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500 Years Later, Spain and Mexico Spar Over Conquest

FILE - Mexican Zapatistas move on a top of a boat in front of the city hall in Madrid, Spain, Aug. 13, 2021, marking for the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

Five hundred years after Hernán Cortés conquered Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire, a Spanish mayor is demanding the return of the conquistador's remains to his birthplace because of what he says are anti-Spanish sentiments in modern-day Mexico.

Valentin Pozo Torres, mayor of Medellín, the village in western Spain’s Extremadura region where Cortés was born, sent a letter to the Mexican ambassador in Madrid expressing his “deep concern” about the “anti-Spanish drift” of the current Mexican government.

Pozo, who represents the ruling Socialist Workers Party, said he feared that Cortés' remains, which lie in Mexico, may be desecrated and demanded “his repatriation to the people who saw him born.”

Cortés was born in Medellín in 1485 and died in 1547, six years after returning to Spain. His remains were re-buried in Mexico City at his own wish. They lie in a chapel in an ancient hospital – the oldest in the Americas – that he founded and that is not generally accessible to tourists.

It is the latest chapter of an ongoing dispute between the two countries which revolves around their shared past.

After the conquest, Spain governed Mexico not as a colony like those held by England or France but as a viceroyalty, or separate kingdom and an overseas territory known as New Spain. Its war for independence began in 1810 and was led by descendants of Spaniards, or criollos.

Interpretations of history

In 2019, Mexico's populist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is known by the acronym AMLO, demanded that Spain's King Felipe VI and Pope Francis should apologize for abuses committed during the Spanish conquest.

Modern historians say that conquest was marked by violence, subjugation, cultural suppression, and plunder.

Spain rejected this interpretation of history and instead said the conquest “cannot be judged in the light of contemporary considerations.”

Historical accounts, notably "The True History of the Conquest of New Spain" by Captain Bernal Díaz del Castillo, counter claims of cruelty but are also critical of Cortés campaign. Diaz del Castillo accompanied Cortés and notes that, with a force of 600 Spanish soldiers, defeated the Aztecs only by enlisting thousands of fighters among other indigenous people who were resentful of their Aztec oppressors and eager to cast them off.

Among their tributaries, the Aztecs were notorious for their brutality, enslaving the populations they conquered and practicing human sacrifice, including of children, as part of their religion, according to historical accounts.

Spain's government has refuted Mexico's demand for an apology for the conquest while praising the support Mexico gave Spanish leftist Republican exiles during and after the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s.

“Mexico and Spain have a relationship with a long past, a very rich past which obviously on occasions we cannot agree on. But what we have is an extraordinary future,” Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said in an interview with CNN in June.

However, conservatives in Spain have been irritated by the Mexican president's insistence that Madrid apologize for the past.

FILE - People shout slogans during a demonstration in support of Mexican Zapatistas in Madrid, Spain, Aug. 13, 2021.
FILE - People shout slogans during a demonstration in support of Mexican Zapatistas in Madrid, Spain, Aug. 13, 2021.

Spain's former conservative Prime Minister José María Aznar, who is still an important player in current politics, ridiculed AMLO at a recent party conference.

“Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Andres for the Aztec part, Manuel for the Mayan part, López is a mixture of Aztecs and Mayans and Obrador from Santander,” he said, referring to López Obrador’s Spanish roots that extend to his maternal grandfather. A biography based on accounts from relatives says José Obrador was born in northern Spain’s Cantabria region and immigrated to Mexico in 1917.

FILE - Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks before the traditional military parade to mark the bicentennial of Mexico's Independence from Spain, at the Zocalo square in Mexico City, Sept. 16, 2021.
FILE - Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks before the traditional military parade to mark the bicentennial of Mexico's Independence from Spain, at the Zocalo square in Mexico City, Sept. 16, 2021.

López Obrador responded to Aznar’s remarks saying “It is an act of humility to offer forgiveness, it is an act that dignifies both the one who offers it and the one who receives it.”

2021 marks both the 500th anniversary of the Conquest and the 200th anniversary of the end of Mexico’s 11-year war of independence.

As Mexico celebrated the anniversary of the consummation of its independence last month, Pope Francis sent a message to Mexican bishops saying this moment “necessarily includes a process of purifying memory, that is, recognizing the very painful errors committed in the past”.

However, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, the president of Madrid's regional government and a rising star on the Spanish right, questioned the pope's words, saying the conquest of Mexico brought the Spanish language and Catholicism that ended human sacrifice and enslavement. Mexico is the world’s largest Spanish-speaking country with a population of 130 million compared to Spain’s 47 million.

Complex relationship

Tomás Pérez Vejo, a professor at the National School for Anthropology and History in Mexico, said the relationship between Spain and Mexico is singularly important because of Mexican claims that it was a nation before the 16th century conquest.

“The relationship with Mexico is without doubt the most important (among former colonies) because one line of thought is that is was a nation before the Spanish conquest. An alternative argument is that Mexico was born because of the Spanish Conquest. It is an identity civil war which has never been resolved.” he told VOA.

Unlike the British colonies where Native American populations were annihilated and their survivors pushed into reservations, Spanish colonists intermarried with indigenous Mexicans and multiplied. The result is that Mexico’s population today is overwhelmingly mestizo, of mixed Spanish and native North American ancestry and its culture is a hybrid of European and ancient Mexican traditions.

Despite political disputes, analysts say ties between Spain and Mexico run deep.

Carlos Malamud, an expert in Latin America at the Real Elcano Institute think tank in Madrid, said despite the recent confrontational style of López Obrador, the relationship between Mexico and Spain remained strong.

“Thousands of Spanish firms have invested in Mexico and there are constant intellectual exchanges between both countries. In the other direction, Mexican companies have invested in Spanish media companies,” he told VOA.

Spanish investment in Mexico over the past six years totaled $5.5 billion, according to the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in Mexico.

Mexico is Spain’s top trading partner in Latin America.

The relationship between the two Spanish-speaking nations prompts comparison with that of the US and its former colonial ruler, Britain.

“The relationships are so different between both sets of countries. The Atlantic friends have remained in a strong relationship despite the colonial past. In contrast, Spain and Mexico have an uneasy relationship,” Eduardo Garrigas, a former Spanish consul general in Los Angeles and writer, told VOA.