Image: The Fountain of Coyoacán
Who was Bernardino de Sahagún? (Pt. 1)
Visitors to Mexico and its neighbors in Latin America (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in particular) cannot deny the strength of their indigenous heritage. The US Southwest also participates in this ancient cultural heritage. I remember the first time I went for a long walk alone in Mexico City. What struck me is how often I heard indigenous languages in the street. I sat on the steps of an apartment building in the hip, artsy neighborhood of Coyoacán (pictured above). I was next to a payphone where a native woman was having a conversation. While I did not know it at the time, I later learned that she was speaking Nahuatl. Every few sentences, she would use a Spanish word (teléfono, comida, metro…). “Wait a minute.” I said to myself, “I always thought that the Spaniards forced natives to speak Spanish.”
Spanish Colonial Power
A common notion in the media and even in our classrooms is that the Spanish invasion was like a steamroller. They came and flattened all indigenous culture into a smooth road on which they could efficiently extract resources from the region. There was no questioning Spanish colonial power, so the conventional understanding goes. If you spoke a native language, you were marked for oppression and genocide.
I used to think that too. However, my experience in Mexico and two decades of study have shown me that the popular narrative captures only a moment in a much longer story. If it were the case that every Spaniard who came to the Americas was intent on cultural genocide, then why 500 years later do Nahuas come into Mexico City, do business there, while maintaining their lives and identities in their native languages? Why is it that over 10% of Mexicans speak indigenous languages in their communities? That’s over 13 million people. While still a minority on a national level, those numbers show that maybe the Spanish weren’t as powerful as we thought. Perhaps it is better to ask: “How did Spanish power operate in the Valley of Mexico?,” or even the related question, “What were the limits of Spanish power?”
Curiosity about that puzzle led me to graduate school, where I met a man (at least in print) who could help me make sense of the colonial power puzzle: Bernardino de Sahagún (bear-nar-DEEN-oh de, saw-ah-GOON). This Franciscan friar compiled more information about native culture in Central Mexico from before the conquest than any current scholar. Born in the village of Sahagún near León in the Kingdom of Spain in the year 1499, he came to Mexico in 1529 with a second wave of Franciscans who were interested in developing long-term approaches to spreading Christianity in the region. He and the other Franciscans who came with him realized that the previous methods the Franciscan order had used were accomplishing nothing. The friars had been practicing mass conversions; for example, some priests even threw holy water on crowds and said the words of the formula, “Ego baptizo vobis…” Clearly, this approach could not spark sincere conversion. In fact, the Vatican told them to correct themselves, and actually talk to the people one-on-one to explain Christianity to them (Altitudo divinii consiliis, 1537).
Bernardino de Sahagún knew that the only way he would earn trust, build bridges, and spark sincere interest in his faith was by learning the language of Nahuatl himself, by getting to know the people he served, and by bringing them the benefits of his own background of study.
When he arrived in Mexico, he began thinking in terms of exchange: what could he teach the Nahuas?; and, just as importantly, what could they teach him? Bernardino de Sahagún visited a colleague of his who had been Mexico City since 1524, Pedro de Gante (blog forthcoming). De Gante was not a Spaniard. He was from the town of Geraardesburgen in the Low Countries, which the Spanish had also occupied. When the two priests spoke, they carried on their conversation mostly in Latin. They were loyal to the Church and to their culture of Renaissance learning. They were not necessarily loyal to the Spanish soldiers and colonial administrators. In fact, at times they butted heads with ambitious young soldiers, who strutted around the city in fine clothes, wearing rapiers, and looking for cheap thrills. Pedro de Gante and Sahagún came for another reason: they came to spread what they believed were their two greatest contributions: Catholicism and education.
Sahagún saw that Pedro de Gante had been struggling to learn Nahuatl, but had reached a level of proficiency that allowed him to converse with the people. De Gante had even opened a school in downtown Mexico Tenochtitlan, La escuela de San José de los naturales. Sahagún saw the potential for community-building that would make the decisive difference for the natives, who were experiencing a leadership crisis. During and after the chaos and violence Cortés and company brought, epidemic diseases took many more lives than the Spanish soldiers did. What neither the Spanish nor indigenous peoples understood –that invisible microbes carry diseases– had devastating results. By the end of the 16th century, epidemic diseases would reduce the native population to less than one-fifth of its pre-conquest level. Native leaders, ritual specialists, scribes, and sages were dying off, leaving towns all over the Valley of Mexico with fractured governments and an uncertain view of times ahead.
Bernardino de Sahagún worked with Sebastián de Fuenleal, the archbishop of Santo Domingo, and with the Viceroy of New Spain, Enrique Almanza on developing an approach for training indigenous leaders to work alongside of the colonial administration. The idea they reached was to found a center of advanced study for the sons of native nobles. This center would be El Colegio de la Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco (see previous blog). The viceroy Almanza was key: he provided Sahagún with financial backing for his project, with a land grant, and with protection from encroachment by the Spanish soldiers.
Sahagún saw how the bad behavior of soldiers resulted in low interest in Christianity. The young men who accompanied Hernán Cortés during the conquest of Mexico were typically in their late teens or early twenties, were illiterate, and came from rural Spain. The charismatic and Salamanca-educated Cortés promised these young men a chance for gain, pledging to compensate each one with a land grant and a group of native laborers. Many of these soldiers, who had little opportunity in Spain, jumped at the chance. After the conquest, it was these new land owners (called encomenderos) who wrought havoc and exploited native labor and resources, in addition to their notorious sexual abuses of native women. The unruly Spanish soldiers brought with them the “painful birth of the mestizo nation” as the monument we saw in Tlatelolco states (See Reflections Mex City, Day 3).
In the 1520s and 30’s, the skyline of Mexico Tenochtitlan was a jagged moonscape of rubble with an eerie blending of architectures. Native buildings still bore the marks of Spanish cannonballs, while traditional native dwellings made of sticks and mud lay on the islands surrounding the center, where new Spanish buildings slowly arose: the beginnings of the cathedral, and the cabildo, a sort of town hall where Cortés and his fellow colonizers passed most of their days. The Spanish had taken over the center of the native city, and through an incredible sleight-of-hand made the indigenous majority look like a minority! However, outside of the city, around the shores of Lake Texcoco and beyond, native groups still lived their traditions and even practiced their traditional religious beliefs, although on a limited basis, due to the decline in population that epidemic diseases had caused.
Sahagún knew that if he really wanted to learn about the Nahua peoples, whose language he spoke, he had to go away from the city.
Read more in Who was Bernardino de Sahagún, Part 2…
What do you think so far about Bernardino de Sahagún? It would be great to hear from you. Also, you can follow by clicking the button on the bottom of this page, or by clicking the three dots in the upper-right-hand corner.
If you want to see the Colegio de la Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco for yourself as well as other key spaces of conquest, negotiation and resistance in the career of Sahagún and his indigenous collaborators, we are going on a trip! That’s right: the last week of June, 2019, we will be in Mexico City learning about indigenous and colonial history on location. Here is the link to the “Worlds Collide: Mexico City” trip: https://bit.ly/2R3nJhN