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

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Activities: Author Activities

Bernal Díaz del Castillo - Teaching Tips

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  • Díaz's narrative is infused with the language of wonder and invocations of the "Marvelous." He relies extensively on the narrative convention of claiming awestruck wordlessness: "I cannot attempt to describe [the wonders I saw]"; "I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed before"; "with such wonderful sights to gaze on we did not know what to say." Ask your students to examine the text for moments when Díaz attempts to convey his sense of wonder. How successful is he? What narrative strategies besides the pose of wordlessness does he use? When does he describe the people and things he encounters as "other," and when does he draw parallels to their European counterparts? Be sure to point out that Díaz's invocation of wonder is used both to celebrate and to censure Aztec culture: he describes not only the beauty of Tenochtitlán (present-day Mexico City), but also the violent Aztec ritual of sacrifice and cannibalism in terms of wonder.

    After you've discussed Díaz's participation in the discourse of wonder, ask your students to think about an object, place, or event that seemed radically new, striking, or awesome to them when they first saw it. Ask them to write their own account of their experience of "wonder." After they've finished writing, discuss their work as a class and talk about the difficulties they had finding words to convey their emotions and to describe accurately what they saw.

  • As the title The True History of the Conquest of New Spain indicates, Díaz claimed that his narrative was the simple, unvarnished truth. As he put it, "That which I have seen and the fighting I have gone through, with the help of God I will describe, quite simply, as a fair eyewitness without twisting events one way or another." As literary critic Stephen Greenblatt has pointed out, Díaz's pose of authenticity and accuracy should not be taken at face value. (Crucially, the Spanish word historia means both "history" and "story," highlighting the extent to which any so-called "objective history" is always a subjective story inflected by personal biases and agendas.) Ask your class to think about how Díaz constructs the rhetorical device of his own neutrality in his historia. Then ask them to try to locate moments when the narrative is clearly not a dispassionate transcription of reality, but rather a personal and partisan account. You might look at Díaz's famous description of witnessing his countrymen being ritually sacrificed and cannibalized by the Aztecs on the altar of their god Huichilobos. How do Díaz's horror and personal fear affect his account of what he saw? How do his Christian beliefs color his narrative? How might an Aztec warrior's perspective on this scene be different? As contemporary readers, how might our knowledge of the destructiveness and brutality of European actions in the New World affect our understanding of this scene?

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