Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Decisive Battles: La Noche Triste 1520

First Tenochtitlan/"The Night of Sorrow" - Mexico City, Mexico Date: circa 30 JUN-1 JUL 1520Forces Engaged: Spanish Expedition of Hernándo Cortés - On the Night of Sorrows the Spanish force was divided into a number of smaller units. According to Bernal Diaz (see below), the Spanish organization consisted of:

Point Element: About 15 mounted troops including many of Cortés' and the Narváez mounted captains and 100 footsoldiers.

Main Body: At least five separate elements, including -
a. the central maneuver unit; about 100 footsoldiers, probably with mounted officers under Pedro de Sandoval
b. the baggage train; 150 soldiers and 450 Tlaxcalan native troops
c. the artillery train; 50 cannoneers and 200 Tlaxcalans with somewhere between 10 and 12 small cannon including the powder and shot.
d. the prisoner escort; 30 soldiers, 300 Tlaxcalans guarding important Mexica hostages including the daughters of the former Hueyi Tlatoani, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin.
e. the captive rival: roughly 1,000 troops, horse and foot, under the Spanish officer Pánfilo de Narváez, who had been ambushed and defeated by Cortés the previous month while en route to arrest the expeditionary leader for treason and disobedience to the Governor of Cuba.

Rearguard: Diaz says that "(t)he rear guard was composed of one hundred soldiers, mostly those of Narváez, and many cavalry (this was probably no more than 20-30 horsemen), under the command of Alvarado and Velasquez de Leon."

The Reaction Force: Cortés, at least 5-10 other mounted officers and 50 footsoldiers, "composed a reserve, to act wherever occasion should require." (Bernal Diaz)

Contemporary estimates approximately 1,300 Spanish soldiers and 2,000-4,000 Tlaxcalan native troops along with an unknown number (but probably several hundreds to one thousand total) of civilian servants, native porters, and Tlaxcalan families under the self-proclaimed Viceroy of New Spain, Hernándo (or Fernando) Cortés.

Imperial Aztec: Unknown, but a very large force, numbering probably in the tens of thousands of footsoldiers, many of them armed with both melee and projectile weapons. The names of the High General or Tlacochcalcatl and the Generals, or Tlācateccatli that night are not known. The overall war leader was the new Hueyi Tlatoani: Cuitláhuac.

So probably between 20,000 to 40,000 footsoldiers under several unknown commanders.

We should note here that the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan referred to themselves as Mexica Tenochca or Colhua-Mexica. "Aztec" is a Nahuatl word for the legendary origin of the Mexica, and the term is correctly applied only to the political union of the Mexica Tenochca with the Acolhuas of Texcoco and the Tepanecs of Tlacopan in the "Aztec Empire".

The Sources: As is the rule for most of the European imperial conquests of the Colonial Era we have little - nothing, really - that tells the Aztec/Mexica side of the tale. Several "codices" exist that were crafted by unknown Mexica scribes after the conquest was complete; the verity and originality - that is, the degree to which they tell the story of the native author and not the Spanish publisher - is questionable.

Possibly the single most influential source from the Aztec side is the so-called "Florentine Codex". This work was complied by the Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún in the 1540s thru 1569 from interviews and accounts of the Nahuatl speakers of the Tlatelolco area.The twelve books of the "Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España" includes a grammar and dictionary of Náhuatl. A manuscript copy, probably prepared by several of Fr. Bernardino's trilingual Nahua apprentices reached Italy in 1588. The library where it is kept is in Firenze (Florence) which is the origin of the name.

This work is also the basis of Miguel León-Portilla's "Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico", among the better modern secondary sources for the Conquest.

We have no other verifiable native sources. So here we have an extreme case of the victor writing the history.

From the Spanish side we have several accounts of the Noche Triste.

Perhaps the closest we have to an "official" version is contained in the five "Cartas de relación" written by Cortés himself.However, these letters should be read with caution; they represent the expedition commander's attempt to propagandize the King of Spain into supporting him as the sole Spanish viceroy of the lands his forces had or were attempting to subdue. Several critical events and issues are either slanted to favor Cortés, omitted, or so variant from historical evidence from other sources as to be highly suspicious. Dr. Nancy Fitch has observed:
"But during much of the conquest, Cortés’s letters could be interpreted as an attempt to justify his deliberate failure to obey Diego Velázquez de Cellar, the Spanish governor in Cuba, the sponsor of his expedition. The published first letter was, in fact, not Cortés’s original letter, but one revised by a committee with the deliberate intention of positively influencing Charles V."
Of the five, the first, as noted above, has been lost and, regardless, seems to have been dated in 1519. The fifth deals with an expedition to what is now Honduras in the mid 1520s. So the three cartas that deal with the battle on the night of 30 JUN/1JUL are the Second, dated October 30, 1520, the Third, dated May 15, 1522, and the Fourth, dated October 20, 1524. These letters are online in Spanish here, and are also accessible in English in several print volumes. Not surprisingly, Cortés gives few details about the engagement, perhaps the most damaging of the expedition and his only significant defeat.

Even less reliable is the work of Francisco López de Gómara, chaplain to Cortés in the 1540s and 50s, whose "Hispania Victrix; First and Second Parts of the General History of the Indies, with the whole discovery and notable things that have happened since they were acquired until the year 1551, with the conquest of Mexico and New Spain" is a work of hagiography that was violently criticized by contemporary conquistadors such as Diaz.

This author, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, never published his manuscript "Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España" (The True History of the Conquest of New Spain). It was discovered in a library in Madrid in the 1600s. Diaz has his flaws; he was a footsoldier, a "rodelero" or sword-and-buckler-man, and he seems to have idolized the Great Man. He also writes a lot about the details of the others of his acquaintance, which provides some fascinating detail but as a result his prose does not flow. But he has a soldier's eye for detail, and many historians consider Diaz the most accurate and reliable source for the Spanish side of the Conquest.

Although his account was applicable to the effects of the Conquest on the lands of modern Mexico, Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas never visited the lands of New Spain during his years in the Western hemisphere. So though it is a useful tonic to the heroic narratives of the conquest, his "Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias" (A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies) sheds no light on the events of late June/early July.

Several worthwhile secondary accounts of the Conquest exist. These include the volume I encountered that nearly everyone cites as the "classic" account; W.H. Prescott's three volume "History of the Conquest of Mexico". Out of print and reported (by Dr. Fitch) as extremely Eurocentric, not surprising for a work printed in 1873. Other worthwhile works include Matt Restall's "Maya Conquistador", which brings in some Maya sources and Hugh Thomas' "Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico", an excellent work of archival research.

The Conquest has been a rich vein for fiction, as well. Perhaps the most intriguing is Gary Jenning's "Aztec" which is replete with the most scandalous and appalling tales of war, politics, incest, human sacrifice...you name it, it's there. One thing to remember about Jennings, though; if you like a character, be sure he or she will die in the most horrible way possible.

For pure classic pulp, bodice-ripping, swashbuckling historical romance, you might try and find a secondhand copy of Sam Shellabarger's "Captain from Castile". Pure corn from the crib of the Hearty Imperialist school of fiction, full of villianous Aztecs, nubile and spirited girls, swordfights, suave but treacherous Dons, gentle friars, heroic conquerors, battles, rescues, and of course the noble Captain of the title. The book is a reminder of a different time when the good white people were born to rule the baser savages, but if you accept the faults it is entertaining for all that.

The film, despite the ornamentation of delicious Jean Peters (shown above with scrumptiously authentic 16th Century leg hair), is a complete turkey and should be avoided at all costs.

Consider yourself warned.

The Campaign: The causeway that led to the Noche Triste begins in the Spanish colony of Cuba in October of 1518. There the governor, Velázquez chose Hernándo (or Fernando; Cortés uses both spellings in contemprary documents. "Hernán" is a later abbreviation) Cortés to lead an expedition to trade with the coastal tribes of the landmass that had been first explored just the year before.

Cortés, though, conned Velázquez into inserting a clause into his orders that enabled Cortés to take "emergency measures" if such were "...in the true interests of the realm." Cortés' sailed in February 1518 with 11 ships, 530 soldiers (including 30 crossbowmen and 12 handgunners), at least eight women, a few hundred Cuban Indians and some African freedmen and slaves.Cortés spent the spring dicking around the Yucatán Peninsula, getting nowhere except in his encounter with the woman whom Cortés called Doña Marina, who is often known as Malinche, called by the Aztecs "Malintzin", and was probably born a Toltec or Tabascan noblewoman. She was sold as a slave to the newcomers, and though Cortés first handed her off to another of his officers he soon reclaimed her, both physically and organizationally.

Because, you see, Marina/Malinche gave him the key to the Azteca. She was both translator - he would speak to one of his troops, Gerónimo de Aguilar, in Spanish who would put the words to Malinche in Mayan, and she in turn would then translate from Mayan to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs - and advisor who knew how the natives of the Aztec Empire would respond to or anticipate his actions.Cortés' force finally came ashore near modern Veracruz in April, 1519. There he stumbled into the huge political opportunity that would eventually enable him to succeed in conquering the most powerful polity in native Central America.

The Aztecs weren't nice neighbors.Most of the Nahua polities outside the Aztec Empire proper were in one form or another pushed around by the Aztec. Whether in unfavorable trade, taxation, or in the peculiar guerrilla/low intensity/politico-religions "flowery wars" or xōchiyāōyōtl, the Aztecs had done little to endear themselves to either the Totonacs of the Veracruz region or the Tlaxcalans of the Sierra Madre Oriental. These peoples were more than willing to accept the help of the outsiders with the cool technology if it meant getting some licks on the Aztecs.

Starting from Tlaxcala in September the force, now augmented with between 1,000 to 4,000 native auxiliaries, fought its way up into the massif central and finally reached the Aztec/Mexica capital of Tenochtitlan on 8 NOV 1519. On the way they had taken time out to butcher much of the population of Cholula, the second largest city in preconquest Mesoamerica. There the Spanish killed many of the local "pili" - nobles - and fired the city. In the Cartes, Cortés says he slotted 3,000 in three hours; the details (how many were women or kiddies, whether the atrocity included rape and looting or was simple mass murder...) were not explained. Vazquez de Tapia was there too, and later said he thought they had killed more like 30,000.Three thousand or thirty thousand, Cholula terrorized the locals and the Spanish were able to walk into the Mexica capital without a fight. Moctezuma greeted the invaders with gifts, put them up in his dad's palace, set their weird gods up in the main temple pyramid, and was rewarded by being taken prisoner and used to extort an immense golden ransom from the people of Mexica.

From the remove of almost five centuries and without the testimony of the Aztec ruler or his confidantes it is hard to figure just what Moctezuma was doing and why. Certainly it seems that we can discard the canard of "Cortés = Quetzalcoatl" legend and the similar tales of Aztec portents of pale, bearded gods from over the sea. These do not appear in any of the contemporary sources outside of the Cartas, which are explicitly intended to present the Aztecs as gullible savages.

The Mexica emperor had a vast army, the Aztec was a martial society...why didn't the Hueyi Tlatoani send his army out to meet the Spanish? Even more peculiar - why did he, in effect, invite the Spaniards to become the military rulers of the Empire?

Did he hope to use these foreigners? Was his plan to co-opt the invaders, perhaps even to get them to marry into his imperial line? Did he hope that he could swallow up the newcomers once he had them immured inside Tenochtitlan? We will never know. Whatever plan Moctezuma had fell apart when he was captured and died with him. But the effect was to immobilize the Aztec Empire just when the invaders were most insecure and vulnerable.So at this point we have Cortés and his merry gang of freebooters lording it up in the Mexica palaces, all winter and into the spring, eating, drinking, and probably screwing everything that moved - at least their commander did siring a total of five kiddies by five different women, including Marina and at least two of the Aztec ruler's daughters; honestly, the man was like a fucking goat.

It must have seemed like an idyll to the invaders, expecting hard fighting and instead finding riches and ease. So by spring 1520 everything was sunshine and happy puppies until...a runner from the coast arrived with word that a much larger party of Spaniards under the command of Pánfilo de Narváez had arrived in Veracruz with orders from Governor Velázquez to arrest Cortés for insubordination, mutiny, and treason.

Well, fuck.

Cortés reacted immediately; he left 140 troopers under Pedro de Alvarado to hold the capital and took 260 to tackle Narváez, who had between 900 and 1,100. Cortés force-marched back to the coast, launched a night attack on 24 MAY, took Narváez prisoner and disarmed his men. When Cortés told the Narváez group about the gold, slaves, and (from ol' Hernando, anyway) all those compliant Aztec hoochie mamas they deserted their general and followed Cortés back to Tenochtitlan in a heartbeat.

But back at the ranch, not all was well. Alvarado, you see, had gone a little goofy surrounded by the Mexica. When some 600 to 1,000 of the upper classes assembled for a celebratory dance to honor Huitzilopochtli in the Patio of the Gods of the main temple Alvarado and about 80 or 90 soldiers attacked.

This massacre was so brutally unnecessary that even the other Spanish were chapped. Here's López de Gómara:

"The songs were sacred, and not profane, and were sung to praise the god honored in the festival, to induce him to provide water and grain, health, and victory, or to thank him for healthy children and other things."
"While the Mexica gentlemen were dancing in the temple yard of Vitcilopuchtli [Huitzilopochtli], Pedro de Alvarado went there. Whether on [the basis of] his own opinion or in an agreement decided by everyone, I don't know, but some say he had been warned that the Indian nobles of the city had assembled to plot the mutiny and the rebellion, which they later carried out; others, believe that [the Spaniards] went to watch them perform this famous and praised dance, and seeing how rich they were and wanting the gold the Indians were wearing, he [Alvarado] covered each of the entrances with ten or twelve Spaniards and went inside with more than fifty [Spaniards], and without remorse and lacking any Christian piety, they brutally stabbed and killed the Indians, and took what they were wearing."

Here's the Aztec account, from the Florentine Codex:
"At that moment, they then attacked all the people, stabbing them, spearing them, wounding them with their swords. They struck some from behind, who fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out [of their bodies]. They cut off the heads of some and smashed the heads of others into little pieces."
"They struck others in the shoulders and tore their arms from their bodies. They struck some in the thighs and some in the calves. They slashed others in the abdomen and their entrails fell to the earth. There were some who even ran in vain, but their bowels spilled as they ran; they seemed to get their feet entangled with their own entrails. Eager to flee, they found nowhere to go. Some tried to escape, but the Spaniards murdered them at the gates while they laughed. Others climbed the walls, but they could not save themselves. Others entered the communal house, where they were safe for a while. Others lay down among the victims and pretended to be dead. But if they stood up again they [the Spaniards] would see them and kill them."
Whatever the reason for the butchery, when the newly combined groups of Spanish returned to the city they found not a resort full of food, gold, and easy women but an angry mob led by thousands of Aztec soldiers.

The Aztecs chose a new leader, Cuitláhuac; Cortés tried to restore the old order by getting Moctezuma address the crowd - he was jeered, stoned, and died within several days, whether from misery and his injuries or murdered by the Spanish, who had no more need for him we don't know. The Spanish found themselves besieged in their former guesthouse, and fought several major engagements, including a bloody sally into the main religious enclosure and an attack on the great temple pyramids.But by late in June things were getting desperate. The food inside the palace was running low, the powder as well, and given the overwhelming odds once the fighting became hand-to-hand it would be all over - the only hope was to break out. Diaz says that this was preceded by a bit of Spanish maskirova; Cortés attempted to mislead the Aztec leadership into the time of the maneuver:
"...it was determined by Cortes and all of the officers and soldiers, to quit the city during the night, as we hoped at that time to find the enemy less alert, in order to put them the more off their guard, we sent a message by a chief priest, informing them, that if we were permitted to quit the city unmolested within the space of eight days, we would surrender all the gold which was in our possession."

The Engagement: The plan was that the expeditionary force would march out near midnight west, toward the Tlacopan causeway which is said to have been unguarded. Given the events of the night this is unlikely; it is more probable that the Mexica troops were bivouacked nearby with observation posts concealed in buildings overlooking the causeway emplaced to give warning if the invaders sallied.

It is likely that the bridging equipment lead the march so that the 16th Century Bailey Bridge could be placed across the first gap in the causeway (the Aztec troops having raised or broken the drawbridges normally in place) and the Spanish force cross over to the next stretch of causway, the bridge then moved up past the waiting force to the next gap.

This operation, conducted at night, by an unrehearsed force, would have been difficult even without armed opposition. But as it happened the opposition was not long in coming. Diaz tells the story:
"A little before midnight the detachment which took charge of the portable bridge let out upon its march, and arriving at the first canal or aperture of water, it was thrown across. The night was dark and misty, and it began to rain. The bridge being fixed, the baggage, artillery, and some of the cavalry passed over it, as also the Tlascalans with the gold. Sandoval and those with him passed, also Cortes and his party after the first, and many other soldiers.
At this moment the trumpets and shouts of the enemy were heard, and the alarm was given by them, crying out, “Taltelulco, Taltelulco, out with your canoes! the Teules are going, attack them at the bridges.” In an instant the enemy were upon us by land, and the lake and canals were covered with canoes. They immediately flew to the bridges, and fell on us there, so that they entirely intercepted our line of march."
So much for "unguarded".

As with any military operation, whatever could go wrong did, and in this case early in the march. Diaz again:
"As misfortunes do not come single, it also rained so heavily that some of the horses were terrifyed, and growing restive fell into the water, and the bridge was broken in at the same time. The enemy attacked us here now with redoubled fury, and our soldiers making a stout refinance, the aperture of water was soon filled with the dead and dying men, and horses, and those who were struggling to escape; all heaped together, with artillery, packs, and bales of baggage, and those who carried them. Many were drowned here, and many put into the canoes and carried off for sacrifice. It was dreadful to hear the cries of the unfortunate sufferers, calling for assistance and invoking the Holy Virgin or St. Jago, while others who escaped by swimming, or by clambering upon the chests, bales of baggage, and dead bodies, earnestly begged for help to get up to the causeway. Many who on their reaching the ground thought themselves safe, were there seized or knocked in the head with clubs."
The march discipline fell apart; neither surprising nor a reflection on Spanish soldiering. From German forests to Korean mountains, being attacked in column in a restricted defile is perhaps the deadliest of all military positions for the defender.

The march column cannot maneuver, elements cannot support one another, while all are exposed to the the attacker's full force. There is no advantage of "interior lines", rather, it is the attacker who can move and attack more nimbly than the defender can adjust, if indeed they can respond at all. The causeway almost completely negated the Spanish cavalry, which could use neither height nor the mass, without lances unable to reach the warriors around them and unable to move beyond a walk and generate the momentum needed to knock their enemies over; the horsemen were a liability on the causeway in the dark.Add to this the rain, which neutralized the gunpowder weapons, the darkness, the failure of the mobile bridge, and the unfamiliarity of the Narváez group with Cortés' original troops, it is a tribute to the sheer fighting ferocity of the Spaniards that they managed any resistence at all.

But things did fall apart at the end. Here's Diaz on the last moments of many of the expedition:
"Away went whatever regularity had been in the march at first; for Cortes and the captains and soldiers who were mounted clapt spurs to their horses and gallopped off, along the causeway; nor can I blame them, for the cavalry could do nothing against the enemy, of any effect; for when they attacked them, the latter threw themselves into the water on each side the causeway, and others from the houses with arrows, or on the ground with large lances, killed the horses. It is evident we could make no battle with them in the water, and without powder, and in the night, what else could we do than what we did; which was, to join in bodies of thirty or forty soldiers, and when the Indians closed upon us, to drive them off with a few cuts and thrusts of our swords, and then hurry on, to get over the causeway as soon as we could. As to waiting for one another, that would have lost us all; and had it happened in the day time, things would have been even worse with us."
If you think about it for a moment you can almost picture what it must have been like; the march beginning with the fugitives a combination of fearful haste and frantic stealth, the confusion of the march column, then the alarms, the bridge failing, and then the arrows, spears and slingstones hissing out of the darkness and the boats full of warriors emerging from the curtains of rain.

I can't imagine which would have been worse; to have been in the part of the column attacked - men shouting and screaming, fighting, dying, horses shrieking, the orderly march dissolving into knots of struggling people - or to have been in the parts still waiting for the Mexica, hearing the sounds, clutching their weapons and staring into the rain and the night, trying to see the vast army all around them before they, too, were faced with their death rising out of the lake.It is difficult to know how many died, on the wet stones or in the bloody waters of Lake Texcoco that night. Diaz says that when the force made the shore of the lake near Tacuba Cortes took a small reaction force and turned back to see if he could rescue any of his troops. Just a short distance back down the causeway...
"...they met P. de Alvarado with his lance in his hand, badly wounded, and on foot, for his chesnut mare had been killed; he had with him three of our soldiers, and four of those of Narvaez, all badly wounded, and eight Tlascalans covered with blood." (Diaz)
Remember that Alvarado was the commander of the trail element; about 100 footsoldiers and as many as 30 horsemen. So by this point the rearguard had lost 93 out of 100 infantry, all the cavalry save Alvarado himself, and had managed to pick up a handful of loose Tlaxscalan survivors from the main element.

The fight wasn't over yet, either.

The Aztec pursuit continued through the following day and night as the Spanish rounded the west and then the north end of the lake, with harassing attacks picking off men and horses here and there. Finally the Spanish closed up at a place called Otumba, where they drove off a substantial Aztec force, killing its commander, and with that reminder of Spanish ferocity managed to secure some additional space to conduct a retreat to Tlaxcala.Diaz says of the losses of the Sorrowful Night and the battles that followed; "In five days were killed and sacrificed upwards of eight hundred and seventy soldiers, including seventy two of those of Narvaez put to death together with five Castilian women, in a place named Tustepeque. One thousand two hundred and upwards of our allies of Tlascala were also killed."

The Outcome: Decisive Aztec tactical victory

The Impact: Here's the thing I think when I consider the Sorrowful Night.

If ever there was a chance for the indigenous people of the Western hemisphere to have a chance to crush the invaders from across the eastern sea, it was there; that place, that night, that endless nightmare of a killing chute along the causeway to Tacloban when the maquahuitli came whirling out of the night and rain, when Spaniards and Tlaxcalans, men and women, died under the hail of spears, arrows, and slingstones.

That night in July 1520 the Mexica had all the advantages the native defenders would ever have; the rain and the causeway removed the advantages the Spanish got from their horsemen and their gunners. It was down to handstrokes, muscle and bone and steel against muscle and bone and volcanic glass, down to two nations ripe with bloodyhanded, violent men who both wanted the same thing; power.And in the end the Mexica couldn't finish the killing job, couldn't destroy the invaders.

Cortes and his core of hard men rode out of the end of the stone road, into another day of killing, and another, and another. The brilliant politician-soldier used the hatred the Aztec had laid for themselves, death by death, war by war, among their neighbors, until a year later he stood on the causeway again, regarding the enormous tomb that had been the city that had driven him out that night to weep under the ahuehuete treewith his Marina beside him for all those comrades, friends, and lovers ripped apart, dead and dying on the rain-sheeted stones or in the bloody waters of the lake behind him.

No, the decisiveness of the Noche Triste is in what it shows was just not possible; the inhabitants of the American mainland could not, bar a political, military, or immunological miracle, have resisted the European Conquest. As the Sorrowful Night, so every other attempt to resist the invaders, from "Anglo-Powhatan Wars" in Virgina to "King Philip's War" in Massachussetts

And from there to the open gates of the massive charnel house that was native America for the next 400 years was but the shortest of marches.

As short as the distance along the causeway from Tenochtitlan to Tacloban.

Some last thoughts on the Conquest: I wrote this post because of the recent passage of the 518th year since the arrival on America of the first of these invaders, Columbus and his crew. It has become fashionable to condemn Columbus, and in many, many ways he is, as both a man and a symbol of his class, culture, and times, utterly condemnable. He was a bad navigator, a poor administrator, and a callous slaver. It is understandable that a compassionate modern American might feel inclined to wish Columbus and his works to fuck off to hell.And in modern terms there IS no excuse for Columbus; he ushered in the frightfulness that was the Colonial Era, and would have done it again if he had known what he was going to do to the native population of the Americas; he was a man of his times, after all.

But in a sense, to blame Columbus the Man is to fail to grasp the real frightfulness of Columbus the Admiral of the Ocean Sea.

Because if Columbus had never been born someone else would have stood on that beach on San Salvador.

As with Columbus, Cortés. Had Cortés never been, another man like him, with his dreams of conquest and empire, would have stood up from under that tree near Tacuba to ride away and return to destroy the Aztec world.

While it is true that men and women make history, history as often makes the men and women it needs. The times and tides of history were mounting against the native peoples of the Americas that night. The battered Spanish and Tlaxcalan fugitives running through the Sorrowful Night were but the first spindrift, the almost imperceptible, feather-light spume of foam from the immense, implacable, ruthless European wave rising from the ocean behind them, a wave that would curl overhead and smash down in a surf of steel and fire and wash everything away in a rushing tide of blood.

There can be no question that the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and the European conquest of the Americans, was a tragedy for the people who lived here prior to 1492. But it's hard to untangle the past tragedy from the present.And finding a middle ground is frightfully difficult.

Take Doña Marina, La Malinche, born to the old world and yet the lover, companion, and mother of the new.

Many Mexicans consider her a sort of mother of their country, the mother of the admixture of Spanish and native American that is Mexico today.

But it is instructive to note that many others use the term "malinchista" (from La Malinche) to curse someone who is "un-Mexican", who despises their own culture. She is also sometimes referred to as "La Chingada", "The Fucked One", the implication obviously being that she, her son, and mestizo culture they stand for are the product not of love and cooperation but of rape - the rape of an entire world.

Perhaps its only if we take the long view that we can see the Conquest as just part of the history of the New World, and see the frightfulness of what was balanced by the fruitfulness of what is.

But to to that you have to look past a long, dark Sorrowful Night full of rain.

Touchline Tattles: One of the most peculiar and intriguing images to come out of the fusion of cultures that came about because the Spanish invaders survived La Noche Triste is called in Mexico "La mujer dormida"; "The sleeping woman".

She is always depicted as young and beautiful, and lying unconscious, typically draped in clinging gossamer that serves to emphasizes her feminine oomphyness. At her feet, or sometimes holding her in his arms is a picture-postcard Aztec warrior or chief, usually either looking upwards in supplication or down in grief.This image is one of the most common of the "Mexican" pictures painted on the walls of taquerias and torta places from Maine to Madagascar, as far as I can tell. You see it everywhere.

Supposedly it's some sort of legend about the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl; the latter was a beautiful girl who loved an Aztec warrior and died of grief when she was maliciously told he had died in combat. He then returned, carried his love's body into the mountains where he ordered his warriors to build a funeral table with flowers and he put her on the top. There he knelt down to watch over her and died of grief as well.

I see this melodramatic image and think; Mexico has this rich, dramatic history full of adventure, romance, war, heroism, tragedy, betrayal...some of the greatest true stories in the world. And what do you pick to represent your height of romantic tragedy?

A hokey "legend" portrayed in pin-up images.

Let's face it. Nothing ever sells like a melodrama with a muscular hunk and a girl in scanty drapery. Spaniard, Aztec, or gringo, we all love our melodrama.


Don Francisco said...

Cracking read as always chief, keep them coming!

Anonymous said...

Loved this. Thanks for the read.

Alicia Renee said...

Just curious where you got the photograph of the woman in the section about La Malinche. I'm doing a research paper on La Malinche in contemporary art and would really love to know if that specific image is the artist's interpretation of La Malinche and where I could find it.

Thanks so much!

FDChief said...

Alicia: I think I just google-searched "La Malinche" and she popped up. I liked the image because she DOES sort of look like the way you'd picture the woman of the stories, but I honestly don't remember the original source. I'm sorry...