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Kathleen Myers
IU Department of Spanish and Portuguese

George Vlahakis
University Communications

Last modified: Tuesday, September 29, 2009

'Shadow of Cortes' exhibit traces route of conquistador and how he is remembered

Opens Friday at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures

Sept. 29, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Amid all of the rhetoric about border and trade issues between the United States and Mexico is a misperception that our neighbor to the south has a singular identity -- one that keeps being presented through the media.

A new project by two Indiana University professors -- a renowned National Geographic photographer and a colonial Mexico historian -- debunks that myth.

Their exhibit "In the Shadow of Cortés: From Veracruz to Mexico City" will open at 5 p.m. Friday (Oct. 2) at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, 416 N. Indiana Ave. at IU Bloomington.

"The purpose of 'In the Shadow of Cortés' is not to tell Mexicans what they already know, but rather to help Americans understand the great complexity and diversity of the traditions, languages and local histories found along a single, yet significant historical route in 21st century Mexico," said Kathleen Myers, a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

Hernán Cortés' (also known as Cortez) invasion in 1519 across central Mexico was a catalyst for one of the most rapid and profound cultural and political changes in human history. Yet, as Myers points out, "the conqueror's presence in Mexico is like a shadow."

It's a history that has its accepted truths in textbooks on both sides of the border. What Myers and Steve Raymer, an associate professor at the IU School of Journalism, set out to find was how the story and its interpretation differed along the conquistador's route between the coastal port and the Mexican capital.

Cortes Mural

Photo by Steve Raymer

Steve Raymer photographed the mural, "Disiderio Hernandez" in Tlaxcala.

Print-Quality Photo

Their exhibit, which features more than 30 photographs taken by Raymer, later will travel to six other venues across Indiana. It received a $50,000 grant from IU's Movable Feast of the Arts program.

Myers and Raymer also are working together on a book that will include excerpts from 61 people -- including local storytellers, scholars, a poet, an archaeologist and many common townspeople -- interviewed along the route.

The exhibit and book also show a resurgence of native cultures in Mexico, including classes on Nahua (Aztec) life and culture and a wider debate in Mexican media about this indigenous past.

All of the photos were taken last summer. Included are images of the people interviewed and of commemorations of Cortés' conquest, including those festivals and places that highlight Cortés bringing Christendom to Mexico. Other images show resurgent celebrations of a way of life dating back 500 years.

In spite of centuries of Spanish rule and decades of revolutionary campaigns to forge a Mexican identity as a mixed-race nation, vast political and cultural differences remain among ethnic groups, including many native cultures that predate the conquest. Today, there are 68 officially recognized native languages in Mexico.

"Every Mexican has a deep sense of history and it always goes back to the conquests … It's not a single interpretation in spite of mandatory textbooks that state the traditional story," Myers said. "I was curious about that sense of history and how it impacts who people think they are today in Mexico.

"The surprise for me, once I started interviewing people, was the diversity of their responses," she added. "They were contradictory and ambiguous and complex … Each of the ethnic groups reinterprets the conquest to define who they are today."

People she spoke to in Veracruz were low-key about Cortés, while people inland, where his army massacred thousands, "talked about it as if it was yesterday and these were their grandparents."

The closest U.S. comparison Myers and Raymer can make is to Sherman's March during the Civil War, when his army left a trail of devastation between Atlanta and Savannah, Ga. Its impact still resonates today in the southeast.

"What we saw of the cultural revival was real; it was not for tourists," Raymer said. "I think we got a little glimpse into the cultural awakening of Mexico."

In addition to the Mathers Museum, the exhibit also is being supported by La Casa Latino Cultural Center and the IU Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.