On August 13, 1521, Fernando Cortes and a troupe of Spanish soldiers, with the help of their native allies, conquered the Mexicas and captured their emperor, Montezuma’s successor, Cuauhtémoc, devastating the capital city of Tenochtitlan (now downtown Mexico City). The cinco centésimo aniversario of this event passed with barely a whimper, in part because of covid-19, but perhaps more so because, in a post-Christian culture compromised by postmodern nonsense, no one was quite sure what there was to celebrate.
Considering that the Aztecs controlled 371 towns and the law required 1,000 human sacrifices for each town with a temple pyramid, roughly 50,000 human beings were sacrificed annually.
The history of the conquest of the Americas is complex to be sure, and there are plenty of heroes and villains to go around, but there are definitely things to celebrate. And the anniversary did not pass without a volley of poorly-researched journalistic embarrassments which, predictably, dripped with catch-words like colonialization, slavery, and genocide. While these articles were at odds with each other on many points, they were consistent in condemning the European intrusion.
But let’s get one thing out of the way: genocide is not compatible with slavery—you can’t enslave dead people; it doesn’t work and it didn’t happen. Yes, the Indians had no resistance to European illnesses, a situation that could just as easily have played out in the opposite direction, and the Spanish killed Mexica soldiers in battle; they did not wantonly destroy populations. In fact, most of them eventually married native girls.
The Aztec capital, comprised of the cities of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco, was situated on shallow lake Texcoco, and was, in many respects, like Venice in that everything was connected via canals. Interestingly, while gold, precious stones—truly, every luxury—abounded in the metropolis of about 200,000 people, the area in which the city was built was woefully bereft of natural resources that would contribute to such wealth.
Cortes had entered the city with but 550 Spanish soldiers and the Aztecs outnumbered them many-fold.
So, from whence came the wealth that built this extravagant city? It came by means of Aztec colonialization and slavery. They were fierce and merciless warriors, colonizers, and slave traders. They demanded tribute from all of the cities they had conquered, which, after basics like food and cotton stuffs, included whatever pretty women they carried off, strong young men for slaves, precious stones and metals, and, last but not least, people to sacrifice to their gods. While human sacrifice and cannibalism were also common among their neighbors, the Aztecs excelled at it and attributed their military success to it. Their very existence defined evil colonialism.
In The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Diaz describes the Aztec process of human sacrifice, which commenced with the removal of a beating heart from the live victim. That heart was immediately burnt in offering to their idol, while the butchering was completed with the removal of the head and limbs. The torso was thrown to wild carnivores kept specifically for that purpose, the head or face became a trophy to hang in recognition of the sacrifice offered, and the limbs were consumed.
And when the priests had had their fill, the left-over limbs might end up in the local meat markets. They also skinned and tanned the faces of Spaniards they had killed, conspicuous for their beards, and decorated their temples with them.
Montezuma, having grown rather fond of many of the conquistadors, from the parapet of the palace, attempted to calm the citizenry, but was struck by an object slung by his own people and died shortly thereafter.
Considering that the Aztecs controlled 371 towns and the law required 1,000 human sacrifices for each town with a temple pyramid, roughly 50,000 human beings were sacrificed annually. When St. Juan Diego was but thirteen years old, he may well have witnessed the dedication of a new temple, an event which saw the sacrifice of thousands of men over a period of four days.
Of the conquered cities that surrounded the Aztec capital, there were a few that were equal in their depravity, and were not about to be won over easily by Cortes, but the majority of the conquered were so sorely oppressed by the Aztecs that, once they recognized that Cortes was committed to ending such egregious oppression, they were easily won over to an alliance with him. This could not have been accomplished were it not for the simple truth that Cortes consistently sought terms of peace, a stance that he would also take with Montezuma.
After Cortes’ many overtures of peace, and with the knowledge that the general was continually gaining allies, Montezuma eventually welcomed the Spaniards into the capital city, where he housed the entire troupe in the elegant surroundings of his own deceased father’s palace. After some months there, Cortes received intelligence that elements within the nobility were conspiring to attack them.
He had entered the city with but 550 Spanish soldiers and the Aztecs outnumbered them many-fold. To avert this catastrophe, they invited Montezuma to their residence, and, without violence, placed him under house arrest. Though they continued to treat him as royalty, and allowed him visitors, the members of his household, concubines, and courtiers, he was none-the-less a prisoner, and tension mounted within the empire.
Cortes regrouped, recouped, and returned with allies and renewed vigor.
When it rains, it pours, and at this time, unbeknown to the Spanish monarch, a powerful bishop within his realm had sent a fleet filled with well-armed soldiers, a force larger than that of Cortes’, to oust the general and company from their position of leadership in New Spain. When Cortes received intelligence of this intrigue, he felt that he had no choice but to go and meet this contingency and see what peace could be made, and so he left the city with half of his men, leaving Montezuma with the remainder. This duality of purpose within the Spanish empire did not escape the wily Aztecs, though they had already sworn fealty to the Spanish emperor.
In Cortes’ absence there was a so-called massacre under the direction of the man he left in charge, Pedro de Alvarado. Concerning this conquistador, earlier this year, clueless Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum indignantly asked, “How is it possible that we have a street named Puente de Alvarado when Alvarado was the principal perpetrator of the massacre at the Templo Mayor?”
While the history of the event she references is sparse, it was most likely Alvarado’s indignant response to human sacrifices being offered against the orders of Cortes, who had had an altar built in that temple for the sacrifice of the Mass, and had installed a cross and a statue of the Virgin Mother. At any rate, the timing of Alvarado’s outrage was ill-advised.
Cortes returned to a city a-buzz. Montezuma, having grown rather fond of many of the conquistadors, from the parapet of the palace, attempted to calm the citizenry, but was struck by an object slung by his own people and died shortly thereafter. After a few days under siege in the palace, Cortes was forced to abandon the city and lost a full half of his men, and hundreds of his native allies in the process.
En route to the capital, Cortes and company had attempted, as best they could, to promote the Christian faith. They warned against the evil of human sacrifice and invited the various chiefs to consider the benefits of worshipping the God of creation.
As is well known, Cortes regrouped, recouped, and returned with allies and renewed vigor. He cut the Mexicans’ supply lines, destroyed their aqueduct, stormed the city for ninety-one days, captured their monarch, and put an end to the satanic empire.
But the story I have told is quite incomplete. En route to the capital, Cortes and company had attempted, as best they could, to promote the Christian faith. They warned against the evil of human sacrifice and invited the various chiefs to consider the benefits of worshipping the God of creation; that if they offered supplications to the Savior with the intercession of his Blessed Mother, their Creator would surely bless them.
They often erected small chapels with an altar for saying Mass, a cross, and a stature of the Holy Virgin, and if not a lot of converts were made, a lasting impression was none-the-less made upon those thus visited. The concept of receiving blessings without shedding human blood was intriguing to anyone (and that would be nearly everyone) who had lost a loved one to human sacrifice. Seventeenth century Mexican historian Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl estimated that one out of every five children fell victim to this bloodthirsty religion. And it seems fairly certain that ten out of ten caged prisoners being fattened for slaughter would agree that following Christ was the better way.
Whenever possible, Cortes’ entire troupe heard Mass before venturing forth for the day. That is not to say that these men were, in any way, saintly. Far from it. There were times when more than a few of them, suffering from syphilis, were unable to march or fight, and Cortes himself, a married man away from his wife, had children by other women.
Whatever Fernando Cortes’ flaws, a lack of faith was not one of them. The conquest of New Spain was perhaps, above all, one more example of our Redeemer and his humble general, the Queen Mother, using the humblest of vessels to achieve sublime results.
And yet, what took place was more than one could expect from the exploits of a few hundred sinners, sailors, and soldiers of fortune. Perhaps I can best explain it by the example of another common sinner. Forty years ago, driving to work on a cold December morn in North Dakota, lyrics for a tune I had composed suddenly filled my head, and I quickly jotted them down. Here is some of what I wrote:
Lady in blue is crying for you
The smile on her face
Seems out of place
But she knows the truth
She’s seen the light
She knows the morn
That brings an end to the night
Like roses in snow
She’s smiling through tears
Though she knows our sorrows
And she knows our fears
She knows the peace
That we cannot feel
The peace that is perfect
The peace that is real
She points to the Son
Who conquers the beast
She sets the table
He is the feast
We don’t understand
The power we command
Or realize we’re the tears in her eyes
Like roses in snow…
Three days later I performed the finished piece for my wife, who, recognizing that it was about Our Lady of Guadalupe, immediately asked on what day the lyrics had come to me, and, when I told her the day of the week, she exclaimed that it had been on December 12, a fact that left me clueless until she informed me that the twelfth was the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
For nearly 30 years, the US chapter (lead by Michael Matt) walked the Chartres Pilgrimage under the special patronage of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Her banner is held at the front of the chapter all during the 3-day walk.
Were the conquistadors just as clueless? Not entirely. Cortez was bold, brave, more than a little grandiose, self-confident to a flaw, a philanderer, and relished his expanding dominion, but he was not unaware that what he was about was much bigger than the sum of his ambitions, and he repeatedly verbally assured his cohort that the hand of God and the mantle of His Blessed Mother rested upon the campaign they waged against Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god called the "Lover of Hearts and Drinker of Blood," and Tezcatlipoca, the god of hell and darkness.
Whatever Fernando Cortes’ flaws, a lack of faith was not one of them. The conquest of New Spain was perhaps, above all, one more example of our Redeemer and his humble general, the Queen Mother, using the humblest of vessels to achieve sublime results—the paving of the way for her miraculous appearance, and the conversion of so great a nation.
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