Last updateFri, 29 Apr 2016 3pm

New Spain was a world splintered by indio habits of belief and identity, and Catholic Spain’s genocidal new empire

As ten-year-old Diego Duran and his indio friends explored Moctezuma’s shattered capital, he learned something that few of his fellow Spaniards understood: Everything that the defeated natives performed still had religious import.  

Fifty years after Hernan Cortes had destroyed the Mejica Empire, the Indians of “New Spain” were psychologically sundered by the contradictory demands of two competing religions: Spain’s “Inquisitional” Catholicism versus the ancient ”heathen” Indian beliefs.

They were spiritually “frozen” in the rituals and customs of their race – a world view that shaped every response to life – yet aware that the leaders, gods, warriors and traditions of their culture had proven inadequate in protecting them from the savagery and slavery of the Spanish.  

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Even as a youngster, Duran realized that this cluster of ambiguity, paradox and contradiction cut the theological ground from under the Indians.  Confused and fearing the consequences of this spiritual collision, they withered psychologically as they tried to placate all gods, all priests.  

Duran’s own dual-cultured experience allowed him to perceive the contours of this predicament.  He was led not only by his Spanish heritage and commitment to the Church, but also by a practical assessment of the future of Spain’s largest and richest colony: The Indian must relinquish his ties to the past and accept the Spanish “way.”   It was that, Duran believed, or even further fundamental dissolution.

He sought to “guide” the Indians to replace ancient habits of belief, custom and identity.  This was necessary – the priest in him believed – to make them useful participants in Spain’s colonial empire.  This would deter the Spanish from genocidal impulses.  

In the process of this instruction, Duran produced an instructive ensemble of written works. “Book of the Gods and Rites” is a deftly detailed description of the life of a civilization that began vanishing the day the Spanish set foot in the New World. “The Ancient Calendar” is one of the major guides to the complex Mesoamerican system of counting time.  “The History of the Indies of New Spain” follows the Mejica people from their obscure genesis to the 1521 collapse of their empire.  


One Spring Sunday, Fray Diego Duran stood in the courtyard of a Dominican church at Popocatepetl, preparing to lead a procession of Indians in celebration of Pentecost.  He knew that Pentecost had fallen that year on the Mejica feast of Tecatlipoca.  

He watched fellow clergymen ready themselves for the ceremony, and sighed sadly.  None of them  realized the coincidence.  Turning, he gazed at the crowd of Indians congregated in and beyond the churchyard.  In lieu of the usual candles, the Mejicas grasped the flowered staff of Tezcatlipoca – The Smoking Mirror – in their hands.  The huge procession began to move, the priests confidently leading, chanting the Veni Creator. The Indians followed, in contrast, paying homage to The Smoking Mirror.  

Shaking his head, Duran selected one of the flowered staffs himself and stepped into the Indian procession.  

“I see these things,” he murmured, “but I am silent.“

(This is the last of a three-part series.)



Adventurous youth explores early post-Conquest New Spain, climbing the still fresh ruins of Moctezuma’s capital

Drought-driven falling levels of Chiapas‘ Grijalva River have presently revealed the mid-16th century Temple of Santiago.  Normally drowned in 100 feet of water, the church was built in 1564 by Friar Bartolome de las Casas.  He was the celebrated advocate of the abolition of slavery in the Americas. In 1966, when the Mexican government created the NezaThualcoyotl reservoir, the Dominican temple and surrounding villages, towns and historically valuable archaeological sites all disappeared.