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Alison Maffucci
HIS 007
September 23, 2010
Historical Analysis on Native Priests’ Response to the Spanish
The indigenous practice the Spaniards sought most to overturn was the natives’
religion. Everywhere the Spanish conquistadors went they presented Christianity and
taught this to be the one true faith. Three years following the Spanish Conquest, twelve
Franciscan friars came to Mexico in 1524 to meet with Native Priests and Chiefs through
a series of gatherings to spread the Christian message. This primary source titled, The
Native Priests’ Response to the Spanish, is important to the contribution of history
because it demonstrates the Aztec’s opposition to Spanish colonial rule and it shows the
natives’ reactions to being compelled by the Spanish to abandon their religion and
culture.
Before the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs were well established and had already
developed a sophisticated civilization that they governed in the Americas. As testimony
to the natives’ many achievements were their colossal cities, pyramid temples, epic
palaces, and monuments and shrines built in reverence to their gods. Other cultural
achievements of the Mayans and Aztecs were in astronomy, the making of an accurate
calendar, and the cultivation of diverse crops, a writing system, and developments in both
architecture and art.
The Aztecs were very religious. They believed that inanimate objects had spirits,
and they worshiped many different gods that were largely associated with agriculture.
Aztec daily life was centered on their religious beliefs. Every one of their ceremony’s had
a specific ritual that included burning of incense, offerings of goods, such as: beans,
tamales, tobacco, and corn; and sometimes human sacrifices were made to the gods.
Religious beliefs influenced the daily life of the Aztecs and their religion largely
impacted their culture, community, art, politics, interpersonal relationships, and
perspectives about the world and all of humanity. The Spanish asking the Aztecs to
abandon their god is asking them to abandon their sense of self. This is historically
important because it shows how a complete conversion can change a cultural group’s
identity.
The natives were critical of the Franciscan Friars who sought to convert them
because a complete conversion to Christianity would be a betrayal to their people, their
power, and their culture. The native priests’ respond to the friars with a rhetorical
question: “Will we be the ones to destroy the ancient traditions?” (Portilla, 30), which
sets up a planned, organized, and united response from the native community, boldly
yelling: “No, we will not destroy our ancient traditions!” This rhetorical question
emphasizes the Aztecs belief that to convert completely would result in their own
destruction and would also be an abandonment to their notable history of victory and
conquest. The natives’ religion has formed their daily lives and ideologies: “How will the
poor old men, the poor old women, forget or erase their upbringing, their education?”
(Portilla, 30) To abandon their god is to abandon their beliefs. To abandon their god is to
abandon their history, abandon their culture, abandon their political regime, and abandon
their future legacy.
What does it mean for the Spanish Friars to successfully convert the
Mesoamericans? Friars needed knowledge of the natives and their beliefs to successfully
convert the Indians (Foster, 60). The Friars, who at the time were the only educated,
opened schools for Natives where they could learn about the Catholic Church and the
Christian faith. This is important to history because this leads to the encouragement of the
Aztecs writing down their own cultural history in their native language, giving us today
primary sources of Aztec life. (Foster, 65)
The Native Priests response to the Spanish Monks is passionate, assertive, and
strong, and because the natives’ response is so notable, one can learn about the Spanish’s
mindset and ethnocentric actions in the Americas. The response of the Native Priests
reveals the Spanish mindset that God has specifically chosen Spain over all the other
powerful nations and kingdoms to civilize the new world and Christianize the savages.
The Spaniards have discovered, explored, and conquered so much land that the Spanish
sing praises, “Blessed be God who gave [the Spanish] such grace and power” to
conquest all other lands (Foster, 59). Spain earlier in late 1400s purifies their nation of all
Muslims, thus uniting their Christian and civilizing their country. The Spanish were not
religiously tolerant of others in their own country, which means they will not be
religiously tolerant in their new empire in the Americas.
The Spanish perspective of civilization was Christianization, and that is exactly
what Cortes sought to do in the Americas. Cortes “trusting in God’s greatness”
attempted to subject the natives to the royal crown of Spain. (Foster, 59) This source is
important to history because Cortes’ conquest to the Americas introduced Catholicism to
the Natives, which significantly impacts this region to current day. In modern day
Mexico, Catholicism remains the dominant religion of faith to the people because of
Cortes’ conquest.
Diseases brought by the Europeans conditioned the ways in which the Spanish
responded to the Native Americans and the ways Native Americans responded to the
Spanish. In the years of 1515 and 1516, the “easy death” devastated the Aztec people.
Their “bodies rotted and smelled,” and since the natives were not immune to the new
diseases brought by the Spanish, the natives died immediately following contact of the
disease. Dr. Daniel Reff, who studies Indian populations, concluded: “Old World
diseases destroyed upwards of ninety percent of the aboriginal population” (Decline and
All). With this in mind, one might be able to understand the natives’ skepticism of
converting to Christianity, the religion of the foreigners who brought the diseases. As a
result of the considerable devastation of the disease, aboriginal culture is forever
changed. Now the power balances towards the Europeans and not the natives. This is
significant to history because Spain uses their new position of power to abuse the natives
and grow their own empire and global presence.
During this time the Aztecs have already lost their own political power to the
Spanish because of the devastation of the conquests and diseases. The native priests say
to the Spanish, “It is enough that we have lost political power, that it was taken from us,
that we were made to abandon the mats and thrones…” (Portilla, 30) and still the
Spanish remain insistent that the natives convert. The natives respond that: “[They] will
not budge,” and to “do to us what you want” (Portilla, 30). The religious conversion of
the natives was essential for Spain to justify their actions in Mexico and was important
for their political legitimacy, which the Catholic Church granted. The natives response to
the friars is that, “We will cause you pain.” The Aztecs have lost everything—ninety
percent of their population, their political rule and power, their previous way of life, and
now are being asked to abandon their religion, the only thing that defines them that they
have left.
This source is important to history because it outlines Spain’s new empire in the
Americas that Spain must now transform into a European society. Without preparation,
and simultaneously during the Spain’s own wars in Europe, Spain found itself ruler of a
wealthy civilization, larger in area and more densely populated than their own country in
Europe, and this civilization was located in a land far away (Spanish Conquest). Spain
transforms the American civilization into a representation of a European society by
converting the Mesoamericans to Christianity. Evangelism became a political affair.
Christianizing the Indians would be creating civil societies (Spanish Conquest). The
Spanish were not only in charge of governing the Aztec people, they were in charge of
their souls. The Spanish conquest “guided by God’s favor” entrusted the Spanish with the
natives’ salvation. This is a critical event—evangelism being used as a tool to subjugate
people and create a European style government. The Spanish conquests of Mesoamerican
lands, define the very beginning of the modern Mestizo nation.
The reader must take careful consideration to the compilation of this source. This
source is a direct translation from the Nahautl language formulated by the religious
Spanish and is claimed to be the responses that the Aztec Priests made after listening to
several Christian messages from the Franciscan friars. However, this source compiles
numerous responses of the natives from multiple gatherings into one single source. With
this in mind, the harsh and averse tone that is created in the dialogue of the natives might
not be a significantly powerful and accurate depiction of their intended attitude and
portrayal of emotions. The Europeans are the ones who took notes during a couple of the
meetings, and if they compiled all of the notes in one source, it is going to create a more
extreme tone which includes the most interesting of opinions, thoughts, and dialogues
that the natives had to say during all the meetings. A more upsetting tone is created
because of the single occasion representation this source conveys instead of a discussion
between the monks and priests over a period of time.
Motivations, expectations, political power, social structures, perceptions of
power, and religious worship all played a significant role to the way the Spanish
interacted with the Aztecs and the ways the Aztecs responded to the Spanish. The Aztecs
believed that to completely abandon their religion would be a betrayal to their ancestors
who gave them, “their laws, their ways of doing things.” (Portilla, 30) The Aztecs
throughout history have followed their ancestors who: “believed in the gods and served
them and honored them.” (Portilla, 30) It is difficult for the Aztecs to convert completely
because their ancestors have taught them everything, including the gods they worship,
serve, and respect, and the Aztecs “live by the grace of those gods.” This source reveals
the native priests’ emotional response after being stripped by their power, their history,
their people, their daily lives, and now their religion. This source not only shows the
opposition against colonial rule, it shows the early interactions among the strangers,
“[whose] hearts cannot be at ease as long as [they do not] understand [one another].” This
source is about the dangers of ethnocentrism, the dangers of outsiders ruling unfamiliar
people, the dangers of subjugation, and the dangers of evangelism, which are all
significantly important to history and international relations today.
Works Cited Page
Foster, Lynn V. A Brief History of Mexico. 4. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2010. xvi304. Print.
Portilla, Miguel Leon, trans. “Response to the Spanish by Native Priests.” American
Indian History. Ed. Camilla Townsend. United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
29-30. Print.
Reff, Dr. Daniel. Decline and All. BMJ. 15 May 2008. n. pag. Web. 20 Sept. 2011
“ The Spanish Conquest and its Aftermath.” Institute of Archaeology. National Institute
of Culture and History, 2011. Web. 22 Sep 2011.
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