REACTION: Anger in Spain, eyerolls in Mexico over conquest row

The Mexican president's demand for an apology over the "abuses" of colonialism drew opposite reactions across the Atlantic Tuesday -- anger in a Spain still proud of its imperial glory, and eyerolls in Mexico.

REACTION: Anger in Spain, eyerolls in Mexico over conquest row
A painting of the Conquistador Hernan Cortes. Photo: Wikipedia

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador tore open a 500-year-old wound Monday when he said he had sent letters to the king of Spain and the pope urging them to apologize for the conquest of the Americas and the misdeeds committed in the name of the crown and the Church in the centuries of colonialism that followed.   

The Spanish government responded with a blunt no, saying it “firmly rejects” the idea.

READ MORE Sorry not sorry: Spain rejects Mexico's demand for apology for colonial abuses

The Vatican, for its part, said it considered the matter closed, recalling on its website that a series of popes already apologized for the abuses committed in the name of evangelizing the indigenous peoples of the New World.

That includes Pope John Paul II in 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas, and Pope Francis on two occasions — in Bolivia in 2015 and Mexico in 2016.

In Spain, the Mexican president's foray into the history books got swept up in the politics of a country gearing up for snap elections on April 28t, in which conservative parties are trying to portray Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez as a weak defender of national interests.

The leader of center-right party Ciudadanos, Albert Rivera, called the Mexican president's letter “an intolerable offense to the Spanish people.”   

Esteban Gonzalez Pons, a lawmaker in the European Parliament with the conservative Popular Party, said Lopez Obrador should “stop fighting” dead conquistadors.

And Arturo Perez-Reverte, one of Spain's most popular contemporary writers, said if the Mexican president “really believes what he says, he's a fool.”

'More important business' Lopez Obrador said he was not trying to antagonize Spain.

“We're not going to get into a confrontation with the government of Spain… We are simply proposing an idea we think would help bring our peoples closer together,” he told a press conference.

In Mexico, the most notable reaction to the president's remarks was apathy.   

Many wondered why the leftist leader was not focusing on more pressing problems, such as rampant crime and corruption.   

“Honestly, I think we have situations in this country that he should be concentrating on a little bit more,” Tristan Velazquez, a 23-year-old government worker in Mexico City, told AFP.

Mexico and other Latin American countries already held raging debates over the legacy of colonialism in 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival.

There was puzzlement over Lopez Obrador's decision to reopen to the topic in connection with another anniversary — that of conquistador Hernan Cortes's first battle, waged on March 14, 1519, with the indigenous inhabitants of Centla.

“It wasn't great timing,” said historian Lorenzo Meyer, of the College of Mexico.

“Mexico can't make anyone apologize,” he told AFP.   

“You can't do it by force. If you try, the only response you can expect is anger, is 'Who do you people think you are?'”

Messy history

There were, however, events that took place during the Spanish conquest worth apologizing over, Meyer said.

Mesoamerica had an estimated population of 15 million to 30 million people when Cortes arrived with an army of several hundred men, carrying horses, swords, guns and smallpox — all unknown in the New World at the time.   

After a century of battles, massacres and plagues, an estimated one million to two million indigenous inhabitants remained.   

“The demographic catastrophe of the conquest is clear,” he said.   

Mexico, which gained independence in 1821, has a complicated relationship with its colonial past.

The nation is the product of “mestizaje,” the mixing of the Old and New Worlds. But it is a history tainted by violence, rape and oppression.   

The angry reaction in Spain to Lopez Obrador's comments indicates the past is still problematic there, too, said Meyer.   

“I don't understand the virulence of the Spanish response,” he said.   “It shows Spain hasn't gotten over it, either.”   

Other historians said there was no point in Spain and Mexico fighting over the past.

As author Francisco Martin Moreno told TV network MVS, Spain and Mexico “didn't even exist as such” 500 years ago.

By AFP's Yussel Gonzalez 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Who was Conquistador Hernán Cortés?

Five hundred years ago exactly, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés waged his first bloody battle against the Aztecs in the New World. But why is Mexico's president dragging it up now?

Who was Conquistador Hernán Cortés?
A statue of Hernán Cortés in Medellin, Extremadura. Photo: orensbruli/Depositphotos

Who was Hernán Cortés?

The body of Hernán Cortés, the conquistador who launched three centuries of Spanish rule in Mexico, today  lies all but forgotten in a Mexico City church, even as a new debate rages over his legacy.

The story of how it got there is as complicated and dramatic as the conquest itself, launched 500 years ago when Cortés, a talented, cunning and ambitious adventurer, defied his boss' orders and sailed off to conquer the Aztec empire.

That violent collision between the Old and New Worlds surged into the headlines this week when Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador called on the king of Spain and the pope to apologize for the abuses of the conquest drawing a resentful response.

Amid the row, the remains of the Spaniard who started it all lie in oblivion in the Mexican capital, a silent reminder of both countries' shared past.

It is an unlikely fate for a man who rose from nothing to conquer an empire and build another in its place, winning fame and fortune along the way.   

“There's a very complicated and theatrical story behind Cortés's remains, worthy of a TV special,” said the historian Miguel Pastrana Flores, of Mexico's largest university, UNAM.

REACTION: Anger in Spain, eyerolls in Mexico over conquest row

Losing it all

Cortés was a smart but rebellious thirty-something when he launched the conquest in 1519 — defying his boss, the governor of Cuba, who had told the young official to stay put on the newly colonized island.

Instead, Cortés not only set sail for the mainland, but destroyed his own ships on arrival, leaving his several hundred men little choice but to try and colonize it.

With the help of horses, swords, guns and smallpox — all unknown in the New World — and alliances with other indigenous groups, Cortés overthrew the Aztec empire in 1521, claiming it for Spain.

He governed the new colony for several years, but was haunted by his own insubordinate streak: legal problems and frayed relations caused by his defiance of the nobility would dog him the rest of his life.

Cortés died in Spain in 1547, aged about 62, diseased and indebted.   

In his will, he asked his family to build a convent south of Mexico City and bury him there. But that never happened.

Dead man walking

Buying time, Cortés' heirs put his body in a mausoleum in Seville, then moved him to a nearby tomb three years later when another noble needed the space.

That was just the beginning.

“His remains have been moved from place to place” for centuries, Mexican writer Hector de Mauleon told AFP.   

Cortés' family finally sent his remains to Mexico in 1566. He was buried near his mother at a church north of Mexico City.   

In 1629, Cortés' last male heir died, and the colonial government ordered Cortés reburied alongside him in the capital's Franciscan monastery in a lavish ceremony.

Cortés' bones — now in a velvet-lined urn — were later transferred to the monastery's altar, locked with a key that passed from one generation of monks to the next.

In 1790, he was moved again, to a stately tomb inside the church that adjoins the Hospital de Jesus, the first hospital in the Americas, which he founded.

Mystery disappearance

But then Mexico declared independence in 1810.   

By 1823, “Mexico City was aflame with pamphlets, with calls to kick out the Spanish, to dig up Cortés' remains and drag them through the streets,” said De Mauleon.

A conservative historian and writer, Lucas Alaman, decided not to let that happen. He slipped into the church and removed Cortés' body from its tomb.   

For more than a century, its whereabouts were a mystery. Historians speculated it was in Spain or Italy.

Then, in 1946, a refugee of the Spanish civil war and a Cuban student invited the historian Francisco de la Maza to a secretive meeting. There, they told him they had a letter left by Alaman with a map to Cortés' body.

The remains, it turned out, were just meters from where Alaman had taken them, sealed inside a wall at the very same church.   

With the government's permission, De la Maza led a secret excavation — and found what experts confirmed was Cortés's body.   

It was a far cry from the image of the virile young conquistador, said De Mauleon.

“He had one tooth, various injuries sustained in combat, and his bones seemed eroded by venereal disease,” he said.   

The government ordered the body returned to the same spot. Today, it is marked by a discrete plaque: “Hernán Cortés, 1485-1547.”

Revisiting history

Pastrana criticized Mexico's request to Spain — two countries that didn't even exist as such at the time — and said the idea of good “Indians” versus evil conquistadors was overly simplistic.

“We have to try to understand these figures in their enormous complexity,” he said.

“Two civilizations… met without a single reference point. It's as if we went to Jupiter and found another civilization.”   

Spanish academic Guillermo Seres said it was “unjust” that Cortés, “a man of action, but also… of science and letters,” had been cast as a villain.   

“He has come to represent everything bad in Spanish history,” he said.

By AFP's Jean Luis Arce and Joshua Howat Berger

READ ALSO Sorry not sorry: Spain rejects Mexico's demand for apology for colonial abuses