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Article suitable for older students

Scenes from a Mexicolore performance on the Spanish and Aztecs at Walsingham School 1982

Ideas for DRAMA...

The Spanish Conquest of the Mexica (Aztecs) was not only one of the most dramatic turning points in world history, but is today a gift for teachers in terms of material for simple re-enactment and debate in schools. At Mexicolore we’ve been doing this sort of thing for over three decades - the photos (right) show scenes (top: Doña Marina alongside Cortés, bottom: Aztec dancers) from a performance on these themes at Walsingham School, south London back in July 1982! Allow us to give you some ideas for sharpening the focus somewhat...

Pic 1: Moctezuma II, Doña Marina and Cortés
Pic 1: Moctezuma II, Doña Marina and Cortés (Click on image to enlarge)

An obvious starting point is the legendary meeting between Hernán Cortés and Moctezuma II, the mother of all culture clashes and an ideal model for discussing ‘Hero or Villain’? Indeed, we reported some time ago on one primary school in Hampshire that organised a ‘mock trial’ for both protagonists which ended up involving children, parents and governors in a veritable ‘community of enquiry’ (find out more in our ‘Ideas for project work’ (link below). Some key points -

• What were the Spanish really after?
• Should Cortés have disobeyed orders from his superiors in Cuba?
• Should Cortés have burned his boats (‘no going back’)?
• The little known but pivotal role of Doña Marina as interpreter
• The (discredited) myth that the Aztecs thought Cortés a god
• The early gifts sent from M to C to encourage him to go away
• The omens predicting disaster for the Aztecs
• The ambivalent attitude taken by M towards the Spanish, first inviting them into Tenochtitlan as honoured guests
• Who killed M and why?
• ‘The Sad Night’ when the Spanish tried to escape Tenochtitlan loaded with loot, after massacring many Aztecs at a festival
• The role of a) smallpox and b) Spanish alliances with enemies of the Aztecs in hastening the latter’s defeat
• The contrasting military tactics and weaponry of both sides
• The contrasting religious beliefs of both sides...

You can bone up on some of the above by following the links below...

Pic 2: There’s two sides to every story...
Pic 2: There’s two sides to every story... (Click on image to enlarge)

Then comes the vexed question of Whose version of history is the ‘true’ one? The Conquistadors had good reason to use plenty of gloss and, in modern parlance, ‘spin’ to justify their conquest of Mexico (and, further south, of Peru) to a sceptical Spanish Crown and State. Many in Spain were jealous of Cortés and he was eventually to die wealthy but embittered, following dispute after dispute back home. For many years historians relied heavily on Spanish chronicles written some time after the Conquest. Then came La Visión de los Vencidos (‘Vision of the Vanquished’), Miguel León-Portilla’s classic book (first published in Spanish in 1959) which told the story of the Conquest for the first time from the Aztec point of view. Some points:-
• Without a doubt the Spanish deliberately exaggerated the numbers of human sacrifices carried out by the Aztecs
• They also went out of their way to paint the Aztecs as savages. Here’s what Cortés’s chaplain/secretary wrote later:-
The Spaniards gave beasts of burden to relieve the natives of drudgery... meat to eat which they lacked before. The Spaniards showed them the use of iron and oil lamps to improve their ways of living... they taught them Latin and other subjects which are worth a lot more than all the silver taken from them... It was to their benefit to be conquered and, even more, to become Christians.

Pic 3: Torching of Aztec books by Spanish friars
Pic 3: Torching of Aztec books by Spanish friars (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztec view on all this was of course diametrically opposite:-
How much blood was shed? It was our fathers’ blood! And what for? Why was it done? Learn it once and for all: because they [the Spanish] want to impose themselves upon us, because they are utterly gold hungry, voracious of what belongs to others: our chiefdoms, our revered women and daughters, and our lands.

One of the most symbolic and deadly actions of the Spanish after the Conquest was that of mass book burning. Of all the - in all likelihood thousands of - books produced in pre-Hispanic times, less than 20 now survive, the vast majority now housed in museums and libraries in Europe. Spanish friars spent, some say, 3 days and nights in a frenzy of destruction. Not that they understood what they were burning, they were simply blinded by the idea that the quickest way to get rid of Aztec gods was to get rid of IMAGES of Aztec gods. The Aztecs worshipped over 100, the Spaniards only 1 - and it had to be the ‘true’ one. DISCUSS...!

Pic 4: Legacy of inequality: scenes from a drama project on land ownership in Mexico after the Conquest. Brookmans Park Primary School, Herts., 1984
Pic 4: Legacy of inequality: scenes from a drama project on land ownership in Mexico after the Conquest. Brookmans Park Primary School, Herts., 1984 (Click on image to enlarge)

Heavy stuff! Luckily, some of your colleagues have digested some of the above and put it into teacher-ready material! One of the best we’ve come across so far is Cortes and the Aztecs (Drama) by Dom Murphy (we worked in his school many years ago!), downloadable from the website (link below). BTW, if you’re browsing through the other resources listed, we can ONLY recommend the ones by Carolyn Bluck, Aimi Sawyer, and of course Dom Murphy.
Give it a go, and tell us how you get on...!

Picture sources:-
• Top b/w photos: by John Goldblatt/Mexicolore
• Pic 1: screen mural (detail) by Roberto Cueva del Río; photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: detail of mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City; photo by Graciela Sánchez/Mexicolore
• Pic 3: Image from Diego Muñoz Camargo, Descripción de la ciudad y provincia de Tlaxcala, Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 242, folio 242r) courtesy of the Special Collections Department, Library, University of Glasgow
• Pic 4: Mexicolore archives.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 02nd 2013

‘Ideas for project work’

Our double feature on Doña Marina

‘How long did it take the Aztecs to realise that Cortés was not a god? ‘

‘Bad omens!’

‘What happened straight after Moctezuma’s death?’ Ancient Egypt & The Aztecs
The Historical Association has an interesting resource for older students on using (Mexica) poetry to confront stereotyped attitudes towards the Aztecs...
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