The long-standing primacy of Eurocentric approaches to the history of Mesoamerica began, fundamentally, with the Spanish conquest. Practically from the beginning, the Spanish narratives constructed a vision of Mesoamerica, and the “New World” more generally, that profoundly colored their perceptions and interpretations of the rich and diverse Indigenous societies they encountered. As Carrasco explained, for many of the early explorers and conquerors, the ‘New World’ they encountered held shimmering promises of paradise, visions of Eden and other wonders that animated their imaginings of the Americas (3-4). Eurocentric fantasies, distortions, and demonization of Indigenous societies have long served to profoundly shape the way in which the history of Mesoamerica has been taught.
But there was another, much darker side to the ways in which Europeans perceived the supposed ‘paradise’ of the Americas: the “othering” of Indigenous societies (Carrasco 4). Adhering to their own very ethnocentric notions of “civilization” and “progress” and “true religion,” the Europeans viewed Indigenous societies as primitive at best, and outright satanic at worst (4). The ‘Indians’ were not Christians: many of them worshiped images, practices that the Christian religion and its Jewish predecessor have long derided as ‘idolatry.’ And if the worship of idols was bad enough, some of the things that Indigenous societies did in the course of such worship shocked and appalled the Spanish.
The custom of human sacrifice in Mesoamerica is a case in point, perhaps the crowning example: Fray Durán’s account of human sacrifice and cannibalism refers to the Mexica (Aztec) priests performing the rites as “satanical” (Graulich 393-394). This perception of Mesoamerican human sacrifice and cannibalism as something not only fundamentally other but also fundamentally evil has cast a very long shadow indeed over the Mexica and the Mesoamerican civilization they are often taken to be representative of. The Spanish were horrified by it: as Christians, they were used to thinking of sacrifice in terms of Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection from the dead (Read and Gonzalez 31-32). The Spanish did admire certain other forms of sacrifice, specifically those that evinced similarities to long-standing Christian practices of penitence (32). Still, the hegemony of the Catholic Church, imposed by the Spanish after the conquest, has ensured the primacy of these Eurocentric views of Mesoamerican religion (32).
What the obsession with human sacrifice demonstrates is the deeply problematic way in which Eurocentric narratives have treated of Indigenous societies and beliefs in ways that often simplify, distort, and demonize them. The reality is that there was far more to the Mexica and other Mesoamerican peoples than human sacrifice and cannibalism: they adhered to a complex and meaning-filled cosmology, a weltanschauung that shaped their own assumptions and beliefs in their encounters with the sacred (Read and Gonzalez 31-32). The famous (and incorrectly named) Calendar Stone depicts the cosmos as seen by the Mexica, complete with representations of a complex cosmic topography of celestial and terrestrial realms, powerful supernatural beings, and the four successive world-ages preceding the present one (18-19). Human sacrifice had an important place in this rich cosmology, as the means by which humans not only propitiated the gods, but even aided them: the earth-demoness Tlaltecuhtli needed to be placated and nourished with human hearts and blood; similarly, the sun god Tonatiuh required human hearts in order to continue to rise (Graulich 394-395). The Mexica even had philosophical conceptions of reality, conceptions that gave rise to a remarkably scientific approach to medicine that distinguished between “true physicians” (tlamatinime), and sorcerers (Portilla 26).
Views of Indigenous peoples as primitive and savage informed Spanish colonial perceptions of race, which formed part and parcel of a deeply unequal racist hierarchy in colonial society (Carrasco 6, Menchaca 49). Peninsulares, Spaniards who were born in Spain itself, were at the top of this hierarchy, which marginalized and exploited Indian people, imported African slaves, and a variety of mixed-race populations (Menchaca 49). This racial order has left many legacies not only in the contemporary societies of Mexico and Central America, but also in how the history of Mesoamerica has been told: a narrative of conquest by Europeans of non-European peoples, a narrative that has long reflected White, Western assumptions of “progress” and “civilization” (Menchaca 49; Rabasa 167-168). Even the Indigenous accounts collected by the friars after the conquest constitute, in effect, a European ‘invitation’ to the conquered to “tell me the story of how I conquered you,” in Rabasa’s memorable words (Rabasa 106, 167-168, 188).
No figure in the narratives of the Spanish conquest has engendered so much controversy, nor posed so many problems of interpretation as Malintzin, La Malinche. For the Spaniards she was Doña Marina, a handmaiden of their imperial project and “an object of desire…” (Cypess 9). Of course, Malinche has become a notorious figure in Mexican culture and literature: since independence from Spain in 1821, Mexicans have constructed her as a traitor who aided the Spanish and a forebear of the mestizo people who constitute so much of Mexico’s soul (9).
The often ignominious portrayals of Malinche, like the fixation on human sacrifice, demonstrate the pervasive legacy of Eurocentric approaches to the study of Mesoamerican cultures. Eurocentric approaches have painted Mesoamerican societies as ‘satanic’ and ‘savage’. In so doing, they have distorted entire societies which can, and should, be understood with much more complexity, and in a much more even-handed manner. Stripping away the Eurocentric baggage allows the student of Mesoamerican history and cultures to see them in such a light.
Carrasco, David. Religions of Mesoamerica: Cosmovision and Ceremonial Centers. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1990. Print.
Cypess, Sandra M. La Malinche in Mexican Literature: From History to Myth. 1991. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2000. Print.
Graulich, Michel. “Double Immolations in Ancient Mexican Sacrificial Ritual.” History of Religions 27.4 (1988): 393-404. Web. 15 Feb. 2009.
Menchaca, Martha. Recovering History, Constructing Race: The Indian, Black, and White Roots of Mexican Americans. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2001. Print.
Portilla, Miguel. Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind. Trans. Jack Emory Davis. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963. Print.
Rabasa, José. Tell Me the Story of How I Conquered You: Elsewheres and Ethnosuicide in the Colonial Mesoamerican World. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2011. Print.
Read, Kay A., and Jason J. Gonzalez. Mesoamerican Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs of Mexico and Central America. New York: Oxford, 2000. Print.