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Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico Stuart B. Schwartz Palgrave Macmillan

19th October 2012 History Books 20 Comments

Schwartz has made readily available to the lay reader much of the specialist work on this period in this highly recommended book. History: Reviews of New Books

[What] emerges from Schwartz’s arrangement of the sources is a fairly nuanced vision of the political situation in central Mexico during this epic clash of cultures. The Sixteenth Century Journal

Stuart B. Schwartz is George Burton Adams Professor of History at Yale University.

Using excerpts primarily drawn from Bernal Diaz’s 1632 account of the Spanish victory and from testimonies–many recently uncovered–of indigenous Nahua survivors gathered by Bernardino de Sahagun, Victors and Vanquished clearly demonstrates how personal interests, class and ethnic biases, and political considerations can influence interpretation of events. A substantial introduction is followed by 9 chronological sections that illuminate the major events and personalities in this powerful historical episode and reveal the changing attitudes toward European expansionism.

Schwartz has made readily available to the lay reader much of the specialist work on this period in this highly recommended book. History: Reviews of New Books

[What] emerges from Schwartz’s arrangement of the sources is a fairly nuanced vision of the political situation in central Mexico during this epic clash of cultures. The Sixteenth Century Journal

Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico (Bedford Series in History & Culture)

The Broken Spears 2007 Revised Edition: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico

Fascinating and moving native Aztec descriptions of Cortez’s conquest of Mexico. First collected in 1962, now in a new expanded and updated edition.

Copyright 1992 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

–This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

For hundreds of years, the history of the conquest of Mexico and the defeat of the Aztecs has been told in the words of the Spanish victors. Miguel Len-Portilla has long been at the forefront of expanding that history to include the voices of indigenous peoples. In this new and updated edition of his classic The Broken Spears, Len-Portilla has included accounts from native Aztec descendants across the centuries. These texts bear witness to the extraordinary vitality of an oral tradition that preserves the viewpoints of the vanquished instead of the victors. Len-Portilla’s new Postscript reflects upon the critical importance of these unexpected historical accounts.

The Broken Spears 2007 Revised Edition: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico

  • 20 responses to "Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico Stuart B. Schwartz Palgrave Macmillan"

  • Guenter
    6:25 on October 19th, 2012
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    This is an excellent book as many of Leon-Portilla. I only recommend that in the catalog the title in the original language must be shown, so the potential buyer know. If not you can buy a book you already have as happened to me.

  • Mikko
    9:10 on October 19th, 2012
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    When the British Empire relinquished control to India, the jewel in the British crown, it became evident the age of Imperial European expansionism had come to an end. The period of global decolonization following World War II paved the way for a more critical approach to colonial history. The Euro-centric historical narratives of the colonial conquests were no longer acceptable within the academic community or for that matter entirely accurate. Stuart B. Schwartz a Professor of History at Yale University has set out to ensure the history of the conquest of Mexico is not written exclusively by the winners, but rather to present a fair and balanced compilation of European and Native American primary sources complemented by his own expert analysis. “Additional alternate texts paint a broader, richer canvas, fleshing out the narrative and conveying to the reader a sense that there was not simply a “Spanish” or an “Indian” view. Rather, there are a variety of visions and opinions, influenced and mediated by personal interests, class and ethnic biases, political considerations, and many other factors.”
    The introduction provides the reader with a comprehensive description of Mesoamerican and Spanish societies on the eve of the conquest. Included is the rise to power of the Mexica Empire through conquest and expansion and the foundation of the empire’s island capital at Tenochtitlan. The author describes the historical background of the primary sources which constitute the majority of the narrative. Nahua sources are drawn primarily from The Florentine Codex, a post-conquest study of indigenous history and culture conducted by literate natives under the auspices of a Spanish missionary named Fray Bernardino De Sahagun. Erudite natives rather quickly adopted the Roman alphabet, for the most part abandoning the use of Nahuatl hieroglyphics, and by the late 1500′s were capable of writing both Spanish and Nahuatl. However, the reader is advised of the existence of tribal differences and patron appeasement reflected within the codex as historical partiality as the greater part of Sahagun’s indigenous informants were from Tlatelolco, a city under Tenochtitlan political control, and highly critical of the Mexica Empire and Montezuma. The principal Spanish source is Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s book The True History of the Conquest of New Spain which chronicles the conquest from a soldier’s perspective. Despite the wandering and crude prose of Bernal Diaz, his account documents the typical conquistador’s motivations and justifications for the conquest, reveals the true scope of the clash of cultures beginning with the first encounters up to the fall of Tenochtitlan, and provides indispensable anecdotes from a human voice and mind of reason which serve to bring the events and personalities of the conquest to life for the student of Mesoamerican history.
    The book is divided into eight chapters proceeding in chronological order from 1518-1521. Each section is preceded by a succinct analysis of the documents, the biases to avoid and the themes to concentrate upon. Integrated among the sources are useful maps, both ancient and modern, and paintings, both Spanish and Native American, which are complemented with academically irrefutable analysis and interpretations.
    The first chapter entitled “Forebodings and Omens” deals primarily with a mysterious comet, an unexplained temple fire attributed to vindictive gods, and a weeping prophetic woman in the streets of Tenochtitlan which ominously preceded the tragic death of the empire. The mysterious premonitions are largely attributable to post-conquest indigenous attempts at justifying the procedures of their government. The aforementioned is particularly conspicuous in the legend of Quetzalcoatl, a god/man who left Tenochtitlan in the eastward direction, vowing to return in claim of his land. Thus, as Cortes arrived from the east, the Nahua mistook the Spaniard to be Quetzalcoatl. However, Schwartz informs the reader the myth of Quetzalcoatl is most likely a defense for Montezuma’s vacillation. The second chapter “Preparations” concerns the backgrounds of the conquistadors and how Hernando Cortes came to lead the expedition.
    The third chapter “Encounters” relies heavily upon Bernal Diaz’s account of the first cross-cultural encounters at Cozumel and the Yucatan. Hernando Cortes is portrayed displaying his horses and cannons to frighten the natives at every chance that presented itself as both a joke and a military tactic. Both Spanish and native accounts however focus on the importance of interpreters such as Dona Marina, diplomacy, and the exchange of gifts in the interactions between the two civilizations. The fourth chapter “The March Inland: Tlaxcala and Cholula” in which Schwartz explains the strategic alliance between the Spanish and the Tlaxcalans, arrived at after a fierce battle, often neglected from native accounts. The Spanish-Tlaxcala alliance was of paramount importance in helping a band of approximately a thousand Spaniards turn the tide against an empire of warriors. However, after the battle for Tenochtitlan, the Tlaxcalans were offered no special consideration by the conquerors, resulting in distortion of the differentiation between historical victors and vanquished. After consummating the alliance at Tlaxcala, the Spanish arrive at Cholula where they are at first cordially accepted but were apparently deceived by the Cholulans. Here history becomes vague as the actors attempt to justify, excuse, or condemn, nonetheless the result was a bloodbath. Adres de Tapia, a Spanish conquistador justifies the Cholula massacre as a provoked attack to prevent a planned ambush. While the native accounts differ because of post-conquest patron appeasements, the consensus leaned toward an unprovoked slaughter.
    In chapters five and six Schwartz compares indigenous and Spanish accounts of Cortes’ arrival at the island capital which are remarkably equivalent with the exception of the native’s bewilderment at the deer upon which the Spaniards were mounted and the Spanish comparison of the city of Tenochtitlan to Venice, Italy. Nonetheless, the sense of awe and astonishment are present throughout both accounts. Conversely, the versions disagree over the incident at Toxcatl with the Indians claiming an unprovoked massacre and the Spaniards claiming Pedro de Alvarado was merely foiling a rebellion. Likewise, the tragic death of Montezuma is portrayed differently in each account. The Tlatelocans appear angered equally by the death of their leader and the capitulation of their leader while the Spanish are mournful of the death of Montezuma. The pure emotion surrounding the foreboding death of the emperor is evident in Bernal Diaz’s account when he laments: “Cortes wept for him, and all of us Captains and soldiers, and there was no man among us who knew him and was intimate with him, who did not bemoan him as though he were our father”
    Chapters seven and eight refer to the final defeat of the city of Tenochtitlan and the protracted effects of the conquest, colonial rule, and cultural syncretism. Schwartz reveals the glory and sophistication of Mexica civilization, its valiant resistance as it gasped its last breaths at Tenochtitlan, and its resilience under colonial rule. Bernal Diaz’s account of the fierce native resistance, the siege of Tenochtitlan and the final defeat of the empire is characterized by his intense reverence of the courage, strength and resiliency of the natives. The native account of the defeat drawn from The Florentine Codex encapsulates the tragedy of the annihilation of the civilization: “the Spainiards took things from people by force. They were looking for gold; they cared nothing for green-stone, precious feathers, or turquoise. Then they burned some of them on the mouth [branded them]; and…the weapons were laid down and we collapsed”
    Criticism of Victors and Vanquished can only be directed at the personal agendas, political motivations, class, ethnic, and religious biases contained within the primary sources themselves which supplant historical fact with historical subjectivism. Schwartz reminds the reader that historical scholarship is constructed upon a foundation of anecdotal primary sources and it is the endeavor of the scholar to interpret and distinguish the factual from the tainted and distorted. Schwartz emphasizes the Sisyphean task of creating a true accurate history and invites debate inquiring, “What is a “true” history?”
    Nonetheless, the author equips the wary reader with a concise analysis preceding each primary source allowing the scholar to continue reading cognizant of biases to avoid and themes to concentrate upon. His writing style is neither loquacious nor deficient, but rather Schwartz provides the ideal amount of flawless and meticulous analysis all the while exhibiting his dominant command of the subject. Stuart B. Schwartz’s Victors and Vanquished is an unprecedented and enriching academic breakthrough in the interpretation of the past, deviating from the archaic tradition of history dictated exclusively by conquerors to a balanced and even-handed scholarship shining light on victors and vanquished alike.

  • pradeep
    13:24 on October 19th, 2012
    Reply to comment

    This work provides native Aztec tellings of the Spanish conquest under Cortez. The selections are presented chronologically, with typically two versions of each incident. The book itself is well done and not difficult to read, with some copies of native illustrations. Although this work cannot be compared to the vivid, first person account of Diaz, it does provide some interesting inside information on the Aztec reaction and their first impressions of the new arrivals. The final chapter brings the struggle of the native vanquished to light by quoting written sources through the 20th century. Unfortunately making the historical implications much too political. Still it is a well done and thoughtful book.

  • Elise Mbock
    15:15 on October 19th, 2012
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    Miguel Leon-Portillo’s collection of Nahua accounts of the Spanish conquest affords the reader a unique opportunity to experience the conquest through the mind of the Amerindian. The book records the human response of the Nahuatl speaking peoples of central Mexico to the strange and terrifying events that ultimately destroyed their city and their way of life. Through songs, pictures, and oral tradition, the plight of the people was preserved, and some of the more powerful and eloquent of these are represented in “The Broken Spears.”

    Do not expect an objective historical account of the conquest from this book. That is not the intention, as clearly stated by Leon-Portillo in his introduction. Rather, it is a glimpse into how the natives responded to and came to terms with events that were so strange and frightening to them that they bordered on the apocalyptic. What the reader gains, then, is an eloquent testimony to the passion and intellect of the native people of central Mexico who were so often, in many Spanish accounts, reduced to barbaric, blood-thirsty savages with little capacity for human sympathy.

  • Yoybel Frimme
    19:25 on October 19th, 2012
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    The Broken Spears is the story of the conquest of Mexico, as told by the conquered: the citizens of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco. It’s a beautiful book that reads something like an epic, with all the elements of tragedy, comedy and poetry. The passages are taken from different accounts and codices and translated into English.

    It starts out with the omens foretelling the coming of the Spaniards and ends with the elegies on the fallen city. There are quite a few illustrations and poems, all of which are beautiful. Some of the accounts read somewhat contradictorily, but I suppose that is to be expected, as most of these accounts were probably recorded orally.

    If you are at all interested in the history of the Aztecs, Mexico or Cortes, this book is a must read. It’s not so often we get such a glimpse into a conquered people, and this book is a great compliment to books such as The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz.

  • Fusion
    23:38 on October 19th, 2012
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    Ever wondered what it looked like from the other side? This work is unique in that history, especially that of indigenous peoples, is usually told by the conquerors. Not here. If you have any interest in Mexico and its story, you should read this book.

  • yogunum
    2:32 on October 20th, 2012
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    This is a great book to read along with Bernal Diaz’s Conquest of Mexico/New Spain. Told from a variety of Aztec viewpoints, these eyewitness accounts directly contradict what the Spanish reported. Obviously, both are right and wrong–and that’s what makes this so good. (Excellent for high school students who want to see the choices historians have to make between differing primary sources.)It’s a 9 read alone, a 10 when combined with Diaz.

  • Dale Waltrip
    3:39 on October 20th, 2012
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    Not a review of this book.
    Just to emphasized that no one who has read Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s “Conquest of Mexico” would hold to any of the misconceptions noted in doomsdayer520′s first paragraph. Bernal Diaz’s famous memoir shows that he was honest and clear-eyed, and perpetually open to the humanity of the Aztecs and aware of, even the victim of, the venality of his countrymen.

  • Yaboohoo
    5:19 on October 20th, 2012
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    This account uses narratives written by Aztecs and other native american groups around Mexico (the Aztec capital city) conquered by Cortes in the 1500s, presenting a perspective unknown to most.

    I grew up in Mexico City surrounded by evidence of the Aztecs as well as the Spanish, without a clear understanding of what happened to create the cultural mixture I saw there. As an adult, I read portions of a number of accounts of the conquest of Mexico, all based on Spanish sources.

    When you read these things, you’re struck with amazement that they could happen and you wonder how much was only the Spanish interpretation of what they were told. Did the Aztecs really think the Spaniards were gods? Did Cortes and his men really just march into Mexico City as guests and then take Moctezuma captive? What were each of the groups thinking in this clash of opposing cultures?

    The Spanish, (for religious reasons?), wiped out most Aztec records, which were written in picture form. Their general propaganda treated Cortes as a hero. But when I was growing up, there was a strong movement towards painting Cortes as a weak, crippled, diseased man — a disgusting figure. There are murals that portray him this way. And in the middle of the city, the rediscovered Templo Mayor stands mostly underwater, with roughly 8 feet protruding, as a silent testimony to the culture wiped out in the conquest. I was left with the question, “What happened?”

    I was fascinated and moved as I read “Broken Spears”. They spoke of terrible omens… they were expecting tragedy. They were aware of the Spanish ships the moment they landed and the Aztec emperor sent envoys to watch them, and later to communicate with them. The unfolding story may sound stark and boring to those who haven’t studied the conquest of Mexico, but to me it filled in a vital missing piece.

    It doesn’t matter whether these stories are eye witness accounts or not because they paint the Aztec impression of the conquest vividly. They didn’t understand the revulsion and horror the Spaniards must have felt at their human sacrifices, but they were appalled at the senseless slaughter Cortes’s men and allies engaged in.

    This is not a book for a weak stomach. Some of the descriptions are graphic. Some of the pictures show chopped off limbs and heads.

    It’s not a masterpiece of excellent writing, either. That is not what makes this book valuable. It invites you into the heart of the Aztecs before their pride was broken and their people subjugated.

  • James McLean
    7:47 on October 20th, 2012
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    There are two sides to every story, and in history you usually only hear the victor’s side. In standard Western-based histories of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, you are usually only told that Cortes and a few hundred valiant soldiers easily conquered the Aztec empire of several hundred thousand people. Another fallacy is that the Aztecs rolled over so easily because they thought the white men were gods returning from the sea. As can be seen in this book, this was true at first, but most of the Aztecs (except for the priests) quickly changed their opinion on the Spaniards when they saw their brutality and greed. The Spaniards also weren’t such efficient conquerors – they had help from many thousands of natives who were the historical enemies of the Aztecs, especially the Tlaxcaltecas and Tezcocanos (they suffered just the same in the long run). Not to mention a handy smallpox epidemic that killed off a large chunk of the native population. This book (and countless others) shows that the soldiers were not driven by religious valor, hoping to save people in God’s good name. Instead, they were driven by a greed for gold so virulent that they cried when they saw it, and a lust for heroism that could only be obtained through violent conquest.

    This book is a useful introduction to the native view of this important event. After reading these accounts along with more traditional history texts, you will have sufficient knowledge of both sides of the story to reach your own balanced conclusions. Portilla mostly avoids editorializing (except for a few slip-ups), and simply presents the native accounts without embellishment. A bonus is the chapter covering the literature of the modern descendents of the Aztecs, now called Nahuas, proving that the conquest is still a strong influence on the resilient culture of these people. The problems with this book include the self-serving and rather pompous intro by Klor de Alva, plus an under-representation of the native texts. Portilla has unearthed much important material, but only presents small excerpts here, as if he packaged the book merely for entertainment rather than scholarly value. More would definitely be better in this case.

  • james monroe
    8:17 on October 20th, 2012
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    A very good introductory book to the Conquest of Latin America. Though I do have to say, use only as an introduction. It is not a very good book to cite for any research. A very good example of showing both sides of the story; Spanish vs. Native.

  • student
    10:38 on October 20th, 2012
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    This is the Aztecs account of the conquest of Mexico. Amazing!Enlighting! I love it! A very useful book if you are looking to find what I think was the truth in History of Mexico. This is one of very few that will tell you the story from the conquered.

  • John Marus
    11:55 on October 20th, 2012
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    This book is important because it is scholarly, yet written for the average person interested in history of this period. It is very important in that it is the only contemporary book I know of which specifically and consciously attempts to present the native side of the story. It is not a work of pandering, left-wing revisionism. It is a compilation of native historical sources: the Tlaxcala, and the Mexica themselves–often through Spanish priests who recorded their words, including poetry. The thing to remember is that it is the Aztec/Mexica point of view, and we usually get the Euro-centric version–there is a difference. Both are useful and needed to make a complete picture.

  • David B
    14:47 on October 20th, 2012
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    The Broken Spears is a heartbreaking and fascinating account of the clash between the Aztec Empire and the Spanish conquistador, Cortes. Each chapter is prefaced with introductory remarks and guidance and then, through a mixture of illustrations and quotations taken from the codices, the primary sources come to life. The accounts of Spanish cruelty and Aztec bewilderment achieve an emotional resonance, making the moments described sing. Anyone interested in history told from the point of view of the vanquished will find this invaluable.

  • hyloka
    18:20 on October 20th, 2012
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    This is an excellent primary source of information written fron the Aztecs viewpoint. Bernal Diaz’s book is an excellent companion study to compare the different perspectives of both primary parties involved. The illustrations and the narrative are very elementary, an easy read with simple drawings to compliment the text. The viewpoint, which is the Aztecs is interesting and different from what you might suppose. If you are intersted in Pre-Columbian culture in Mexico this is a fundamental book covering the Conquest of Mexico. For a balanced view read this along with Bernal Diaz’s book to get a complete picture from participants of that fateful time in history when the Old World collided with the New World to create a new culture. A must have book for anyone into Mexico and it’s roots.

  • uSure?
    0:32 on October 21st, 2012
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    Broken Spears does something very interesting in his book that no one else has ever tried to do. He approaches the invasion of Mexico from the perspective of the Aztecs. He looks at the court of Montezuma and tells us how the invasion looked from their perspective. This is a very astute look at the invasion and one of the most unique out there. It is very well written and holds the readers interest. The biggest downfall of the book is that if you are not familiar with the story you will find it lacking in information. It assumes a great deal of information about the invasion that can be gotten from other books. It also takes into account the rise and fall of Montezuma and how the kingdom was not as unified as it appeared. If you are going to study Latin American history than this is a must read.

  • Marcus Ochoa
    1:46 on October 21st, 2012
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    I got this book because I find pre-columbian Mesoamerica fascinating, and I also enjoy the vivid clash of cultures which occured when the Spaniards arrived there. This book describes the conflict between the Aztecs and Spaniards superbly! This book is somewhat unique among histories because it takes the point of view of the vanquished rather than the victors. It starts from before the Spaniards arrive with eerie premonitions of eminent doom to the fall of Tenochtitlan and the suffering associated with that, then proceeds to give a short account of the plight of the native Nahuas after the conquest. Leon-Portilla uses a vast array of native sources from the Florentine Codex to the Cantares Mexicanos(which consists of Native American songs about the conquest), and combines them to create a lively and pleasant read, and its fairly short length add to its overall unburdensome style. In fact for me this book was harder not to read than to read. The tale is full of lively adventure, fascinting omens and cultural tidbits(such as the Aztec dedication to human sacrifice and their belief that the Spaniards were gods), violence, and sorrow. This book is a must for the Aztec fan, the conquistador fan, or anyone who likes an engaging story that just happens to be history.

  • UnHappy Singh
    3:54 on October 21st, 2012
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    I enjoyed reading the Aztec account of the colonization of Colonial Mexico. The book is a translation of Nahuatl writings. See- the Spanish provided an alphabet which the Aztecs did not have prior to Spanish arrival and then the Aztecs applied the alphabet to their native Nahuatl language and began writing. The only concern a reader should have is accuracy- the documents of the account were written 10 years and more after the fact. A tip when reading: start with Chapter 14 which summarizes all the events, then read Chapters 1 – 13 which elaborate on events in detail, and finally conclude with chapters 15 – 16. I highly recommend this book for anyone studying Colonial Mexico History or persons who want to know more about Aztecs and their culture.

  • Kenzie Williams
    6:47 on October 21st, 2012
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    This well edited text brings students the documents behind the stories they may have read in high school textbooks. How did the Spanish conquer the spectacular city of Tenochtitlan with so few soldiers and in alien territory? The documents tell how they exploited alliances that were already in place. With hundreds of Tlaxcalan warriors accompanying them, housing them, feeding men and horses alike, the group of Spaniards was able to approach Tenochtitlan, make themselves unwelcome, and barely escape from the city alive… A fascinating read.

  • xyahoo
    12:23 on October 21st, 2012
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    First a cautionary note: I don’t believe in “good” or “bad” in history. Things happen because of the complex interrelations between many factors, and coincidence (yes, it plays a role). So the worst way to read this book is from a sentimental point of view: mean Spaniards conquest and kill good Indians. Just imagine what would have happened if the human-sacrifice-prone Aztecs had conquered Spain (but then again, they had no ships to cross the Ocean).

    Nevertheless, this is a crucial book, because it tells the story of the Conquest from the view of the conquered. That is needed to fully understand this vital historical process. The book is a selection of indigenous stories telling the event. One can perceive the utter terror and misery brought upon by the destruction of the Indian societies. The fear, the superstitions and the desolation of the Indians during and after the total destruction of their world. Leon Portilla has done a much-needed effort here. He deserves praise for it, and the book deserves to be read.

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