Excerpt: Memories of Conquest, by Laura E. Matthew

[This article is crossposted at FirstPeoplesNewDirections.org.]

Indigenous allies helped the Spanish gain a foothold in the Americas. What did these Indian conquistadors expect from the partnership, and what were the implications of their involvement in Spain’s New World empire? Laura Matthew’s study of Ciudad Vieja, Guatemala—the study first to focus on a single allied colony over the entire colonial period—places the Nahua, Zapotec, and Mixtec conquistadors of Guatemala and their descendants within a deeply Mesoamerican historical context. Drawing on archives, ethnography, and colonial Mesoamerican maps, Matthew argues that the conquest cannot be fully understood without considering how these Indian conquistadors first invaded and then, of their own accord and largely by their own rules, settled in Central America.

In the following excerpt from Matthew’s book Memories of Conquest: Becoming Mexicano in Colonial Guatemala, Matthew introduces the complexities of the identities at stake in Guatemala. (pp. 1-3):


The conquest of largely Maya territory by foreign invaders in the years 1524-28 is perhaps the most important story of their history for the people of contemporary Guatemala. The invasion followed on the heels of viruses that would kill millions of native K’iche’, Mam, Pipil, and other southern Mesoamericans over the following century. It destroyed the K’iche’ and Kaqchikel Maya cities of Utatlán and Iximché, and laid the foundations of Spanish American cities in their stead. It precipitated half a millennia so far of colonial and neocolonial rule over Central America by people of largely European descent. Over time, it created a new people out of the resulting mix of Native Americans, Africans, Europeans, and Asians: the Ladinos who make up roughly half of Guatemala’s population today.

The Guatemala experience resonates, too, as a chapter in a much larger tale. With local variations, it repeats the story of European conquest throughout the Americas—in Cuba, Mexico, Massachusetts, Virginia, Chile. Individually and collectively, these conquests symbolize one of the most dramatic moments in world history: the meeting of the “old” and “new” worlds, the demographic collapse of indigenous American populations, the birth of the world economy, the beginning of modernity. Such grand phrases are commonplace in tales of the conquest of the Americas told in classrooms, history books, cartoons, rock music, opera, political manifestos, and novels. Different characters are cast as heroes or villains, scenes start at different points, and the moral of the story may shift. The basic outline, however, remains the same.

But there are other ways of telling the story, which can make European conquest look like something else altogether. Such are the memories of conquest presented in this book. Many thousands of indigenous allies from central Mexico and Oaxaca invaded Central America alongside a few hundred Spaniards in 1524-28. Hundreds remained behind as colonists. In a small town called Ciudad Vieja in central Guatemala, the descendants of these warriors and colonists gradually became Mexicanos: a local group of Mesoamericans subjugated as Indians by the colonial system, but who enjoyed privileges not available to their Maya neighbors based on their identity as conquistadors. The extent of these Nahuas’ and Oaxacans’ participation in the invasions of 1524-28 undermines the very notion of a Spanish conquest. Their lives as Indian conquistadors in Guatemala suggest that we still have a long way to go to understand the lived experience of colonialism by the American continents’ indigenous peoples.

To understand the Mexicanos’ memories of conquest requires a reimagining of the conquest itself. Historians have traditionally asked, sometimes with a heavy dose of amazement, how so few Europeans conquered tens of millions of people. Implicitly, the earliest military confrontations between Europeans, their indigenous allies, and various foes (who subsequently themselves often became allies) are taken to represent European colonization as it was accomplished over hundreds of years, with varying degrees of control and success and with the terrible aid of epidemic disease. Attempting to see things from the Mexicanos’ point of view, however, suggests that “how the Europeans did it” may be the wrong question to ask of these initial diplomatic encounters and military clashes. The Mexicanos of Ciudad Vieja did not remember their role in the conquest as an auxiliary, nor the Spaniards as being in total control of military campaigns. Instead, they remembered the invasion of Guatemala as a joint affair and their own role in it with pride. The Mexicanos’ mostly triumphant recollections of the period are not hegemonic. Like all memories they are selective, woven and rewoven into stories of the past that, in this case, explained and justified the Mexicanos’ superior position in colonial Guatemala. They cannot represent the experiences of the Tz’utujil Maya who surrendered in 1524 (and today often emphasize their peaceful reception of the invaders), or the Kaqchikel who fought a bitter guerrilla war between 1524 and 1530 (and today celebrate their resistance), or the Central American Nicarao taken as slaves and forced to participate in the invasions of Yucatan in the following decade. They do not even represent a unified Mexicano viewpoint; archives, by their nature, winnow out much of what is unofficial, individual, difficult to classify, or merely undocumented. Nevertheless, the Mexicanos’ surviving memories of conquest remind us of a face that many Europeans at the time and subsequent historians recognized: that without native allies, Spanish expansion throughout Mesoamerica would not have been possible. Indeed, when the leadership roles and overwhelming numbers of the allies are taken seriously, it becomes difficult to think of this as Spanish expansion at all. The historian’s question then becomes, why did so many Mesoamericans work willingly with the Europeans? Is this a story of treason and collaboration? Of profound misunderstanding and miscalculation? Or of something else altogether, that forces us to dismantle and reassemble traditional narratives of European conquest?

It is impossible to answer these questions from the vantage point of European history alone, without taking indigenous America’s history into full account. This requires displacing Europeans from the center of the narrative—a more difficult task, perhaps, than merely acknowledging indigenous allies’ participation in the military campaigns.


From Memories of Conquest: Becoming Mexicano in Colonial Guatemala by Laura E. Matthew. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Laura E. Matthew is assistant professor of history at Marquette University.