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Culture : Mexico Confronts Cortes--Again : * It's time to quit vilifying the Spanish 'Father of Mexico' and give him his due, two famous authors argue.

March 31, 1992|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Maybe the bones of the conquistadores are still too green. Five centuries seems like a long time, but maybe it is not enough," he said with a shrug. Then, reciting from his own book, "Hernan Cortes," he said, "the past is not dead. The past has not passed."

Cortes was 35 when he arrived in southern Mexico in 1519 with 500 soldiers and 16 horses aboard 11 ships. He made his way north to present-day Veracruz, where a Tabascan Indian leader gave him a gift of 20 concubines. One of them, Malinche, bore Cortes' son Martin.

The Aztecs in central Mexico had never seen guns or horses and believed the white-faced man and mount formed a single, powerful being. To appease his god, Montezuma, ruler of the Aztecs, sent Cortes elaborate gifts. But the gold and ornaments only drew the Spaniards onward, with a growing army of Indian allies bitter over their own violent conquest by the Aztecs.

Hundreds of thousands of Indians died in the Spanish Conquest. Colonization produced a new culture and country that was neither Spanish nor Indian but a fusion of the two.

"Official culture after the (1910 Mexican) Revolution saw Cortes as a terrible villain," said La Jornada columnist Jose Agustin Ortiz Pinqueti. "They have told us that since we were children."

Additionally, Ortiz Pinqueti said, Cortes imposed an enduring system of racial discrimination. "The structure that Cortes established was apartheid--two distinct communities, one in the center, another on the margin. After nearly 500 years, castes still exist."

But Martinez, like Paz, stresses that Cortes was not all evil. He was not a gratuitous murderer, Martinez says. His passion was glory, rather than riches. He was an intelligent military commander who sought to emulate Alexander the Great.

Fuentes' idea for a Cortes statue is not original. In 1981, President Jose Lopez Portillo, who took pride in his Spanish heritage, unveiled a bust of Cortes at the Hospital de Jesus, where the \o7 conquistador's\f7 remains are buried. A year later, a monument to Cortes, Malinche and their \o7 mestizo\f7 son was placed near Cortes' old home in the plaza of Coyoacan, in southern Mexico City. It was removed as soon as Lopez Portillo left office. The only other statue of Cortes in Mexico is at a Cuernavaca hotel.

But there is a prominent statue of Christopher Columbus on Mexico City's main boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma. Every Oct. 12 since 1982, Indian activist Jenaro Dominguez has led a group of protesters who remove wreaths from the Columbus monument and march down the Reforma to leave them at the feet of a statue of Cuauhtemoc.

"This 500 years is nothing to celebrate," Dominguez said. "Columbus symbolizes the arrival of Europe, the pillage of resources and the destruction of a culture. Cortes is the symbol of authoritarianism, the imposition of one people over another, submission."

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