Seven Reasons to Read Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest

I majored in history at George Washington University and had to read a number of history texts for my studies. Some of them were incredibly dry, like Death Valley dry, and rather forgettable but some of those texts hold an honored place on my bookshelf to this day. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest was definitely the latter.

There’s quite a bit I like about this book, but what I really enjoy about this book is the engaging prose. Matthew Restall is extremely well-versed on matters related to the Spanish invasion of the Americas, as one would expect for the Director of Latin American studies at Penn State University, but he never comes across as pedantic or self-absorbed in his writing. Rather, he comes across as conversational and earnest and I imagine there are a great many readers who could appreciate this. But putting aside Restall’s talent for wordplay, I think readers will also be able to appreciate the historical argument that undergirds Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest.

The answer will probably differ from person to person, but I personally believe the reason we study history is to challenge our assumptions and broaden our horizons. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest is a great resource in this regard and I would encourage anyone interested in learning more about the European colonization of the Americas, a monumental event that reshaped the global balance of power for centuries to come, or anyone interested in learning more about the way that history is remembered to consult this book. My strong suspicion is that readers who give this book a whirl will discover that the version of events they learn in school—whether it’s Cortes being perceived as a god or the idea that the locals were simply passive victims—bears little resemblance to truth.   

I have a very strong interest in the “Spanish conquest,” I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Spanish-Mexica war and I am writing historical series on the subject, but I think the book will appeal to a wide variety of readers. The book explores a number of issues related to race, gender, and class that are still very much relevant today and since 2019 is the five hundred year anniversary of Cortes first landing in Mexico, I think the book is especially relevant today. But for anyone not convinced they should check out the book, I would like to offer seven reasons worth considering:

  1. It’s a good read
  2. It’s an informative read
  3. It’s an easy read
  4. It’s a short read
  5. It’s a timely read
  6. Reasons 1-5
  7. Reasons 1-6

If those reasons aren’t good enough, I suppose nothing is. In any case, happy reading everyone!

**This book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries**

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.

Review of The Young Jaguar, Book 1 in the Pre-Aztec Trilogy

Truth be told, I cannot remember how I first discovered Zoe Saadia’s work. While she was at one point a traditionally published author, I don’t think I have ever come across her work in a brick and mortar store. Perhaps I found her accidentally or perhaps I found her through Bookbub. No matter the case, I consider myself a big fan and will be sure to read more of her work in the future. Just recently, I finished her pre-Aztec trilogy, which has me reflecting on the first entry in that installment, The Young Jaguar.

To be completely honest, I was not that keen on the book cover and might have passed it up had I seen it in a bookstore. If I had, it would have been a big mistake. The Young Jaguar was one of my favorite reads of 2018 and a great example of historical fiction that educates as it entertains. I have studied Mesoamerican history pretty intensively–I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Spanish-Mexica war and I have traveled to numerous pre-Hispanic sites in Mexicobut I knew next to nothing about the Tepanecs prior to reading The Young Jaguar.

In all fairness, not that much has been written about the Tepanecs in English. A long time ago, they were one of the most powerful polities in all of Mesoamerica but they were eventually supplanted in power by the Mexica, who established a much more powerful and much longer lasting military confederacy. During the time period that The Young Jaguar is set in, the Tepanecs are at the height of their power and the Mexica are eeking out a miserable existence along the shores of Lake Xochimilco. Most of the Tepanec elite can not be bothered to spare a thought for the weak Mexica people but the antagonist of the novel, Revered Uncle, is practically obsessed with them. He fears the Mexica will one day displace the Tepanecs but he cannot approve any military campaigns against the Mexica since he is a mere advisor. Few agree with his dark predictions but the death of Acolnahuacatl offers a unique opportunity to install a new ruler sympathetic to his own world viewif Revered Uncle is willing to force aside the legitimate heir.

Initially, the protagonist of the novel, Atolli, is inclined to offer his support to Revered Uncle. At this point, he does not understand Revered Uncle’s ultimate goal but he knows he is very fond of Revered Uncle’s daughter. It soon becomes clear, however, that supporting Revered Uncle will put Atolli in direct conflict with his father. His father cares little for politics but has a strong sense of duty that compels him to support the legitimate heir, a man who’d rather make war against distant peoples than confront the threat posed by the Mexica. A Mesoamerican version of Ned Stark, Tecpatl is willing to put his own life at risk to make sure the legitimate heir takes the throne. His foreign-born wife, Sakuna, feels a similar sense of duty, but devotes herself to protecting her family, even if it means making a deal with Revered Uncle that would force her to betray Tecpatl’s trust.

While the complex dynamic of the characters creates for some interesting twists and turns, the great strength of The Young Jaguar is Saadia’s ability to make the reader understand the motivations of the various characters. There may be no better example of this than Revered Uncle. A thuggish schemer, Revered Uncle a penchant for violence matched only by his knowledge of his domestic politics. He is not exactly a sympathetic character but he is definitely a character who understands the threat posed by the Mexica. He genuinely cares about the well-being of the Tepanec nation and like Tecpatl, the heroic War Chief who opposes him at every turn, cares little for material wealth or formal titles. He is as cunning as Tecpatl is naive and he helps makes The Young Jaguar a fascinating read. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Mesoamerican history or to anyone who enjoys fast-paced narratives with complex characters.

This book is available on Amazon in the Kindle store and through Kindle select.

Review of The Moor’s Account

Historical fiction is a relatively small genre. Most bookstores in the US do not have a historical fiction section and the genre is not nearly as popular as fantasy or science fiction. Owing to authors like Laila Lalami, that could soon change. The Moor’s Account serves as her first foray into historical fiction and represents a towering accomplishment for the genre.

Set during the early days of Spanish colonization of the Americas, the novel follows the travels of a Moorish slave referred to in primary sources as Estebanico. Her decision to focus on Estebanico, referred to in the novel as Mustafa al-Zamori, is just as laudable as it is noteworthy. Had she written the novel from the perspective of Vacas or Navarez, she would have had far more resources at her disposal in terms of research tools. Despite the difficulties involved, Lalami chose to make Mustafa the protagonist of the novel and gives readers a character who provides some fascinating perspective on matters regarding race, war, and religion.

The story begins with the Navarez expedition having just landed in “La Florida” and the protagonist remarks in the opening sentence that “it was the year 934 of the Hegira, the thirtieth year of my life, the fifth year of my bondage—and I was at the edge of the known world.” The opening line is not particularly complex in terms of structure or diction, but it does a great job of setting the tone for the story.

Most Americans are not familiar with the Hegira–after all, Muslims make up less than 2 percent of the US population and the Gregorian calendar is used throughout most of the world these days. By invoking the Hegira, Lalami lets us know upfront the protagonist does not come from a traditional Western background and gives us information that savvy readers can use to better understand the setting. Moreover, by referencing the specific number of years that the character has spent as a slave, we learn the character was not born into slavery but forced into it, an important distinction that hints at a backstory which Lalami explores in subsequent chapters with enviable grace. Nonetheless, it is probably the final clause of the opening sentence which merits the most attention from readers.

A number of authors have remarked that almost every story can be boiled down to two basic plots: a stranger comes to town or a character goes on a journey. With the final clause, we know we have the latter but, importantly, we also know the character is journeying into the unknown. As a result, we know early on that the protagonist will probably be exposed to a great many unfamiliar sights and some of the most memorable scenes of the novel include these unfamiliar sights, such as when Mustafa comes face-to-face with an alligator for the first time. Considering that Mustafa and his captors have never seen an alligator before, it is all too easy to understand the terror that Mustafa experiences as he watches the animal attack a fellow slave.

To think the Moor’s Account is a simple travelogue of pre-colonial North America would be a mistake though. Where The Moor’s Account really shines is how it encourages readers to think about history. Almost anyone who has learned about the Navarez expedition knows that it was an absolute disaster and that the vast majority of the crew perished. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was fortunate enough to survive and historians have long turned to his writings on the Navarez expedition to understand the event. Whereas many authors would have felt bound by the official account, the Moor’s Account subverts Vacas’ retelling on multiple occasions to give Mustafa more agency and to give the Amerindians more voice.

In doing so, the author encourages readers to take a more critical view of this primary source and its purported veracity. If events unfolded as they did in the novel, would Vacas have included that kind of information in the official account? The account that Vacas provided to notaries strongly suggests that Navarez bore sole responsibility for the failure of the expedition and that the surviving crew members, the Moor included, were selfless missionaries for Christ during their time with the “Indians.”

The portrayal offered by Lalami in The Moor’s Account is decidedly more complicated. Not only does Vacas share some of the responsibility for the failure of the expedition in Lalami’s retelling, she also strongly suggests that the survivors were much more keen on assimilating into Amerindian society than proselytizing, a concept that would have been truly shocking in 16th century Europe. Furthermore, the Moor never truly converted to Christianity in Lalami’s retelling and helped save the expedition on numerous occasions, something Vacas would have elided for numerous reasons. Lalami’s account is fictional of course but it raises many interesting questions about how we engage with history and the importance of critically examining the established orthodoxy. I would highly recommend this novel to fans of historical fiction, or those keen on literary fiction, and will be sure to keep an eye out for more of Lalami’s work in the future.

The book is available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries.

Review of People of the Weeping Eye

People of the Weeping Eye is a book I accidentally discovered. I was at Moorenko’s, a local ice cream store, with my younger brother and it just so happened the store had a bookshelf full of donated books. I had been meaning to read a book by the Gear’s couple for awhile so I was quite pleased to find a free version of their work. I was even more pleased, however, to discover what a great story these archeologists-turned-novelists had written and I have gone on to buy many of their books since.

People of the Weeping Eye takes place in pre-Columbian North America, a world very familiar to these archeologists but one probably less familiar to the average reader. For lesser writers, the challenge of grounding a story in the Lower Mississippi Valley—a region seldom visited by individuals not taking part in Mardis Gras celebrations—of the 1300s would have been too great. Nevertheless, the Gears’ meet the challenge head-on and give audiences a historical novel that entertains as much as it educates.

It helps a great deal that the Gear’s know how to populate a world with interesting characters. The People of the Weeping Eye is a multiple protagonist story with half a dozen interconnected storylines. While the answer will probably differ from reader to reader, I personally found the storylines involving Old White and Trader to be the most interesting. Some of the most exciting events in the early chapters, like the raid on the White Arrow town, have little to do with these storylines but what really makes these storylines stand out are the great anecdotes included in them.

Old White has spent decades journeying all throughout pre-Columbian North America and has gained incredible knowledge from his travels. He has witnessed human sacrifice on a massive scale in pre-Hispanic Mexico, he has met with envoys that claim to trade with boat people from the East (an allusion to the increasingly popular theory in archeological circles that numerous tribes in pre-Columbian America traded infrequently with Pacific Island people), and he has even heard stories of a shipwreck survivor with pale skin and blue eyes that speaks an unknown tongue. Trader is not nearly as well-traveled, but his storyline is no less interesting. Early in the novel, he finds a hunk of copper so large it could be “buy him a chiefdom.” The copper attracts interest from some unsavory individuals and one character, the delightfully wicked Snow Owl, is so depraved that he encourages his virgin daughter to bed Trader as part of an elaborate murder plot. Much to Snow Owl’s chagrin, his daughter seems to enjoy the tryst immensely and Trader escapes harm by stealing away in the dead of night.

In addition to colorful anecdotes, the story abounds with crafty political machinations and gripping drama. The story is not without flaws, the prologue is pretty much pointless and the first chapter with Hickory is a tad confusing, but I would highly recommend this story to anyone interested in learning about the Mississippi chiefdoms of old or anyone who enjoys a good story with unique characters.

The book is available at Amazon and can be requested at most libraries.