different claims for social prominence thus led to diverging city views and urban identities. Even so, the popularity of the biombos and the use of Asian lacquer and mother-of-pearl techniques show that the influence of trans-Pacific trade on consumer taste went beyond such group distinctions. Even to those who may have opposed the high degree of mobility in their city, the effect of its place at the heart of the world was clearly discernable in the more locally orientated self-images they produced.


[1] Bernardo de Balbuena, Grandeza Mexicana (Mexico City: Sociedad de bibliófilos mexicanos, 1927 [1602]), f. 77r.

[2] Cited in O. H. K. Spate, The Spanish Lake. Vol. 1, The Pacific since Magellan (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1979), 106.

Nino Vallen is teaching assistant and doctoral candidate in the Latin America Institute at the Freie Universität Berlin. Currently, he works on a project, entitled ‘“Being at the Heart of the World:” The Pacific Rim and the Fashioning of the Self in New Spain, 1513–1641.’ His main research interests include the practices through which social inequalities are negotiated, processes of self and identity making, and cultural interactions in early-modern in Spain’s global Empire.

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5 Responses to Fashioning the Colonial Metropolis: Asian Influences and Urban Identities in Colonial Mexico City

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