Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Evangeline doesn’t like Cortés very much.


With a trip to Mexico in the offing to attend their uncle’s wedding in September, we decided it would be a good idea to expose the girls to Mexican history and culture. So on a recent trip to the library, I checked out a couple history books about Cortés and a couple books of Mexican fairy tales and prepared for a summer of low-intensity homeschooling.


The main thing I remember about Hernando Cortés is that he was the conquistador who toppled Aztec civilization and led to the Spanish colonization of Mexico. I remember a few other bits, like the Aztecs cautiously welcoming him because they though he might be their god Queztlcoatl, but that’s about it. When we studied Cortés in sixth grade, my general impression was that he was a pretty great person because he had destroyed an evil empire and brought European civilization to the Americas.


Perhaps Evangeline is more sensitive to genocide than I was in sixth grade, or perhaps history has changed a bit, but she was upset to discover what he did. Though I’m sure she shares his disgust at human sacrifice, she was repulsed at the way he and his army carried off Aztec art to turn it into gold. She was appalled at his willingness to taking human life to save his skin, even the lives of his allies. And she was aghast at what he did to the Aztec civilization.


During the reign of Montezuma, Aztec civilization had reached a peak higher than anything in the Old World. Tenochtitlan had 150,000 people, making it more populous than any city in Europe. The priests had charted and knew the path of every star and planet in the night sky, could predict solar and lunar eclipses to the minute well in advance of when they came. The Aztecs had built themselves up from an alien tribe in the middle of Mexico into the most powerful empire in Central America. They had buildings of phenomenal beauty, had established their city on a swamp through a rather innovative form of architecture, and ― this was news to me ― actually had made public education compulsory, not just for boys but for girls as well.


So they were a prosperous people, at the top of their game, and then Cortés and his crew came in like a flight of miniature dragons, took the gold, smashed the Aztec gods and forced the people to convert to Christianity, allied themselves with the Tlaxacans, another warlike tribe the Aztecs had never conquered, and decimated Tenochtitlan.


And, of course, the Spaniards unwittingly introduced the smallpox virus to the Aztecs, which probably killed far more people than the big guns Cortés had brought.


Evangeline’s a sensitive and imaginative soul. I rather imagine she was able to picture quite well the fear, and the despair, that went through the Aztec people as their civilization came crashing down. I was going to let her read my copy of a book that presents the whole story in Aztec terms, but I think I’m going to pass on that after all. She needs a happier story instead.

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