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

2. Exploring

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Gloria
- Bartolomé
de las Casas
- Bernal Díaz
del Castillo
- Samuel
de Champlain
- Christopher
- Adriaen
Van der Donck
- Americo
- John Smith
- Álvar Núñez
Cabeza de Vaca
- Garcilaso
de la Vega
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•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1492-1584)

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

Bernal Díaz del Castillo Activities
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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.

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