Now that we’ve read Bernal Díaz Del Castillo’s The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, we shall take up a contentious issue in the study of Europe’s encounter with Native America. In this case, Bernal Díaz, a soldier under Hernan Cortés, narrates the conquest of the Aztecs. One of the strategies that the author uses is evident in the description of Tlatelolco marketplace in Mexico City (chapter 91). The author resorts to a preexisting frame of knowledge, most of all when describing idols as “satanic” and “hellish.” (The Aztecs, of course, would have no knowledge of the Christian Bible at this time.) The author references the similar market stalls in “Medina del Campo” (48) in Spain as one example of commonality. He also remarks: “They [the Aztecs] bring as many slaves to be sold in that market as the Portuguese bring Negroes from Guinea” (48). Here, too, there is a reference to a preexisting example of African slavery in the Iberian Peninsula (where Portugal and Spain are located). The point in such examples is that there is something in common with Europe. It breaks down the radical newness of the “New World” and makes it digestible for his European readers.
Perhaps this is really the only way to do this as a writer-explorer. If we were to land on the moon and find unknown inhabitants we would likely compare them (favorable and/or unfavorably) to people on earth. There is something similar going on here. But let’s also consider how the reality of “America” here gets lost in translation. What, if anything, would constitute an act of seeing with eyes better attuned to the diversity and specificity of this place? It may help to imagine yourself seeing this part of the world for the first time, and trying to make sense of it.