YÁSNAYA ELENA A. G 7 AUGUST 2021
Celebrations in Mexico City for the 696th anniversary of the founding of Tenochtitlán on 26 July. SÁSHENKA GUTIÉRREZ / EFE
Japom’. 500 Years after the Conquest: Possible Futures
Japom’ means ‘tomorrow’ in the Mixe language.
The creation of the Mexican state after independence is not the interruption of the colonial order, but its perfection. Now that state is demanding forgiveness on behalf of indigenous peoples who prefer other forms of justice.
The conquest is a fundamental point in the so-called history of Mexico. What happened 500 years ago is important not only for its historiographical interest, but also because it is fundamental in explaining many of today’s social and political dynamics and, therefore, allows us to glimpse the future for those of us who are part of the different peoples who were involved in these historical processes.
What happened 500 years ago is part of a web of narratives to which we have been systematically exposed, created by a privileged voice: that of the Mexican state. Through schooling and propaganda, the state has created an official history that functions as a lens through which we look at the past as a series of events whose ultimate function is to justify the existence of a country like Mexico, an existence that is narrated as the result of a manifest destiny.
The state has created a linear narrative within which is inscribed what is now known as the “conquest of Mexico”. The fact that it is the state that creates the lenses through which we look at history generates a series of very specific effects. The capture of the narrative voice has been so evident that, even today, it was the head of the Mexican state who a few months ago made a request for forgiveness to the King of Spain for the events that took place during the conquest on behalf of the country’s indigenous peoples. The voice of the indigenous peoples has been so silenced that the effects that the wars of conquest had on them have been claimed not by the indigenous peoples, but by the representative of the Mexican state.
Who were conquered?
One of the main effects of the Mexican state’s narrative capture of history is that a very interesting conversion takes place: in the past, the present-day country, Mexico, becomes Tenochtitlán. Five hundred years ago, a complex network of socio-political and cultural structures existed in these territories – many of them in permanent tension, but in the official history, present-day Mexico was reborn 500 years ago as a single Mexican city. What happened to Tenochtitlán is told as something that happened to present-day Mexico. In this way, it matters little that, as several historians have pointed out, the army that took the city was over 90 per cent native people: they are not identified as the root of present-day Mexico.
This operation has meant that sources evidencing diverse voices from indigenous peoples have been silenced. In accordance with this narrative, independence is then narrated as relief from the condition created by the conquest. This artifice conceals the fact that the creation of the Mexican state was not a project of the indigenous peoples, but of a creole minority that ignored the indigenous nations, which it has systematically tried to make disappear either by integration or elimination. The conquest has served to deny the state’s responsibility for the pauperisation and oppression of indigenous peoples today.
The fall of Tenochtitlán and the establishment of the colonial order
It is important to take off the glasses that official history has placed on us and differentiate between different events. On the one hand, the fall of Tenochtitlán as a one-off event that did not automatically mean the defeat of all the peoples of these territories. On the other hand, the successive and complex wars of conquest throughout the territory we now call Mexico. And on the other hand, the establishment of colonialism that gradually ordered and hierarchised bodies and determined a world in which whiteness as a regime was established as the measure of progress and civilisation. Under this scheme, the creation of the Mexican state in that period called independence is no longer the interruption of the colonial order, but its perfection as an oppressive element of the indigenous peoples.
A tomorrow beyond forgiveness
With the voice of the indigenous peoples systematically silenced, it has been the voice of the head of the Mexican state that has supplanted their will and, as we said, has enunciated for them a request for forgiveness from the Spanish government for the events that took place in Tenochtitlán (that Mexico in the past) 500 years ago. I find this impersonation appalling, as it perpetuates the silence to which the complex and diverse histories of indigenous nations have been confined. On the other hand, it is striking that the word “forgiveness” is used when talking about this request: one cannot ignore all the Judeo-Christian baggage that this word carries, baggage that is inscribed within the same Western tradition against which it seeks to rebel.
By contrast, within indigenous peoples there are other ethical principles on the recognition of grievances and restorative processes. Far from the tradition of forgiveness and blame, in the justice traditions of many indigenous peoples, restoring the balance broken by an affront, or violence, involves several elements. The first is the public acknowledgement that the violence that broke the balance was committed. This step is important because part of justice involves naming the affront, removing the veil of denial and bringing to light the pain and damage caused. The second element focuses on entering into a joint dialogue that determines the best way to restore the lost balance, to repair – symbolically and concretely – the fabric torn by the violence.
From this other starting point, if we recognise that the colonial order continues to order the world and continues to have ongoing effects such as racism and the extra activism of indigenous peoples’ territories, it is necessary to name these systems and the associated violence that continues, to remove the veil under which the current consequences of that which began to be established 500 years ago and which changed the history not only of Spain and Mexico, but of the entire world, are hidden. Acknowledgement is the first requirement, which then gives way to the promise of non-repetition, to create the conditions for the violence associated with these events to cease. Once they have been named and enunciated, the future could be built through a dialogue that seeks to reassemble the fabric that has been broken.
In the construction of this new fabric, we need different voices, to listen to those that have been silenced. And in the face of the climate crisis – a concrete effect of capitalist colonialism – we need to propose joint solutions that put the dignified life of all peoples first. The restorative justice we need will not come from the Judeo-Christian forgiveness enunciated by the state that continues to supplant the voice of indigenous peoples, but from a dialogue that takes into account the recognition of the damage and the construction of ideas of restoration that will provide us with a more just future.
Yásnaya Elena Aguilar is a Mexican essayist, author of ‘Äää: manifiestos sobre la diversidad lingüística’ (Almadía).