In an iconic 1995 book on the Haitian revolution, Silencing the Past (Comares), the historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot said something that seems evident but necessary to repeat: “Human beings participate in history as actors and as storytellers.” The story is not just what happened, but what is said to have happened. This does not mean that history is subjective because there are incontrovertible facts: Christopher Columbus arrived in America in 1492, Hernán Cortés arrived on the shores of Veracruz in 1519. But to understand any process, such as the conquest, you have to see who are those who had the power to tell that story: the angle or sources they chose to look at the events can tell us more about the power of the moment than the events themselves. “History is a fruit of power,” says Trouillot. “The most important task is not to determine what the story is, but how it works.”
On August 13, Mexico commemorates 500 years since the fall of the Mexica empire in 1521 (also known as Aztec). In the last two years, from publishers in Mexico, there is a huge push to once again question the credibility of those powerful storytellers who mistakenly saw 1521 as the victory of the Spanish over the indigenous Mesoamericans. The history of that battle, they say, was more complex.
“Every source is above all a social, temporal and spatially situated fact,” writes Luis Fernando Granados, a historian at the Veracruzana University, in a new book, a critic about what was considered the great narrator of that day: Hernán Cortés. In relation to 1520(Grano de Sal editorial), Granados questions the credibility of the letters that the conqueror sent to the crown between 1519 and 1526, and that for centuries were taken as official history. However, says Granados, there is no original Cortés manuscript – there is a transcription made years later by a scribe – there were letters drawn up by different hands, and they were political documents to the queen rather than a careful historical account. “To stop considering them as the mother chronicle of the Mexican past can have a refreshing effect on the historiographic as well as profound on the properly historical,” he says. (Granados passed away in July of this year, at the time of publication.)
One of the most interesting books on Cortés’s low credibility has been Who Conquered Mexico? , by the historian Federico Navarrete, published by Debate in 2019. “This book raises different answers to the question, who conquered Mexico?”. And it is stated: “It was Malinche, it was the indigenous conquerors.” Cortés actually had a minuscule army when the Mexica empire fell, and the real victors in August 1521 were his allies, the empire’s Mesoamerican enemies: indigenous warriors from Cempoala, Tlaxcala, Cholula, Texcoco, and Chalco. “The idea of the absolute victory of the Spaniards in 1521 is nothing more than a partial and interested version, invented by Hernán Cortés himself, to extol and exaggerate his own role in events,” the book adds.
Another powerful narrator whose word was taken as truth was Bernal Díaz del Castillo, conqueror and author of the True Story of the Conquest of New Spain, whom the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes called in 1990 the “first novelist” of Mexico. . In 2019, Taurus translated into Spanish When Moctezuma Met Cortés , a dissection of the North American Matthew Restallof the official narrators, which begins by doubting the credibility of Díaz del Castillo over Moctezuma and Cortés. The Mexican leader was neither cowardly nor naive, and Hernán Cortés was not a brilliant Spanish strategist, the book says. The victory of 1521 was, he insists, of the conquering natives. He argues that what we call conquest was a later and much more complex process.
“We have abandoned the term conquest, in the singular, and instead we have preferred the term conquest, in the plural, with the aim of emphasizing that the defeat of Tenochtitlan was only the beginning of a historical stage”, writes the historian of the UNAM Martín Ríos Saloma, who compiled essays by the best researchers from Mexico and Spain in Conquistas (Sílex, 2021). His book makes an effort to search for those narrators whose past has been silenced, “the voices of indigenous actors, women, captains, and Castilian soldiers.” To ignore them is to offer “a simplistic, Manichean and isolated vision of the world historical processes of the time”.
With the writings of one of those silenced voices – Chimalpahin, an indigenous historian who works in a church – the book by North American Camilla Townsend The Fifth Sun , translated by the publishing house Grano de Sal this year, starts . Chimalpahin wrote at night, in his free time, a century after 1521 to try to save the memory of his ancestors. To review writings like his is to be able to demystify false narratives, Townsend says, such as the exaggerated myth of Mexican human sacrifice in an almost irrational way. “The Aztecs were conquered, but they also saved themselves,” says the author. “Writing everything they could remember about the history of their peoples so that it would not be lost forever.”
The list of new posts in this year of commemoration is endless. The Mexican historian Pedro Salmerón rejects the term conquest in The Battle for Tenochtitlan . “The war was much longer, the resistance was greater, very long-lasting and, in fact, it has not ended,” he stresses; while Enrique Semo , in The Conquest, Catastrophe of the Native Peoples, is more interested in the history of the new capitalism in Mesoamerica than in the date of 1521 itself. empty, the imperative was to reduce them to manageable towns ”, he says.
Further away from historians, novelists and graphic novel authors have also done their part. This year, the Planeta group published several novels in a historical key with a feminine focus: on Moctezuma’s daughter in La otra Isabel (by Laura Martínez-Belli); on Moctezuma’s sex slave, Malintzin, in Amor y conquista, from the Martínez Roca publishing house, written by Marisol Martín del Campo; or about a Totanaca priestess who allied herself with the Spanish in El camino del fuego, by Celia del Palacio, also in Martínez Roca. More interesting is The Fall of Tenochtitlan, by the illustrator José Luis Pescador, by Grijalbo, an effort to tell the story of the war with powerful comic images. They are all new narrators of what happened in 1521 — some with more power than others — and they create a new account of the conquest, or of the conquests, or of that terrible battle that we cannot quite understand. That battle that, in the 21st century, we are not even sure how to name.