A Very Short History of Mexico

After reading my recent entries on the Conquistadors, my mother-in-law, author of The Dog on the Roof: A Casa Colonial Mystery, sent me an interesting short history of Mexico, providing further background to the poem that I’ll finish up this weekend, after I finish fitting my thougts together.:

December 13, 2002

Dear Loren,

What the hell is a “just” war? In my book, there ain’t no such animal. But wow—what a rouser MacLeish is with that poem.

As a practical matter, which side was good guys or bad guys is hard to decide. The Aztecs had a cruel and savage religion that gave them license to kill horribly. They met their match in the Spaniards, but neither side was “the good guys” in my estimation—at least not in that initial altercation. Very shortly, however, the Spaniards became the bad guys to all the rest of Mexico. And to me. But then, you know how I feel about proselytizing in any form

I think you need a thumb-nail history of the peoples of Mexico, and I’m just the one to give it to you. I told this story to all my tour groups, and my version was accepted by an anthropologist from UC Berkeley who went to Oaxaca and stayed at Casa Colonial. I won’t be able to recall all the dates—I’ve been away from it far too long—but here are the bones of the thing.

The Olmecs were the earliest recorded people in the Oaxaca area. They went back to somewhere between 8,000 and 1,000 B.C. Not too much detail is known about them. However, there are “Olmecoid” figures carved in stone at Monte Albán, the massive ruins just outside the city of Oaxaca. After the Olmecs came the Toltecs, the Zapotecs, and the Mixtecs. The Aztecs were the johnnys-come-lately—didn’t even show up until the 1300’s.

The Toltec king was named Quétzalcoatl. He was a mortal man, but was also god-like—sort of like King Arthur. He offered a gentle religion and encouraged. the arts, metalurgy, engineering, farming and other benign and productive activities. He had a whole bunch of stringent rules for himself, one of which was sexual abstinence. One time during a religious fiesta, a minor goddess fed him mushrooms and seduced him. When he awoke in the morning, he was overcome with remorse and decided that he was no longer fit to rule, so he took some of his cohorts, got into a boat, and sailed away into the morning sun. But before he left, he told his people that he would return some day in a ship as big as a house, and he gave them a list of dates upon which he might be expected.

Much later, the Aztecs came across the bridge from Asia. They wandered down the west coast of North America for fifteen hundred years or so because their god told them they had to keep going until they found an eagle with a snake in its beak sitting on a cactus—and them eagles on cactuses is scarce! At one point, a bunch of Aztecs broke away from the main group, stayed behind, and became the Ute Indians in the area that is now Utah. Anthropologists say that the Ute language and the Aztec language are almost identical. The rest of the Aztecs kept on going, and after many more years they finally found their eagle sitting on a cactus with a snake in its beak. It was on a small island in the middle of a huge swamp, but that was where their god had told them to build a town, so they moved right in. They raised their first crops in dirt piled on rafts floating in the swamp—and that was the origin of the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco.

The Aztecs were crude nomads who didn’t know how to do anything except make war, so their king sent his armies to attack the peaceful Zapotecs to the south. The Zapotecs had a highly organized society and were the remarkable engineers who had built Monte Albán and various other cultural and religious centers throughout the Valley of Oaxaca. Instead of killing the Zapotecs, the Aztecs enslaved them, took them back to the island, and put them to work draining swamps and building a city. Only 250 years later, when Cortez arrived, he found an elaborate system of canals and causeways, and the marvelous shining city of Tenochtitlán.

The Aztecs probably could have overcome the Spaniards easily except for two things.
1. All the other peoples of Mexico hated the Aztecs with a passion. As is often the case, religion was at the bottom of it all, for the Aztec religion demanded human sacrifice and plenty of it! They had a belief that unless they tore the still-beating heart out of a human being and offered it to the sun god at least once a day, the sun might stop in it’s tracks and burn up the world. There was another charming custom where a priest would skin a living person, put the skin on his own body, over his own skin, and wear it until it rotted and fell off. Must have smelled just lovely! This was supposed to signify the emerging beauty of spring. Right? Anyway, sacrificial victims and various tributes were obtained from neighboring places, and this tended to make enemies, not friends.

2. Montezuma, the Aztec king, was a devotee of astrology and a student of Toltec history. When he heard that strangers had arrived on his shores, he went up to the roof of the palace to consult the stars and decide what to do. His decision was complicated by the fact that Cortez had arrived in “a ship as big as a house” on one of the dates given by Quétzalcoatl for his possible return. On top of that, Quétzalcoatl had had fair skin and a light brown beard—an oddity in Mexico. Cortez was also fair and had a light brown beard. So was Cortez an enemy, or was he Quétzalcoatl? While Montezuma paced the roof of the palace and shilly-shallied, Cortez picked up a passle of anti-Aztec allies and attacked. According to accounts I have read, in addition to MacLeish’s, it was a truly fearsome battle.

After that, there was a whole lot of deception and deceit on the part of Cortez. Both sides did horrible things, and the Spaniards, who had self-righteously subdued the “cruel and Godless pagans,” now commited atrocities in the name of God, king, and Catholicism. And there was gold involved. A lot of it. We can’t forget that.

I have often wondered what the peace-loving Zapotecs thought when they saw those fearsome Spanish priests stalk up and down, black robes flapping, while carrying on high an image of a man being tortured to death.

Humankind is amazing.

Hoping you are the same–Love, Mary