Perceptions of the Past

In a lecture that discussed the conquest of the Aztec Empire by the Conquistador Hernan Cortes, Professor Martin Rios Saloma asked a simple question to the audience. Did Mexico and Spain exist at the beginning of the 16th century as we understand them today?[1] The answer was an unequivocal no.

At the beginning of the 16th century, Spain was, in reality, two separate kingdoms, i.e., the Kingdom of Castile and the Kingdom of Aragon. And despite the matrimony of King Ferdinand and King Ferdinand, each remained the sovereign of their respective dominions. While the crowns of both realms were ultimately inherited by their grandson, i.e., Charles V, centuries would pass before Spain would arise in the form we know it currently.

The Aztec empire formed the predominant power in the middle of the country we now recognize as present-day Mexico. No single language characterized Mexico. The continued existence of sixty-three indigenous languages in Mexico today testifies to that diversity. No one union or alliance constituted a single nation. Many other groups existed independently or were distinct from Aztec identity. Some, as the Tlaxcalans, were the Aztecs’ mortal enemies. While this is well established, the image of the conquest is often filtered through heavily colored lenses.

The Conquest of Tenochtitlan

In this sense, Professor Martin Rios Saloma argues that our conceptions of the past are often formulated by political, emotional, and nationalistic interpretations and agendas. And that, especially in the 1800s, and then once again, in the 1900s, much of what we characterize as Mexican or Spanish identity developed concerning one another. Spain had lost its empire, and former colonies were looking to forge their own identity. If Spain was one thing, then Mexico was the opposite in this see-saw process of emerging identity.

If Spain was the conqueror, Mexico was the victim. If Spain was European, Mexico was indigenous. If Spain was enlightened, then Mexico was correspondingly backward, etc. Amid these views, surprising counterpoints exist. For example, Professor Martin Rios Saloma pointed to the Spanish constitution adopted in 1812, which recognized all individuals in the Iberian Peninsula and the Americas as Spaniards, highlighting how different things were at one time. That posed challenges to the perceived dichotomy between the two groups as a longstanding element purportedly evident to all.

Equally noteworthy is that Hernan Cortes is often depicted as conquering an empire of hundreds of thousands of people, with only 600 or so men. Indeed Cortes’ final assault on the capital of the Aztec empire in 1521 included less than a thousand men from the various reaches of the Iberian Peninsula. But that is only part of the story. For every Spanish soldier who participated in the Aztec capital’s final conquest, probably 100 or 120 or even 150 indigenous warriors accompanied them. Most significant among them were the Tlaxcalans, as mentioned above, but there were many others. Hence the native forces that allied with Hernan Cortes easily numbered a hundred thousand warriors or more.

These individuals have typically been regarded as “traitors” by later Mexican society. But the lack of a “Mexico” at the time of the conquest necessarily changes this view. And with that, our understanding of the conquest becomes inevitably very different when we realize that from the perspective of the indigenous tribes, i.e., the Tlaxcalans, Totonacs, etc., that supported Cortes and the Spanish, this was not a war of conquest, but perhaps oddly enough a war of liberation, and undoubtedly, vengeance against those that they perceived to be their oppressors.

The story of these groups has often been forgotten or marginalized for the sake of a greater narrative usually constructed with political or nationalistic elements in mind. As a consequence, these voices have often been lost. Alternatively, their voices raise uncomfortable questions. As Professor Martin Rios Saloma noted, indigenous groups that opted to side with Cortes often negotiated their position in the new order they recognized was taking shape. Consequently, as they saw the winds of change blowing, they invariably impacted and shaped the contemporary society that was forming.

How does this apply to Cryto-Jewish identity? I believe it raises some fundmental questions regarding how Crypto-Jews saw themselves in relation to the dominant society. How many beliefs and practices and perhaps more importantly self-perception of Crypto -Jews. I do not provide an answer to this, but hope this raises some important questions.

[1] Martin Rios Saloma IIH-UNAM, “España y México a la luz de las nuevas investigaciones sobre la conquista,” Presentation at the El Centro de Estudios de Historia de México Fundación Carlos Slim invita a su Ciclo de Conferencias Primavera 2017 “La reconciliación con nuestra historia II”. 2017. For a thorough view of the topic, see the monumental work, Martin Rios Saloma, ed., El mundo de los conquistadores (Ciudad Universitaria: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, 2015). For an example of the complex elements involved in determining what constitutes true history, see Daniel Hernandez, “Mexico’s new culture war: Did a pyramid light show ‘decolonize’ or rewrite history?” Los Angeles Times October 16 2021.

Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez is a graduate of the University of Texas at Dallas where he earned a bachelor of science in electrical engineering. He studied at the Siegal College of Judaic Studies in Cleveland and received a Master of Arts Degree with Distinction in Judaic Studies.His master’s thesis focused on Jewish Identity in the Second Temple Period.

He completed his doctoral studies at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago in 2015. His doctoral dissertation is titled “Complex Identities: Christian and Jewish Attitudes Towards Conversos” and was accepted in September 2015.  He is the author of Secret Jews.

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