The drought-driven exposure of Chiapas’ “drowned” 16th-century Temple of Santiago has stirred echoes of Mexico’s early post-Conquest era. A time more complex, lasting and troubling than Mexicans have cared to candidly deal with.
Those troubles were best plumbed by a brilliant young Spaniard, Diego Duran (c.1537-1588), who began his cultural explorations when he was just ten years old.
Though he was to become a Dominican friar, it was as an adventurous child that friendships with Tetzcoco children revealed the harsh shadows of maladjustment. Those friends taught him that the ruins of the Mejica capital possessed host of secrets.
When we speak accurately of the intricate, harsh and accomplished world of pre-Hispanic Mexico, we use ideas, discoveries, even the vocabulary of a handful of intellectually accomplished priests of the 16th and 17th centuries. To a great extent that’s because they recorded their revealing discoveries. Yet much of this was denied, not understood, even today.
As the experiences with his boyhood friends and their families revealed to him, Duran learned that the indios of Tenochtitlan\Mejico possessed keen intelligence, discipline and ability. They were the authors of a complex, well-organized society. A society whose gods were brutally demanding. A civilization purposefully left in rubble by the Spanish Conquest.
It was only later, as Duran grew toward priesthood, that the realities of Moctezuma’s defeat became apparent. The ruin of the Aztec world revealed a terminal, “sudden sense of weakness.” Abruptly, the Nahuatl world believed its gods had abandoned it.
This was a fatal psychological/spiritual “divine desertion.” Diego recognized that the reality of such a gradual defeat turned the Mejica into a fearful, withdrawn and confused people.