The traveling exhibition In the Shadow of Cortés: From Veracruz to Mexico City contained thirty photographs interspersed with seven text panels of contextual information. The text of the panels is reproduced below. Accompanying the exhibition were English and Spanish exhibit handouts (images at left) that showed thumbnails of the photographs with captions.
In the Shadow of Cortés: From Veracruz to Mexico City
by Kathleen Ann Myers and Steve Raymer
The army of conquest headed by Hernán Cortés was the catalyst for one of the most rapid and profound cultural and political changes experienced by any civilization. And yet today the conqueror’s presence in Mexico is like a shadow. The effects of Cortés’ invasion accompany nearly every Mexican’s idea about identity, history, and life, but the name of the conquistador has all but vanished. In the Shadow of Cortés: From Veracruz to Mexico City is a record of a journey through Mexico today. It is a record of a series of trips along Cortés’ route of conquest, known as La Ruta de Cortés, and interviews with the people who live there. Our modern journey reveals much about Mexico’s complex identity. We move from the coastal towns where Cortés landed in April 1519 to the high plateau inland cities that still struggle with the legacy of a conquest that took place nearly 500 years ago. We end in the capital, Mexico City, once the Nahua (Aztec) political-cultural center Tenochtitlan, now a sprawling metropolis of more than eight million citizens and many cultural traditions.
The upheaval initiated by Cortés casts an indelible shadow over every Mexican today. Mexico’s most renowned living author, Carlos Fuentes, believes the conquest of Mexico is “the principal mental headline on every Mexican’s mental newspaper... It continues to occupy a central place in our historical memory, in our memory of identity” (Chorba, Mexico, 31). Mexicans’ keen awareness of their historical connection to both an indigenous and a Spanish legacy is the missing piece to understanding the often painful aftermath of the conquest.
In spite of centuries of Spanish colonial rule and decades of post-revolutionary campaigns to forge a uniform Mexican identity as a mestizo (mixed race) nation, vast political and cultural differences remain among ethnic groups, including many culturas originarias (native cultures) that predate the conquest. There are 68 officially recognized indigenous languages in Mexico today.
People of all walks of life continuously retell and reinterpret the meaning of the conquest. They discuss the influence of Spanish culture as well as the genocide and enslavement of indigenous populations. The common denominator for everyone is the violence of the conquest and the radical changes it introduced. But there is no uniform response to the conquest. Some Mexicans—often because of a privileged European ancestry or living in a place where the footprint of Cortés’ march is less visible—initially maintain that Mexico has successfully become a mestizo nation. But many other Mexicans recognize themselves as part of nation still burdened by the destructive legacy of racial and cultural discrimination. However, all Mexicans, as they talk about indigenous cultures and a national political system that has favored those of Spanish heritage, show a deep ambivalence toward their past. Mexico today is not the result of a seamless process of transculturation, but rather, the result of a series of amalgamations, accommodations, and recreations of cultures that are still dynamic, still being transformed today.
History and Memory
The conflicted relationship many Mexicans have with their past begins with a version of the conquest story that almost everyone knows. Mandatory government textbooks for fourth graders learning national history establish the official interpretation. After having been driven off the Yucatan coast by the Maya, Cortés arrived to the coastal area of modern-day Veracruz in April 1519. He was in desperate need of a successful expedition because he had set sail for Mexico against the express orders of his superior, the governor of Cuba. Two native ethnic groups met him: ambassadors for the Aztec leader Montezuma and local Totonaco Indians, who only made themselves known once negotiations with the Aztecs had failed. This encounter was the first indication that Cortés had of the many Mesoamerican ethnic groups and the divisions among them. He soon exploited inter-ethnic rivalries in order to strengthen his own position. Within two years Cortés not only had conquered the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, but had subdued a whole series of ethnic groups and been successful in turning others into his allies—allies without whom the Spaniards would have never taken control of Mesoamerica. Textbooks emphasize that although the Spaniards brought Christianity with them they also inaugurated an era of violence and massive depopulation, due to disease and forced labor. Spanish colonization led to wide-spread expropriation of lands and power, and the wholesale destruction of indigenous sacred sites and culture.
Depending on their own cultural heritage, Mexicans reinterpret this official conquest story in a variety of ways. An upper-class woman educated in Europe focuses on the civilizing influence of Spanish culture and religion, though she admits: “We Mexicans are very confused about Cortés. The Spaniards weren’t very bright, but they didn’t cut our throats and they brought language and religion. Personally, I think Cortés is a hero, at least he was before so many bad things happened.” But her interpretation differs radically from a thirty-something man of Nahua ancestry, active in the Zapatista movement, who serves as a public voice for indigenous rights and talks of the need for a reconquest of Mexico by its indigenous populations. He comments: “For 500 years Mexican history has been a history of displacement... I love Spanish, as much as Nahuatl, but I don’t close my eyes to the other side of the story. The history of the Mexican State towards indigenous peoples has been a history of ideological, territorial, and economic displacement.”
First Encounters: Veracruz
On a steamy Sunday afternoon in the port of Veracruz, where Cortés first landed on Good Friday in 1519, the harbor boardwalk (malecón) fills with families strolling past vendors, fishermen, and a group of teenage divers. One vendor sells only two things: replicas of the Spanish brigantine that Cortés used and medallions painted with Aztec glyphs to bring good luck, health, and fortune. Like many people in this city, the vendor has a practical yet ambivalent view of the conquest: “The conquest had to be. We wouldn’t have today without Cortés. The Spaniards were brutes, convicts, and criminals, but they brought religion to us.” The impact of the conquest is registered, but it is not registered as traumatic. No large-scale destruction of the local Totonaco Indian culture occurred here, perhaps because the area was lightly populated and Cortés only passed through it on his way north to Zempoala, the center of the Totonaco civilization. Citizens of the port of Veracruz like to point out their close ties with Afro-Caribbean rather than Hispanic culture, and speculate about whether the conquest would have been worse if the English had arrived first. Indeed, they note that the term “invasion” for them resonates more with the memory of the U.S. invasion in 1914.
This city, which wouldn’t exist without Cortés, has only one street a few blocks long named after him, while the important ocean-front Boulevard Xicotencatl is named after the warrior who fought against Cortés in neighboring Tlaxcala. And yet, the religious legacy of Cortés’ landing is still celebrated in smaller cities throughout the state of Veracruz. Mixing religious devotion to the “True Cross” (in honor of Cortés’ landing on Good Friday) with sacred rituals based on pre-Hispanic traditions, the Cruz de Mayo is celebrated in the indigenous region of Papantla with Totonaco voladores (pole fliers) and in Antigua de la Veracruz, the site for the Spanish government from 1523 to 1600, with Aztec conchero dancing in front of the church.
The March into the Interior: Tlaxcala, Cholula, and Puebla
Although Tlaxcala, Cholula, and Puebla are within a one hour bus ride of each other, their vastly different roles in the conquest and colonization set them apart even today. When Cortés arrived to the confederation of Tlaxcalan sovereign towns (atlepetl) he met with initial resistance before they allied with him, converted to Christianity, and provided thousands of warriors. After the conquest, the City of Tlaxcala was built as a privileged colonial administrative and religious center for the Tlaxcalan confederation.
From Tlaxcala, Cortés marched with his army and new allies to Cholula, the most sacred city in Mesoamerica, site of a huge pyramid (still the largest in the world) dedicated to the God Quetzalcoatl. Cortés rounded up thousands of nobles and religious leaders, ordering them to gather without arms at the base of the sacred pyramid. His motivation for this action is still controversial, but within hours, they were all slaughtered. The Cholula massacre was the turning point in the conquest, the point at which Cortés’ ruthless military strategy became transparent. Word spread rapidly throughout Mesoamerica and indeed throughout Europe.
During the colonial period, Cholula was designated as a town for los naturales, that is, as an Indian town that maintained some of its traditions such as distinct neighborhood solidarities (calpulli). In contrast, La Puebla de los Ángeles (Puebla) was built strategically between the coast and Mexico City on lands that had not been heavily populated by natives. Planned as a Spanish-style city, Puebla became known as a New World Paradise for Christianity.
Today Tlaxcalans suffer from being labeled as “traitors” because of their alliance with the Spaniards, but their local history celebrates the initial battles the confederation fought against Cortés. Cholula is a symbol both of Spanish brutality and of cultural renewal. And Puebla, home of the colonial ruling class, is still a conservative city today.
Cholula provides the clearest window onto the complex legacy of the conquest. On top of the pyramid where centuries ago Olmecs, Chichimecas, Aztecs, and Cholutecas performed sacred rituals, the Spanish planted the Church of the Virgin of Remedios, the miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary said to have been carried by Cortés’ army. Here, the mayordomo, a lay steward who oversees all of the religious feast days at the church, Gilberto Galicia Munoz describes the fervent community devotions and complex series of rituals and festivals dedicated to the Virgin. Sr. Galicia’s description contradicts anthropologists’ and historians’ theories of a syncretic, integrated system of mixed religious beliefs. He maintains that the Spanish brought “the true faith,” but that the system of service, religious traditions, and even the object of veneration have continued unbroken from their Choluteca “ancestors” (a term that always refers to pre-Hispanic peoples): “At one point it was said that there was so much love for Tonantzin, for our revered little mother, it was said that in all likelihood under Tonantzin lay buried Quetzalcoatl... with what, in the end, we have put the Spanish influence aside. This is ours. This is ours.” He sees no contradiction in his belief. For him, the “Virgen Conquistadora” is not a Spanish Virgin who has imposed fully Catholic beliefs and traditions on the native population. Behind her image and veneration lies a complex, still unconsolidated tradition that includes rather than excludes a range of deities: Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilopochtli, the Virgin of Remedios, Tonantzin, our revered little mother. Indeed, in colonial times statues of Christian saints were hollowed out and images of local deities were secreted inside, so that natives could worship the gods of the conquerors and the “ancestors” at the same time.
The Center: Mexico City-Tenochtitlan
A few blocks from the huge central plaza in downtown Mexico City, Cortés is buried in the Church of Jesus that he founded. A stone plaque outside the massive stone building briefly tells his story and marks the site of his first encounter with Montezuma on November 8, 1519. Although Cortés was first greeted peacefully by Montezuma, the tide soon turned. Political factions among the Spaniards, the imprisonment and death of Montezuma, and the brutal massacre of hundreds of nobles celebrating the feast of Huitzilopochtli, resulted in the uprising of the Mexica and the ousting of Cortés’ army. After regrouping and gathering more allies, in December 1520 Cortés subdued neighboring territories and laid siege to the island city, which surrendered on August 13, 1521. Cortés’ foot soldier described the misery: “For three whole days and nights they never ceased streaming out, and all three causeways were crowded with men, women, and children so thin, sallow, dirty and stinking that it was pitiful to see them. Once the city was free from them Cortés went out to inspect it. We found the houses full of corpses, and some poor Mexicans still in them who could not move away... The city looked as if it had been plowed up. The roots of any edible greenery had been dug out, boiled, and eaten, and they had even eaten the bark of the trees... There has not been a generation of men in the world which has suffered from hunger and thirst and continual fighting as much as this one.” Soon after, Cortés ordered the great city to be razed.
Today, inside the darkened Church of Jesus, Cortés’ crypt is almost hidden on the side of the altar. The upper ceiling dome over the choir area depicts the nightmarishly bloody scenes of the Apocalypse painted by Orozco in the 1940s, about the same time Cortés remains were publicly reburied here. The only other public monument to Cortés in Mexico City is a handsome 18th century bronze bust of the conqueror, but it is hidden in the shadows of an interior patio of the hospital adjacent to the church. Few Mexicans know of its existence.
Instead of monuments, in the heart of the sprawling city built upon the ruins of the Aztec empire, three famous murals depict Cortés as a greedy man stricken with syphilis, as the torturer of the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc, and as a half-naked man holding his native Indian concubine and interpreter, Malinalli (la Malinche).
The most famous murals were created by Diego Rivera inside the National Palace, built next to the remains of the Aztec Temple to the Sun. An 82-year-old guide here says, “The Spaniards didn’t come to dance, but to seek their fortunes.” He asserts that the Spaniards brought “the true religion” and proudly boasts that more than 90% of Mexicans are Catholic, although he does admit to some sense of outrage: “It is as though you enter my house with religion ‘x’ and order me to burn all of my books and use others.” The trauma remaining from the conquest and destruction of Tenochtitlan is still palpable.
Reinterpreting the Legacy
A sense of geographical place, race, and social class shape every aspect of Mexicans’ views of the conquest. The stories in Veracruz—a place where Cortés trod lightly because local ethnic groups allied with him—differ dramatically from those in Cholula—the site of a horrific massacre in the heart of the most sacred city in Mesoamerica. No physical evidence of the original indigenous settlements in the Port of Veracruz remain, while downtown Cholula still lives in the shadow of the great pyramid dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl.
Since 1978 when workmen accidentally discovered the base of the Aztec sacred pyramid, the Templo Mayor, the Mexico City site has become a focal point for the resurgence of interest in Nahua (Aztec) history and cultures. Teams of archaeologists have slowly excavated sections of the Aztec sacred precinct under subways lines, razing 400 year-old colonial buildings to unearth the extensive ruins. One of the archaeologists maintains that the cruelest part of the conquest was the spiritual conquest: “We can’t begin to imagine how it must have felt to see their gods destroyed.” While Mexicans from all over the country flock to the Templo Mayor museum in order to view the many deities and ritual objects unearthed, outside the archaeological site Aztec dancers blow conch shells, offer healing ceremonies and recreate spiritual rituals. On August 13th each year conchero groups from all over Mexico fill the zócalo (central plaza). One conchero describes their purpose: “We dance in sacred public places so that all Mexicans know who we are and where we come from; we defend the traditions of the ancient Mexicas.”
“They haven’t conquered us...even after 500 years. In spite of all that they imposed upon us and everything else, tradition remains underneath it all. They have not taken away our way of life,” states another Nahua dancer. He wears a bearded mask to represent a Spaniard and a robe embroidered with the serpent-god of Malinalco and dances on the feast of San Isidro in front of the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The conquest has not changed the fact that for him, the Virgin of Guadalupe represents “the sun that was behind her... They [the dancers] aren’t worshiping the Virgin, they worship the sun.”
Whether the growing conchero movement, which now extends to U.S. cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, the vibrant religious festivals that mix Catholic and pre-Hispanic traditions, a national government that both promotes and curtails the autonomy of indigenous communities, or indigenous movements such as the Zapatistas, there is a trend among many Mexicans to recognize themselves as part of a multi-ethnic nation in need of reinterpreting the legacy of the conquest. Mexican culture today is a rich layering and amalgamation of dozens of different indigenous ethnic groups and Spanish traditions that is still in flux.