The Conquest of Mexico: Past and Present Views

by Elizabeth Berlin Taylor

Introduction

The conquest of Tenochtitlan by Hernán Cortez in 1519 is one of the most well-known examples of encounters between Europeans and Americans prior to 1600. Some primary sources that document the event still exist, though many are quite difficult for elementary-age students to read and comprehend. This lesson will draw from sources that can be understood by children and will provide basic content knowledge of the event. Students will also be exposed to varying views on the conquest that are both contemporary to the conquest and more modern. Finally, students in groups will create their own depiction of the conquest in a mural.

Background

Against the orders of his superiors, the Spaniard Hernán Cortez sailed from present-day Cuba to Mexico in 1519. Once there, Cortez and his men marched inland to Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Mexica (now referred to as the Aztecs). Although the emperor of the Aztecs, Montezuma, tried several times to persuade the Spanish to leave what is now Mexico, including giving them gifts of gold, he was unsuccessful. The Spanish conquered Tenochtitlan due to several advantages. Of least importance was probably superior weaponry—firearms. Of greater importance was an outbreak of smallpox in the city, which killed thousands and made the Aztecs a weaker opponent. Finally, the Spaniards had important alliances with other indigenous peoples who were enemies of the Aztecs. The most notable of these alliances was with the Tlaxcalans. The conquest set into motion a convergence of American and European cultures in Mexico that is the topic of endless debate and multiple perspectives.

Materials

For the motivation, teachers can display seventeenth-century paintings of the conquest of Mexico in the manner that best suits their classroom. Creating color copies that are then laminated would be an easy way for students to view the paintings closely while working in groups. 

Essential Question

What are some of the different perspectives on the conquest of Mexico?

Objectives

  • Students will be able to read primary source material critically in order to determine bias and point of view.
  • Students will be able to analyze images that are both contemporary to the conquest of Mexico and more modern.
  • Students will be able to create their own historical work, a mural, through the historical process of examining several different sources.

Motivation

Divide students into eight groups. Pass out one painting of the conquest from the Spanish perspective to each group. Ask students to write down at least 10 details from the painting that they find important. 

Procedure

Day One

Student groups will share what they find with the class. The teacher should project the image assigned to the group that is presenting while the group spokesperson discusses the relevant details that they have found.

After each group has presented, the teacher will ask the class what was similar about the paintings. That question should be followed with one that asks whether these paintings have a bias. Do they depict the scene just as it was, or do the students think that the painter wants the viewer to think a certain way about the conquest?

The teacher will tell students that they will be studying the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish and will be looking at several different perspectives of the event.

For homework, students should read the information on the PBS website about Cortez. In addition, students should read the section in their textbook about the conquest. Students should then create a “cast of characters” in which they list the “characters” who are important in the conquest and write information about each.

Day Two

Students will share their “casts of characters” with the class and discuss the basics of the conquest.

The teacher will inform the class that they will decipher two different documents from the American Historical Association website that were written at the time of the conquest of Mexico—the most difficult task of the lesson. Students will use a worksheet to help them get through the very difficult sources. Students should work in their original eight groups to do this exercise.

For homework, students should revisit the articles that they looked at in class and add quotations that support what they wrote on their worksheets from those articles.

Days Three–Six

The class will briefly go over the articles they read the previous day and their interpretations of those articles.

The teacher will then introduce the class to the artist Diego Rivera. The teacher should then display some of Rivera’s murals on the conquest of Mexico from his website.

The class will discuss Rivera’s perspective on the conquest.

The teacher will introduce the mural project. Each of the eight groups will create a mural that they think will accurately portray what happened during the conquest of Mexico. This project will be graded by a rubric. Remind students that they are doing the work of historians, reading many different sources to try to find out what really happened during an event. Students may use captions and words in their mural if they think it will help show what they are trying to portray.

Students will need approximately two class periods to produce a quality mural. This can be adjusted based on the needs of an individual class.

Closure

Students will hang their murals on the wall of the classroom. Students will share what they have created. During a brief class review, discuss some of the events of the conquest and what students think of them.

Extension

  • Students can compile five quality sources about the conquest from the Internet.
  • This project could be done in concert with the art teacher. This could include a more detailed study of Aztec art and Spanish art and a more thorough examination of the three most famous Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siquieros.

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Discussion

Fantastic lesson; supports the Common Core AND the arts. Thank you.


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