Five Hundred Years of Trauma

On the 13th of August 1521, the Mexica Empire fell to a coalition of Spaniards and enemy indigenous city-states. Five hundred years later, this event continues to be a source of controversy and traumas for the people of Mexico. While academics such as Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz and archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma  (who spearheaded excavations at the archaeological zone of Templo Mayor in Mexico City) have taken a measured and careful approach to the interpretation of the fall of the Mexica empire, the common imaginary of the Mexican people has consecrated the Conquest as the moment where an eternal cycle of disgraces and oppression started for the country. This trauma of the imaginary collective has been hammered in by the educational system and used by politicians such as Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to create a dynamic of nostalgia and false moralism to hide the failures of the present behind the tragedy of the past.

The national psychology of Mexico is one of the most interesting and intriguing themes for any anthropologist or historian interested in understanding the behaviours of the past and the present in the Latin American nation. Academics such as Dr. Juan Miguel Zunzunegui have identified the existence of some traumas in the collective imaginary of the country. Out of all these traumas, the one that stems from the history of the fall of the Mexica empire is perhaps the strongest and most ingrained one in the minds of the Mexican collective imaginary, mainly due to the time that it has been around compared to the traumas of the Mexican-American War and the Mexican Revolution. To better understand how this historical event continues to have an impact in Mexico’s present society we need to look at the events that took place half a millennium ago.

The process of conquering the territory today known as Mexico cannot be seen through the same lens that we use to observe the colonization of territories in Africa or the establishment of the 13 colonies. For starters, the indigenous population of the region was not systematically exterminated. Instead, there was a mix of worldviews that ultimately led to what we know today as Mexican culture. The fighting was not that of Spaniards against Mexicans, but rather a conflict between a Mexica Empire and an alliance between other indigenous groups and city states that had been conquered by the Mexicas, such as Tlaxcala or Cempoala. In the midst of these animosities, a small group of Spaniard explorers took advantage of the tense situation in the area to gain lands and profit. Once Mexico-Tenochtitlan had fallen, even the defeated upperclassmen of the city were respected and looked after by the Spaniards. A famous example is that of Isabel Moctezuma, daughter of Moctezuma Xocoyotzin, emperor of the Mexicas, who was granted the title of countess. The conquest of the Mexica Empire was a process of syncretism rather than extermination.

However, the Black Legend of the Conquest of Mexico ignores the alliances between Spaniards and Indigenous people, and portrays the armed conflict as a fight between Americans and Europeans aided by the treacherous Malintzin, an indigenous woman who served the conquistador Hernan Cortes as a translator. According to this legend, Mexico was born due to the defeat of the Mexicas as a result of Malintzin‘s treason. This story continues to dominate the narrative regarding Mexico’s birth, which was indoctrinated into the psyche of primary school students and the general population. A story that has created an unfair hatred towards Malintzin, an extraordinary polyglot that in fact did not betray anyone given that her allegiance was not to the Mexicas (she had in fact been sold as slave by them). A legend that traumatized generations of Mexicans through the insinuation that their origin is defeat and treason. A story that still has power today as political speech, and is being used by current politicians to further their own agendas and cover up their mistakes.

Five hundred years after the fall of the Mexica Empire, the president of Mexico embodies the trauma of the conquest. Longing for the past, a scaled replica of the Huey Teocalli, the main temple of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, was erected. A speech is made praising indigenous resistance against the European invader while the indigenous people continue to be one of the most vulnerable groups in Mexico, and Malintzin’s memory continues to rot in the jail of traitors within the Mexican imaginary collective. Praise of the tragic past and ignorance of the tragic present. The commemoration of the five hundred years of the fall of the Mexica Empire posed a unique opportunity for Mexico to re-examine its national traumas. While some academics made an effort to propose a different, healthier interpretation of the facts to the public, the imaginary collective of Mexico still has a long way to make peace with its history, and there is no better evidence for this than the ways in which the State, directed by the president, decided to celebrate the occasion.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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