To Understand Aztecs, Listen to Them

Have we who study Indigenous languages only succeeded in making things worse? And if this has happened, is there any way out?

In an 1849 painting entitled The Conquest of the Teocalli Temple by Cortés and His Troops, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze depicts the Spaniards fighting for their lives against (or in one case, being skewered by) the ferociously battling Aztecs, who wear the most gorgeous of outfits. This highly dramatic 19th-century painting well represents the message of the book for which it now serves as the cover. Stefan Rinke’s Conquistadors and Aztecs: A History of the Fall of Tenochtitlan tries to bring the story of the conquest of Mexico out of the realm of fantasy and into the real world. Rinke argues that we should neither lionize nor belittle the Spaniards. They, after all, were just doing the best they could in the circumstances in which they found themselves. Rinke’s book reminds us too that the Indigenous also had significant power, a fact that was never lost on the Spaniards, who made their decisions accordingly.

Still, I wondered why Rinke’s cover made me shiver slightly. Then I looked more closely. On the left side, the European faces are real—probably modeled on human beings whom the artist knew—showing a range of feelings. On the right side, however, the Indigenous faces are all literally the same face, repeated multiple times. The ferocious, almost-mad eyes bulge; the arms are all raised to bring down a deadly weapon.

The Aztecs depicted in this painting, and on this book’s cover, do not come across as real. Sadly, neither do the Indigenous figures that appear in Rinke’s pages.

I began to read Conquistadors and Aztecs with alacrity. Gradually I became uncomfortable, and then finally distressed. At the outset, Rinke set himself the laudable task of writing a full and honest account of the Spaniards’ conquest of Mexico, different from those that have come before. He promised to engage with the rich, still relatively new literature about the Indigenous, based on Indigenous-language sources and reckoning with Indigenous perspectives. He wanted to use the new material not to condemn the Spaniards, he explained, but to knock them off their still-existing pedestals, to understand them better, to better comprehend what happened overall, and to learn how they were able to attain their victory.

However, Rinke demonstrates repeatedly that, even though he has read materials by ethnohistorians (colleagues specializing in Indigenous sources), he remains unmoved by what they have to say. Laying aside what these Indigenous works tell us, Rinke instead relies on scholars who themselves rely on what the Spaniards insisted was true. For example: toward the end of a typically old-fashioned presentation of the Aztecs as all being motivated by the demands of the gods for human flesh, I found a sentence that is nonsense from start to finish: “The sun god Huitzilopochtli, for example, needed the blood of the sacrificed as food in order to successfully wage his daily struggle against the night.”

The Aztecs depicted in this painting, and on this book’s cover, do not come across as real. Sadly, neither do the Indigenous figures that appear in Rinke’s pages.

Where, I wondered, had Rinke gotten such stuff? (According to Aztec-language sources, Huitzilopochtli was not the sun god, and there was no daily struggle against the night.) I followed his footnotes to two scholars, one known for his imaginative (totally inaccurate) translations of Nahuatl (the Aztec language) and one who has no Nahuatl whatsoever.

I kept reading, hoping for better things. Previously, it was accepted that Moctezuma and his people perceived Cortés to be the god Quetzalcoatl. But that assertion has no basis, according to recent ethnohistorians, who have found no evidence of it in early Indigenous-language sources.

Rinke dutifully covers these debates, but then promptly ignores what scholars working from Indigenous sources have had to say. All these people, he claims, are wrong to have concluded that the Europeans invented the notion. He feels sure of this because Spaniards repeatedly declared themselves to have been envisioned as divine, and the Indigenous repeatedly brought gifts that seemed to the Spaniards to be intended for gods. “The notion of the return of the ruler and god Quetzalcoatl must therefore be viewed as an authentic Mesoamerican tradition,” he quickly concludes.

Deep down, I began to worry. Have we who study Indigenous languages only succeeded in making things worse? Are we now living in a world in which other historians are aware of Indigenous sources and have even read some treatments of them, but proceed with even greater license to maintain older views?

And if this has happened, is there any way out?

Rinke has brought into the world a grand new synthetic study of the Spanish conquest of Aztec Mexico. And it is true that we have been waiting for one. After all, it has now been thirty years since the 1993 publication of Hugh Thomas’s Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico, and academia has changed a great deal in the interim.

Rinke is delightfully honest about the fact that his focus is not on the Indigenous but rather on the Europeans who ultimately conquered. And he is more than right to eschew the all-too-common desire to either glorify or condemn the Europeans:

Today, we know that Hernán Cortés was not the all-conquering hero he made himself out to be in his written reports to the [Holy Roman] emperor and as the many later chroniclers reverentially described him. But neither was he the devil who more or less single-handedly destroyed a flourishing culture. One of the aims of this book is to dispel such myths. Its focus will not just be on the conquistador Cortés, but on the conquistadors generally.

As I am a professor of Native American history who specializes in the Nahuatl-language sources, some might naturally imagine that I would object to such a focus. But I most emphatically do not.

Indeed, I personally have felt the desire to know more about the conquistadors. I had better be interested in them. My great-grandparents were among the Swedish settlers who displaced the Dakota Sioux from Minnesota. I was raised with an awareness that the immigrants’ stories were complicated and often painful. My five-year-old great-grandfather watched as his mother’s body was thrown overboard after she died on the ship. Yet this vulnerable child grew up to be merciless in his hunt for land that had only recently been taken from somebody else. That fact had always been something of a puzzle to me.

Moreover, for teaching purposes, we certainly need books that present people on both sides as real human beings and that resist all myths, whether positive or negative. For instance, my students eagerly condemn 16th- and 17th-century Spaniards, yet are often strikingly ignorant of the ways the Anglo founders of the future United States were profoundly similar to the Iberians. It is always news to them, for instance, that friends and relatives of the Massachusetts colonizers founded another Puritan settlement on an island off the coast of today’s Nicaragua—and there they purchased enslaved Africans and forced them to plant and harvest tobacco. The radical equality of all souls before God quite went out the window when there were large fortunes to be made.1

Likewise, whenever I speak about my work with Nahuatl texts to general audiences, my listeners often seem more than a little bemused when I pause to explain that it is thanks to the efforts of some passionately dedicated and deeply thoughtful Spaniards that we have such texts at all. (The Indigenous youths learned the Roman alphabet from Franciscan friars, then took it home to transcribe the traditional oral performances of their elders.)

So notwithstanding my position as a scholar of the Aztecs, I turned to Rinke’s book with genuine eagerness. I wanted him to study the Europeans while holding on to a new respect for and understanding of the Indigenous. That, unfortunately, is hardly what I found.

In the final pages, Rinke confronts the issue that has haunted the book throughout: the reasons that the Europeans were able to triumph.

To his credit, we might say, he has carefully deconstructed the notion that Europeans were in any way actually superior. Presumably this is why he has avoided engaging with the technological differences between the two cultures, apparently assuming (as many wrongly do) that this would be tantamount to an admission of an intellectual difference.

Yet the simple fact is that Renaissance Europe did have a profound technological advantage born of a 10,000-year head start in farming. It was an advantage that the Indigenous themselves wrote about quite bluntly in the 16th century. In turning away from such facts, Rinke finds himself without good explanations to offer. In the end, he opts to explain European victory and Indigenous catastrophe as the result of “the structural instability of the Mesoamerican world of city-states.” Recognizing that some readers might, in turn, ask for an explanation for that structural instability, he adds: “The decisive factor was that none of these allied altepeme [communities]—whether Tlaxcala or Texcoco or the many others—pursued a plan of their own to achieve overall domination.”

The leaders of these very communities would have been surprised to be told that they were apparently uninterested in achieving domination of the whole. As someone who knows well what the inhabitants of Tlaxcala and Texcoco wrote, I can assure you that they dreamed of little else. They simply didn’t have the technological tools to achieve it.

I thought: This is where a historian’s merely cursory reading of the writings of ethnohistorians has brought us. We are pretty much right back where we started, with an interpretation of the Indigenous that isn’t far off from that provided to scholars 30 years ago. We find the same old fallacy: the Indigenous supposedly lost the war because they didn’t share European ambition, ruthlessness, or the ability to plan grand enterprises, or some combination of these.

True, Rinke now knows to use the word altepeme, referring to the Aztecs’ city-states with a term from their own language. Even so, he hasn’t really learned anything important about Indigenous people or Indigenous cultures. Thus he remains quite free to assume whatever he likes about them.

I closed the book.

I again examined the cover. For a few long moments I was angry.

Then it came to me that this is not exactly Rinke’s fault. He at least took the trouble to read a great deal of what scholars of the Indigenous have written. He at least recognized that in order to write a good book about the colonizers, he needed to expose himself to the literature on the colonized. It is not his fault if he remained unconvinced by the latter. He reacted as he reacted. Blaming him for that is a bit like blaming someone for not being in love with a different person.

There is a good case to be made that those of us who study the Indigenous have done a poor job in writing readable books with theses that seem relevant to the rest of the world. If we take this view—and I do—then it is we ourselves who should accept the challenge of the next stage: to do a better job of educating our peers, both in other academic fields and in the world at large. We have been focused on linguistic and cultural subtleties for a long time—in fact, since the publication in 1992 and 1993 of two books by James Lockhart, who pointed out the desperate need to study Nahuatl speakers on their own terms.2 Perhaps it is time to lift our eyes from those texts and begin talking more about what we have seen with people like Stefan Rinke.

It might interest such people that the Indigenous themselves wondered why their enemies—who were manifestly not superior to them in any intellectual sense—had far greater technological endowments. (Without access to radiocarbon dating of archaeological sites, they had no way to measure the length of time peoples of the Old World versus those of the New had spent as sedentary farmers!) It might interest many to find that supposedly stoical Native people regularly demonstrated both a wry and a raunchy sense of humor; that they wrote poetry bemoaning death and war; that they wished they could win the war and tell the Spaniards where to go; and that they wondered why the gods had disposed certain things the way they had and what, if anything would happen to mortals after they died. They expressed anger at the situation they found themselves in; they worried about their grandchildren; yet they always found something to laugh about.

These are the Aztecs who speak to me in their own writings. Moreover, I have never caught so much as a glimpse of the cookie-cutter, vicious automatons raising their weapons who appear in the painting by the German Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze that unfortunately graces the cover of Rinke’s book.

Perhaps those of us who can actually read what Mexico’s Indigenous people wrote should spend more time introducing them to the world at large. Because it certainly seems that so far, what we have written has not been accessible enough to dismantle old ideas. icon

This article was commissioned by Geraldo Cadava.

  1. The best book on this subject remains Karen Kupperman, Providence Island, 1630-1641: The Other Puritan Colony (Cambridge University Press, 1993).
  2. James Lockhart, The Nahuas After the Conquest (Stanford University Press, 1992) and We People Here: Nahuatl Account of the Conquest of Mexico (University of California Press, 1993).
Featured image: The Aztec Tonalpohualli Calendar, Juan de Tovar (circa 1626) / Wikimedia Commons.