One of the things that has us scratching our heads lately is that so little attention has been paid to the quincentennial of the conquest of Mexico. Five hundred years is an auspiciously long and round passage from a point that shaped the Americas almost as much as 1492 or 1776.
It did not begin that way. When Hernán Cortés was a boy, long before he was ordained 1st Marquess of the Valley of Oaxaca and Conquistador of the Aztec Empire, his worried parents, Ruy and María, wanted him to be a lawyer. But Hernán heard about Columbus in the New World, and by the time he was 18, he was there – first as a colonist, finally as a conqueror.
In 1519, he landed in Mexico at Veracruz. Marching over 100 miles with horses, carts, dogs and artillery, Cortés and company massacred Natives at Cholula in a show of force. Before the year was out, Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor, received the Spaniards passively at Tenochtitlán, his capital. It was a hinge of history, changing the laws, the gods, the animals, the lands and even the racial identities of the people, extending up to Colorado’s southern state line today and beyond.
Five years on, 20-year-old Cristóbal de Oñate, grandson of one of Spain’s last feudal lords, arrived in Mexico. By 1531, de Oñate had founded Guadalajara. Finding the Zacatecas silver deposits, he became one of the wealthiest Europeans in the New World; and who can say if his gains were ill-gotten? Were Moctezuma’s? Another four and a half centuries would elapse before Mario Puzo, in an epigraph to “The Godfather” misattributed to Balzac, observed that behind every great fortune there is a crime. It was not novel.
In 1550, Crisotbal de Oñate had a son, Juan, who went into the family line. He married Isabel de Tolosa Cortés de Moctezuma, the granddaughter of Cortés and great-granddaughter of Moctezuma. In 1595, he was sent by royal authority to organize the Spanish territory of present-day New Mexico, although it was not Spanish territory yet as far as its inhabitants knew. Juan de Oñate’s task was to defeat, convert and enthrall the Native Americans.
They included the Puebloan people of Acoma, who lived on a sandstone mesa about 60 miles southwest of Albuquerque, where they had been since about 1150. It was supposed to be out of the way, a fortress, but now they were squarely in Don Juan de Oñate’s path.
In October 1598, Oñate’s soldiers demanded food from them, but they had only their own winter stores. They fought back and killed 11 Spaniards, including Oñate’s nephew.
Oñate, from his camp near where Española is today, ordered a massacre at the Acoma Pueblo. More than 800 were put to the sword. About 500 survivors were tried by Oñate and sentenced to be enslaved for 20 years; the men older than 25, about two dozen of them, also had one foot amputated as further punishment.
In 1991, in Alcalde, just a few miles up the highway from Española on the road to Taos, a bronze statue of Oñate on horseback was erected. In the last days of 1997, someone cut off one of its feet and left a note that said “Fair is fair.”
History may rhyme but there is never a last word.
On Nov. 8, two descendants of Cortés and Moctezuma – respectively, Ascanio Pignatelli of Italy and Federico Acosta of Mexico – met on the 500th anniversary of their forbears’ first encounter. They embraced at the Iglesia de Jesús Nazareno, in Mexico City, where Cortés is buried.
Pignatelli and Acosta agreed to leave the past behind, in a country that is on course to have its most violent year in decades, with more than 17,000 killings just from January to June 2019. And that butcher’s bill is still puny compared to the era of the Conquest.
We can say precisely when the Conquest began. We may never know where it ends.