If the father of your country were best known for cutting down an Aztec emperor rather than a cherry tree, would you honor him with a monument?
While American textbooks illuminate the most honorable qualities of George Washington, official Mexican lore has vilified the father of modern Mexico, Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortes.
To many Mexicans, Cortes is a symbol of rape and plunder. He tore down Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire, and imposed Spanish rule over Indian civilization. With the concubine Malinche, he produced a new mixed-blood or mestizo race. Ultimately, he hanged the brave and honorable Aztec warrior Cuauhtemoc.
Such notoriety explains the irritation that novelist Carlos Fuentes provoked last month when, amid preparations for the 500th anniversary of Spain’s arrival in the New World, the author suggested that Mexico erect a statue of Cortes.
Not just any statue. A full-bodied Cortes on horseback. Prominently displayed in a plaza of Mexico City, the capital built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan. Five centuries after the fact, Fuentes argues, it’s high time Mexico comes to terms with its colonial past.
“We have not overcome the trauma of the Conquest,” Fuentes explained in an interview. “We behave like a colonized country. We were born of a crime of extreme cruelty, but we were able to build ourselves and have created a culture that is Spanish, Catholic, mestizo. Our father was Hernan Cortes whether we like it or not.”
As surprising as the proposal was the fact that Fuentes and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz finally found an issue on which they agree. Paz pooh-poohed the statue but heartily seconded the need for a more balanced view of Cortes.
“It is time that Cortes took his rightful place as a historic figure,” Paz said in an interview. “He is a figure who has a dark side and a bright side. He is neither an angel nor a devil. He was a great military tactician. He was not a barbarian.”
During a speech in Spain last December, Paz said: “To idealize the vanquished is no less fallacious than to idolize the victors.”
The reproach from Mexico’s two leading authors drew a giant harrumph from the rest of the intelligentsia. Proceso magazine reporter Gerardo Ochoa Sandy wrote that Fuentes had addressed only one side of the problem, “the supposed Mexican complex over the figure of Cortes, and not the Spanish attitude toward Cuauhtemoc . . . and Indians in general.”
“Why only a statue of Cortes?” wrote El Financiero newspaper columnist Jaime Aviles. Referring to tyrants of Mexico’s past, he added, “Why not also a monument to Santa Anna, a Maximilian, a (Porfirio) Diaz? In the end, what this is about is not building altars, but admitting freely and without prejudice, with absolute objectivity, the complex trauma of our history.”
Carlos Monsivais, a leading essayist on Mexican culture, doubts one can be objective about one’s own violent history.
“My grandparents spoke Nahuatl, so I know where I stand--with the majority,” said Monsivais, who insists that, ethnically, Mexico is still an Indian country.
The 1990 census counts 6.4 million Indians--speakers of an indigenous language and their children. The government’s National Indigenous Institute estimates 8 million to 10 million Indians, including some who have lost their language but still live in Indian communities or lead traditional lives.
“Look at the people,” responds Monsivais. “Culturally Mexico is mestizo , but ethnically it is still an Indian country.”
Monsivais believes that Mexico has come to terms with the Conquest, and opposition to a statue of Cortes is an example of just that.
“Cortes was a terrible historical inevitability. He is not a person with whom I sympathize, but I also am not going to fight with his ghost. At this point, a statue of him doesn’t mean reconciliation, it means homage to colonization and it is an affront to Indian groups,” Monsivais said.
It is Paz who once described the Mexican character as entwined with its colonization. Mexicans are hermetic, suspicious of foreigners and defensive, he wrote 40 years ago in “The Labyrinth of Solitude.” They venerate a bleeding Christ beaten by soldiers and condemned by judges, because they see in him the image of a dethroned and murdered Cuauhtemoc.
Malinche, a translator for Cortes before procreating with him, is the symbol of a violated mother embodying openness and betrayal, Paz wrote. Those who favored opening Mexico’s economy to outsiders were called malinchistas .
Today, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is opening Mexico to foreign investment and influence with little popular backlash. Isn’t this a sign that Mexico is assimilating the Conquest?
“To a large degree, we have overcome this resistance to foreigners,” said Jose Luis Martinez, Mexico’s foremost scholar of Cortes, who nonetheless believes the country has a long way to go.
“Maybe the bones of the conquistadores are still too green. Five centuries seems like a long time, but maybe it is not enough,” he said with a shrug. Then, reciting from his own book, “Hernan Cortes,” he said, “the past is not dead. The past has not passed.”
Cortes was 35 when he arrived in southern Mexico in 1519 with 500 soldiers and 16 horses aboard 11 ships. He made his way north to present-day Veracruz, where a Tabascan Indian leader gave him a gift of 20 concubines. One of them, Malinche, bore Cortes’ son Martin.
The Aztecs in central Mexico had never seen guns or horses and believed the white-faced man and mount formed a single, powerful being. To appease his god, Montezuma, ruler of the Aztecs, sent Cortes elaborate gifts. But the gold and ornaments only drew the Spaniards onward, with a growing army of Indian allies bitter over their own violent conquest by the Aztecs.
Hundreds of thousands of Indians died in the Spanish Conquest. Colonization produced a new culture and country that was neither Spanish nor Indian but a fusion of the two.
“Official culture after the (1910 Mexican) Revolution saw Cortes as a terrible villain,” said La Jornada columnist Jose Agustin Ortiz Pinqueti. “They have told us that since we were children.”
Additionally, Ortiz Pinqueti said, Cortes imposed an enduring system of racial discrimination. “The structure that Cortes established was apartheid--two distinct communities, one in the center, another on the margin. After nearly 500 years, castes still exist.”
But Martinez, like Paz, stresses that Cortes was not all evil. He was not a gratuitous murderer, Martinez says. His passion was glory, rather than riches. He was an intelligent military commander who sought to emulate Alexander the Great.
Fuentes’ idea for a Cortes statue is not original. In 1981, President Jose Lopez Portillo, who took pride in his Spanish heritage, unveiled a bust of Cortes at the Hospital de Jesus, where the conquistador’s remains are buried. A year later, a monument to Cortes, Malinche and their mestizo son was placed near Cortes’ old home in the plaza of Coyoacan, in southern Mexico City. It was removed as soon as Lopez Portillo left office. The only other statue of Cortes in Mexico is at a Cuernavaca hotel.
But there is a prominent statue of Christopher Columbus on Mexico City’s main boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma. Every Oct. 12 since 1982, Indian activist Jenaro Dominguez has led a group of protesters who remove wreaths from the Columbus monument and march down the Reforma to leave them at the feet of a statue of Cuauhtemoc.
“This 500 years is nothing to celebrate,” Dominguez said. “Columbus symbolizes the arrival of Europe, the pillage of resources and the destruction of a culture. Cortes is the symbol of authoritarianism, the imposition of one people over another, submission.”