Conquistadors (2000– )

TV Series  -  Documentary
8.3
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Michael Wood ...
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Tales of Woe.
12 February 2012 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

When visiting anthropological museums in the US you become accustomed to murals showing paintings or statuettes of our evolution through our ancestors and winding up with a tall Nordic in a suit who looks like he could be found on any city bus. The Eocene tarsoids turn into New Yorkers.

It was a bit of a shock to visit the Museo de Anthropologico in Mexico City and discover that they turned into Mexicans instead. But, after all, why not? Before it became "Latin America" it was just plain "America" with no Spaniards around to muck things up. By the way, I'm assured that some of our college students believe that Latin is the language spoken there -- "otherwise why would they call it Latin America"? In the first section, our host Michael Wood is his usual earnest, boyish, knowledgeable self. After seeing the episode on "Shangri-La" I was prepared for nothing much more than a travelogue. "See the exotic natives eating funny foods." But the episode on Cortez and the Aztecs has a much stronger historical component, probably because there never was any Shangri-La, whereas there was a great big flourishing Aztec city with politicians, law, scribes, astronomers, architects, craftsmen, and hundreds of vendors selling fruits, vegetables, spices, meats, and flowers lining the city streets.

The relationship between Cortez and Montezuma was a little complicated but the wind up was that Cortez, in search of gold and souls, enlisted the help of a neighboring tribe that was hostile to the Aztec rule, killed Montezuma and God knows how many other warriors, and sacked the city. Wood compares it to the fall of Troy in the Iliad and we can understand why.

Along the way, as Wood traces the footsteps and hoof prints of Cortez's cortège, we get a good view of what the path looks like in today's world. Nahuatl is still spoken in some areas, the little towns are shabby but functional, and Mexico City is a topological nightmare to a recently arrived visitor. When Wood wants to go to one neighborhood of historic importance, the driver of the forest green VW taxi warns him that he doesn't really want to go there because it's too dangerous.

It's a very sad story. The Aztecs were hardly models of decorum. The priests regularly conducted piacular rituals in which the heart was cut out of a living sacrificial victim. And the priests didn't bathe often, so the odor of sanctity took on a literal meaning. But, then, Cortez had been feted by his Aztec guests and had responded with barbarism. As Wood observes, Hernan Cortez was an important man in history because "it is not given to just any man to destroy a civilization."


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