The destruction of one of the world’s great civilizations. The slaughter of thousands of indigenous people—and the enslavement of thousands more. These atrocities were the consequence of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1519. Yet Davíd Carrasco notes that the arrival of Europeans on the North American mainland also resulted in alliances, intermarriage, new forms of religion and culture, and the birth of what he calls a “new human family.”
“Europeans began to abuse indigenous people immediately after they arrived,” he says. “They also fell in love with indigenous women and had children with them. They killed indigenous men, but also became allies with them. They formed the mixture that is Mexico. In so doing, Europeans and American Indians—and later Asians and Africans—made Mexico one of the crossroads of the world.”
Conflict and connection. Subjugation and collaboration. Enmity and affection. Conventional scholarship struggles to convey the complex origins of Mesoamerican history after colonization. That’s why Carrasco, Harvard’s Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America, uses art to tell the story. In his classes, literature, music, and especially visual art help students experience firsthand the richness of postcolonial Mesoamerican culture—and the contradictions that lie at its foundations.
Mother and Father of the Mexican People
Carrasco begins at the beginning, exploring Mexico’s origin story through José Clemente Orozco’s painting Cortés and Malinche. Here sits the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, conqueror of the Aztecs, imposing, muscular, deathly white. Next to him is “La Malinche,” the indigenous woman who became his translator and bore him a son. At Cortés’s feet lies the dead body of an indigenous man.
“This really graphic image is understood in a stereotypical way to be the mother and father of the Mexican people,” Carrasco explains. “You see them naked here and have this idea of the sexual relationship that becomes a part of the Mexican story. But there’s violence there too. Cortés’s arm in front of Malinche is a gesture of control and dominance. So is his foot on the body of an indigenous man.”
This triangle—Spaniard, indigenous mistress, subdued indigenous man is critical, Carrasco says, for understanding the psychology of colonialism.
“The indigenous woman is the goal,” he says. “To claim her, the Spanish have to dominate or get rid of the indigenous partner. That may also be one reason that Cortés is so white, like a ghostly figure. He’s the father, but also the death-bringer.”
Woman at the Crossroads
Malinche, or Doña Marina, was one of a group of females given to Cortés by an indigenous cacique (“chief”) to cement relations with the Spanish. Multilingual, she soon became critical to the conquistadors’ efforts to communicate and connect with inhabitants on the mainland. In the sixteenth-century painting Quitlauhtique (They Gave Him Gifts), an unknown artist puts Malinche in a familiar position: in the center, between Cortés and the Indians.
“She’s in the middle of it all,” Carrasco says. “You see it again and again. Malinche with Spanish nobles. Malinche as a go-between from Cortés to the Aztec emperor Moctezuma. Malinche whispering in Cortés’s ear. She herself is the crossroads.”
Over time, “Malinche” came to be a kind of slang for traitor among Mexicans—someone who loves foreigners more than their own people. In recent years, though, feminist critics have pushed back against the villainization of Cortés’s consort. Carrasco says that Malinche is increasingly viewed as a woman of extraordinary resilience, agency, and ability.
Feminists look at the story now and say: ‘This woman was not a betrayer. Before the Spaniards, Malintzin was linguistically and intellectually advanced and she became the crucial go-between who helped to create and represent what Mexico became.’ Today, we see her as a woman who was oppressed but who, through her dexterity, her intelligence, and her staying power, was able to play a very important role in the making of Mexico.”
The Brown Mother
Another image represents what Carrasco says may be the most prominent challenge to the binary narrative of conqueror and conquered; that of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico and empress of the Americas. Carrasco tells the story.
“In 1531, according to four seventeenth-century accounts, the Virgin Mary appears to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, a Christian convert, at sunrise on a hill where an indigenous goddess was worshipped. She has brown skin like he does and tells him in his own language, Nahuatl, ‘I am the compassionate mother of you and all you people here...and all the various people who love me....’”
The Virgin urges Diego to go into Mexico City and tell the archbishop to come out to the hill and build a church in her honor there. The archbishop rebuffs him. Diego returns to the hill, where the Virgin appears and tells him to try again but he urges her to send someone of higher status who will be respected, for “I am but a backframe...I carry burdens.” Juan Diego returns to the city and again is rebuked and directed to bring a sign from the Virgin if he is to be believed. He returns to the hill for a third time, where the Virgin appears once more and instructs him to go to the top of the hill where roses have miraculously bloomed in December.
“So, he’s got his Indian cloak—his tilma—and he wraps up the flowers in it and he goes back into the city.” Carrasco continues. “The guards say, ‘Get him out of here!’ but some of the petals fall out of his cloak. ‘How could he have flowers in December?’ they ask. ‘Bring him to the bishop.’
“He goes in, unrolls his tilma, and there are the flowers and the image of the Blessed Virgin imprinted on the cloth. The bishop falls to his knees (the position Juan Diego had assumed in previous visits), weeps, and orders the image returned to the hill where a shrine is built in her honor. Today, this sacred shrine is visited by more pilgrims and tourists than any other shrine in the Americas.”
Carrasco says that the image and story of the brown-skinned Virgin are a kind of map between two communities—Indian to Spanish and back and forth. They also illustrate how generative the “contact zone” between two cultures can be.
“Mexicans call her La Morenita (‘the dear little brown one’),” he explains. “She speaks Nahuatl. She looks like the people. She’s here for everybody. It’s Catholicism, but a Catholicism that’s never been created anywhere else in the world: Mexican Catholicism. It’s a mixture.”
‘A Deeper Story’
Carrasco’s passion for Mesoamerican culture and history stems from his own crossroads moment.
At 13, he traveled from the United States to Mexico City during the summer of 1968 with his Anglo mother and Mexican father, a renowned basketball coach serving as an attaché to the United States Embassy during the Olympics. His Mexican aunt, Milena Soforo who lived there, brought him one day to the country’s National Anthropology Museum. Carrasco ventured into the Aztec hall where he was mesmerized by the intricate calendar stone (“a beautiful, complex cosmogram”), pictorial manuscripts, and even a copy of the headdress of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma.
When he ventured back out to the city’s great plaza, Carrasco felt amazed but also conflicted.
“On the one hand, I realized I had a sense of shame about my Mexican background,” he says. “They’d taught me in school that civilizations were made in Rome and Greece but not in Mexico. Everywhere I turned as a kid, outside of the home sent the message that Mexico was third rate. After viewing the Aztec roots of Mexico, I became aware of something fighting back inside me, saying, ‘Look at this great architecture in the Zocalo! Look at the richness of this culture! Look at the dignity of these people!’ Two worlds first met in Mexico: Spanish Catholic and Aztec/Mayan/Tarascan. Soon the Africans and Asians came. As a Mexican American, I am the result of that in some way. That crossroads exists in me.”
Today, Carrasco is deeply concerned about the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. He says it’s more important than ever for people on both sides of the country’s southern border to know about the centuries of intermingling between cultures—a history that can’t be erased with lines on a map.
“To begin with, a big part of the United States was part of Mexico right up until the middle of the nineteenth century,” he says. “Then Mexican Americans fought and died and were decorated in the Second World War in great numbers. When that war created a profound labor shortage, the governments of United States and Mexico created the Bracero project. For over 20 years, millions of Mexican workers came and harvested the agricultural fields, extended and repaired the railroads. They spoke Spanish and learned some English. Some of them fell in love. Some of them stayed. Most returned with new knowledge of the United States and shared their knowledge here of Mexican traditions and practices. Just because you put a border wall there, it doesn’t change that history. We have this shared history, knowledge, and territory.”
The back-and-forth of people, ideas, knowledge, and culture are, in many ways, what defines the borderlands between the United States and Mexico, Carrasco says. Communities interact—sometimes nobly, sometimes violently—but always in exchange.
“The name-calling and throwing out these very hot words about Mexicans, and other people from Latin America—these big words of ‘rapists,’ ‘murderers,’ ‘illegal aliens’—it strives to flatten the history, culture, and shared languages—it reduces the dynamic history of the crossroads, of what’s gone on there. There’s a deeper story—a story of migration, of centuries of interaction by people on all sides of the border. It’s the story of the crossroads.”