Felicitas Peña Morales, Tlaxcatecan, the author’s paternal grandmother
By Rosa Martha Villarreal
When Elena Garro wrote her short story, “La culpa es de los Tlaxcaltecans,” she was drawing from the popular Mexican myths about the fall of Mexico-Tenochititlán, in which the innocent Aztecs were destroyed by the evil Spaniards with the help of Cortés’s treacherous Indian allies. Foremost was Malintzín, the Nahua noblewoman who was sold into slavery by her own mother and step-father and who later became Cortes’s lover-translator and mother of one of the first mestizos, Martín Cortés. Second on the list of villains were the Tlaxcaltecans. A popular Mexican saying goes: How could Cortés with 500 men and 15 horses conquer La Gran Tenochtitlán? Blame the Tlaxcaltecans.
However, history is more complicated than myths, especially those predicated on grievance and victimhood. I bring this up because my paternal grandmother, Felicitas Peña, was a Tlaxcatecan. She was actually a mestiza, descendant also from some of the prominent founding Spanish families of Northern Mexico, but she identified with her indigenous ancestors who made up most of her DNA, the Tlaxcaltecans.
Once, when my father was in grade school, he told Felicitas about what he had learned in school about the conquest of Mexico. Mexico in the 1930s was in its heady days of nationalism and a long-overdue embrace of its indigenous origins. When people thought of Jose Vasconcelos’ “LaRaza Cósmica,” they imagined themselves as Aztecs.
My grandmother listened intently and waited for my father to finish. Then she told him, “The Aztecs were defeated because they were assassins.” Their victims were my grandmother’s people, the Tlaxcaltecans, whom the Aztecs not only wanted to conquer but whose captured warriors were premiere sacrificial victims for their blood-thirsty national god, Huitzilopochtli.
Although all of the Mesoamerican societies, including the Tlaxcaltecans, practiced human sacrifice, none matched the Aztecs in scale. The level of human sacrifice increased during periods of crisis. There was no bigger crisis than the foretold doom of the world in the year of Ce Acatl Topiltzin, 1519 C.E.
Cortés offered the Tlaxcaltecans the opportunity to rid themselves of their nemesis once and for all, which they did with brutal efficiency.
For the last 25 years or so, Mexican historians have begun to re-examine the history of the conquest through the lens of post-nationalism. As with other contemporary historical revisions, different narratives are taken into perspective. For example, the role of Malintzín. Historians now question the traitor label, instead focusing on her as an individual woman.
What could she have done differently given the circumstances? What would anyone of us do if confronted with her situation while disempowered? The name “Malinche,” which means “Malinalli’s captain” in Nahuatl, referred to Cortés. “Here comes Malinche,” the Indian noblemen would say whenever they saw Cortés. Because he always kept his translator at his side, the name incorrectly stuck to her.
But I digress. My grandmother remembered her heritage and history so vividly that she spoke about the enmity between her people and the Aztecs as if she had lived in the times of the conquest, a living memory confirmed in the written records of the learned (surviving) Indian wise men of the era, Catholic Frays, and even in the letters, official decrees, and the church records which at times offer the commentary of the parish priests. These records were ignored, marginalized, or dismissed in favor of the big picture narrative, the binary mythology that was emotionally satisfying but only a partial truth.
Tlaxcatecans in the Parish Records of the Villa de San Esteban de Tlaxcala, 1693 (Saltillo, Coahuila)
When Cortés landed in Vera Cruz in 1519, he conquered one Indian nation after the other. His arrival coincided with the prophecies of the end times for the native peoples. (It was either a coincidence or else some skillful manipulation of space-time and consciousness by the magicians and wise men.) The ambivalence of the people first enabled Cortés essentially to run over the native towns, since they feared he was a god.
All went as planned until he tried to conquer Tlaxcala, a confederation of Nahua-speaking chiefdoms. Tlaxcala was one of many civilizations in Mesoamerica. It had a capital city, located at the archeological ruins of Cacaxtla, replete with its pyramids and ceremonial centers. They practiced the same religion and customs as the Aztecs. (Tlaxcala today has some of the best-preserved Mesoamerican murals.)
However, the Tlaxcaltecans were not an imperial nation like the Aztecs. The latter set out and conquered all of the surrounding civilizations and subjugated the Mixtec, the Olmec, the Tarascan, the Maya, among others. Tlaxcala, nestled high in the mountains east of Tenochtitlán, was another story. The Tlaxcaltecans maintained their independence and freedom from Aztec hegemony through the use of defensive fortifications and an excellent cadre of warriors, among them the legendary warrior, Tlahuicole.
When he was ultimately captured by the Aztecs, he was offered amnesty by Moctezuma II if he helped conquer the Tarascans, which he did. When the emperor asked him to take his sword against his homeland, he instead chose a ceremonial death for his honor and his country. Chained to a stone, he battled one Aztec warrior after another, killing many until exhaustion made him an easy kill. Tlaxcala never forgot. Today, it is Tlahuicole, not Cuauhtémoc, whom the Tlaxcaltecans revere.
When Cortés approached the borders of Tlaxcala, the council of chiefs, headed by Xicotenga the Elder, debated whether to confront the invaders or surrender. Many were fearful because of the horses. The giant “deer,” they said, became a single creature with the man. But Xicotenga’s son, Xicotenga the Younger, was unconvinced. These were mere men, he argued, and the deer were just animals unknown to them. The warrior argued that if a horse could be killed, then it was not some supernatural creature. Although the Tlaxcaltecans suffered large losses in the battle, Xicotenga killed a horse and turned the tide. Cortés sued for peace. His god charade was over.
The Tlaxcaltecans agreed to ally themselves with Spain on certain conditions, mainly retention of their territory and freedom from servitude and tribute. Spain for the most part honored their end of the contract. They did infringe on some territory, but Tlaxcala basically remained intact. The Tlaxcaltecans, unlike other indigenous peoples, were addressed as Don/Doña; they rode horses, wore boots, and given privileges reserved for Spaniards.
In 1591, the Spanish Crown asked the Tlaxcaltecans to colonize the hostile north and help subdue the local nomadic peoples. On July 9th, 1591, four hundred families, my grandmother’s forebears among them, departed northward. Every year, the people of Tlaxcala commemorated this event in the Festival of the Parting of 400 Families.
My grandmother’s people settled in the vicinity of Saltillo, Nueva Extremadura (Coahuila) and founded the town of San Esteban de Tlaxcala, and later she’d say that her family still had ancestral lands there. In 1800, a group of Tlaxcaltecans moved north, to the Villa of San Andres (Nava, Coahuila). The Villa de San Andres was first founded in 1753 but failed to take root and was essentially abandoned. In the waning days of Colonial Mexico, the Spanish crown determined to re-establish the town, most likely as a defensive settlement against the war-like, horse-riding Chichimecas (Apaches and Comanches, et al.).
The Tlaxcatecan forces served as auxiliaries in the War of Conquest. Source: Lienzo de Tlaxcala via Wikipedia
While investigating my family’s genealogy, I’ve recovered some of the names of Felicitas Peña’s Tlaxcatecan ancestors among them Don Ygnacio Ramos and Doña Juana Balbina. (One of Felicita’s Spanish ancestors, Juan Peña was also an early settler of Nava.) Spanish and Tlaxcaltecans settlers, besides land, were given a starter kit of sorts, consisting of a wagon, beast of burden, hardware, seed, and cattle. They were to provide their own weapons and horses and serve in the king’s militias.
Many of the men were killed by Chichimecas in ambushes and pitched battles. I’ve come across pages listing the dead of these battles. Some of the descriptions of the corpses are graphic accounts of mutilations and desecration of the dead. The nomadic Indians were fierce, brutal, and determined warriors, far from helpless victims of contemporary myths. Needless, to say, there was no love lost between the settlers and the Chichimecas. But, unlike others who, remembering the stories of their ancestors’ Indian wars as if they themselves had lived them, Felicitas never hated other Indians.
I always remember her being kind and generous to the Kickapoo whenever they---the Kickapoo--migrated back and forth from their land, Nacimiento, in Múzquiz and their lands in Texas. She was never openly affectionate or given to weeping like my grandfather who would cry if he sang a sad song. She had the taciturn manner of her native ancestors and retreated into her silences.
Sometimes, when she’d hear of another’s suffering, she’d murmur, “Pobre,” and seemed to drift back into the solitude of the forgone centuries of life in the harsh and unforgiving Extremadura, a land where time lost its significance, and all of the past seemed as if it were yesterday. Her own mother died at 28, and shortly thereafter her father was murdered. Shaped by sorrow, she is one of my heroes. From her I learned that despite hardship and violence, our hearts are still capable of love.
This all brings back the popular Mexican narratives. The fallacy of the Mexican (and, by extension, the Chicano) narrative is that it posits that our mestizaje is Aztec based, when it is diverse: Tarascan, Huichol, Tarahumara, Kickapoo, Maya, Otomi, Olmec, Toltec, and so on. The fallacy of all “race” based nationalistic narratives is, in fact, that they ignore the marginalized narratives, histories, and archeological evidence, which confirm that ethnic admixture was the norm.
The Tlaxcaltecans, for example, were a mixture of ancient Tlaxcaltecans, Otomis, and Olmecs. The Spanish were Celtic-Iberians, Phoenicians, Jews, Visigoths, Vandals, Moroccans, Arabs, Basques, Vikings, and Romans. It is fascinating to know our origins and take pride in the accomplishments of our ancestors. However, other peoples, too, are equally enthused and proud of their ancestors.
This factor of the human condition being equal regardless of our origins, we (I hope) are entering into a new era, one that moves away from identity politics. Myself, I identify with classic critical thinkers of all backgrounds who love exploring new ideas and are inclined to deconstruction of conventional constructs. These are my people of choice. As for our biological identity, the empirical data reveals that there’s only one raza cósmica: Homo sapiens. Felicitas Peña understood this from the collective memory and wisdom of her people.
Rosa Martha Villarreal, a retired Adjunct Professor at Consumnes River College in Sacramento, California, is author of several novels important to American literature, including Doctor Magdalena, The Stillness of Love and Exile, and Chronicles of Air and Dreams, and a children's book, The Adventures of Wyglaf the Wyrm. Copyright Rosa Martha Villarreal, 2017.