Mexico is marking its Day of the Dead amid the 500th anniversary of the Spanish Conquest, and true to the holiday’s roots, it has become an opportunity for reflection and reconciliation, not revenge.
Often misinterpreted as Mexico’s equivalent of Halloween, the two-day Nov. 1-2 Day of the Dead is a celebration to welcome and commune with the dead, not fear their return or revive old hatreds.
This year it comes very close to 500 years after a bloody date: the Oct. 18, 1519 massacre of thousands of indigenous people at the ceremonial center of Cholula, just east of Mexico City.
The Cholula killings were perhaps the first large-scale indigenous massacre, the beginning of a series of mass killings in the Americas that would continue up to the early 1900s and result in the near-extermination of indigenous peoples.
While Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has asked Spain for an apology for the whole of the 1519-1521 Conquest — when Hernán Cortés defeated the Aztec empire — Mexicans are taking the opportunity to remember, re-interpret and learn lessons from the date.
This year, indigenous dancers burned incense and performed ceremonial dances on the spot where the Cholula massacre is believed to have occurred, and left offerings to the estimated 3,000 victims.
At a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City, dancer Madai Selbor dressed in a feather headdress and skull paint as La Malinche, the indigenous translator and lover of Cortés who has long been viewed as a traitor in Mexico. Now, La Malinche is getting a new, deeper and more nuanced treatment in movies and TV shows coming out this year.
“She is a figure who has been very censured in history, but when you look at her story after the passage of the years, she is truly an icon,” said Selbor. “There are people who see her as an icon of feminism, but I see her more as an icon of negotiation and alliances.”
But Cholula historian Refugio Gallegos noted that La Malinche, and other indigenous people who helped Cortés, played key roles in the Cholula massacre, which occurred just weeks before the Spaniards marched into present-day Mexico City. The Spaniards would be welcomed by Aztec Emperor Moctezuma, then kicked out of Mexico City and wouldn’t return to complete the conquest until 1521.
But Cortés and his 400 Spaniards would have lost if it were not for the thousands of allied Tlaxcalan warriors who joined the Spaniards in order to throw off the yoke of the Aztec empire.
“One of the advantages of the joint armed formed by Indians and Spaniards was to revive old quarrels and take advantage of the resentments that several groups had against the Aztecs,” who demanded tribute payments from vassals, wrote Gallegos.
At the center of all this was La Malinche, who served as Cortés’ translator. While the residents of Cholula initially welcomed the Spaniards, they feared a trap; La Malinche heard of supposed plans to ambush the Spaniards, and warned Cortés.
“La Malinche’s role was crucial,” said Gallegos.
What Cortés did was simply order his men to massacre everybody they could find in Cholula. In Cortés’ own words: “we hit them so hard that in two hours, more than 3,000 men died.”
By his own account, Cortés was helped in this task by about 4,000 Tlaxcalans, an indigenous group who inhabited what is now the Mexican state of Tlaxcala. For centuries, that “betrayal” led to sayings like “it’s all the fault of the Tlaxcalans.”
But according to Gallegos, this year’s ceremonies marking the 500th anniversary involved all of the towns along Cortés’ route to Mexico City — Cholulans, Tlaxcalans and others — coming together and forgetting past grievances.
“The event is about brotherhood, of towns working together,” said Gallegos. “We know that in the pre-Hispanic era that didn’t happen, there were differences, but today there is a new attitude. There is no more talk about traitors.”
AP Writer Amy Guthrie contributed to this report.