Arrival of the Spanish
The Spanish arrival in Mexico forever shaped what Mexico would become, and who Mexican people are. Diego Rivera famously tried to summarize the conquest in a single mural. He portrayed a brutal European power that spread disease, enslaved the indigenous people, but who also gave birth to a new race of people.
Ross Chambless: "The Arrival of Cortés" is a mural in the National Palace in Mexico City. Diego Rivera painted it in 1951. And let’s just say, the story of the Spanish conquest is really not a happy one. But it forever changed what Mexico would become, and it’s rooted in who Mexican people are. For centuries Mexican artists have tried to make sense of what really happened.
Diego Rivera's mural "The Arrival of Cortés" is in the National Palace in Mexico City. It was completed in1951.
Susan Vogel: This is a mural that Diego Rivera painted showing Cortés and the Spanish coming to Mexico. In contrast to some of the murals he painted at this time in the National Palace showing the beauty and glory of the indigenous peoples of Mexico when the Spanish came, this one is really sad and troubling, and it shows the terror the Spanish brought in terms of slavery and killing of indigenous people, and also the diseases they brought that killed millions of people.
Ross: Let's set the scene: almost 500 years ago – we’re talking 1519 – historians estimate the Aztec empire was more than 25 million people, living across what is modern day Mexico.
Susan: The Aztec empire was enormous and pretty brutal. By the time the Spanish came, they’d gotten a lot of enemies.
Ross: It’s understood in many ways that the Aztecs were the bullies in the neighborhood. They regularly raided and captured people from other tribes for human sacrifice rituals.
Susan: So, if we think about what things were like when the Spanish arrived, there was that dynamic that helped pave the way for the defeat of the Aztecs.
Luis Lopez: It’s important to know the Aztecs were the first colonizers of Mesoamerica. All these other groups were independent, pretty much until they started taking over. There was already this tension, this feeling that we’re sick of these guys. They keep capturing our soldiers, making us pay tribute, sending resources to their empire. So, when the Spanish arrived, they were definitely ready to help overthrow them.
Excerpt from History Channel documentary, "The Conquerors": “Situation: old Mexico is ripe for conquest. Mission: seize land resources and native peoples. Execution: lead 500 well-trained Spanish conquistadors. Administration: in the name of the King of Spain. The man in control: Captain General Hernan Cortés.”
Ross: That’s from a History Channel documentary called "The Conquerors". This is episode 4 of Nuevas Voces, a podcast about the art, the history, the culture of Mexico and why it all matters.
Luis Lopez: We know the Spanish arrived in Hispaniola. The island that is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Then they worked their way inland, and along the way, they continued their tradition of establishing settlements and colonies, and using people for labor, whether it was slave labor, collecting resources and sending those back to Spain, kind of saying "look what we found" and claim ownership of everything they came across.
Ross: You know, just what normal invading armies are supposed to do.
Fanny Blauer: I guess when they arrived in the Americas, they probably didn’t have any idea of the extent of what they were going to find and the richness of the territory. In terms of the Aztecs, the way they saw this city was as well-organized... producing many different things. Gold played a very important role in this conquest.
Ross: It should also be mentioned that this was the moment Christianity, specifically Catholicism, was introduced to Mexico.
Fanny: We know the standard of Hernan Cortés was the cross. Representing Christ, representing "this is what we want; we want to populate and evangelize in the name of God". Catholicism was not only a religious power, but a political power.
Luis: It was definitely used as a tool. It justified what they had to do to achieve their goals. I think is much easier for people to say I’m doing this for God, rather than saying I’m doing this for greed.
Ross: The Aztecs managed to drive the Spanish out of their capital Tenochtitlán. But Cortés and his men returned later to complete their conquest in 1521. One of the key reasons, historians believe, was not the might of the Spanish or their technologies, but an unanticipated virus. In Rivera’s mural, one of the first things that catches your eye is the group of men having some kind of exchange in the front and center.
Fanny: We see this man with a gray-greenish face, dressed as Spanish. It’s believed this person is Cortés. And why is his face green or gray?
Ross: Small Pox was carried in by several of the Spanish soldiers, and the disease quickly spread to the native Aztecs, who had no immunity.
Susan: They could not have carried out the conquest without bringing Small Pox.
Ross: The disease killed most of the Aztec army, and more than a quarter of the overall Aztec population at the time, many estimate.
Luis: Disease, and as we mentioned before, the Aztecs had many enemies. So you had a lot of indigenous fighting as well. So all of these factors definitely contributed to the fall of Tenochtitlán and the Aztec empire.
Ross: Not everything the Spanish brought was bad, according to Rivera’s account.
Fanny: Well, we have the horses. The introduction of the horses.
Ross: Maybe the only upside, actually.
Susan: Well, the other thing they brought, were arms. Firearms.
Ross: Ah, yes, guns. What would we have done without guns?!
Fanny: We have the cross in the upper side of the side of the painting. The evangelization. And the face of the priest and the face of the Spanish soldier is this comic ugly face, that means the introduction of religion in an ugly way. I don’t know how else you would describe it.
Ross: Something also very distinct in the mural is an indigenous woman, carrying a baby…
Fanny: ... With blue eyes. Do you see that? So what does that represent? It shows the creation of this new ethnicity.
Ross: Mestizos – people who are a mix of Spanish and indigenous ethnicity.
Luis: One thing that stands out to me, compared to Rivera’s other works is this is mostly of Spanish influence. Others paintings will show a mix, some Spanish, people that are indigenous. Here the indigenous people outside, the woman carrying the mestizo baby, are slave laborers or servants. A majority of what we see in this image is of Spanish culture. To me, this comes of as depicting how heavy the Spanish influence was. It was more of "you guys need to jump on board with what we are doing", not so much "let's mix", at this point.
Ross: This mural also portrays rows of black and Indian slave laborers in the background.
Fanny: That was also very distinctive in the 1600s when Bartolomé de las Casas - I always bring up in the classes - who is actually considered to be a saint in the Catholic church – he was an advocate for the indigenous people in Mexico. He was the one who started the idea to eliminate slavery in Mexico because indigenous people where being treated as slaves. He wrote letters to the king saying these are wonderful people. We should be able to treat these people as human. They deserve to be as equal to us.
Ross: Instead, what de las Casas proposed, was using the slave labor of Black African people. In other words, rather than enslaving the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, de las Casas pushed the Spanish to import slaves from Africans. To this day, some blame him for beginning the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Fanny: Just horrible. Horrible. It’s believed that on the ships with Cortés, were black people, but even more were introduced later in the 1600s because of this idea.
La Controverse de Valladolid, is a 1992 French film that portrays the debate that transpired in Europe during the Spanish Conquest among Catholic Church officials in regard to the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica and whether they had souls or could be treated as slaves.
Susan: I think what this all conveys was all the horrors of the Spanish Conquest, and the treatment of the people. The inhumanity. The power of the horses, the weapons. The cross. One thing that is so interesting is that you can just imagine what it was like when the Spanish came on those galleons. They (the indigenous people) had never seen anything coming from across the ocean. And they called these floating mountains. Just imagine looking up at someone and seeing not a person, but someone in armor… The indigenous people didn’t have metal. They had built all these cities without metal to cut things (they were using stone to cut stone). Seeing these people in full armor, shooting rifles, on horses which they’d never seen, coming on these ships, that they have never seen. Remember, in Europe, trade was so predominant. The Vikings were sailing all over and trading in 800. Mesoamerica was completely isolated. They have never seen anything like this. It must have been terrifying.
La Otra Conquista (1998), attempts to give an indigenous perspective of the conquest
Luis: And often in texts, they’ll mention the Aztecs thought Cortés and his men were gods. That has since been pretty much disproven, through scholars and research. But I definitely try to put myself in their position. How would you even process that? This thing I’ve never seen in my life. If something happened right now, one, I wouldn’t automatically assume they must be god. Two, where do we begin? Are they friend? Are they foe? Wow.
Ross: Diego Rivera's "The Arrival of Cortés" is in the National Palace of Mexico, in Mexico City. You can see an image of it on our website and home for this podcast. This discussion about whether the Spanish did anything positive for the Aztecs and indigenous peoples of Mexico often triggers lots of emotions. If you have strong feelings on the matter and care to comment, we want to hear from you. Go to our podcast page or our Facebook page and join the discussion.
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Thanks to our commentators Susan Vogel; Fanny Guadalupe Blauer; Luis Lopez; Episode produced and edited by Ross Chambless; Thanks to KCPW 88.3 FM for the studio space; Music credit: Joaquín Rodrigo, and from the 1998 film La Otra Conquista.This podcast is made possible thanks to Utah Humanities.
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