BY DAVID BOWLES
As late as the 1950s, the world primarily knew the story of Mexico’s conquest by the Spanish through the accounts of the victors, men like Hernán Cortés, Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Francisco López de Gómara. Though glimpses at the true nature of the indigenous people shine through, as does the terrible majesty of the Aztec hegemony, these histories celebrated Christian and Spanish ascendancy. There was no real balance.
In 1959, however, young anthropologist Miguel León-Portillo edited together the translations done by his mentor Ángel María Garibay Kintana of various texts written in Nahuatl by native Mexicans in the years after the Conquest. Titled Visiones de los vencidos, it was published English in 1962 as “The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico.” Fifty-five years later, it remains a singularly important work.
The bulk of the book consists of a chronological reordering of excerpts from different codices and histories, though no attempt is made to streamline the narrative, so the reader often gets several perspectives on a single event, occasionally with some contradictions.
“The Broken Spears” begins a decade before the arrival of Cortés, discussing the omens that seemed to indicate the approach of some dark tragedy (comets, the inexplicable burning of temples, two-headed monsters). Then the Spaniards arrive with their hunger for gold, their weapons, their horses. Moctezuma, the emperor of the Triple Alliance, seems to spiral into despair as his every attempt to keep Cortés from marching into the highlands of central Mexico fails.
Several times the gods of the Mexica warn of the impending doom, claim the chroniclers. The goddess Cihuacoatl cries out in the deep of night, weeping for the loss of her children. The god of chaos, Tezcatlipoca, appears to messengers of Moctezuma and tells them their fate is sealed.
And the Spaniards, like a cruel force of nature, keep coming. Aided by the linguistic prowess and quick mind of young Coatzacoalcan Malinalli Tenepal (la Malinche), they ally with the disgruntled peoples who have kept a steady stream of tribute and sacrificial victims flowing into Tenochtitlan. They slaughter Otomies and Cholulans. Eventually they reach Tenochtitlan, capital city of the Triple Alliance.
Though welcomed by Moctezuma, the Spaniards turn on the emperor once inside his palace. When Cortés is called away, his men slaughter innocent Mexica during the festival of Toxcatl and are driven violently from the city. But the most dangerous weapon of all soon decimates the population: smallpox. The weakened citizens withstand eighty days of siege, but in the end Tenochtitlan falls. The death toll is some 300,000 men, along with countless women and children.
“The Broken Spears” ends with a few heart-rending laments from the Cantares Mexicanos, then explores the long-term fall-out from the Conquest with later indigenous documents. The reader is left to dwell on the tragic outcome of this clash of two mighty and brutal nations. The clear difference between the cultures was that the Spanish wanted eradication and transformation, whereas the Aztec sought power and tribute.
David Bowles is a writer and professor. You can contact him at www.davidbowles.us.