Over the course of the five centuries that have elapsed since the Spanish conquest of Mexico, a myth of desolation has been propagated by literature and scholarship regarding the ensuing fate of the natives of Central Mexico. This myth of native desolation determines that “the Conquest left in its wake a silence that was immense, terrifying. It engulfed the Indian world…reduced it to a void. Those Indigenous cultures, living, diverse, heirs to knowledge and myths as ancient as the history of man, in the span of one generation were sentenced and reduced to dust, to ash.” With the primary retelling of the story of the 16th century conquest and its after effects originating from the Spanish perspective the myth of native desolation may have appeared to be true. However, contemporary native-language based research on this topic suggests otherwise. One central Mexican native group in particular authored a written record, the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, that tells a different story. The Tlaxcalan people of central Mexico, indigenous allies of Cortez during the conquest, successfully referenced that pact to adapt to the new Spanish social system while they strove to maintain their unique culture, history, language, and traditions long after the conquest.
Early in Hernan Cortez’s expedition into the Mexican interior, his detachment of men came across an abandoned wall on the outskirts of the province of Tlaxcala. Upon further movement into Tlaxcalan territory they were attacked by Tlaxcalan troops and fought vigorously with the indigenous warriors before the native army was forced to retreat in defeat under the onslaught of Spanish cavalry and superior weaponry. The Spanish had heard from a messenger of the Tlaxcalan resistance to the Aztec empire and that the natives sought to barter an alliance against Tenochtitlan. Cortez himself describes Tlaxcala as “a very extensive province called Tlaxcala, which they informed me was near this place, as it proved to be. I had also been informed by them that the natives of this province were their allies, but deadly enemies of Moctezuma; and they desired me to form an alliance with them, because they were a numerous and powerful nation.” After much debate within the altepetl council as to whether Tlaxcala should continue fighting Cortez and his men, or accept an alliance and join Cortez’s forces in an attempt to topple the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma, the Lords of Tlaxcala finally decided upon uniting with the Spanish. Tlaxcala then joined thousands of its warriors to Cortez’s cause as well as an abundance of food, porters to carry the Spaniards goods, and guides for the long march to the capital of the Mexica Empire. The remaining parts of the story of the Spanish-Tlaxcalan alliance entail the Spanish-Tlaxcalan capture of Tenochtitlan followed by the eventual conquest of the Mexica Empire’s land holdings as well as much more territory beyond its borders. These events involving the Tlaxcalans and their pact with Cortez’s conquistadors are the basis of Tlaxcalan expectation of an elevated status in post conquest Spanish colonial society.
The Tlaxcalan altepetl council utilized their alliance with Cortez during the conquest to effectively lobby the Spanish crown for corporate privileges and elevated status within colonial Mexico. This attempt at influencing King Charles V is evidenced by the fact that around the year 1552 the city government of Tlaxcala decided upon the rendering of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, an epic painting in the native pictograph style depicting the history of Tlaxcalan alliance with the Spanish.
Figure 1: Tlaxcalan coat of arms taken from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Chavero, Alfredo. “Introduction to the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.” Mesolore: A research & teaching tool on Mesoamerica. Accessed October 19, 2017. http://mesolore.org/tutorials/learn/19/Introduction-to-the-Lienzo-de-Tlaxcala-/55/Summary.)
This effort was described in the June 17, 1552 minutes of the town council of Tlaxcala from the Tlaxcalan Actas:
1. The cabildo discusses sending a delegation to Spain to lay Tlaxcala’s troubles before the emperor; contributions from all Tlaxcalans are to pay expenses of travel and solicitors’ and counsel’s fees, etc., since city assets are insufficient. The viceroy’s approval is to be asked by a committee of an alcalde and two regidores sent to Mexico City…
4. A painting of Cortes’s arrival in Tlaxcala and the war and conquest is to be prepared for presentation to the emperor; two regidores are to oversee the project and arrange for artists’ supplies through the city majordomo and to choose the artists. At this point it is not decided whether the painting should be on cloth (tilmatly) or paper (amatl).
The painting then was to be sent to King Charles V to demonstrate the massive amount of aid given to Cortez by Tlaxcala and in doing so to lobby the king for more preferential treatment in addition to the rewards that had been secured by the city after the conquest. The coat of arms depicted at the top of the painting is a primary example of the indigenous retaining their own identity and ethnic heritage as their local mountain peak, today known as La Malinche, and the city state’s political organization as well as its ruling families are prominently featured on their own emblem just below the Spanish royal family’s crest.
The Tlaxcalans were making rational calculated decisions to advance their own interests even during the conquest years that run contrary to the traditional notion that their society simply collapsed and ceased to exist. Tlaxcala entered into an alliance with Cortez after fighting against him for about two weeks as they realized the possibilities of toppling the Mexica empire and seeking the best possible outcome for themselves thence forward. The yalso understood that converting to Catholicism was part of making a pact with the Spanish.