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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Exploring Borderlands Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1492-1584)

[7399] Cortés(?), La Gran Ciudad de Temixitlan (1524), courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo was born in the Castile region of Spain in 1492, the same year that Christopher Columbus landed in the West Indies and declared himself “discoverer” of the New World. Coming of age in the exciting era of Spanish exploration and colonization, Díaz took advantage of an early opportunity to leave Europe for the Americas and joined an expedition bound for the colony of Darien (present-day Panama) in 1514. When he found the colony to be unstable and pervaded by political turmoil, he left for Cuba with a small contingent of other colonists. Although he based himself in Cuba, Díaz continued to join exploring parties in the region, eventually signing on with Hernán Cortés as a footsoldier in the Conquest of Mexico.

Because he saw the Conquest from the perspective of a common soldier rather than a nobleman or officer, Díaz formed different impressions of events than his superiors did. Much later in his life, he decided to write an account of those impressions, intending to offer a corrective to what he saw as the distortions and half-truths perpetuated by other historians. (Significantly, Díaz’s work also serves as a corrective to Cortés’s “great man” view of history in that it emphasizes the role of the ordinary footsoldier and lauds the role of natives such as La Malinche. Historians have argued that this is one of the first truly American histories in that it resonates with the democracy that would flourish later in the Americas.) Although Díaz claimed that he lacked eloquence and skill as a writer, his prose is vibrant and realistic and provides important insights into the clash between cultures that he witnessed. He offers convincing portraits of many of the central participants in the Conquest, including Cortés, Montezuma, and Doña Marina (La Malinche), and never shies away from representing the violent and destructive realities of war. His account of the beauty, wealth, and eventual devastation of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán provides valuable evidence about traditional Aztec life and culture as well as insight into the experiences of soldiers on the ground during the siege of the city. Díaz’s interest in and sympathetic portrayal of Doña Marina, the native woman who acted as translator, political negotiator, and mistress for Cortés, gives readers insight into the life of the woman who later took on mythical status as “La Chingada” (“the violated one”).

Unlike some of the other conquistadors, Díaz did not gain wealth or fame as the result of his participation in the Conquest (at least according to his own account). The Crown endowed him with a modest encomienda, a grant that allowed the grantee to command Indians to labor for and pay tribute to him–in effect, a system of slavery. Díaz lived on his encomienda in Guatemala until his death at the age of ninety-two.

Teaching Tips

  • 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?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What kinds of tensions and conflicts divide the Spanish camp? What distinctions does Díaz’s narrative draw between different members of Cortés’s army? How do class and rank affect individual Spaniards’ feelings about the Conquest?
  2. Comprehension: How does Díaz describe the city of Tenochtitlán? Compare his description to the map of Tenochtitlán featured in the archive. What aspects of the map match up with Díaz’s description? How is the map different from Díaz’s account? How does the bird’s-eye perspective of the map compare to Díaz’s narrative historia?
  3. Context: The Florentine Codex (parts of which are featured in the archive) is a manuscript containing a hand-written version of the encyclopedic account of Aztec society assembled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún. Beginning in the 1540s, Sahagún asked questions of groups of Nahuatl-speaking elders (presumably all male) from the heart of the former Aztec empire and had them record their responses. The book was illustrated by Aztec scribes in a style that reflected a mixture of pre-Conquest manuscript traditions and European illustration conventions. Compare the pictographic representations of the Conquest from Book 12 of the Florentine Codex to Díaz’s account in the True History. In what points do these two histories agree? How do their different genres and styles (pictorial representations, narrative description) affect their perspective and representation of events?
  4. Context: In their narratives, both Bartolomé de las Casas and Bernal Díaz describe the destruction and violence the Spanish visited on native cultures in the Americas, but their attitudes toward that violence seem quite different. How does Díaz’s account compare to Casas’s?
  5. Exploration: Is it possible for a person claiming to be an eyewitness to write a “true history” of an event? What would constitute a “true history”?

Selected Archive Items

[3699] Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva-España (1632), 
courtesy of the Jay I. Kislak Foundation, Inc. 
Although Bernal Díaz del Castillo composed his True History in the late sixteenth century, it was not published until the seventeenth; the title page of the first edition is shown here.

[7399] Cortés(?), La Gran Ciudad de Temixitlan (1524),
courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago. 
This map of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán is often attributed to Cortés. It is European in style, but the map-view contains information suggesting a native source.

[7402] Anonymous, Cortés, Montezuma and Doña Marina, from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala Facsimile (1890), 
courtesy of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Bancroft Library.
The Lienzo de Tlaxcala employs the res gestae strategy and provides an interesting counterpoint to the Florentine Codex. Here Cortes is depicted with Montezuma and Doña Marina.

[7561] Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Book 12, plate 45 (1500-99), 
courtesy of the School of American Research and the University of Utah Press.
This plate shows Spanish soldiers leading Montezuma into the great palace. The Florentine Codexwas illustrated by Aztec scribes in a style that reflected a mixture of pre-Conquest manuscript traditions and European illustration conventions.

[7368] Anonymous, Sheet from the Huejotzingo Codex [1 of 8] (1531), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.
In 1531, the people of Huejotzingo asked conqueror Hernán Cortés to initiate a lawsuit against the high court of New Spain concerning the unjust use of indigenous labor and tribute. As part of this petition, eight pages of drawings were made on amatl (fig bark); these drawings are known today as the Huejotzingo Codex.

[7575] Anonymous, Florentine Codex, Libro 12, plate 2 (1500-99),
courtesy of the School of American Research and the University of Utah Press.
This plate shows Spanish soldiers marching. Book 12 of the Florentine Codex depicts the deeds of Cortés and the conquest of Mexico as it was described to Sahagún by Nahuatl-speaking elders and nobility.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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