History or Destiny? Mexico

By Leon Portilla, Miguel | UNESCO Courier, April 1990 | Go to article overview

History or Destiny? Mexico


Leon Portilla, Miguel, UNESCO Courier


HISTORY OR DESTINY?

MEXICANS have always exhibited an obstinate determination to safeguard the memory of the major events that have marked their society and this has coloured the way in which they view their identity and destiny. From pre-Columbian times they have been engaged in a continuous battle to save their history from oblivion. Knowledge of the past was the foundation on which their priests and diviners based their astronomic calculations and their predictions of the future. Countless archaeological remains from the two thousand years before the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519 bear witness to the Mexican desire to interpret and record the history of gods and man. The stelae known as danzantes ("dancers") at Monte Alban in the Oaxaca valley, on which are inscribed a record of the passing days and years, place-names and the names of kings and other notables, constitute the oldest known chronicle (600 to 300 BC) of the New World.

The people, or rather peoples, who succeeded one another on Mexican soil met with mixed fortunes. Bursts of creativity were punctuated by times of crisis and war which even led to the abrupt disappearance of entire populations and civilizations. The memory of these events lives on in the thousands of inscriptions and the legends of oral tradition.

The greatest and most tragic clash of cultures in pre-Columbian civilization was recorded by some of those who took part in the conquest of Mexico. Hernan Cortes himself sent five remarkable letters (Cartas de Relacion) back to Spain between 1519 and 1526; and the soldier-chronicler Bernal Diaz del Castillo (c. 1492-1580), who served under Cortes, fifty years after the event wrote his Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva Espana ("True History of the Conquest of New Spain"). The vanquished peoples also left written records. A manuscript dated 1528, now in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, recounts in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, the traumatic fate of the Indians:

All this happened literally before our eyes; we were aghast and filled with anguish at the piteous fate which was ours. Broken spears lay strewn about the ground, men on horseback were everywhere, our houses were roofless and their walls were red [with blood]. The water was red also, as if it had been dyed, and when we drank it, it had a brackish taste. We beat our fists against the mud walls at the sight of our heritage lying in tatters. We sought protection behind our shields but no shield could protect us in our isolation...

The beginning of a new history

This evocation of the tragic fall of the ancient capital of Mexico contrasts with Bernal Diaz' equally astonishing description of the city as it appeared to the conquistadors on their arrival:

We saw the three causeways that led into Mexico... We saw the fresh water which came from Chapultepec to supply the city.... We saw too that one could not pass from one house to another of that great city and the other cities that were built on the water except over wooden drawbridges.... We saw cues and shrines in these cities that looked like gleaming white towers and castles: a marvellous sight.... We turned back to the great market and the swarm of people buying and selling.... Some of our soldiers who had been in many parts of the world, in Constantinople, in Rome, and all over Italy, said that they had never seen a market so well laid out, so large, so orderly, and so full of people.(*)

These accounts, from the vanquished and the victorious, record the passing of ancient splendours and herald the emergence of a new destiny. How then can Mexicans, as they search for their identity, ignore the shcok of this encounter between two peoples, which gave rise to so much discord yet from which their mixed culture was born?

There are hundreds of chronicles of "New Spain", covering three centuries of history. Their authors wished to record the upheavals they were witnessing.

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