Cortes enters Tenochtitlan

This excerpt comes from The Bend of the River, the sequel to The Serpent and the Eagle. At this point in the campaign, Hernando Cortes has already won many important victories over the local forces and has forged key alliances with aggrieved Mexica vassals. For the sake of context, it is also worth mentioning that Mexica people are often referred to as Aztec today and that Doña Marina is better known as La Malinche today.

Cortes stared over the edge of the stone causeway. Built a lance above the water’s surface, he doubted a fall would hurt all that much. Nonetheless, he suspected a tumble would be fatal since his heavy armor would ensure he sank to the bottom of the murky lake. He shuddered. What kind of people would  build a city in the middle of a lake?

Whatever their reason, the Mexica were obviously blessed with gifted architects. The stone causeway would put the Romans to shame, one section of it stretched for almost two leagues, and not one corner of the city touched dry land. He took a deep breath. By mid-morning, he would be entering the floating city with his army.  

And when we leave the city, we will possess an incredible fortune. He shaded his eyes to study the army’s formation. Footsoldiers made up the bulk of his army, and the various contingents were separated by a single row of eight horsemen riding abreast of one another. It had taken half an hour to assemble his men in the proper arrangement and, had it been necessary, he would have spent half the morning organizing them. 

He wondered what Motecuhzoma, Great Speaker of the Mexica nation and undisputed leader of the Triple Alliance, felt when he looked upon Cortes’ army. Hopefully fear. The Great Speaker also had an eye for pomp and flair so the careful organization was probably not lost on him. Motecuhzoma perhaps had too much interest in such matters—Cortes and his men had been standing on the causeway for almost an hour now because they were being treated to an extended dirt-kissing ceremony. Cortes’ mare pawed the ground, and he dismounted so he could rub Arriero’s neck and whisper comforting words.

Whether it was the heat or the waiting that bothered Arriero, he did not know. Doña Marina did not seem bothered by either, and her remarkable composure was just another reminder of her impressive strength. He reached out to squeeze her hand, but a quick glance from her made him think better of it. 

“Do you remember what I told you?” she asked. “About the way Motecuhzoma will speak?”

He nodded. “Yes, yes. In opposites, I remember.”

“Not with everything but with much. If he says he has greatest respect for you, he has little respect for you. If he insults himself, it is to show you his greatness. 

He smiled. “Our nobles employ quite a bit of false flattery, too. Usually have to bring out some wine to get some honesty.”

Doña Marina furrowed her brow and said, “He could use many honorific titles to address you, but he would do same with any visitor. The praise is hollow so do not think much of it.”

Cortes nodded. “Thank you for the explanation. I am in your debt.”

She looked at him askance. “Are you in Aguilar debt, too?”

Cortes turned away from her. He did not want to explain again that Aguilar had to be included even though she was a better translator. There were some aspects of Spanish culture she would never understand. 

Up ahead, a series of conch shells blared in unison. He clambered onto his mount for a better view and was delighted to see that the army was finally moving again. As the rearguard trudged forward, he realized the stone causeway often gave way to removable wooden sections. If the Indians removed the wooden planks, his army would be unable to escape the city on foot. 

He cast his gaze toward the island of Tenochtitlan. Connected to the mainland by three different causeways, he wondered if all of them were built with the removable sections. Intuition told him yes, but he had every confidence he could compel the Mexica to repair the causeways if need be. Even the proudest of warriors could be forced to grovel and beg if their families and their homes were threatened.

Still, it would be wise to have a contingency plan. What with the army’s experience in Tlaxcala, he understood quite well that some Indians had more tolerance for suffering than others. He glanced at some of the canoes floating nearby. Some were so large they could accommodate dozens and some were so small they could only carry one person, but all of them sat low in the water. The lake seemed shallow in most places, many of the boatmen plied the placid surface not with paddles but with long poles, but he doubted it would be possible to walk or even swim to shore from Tenochtitlan. We will need to build shallow-draft ships.

He pursed his lips. Judging by the sheer size of the city, tens of thousands lived inside Tenochtitlan and he was sure he could find some ship-building supplies at one of their markets. It would take a few weeks to build ships of the proper size, cordage and sails would have to be sent from Vera Cruz, but that would be more than enough time to convince the Indians to accept him as their lord. 

Cortes straightened his back. He had never entered such a large city before and figured the city had a bigger population than Seville or Granada. He knew for a certainty, however, that even the highest castle towers in his hometown could not match the height of the stucco-covered pyramids or the blocky palaces of Tenochtitlan. How could a place this beautiful stay hidden for so long?

The causeway soon gave way to a very wide and very beautiful avenue, and flat-roofed houses, crafted from a combination of pale adobe and dark stone, now flanked him on every side. Curious onlookers studied his army from behind ledges and half-open windows, but they offered no kind words of welcome. Nor for that matter did they jeer. For the most part, they were silent besides the occasional whisper. If the Mexica intended to ambush his army, it was very likely a signaler was hidden amongst the onlookers. He squinted to study each face. No warmth in any of those stoic expressions. So why are they letting us enter their city and meet with their sovereign?

The army ground to a halt, and the vanguard stopped in front of a large group of Indians. Cortes tensed and dropped his hand to his sword hilt. If the Mexica meant to ambush his army, the soldiers would make sure they paid dearly for the mistake. Not one crossbow needed to be loaded and not one gunpowder weapon needed priming; Cortes had every hope his army would be peaceably received but that was no excuse to shirk battle preparations. 

The loud bang of a drum prompted him to turn around. A litter-bearing delegation was approaching his army from the rear. He turned his horse around and ordered the rest of the rearguard to do the same. He kept his hand on the hilt of his sword and watched as a group of attendants, dressed in splendid cotton robes that melded colors of varying hues, swept the avenue with long, bushy brooms.

Much as their colorful robes demanded attention, it was the jade-studded litter that truly captivated him. Coated in silver and gold, it was festooned with feathers as long as his forearm and wreaths woven entirely from flowers. The attendants carrying the litter stopped twenty paces away and lowered it to the ground with a practiced grace. 

Cortes dismounted from his horse and gestured to his translators. Today, Doña Marina and Aguilar would be more valuable to him than his guards. He handed the reins of his horse to a nearby servant just as a man stepped out of the litter.

Taller than him by half a hand, the man had a well-defined midsection and thighs the size of tree trunks. Besides the small wrinkles around his eyes, few of his features betrayed age. His thin beard, trimmed short, contained no gray hairs and if there were any on his scalp, they were completely hidden by his massive, green-feathered headdress.

While he could not tell if there were gray hairs on his scalp, Cortes was confident the man carried no weapon. His finely embroidered loincloth seemed ill-suited for such a task and he wore no other article of clothing, save a shoulder-draped robe and some thick sandals.

What he lacked in clothing, however, he made up in piercings. Plugs the size of plum pits dangled from both his ear lobes, and a brilliant gold labret hung from his lower lip. The man strode toward him, utterly sure of his power and his wealth. Cortes’ heart skipped a beat. The man in front of him could only be Motecuhzoma.

Jonesing for a good Jamestown podcast?

Podcasts have never interested me much. I often find them easy to tune out and rarely feel like I have time to listen to one. Yes, I could listen to a podcast as I am walking around the neighborhood or making my way to work but that just seems so isolating. If there is a single piece of technology that communicates a complete lack of interest in interacting with other humans more than headphones, I have yet to come across it. Nonetheless, headphones are practically a necessity for anyone who works in an office setting and considering all the time I spend in front of my computer these days, I slip on the headphones almost every day now. In the interest of trying new things, I figured I would listen to a podcast rather than some random song on Spotify and visited my favorite new sites to find an interesting podcast. In the process, I found a great history podcast about Jamestown on the Curbed website.

Truth be told, I would not have figured Curbed would be a good place to find a Jamestown podcast. After all, Curbed is a news organization dedicated to mainly writing stories about mass transit, urban policy, and zoning restrictions, none of which seem terribly related to a failed colony in early 17th century Virginia. Nonetheless, the content creators did not seem too put off by this–much to my surprise, they actually had a pretty good raison d’etre for the episode–and I think listeners will find a lot to enjoy in the Jamestown podcast.

Prior to listening to the Jamestown podcast, I did already know some information about Jamestown. I learned about in elementary school (Blood on the River), I learned about in high school (AP US history), and I learned about in college (introduction to early American cultural history). As a result, a decent amount of the information discussed in the podcast was familiar to me already. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the podcast a great deal anyway.

Part of this deals with the narrator. I don’t remember her name being mentioned but whoever she is, she did a great job of making the piece interesting. Some narrators try just a bit too hard (cough cough, citylab) but I think the Jamestown narrator did a good job of threading the needle. Certain tidbits of information, such as the cannibalizing of the dead bodies, could have come across as needlessly macabre on an ordinary podcast but the narrator made this one of the funniest moments in the podcast. That may seem really odd but I challenge anyone to listen to her hypothetical about being cold and being hungry and then having to deal with someone licking blood off your face without finding at least some amusement in it.

Lest I give the impression the Jamestown podcast is all giggles and laughs, I should note it does deal with a number of serious topics, prejudice for example, and I would not suggest it to anyone looking for something “light” to listen to. All the same, I highly recommend the podcast to anyone interested in indigenous history, European history, or colonial history. The podcast has some great information related to the key figures in the Jamestown colony, as well as some of the lesser-known ones, and I think almost anyone who listens to it will come away better educated. And if y’all are anything like me, I suspect a great many of the people who listen to the Jamestown podcast will go on to listen to many more of the history podcasts in the Utopia collection. 

A Tale of Two Tour Guides

In early 2019, I visited Mexico with some friends and we visited a number of historic sites with tour groups. Ultimately, I am glad we had guides to show us around and I think we had a richer experience because of it. Having said that, our experience with the tour guides was a poignant reminder of why it can be problematic to rely on just one source for information about historical matters.

Our first tour guide, a man named Gabe, set the bar pretty high when it came to tour guides. Completely bilingual, he was comfortable making jokes in Spanish and English and knew his script cold. It’s possible he was simply regurgitating company talking points and if that was the case, my hat goes off to the tour company for using talking points supported by modern scholarship. Chances are, however, Gabe gave us a speech he had probably written himself, considering all the personal tidbits he incorporated into his tour speech.

Gabe in the lower left corner

Right from the get go, he let us know he was not going to use the term Aztec, explained why he was not going to use the term, and then proceded to let us all know he would be using the term Mexica instead. While I cannot speak for the others in the group, I know that I personally appreciated his decision and his impassioned explanation. Moreover, I was very impressed by his ability to translate Nahua terms and his granular knowledge of artistic displays.

Xochimilco tour
Frida Kahla tour

The tour guide we had in Veracruz was not quite as impressive. Carlos employed far less humor in his presentation and never even used the term Mexica. Compared to Gabe, Carlos’ presentation was a tad dry and left a bit to be desired when it came to historical accuracy. Now just to be clear, Carlos was not a bad tour guide. He was very accommodating and had some great food suggestions—the restaurant, Villa Rica Mocambo if I remember correctly, he dropped us off at the end of the tour was so good we ended up coming back just two days later.

Quiahuiztlan
Picture from La Antigua

The main difference between Gabe and Carlos probably boils down to personal interests. While I cannot know for sure, I am pretty sure Gabe researched Mesoamerican history on his own and I am pretty sure Carlos just used the company script. Unfortunately, the company script probably relied upon outdated sources which ended up hamstringing Carlos’ ability to provide accurate information. By and large, Carlos did not say anything that raised eyebrows amongst other members of the tour group and I think that’s worth noting.

Cempoala

Owing to the research I have had to do for the Tenochtitlan Trilogy and my studies in school, I have learned quite a bit about pre-Hispanic Mexico. I genuinely enjoy reading books by the likes of Restall and Townsend and have a very strong interest in Mesoamerican history. Because of this, it was easy for me to tell that Gabe gave a much more accurate presentation than Carlos and I am inclined to believe that anybody who had Gabe and Carlos as tour guides would probably recognize that Gabe had a better understanding of the Spanish-Mexica war. Nonetheless, Carlos provides tours in Veracruz and Gabe provides tours in CDMX so I can’t imagine there is a great deal of overlap between their customers. Consequently, at least some of the people who were given a tour by Carlos never had any exposure to Gabe. It’s possible that all of Carlos’ tourists went out and read the most recent academic texts on the Spanish-Mexica war but I suspect that’s probably not the case. In any case, tourists who relied primarily on Carlos’ take probably received some bad information.

Unfortunately, bad information is not always easy to recognize. Sometimes a misleading narrative can be well-crafted—Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind or Shakespeare’s MacBeth are some great examples of this. So whether writing a historical novel or visiting a historic site, it’s worth noting that relying on just one source entails risk. Sometimes that one source can be someone like Gabe and sometimes that one source can be someone like Carlos. To know one way or another, it’s usually best to consult multiple sources and, all told, good sources are like good stories: the more, the merrier.

Respect and history

Towards the end of my time in Ghana, I went to visit the Elmina slave castle with my CIEE group. It was an extremely moving experience and one that I will remember for a long time. Part of the reason it was so moving was the knowledge that my family had been taken as part of the Atlantic slave trade but judging by the expressions of the other students who had joined for the CIEE excursion, it was a poignant experience regardless of heritage. Nonetheless, it was an experience marred by my interactions with some of the locals. Before I could even enter the museum, I came across a Ghanaian man named Isaac Boston. Like most Ghanaians living in Cape Coast, he had an extremely Anglo name and had no trouble communicating with me in English. Before I even had the chance to say a few words to him, he had offered me a seashell with a note urging me to “have a good trip at Elmina Castle.”

I found it off-putting to say the least but that wasn’t even the worst of it. Isaac then had the temerity to ask me if I would be willing to give him a few cedi. He was quick to explain the seashell was completely free but added that tossing a few cedi his way would be a nice way of showing my appreciation for the seashell. His smile was so warm and his request so earnest that it was difficult to be angry with him, but the experience left a bad taste in my mouth all the same. Unfortunately, things did not get better once we entered the castle.

The tour guide seemed to have little to no respect for the trauma associated with the Elmina slave castle and saw nothing at all wrong about taking us to a gift shop immediately after taking us to the Female Slave Dungeon where women would be abused and tortured for being disobedient. Perhaps it could have made sense if the gift shop was a place we visited after finishing the tour of Elmina, or at least had the knowledge that our money would go to some NGO like End Slavery Now, but it was a stop planned for the middle of the tour and absolutely no explanation was provided as to where our money would go.

From what I have read online, the Ghanaian man who led us around Elmina was not especially callous in his attitude toward the trauma of the Atlantic slave trade. If anything, his attitude was pretty typical. As far as many of the locals are concerned, the slave trade didn’t effect them. After all, they still live in Ghana so their lineage was “uninterrupted” so to speak.

What’s great about historical fiction is it can help coax the callous out of their comfort zones but, ultimately, the door swings both ways. Sometimes historical fiction can take the sharp edges off a tragedy, whether it’s using war and colonialism as the backdrop for an erotica series like Jennings did with his Aztec series or intentionally promoting a very distorted version of history like Mitchell did with Gone With the Wind. Historical novelists have a duty to be respectful of history and I think the same holds true for individuals that visit historic sites.

Chances are we have all been that “disrespectful tourist” at some point, either because we lacked for a basic understanding of the history behind a place or because we just really wanted a nice souvenir to take home. Nonetheless, I hope we can all realize that certain places are not meant for smiling selfies and some stories aren’t supposed to be light-hearted. Now that summer is pretty much in full swing, I think this is important for all of us to remember the importance of respect for history since many of us will use this time to write, to vacation, or to read. No matter how one chooses to spend this summer, I hope we can all learn a lesson from Isaac Boston. Otherwise, we run the risk of being an irreverent seashell and not understanding why nobody seems to like what that represents.

Food and history

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to visit Mexico to do some research related to my historical series, the Tenochtitlan Trilogy, and some close friends from high school were kind enough to join me. As someone who very much appreciates a good meal, I usually make a point to research the local eateries anytime I travel somewhere new but I was much less diligent about doing so on this trip. In some respects, it felt unnecessary considering so many friends who had already told me exactly where I should eat while in Mexico. One friend, Mariana, was even kind enough to provide a nine page itinerary on what to do and where to eat while visiting Mexico City. The suggestions were great and Mexico City was a blast. However, it was not the only city we spent time in during our trip. After about a week in Mexico City, we set off for Veracruz.

Getting to Veracruz was no problem but navigating the food scene was much more difficult. None of us had researched the Veracruz food scene in great depth and most of the restaurant suggestions we had been given were specific to CDMX. We had a great time while in Veracruz, though it might be wrong for to speak on behalf of my friend who suffered some epic food poisoning while there, but the restaurants seemed a little lacking compared to the ones we visited in Mexico City. That changed once we found the Moctezuma restaurant.

The Moctezuma restaurant was not a restaurant any of us had heard of prior to visiting Veracruz. Truth be told, we almost walked past the restaurant. However, owing to the name and the restaurant’s eye-catching mural, we decided to check the place out despite knowing very little about it. I’m glad we did as the Moctezuma restaurant treated us to a dining experience that we will remember fondly for many years to come.

While I am definitely not a professional food critic or a world-class chef, I’m also no stranger to good food. I grew up in a household that put a premium on home cooking and my mother’s culinary skills made her a neighborhood legend. Moreover, spending time in cities like Beijing, Accra, San Francisco, New York, and Washington, DC has only deepened my respect for good food. The food we had at Moctezuma restaurant wasn’t merely good though it was great. Just thinking about our meal is enough to make my mouth water and I will be sure to visit the restaurant next time I am in Veracruz.

The chefs at Moctezuma restaurant should be commended for their intimate knowledge of gastronomy but I think they should also be commended for their skills as “food authors.” Traditionally, authors have been storytellers who employ the written word to relate some sort of narrative but Moctezuma restaurant provides a powerful example of how this is not always the case. A meal can tell a story just as much as a Shakespearean sonnet can, sometimes more so, and the food at Moctezuma restaurant tells a fascinating story deeply rooted in Mexican history.

When the Spanish invaded Mexico in 1519, they brought with them beasts of labor, deadly diseases, and cultural traditions dating back centuries. The Spaniards had every intention of establishing themselves as the dominant power in Mesoamerica and they were very successful in many regards. These days, there are a lot more Christ worshippers in Mexico than there are Huitzilopochtli worshippers. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to think the Spanish succeeded in remaking Mexico in their image and their imperial ambitions were often thwarted by Amerindians who actively fought attempts at cultural erasure. This resistance manifested itself in many different forms and evidence of it can be found in almost every dish at Moctezuma restaurant.

Staples of Spanish cuisine like beef and pork are served with Mesoamerican staples like chapulites and corn in combinations that showcase an impressive creativity. No one dish can be considered wholly European or Amerindian and the menu speaks to a blending of many unique cultures, a concept that continues to be relevant in modern Mexico. Whether a foodie or a history buff, Moctezuma restaurant has something to offer for everyone and I would highly recommend this restaurant to anyone visiting the Veracruz area.