- In the Shadow of Cortés: Conversations along the Route of Conquest by Kathleen Ann Myers
Part of what makes this book so compelling and worthwhile – its multidisciplinary study of colonial encounter in Mexico, designed for a public audience in the US – also makes it difficult to review. Oral histories form the core of the work; these deeply personal responses reflect individual experiences that are hard to reduce to general themes – and perhaps should not be. The opening pages state the thesis and contributions. The first is decidedly academic: “that Mexicans of all walks of life can shed new light on how the reality and perception of the Spanish conquest inform current traditions, identities, and debates about Mexico’s future,” and, also, “that visual imagery from both historical and contemporary sources,” such as exhibitions, codices, and photographs, can add a crucial element to this testimony” (vii). The second is not, or not exclusively: “This project aims to encourage understanding of our Mexican neighbors – with whom we share our borders and, increasingly, our home-towns – by bringing their voices to a general as well as a scholarly audience” (vii). In exploring how contemporary Mexicans understand their relationship to received tales of Cortés’s routes (Veracruz to Tenochtitlan, 1519–1521), we travel through four interconnected sections, plus an introduction, conclusion, and supporting materials. [End Page 218] These include a translators’ note from Pablo García Loaeza and Grady C. Wray, glossaries, and suggested readings (critical and creative, academic and popular, colonial and modern).
The introduction thoughtfully explains Myers’s role as an “extracultural” observer; with her expertise in colonial history, Myers evaluates how interviewees articulate their relationship to the conquest narrative and compares their stories to the visions of mestizaje promoted by state actors (vasconcelos), lettered elites (Paz), and government textbooks. These forces largely erase the voices of Mexicans of African and indigenous descent, with deep consequences for the making of the modern nation-state and identity: 60% of the population identified as indio in the nineteenth century, but by 1911 only 29% claimed indigenous ancestry (23).
Part I, “First Landings,” begins in veracruz, where Afro-Cuban history and memories of US invasion converge (56). From here, we travel inland to Antigua, which celebrates Cortés and indigenous art forms (song, dance, voladores), some of which are called azteca even though they are performed by Totonocos. We continue to xalapa, where a Frenchman from INAH rejects León Portilla’s vision of the past (77), and conclude with two Nahua men from Sierra Zongólica who explain their relationship to the vencidos paradigm (79–85). Although the section is framed around Afro-Mexican history, interviewees speak primarily of language, education, and work in indigenous communities, suggesting why Mexico and the Caribbean are interconnected regions.
Part II, “The March Inland,” takes place in Cholula, Tlaxcala, and Puebla. In San Francisco de Ixtacamaxtitlan, “neoliberal post-mestizaje approaches to cultural heritage” are on display: “if the indigenous past can justify itself economically, it will be saved; if it cannot, it may disappear” (104). In Cholula, families, artists, market women, and a priest reveal how language indexes issues of identity and memory. Working professionals study Nahuatl at the Casa de Cultura, but native speakers are “ashamed of their mother tongue” (127). In Puebla, responses vary from “no talk of conquest” (Calpan, 139) to spiritual repatriation programs helped by academics and global companies (Cuauhtinchan, 148–50) and students and activists who propose “alternative tourism” to empower indigenous artists (city of Puebla, 158–62).
Part III, “The Center,” likewise elicits rich, contradictory responses from informants of a variety of socio-economic classes. In the DF, they include artists, academics, indigenous language activists, government functionaries, and a descendant of Moctezuma II. The tone shifts dramatically in San Miguel xicalco, where the Nahua community prepares its patronymic celebration (235). It is not always clear whether sacred celebrations, such as this feast day or the pilgrimage in Huaquechula (145–47), reflect defining elements of community life, or...