The Mark Of The Conquistador: Debate Swirls Around A Violent Legacy

By Rodrigo Cervantes, Laurel Morales
Published: Monday, November 25, 2019 - 7:05am
Updated: Monday, April 27, 2020 - 12:02pm

Five-hundred years ago, a group of explorers led the Spanish Crown’s invasion into what is now the southwestern United States. The men became known as the conquistadors. Today their name and legacy, and whether they should be celebrated, are debated. The Fronteras Desk series “The Mark of the Conquistador” delves into the debate.

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Part 1: More Than A Word

For many years actors wearing colorful costumes would parade into Santa Fe on horseback and perform this reimagined historic moment on stage.

"Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, I have been sent here by his Majesty the King with full pardon for all of you," said the actor portraying Don Diego de Vargas. "The only condition being is that you return to Christian religion."

The actors portrayed de Vargas's peaceful reclamation of Santa Fe after the Pueblo Revolt in 1680. For years the pageant was performed on the plaza as part of the town's annual Fiesta de Santa Fe.

Historians said there may have been a moment without bloodshed but de Vargas and his men went on to murder hundreds of Pueblo people. In recent years, the reenactment has become a symbol of colonialism to Native Americans and a painful reminder of the Southwest's bloody past.

Five-hundred years ago this month, a group of explorers led the Spanish Crown's invasion into what is now the southwestern United States. The men became known as the conquistadors. Today their name and legacy — and whether they should be celebrated — are debated.

Elena Ortiz was in kindergarten when her father found out that they were performing the reenactment at school. Her parents told the principal they did not want their daughter to participate in this "fiesta."

"It wasn't until I was in high school I realized what they were essentially celebrating when they came to the schools was the conquest, the subjugation, and the genocide of my own people," said Ortiz, a spokeswoman for the Red Nation, a Native American advocacy group.

Today, Santa Fe Public Schools have said they will limit when the reenactors are allowed to visit. Ortiz, who now has a daughter of her own in school, said they aren't telling the whole story.

"This was a land that had over 100 communities farming, hunting, living, being. And when the Spanish were done we had 19," Ortiz said.

For years Ortiz and other protesters held signs saying "the reconquest was not peaceful" and "celebrate resistance, not conquest." That finally came to a head two years ago when police made a spectacle of arresting eight people for trespassing and disorderly conduct.

After pictures and video of the arrests made national news, the organizers held several meetings and finally agreed to abandon the event. To activist Jen Marley, canceling the celebration is just a start.

"It's not merely about symbolic change," said Marley one of the protesters arrested. "We're seeking complete systemic change. This is about people's lives. This is about the actual death and poverty people are experiencing every day."

Marley said it's about returning land, resources, and sovereignty to tribal nations.

Marley compared the controversy to that of the Confederate flag and monuments, saying the country acknowledges its history with slavery but it has not acknowledged its legacy with indigenous genocide.

Some have seen the error in their ways. In Albuquerque, the University of New Mexico is working on changing its seal, which depicted a conquistador and a frontiersman.

But Ralph Arellanes, who chairs the Hispano Round Table of New Mexico, said he doesn't get it.

"You can't erase history," Arellanes said. "I mean we are who we are. Hispanics have played a tremendous role in improving the lives of Native Americans. And that's the food that we eat, the fact that all farm animals and horses were brought by the Spanish."

Historians have pointed out they also brought disease and slavery.

To Arellanes and many people, getting rid of conquistador imagery and celebrations disrupts how they see themselves. They would rather identify with European or descendants of Spanish explorers than embrace their mestizo heritage.

That is why so many monuments, streets, hotels, and even cities still bear the names and faces of conquistadors.

A Timeline Of Conquistadors

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El Chopo Museum
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
El Chopo Museum is one of the main spaces in Mexico City to watch and listen to contemporary indigenous musicians.

Part 2: New Music, Ancient Cultures 

Music can be a way to build bridges or to protest. And when it comes to new indigenous music, it also turns into a way to preserve culture — or fight against the atrocities of colonialism.  

The anti-establishment roots of music genres like hip-hop or rock have fertile soil in indigenous cultures, as music has become a way to preserve languages and culture, while fighting centuries of colonialism.

In a music festival in Mexico City, a hip-hop band teaches the audience some Native American words to sing.

“In Indian country land we have a slang, right? That’s skoden,” says one of the emcees, Young D. “Skoden is a combination of ‘Let’s go then,’ an example of 'vamos.'"

It’s Snotty Nose Rez Kids, a First Nations duo from British Columbia, Canada. The song is called “Skoden.” 

Yung Trybez is the other emcee. He says they grew up listening to rappers like Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.

“It’s dubbed indigenous hip-hop, but it’s just hip-hop in general, cuz we’re talking about people that’s been oppressed for hundreds of years,” Yung Trybez said. “I mean, first of all, before music, we talk about our lives, you know, and this has been our lives since we were born, and that’s all we know. And, when you talk about indigenous people, you can’t talk about them without talking about land.”

For him, hip-hop is a vehicle to bring light to the problems their communities still face after the European colonization, like land stealing, oppression, racism and environmental damages.

“If we weren’t colonized, this world would be fine, I think,” Yung Trybez said.

Snotty Nose Rez Kids band
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
Snotty Nose Rez Kids, a First Nations duo from British Columbia, Canada, playing in a music festival in Mexico City.

Trybez says changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day is just a little piece of bread thrown to the indigenous communities in the U.S. and Canada.

“Like, they talk about truth and reconciliation, we’re telling our truths, they need to hear it, and then they need to do a lot of work. Land back!” said the emcee.

And while Snotty Nose Rez Kids use music as a way to open dialogues, other musicians are using it to preserve and revitalize the legacy of the indigenous cultures. That’s the case of La Murga Xicohtl, a band from the state of Tlaxcala in central Mexico. 

Language Matters

La Murga Xicohtl mixes gypsy music, rock and local carnival sounds while incorporating Náhuatl, the language used by the Aztecs in the past and by the Nahua communities nowadays.

They started playing music for the theater but eventually evolved into its own project.

Manuel Tlapa is the band’s guitarist. He said he’s been influenced by rock, jazz and even thrash metal artists.

“Musically speaking, Náhuatl very melodic and pleasant to the ear,” Tlapa said. 

For him, using Native languages is a way to honor their roots, while helping reinforce Mexico’s identity and sometimes forgotten origins.

“Historic events like the colonization can’t be amended,” Tlapa said. He said the arrival of the conquistadors was tragic, but it also enriched the culture by bringing more ingredients to it, including musical instruments. 

Voices Of Resistance

Edgar Ruiz is a music curator, sociologist and anthropologist based in Mexico City. He’s also in charge of an indigenous music festival at El Chopo Museum in Mexico’s capital.

Ruiz says the cultural clash started by the arrival of the conquistadors isn’t over yet, and music has been a way to resist for 500 years.

Edgar Ruiz
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
Music curator, sociologist and anthropologist Edgar Ruiz.

“Music (like hip-hop and rock) is not colonizing native languages, but these languages are actually using it as a means of preservation,” Ruiz said.

The expert said many current indigenous traditions are part of a process of cultural appropriation, as they incorporate European or American instruments and rhythms to traditional rituals and music.

“Social tensions built by centuries of colonialism currently result in migrations,” explained Ruiz, as many indigenous people have to run away from discrimination, oblivion and poverty. And he says indigenous migrant musicians are integrating their experiences into their songs.

“Mainstream will eventually turn around and will notice and adopt indigenous music,” the expert said, using reggaetón as an example of contemporary Latino music that has become universal.

Meanwhile, he says globalization and the internet will facilitate the exchange of music, while expanding the reach of its message, like the one in a song from Snotty Nose Rez Kids: “You bettah understand, I live for the mic, but I’ll die for my land!” 

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Motecuhzoma II opera
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
Crowds waiting for the presentation of the opera "Motecuhzoma II" at Zócalo, Mexico City's main square.

Part 3: Healing Old Wounds

Five-hundred years ago, the Spanish Conquistadors arrived to the capital of the Aztec empire, igniting the European colonization of the continental Americas. And for many, the encounter between the two worlds is a prevailing, painful clash.  

On Nov. 8, 1519, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (also known as Moctezuma II), emperor of the Mexica, or Aztecs, met for the first time with Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. 

The meeting resulted not only in the eventual European colonization of the continental Americas but also in a prevailing debate about the wounds left by the encounter.

A small mural depicting the arrival of Cortés to Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City, is at the exact place where it happened, trapped by the traffic in downtown. Two descendants of Moctezuma II and Cortés recently met there for a documentary about them, emulating a hug that would mark the fate of many nations.  

An Unforgettable Massacre

And a few blocks from the encounter mural, Domitila Temictli does spiritual cleansings and ritual dances based on pre-Columbian traditions. She says cleansings are normal and seen as medicine in her culture, particularly in small towns like the one where she was born in Guerrero, where no hospitals exist.

For her, the Spanish Conquistadors left behind “a humiliating massacre.” 

“They chopped off our trunk and branches, but they couldn't destroy our roots,” she said.

Domitila Temictli
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
Domitila Temictli and her family have been practicing spiritual cleansings and ritual dances in downtown Mexico City, steps away from the Aztec "Templo Mayor."

She says the Spaniards claim they discovered a land already owned by her ancestors.

“History has been told by the winners, but our culture is re-emerging,” Temictli said.

Many Mexicans consider themselves mestizos, a blend of cultures, but others share Temicli's resentment toward the conquistadors. The Christopher Columbus statue in Mexico City gets vandalized every Oct. 12.

Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has asked Spain to apologize for the atrocities committed during “La Conquista.” He also accused Cortés of being the author of Mexico’s first fraud.

The First Globalization

“We can't modify the past, but we can influence the future, looking for lessons rather than culprits,” said Miguel Utray, cultural counselor of the Spanish Embassy in Mexico and director of the Cultural Center of Spain in Mexico.

Miguel Utray
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
Miguel Utray is cultural counselor of the Spanish Embassy in Mexico and director of the Spain's Cultural Center in Mexico City.

The diplomat said the European expeditions 500 years ago represented the first globalization, bringing progress and an exchange of products and knowledge.

“There are currently more than 6,000 Spanish companies in Mexico, and there is a lot of Mexican investment in Spain, so I guess we could say we have closer relations with Mexico than we have with any country,” Utray said.

For him, Spanish language became universal thanks to his country's explorations.

“There are 500 million Spanish native speakers currently, and the two countries with the most Spanish speakers are here: Mexico and the United States,” Utray said.

Time For Forgiveness

In Mexico City’s main square, el Zócalo, an opera commemorated the encounter between the Aztec king and the Spanish explorer 500 years after it happened. 

It’s called “Motecuhzoma II,” based on the “Motezuma” opera written by Antonio Vivaldi in the 18th century. Samuel Máynez, a researcher and composer, is the author of the contemporary version. 

Scene from the opera "Motecuhzoma II,
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
Scene from the opera "Motecuhzoma II," where Aztec king Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin is being held hostage in his own palace by the Spanish invaders.

Máynez explained he had to turn Vivaldi’s tragicomedy with a happy ending into what it really was: a tragedy. He gave a voice to the subjugated indigenous, while integrating Mayan, Náhuatl and Castilian languages.

“Mexico hasn’t fully come to terms with its complex past, and we still hold some grudge against Cortés and Moctezuma,” Máynez said. 

The researcher explained there is a tendency to simplify Cortés as an evil conqueror and Moctezuma as a treasonous leader. But that ignores the complexity of those times, the ways of thinking from those characters according to their culture and even facts such as indigenous people oppressed by the Aztecs that decided to join forces with the Spaniards — and later subjugated, as well.

Samuel Máynez
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
Samuel Máynez, composer, researcher and writer, at the rehearsal of his opera, "Motecuhzoma II."

Máynez said that in his opera, as in history, there are no real villains or heroes, but characters that deserve a better understanding.  He incorporated baroque and indigenous instruments to reflect the resulting diversity.

“Some are still asking for apologies, licking old wounds, and we are still holding a grudge instead of healing ourselves or embracing the legacy left from both worlds,” Máynez said.

For him, this opera is a way to reflect on what he says former colonized nations like Mexico should do: reconcile with their past and embrace their multiethnic and multilinguistic present.

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Rehearsal of the opera "Motecuhzoma II" in Mexico City
Rodrigo Cervantes/KJZZ
Rehearsal of the opera "Motecuhzoma II" in Mexico City.

Part 4: Changing Mindsets In Mexico Through A Lost And Found Opera 

An opera written by Antonio Vivaldi in the 18th century that had been mutilated and lost for decades found a new home in Mexico. Here, the baroque composition called “Montezuma” is acquiring a new purpose. 

The opera depicts the encounter between Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and Aztec King Motecuhzoma the Second. 

Samuel Máynez, a researcher and composer in Mexico City, re-wrote the opera for a contemporary audience. But the path wasn’t easy.

“A copy of the opera was archived in Berlin for about a century and a half, but disappeared after the Allies bombarded the city in 1945, during World War II,'' said Máynez.

Máynez said a group of Harvard researchers found it in Kiev in the early 2000s. The manuscript was incomplete, missing about one third, but it became an opportunity for him to restore it, while incorporating new instruments, languages —and narrative.

Vivaldi’s original version inaccurately ended with Moctezuma happily yielding his empire to the Spanish crown. It also included an imaginary romance between one of Moctezuma’s relatives with a non-existent brother of Cortés.

Máynez adjusted it to give voice to the Aztecs, telling the story of their defeat and ending it with the death of the Aztec emperor. He also included pre Columbian instruments and indigenous languages, changing the opera’s title to the more accurate name of the king: Motecuhzoma the Second.

“We can look back at ‘La Conquista’ and use art to help heal old wounds”, Máynez said.

And he hopes this opera gives Mexicans the opportunity to forgive its ancestors.