The memory of the conquest in Mexico is not a problem with Spain, but with its own past and with its national definition. On the Spanish side, for its part, the colonial past moves between ignorance and pride in the times when it was an imperial power.
The various centennial Mexican commemorations – the bicentennial of independence, 500 years after the fall of Tenochtitlán and the most dubious, but also celebrated, 700 years after its founding – have had the strange effect of straining relations between Mexico and Spain: the most complex of those maintained between any of the countries born of the Hispanic imperial disintegration, with continuous oscillations between moments of closeness and distance, and that, since the letter of the Mexican head of state, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in 2019, asking Spain to apologize for the conquest, show clear symptoms of cooling, if not of larvae hostility.
It is difficult to understand this drift – aside from specific conflicts around some business projects, both countries are more strategic partners than geopolitical rivals – and whose main cause is the way in which both societies have built their collective memory: a latent and unresolved one. dispute about the past, always alive on the Mexican side, of whose importance Spanish society has never been truly aware. At its origin is the use that contemporary States have made of history, not an aseptic form of knowledge but the materials with which they have constructed stories about the past, affirming their existence as national communities. The fall of Tenochtitlán liquidated a political organization that has nothing to do with today’s Mexico
The choice of the events that are remembered, as a consequence, is not random but is determined by the meaning of the narrative. It is this that determines the importance of the facts, not the other way around. It is not the same, to give a Spanish and a Mexican example, the battle of Covadonga seen as a dark warlike confrontation, in a remote time, between groups alien to us and for reasons that are largely incomprehensible today, that this same battle imagined as the first of a Reconquest concluded eight centuries later with the recovery of the entire national territory and in which we defeated those who sought the destruction of our nation. Nor did the fall of Tenochtitlán, understood as a war episode in which a few hundred Castilians and several thousand Indians ended a political organization that had nothing to do with present-day Mexico, other than this same fall, imagined as the death of the nation. Mexican at the hand of another foreigner and in which the defeated were ours and the victors were the enemies of Mexico.
Spain and Mexico share three historical moments that may have been used as part of their respective national narratives: conquest, vice-royal era, and independence. Independence, however, only exists for the Mexican. Few are the Spaniards who know who Hidalgo or Iturbide were, even less Riaño or Calleja. For the account of the Spanish nation, what happened in Mexico between 1810 and 1821 does not even exist.
The colony, neither for one nor the other. For the Mexican, because New Spain is not Mexico but an unfortunate parenthesis between the death of 1521 and the resurrection of 1821. For the Spanish, because in him America is only the stage where Spain acts, and a world with its own entity, such as It was undoubtedly the viceregal, it has a difficult fit in that history of discoverers and conquerors to which the Spanish collective memory has reduced the presence of Spain in America. Pre-Hispanic times, conquest and independence are equivalent to birth, death and resurrection in certain Mexican nationalist myths
Only the conquest – the set of warlike events that occurred at the beginning of the 16th century in only a small part of the territory of what is now Mexico – was considered relevant and used as part of their national narrative by both the Spanish and Mexican states. , which from very early on were assumed, the first, heir and successor of the conquerors, and the second, of the conquered, with two radically different interpretations of it as a consequence. It does not seem necessary to specify that, in both cases, the story lacks any historical reality: as descendants, or so little, of the conquerors, are the Spaniards as the Mexicans.
The stories of the nation do not represent the past, they build it, making nations the protagonists of history that for most of the time were not and making, in this case, that great-great-grandchildren of Extremadura braceros whose ancestors never saw the sea be the heirs of those who crossed the Atlantic five centuries ago never to return. And that Mexicans whose ancestors in the distant 1521 may have been part of those who destroyed the Mexican capital and not of those who defended it —or descendants of both; or, more likely still, neither of them — they still regret and grieve the fall of Tenochtitlán.
A conflict of memories aggravated, on the Mexican side, by the presence of two alternative nation projects, each with its own story about the past and what Mexico is. One, the hegemonic, which we can call liberal or left-wing – although with the always necessary precision that, since it is an identity conflict, its lines of fracture do not always coincide with the ideological ones -, which imagines the history of Mexico as a cycle of birth, death and resurrection: a Mexican nation born in pre-Hispanic times, died with the conquest and resurrected with independence.
Another, the conservative or right-wing, with the same precision as in the previous case, which imagines it from the metaphor of the son who reached adulthood, emancipates himself to continue his independent life: a Mexican nation born with the conquest, grown in the viceregal period and reached adulthood with independence.
In both stories, Spain, the Spanish and the Spanish become unavoidable points of reference, but with radically different meanings. In the first, the others are enemies of Mexico. In the second, they are the most intimate part, what the Mexican nation must take care of and preserve in order to remain itself. A conflict, like all those of an identical nature, with a strong capacity for internal polarization and for use as an element of political mobilization, which, as a consequence, tends to become more acute in moments of crisis. The memory of the conquest in Mexico is not a problem with Spain, it is a problem with Mexico with its own past and with its national definition.
Something similar occurs in the Spanish case with the conquest of Mexico, together with those of the other American territories and, above all, with the Discovery of 1492, which became an expression of the imperial character of Spain, the axis of a narrative of a nation that has become to October 12, day of the first landing of Columbus, on his national holiday. Spain cannot apologize for the conquest for reasonable historical reasons – neither Mexico nor Spain existed as contemporary nation-states at the time it took place and as heirs of the conquerors, actually more, are the Mexicans as the Spaniards. but also by others less confessable, tinged with the same nationalism as Mexicans: no one apologizes for what they feel proud of.
The history that separates us from the future that unites us. Apart from metaphysical disquisitions about who we are, where we are going and where we come from, the delight of all nationalism, Spain and Mexico are condemned to understand each other. Two countries with relative international weight and with multiple common economic and geopolitical interests, whose relations should not be subjected to anachronistic views about the past long discarded by historiography. The reality, however, is that being an internal problem, the echoes of the conquest, the past that does not cease, will continue to repeat themselves over and over again in Mexican public life – in the Spanish one, its capacity for polarization and political use is comparatively less — sharpening in moments of crisis and attenuating in moments of stability.
Tomás Pérez Vejo is a Spanish historian based in Mexico. Research professor at the National Institute of Anthropology of History of Mexico, his most recent book is ‘July 3, 1898. The end of the Spanish Empire’ (Taurus).
Mexico Daily Post