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The conquest of Mexico under question, 500 years on | USA

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In his iconic 1995 book on the Haitian revolution, Silencing the Past, historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote something that may appear obvious, but bears repeating: “Human beings participate in history both as actors, and as narrators.” History is not only what happened, but what we are told happened.

Of course, that does not mean that history is subjective, because some facts are undeniable: explorer Christopher Columbus arrived in America in 1492, and Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés reached the shores of Veracruz, Mexico in 1519. But to understand the conquest of Mexico, we need to look at who was narrating it, as the angle or the sources they choose can tell us more about that moment than the facts themselves. “History is a consequence of power,” wrote Trouillot. “The most important task is not to determine what history is, but how it works.”

Portada de 'Relación de 1520', de Luis Eduardo Granados.
Portada de ‘Relación de 1520’, de Luis Eduardo Granados.

This year, August 13 marks the commemoration of 500 years since the ultimate fall of the Aztec Empire in modern-day Mexico. In the last two years, publishing houses in the country have produced dozens of new volumes questioning the credibility of the powerful storytellers who saw 1521 as a set victory of the Spanish over the Mesoamerican Indians. The full story of that battle, they say, was more complex.

“Every source is first and foremost a fact within its social, spatial and temporal context,” writes Luis Fernando Granados, a historian at Mexico’s Universidad Veracruzana, in his new book Relación de 1520 (or Record of 1520). He is critical of Hernán Cortés, considered the master storyteller of his time. In the book, Granados questions the credibility of the letters that the conquistador sent to the Spanish crown between 1519 and 1526, and that for centuries were taken as official accounts. Granados points out that there is no original manuscript from Cortés, but rather a transcription made years later by a scribe. There were letters written by several people, but these were political documents to the queen rather than a careful historical account. “If we stop considering them as the master version of Mexico’s past, that could have as refreshing an effect on the historiographical as on the purely historical,” he said. (Granados died in July of this year.)

One of the most interesting books on Cortés’ lack of credibility is entitled: ¿Quién conquistó México? (or Who Conquered Mexico?), by historian Federico Navarrete, and published by Debate books in 2019. This book poses different answers to the question of who conquered Mexico, and states: “It was La Malinche [Cortés’ consort], it was the indigenous conquerors.” Cortés, in reality, had a minuscule army when the Aztec Empire fell, and the real victors in August 1521 were his allies – the Mesoamerican enemies of the Aztec Empire, made up of indigenous warriors from Cempoala, Tlaxcala, Cholula, Texcoco and Chalco. “The idea of the absolute victory of the Spaniards in 1521 is nothing more than a partial and self-serving version, invented by Hernán Cortés himself, to extol and exaggerate his own role in the events,” the book adds.

Another narrator whose words were taken as gospel was Bernal Díaz del Castillo, conquistador and author of La Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (or The True History of the Conquest of Nueva España”), whom Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes called Mexico’s “first novelist.” In 2019, the Taurus publishing house translated into Spanish When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History, a work by US historian Matthew Restall dissecting official narratives, which begins by casting doubt on Díaz del Castillo’s credibility regarding Aztecan emperor Moctezuma and Cortés. The Aztec leader was neither cowardly nor naive, and Hernán Cortés was not a brilliant Spanish strategist, the book asserts. The victory of 1521 was, Restall insists, that of the conquering indigenous allies. He argues that what we now call “conquest” was a later and much more complex process.

“We have abandoned the term conquest, in the singular, and instead prefer the term conquests plural, in order to emphasize that the defeat of [the capital of the Aztec Empire] Tenochtitlan was only the beginning of a historical step,” writes historian Martín Ríos Saloma of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). He has compiled essays by the best researchers in Mexico and Spain in his work Conquistas (or Conquests) released this year. His book makes an effort to search for the narrators whose past has been silenced, including “the voices of indigenous actors, of women, of the army captains, of the Castilian soldiers.” To ignore them, he believes, is to offer “a simplistic, Manichean and isolated vision of the historical processes happening in the world at that time.”

One of these silenced voices opens El quinto sol (or The Fifth Sun) by Camilla Townsend, translated into Spanish by the Grano de Sal publishing house this year. Chimalpahin, an indigenous historian who worked in a church, wrote in the evenings during his spare time to try and save the memory of his ancestors. To revisit writings like his, set down a century after 1521, is to deconstruct false narratives, Townsend says, offering the example of the exaggerated myth of Aztec human sacrifice. “The Aztecs were conquered, but they also saved themselves,” the author notes, “by writing down everything they could remember of their peoples’ history so that it would not be lost forever.”

The list of new publications in this year of commemoration can seem endless. Mexican historian Pedro Salmerón rejects the term conquest in La batalla por Tenochtitlan (or The Battle for Tenochtitlan). “The war was much more prolonged, the resistance was far greater and long-lasting and, in fact, it has not ended,” he stresses. Enrique Semo, in La conquista, catástrofe de los pueblos originarios (or The Conquest, Catastrophe of the Original Peoples) is more interested in the history of a new capitalist system present in Mesoamerica than in the date of 1521 itself. “Instead of eliminating or displacing the indigenous people in order to make use of empty spaces, the imperative was to reduce them to manageable groups,” he says.

Novelists and graphic novelists have also done their part as the anniversary approaches. The Planeta group published several novels this year focused on women. Montezuma’s daughter features in La otra Isabel (or The Other Isabel) by Laura Martínez-Belli, while Montezuma’s sex slave Malintzin appears in Amor y conquista (or Love and Conquest) by Marisol Martín del Campo. Meanwhile in El camino del fuego (or The Way of Fire), by Celia del Palacio, a Totanaca priestess allies herself with the Spaniards. Illustrator José Luis Pescador uses a comic book approach to tell the story of the war in La caída de Tenochtitlan (or The Fall of Tenochtitlan). They are all new narrators of what happened in 1521 – some more powerful than others – and they have created new accounts of the conquest, or conquests, that we are unsure how to name in the 21st century.

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The macro pig farm threatening a historical gem in northern Spain | Culture

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Christians and Muslims fought over the castle of Gormaz in Soria in the Spanish region of Castilla y León for two centuries. Now, after a lapse of hundreds of years, it is once again under threat – this time, from a macro pig farm for 4,200 animals. The proposed farm is within two kilometers of the fortress, and will be visible from its impressive caliphal gate, which is one of the biggest tourist attractions of the medieval site.

Environmental and neighborhood associations, architecture and restoration professionals, as well as the town councils of Recuerda, a village of 70 inhabitants, and Gormaz, a village of 20, call the plans an “attack” on one of the most impressive Islamic fortresses on the peninsula. With a perimeter measuring more than one kilometer, the castle of Gormaz was once the largest in Europe. It was this fortress that the Caliph of Córdoba, Al-Hakam II, ordered to be reinforced and expanded at the end of the 10th century to stop the Christian advance from the north.

Meanwhile, the company behind the project, Agro Peñaranda Esteban, insists it will comply “strictly with the law” and that if the permits are not issued, it will go elsewhere. “It’s great to eat torreznos [a kind of fried bacon snack] from Soria in a good restaurant in a big capital city,” says one of the shareholders, who is from the area. “People must think that they fall from the sky.”

The castle of Gormaz was built in the 9th century to strategically support Medinaceli, the capital of the so-called Muslim Middle Frontier. Divided into two large areas separated by a moat, there is the fortress with the tower of Almanzor and the caliphal quarters, and then the area for the troops, where the main entrance is located. Altogether, it has 28 towers with battlements and arrowslits.

The Soria fortress defended the routes to the north of the peninsula that followed the banks of the Duero river and was coveted by a number of figures, including Count García Fernández, Sancho II of Pamplona, Ramiro III of León, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar and the de facto ruler of Islamic Iberia, Almanzor. And so it passed from one side to the other until, in 1060, Fernando I of León seized it once and for all. During the reign of Spain’s Catholic Monarchs, it was turned into a prison as it no longer had any strategic value.

But now it is administrative forces that are advancing on the castle. On June 29, the Castilla y León regional government published “the announcement of a pig farm of 4,200 pigs in plot 20114 of industrial estate 1 of the municipality of Recuerda,” which backs onto Gormaz. August 10 was the deadline for anyone wishing to take issue with the environmental impact assessment, which states that the farm would not alter the surrounding landscape. “It is a landscape altered by human activity, due to its agricultural use, with no dominant variations or striking contrasts,” claims the report.

This contradicts the regional plan for the Duero Valley, approved by the Castilla y León regional authorities in 2010, which mentions a series of Landscape Management Areas (AOP) needing a specific regime of protection, management and planning. One such area includes the castle of Gormaz and the surrounding area where the farm would be located.

View of the San Miguel hermitage from the caliphal gate of the castle of Gormaz.
View of the San Miguel hermitage from the caliphal gate of the castle of Gormaz.José Francisco Yusta

Luis Morales, architect and member of the Soria Association for the Defense of Nature (Aseden), points out that the castle’s environment is “totally agricultural – fields and forests – and very similar to what it might have been in the Middle Ages, when Gormaz was built. To put an industrial complex of enormous dimensions to house more than 4,000 pigs, which is what they intend, is barbaric,” he adds. “It breaks up the landscape from the same caliphal gate, the one that is so often photographed for tourism purposes.”

Morales also believes that the municipalities have the means to stop the project, “because the land is rustic and can therefore be classified as protected, which would prevent the livestock complex from being built.” Meanwhile, the Aseden association points out that the regional authorities were responsible for the White Paper of the Territorial Enclaves of Cultural Interest (ETIC), which selected 111 locations of cultural or heritage interest, one of which was Gormaz.

According to the NGO Ecologists in Action, in this type of facility whose surface area would be 4,000 square meters plus another 2,000 for slurry, “the problem of odor emissions is very important because of its proximity and orientation with respect to inhabited areas and other places of interest.” It explains: “In this case, the farm would be to the west, 1.3 kilometers from Recuerda and two kilometers from the castle of Gormaz. According to data from [Spain’s national weather agency] Aemet, the prevailing winds are from the west. In other words, it would bring unhealthy smells for most of the year to Recuerda. Surprisingly, the project says that the prevailing winds are from the northeast.”

Consuelo Barrio, mayor of Recuerda, agrees. “It is not only the visual impact, which is very important, but also the environmental impact due to the possible contamination of the water from the slurry as we are in an area of aquifers; this is in addition to the smell that would come our way as we are barely a kilometer from it.”

Meanwhile, the company behind the project considers it is under “unjustified attack.” According to one 38-year-old businessman involved in the project, “in this part of Soria there are at least three farms: Quintanar, Gormaz…. And if ours smells, it means they all smell. It’s not like years ago, when pigs were thrown into the Duero – some of which I have seen floating – or the slurry was dumped down drains. No. There are strict environmental laws and we will comply with them. It is easy to talk about ‘deserted’ Spain and all the things the politicians are saying, but when you try to create wealth, obstacles are thrown up because you can be seen from the castle two kilometers away. If they don’t let us set up here, we’ll go somewhere else,” he adds angrily.

Marisa Revilla, president of Amigos del Museo Numantino, is particularly upset by the visual effect of the pig farm. “The impact report does not take into account the horizontal impact. It only states that they are going to put up some hedges to hide the farm. But the installation will not only affect the castle, it will also affect the nearby Romanesque San Miguel hermitage.” This hermitage was inspected in the 1990s by architect José Francisco Yusta, who specializes in historical monuments and also opposes the construction of the farm. “There is no justification for breaking up the landscape,” says Yusta, who has worked on such architectural gems as the cathedral of Burgo de Osma, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and castle of Gormaz itself.

“I believe it is not worth destroying our landscape for the two jobs that the macro-farm will provide, which are those proposed by the promoters,” says architect Luis Morales. “If there were only 200 for deserted Spain….”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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Ex-Ireland rugby player charged with stealing almost €600,000 from BOI

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Former Irish rugby international Brendan Mullin is to face trial accused of deception, false accounting and theft of close to €600,000 from Bank of Ireland where he held a senior executive position.

Mullin (57) appeared at Dublin District Court on Tuesday following an investigation by the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau (GNECB) into bank fraud allegations going back a decade.

The former rugby star won 55 Irish caps between 1984 and 1995 before he went into financial services and became managing director at Bank of Ireland Private Banking Ltd.

He was arrested at 9.08am on Tuesday when he met gardaí in Dublin city-centre. He was brought to the Bridewell Garda station where he was charged with 15 offences which allegedly took place between 2011 and 2013.

He is accused of stealing €500,000 on December 16th 2011, at Bank of Ireland Private Bank at Burlington Plaza, Burlington Road, Dublin 4.

Mr Mullin, of Albert Lodge, Stillorgan Road, Donnybrook, Dublin 4, is charged with eight further thefts of amounts totalling €73,000 from the bank.

Five counts of false accounting were also put to him.

He was also charged with deception by inducing a named man and woman to sign a payment instruction with the intention of making gain for himself or another on July 27th, 2011.

Dressed in a grey suit and light blue shirt, he sat silently during his hearing before Judge Michael Walsh.

GNECB Detective Sean O’Riordan told the court Mr Mullin made no comment when charged.

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has directed trial on indictment meaning his case will go before a judge and jury in the circuit court.

The DPP has also stated that he can be sent forward for sentencing on a signed plea, should that arise, but defence solicitor Robert Purcell told Judge Walsh a book of evidence will be required.

Bail terms had been agreed, Judge Walsh noted, and it was set in Mr Mullin’s own bond of €10,000.

He was ordered to surrender his passport but this was not made a precondition of release; Judge Walsh warned him that it must be handed over to gardai within 48 hours of taking up bail.

Mr Mullin needed to travel for work purposes and that could be done once the GNECB detective is notified in advance, the judge said.

He must appear again at the District Court on November 11th next to be served with the book of evidence by the prosecution.

A trial order can then be granted.

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Shock in Germany after cashier shot dead in Covid mask row

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The killing on Saturday evening in the western town of Idar-Oberstein, Rhineland-Palatinate, is believed to be the first in Germany linked to the government’s coronavirus rules.

The row started when the cashier, a student, told the customer to put on a face mask, as required in all German shops. After a brief argument, the man left.

The suspect then returned about an hour and a half later, this time wearing a mask. But as he brought his six-pack of beer to the till, he took off the mask and another discussion ensued.

“The perpetrator then pulled out a revolver and shot him straight in the head,” prosecutor Kai Fuhrmann told reporters on Monday.

The suspect, a 49-year-old German man, walked to a police station the following day to turn himself in. He was arrested and has confessed to the murder.

He told police he felt “cornered” by the coronavirus measures, which he perceived as an “ever-growing infringement on his rights” and he had seen “no other way out”, Fuhrmann said.

Idar-Oberstein mayor Frank Fruehauf called it “an unfathomable, terrible act”, and residents have laid flowers and candles outside the petrol station.

The murder comes just days before Germans head to the polls for a general election on September 26 that will see Chancellor Angela Merkel bow out of politics after 16 years.

Katrin Goering-Eckardt, the parliamentary leader of the Green party, tweeted that she was “deeply shaken” by the killing, which she said was “the cruel result of hatred”.

Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner from Merkel’s centre-right CDU party, who hails from the region, said the murder was “shocking”.

The Tagesspiegel newspaper said far-right chat groups on Telegram were applauding the murder, with one user writing “Here we go!!!” while others posted thumbs-up emojis.

Germany has seen repeated protests from anti-mask demonstrators throughout the pandemic, some of them attracting tens of thousands of people.

The Querdenker (Lateral Thinkers) movement has emerged as the loudest voice against the government’s coronavirus curbs and regulations. Its marches have drawn a wide mix of people, including vaccine sceptics, neo-Nazis and members of Germany’s far-right AfD party.



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