Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of America, edited by Miguel Leon-Portilla (Beacon Press, 1992).
Broken Spears tells the Aztec peoples’ account of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
Throughout history, the conquest has been told from the viewpoint of the conquistadors — the Spanish victors. Broken Spears was the first book to tell the story of the conquest from the Aztecs’ perspective.
It was originally published in Spanish (in 1959), and was only published in English in the year 1962.
The book begins a few years before the conquest by telling of the Aztecs’ perceived omens of the conquest, and the remainder of the book gives a chronological account of the conquest.
The primary impetus of the book is not historical data gathering but, rather, is of the storytelling and human emotion behind the Spanish conquest.
Hernando Cortes’ army arrived in Mexico in the early 16th century and defeated the Mexicans in relatively short order.
Cortes had originally been sent to Mexico by the Cuban governor to search for gold, but when he was asked to withdraw and return to Havana, he gathered 11 ships and 600 troops and made his way to Mexico.
Previous Spanish expeditions had been sent to Mexico as early as 1517, but Cortes was a very powerful, persuasive leader and was able to rally the troops, so to speak. Also, the Indians turned out to be very susceptible to the Spaniards’ superior weapons, as well as the new European viruses such as smallpox, chicken-pox, and measles.
Of crucial importance was the Aztec leader’s (Moctezuma) indecisiveness about Cortes’ motives and confusion as to whether Cortes’ arrival was a spiritual arrival or a spiritual sign – a major mistake. Finally, the Mexican Indians were internally divided and there was much internal resentment about the Aztec domination in Mexico. Therefore, the Tlaxcaltecs and others – the Aztecs’ enemies – became the Spaniards’ allies.
Cortes arrived in the Yucatan Peninsula in 1519 and marched to Tenochhtitlan. In September of that year, his army battled with the Tlaxcaltecs, and the Tlaxcaltecs, defeated, became Spanish allies.
After an October 1519 massacre in Cholulam, Cortes and his troops arrived in Tenochtitlan, and the next month Montezuma was made prisoner of Cortes’ army.
However, in May of 1520, Cortes left Tonochtitlan to confront Panfilo de Narvaez and during that time a massacre occurred in the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs were then able to force the Spaniards to their quarters.
By June, Cortes returned to Tenochtitlan (after defeating Narvaez) and in that same month, Montezuma died.
The Spaniards were forced to flee Tenochtitlan when they fell under attack, and in July of 1520, the Battle of Otumba took place.
By April 1521, numerous Spanish reinforcements had arrived to support the Cortes army, and Indian towns began to help the Spaniards.
Finally, in August 1521, Cuauhtemoc was captured and the Aztecs surrendered. The once great Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was now in ruins and their once strong leader, Moctezuma, was dead.
The Spanish defeat of the Aztecs was of great historical significance. First, the greatest Indian civilization in history had been decimated. Second, the Spanish victory created a new race of people – created by the mix of the Aztecs and the Spaniards – that resulted in today’s Mexican race.
The importance of this book is that it finally introduced the conquered peoples’ viewpoint of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs.
Many commentators and readers have applauded the book precisely for this reason.
The subject can become very emotional for many readers because of the racial and cultural implications. For example, some have commentated that “conquest” is too loose a term, and that the term “holocaust” or “mass murder” of the Aztecs, the most powerful tribe at that time in Mexico, should instead be used when describing what occurred when the Spanish Europeans invaded Mexico.
They no longer had nor could find any arrows, javelins or stones with which to attack us, and our allies fighting with us were armed with swords and bucklers, and slaughtered so many of them on land and in the water that more than forty thousand were killed or taken that day. So loud was the wailing of the women and children that there was not one man among us whose heart did not bleed at the sound.
The Aztecs called themselves the Mechica. They were originally nomads, and they came to the Valley of Mexico in 1276. Although they were originally subjugated under the Toltecs, they were strong mercenaries, and eventually were able to begin to build their great city — Tenochtitlan. It was a gigantic city of great efficiency and a marvel in its time for its system of canals and waterways.
While many commentators portray the Aztecs as indigenous victims of violent European bloodshed and colonialism, it is also important to understood that because of the power and advancement of the Aztec civilization, the Aztec became an incredibly powerful ruling tribe among the Indian populations in Mexico. And they were not peaceful rulers. They were known as violent dictators – perhaps a natural result of their mercenary pasts – and they engaged in great numbers of human sacrifices of their conquered victims.
Indeed, it could be argued that Broken Spears has an indigenous, pro-victim bias, as it was published to give voice to the perspective of the conquered.
However, the more revealing stance is to instead examine the Aztec account not from the perspective of the author — who is merely the instrument by which the story is being told — but rather, to scrutinize and criticize the two different perspectives (the Spanish and the Aztec) at issue.
Domination Engendered through Assimilation
While many critics scathingly accuse Cortes of being yet another Colonial conqueror who decimated an indigenous culture with no regard for its native people or native attributes, such an account overlooks the important fact that one of the primary reasons Cortes was able to defeat the Aztecs was because he first learned how to become one of them. In short, he learned to assimilate into their culture.
For example, when Cortes first arrived in Mexico, he freed a Spaniard held in captivity by the Indians, Geronimo de Aguilar. Aguilar has been shipwrecked (in Cozumel) eight years before Cortes’ arrival in Mexico, and the Indians had forced him into slavery. As a slave, he learned the Mayan language of his Indian captors. Aguilar became crucial to Cortes’ strategy, as Cortes was now able to communicate in the language of the Indians.
After leaving Cozumel, Cortes and his ships sailed up the east cost of Mexico, fighting and defeating thousands of Indians along the coast. At Tabasco, he quickly defeated the Indians and when they made peace offerings, food, gifts and women were presented.
These Indians were known as the Caciques, and did not speak the language of the Mayans, the language spoken by Aguilar, Cortes’ comrade. However, a woman named Dona Marina – who had been presented as a gift, understood the Mayan language and translated Cortes’ words of gratitude. Dona Marina was an Aztec princess who had had the misfortune of becoming a slave to the Tabascan Indians; this is how she had come to know the language of the Aztecs (Nahuatl) as well as the Tabascan and Mayan languages.
Marina and Aguilar proved to be Cortes’ ultimate weapons, because Cortes was now able to communicate with all of the Indian tribes that he encountered, including the Indians in the capital city of the Aztecs — Tenochtitlan.
But beyond this assimilation of the Indians’ language through his ships’ crew, Cortes assimilated the Indian culture in other crucial ways.
Dona Marina and Cortes had a passionate love affair, and she became his ultimate ally. She was his ear on the ground, so to speak, and would warn him of plots against his army and against his life. Later, even though she had been given as a gift to one of Cortes’ captains, Marina bore Cortes a son.
This son was Don Martin Cortes.
Don Martin Cortes was both literally and figuratively the beginning of the Mexican race, and the result of Cortes’ successful assimilation into the Indian culture – an assimilation which would ultimately prove to be their defeat.
B. Heroine or Traitor: The Role of Dona Marina in the Conquest
Commentators have debated the role of Dona Marina in the conquest of Mexico. Some describe her as a traitor to the Aztecs. Others describe her as the symbolic mother of a new race of people — the Mexicans, or the mestizos.
Certainly, if Broken Spears is unique precisely because it is an account of the Aztec conquest from the Aztec perspective, then Marina — as an Aztec princess — might be properly viewed as a traitor to the Aztec people. However, it should be reiterated that the point of this essay is to take into account the two perspectives, the Aztec and the Spaniard — the conquered and the conquerors — and critique those perspectives.
Moreover, Broken Spears as a text does not stand alone as mere pieces of paper isolated from historical context. History has changed and affected the context of the book. For example, while the indigenous Indian people respected Dona Marina, she became a maligned national figure after the Mexican Revolution and after the Mexican people found a new national identity. As such, Marina came to symbolize those who betray their own people for a foreign enemy.
In her case, the situation was viewed by such observers as even worse, because she also bed the enemy, bore his child, and quite directly led to the destruction of her own clan and its replacement with a new nation.
Yet this is to ignore and devalue the Aztec’s own accounts given at the time of the conquest, accounts which respected Marina and her decisions (or lack of ability to decide, due to her status as a slave and as a woman).
More importantly, it is to ignore the entire exercise of viewing both sides of a story. In this case, examining both sides of the conquest and both sides of the tale shows us deeper issues. First, Dona Marina, known know as La Malinche, was a woman of complicated motives in a complex situation. She was an Aztec princess who became a slave and was once again forced into captivity at the hands of the Spaniards. Throughout her life she had had little or no control over her own destiny. Once she became the trusted advisor of Cortes, however, she at last had a measure of authority and some control over her own life. She had been born an Aztec, but her own people had given her over into slavery, and now at the hands of a Spaniard, she was exerting power and control over her own life for the first time. Second, she was by all accounts deeply in love with Cortes. One commentator notes the effect that this dynamic would have had on the actions of Marina.
We spent an afternoon at the ruins of Quiahuiztlan with a young musician from Jalapa. Sitting on the spot where I imagine Cortes sat, staring out at the sea and plotting the conquest of Mexico, I asked him what he thought of La Malinche. “Was she a traitor or a heroine? Didn’t she have reason to oppose the tyranny and oppression gripping Mexico, and to hope for relief from the powerful strangers?”
It is a story of love,” he told me. “Love is more important than politics.”
Domination through Manipulation of Internal Division
The Aztecs were the most powerful tribe in Mexico, and they were by all accounts cruel and violent leaders. Therefore, Cortes had little trouble playing off the poor situation of the indigenous Indians and offering a potentially better future in a new ruler, even if that ruler came from a strange and distant land.
Cortes had established a town in Veracruz called La Villa Rica de la Veracruz. Here he met with representatives from the Aztecs. The Indians in the Veracruz area, the Cempoalans, and just been defeated by the Aztecs and had been treated very badly. They were more than eager to form an alliance with the Spaniards, and did so. In fact, Cortes and his men were received at the Cempoalan’s capital city, Xoxotlan, with a celebration-like atmosphere by the Cempoalan people. They quickly and eagerly told Cortes everything he needed to know about the Aztecs, including their great population, advanced city, and domineering leadership. Most shocking of all was the great number of subjugated peoples the Aztecs sacrificed to their gods.
Cortes and his army set off for the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, joined by the Cempoalans.
After jointly fighting the Indian Tlaxclalans, they eventually made peace with the Tlaxclalans and gained even more ally soldiers from the Tlaxclalan army. They then set out for the city of the Cholulans, where a vicious attack took place. Because the Tlaxcalans despised the Cholulans, the battle turned into a massacre and most of the Cholulans were killed.
Thus, by the time Cortes reached the city of Tenochtitlan – the Aztec capital – he had been able to play on the internal divisiveness of the Indians. Ultimately, this divisiveness was what helped him win the Aztec battle. With various Indian tribes running to his aid and fighting against each other, eager to topple the Aztecs, it was only a matter of time before the Aztec empire would be crushed.
This account would be missed if we only read the Aztec side of the conquest, because we would not understand that the cruelty that the Aztecs imposed throughout the Indian empire ultimately led to their own demise.
Uniting the two perspectives
August 13, 1521
Heroically defended by Cuauhtemoc, Tlatelolco fell to the power of Hernan Cortes. It was neither a triumph nor a defeat. It was the painful birth of the mestizo nation that is the Mexico of today.
Text of monument at Tlatelolco
Finally, the point that has been made throughout this essay will end this essay.
Broken Spears was a breakthrough text largely because it presented the viewpoint of the Aztec people – the conquered – for the first time. Before that, the viewpoint of the Spaniards — the colonialists — had always been presented. History, it is said, has been written by the victors.
For a balanced perspective of history, it is necessary to understood both viewpoints. For example, if we were presented only with the Aztec account, we would never know that the Aztecs themselves were vicious rulers who sacrificed thousands of human subjects in the name of their gods. Victimhood can be very one-sided, as can victory.
Similarly, rather than viewing Broken Spears as an emotional launching pad with which to demonize European colonizers or, similarly, deify the Indian indigenous people and proscribe them as saintly victims, it is a more useful exercise to use Broken Spears as a comparison against the European-based accounts we have of the conquest and then attempt to construct our own balanced view of the birth of the Mexican nation.
The year 1519 was the year that Cortes arrived in Mexico. It was also the year that coincided directly with the Aztec year 1 Reed on the Aztec calendar. Aztec legend provided that the god Quetzalcoatl would return and destroy the Aztecs during this year; therefore, Moctezuma believed that Cortes was Quetzalcoatl. He believed that he could somehow persuade Cortes not to destroy the Aztecs
See, e.g, “The Conquest of Mexico,” by Peter Rashkin, located at http://www.thedagger.com/archive/conquest/conquest1.html.
Hernan Cortes, Letters from Mexico, Translated by Anthony Pagden (Yale University Press, 1986).
The Myth of La Malinche: From the Chronicles to Modern Mexican
Theater,” thesis submitted to the Faculty of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Rosario Perez-Lagunes (2001), located online at http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-05/unrestricted/Malinche.pdf.
The Conquest of Mexico,” by Peter Rashkin, located at http://www.thedagger.com/archive/conquest/conquest1.html.
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