Thursday, March 17, 2016

Chicanonautica: Consuming Mexico with Bernal Díaz del Castillo

The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo is one helluva read, packed with action, adventure, and more far-out stuff than most popular science fiction, fantasy, and horror that's out there these days. Who knows, maybe some enterprising corporation will acquire the rights and make it into a big hit mini-series and/or graphic novel?

But then there are some pesky historical realities that have disturbing political implications . . .

This is what the historians call a primary source, a first-hand account by someone who was there; you can count on it being somewhat truthful. That's somewhat, because all-too human primary sources tend to have their biases and agendas. Diaz del Castillo keeps reminding us of errors in the works of historian Francisco López de Gómara. He also wants to make himself and his fellow conquistadors look good.

So the Conquest is justified as a noble, heroic crusade to abolish human sacrifice and cannibalism, and – oh yeah – spread Christianity. How else could a guy from a non-noble family set out and carve out a little chunk of the world for himself? You could even get the Crown and the Church to help out.

But then, competing conquistador, Pánfilo de Narváez, threatened “to cut off Cortés' ears, broil them, and eat them up.” What's with Europeans and this obsession with cannibalism?

I'm also reminded of Disney's The Three Caballeros, where Donald Duck, standing in for America's military men, is given a babe-packed Latin America as a birthday present.
And we find what Mathew Restall wrote about in Seven Myths ofthe Spanish Conquest backed up.
We don't find the popular story of Montezuma thinking that Cortes was the second coming of Quetzalcoatl and handing the empire over without at fight. The truth is, there was a lot of fighting, all over what we now call Mexico. Díaz del Castillo only mentions Quetzalcoatl, and other Aztec gods, in passing – he also doesn't use the word Aztec; they're Mexicans, and Mexico is mostly Tenochtitlán. They conquistadors are called teules, “which sometimes mean gods, sometimes demons.” Kinda like aliens.

How did the natives treat the strangers? One was quoted: “We will invite them into our country and present them with females from among our country women, that we may become one people with them.” Mestizaje as a strategy against invaders? Hijo de la chingada!

Before the fighting, negotiations were made: “In order that this more intimate connexion might be brought about, they immediately made a good beginning by presenting us with eight females, all daughters of caziques: one of these, the niece of the fat cazique, was given to Cortés . . .” Yes, women were thrown at the conquistador as if they were rock stars. It's not directly stated, but it seems that they picked up “wives” in many a “township” and “metropolis.” And having wives in New Spain didn't seem to interfere with having one back in Old Spain.

I wonder what this story would be like from the viewpoint of one of these women?

Strangely, the issue of race doesn't come up. Skin color is only mentioned in terms of black slaves, and “Our black artillery man (for he was every way entitled to the appellation of negro).” 

The Aztecs were not popular among the other peoples of their empire. Surrounding tribes were willing to join Cortés in a combination conquest/rebellion: “As there was no further talk of tribute, and tax-gathers no longer made their appearance, these people were almost out of their senses, for excessive joy in having shaken off the Mexican yoke.” 

It's hard to tell if the fantastic reality strays into tall tales, or deliberate distortion. Ritual sacrifices and cannibalism are well documented, but “large wooden cages in every township in which men, women, and children were fattened for sacrifices and feasts” sounds more like something out of a fairy tale. As in “all these buildings resembled the fairy castles we read of in Amadis de Gaul . . .”

As a science fiction writer, I wonder if, in the centuries to come, we'll see interplanetary conquistadors carving up the solar system, with corporations taking the place of the Church. Of course, their stories will be a lot stranger.

Ernest Hogan is the author to the underground cult science fiction classic, High Aztech. He does not practice human sacrifice or cannibalism. He's also part Irish. Happy St. Patrick's Day. Remember Damballah.

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