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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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2. Exploring Borders   

2. Exploring

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Activities: Author Activities

Bartolomé de las Casas - Teaching Tips

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  • Have your class examine the painting from the 1531 Huejotzingo Codex featured in the archive. This codex served as evidence in a legal action brought by the Huejotzingo of Central Mexico to protest the heavy taxation they faced from their Spanish conquerors. This pictorial representation records the commodities and resources the Huejotzingo had already contributed to support Spanish expeditions: the eight small figures beneath the colored picture of the Madonna and child represent the slaves the tribe had sold in order to pay for the gold that went into making a banner for the Spanish expedition, while the rows of abstract shapes represent other commodities contributed to the campaign. After you have analyzed and interpreted the Huejotzingo Codex with your class, ask them to think about how the Spanish court might have responded to this document as a piece of legal evidence. Though it is an extremely sophisticated example of Native American record keeping and pictorial expression, it seems unlikely that Spanish judges would have appreciated its logic or understood its import without the explanation written in Spanish that accompanied it. Have students compare these paintings to the representation of slavery and the conquest given in Casas's writings. What is the significance of his commitment to giving written expression to the injustices perpetrated against the Indians?

  • Students are sometimes startled by the graphic nature of Casas's accounts of Spanish atrocities. Gleefully drowning children, dismembering pregnant women, and torturing captives over smoldering fires, the Spanish conquerors in Casas's narrative engage in shocking brutality. Ask your students to consider why Casas might have chosen to represent so vividly the horror of the Spanish Conquest from the Indian point of view. How does his description reverse common European stereotypes about the "savagery" of American Indians? What kind of audience does he assume will read his work? Why might he think these accounts of violence will persuade them? Why does he consistently refer to the torture and murder of women and children? How effective is his strategy? You might have your students examine the graphic images of brutality that accompanied the English translation of Casas's work, entitled "Tears of the Indians," as they consider these questions.

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