My undergraduate, general education course, Latin American Civilization, focuses on the revolutionary historical encounter of Europeans, indigenous people, and Africans in the New World. Students enjoy the story of the Spanish conquest of the Mexican capital of Tenochtitlan (1519-1521) because it vividly dramatizes this cultural encounter.
I have also found that in discussing this topic, students frequently articulate three prevalent myths. First, the “Black Legend” posits that Spanish Catholics were more tyrannical and violent than their Protestant competitors in the New World. Second is the myth that the supposed inferiority of the Mayas and Nahuas (Aztecs) is “demonstrated” by the existence of human sacrifice, lack of Christianity, and their alleged awed belief that the Spaniards were gods. Third, popular images of Native Americans as “Noble Savages” in the 19th-century American West encourage students to view the indigenous people of Mesoamerica as peaceful victims of Europeans.
In lectures I emphasize that, like European contemporaries, preconquest Mesoamerican societies were urban, agricultural, literate, and militaristic, but the myths persist. I use primary sources to dispel student convictions that Latin America is a dismal place, forever scarred by the oppression of backward Spanish civilization against poor, dark-skinned victims.
These include two 16th-century sources: an excerpt from Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s The True History of the Conquest of New Spain and a passage from fray Bernardino de Sahagún’s collection of Nahua accounts called The Florentine Codex.1 These personal accounts of the conquest of Mexico tell of the Spaniards’ entrance into the finely engineered and magnificent city of Tenochtitlan. Both provide colorful descriptions that spark the imagination, explicitly dispel myths, and facilitate the development of skills for reading analytically.
Both the Nahua and Spanish versions record “welcome speeches” made by the great ruler Moteucçoma to Hernán Cortés that explicitly contradict myths about indigenous views of the conquerors. Bernal Díaz, a Spanish conquistador, displays some cultural prejudices, but he also seems surprisingly objective in his observations, reporting that Moteucçoma scoffs at the idea that either he, the ruler of Mexico, or the Spaniards are gods. When both sources are read carefully together, they allow students to see that they can recognize the biases of authors without diminishing the truth-value found in the total sum of the accounts.
I think it is very important to give students who may not have much experience in using primary history sources a step-by-step procedure for analysis. In class, I use two assignments. The first assignment is to fill out a “Working with Primary Sources” sheet that includes a series of questions walking them through the process of analysis. Questions include basic items such as who the author is and the date the source was produced, as well as more complex questions about the author’s motivation and intended audience.
We usually work with a practice document in class in small groups and then as a large group, compile all of the answers into an author’s profile. Later, students individually are able to use this sheet to analyze other sources outside of class with confidence. The second assignment builds on their answers, asking students to make an informed interpretation about what they believed actually happened in the episode described. They hand in a typed, two-page final interpretation with their question sheet.
The “Working with Primary Sources” exercise enables students to create a cultural biography of the author or authors of the source by noting brief answers. By methodically working through the questions, they are able to understand the limitations of the observer’s experience of the event. The main goal is to fairly assess what one can expect the author to have known or not have known and to give readers an appreciation for how cultural conditioning can shape interpretations.
This exercise also requires the teacher to supply background lecture material or readings to supplement the primary sources before students can answer basic questions about author’s profile and intended audience. I find that students need to be encouraged to be as specific as possible with their answers. They often need help making connections between the Sahagún source and information from lectures and secondary sources on Mesoamerican societies. While they easily understand the cultural assumptions of the Spaniards, they remain somewhat perplexed by the Mexican view of the conquest. This is a challenge for me as a teacher. Students also have to be reminded that the Sahagún text was a collection of multiple accounts by anonymous Nahuas and not a single author.
Questions 1C, 1D, and 2B counteract student tendencies to produce overly structural interpretations that rely too heavily on basic information. These sections call attention to the personal idiosyncrasies of observers as well as the fact that the author’s observation of the event was limited by the specifics of where and when an event occurred.
While noting author biases, students also become more aware of their own assumptions as readers. Question 4B allows students to identify elements of their culture that they believe shape their own interpretations. It also gives readers an outlet to “vent” and react to the shocking ways that people often behaved in the past. The question conveys the message that their opinions and feelings about the topic are valid, which encourages them to verbalize in class discussions.
However, when they write about their feelings in the context of the other questions on the sheet, the difference between a personal opinion and an informed interpretation becomes clear. The fact that the answers on the sheet are all in one place and in a line seems to make it easier to sort out the difference between personal reflections and textually supported proof. The first five groups of questions provide the initial process through which students differentiate the point of view of the author from their own 21st-century perspectives as readers.
The second assignment pertains to question 6 on the sheet. I usually provide a question specific to the reading, such as “What was the meaning of Moteucçoma’s ‘welcome speech’ to Cortés?” By placing the general question, “What really happened?” at the bottom of the sheet, I remind students to consider all information from the question sheet and base their interpretive answer on it.
Grading the final short paper and the question sheet together makes evaluation an educational exercise for student and teacher. I can indicate on the papers where there were contradictions between brief answers on the question sheet and final interpretations. I am able to trace their thought processes. Sometimes they write correct information on the question sheet but an opinionated final paper. In these cases, I can show how they had correct facts that could be valid proof, even though they may have drawn the wrong conclusion. In a sense, I grade their final answers against themselves, and I think that this builds their confidence for handling difficult 16th-century texts.
1 Both are collected in Stuart B. Schwartz, ed., Victors and Vanquished: Spanish Views of the Conquest of Mexico (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000), pgs. 128-155.