It is difficult to avoid the implicit (and at times explicit) racism in most re-tellings of the conquest of the Americas: “The defeat of the Aztec and Incan civilizations by small bands of Spanish conquistadores must reflect the superiority of Europeans.” This sentiment has echoed throughout history and remains current in education, government policies and popular culture. Not only is it incumbent on us as teachers to lead students to question this erroneous conclusion, but the lessons learned in the process can inspire the attitudes and pursuit of knowledge necessary to create just and environmentally sustainable societies.
If you haven’t read Jared Diamond’s 1999 Pulitzer-prize winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel (or his follow-up 2003 study of unsuccessful civilizations, Collapse) it is a good place to start. In the book he poses the question, Why did the Spaniards conquer the Incan empire rather than the Incas conquer the Spanish empire? But instead of recurring to the usual racist, non-scientific thesis, he draws upon wide-ranging branches of science–from biology to botany to ecology, geography, epidemiology, archeology, anthropology and more—to discover the ultimate causes behind the proximate causes of the conquest. Beware of oversimplifications of Diamond’s theories (In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Diamond defended himself against the mischaracterization of his work by certain politicians), however I think it’s safe to say that a combination of geographic features (such as the North-South axis of the Americas versus the East-West axis of Eurasia), climate and ecology (such as the presence of domesticable plants and animals in the local environment) gave the Europeans a head start on agriculture. This head start impacted population size, technology and political organization, giving Spaniards the famous advantages of guns, germs, steel, as well as the horses and more wide-spread literacy, that supported their conquest. You can find a Spanish-language version of the three-part PBS video series based on his book here.
In the conquest of the Americas, the Spaniards and other Europeans gained much more than gold, silver, slaves and colonies. The oft over-looked contributions of indigenous peoples of the Americas to world knowledge, technology, nutrition and political theory can be easily incorporated into a variety of themes in the Spanish curriculum. The potato, for example, is frequently confused by students as having Irish or German origins. It was developed, however, by the Incas through their ingenious system of terraced agriculture, and had a tremendous impact on European peasant populations that in turn impacted the European social and political milieu. For more background on this and more, I recommend Jack Weatherford’s books Indian Givers: How Native Americans Transformed the World (1988), Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America (1992) and the more wide-ranging Savages and Civilization: Who will Survive? (1995). There are Spanish-language resources available, too, of course, such as Lo que México Aportó al Mundo by Ramón Cruces Carvajal, which focuses mainly on food, plants and minerals.
A good project for Spanish-language students is to write a story (children’s story, time-line, cartoon, dialogue) of the origins of food or technology often not associated with indigenous american cultures and present it to the class. The AP Spanish Literature and Culture reading list includes primary documents from the conquest of the Aztecs that could be enhanced by an introduction to Diamond’s theories (themes: Encuentro Entre Dos Culturas; Imperialismo, etc.)