Interview: Laura E. Matthew on Indigenous conquistadors and complex identities in Guatemala

[This interview was conducted by our publishing partners at First Peoples, New Directions in Indigenous Studies. The article is crossposted from their site,–ellen]

Memories of Conquest: Becoming Mexicano in Colonial Guatemala, by Laura E. MatthewIn her new book, Memories of Conquest: Becoming Mexicano in Colonial Guatemala, Laura E. Matthew sheds light on colonial alliances between Indigenous and Spanish conquistadors that helped the Spanish gain a foothold in the Americas. Locating her research in Ciudad Vieja, Guatemala, she places the Nahua, Zapotec, and Mixtec conquistadors of Guatemala and their descendants within a deeply Mesoamerican historical context. She also sheds light on the ongoing legacies of this history, including the complexities surrounding race and identity in contemporary Guatemala. Here she discusses her research as well as new visual evidence of Indigenous conquistadors—the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan—and the historical importance of this discovery.

What are some of the kinds of evidence you found of Indigenous conquistadors and what did that evidence tell you about their motivations?

I didn’t originally intend to write about Mexicano “yndios conquistadores.” I ended up doing so because they left the biggest paper trail. The status of the Mexicanos—as the Nahua and Oaxacan conquistadors and their descendants came to be known in colonial Guatemala—was higher than that of the local Maya, and the Mexicanos also had a pretty exalted sense of themselves, so they asserted themselves more forcefully within the colonial bureaucracy.

Some of the records the Mexicanos left behind are unique—for instance, while most Maya were counseled by colonial advisors to write humble letters of petition to Spanish authorities, the Mexicanos adopted the Spanish probanza de méritos y servicios, which was the standard form that all conquistadors used to request recompense for their services. The Mexicanos considered themselves conquistadors, and expected to be treated as such.

Most of my documents, though, were typical of any study of community formation under colonial rule. The Catholic church oversaw Indigenous populations and produced important data especially on population and language use. Court records are great for the small details of everyday life embedded within all the legalese. Notarial records helped me track the Mexicanos’ bilingualism in their native Nahuatl and in Spanish.

These are all very traditional materials for a historian, but they dominate only the second half of the book. The first half relies much more on the work of archaeologists, linguists, epigraphers, and art historians. These disciplines have pieced together Mesoamerican history before the production of European-style written records. It was very important to me that my history of the Mexicanos not begin with the arrival of Europeans by default, simply because that is when the type of documentation with which historians are most comfortable also arrived.

In what ways does your research enhance contemporary understandings of Indigenous agency during the colonial period? Can that agency be seen in a positive light even though it entailed the killing, displacement, and slavery of other Indigenous peoples?

Certainly, the Mexicano “yndios conquistadores” displayed a lot of agency! This has always been a problem for European narratives of the conquest, which may sympathize with Indigenous people as victims or may treat Native allies as dupes but have a harder time understanding the ways they saw themselves, in this case as conquistadors.

Nahuas, Otomi, Zapotecs, K’iche’, and other Mesoamericans were fundamentally involved in planning conquest expeditions, raising troops and supplies, instigating alliances, and colonizing outlying regions alongside the Spanish. In many cases, they did this not because the Spanish forced them to, but because they were pursuing their own goals in ways that made sense to them, based on their previous experiences of warfare and imperialism.

Researching this book transformed my own sense of Mesoamerican history. As I got deeper into the project, it became impossible to ignore the fundamental imprint of Mesoamerican history, culture, and relationships on the conquest period and beyond. So I had to work much harder than I anticipated to weave that preconquest history into my narrative, not just as background but as something integral to my analysis.

Sixteenth-century conquest wasn’t a fundamental break with the past—it was an important moment along a very long, deep historical timeline. That to me is an incredibly empowering idea and one that applies equally well to people who might more properly be labeled victims of this particular historical moment.

Why was the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan such an important discovery and how does it illustrate the arguments you make in the book?

Florine Asselberg’s identification of the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan while I was researching this book was serendipitous. I received an email one day from my friend and mentor Christopher Lutz. Had I heard, he asked, that a Dutch ethnohistorian had found a painted depiction of the conquest of Guatemala by the Indian conquistadors themselves, at a museum in Puebla, Mexico? My first thought showed no appreciation for the magnitude of the discovery. I was simply thrilled that there may have been contact between the Guatemalan Mexicanos and their homelands, something I had wondered about but for which I had no evidence.

Detail of the eagle warrior from the digital reproduction of the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan
Detail of the eagle warrior from the digital reproduction of the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan
As it turned out, the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan was far more useful than that. On a painted cloth that covers an entire wall, it shows the Mexicanos’ view of themselves as conquistadors better than my linear prose ever could. In it we see the alliance with Hernán Cortés, the joint campaign with Jorge de Alvarado into Guatemala, various battles throughout the central and western highlands, and the foundation of Ciudad Vieja, all from the perspective of the Quauhquecholteca from central Mexico who later settled their own barrio in Ciudad Vieja. The Spaniards and Quauhquecholteca are portrayed as equals against the Maya. Indeed, the Spaniards are minor if important characters, while the Quauhquecholteca are clearly the main protagonists.

Collaborating with Florine was a real privilege, and the digital reproduction of the Lienzo by the Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala City brings the details to life in Memories of Conquest. My cover art—of a Mexicano reenacting the conquest in fancy costume circa 1835—visually brings home how important the Lienzo is for helping us understand the Mexicanos’ preservation of their heritage in Guatemala. It is a very Europeanized costume. But the tall feathered backrack directly echoes warrior costumes we see in the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan from three hundred years earlier.

In the book, you address the colonial measures used to assign identity and distinguish between Ladinos and Indians. How does that colonial framework continue to influence understandings of identity in contemporary Guatemala?

The term “ladino” has an interesting history in Guatemala. It initially meant a hispanized “Indian,” but over the colonial period became racialized to indicate someone of mixed Indigenous, African, and/or European heritage. In the nineteenth century, “ladino” lost some, though not all, of its racial associations, and came to mean anyone who was not Indigenous. Today, Guatemala’s population is split between these two, somewhat ill-defined groups.

The colonial-era Mexicanos actively associated with the Hispanic world. They earned a reputation as “yndios ladinos” early by speaking Spanish, celebrating their identity as conquistadors, and generally cooperating with colonialism. But they always insisted on their Indian identity as well. In part, this was because they received privileges based on their identity as Indian conquistadors. They also enjoyed self-government as Indians, so there were incentives not to abandon that identity.

In the nineteenth century, though, all those incentives disappeared. Ladinos were favored by national policy, and tended to be affiliated with state projects. In some ways, this paralleled the Mexicanos’ role under Spanish colonial rule. So the Mexicanos may have not seen any reason to continue as Indians and a Ladino identity may have naturally fit them better.

Today the Mexicanos of Ciudad Vieja consider themselves Ladinos, but some outsiders still see them as Indians. I find this intriguing, and wonder if it doesn’t speak to persistent ideas about rural versus urban development and the foundational organization of the “Indian town,” both derived from the colonial experience.


Laura E. Matthew is assistant professor of history at Marquette University. Her book, Memories of Conquest: Becoming Mexicano in Colonial Guatemala, is now available in hardcover and ebook from the University of North Carolina Press.