The idea of conquest “helps to legitimize dominations”

By José Ignacio de Alba

La Gran Tenochtitlán | Mural by Diego Rivera.

MEXICO CITY.—Pedro Salmerón Sanginés does not hesitate to affirm: “There is no period in history that is worse told than the so-called conquest of Mexico.”

In other historical periods, says the historian, there are varied sources. But when it comes to Indian wars, the versions are limited to the vision of the colonizers. “For example, in this particular indigenous war, which is the war for Tenochtitlán, we don’t have a single source from the Mexica. We do not have Apache sources of the Apapache war, we do not have Chichimeca sources of the Chichimeca war. We have practically no Mayan sources of the so-called Caste War.”

It’s a short conversation, via zoom. Salmerón is a well-known historian with a vocation to the left, who has concentrated on studying the Mexican Revolution. His books La División del Norte (2006), Los Carrancistas (2010) are important documents to study the collapse of the dictator Porfirio Díaz. But in 2021, when it is 500 years since the fall of Tenochtitlán, Salmerón changes the century and publishes La Batalla por Tenochtitlán (Fondo de Cultura Económica).

He assures that the story of the self-appointed conquerors has permeated Mexico for years; It is a story that has worked “to politically justify the victorious captain, and to justify the claims of domination of the Spanish crown, over all of northern America.”

José Ignacio De Alba: But why does this version continue to be repeated in Mexico?

Pedro Salmerón Sanginés: The story of the conquest helps to legitimize dominations.

What happens with the indigenous versions, where there is talk of the Quetzalcóatl return?

It is an a posteriori explanation. If you check the sources you will see that the Mesoamericans, in general, and the Mexica in particular, never confused the Spanish with divinities. They never believed that Cortes was a divinity, they never considered horses divine animals. Reading the sources well, these were later versions, which are part of this legitimizing discourse. Also part of a particular world view, we have to understand that Europeans of the time were convinced that there is only one god, only one religion and only one valid way of worshiping that god and that everything that does not fit into it is evil, doomed or wrong.

If it’s not a conquest, what is it?

There are three things that overlap. The first is the invasion. The second is a war between the elites; between the western confederation led by Tenochtitlán, Texcoco and Tlacopan, against the eastern confederation led by Cholula, Huejotzingo and Tlaxcala. The third is a popular rebellion, something much less studied, against an elite of a confederation. All of this aggravated by epidemics.

The globalization of capitalism

In history the fall of Tenochtitlán is proposed to us as the end of the indigenous world, but you propose it as the beginning of a period …

It is the first chapter of the Spanish-Mesoamerican war, which lasts in the areas of central and western Mesoamerica, at least, until 1550… and in the Mayan areas it never ends. There are four expeditions to conquer Yucatán, but only the fourth manages to establish a definitive base for the Hispanic world, in the area of ​​Valladolid, Mérida and Campeche. That is, corners of the northwest and west of the peninsula. It is a war that does not end, with Independence. The last Mayan city-state surrendered in 1697 and in the jungle of what is now Quintana Roo they are never dominated. After the Mesoamerican war, other Indian wars follow, in what today we call Aridoamerica: the Chichimeca war, the Apache wars, the wars of the new Vizcaya, the war against the Yaquis, the war against the Comanches, the invasion of Tamaulipas that barely in 1701 an expedition of Otomí and Nahua Spaniards entered. To settle in what is now Tamaulipas, in effect, the end of the battle for Tenochtitlán is the end of the first episode. But many others followed.

In the book you also call that historical period as the “globalization of capitalism”, the first great enterprise of capitalism …

The Spanish irruption in Mexico is, therefore, one of the key pieces of the globalization of capitalism. Who best tells it is Immanuel Wallestein: “The world in which we live, the modern world system, had its origins in the 16th century. This world system was then located in only one part of the globe, mainly in parts of Europe and America. Over time, it expanded to encompass the entire world. It is and has always been a world-economy. It is and has always been a capitalist world-economy.”

The EZ, a key factor

How important is, within this whole context, the emergence of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation [EZLN]?

It is one of the last episodes of what we now call 500 years of resistance, one of the key episodes. It is not the EZLN that is isolated, it is a bunch of peasant and indigenous organizations, around the EZLN and not only in Mexico, but outside of Mexico. It is to show that in the 300 years of the so-called colony there is a perpetual war against the indigenous people, that indigenous resistance continues for the next 200 years. The 200 years that Mexico has been an independent state, one of whose characteristics is the combat, the attempted subjugation and the attempt to repress the indigenous and peasant communities.

After 500 years, from this great company of capitalism, there are still Mayans, Yaquis and many peoples now crushed by mining, wind-mills, agroindustrial companies … How should we tell the story of capitalism, they are no longer those actors who came from Europe but from the companies that continue to hoard resources, the land?

From my position as a militant, first we try to fight neoliberalism; and to the extent possible, when there are viable, alternatives to capitalism. But also, in effect, I agree with the EZLN that capitalism is predatory and exploitative and it continues to be.

And what do you think of the role of the government with this intention of retelling and reviewing the official history?

When Andrés Manuel (López Obrador) talks about the great story, he in many ways repeats a traditional story that we already know. But he also forces us to put things that we had not thought about and that we had not discussed; as seemingly minor things. He not only talks about the Independence, the Conquest, the Revolution, but he talks about the massacre of Chinese in Torreón, the repression of the Mayans, the Yaqui war, the fight for water.

*  *  *

Before saying goodbye, Salmerón says that after this book and the discussions he has had, he would like to write a book on the Indian wars from 1521 to 1810.

What other historical period is wrongly counted?

Well, looking at all of them, all of them (laughs).


José Ignacio De Alba

“He was educated in Catholic schools until he became an atheist. He is sullen and globetrotting. He studied journalism and never graduated. He tends to have more faith in old narratives than new ones. He likes to write stories.

“La idea de la conquista ayuda a legitimar dominaciones” originally published in Spanish in Pie de Página, October 16, 2021. Leer en español aquí

Translated by Chiapas Support Committee.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: