BURIED MIRROR. CONFLICT OF THE GODS. TRANSCRIPT. In the spring of 1519 a Spanish expedition of eleven ships set sail from Cuba. On board were 508 soldiers, 16 horses, and several pieces of artillery. The first land they sighted was the coast of Yucatán, once the heart of the Mayan empire. The leader of this small Spanish band was a young adventurer named Hernán Cortés. Little did he realize that his arrival coincided precisely with the foreseen return of the Plumed Serpent. On Holy Thursday, Cortés moored his ships off the Mexican coast and founded the city of Veracruz in the name of the Emperor Charles.
Another emperor, named Moctezuma, received the news. "The gods have come back. Their lances spit fire. Their warriors have two heads and six legs, and they live in houses that float." The whole Aztec empire was filled with foreboding, as comets raced across the sky in broad daylight.
No public monument to Hernán Cortés is to be found anywhere in Mexico. Even this overgrown ruin of a house which he is said to have built for his own use in Veracruz, would long since have fallen down but for the roots of this ceiba tree, considered by the Indians to be sacred. Yet without doubt, he was the very embodiment of the conquistador. When Cortés arrived in Mexico, he was just 34 years old. He was born in the town of Medellín in the province of Extremadura, where his father had fought the Moors and now owned a mill, a vine(yard), and a beehive. His mother was described as "an honest and religious woman." They scrimped and saved and sent the young man to the University of Salamanca, where he failed as a student, but read all the fabulous accounts of the discovery of America, so that his head became filled forever with the dream of the new world.
At 19, he sailed to the Indies; but Cortés had not come to the New World to repeat the destiny of his father in the Old World. He had come to fashion his own destiny, a destiny of wealth and glory achieved not through inheritance, but through personal determination and a bit of luck. He became one of the great figures of the European Renaissance, the perfect Machiavellian blend of will power and good luck as he embarked on one of the great epic adventures of all times, the conquest of the Aztec empire.
There were constant skirmishes with the local tribes along the coast, but the chieftains quickly learned that these intruders could not be defeated in battle. Word reached the Aztecs in the interior that they were armed with lightning and dressed in armor made of silver and rock. To placate them, the Indians sent gifts of gold and other precious objects. Then one day, Cortés was presented with tribute of a different kind: a gift of 20 slave girls was delivered to the Spanish encampment. Out of these he chose one described by the chronicler as "outgoing, meddlesome, and beautiful," although of course you wouldn't guess it from this portrait of her by José Clemente Orozco, but perhaps Orozco is incapable of painting a beautiful woman. Her name was "Malinsi," a name which signifies "bad luck and strife." The Spanish baptized her "Marina," she who came from the sea, but her people called her "la Malinche," the traitoress, a traitoress to the Indians. She was thrust into an extraordinary destiny, whatever name she was given. She became "mi lengua," for Cortés who took her as his interpreter and lover. "Mi lengua," "my tongue," the interpreter who would guide him through the Aztec empire, demonstrating constantly that something was rotten in the reign of Moctezuma, that in effect there was grave discontent, and that the empire had feet of clay.
Through Malinche, who quickly acquired a knowledge of Spanish, Cortés was able to interview the messengers and envoys who came to his camp. He learned that the great king Moctezuma lived in a magnificent city beyond the mountains and that his armies, lined up in a field, would cover it like the waves of the sea. But he was also informed that many vassal kings, who owed allegiance to the emperor, secretly detested him, and would readily support anyone who might help them throw off the hated Aztec yoke. But if the vassal kings were ready to march, the Spanish were not. Skirmishes had taken their toll. Bread was becoming scarce, as were salt and bacon. Some feared the cold of the mountains; others complained of the weight of the armor. But Cortés refused to turn back with empty hands.
The Spanish soldiers were divided between their desire for fame and wealth and their fear of defeat and death. "We're only 500," they told Cortés, and he answered, "Then our hearts must be doubly courageous." "We are dying of fevers and Indian attacks," others complained. "Then let us bury our dead at night so that our enemies will think that we are immortal."
"Let us go back to Cuba, let us sail back," others said in frank mutiny. "But there are no ships," Cortés answered, "I have sunk the ships, right here. There is no way but up, there is no retreat. We must go forward to Mexico and see if this great Moctezuma is as great as he proclaims himself to be." So, the soldiers cheered and acclaimed Cortés as their leader, and all cried "Forward, to Mexico, to Mexico!"
On August the 16th, 1519, the Great March began. Mexico City lay 250 miles to the northwest beyond the mighty volcanos of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl. In their records, the famous codices, the Indians themselves set down their impressions as the expedition wound its way up and down the treacherous path. Cortés soon discovered that his new allies would cover 15 miles in a day, bearing loads of 150 pounds, although at least one of the Spaniards, it seems, was not quite so keen on pulling his weight. As they advanced, several thousand Indians joined the invaders, seizing the chance to rebel against the all-powerful Aztecs. But for Cortés and his men, the real rewards lay in the awesome sight of the city on the lake: it seemed like an enchanted vision, this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen, or even dreamed of before.
On a causeway leading to the city, one of the great encounters of history now took place. Exposed and outnumbered, Cortés could count on nothing but the courage and resolution of his men. But to Moctezuma, he was a god, the Plumed Serpent who was returning to his people. "Welcome," he said, "we have been waiting for you. This is your home." Moctezuma was ruled by fate. Cortés was ruled by will. In the weeks that followed, the emperor found himself held as a hostage, while Aztec images were destroyed and Christian altars were erected in their place. One of Cortés' officers, Pedro de Alvarado, after cheating Moctezuma at dice, launched a frenzied attack on a thousand naked dancers, their bodies glistening with gold and precious jewels. Were these really gods who could do such things? If they were not, then surely they could be defeated.
With vastly superior numbers, the Aztec legions drove the Spaniards from the city and back across the causeway. But Cortés returned. He built ships to transport his men across the lake, putting his faith in gunpowder, horses, and steel.
And while the Aztecs now fought bravely, theirs was a sacred world whose fall had been forecast by the ancient books of memory. "Prepare yourselves, oh my little brothers, for the white twin of heaven has come and he will castrate the sun, bringing the night and sadness and the weight of pain." Cortés finally vanquished the Aztec capital after a bloody siege in 1521. The last Aztec poet cried out in his despair: Where shall we go now, oh my friends? The smoke is rising, the fog is spreading, the waters on the lake are red. Cry, oh cry, for we have lost the Aztec nation." The time of the fifth sun was at an end.
When it was all over, when the Emperor Moctezuma had been silenced by his own people, who stoned him to death, when the conquistador himself, Hernán Cortés, had been silenced by the crown of Spain who denied him political power, perhaps only the voice of La Malinche, of this extraordinary woman, remained. She was the interpreter, she was also the lover, the woman of Cortés. Sex and language: she established the central fact of our multiracial civilization, which was that it is mestizo: that it is of mixed blood. She bore the child of the conqueror. She was the mother, symbolically, of the first Mexican, the first child of Indian and Spanish blood, the first child who was both European and American.