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Nahua Women and the Spanish Conquest

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Sarah Swan, in Australia: How did Aztec women react to the Conquistadors? (Answered by Julia Flood/Mexicolore)

The Spanish advance. Florentine Codex, Book XII
The Spanish advance. Florentine Codex, Book XII

Accounts of the conquest of Mexico have been based mainly upon the movements and actions of the Spanish and indigenous armies that fought each other from 1519 to 1521. From these narratives have sprouted testimonies of Spanish negotiations with tribal lords, battles, the securing of food and water, descriptions of Aztec towns and villages, sacrifice, and the treasure gained through either plundering or diplomacy. These tense times resulted in many women becoming bargaining tools or bearers and makers of the Spanish army’s food. They often appeared in lists. Hernán Cortés described a typical occurrence as a native lord presented him with “chicken, plums, tortillas, water and women”.
Women were also presented to captains and officers as wives - a means of securing faithful relationships between the Spanish and native realms. Naturally, the Spanish followed these Mesoamerican customs, allowing women to prepare their food, receiving them as slaves, or accepting them as spouses, whilst they were not in a position to do otherwise. Nevertheless, we know that power has also been secured all over the world through marriage alliances.

The Spanish advance, Florentine Codex, Book XII
The Spanish advance, Florentine Codex, Book XII

The Conquest
The terrible social chaos caused by the conquest showed great aggression towards Aztec women. Although rape and plunder seem to have always been the companions of war, it is important to note that the central highlands had not seen such wide-scale and all-inclusive conflict at one time.
A Spanish soldier, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, recounted how, when attacking villages or cities, women were ‘taken’ by him or his Spanish companions. He recalled how sorry he felt when particularly brutal men mistreated some of them. It is also important to remember that the Spanish army, at its peak, numbered thousands of men. Native warriors such as the Tlaxcalans were also guilty of attacking Aztec women.

Cortés, Florentine Codex Book XII
Cortés, Florentine Codex Book XII

Respect for one’s elders
Nahua society lived by a myriad of social and ethical rules just like the sixteenth century Spanish did. One of their most important cultural customs was the worship of their ancestors. A Nahua must be honourable and good so that he or she could give their future generations a strong reputation and standing in society, as well as to uphold the dignity and past good estimation of their ancestors. Many codices, such as the Florentine Codex, speak on the theme of honouring one’s ancestors.
Many women who had been taken away from their families during the wars of the conquest felt that they had shamed their ancestors and loved ones and chose not to return to them, sometimes preferring suicide to acquainting their families with their shame.

Chalchiuhtlicue, Codex Tudela
Chalchiuhtlicue, Codex Tudela

One might say that the conquest had a great impact on those Nahua women who were unfortunate enough to be separated from their families by the Spanish and their allies.br Other women lost their husbands and sons in battle and were therefore unable to maintain the equilibrium of household and farming duties needed to keep food on the table. The loss of this simple infrastructure cast many of them into abject poverty. They may have even lost their homes or fallen ill. A Spanish soldier, member of a later fleet send to Mexico under the control of Captain Narváez, brought the smallpox virus to Mexico when he landed in Veracruz. Smallpox epidemics soon started to kill a large portion of the Mexican population and even preceded the conquistadors into South America. The emperor Cuitláhuac, for example, died from smallpox just a few months after he rose to power in 1520.

Baptism, Lienzo de Tlaxcala
Baptism, Lienzo de Tlaxcala

Women during the colonial period
The colonial period marked a new and perhaps more traumatic chapter in the relationship between Nahua women and the Spanish. The evangelising that took place once the conquest of Mexico City was over in 1521, was intense and denied women access to many of their former customs. Catholicism and Nahua moral beliefs roughly coincided in the moral duties of women regarding the sin of adultery, their permanent place as keepers of the home, and their need to preserve their sexual honour and reputation in general.br Catholicism would not allow either men or women to continue their worship of Aztec deities. All pre-Hispanic religious ceremonies and festivities that rejoiced the harvest, earth and femininity ceased. Some investigators believe that Catholicism aimed at rejecting womanliness and forced women to hide their femininity because it was tempting to men.

Malinche and Cortés, Codex Tlaxcala
Malinche and Cortés, Codex Tlaxcala

Pre-conquest Mexico was a place where equilibrium between extremes was important. Women’s sexuality was represented in art and books as equally as that of males. Equal importance was also laid upon respectable women and men not to be promiscuous. They thought that balanced measures of sex and chastity made a healthy balance.

Malinche interprets for Cortés and Moctezuma II - detail, folding-screen mural by Roberto Cueva del Río
Malinche interprets for Cortés and Moctezuma II - detail, folding-screen mural by Roberto Cueva del Río (Click on image to enlarge)

Coming Soon... La Malinche
One of Mexican history’s most controversial characters played an important role in the conquest. A daughter of provincial nobles, and present to Cortés from the native people of Tabasco, La Malinche was a woman without whom Spanish plots might have had a very different outcome.
We will soon be exploring the remarkable deeds of this interpreter, negotiator and mistress.

Sources
• Cortés, Hernán, “Cartas de Relación”, México DF, Porrúa, 1963.
• Díaz del Castillo, Bernal, “Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España”, Sepan Cuantos, Porrúa, Mexico City, Mexico, 2002.
• Mártir de Anglería, Pedro, “Decadas del Nuevo Mundo”. 1era ed., México DF, Porrúa, 1964.
• Sahagún, Fray Bernadino de “Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España”, Prologue by Angel María Garibay, 6th edition, Editorial Porrúa, 1985, Mexico City, Mexico.

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