Latin American History


Latin American History Essay, Research Paper

History is the search for truth, not fact. Within one single event in history a number of truths can be taken from it, as each interpreter of the event will have their own views and biases that will be reflected in each given truth. For the purpose of this paper, two articles have been reviewed, both in regards to Hernan Cortes arrival in Latin America, and the coincidences, events, interpretations and misinterpretations that lead to the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. The first article is titled, Quetzalcoatl s Revenge: Primordium and Application in Aztec Religion, and is written by David Carrasco. The second article is written by Francis J. Brooks and is titled, Motecuzoma Xocoyotl, Hernan Cortes, and Bernal Diaz del Castillo: The Construct of an Arrest. The main points and standpoint of these two authors will be outlined in this paper. The two articles will be compared and contrasted to show the different interpretations of the two authors.

It is the contention of this paper, that the conquest of the Americas by the Spanish was inevitable, as the Eurocentric attitudes of the time, would not allow any inferior life to exist without the aide of the civilized Europeans. The authors of the two articles give other reasons for the conquest to take place as it did and when it did.

David Carrasco starts his article and argument with a description of the arrival of Cortes in the Aztec capital.

When Hernan Cortes led his now famous entrada into the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519 and saw so many cities on dry land, a wonder to behold he was welcomed, states one source, as an illustrious predecessor by the Aztec sovereign Moctezuma who thought that this was Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl who had arrived (p. 296).

Carrasco goes on to trace the origins of the legend of Quetzalcoatl, and finds that it leads back to the city of Tollan and the Toltec Empire. The city of Tollan was appreciated by the Aztecs as the pristine city, a wondrous age and place, where the principals of cosmo-magical parallelism were formally discovered and established (p.302). The Toltec were great thinkers and accomplished many marvelous feats. They invented the art of medicine, they were astronomers and understood the movement of the stars and the heavens, and they originated the year count. They were also great artisans as they were skilled feather workers, gluing, dying and arranging into beautiful designs. The Toltecs also discovered minerals such as turquoise and the emerald jade.

Harmony and abundance permeate the description of the Toltec relationship to the earth as well. Not only were the people creative, but nature surrounded them with plentitude. Their fields yielded enormous calabashes and the ears of maize were as large as grind stones they could hardly be embraced in one arm (p.306).

It seemed as though the gods had a special place for in their hearts for the city of Tollan as the Toltecs were blessed with many good fortunes.

They never wanted. There was nothing lacking in their houses, they were never hungry. This ancient Findhorn was dappled with cotton fields miraculously coloured red, yellow, rose coloured violet, green, azure coyote coloured so they grew, they did not dye them. And the air above was filled with all the birds of precious feathers the blue continga, the quetxal, the reseate spoonbill which sang right sweetly. This abundance was reflected in the size of the Toltecs, who were tall, they were larger than the people today. These giants of Tollan lived at the centre of a larger society ruled by Quetzalcoatl (p.306).

With such a reputation, the Toltecs were looked on very favourably, and the Mexicas looked to follow in their footsteps, so they claimed that they were in fact direct descendants from the mighty Toltec Empire. This added prestige, honour and power to the Mexica civilization. In Tollan, Quetzalcoatl was all that mattered. He sent out royal commands from a mountain of authority and was the font of creativity; he was what directed Tollan to greatness. Quetzalcoatl s power is epitomized in the statement, Truly with him it began, truly from him it flowed out, from Quetzalcoatl all art and knowledge (p.306). In Carrasco s article, he insists that the Mexicas (or Aztecs) were caught up in a desire to follow in the legacy of the Toltecs. In that desire was the search for the return of Quetzalcoatl, a long departed man-god who had lead the Toltecs to power and then had disappeared with a promise to return and lead his people once more. The anticipated return of Quetzalcoatl coincided with the arrival of the Spaniards and Cortes, the Meixca king; Moctezuma interpreted Cortes as the return of Quetzalcoatl

A review of primary sources reveals that this ancient priest-king was born in the year ce acatl, departed his kingdom in the year ce acatl and was expected to return in the year ce acatl. It is one of the amazing coincidences of history that the Aztec year ce acatl fell on the Christian year 1519, the year that Cortes appeared in Mexico (p.297).

The year ce acatl translates as one reed . In this case, it refers to one year in the fifty-two-year cycle representing an Aztec century. When the year ce acatl did fall and Cortes arrived, a review of Mexica nostalgia reveals that Moctezuma was not just welcoming a great ancestor, but rather the ancestor par excellence, the founder of the legitimate royal power that Moctezuma now claimed to represent. Carrasco attempts to gain insight into the relationship with ancient tradition had with its self-proclaimed heir by focussing on two parts of heritage emphasized in the Aztec sources; the utopian image of Tollan, and the myth of Quetzalcoatl s return. Carrasco also goes on to explain that although the misinterpretation of the return of Quetzalcoatl by Moctezuma was the breaking point for the conquest of Tenochtitlan by the Spaniards, it may not have been the only contributing factor. Carrasco argues that Moctezuma was already in a weakened state by the time that the Spaniards arrived. The Aztec ruler had been under some internal threat prior to 1519. Carrasco sites the Florentine Codex; the disruption of the structure of rulership in Tenochtitlan may have contributed greatly to the conquest (p.315). Moctezuma was not in a position of power when Cortes arrived. The Aztec armies had just witnessed loses at the hands of smaller weaker divisions, and this reflected very poorly on Moctezuma. This weakened state of rule, combined with the influence of the utopian images of Tollan, and the expected return of Quetzalcoatl and the coincidental arrival of the Spaniards provided an excellent opportunity for the conquest of the Aztec empire.

Francis J. Brooks takes a different look at the success of Cortes in Mexico, and how the truth was interpreted through the eyes of Cortes and some of the other conquistadors. Brooks also contrasts the differences between what happened, what was written and what was actually told to the King of Spain, Charles V. If that mythical moment the birth of modern history can be said to exist, it occurred on November 8, 1519 when Moctezuma Xocoyotl and Hernan Cortes came face to face (p.149). That same evening, as Cortes tells the story, Moctezuma handed over his entire dominion to Cortes and his liege lord. At that moment the Spanish Empire in America was born, and with it the age of European imperialism (p.150). Brooks acknowledges that this was indeed the time and event, which irreversibly changed the path of both the Aztecs and the Spaniards forever, but he questions whether it was constructed in some way by Cortes, and mishandled by Moctezuma. A number of sources are reviewed in the article, but the argument hinges upon the letters written by Cortes and bound for Spain and Charles V. The letters that Bernal Diaz wrote are also brought up and put under immense scrutiny, as it is Brooks belief that Bernal Diaz was not even present in 1519 during the time of the conquest. It is said that Bernal Diaz wrote these letters and journals as a means to shore up his encomienda opportunities and secure his financial situation. Brooks states that the letters from Cortes to Charles V can be broken up into three acts. The first act being Cortes journey from Vera Cruz to Tenochtitlan between August and November 1519. This letter recounts Cortes intrepid and almost unhindered progress towards Tenochtitlan, while collecting along the way, the ready submission of most of the chiefs he encountered. The second act details the stay of the Spaniards in Tenochtitlan between November 1519 and May 1520. This letter serves as the climax of the series as it describes the meeting of Moctezuma and Cortes. The third and final act is marked by the arrival of the Narvaez expedition and the ensuing disaster of the Noche Triste. This letter explores the disaster and rebellion stirred up by Panfilo de Narvaez, and the destruction, as a result of all that Cortes had achieved. The second act is broken down into three speeches that Cortes reports that Moctezuma made. It is the contention of Brooks, that Cortes may have put these words into the mouth of the Aztec king. It is hard to believe that all that Cortes writes about the Aztecs and Moctezuma just handing over their city to him and all becoming loyal to the throne of Spain, to be completely true.

The letter is a rhetorical construct. In the precise sense of the word, it is a fiction. It was constructed, in October 1520, solely to serve Cortes purpose at the time he was writing: to inform the king that Moctezuma as an absolute ruler had, through Cortes, made his submission and that of the whole population (p.158). Cortes letters, like those of Columbus before him, serve solely as a means to achieve an end with the Spanish polity. Brooks questions some of the things that Cortes writes in his letters, like the description of the capture and imprisonment of Moctezuma.

If Moctezuma was a prisoner it was, in some measure, by his own will. To that extent, he was not a prisoner. He continued to rule or, perhaps better, the political structure remained largely intact (p.164).

There are a number of questionable aspects of some of Cortes writings as well as actions.

If Cortes had really been in control, it is beyond beliefs that he would not immediately have written to the king to tell him that he had made good his boast and had conquered Mexico, that he had taken its emperor captive, and that he now held the land peacefully and fruitfully (p.165).

After Brooks finished reviewing, and criticizing the letters of Cortes, he asks: We are still left with two questions: what did happen, and why do others substantiate Cortes version. The writing of Bernal Diaz is the largest backer of the Cortes letters. Brooks refutes the idea that Bernal Diaz was even present during the time of Cortes encounter with Moctezuma.

But Bernal Diaz, as he repeatedly reminds us, was an eyewitness. Unlike all the others, he was there. Why should he corroborate the story if is not true? One intriguing possibility is that he was not even an eyewitness. His name does not appear on the official list of the conquistadors. No witness, apart from himself unequivocally place him in Mexico before 1521 (p.169).

A list of writing from Cortes, Gomara and Bernal Diaz, were compiled and samples taken from each. There is a striking resemblance between the writings of Bernal Diaz, and those of both Cortes and Gomara. Bernal Diaz had faked his presence in Mexico for financial gain. Brooks argues that although the events around November 1519 did occur, he states that what history interprets is misinformed because of the fictionalized writings of people like Cortes and Bernal Diaz.

The beginnings of the modern world will always be debated, whether it was Columbus landing, or the meeting of Cortes and Moctezuma. Arguments can be made for both sides but we will never know. Authors Carrasco and Brooks offer different views focussing on different aspects of the events of 1519, and both come up with different conclusions. The conquest of Mexico may not have been a result of the Aztec infatuation for Tollan, or may not be a result of Cortes euphemized letters to his king. The spread of European dominance across the globe at that point in time was inevitable, as the Eurocentric beliefs of the Spaniards spelled the end for the mighty Aztec empire.


Brooks, F.J. Moctezuma Xocoyotl, Hernan Cortes and Bernal Diaz del Castillo: The

Construction of an Arrest , Hispanic American Historical Review. 75, no 2

(1995), 129-164.

Carrasco, D. Quetzalcoatl s Revenge: Primordium and Application in Aztec Religion ,

History of Religions. 78, no 2 (1980), 296-320

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