Cortez and the Region I Love
by David Eide .

My region is very much mixed in with the history of the Spanish conquest of pre-Columbian peoples. Much more so than the struggle of colonists and pioneers with native americans, on the east coast although that is in play as well.

Cortez "conquers" the Aztecs in 1520, Spain colonizes Mexico, and over the next two centuries moves up into the southwest and California, ending almost literally where I grew up in Contra Costa County. They were afraid of the Russians coming down from Alaska and wanted to colonize what is now the Bay Area. They gave large grants to favored soldiers in the Spanish army stationed at the Presidio in SF. However, this was at the end of Spain's empire. The conquests in the Americas had given Spain enormous wealth but it was used up after a few centuries, so they couldn't really support the colonies like the one in Alto California. Thus weakened, the independence movement in Mexico strenthened, threw off Spanish rule and became a Republic.

It was the beginning of an independent Mexico. The weak Republic could not support these colonies either and they were left to their own devices for a generation, until the 1840's when the Yankee's started coming into the area, accelerating through the gold rush, at the same time the US-Mexico war was going on. The gold rush created the population requirement for statehood and the large land grants were eventually taken over or bought out by developers.

I knew this growing up, however I didn't appreciate it until I got older. As I mentioned, we studied the Spanish and Mexican histories in grade and high school. Very little was said about their abuse of Native Americans.

Reading history after a while makes one believe that "paradise" is really "the first and only the first settlement," not defiled by aggression or victim of conquest. One. Everything else is the result of aggression or victim of conquest. Europe, Asia, Africa, or Americas it doesn't matter. No doubt each continent had it's "one and only undefiled one" but that's it. Plus, there is only limited space available for cultures to do the best they can do. This is to offer up resource from its organizing principles in time and space. A precious little space. Cultures create space, that's about it. You don't want the space deflated or destroyed. You want it strengthened and vital.

Before returning to Cortez an insight that comes out of looking at some history. Know the present, know the politics but ignore them. Find the authentic innovation, creative leaps, manifestations that lead into the future. Politics are eternal conflict between every polarity possible. It has energy for a while but eventually dies out and makes societies stick in one place, without movement. That's when problems begin to appear. At least identify the polarities that are dying and holding the culture back.

My identities are regional, they are connected to the "federal system" and Constitution. They are connected to the art of writing. In the region are the spaces culture creates. If the federal system ever falls apart or stops solving problems on behalf of regions, the regions are going to still exist and have some continuity. Names change, systems change, the hills and creeks abide forever.

500 years after Cortez we look at the personal life in terms of space; space conserved by memory, even as everything else is gobbled up by time. Space and memory are transformed into "myth" in the proper sense of the term, meaning that which can't be expressed any other way.

My old nourishments are deep memories like dreams we remember five years after, arising for reasons we can't comprehend but enjoy all the same. But the new nourishments are up front and pulsing, active and I sacrifice on behalf of them.

The relationship with the whole Earth is very important. On the Earth are so many people, in so many complex transactions and customs that it is hard to embrace it all. But the Earth itself, a physical entity that we understand from the scientists, is not hard to embrace. From that relation we want the systems protected not damaged or destroyed.

It can be an old, nasty world. The young enliven things for a while but then they are subdued by the systems and functions of life, the established patterns that have had their way for many generations. The not-so-young-now finally shrug their shoulders, "fine, we will discover happiness." The perennial sentiment!

In a genuine crisis, everything said sounds wrong.

That's my crotchety view at this point.

The more I read about Cortez meeting up with Montezuma the more real it becomes. The Aztecs of the final century or two were fierce empire builders. To go to a town and kill all the adults and abduct the children is called extermination. That's why Cortez was able to enlist allies who hated Montezuma.

Tenochtitlan had been rebuilt after the city was flooded and the result of that was the splendid, gauzy city described by the Spanish. I could imagine it this reading. It would have been amazing. And it shows the weakness of "one man rule." That is truly the weak link because once he goes down or is shown up to be less than a god/ruler the city cracks a bit, enough so that enemies take advantage. The blood letting of the Aztecs was voracious. So was the blood letting by the Spanish, both under the auspice of their religious beliefs.

Montezuma goes out and decimates towns, Cortez comes in and decimates his town. It's a jungle out there. Men usually don't like to go to war, they don't like killing, it's that the reward is enticing if you survive. That's one conclusion I bring away from this brief reading.

The beauty of Tenochtitlan in the imagination is a thrilling one. The color is amazing. Nahuatl appears to be a very poetic language. The Mayans and Toltecs are more compatible to moderns but even they had human sacrifice. Blood to the gods, to feed the gods so they wouldn't die, so they would replenish the Earth and keep life going. I think the blood sacrifice of Christ was cleaner. The God is taking responsibility for his actions. And the eternal potential that life is ever renewing continues. The morale-self can die many deaths. And can horribly sink without the sacrifice. And in a crude, barbaric sort of way all the deaths suffered by industrial/technological men and women are a sacrifice, are they not? If they were not sacrificed the machinery would have to stop and then there would be no life. I think of Hiroshima and road deaths. The problem is that no one believes it really, no one believes the sacrifice is worth it and it isn't. So is it maintained because it's in our self-interest to keep it going or it is so awesome, so powerful we dare not challenge it? I do agree with the psychologists who point out that the religious function is carried on just as well by an atheist, secular culture as by an official religious one. The machine one, however, lacks grace and imagination. It is pure utility that makes humanity dependent on it.

Cortez is not exactly an attractive figure but a type that empires produce. Who else is going to go whack through a jungle of surprises and known/unknown enemies? You have to be rather crazed. And famished for fame. And who is going to do it smartly and with leadership? Answer that and you can get to Cortez.

Montezuma becomes a pathetic figure as he confronts an existential crisis. When it is a culture that you know from the inside, out, the response to challenge is easier. Very interesting to see the doubts creep in that perhaps Cortez was not who Montezuma thought he was. To himself he must have concluded that Cortez was another tribal leader but he could hardly admit it after he had gone all in on him being a returning god. He loses his dignity when confronted with something so "other" he can't place it, can't put it into context. It creates fear that he can't admit of. So his response to Cortez was slow. The tell that indicates his conflict was when he made a tremendous effort to keep Cortez and his merry band of conquistadors from entering Tenochtitlan. If he had truly believed it he would have been honored, even if that arrival would mean the end of Montezuma's rule. And, ironically, it was.

Being a good American I think about all those thousands of anonymous Aztecs who are watching, moving, singing, clapping, defending and trying to live their life. The market. The canoes out on the lake. The surrounding jungle. The causeways. All the color and vitality on a daily basis for several centuries. The Aztecs were primitives, Romans, and Nazi's all rolled up into one. It begs the question, "what exactly is a civilization?" Do they heroically arise from a simple state to a rich, complex one on the strength of believing its superiority or possible perfection, always to come up short, always to be humiliated from that exalted position?

When the people no longer believe in the emperor, the god, the institution it's very difficult to get them to do anything. At least modern civilization has the goad of progress to push it along, extending past itself into new potentials. Or is there something in nature that demands that all such pretense be reduced to nothing and started over?

One of the most perennial of human tales: "finding the missing self." That is projected onto human leaders, gods, technology, performers, etc.

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