top of page

Revising 'Conquest': Indigenous Agency and Resilience in 16th Century Mexico

Updated: Apr 18, 2021

By Isabel Leask-

Lienzo de Tlaxcala. Unknown artist. Circa. 1550-1564.

In popular history produced by the West, the word ‘conquest’ has traditionally signified a series of European victories over indigenous civilizations. When it comes to the Conquest of Mexico (1519-1521), the capture of the so-called Aztec capital ‘Tenochtitlan’ (modern-day Mexico City) has been commonly understood as a watershed which marked the subjugation of the entire ‘Aztec’ empire by the Spaniards. This epitomizes the triumphalist rhetoric of European colonialism according to which a heroic Spanish conquistador (Hernán Cortés) laid siege to a city with only a handful of European soldiers, and “christianized” and “civilized” an empire of thousands of Indigenous peoples.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the capture of Tenochtitlan, and while colonial narratives continue to dominate Western history books, a different picture of the Spanish arrival and colonisation of the Americas has also emerged. This has resulted from the work of post-colonial and revisionist scholars over the last few decades and the dismantling of colonial viewpoints more generally through both academic disciplines and popular movements.

When it comes to the Conquest of Mexico, this ‘revisionist’ viewpoint rejects the assumption that the Spaniards achieved military and cultural hegemony in Mexico because of the existence of an innate European “superiority" to Indigenous civilizations. The revisionist view also re-evaluates the extent to which Spanish conquests and colonisation destroyed pre-Hispanic culture by focusing on the ways that indigenous elements not only survived the Spanish invasion but thrived into colonial society. This article will discuss some of the ways that indigenous peoples in 16th century Mexico, focusing on the Nahuas (an all-inclusive term for the Nahuatl-speaking inhabitants of Mexico’s Central valley, commonly labelled as ‘Aztecs’), expressed agency and resistance in the Conquest and immediate colonial period, and explore how indigenous culture and ways of life persisted in the face of change and adversity.

Questioning Conquest: The Myth of European Superiority

Undeniably, the arrival of the Spaniards in the Americas caused trauma, destruction, and displacement for the indigenous inhabitants. For example, after the arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico, the indigenous population drastically declined in numbers. While this has been partly attributed to diseases, like smallpox, mumps, and measles brought over from Europe, Euro-centric narratives have tended to focus on the ways in which Western technology and warfare (guns, cannons, armour, cavalry etc.) wiped out indigenous populations and led to an “inevitable” victory for the Spaniards, especially at the battle of Tenochtitlan in 1521, which has historically marked the beginning of Spanish rule in Mexico.

However, the emphasis on advanced Western technology in the Conquest has not only downplayed Nahua warfare tactics but also masked the role that indigenous groups and individuals played in assisting the Spaniards to settle old scores. Long before the Spanish arrival, Mexico’s Central Valley had witnessed struggles for dominance over the region, finally falling to the ‘Triple Alliance’ (a union of the Mexica, Texcoco, and Tlacopan city-states) which ruled over the Central Valley from around the mid-15th Century until the arrival of the Spaniards. This alliance, however, did not end volatile regional stability due to ongoing struggles for power over Central Mexico. Various Indigenous groups such as the Totonacs and the Tlaxcalans, the traditional enemies of the Alliance, saw their chance to capture Tenochtitlan by forming alliances with Cortés. These groups were not only instrumental in helping the Spaniards to navigate the new lands but supplied the bulk of foot soldiers who fought for the Spaniards. According to the historian Matthew Restall (1964), "Spanish weapons were useful for breaking the offensive lines of waves of indigenous warriors, but this was no formula for conquest... rather, it was a formula for survival, until Spanish and indigenous reinforcements arrived." Not only, then, were the Spaniards dependent on indigenous fighting power to wage their battles, but were actually used by indigenous groups to eliminate their own, pre-existing rivals which says much about the “superiority” of Western intellect.

In order to form alliances with groups like the Tlaxcalans in the first place, Cortés communicated through indigenous interpreters. The most famous of these was Malinztin (also known as La Malinche) who became Cortés' adviser, consort and the mother of his children. Historically, Malintzin has either been depicted as a traitor or as a victim who was used strategically against her own people, and to this day, remains one of Mexico’s most controversial historical figures for embodying- in the words of Mexican author Octavio Paz-La Chingada (the violated mother of the Mexican nation). Decolonial readings of history, however, have emphasised the agency and resourcefulness of Malintzin, as well as the challenges she faced in her past after being sold into slavery by Mexica merchants. After being given to Cortés as a concubine, it is no wonder that Malintzin did not feel a particular sense of loyalty to “her people'' and it is likely that she used her linguistic skills (translating Nahuatl, Maya and Spanish) in the wake of the conquest to ensure her own survival, rather than carry out a scheming plan of betrayal. Malintzin’s role in advising Cortés and leading several expeditions across Mexico has also been underestimated: In the words of historian Camilla Townsend (2006), “without [Malintzin’s] help at certain points, Cortés would almost certainly have died or been forced to turn back.”

The Conquest of Tenochtitlan from a European perspective: "Conquista de México por Cortés". Unknown artist. 17th Century. Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Transcending Conquest: The Continuation of Indigenous Culture

Until around the mid-20th Century, historians of colonial Mexico also emphasised the disastrous effects that Spanish colonisation had on indigenous culture. For example, in his controversial essay The Spiritual Conquest, (La conquête spirituelle, 1930), the French historian Robert Ricard argued that the introduction of Christianity in Latin America and Mexico was seen “as something entirely new, which meant an absolute rupture with the past.” Statements like this have the effect of reinforcing the view that Western culture completely eradicated indigenous beliefs and practises which trivializes Indigenous cultural resilience and resistance in the face of Spanish colonisation. Revisionist interpretations however have found that Spanish colonisation did not automatically destroy pre-Hispanic culture and religion, rather, these transcended the Conquest.

When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, they encountered a rich material and spiritual culture. Unfortunately, many of the artefacts and paintings were destroyed by the Spaniards and consequently, it is widely believed that this marked the end of pre-Hispanic art. Moreover, much of the 16th-century painting that survived and which we might consider “indigenous” today, was produced by indigenous artists after the Spanish arrival, under the watchful eyes of Spanish friars. These are consequently, heavily influenced by European styles and there is an ongoing debate about the extent of their authenticity.

The Malinalco Frescos, for instance, produced around 1570, appear to be European in style, theme and content. Another example is the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (circa. 1550-1564), which depicts the Conquest of Mexico (see above), and was produced by indigenous artists under the direction of the Spaniards. However, a closer look at both of these works reveal elements of pre-Hispanic traditions: the presence of glyphs, symbols and indigenous representations of nature, and in the Lienzo, the positioning of the figures and the Nahuatl writing to describe the scenes in more detail. This suggests that Nahua artists played an active part in shaping and manipulating colonial painting to keep their own traditions alive.

The Malinalco Frescos.

Spanish soldiers and priests also did their best to eradicate indigenous religions through violence and forced conversion to Christianity, which has led to the belief that a “spiritual conquest” occurred in Mexico. Colonial and contemporary sources, however, show that even after several decades of missionary work in the Americas, the Nahuas and other indigenous groups continued to worship their own gods and idols. For example, in Book I of the famous Florentine Codex, produced in the second half of the 16th century, the Franciscan Friar Bernadino de Sahagún wrote that “the [Amerindian’s] sins of idolatry; idolatrous rituals, idolatrous superstitious, auguries and abuses and idolatrous ceremonies are not yet completely lost,”. In fact, instead of eradicating pre-Hispanic religions there is a vast amount of evidence to show that Christianity merged with indigenous beliefs and manifested into a unique, religiously syncretic culture. Mexico’s iconic and widely worshipped Virgen de Guadalupe (believed to have both European and indigenous features and speak in Nahuatl) is a clear example of this cultural phenomenon. These are only some of the examples of how Indigenous culture continued after the Conquest, and clearly reveal the way in which indigenous artists and individuals resisted the imposition of European culture.

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Tenochtitlan, historians and those interested in colonial history may want to ask themselves the following question: If we consider just how much Cortés relied on indigenous assistance in his expeditions throughout Mexico, as well as the continuation of indigenous culture under Spanish colonisation, does the word ‘conquest’ adequately describe the Spanish arrival to Mexico? While it might convey aspects of change, trauma and displacement experienced by the indigenous populations-both physically and psychologically- the word seems unsuitable for failing to acknowledge the incompleteness of Spanish control in Mexico; the agency, resilience and resistance of indigenous individuals and groups; the persistence of a vibrant indigenous culture that is still visible in Mexico today.



Restall, Matthew (1964) When Montezuma met Cortés : the true story of the meeting that changed history. HarperCollins

Paz, Octavio. (1994 [1950]) The Labyrinth of Solitude. Avalon Travel Publishing

Townsend, Camila. (2006) Malintzin’s Choice: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico. University of New Mexico Press. p6

Berdan, Frances. (1993) Trauma and Transition in Sixteenth Century Central Mexico. Proceedings of the British Academy (8). p181

Ricard, Robert. (1933) La "conquête spirituelle" du Mexique: Essai sur l'apostolat et les méthodes missionaires des ordres mendiants en Nouvelle-Espagne de 1523-24 à 1572. Paris: Institut d´ethnologie. p35

Sahagún, Bernadino de (n.d.) Florentine Codex:General History of the Things of New Spain, Books I. Translated by Arthur J.O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble (1982) Santa Fe, NM: The school of American Research and The University of Utah. p45


bottom of page