Spanish Invasion

Indigenous empires existed for many years prior to the Spanish invasion of Mesoamerica in 1519. Because people were accustomed to being conquered and having tributes exacted by new overlords, they were not as shocked by Spanish colonization as we might imagine.  And yet, these strange-looking people, arriving in large ships (at first thought to be floating hills), with their snorting horses, huge dogs, and metal armor created a frightful spectacle, at least at first.

Here we assemble resources for curricular units that might take a new look at the Spanish invasion and colonization of Mesoamerica from indigenous points of view. We will also include some additional contextualizing materials for these perspectives.

A Nahua Account of the Spanish Conquest

Book 12 of the Florentine Codex narrates the Spanish invasion of Mexico, 1519–1521, in Nahuatl and from the point of view of the Nahuas who witnessed (and later wrote down a narrative of) the events.  This book was edited by a Spanish friar, Bernardino de Sahagún, in the second half of the sixteenth century in central Mexico (not in Oaxaca, although Nahuas had outposts in the area of Oaxaca).  The friar’s involvement probably affected the content to some degree, which is interesting to discuss with students. Another name for the volumes in which the story of the Spanish invasion appears is A General History of the Things of New Spain.  This rich resource is available free on line in facsimile as a part of the World Digital Library.  Book 12 includes illustrations that would be instructive to compare with the more European-centered paintings mentioned below.  This online edition has an introduction in English, but the manuscript pages are in Nahuatl (right-hand column) with a Spanish translation (left-hand column).  Here is a link to the English translation made by historian James Lockhart, chapter by chapter (in the Early Nahuatl Library).

An image of the Spanish landing in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1519. Florentine Codex, cover, Book 12. Open Access.

Miguel León-Portilla published a book that compiles indigenous views of the Spanish invasion and seizure of power, Visión de los vencidos (translated to English as Broken Spears), and a half-hour video based on León-Portilla’s book (in Spanish) is available free on YouTube.

Spanish-Language Narratives about the Spanish Conquest

One of the men with Hernando Cortés, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, was a lower-level conqueror who retired to Guatemala. He wrote his memories of the Spanish invasion at the end of his life, probably from now-lost notes, given the high degree of detail he was able to retain over the intervening decades.

  • The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo (London: J. Hatchard and son, 1844). This is an English translation by John Ingram Lockhart, published in two volumes hosted in full-text facsimile by the Internet Archive.  Volume 1.  Volume II.
  • Kate Stephens, The Mastering of Mexico. (New York: Macmillan, 1916).  An abridged translation of Bernal Díaz by John Ingram Lockhart, also hosted by the Internet Archive.
  • Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Historia verdadera de los sucesos de la conquista de la Nueva-España.  This is a Spanish version, free on line, hosted by the Internet Archive. Volume 1.  Volume 2. Volume 3.

It was Bernal Díaz who recalled witnessing a Spaniard’s horse losing its head with one strong swing of a Nahua’s macana (sharp, obsidian-studded club; originally maccahuahuitl or macquahuitl in Nahuatl). It may have been something like the pre-Columbian macana on display in the Templo Mayor museum in Mexico City (below). Here’s a link to a video where some people have tried to imagine a battle involving the macquahuitl (somewhat distorted by the Western art of fencing). This other mock battle has more of a dance element to it.

Shells help provide a dimension for this macana. (S. Wood, 2003)

A seventeenth-century history of the Spanish invasion and colonization of Mexico, available in full-text facsimile on the Internet Archive (and indexed by the Getty Portal) could be helpful for understanding what is portrayed in the seventeenth-century paintings, below.  This Spanish point of view would also provide a counterpoint to the Nahua point of view, above.

  • Antonio de Solís (1610–1686), Historia de la conquista de México, población y progresos de la América Septentrional, conocida por el nombre de Nueva España. Escribíala don Antonio de Solís y Ribadeneyra.  This version, published in 1771. Two volumes in Spanish.  Click on “t. 1” or “t. 2” from the Getty Portal to see the first or second volume.
  • Antonio de Solís (1610–1686), Historia de la conquista de Mexico, poblacion, y progresos de la América Septentrional, conocida por el nombre de Nueva-España / escribíala Don Antonio de Solis, secretario de su Magestad, y cronista mayor de las Indias.  This version, published in 1780.  Three volumes in Spanish.  Three volumes in Spanish.  Click on “t. 1,” “t. 2,” or “t. 3” from the Getty Portal to choose a volume.

Mexicolore’s Spanish “Conquest” Themes

In this institute, we try to avoid the term “conquest” which we find to be an overly Spanish-centric way of summarizing the invasion and colonization of Mesoamerica.  But, so many publications still use the term, perhaps for want of a better or more convenient label.

Mexicolore, based in London, specializes in soliciting curricular materials from scholars whose research is on Mesoamerica. Mexicolore offers excellent resources for teaching children, especially perhaps through 8th grade. They have a special interest in (and persist in using the term) “Aztecs,” which some scholars accept for speaking about the pre-Hispanic empire. But, it is worth noting that “Aztecs” is not what the people called themselves.  Some of the scholars who participate in Mexicolore use “Mexica” (which was originally just a term used to refer to the people who lived in Mexico City, but has also come to be used more broadly, which is not precisely correct).  The term “Nahuas” is another way to refer more broadly to the people of the capital city, those who spoke Nahuatl whether inside or outside the empire (e.g. the Tlaxcalteca were Nahuas, too, but not part of the “Aztec Empire”) and a useful general name in English and Spanish for people of this culture group after the empire was replaced with Spanish colonialism. Nahuas themselves had their own ways of referring to themselves, such as Nican Tlaca (“We People Here”).

Additional Articles

Tlaxcala’s Point of View

In the scene below from a fragment of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (indigenous-authored pictorial manuscript from the sixteenth-century) in the Benson Library at the University of Texas, Austin, we see an early encounter between Xicotencatl (indigenous lord seated on the right, in a European-style curule chair) and the Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortés (seated in the center, also on a curule chair, a symbol of authority). Interpreting is “Marina,” in the beautiful red huipilli (handwoven indigenous woman’s blouse) and long skirt.  Xicotencatl is a name that contains the word “xico” (bee), and you can see that his name glyph features a bee.

The people of Tlaxcala were traditional enemies of the Mexica, and so they joined forces with the Spaniards (in fact, vastly outnumbering the Spaniards), in the defeat of the Mexica.  Memories of the conquest from the Tlaxcalan point of view show pride in this alliance and pride in the defeats they inflicted on other indigenous peoples — not just the Mexica but peoples to the north and into Central America in subsequent conquest expeditions where they accompanied the Spaniards (or, from their point of view, perhaps, the Spaniards accompanied them).  In that time period, it was almost unheard of to think of “we Indians” versus “those Spaniards.”  Micropatriotism was the norm, with most people identifying above all else with their own community and ethnicity. As such, they could be conquered by their neighbors or attack them, regardless of whether they were all Native to this hemisphere.

Lienzo de Tlaxcala, fragment in the Benson Library, UT Austin (S. Wood photo, 5/30/2014)
Lienzo de Tlaxcala, fragment in the Benson Library, UT Austin
(S. Wood photo, 5/30/2014)

Late-Colonial Caciques’ Points of View

The late-colonial García Ms. 8 (below) has yet to be studied in great detail, but it appears to be a manuscript made to substantiate a cacique’s (indigenous elite male’s) status. It includes a retrospective look back on 1519. Although both parties in this “encounter” scene are armed (the indigenous lords with macanas and the Spaniards with swords), we see a number of gifts on the ground, and one of the indigenous lords holds what may be a gourd full of fruit to give the Spaniards. You will also notice, on the Spanish side, the symbolic Christian cross and the banner with the coat of arms of what appears to be León and Castile. The authorship of the manuscript would appear to be indigenous or mestizo, given the mixed stylistics.  The text is in Spanish, and it may be partly apocryphal.  We still need to make a transcription and translation.

Indigenous-Spanish encounter. García Ms. 8, Benson Library, UT Austin (S. Wood photo, 5/30/2014)
Indigenous-Spanish encounter. García Ms. 8, Benson Library, UT Austin
(S. Wood photo, 5/30/2014)

An eighteenth-century oil painting (in the Franz Mayer museum in Mexico City, see below) provides a reflection on the Spanish invasion of Mexico from the vantage point of about 250 years and from the point of view of an indigenous noble, don Hipólito Ayotzin Hernández, cacique.  It emphasizes a divine intervention with a saint placed strategically between Spaniards and indigenous elite figures. Humorously, the saint rides an eagle standing on a cactus (symbols for Mexico City, and by extension, he rides what would become the Mexican nation). Moctezuma is described here as the “ultimo rey de los mexicanos” (the “last king” of the Mexica). The death of Moctezuma, whether at the hands of the Spanish invaders or his own people, is a controversial episode in early Mexican history.  If you are interested in the historic meeting of Cortés and Moctezuma, see Matthew Restall’s new book on the topic.

Curiously, rather than featuring Hernando Cortés, the leader of the expedition against the Aztecs, we here see an emphasis on Pedro de Alvarado, who went on to participate in the invasion of Guatemala.  One wonders whether perhaps this particular cacique artist believed he descended from Moctezuma and Alvarado, given his choice of men to emphasize in this painting.

San Hipólito and the Mexican encounter. 1764. (Photo, S. Wood, 2009)

Detail, “Motezuma, Último Rey de los Mexicanos”

Detail, “The Adelantado Don Pedro de Alvarado de Badajoz”

San Hipólito is, of course, a Catholic saint, and the cacique bears this name owing to the custom of taking saints’ names at baptism during the colonial period and up to the modern day. There is irony, however, in the fact that the famous surrender of the final independent Nahua ruler, Cuauhtemoc (succeeding Moctezuma), to Cortés came on the saint’s day of San Hipólito (August 13th). So, for a Nahua cacique to have the name Hipólito could be seen as a recognition of the Spanish defeat of the Nahuas. By this time late in the Spanish colonial period, however, there seems to have been a dawning of the ideology that the indigenous and European cultural union was preferable to having just one or the other heritage alone. The indigenous elite, certainly, enjoyed enough privileges and had embraced many aspects of Spanish culture by this time that they might have been more likely to accept this ideology of cultural mixing than the indigenous day-laborers and subsistence farmers. There is a church in Mexico City devoted to San Hipólito, and perhaps this cacique was an active member of the church.  Every year on the saint’s day, a massive conquest celebration took place with a parade that would include the Spanish nobility (celebrating their colonial history), but the observation was also characterized by dancing in the streets by indigenous people, who were still the majority population of the city (which could have contributed to their gradual embrace of the new ideology).An Italian visitor to New Spain, Giovanni Francesco Gemelli Careri, described one such celebration of San Hipólito in late-seventeenth-century Mexico City in his six-volume book, Giro del Mondo (1699).  See Kevin Terraciano’s lecture on the conquest, at about the 33rd minute, for a reference to this parade and celebration.  Gemelli’s map of the legendary Aztec migration from Aztlan is worth sharing with students.  Terraciano also discusses the strong friendship between Gemelli and Carlos Sigüenza y Góngora. Sigüenza was instrumental in shaping creole ideology, celebrating Spaniards born in Mexico, but also in contributing to an appreciation for the indigenous heritage of Mexico.  Sigüenza was a close friend of the Nahua scholar don Juan de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, a descendant of the indigenous kings of Tetzcoco, and he inherited Ixtlilxochitl’s manuscript collection, which he had studied over many years. Sigüenza also contributed to the furthering of the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe as both a symbol that condoned the Spanish colonization of Mexico but also gave an important role to Nahuas, given that she appeared to Juan Diego and spoke to him in Nahuatl. Guadalupe’s enduring iconic status is captured in this nicho that includes María Sabina and a Lucha Libre figure (photo by S. Wood).

Santiago Matamoros

The patron saint of the Spanish conquest and colonization of Mexico was Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor Killer), who had helped the Spanish re-conquer the Iberian Peninsula from the North African Moors (Muslims) in the fifteenth century.  In Mexico, Santiago became an “Indian Killer,” or Mata-indios.  Ironically, the church expected indigenous Mesoamericans to embrace Santiago along with other saints of the Catholic faith.

Eighteenth-century oil painting of Santiago Matamoros. Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, Santo Domingo Cultural Center. (R. Haskett, 2011)

Painting of the “encounter” of Spaniards and Mesoamericans with Santiago Matamoros presiding over them on horseback, symbol of conquest. Note the two-headed eagle on a banner in the background. Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, Santo Domingo Cultural Center. (R. Haskett, 2011)

See also our page on Religions for more images of Santiago Matamoros.

Not Uniformly “Subalterns”

While the Spanish subordinated indigenous people, in general, in the process of colonization, and full equality was never a reality, not all indigenous people were what some might call “subalterns” today. Internal social hierarchy was a reality prior to contact with Europeans, and differentiation between commoner and elite Mesoamericans would continue for centuries, although it gradually diminished somewhat.  But, indigenous elite figures who cooperated with the Spanish colonial system could enjoy  status, prestige, and wealth. Below we see a cacica (female indigenous elite) of Mexico City whose portrait was painted in 1754, more than two centuries after Spanish colonization. Her name was doña Sebastiana de Josefa de San Agustín. Notice the wealth apparent in the pearls and other finery she wears.  Elite indigenous women were sought after as wives by both indigenous elite men and by Spaniards, but judging by her name this cacica probably took religious orders and became a nun.

Eighteenth-century cacica of Mexico City. Franz Mayer Museum. (S. Wood, 2009)

Art Exhibitions

Example of a Conquest of Mexico Painting, Library of Congress (Open Access)

  • Conquest of Mexico Paintings,” interactive images with analysis, hosted by the Library of Congress as part of the “Exploring the Early Americas” exhibition. These paintings, from a century after the events, are fascinating for the way they portray events and people in retrospect.  Each painting often tries to convey more than one episode in the Spanish seizure of power in the Nahua (Aztec) capital in 1521.
  • Contested Visions,” a website of the Los Angeles County Museum of art, compares European and indigenous views of Spanish colonialism. It has material that could be made into an art-history lesson.

Santo Domingo Cultural Center — Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca

Here are some images of armor and chain mail found in the museum upstairs in the Santo Domingo Cultural Center.

Armor of the type used in the Spanish invasion of Mexico in the sixteenth century. (R. Haskett, 2011)

Detail, head covering. Indigenous observers originally found the people wearing this type over metal covering very strange.

An elaborate sword handle.

Chain mail, another type of defensive material.



Spanish ships are objects that can provide a window onto the significance of the trans-Atlantic meeting of peoples, the horrific slave trade, and the extraction of mineral wealth from the Americas that went to Spain, financing its imperial expansion.  Studies of shipwrecks also provide dramatic visuals that shock our imaginations about the quantities of wealth that were taken from indigenous communities.  The first story, below, also mentions finding the bones of two parrots on a ship that went down in the seventeenth century, which can connect to our consideration of the Columbian Exchange (which included animals) and to the appreciation for colorful feathers that indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, for example, enjoyed and probably shared with Europeans.

  • Sunken ship discovered between Florida and Cuba, the Buen Jesus y Nuestra Senora del Rosario.  A set of images in a Daily Mail article from April 2013.
  • This website allows you to search for specific ships by name:
  • The romanticized memory of the so-called Age of Discovery was such a part of Spanish colonial elite culture that the Franz Mayer has several examples of miniature silver ships, called navetas or navículas, that were used for burning incense.


Maps represent another entry point for studying the virtual shrinking of the globe with the trans-Atlantic encounters and expanding European imperialism.  The Mapas Project (ed. Stephanie Wood) includes some maps, although the word “mapas” in later New Spain also referred to any number of pictorial manuscripts (including many authored by indigenous painters).  Please also take a look at our Age of Exploration (granted, a euphemism for imperialism) map collection with interesting annotations by Dr. James Walker.  The Library of Congress offers a site with maps and manuscripts that you can use in teaching called, “Encounters in America,” with quite a bit of attention to Spanish America, including indigenous-authored pictorials.


Dances recalling the theme of the Spanish conquest of Mexico are known in many Mesoamerican communities still today. They were introduced by evangelizers in the Spanish colonial era as a way, perhaps, of solidifying a narrative of political defeat and Christian victory.  But indigenous dancers could also infuse new meaning into the dances, as well as perpetuate pre-Columbian practices within the guise of acceptable Christian activity.

In the collection of true, danced masks from across Mexico that is held in the Ragatz home in Azcapotzalco, Mexico City, we see many masks from the dances of the conquest, among other dances. Below, an Aztec warrior with a feathered headdress faces off (literally) with a white-skinned Spaniard, with long, fair hair and rosy cheeks.

Mask from the Dance of the Conquest. (S. Wood, 2009)

Another example, below, has an Aztec jaguar warrior facing away from the Spaniard. His symbolic chimalli (war shield) and macana (obsidian-blade studded club) appear below his face. The whole grouping rests on the long, protruding, curling, red tongue of the Spaniard.

Ragatz mask collection, Azcapotzalco. (S. Wood, 2009)

Other masks from this same dance show additional variations, including a colorful bird with a nopal-like tail, and an eagle devouring a long, skinny serpent, among others.

Ragatz collection, Azcapotzalco. (S. Wood, 2009)

Indigenous community dance mask representation of a "Spaniard." (S. Wood, photo of an exhibit in the Benson Library, UT Austin, 5/30/2014)

Indigenous community dance mask representation of a “Spaniard.” (S. Wood, photo of an exhibit in the Benson Library, UT Austin, 5/30/2014)

We often think about how Spaniards “othered” indigenous people.  But we might also ask, did indigenous people see the Spaniards as others?  Did they see them as another “race”?  Did they see them as strange, as monsters, as evil, perhaps?  In dance masks, Spaniards are usually depicted as having blue eyes, golden or white hair, and sometimes as having pink skin.  Such things were notably different, but do you see any negatives implied in these representations?


  • PBS video, Conquistadors — PBS often provides educational materials to accompany its videos.  This website about Spanish conquerors, “Conquistadors,” includes examinations of Mexico, Peru, Amazonia, and North America. The section on Mexico includes sub-units “Cortés,” on “Moctezuma and the Aztecs,” “Cortés and the Spanish,” the “Legacy of the Conquest,” a timeline of conquest, Michael Wood’s journals of his travels retracing the conquerors’ journeys, a section called “What do you think?” and a teaching guide.
  • The PBS film, “When Worlds Collide,” almost 38 min., explores the changes to the Americas and to Europe after Columbus’s landing in the Caribbean.
  • La Otra Conquista, 1 hr., 50 min., streams in Spanish from a medievalists’ webpage. Here is a preview for the English-language version,  The Other Conquest (Salvador Carrasco, 2000)
  • Wikipedia article about the film, The Other Conquest (Salvador Carrasco, 2000)
  • Imagining the Conquest of Mexico,” a lecture by Professor Kevin Terraciano of UCLA, speaking at the Getty Research Institute (97-minute video on YouTube), from March 12, 2014, given in conjunction with an exhibition, “Connecting Seas: A Visual History of Discoveries and Encounters,” which examines sixteenth-century New Spain (early Mexico) and the nineteenth-century Belgian Congo.
  • Video lecture by Oswaldo Chinchilla, “La muerte de Tecúm: La conquista de Guatemala y los mitos mesoamericanos,” hosted by the Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala, 2011, 1 hour. The speaker discusses a book about the death of Maya figure, Tecúm Umán.

Curriculum from 2010

Curriculum from Outside Our Group

Burning of Codices


One of the greatest concerns that arose with the Spanish invasion was the burning of codices by some zealous friars.  (Fortunately, other friars supported the preservation and creation of indigenous-authored manuscripts in order to study the pre-Columbian cultures.)  Above is a work of art by Laura Elenes (d. 2005) that addresses the burning of codices.  Sylvia Elenes, her daughter, has given us permission to use this image in curricular materials.  For more on codices, see our page about codices and all the related sub-pages listed in the navigation bar on the right side of your screen.  Here is a link to the web page about art by Laura Elenes.