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CLACS Spring Symposium on Conquest and Identity: Dynamic - Not Static

Published: Thursday, 16 Apr 2015
Author: Joy M Whitten
Department: Latin American Studies Center

The March 14th special report on America’s Hispanics in The Economist, talks about Colorado’s Congressional Representative John Salazar’s background.  His ancestors co-founded the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1598, about 250 years before the area became part of the American territory.  His great-grandfather settled 150 years ago in Colorado around the time when Mexico ceded the territory to the United States.  The report writes, “As families like the Salazars put it, they never crossed the border, the border crossed them.”
Stories such as the Salazars’ play an important role in self-identification and self-fashioning and how Mexicans and Latinos know their own selves in a global context.  This theme is central to the 2015 CLACS Spring Symposium, In the Shadow of Cortés: From Veracruz to Mexico City. 

Beginning with the photographic exhibition that chronicles the route Hernan Cortés followed in 1519-1521 to conquer Mexico and claim its territories for Spain, this year’s symposium is a series of events that discusses and reflects on past and contemporary ideas of conquest and identity.  The opening talk of this symposium and exhibition by Indiana University’s  Professor Kathleen Ann Myers focused on research she conducted in Mexico and the United States about this topic and how Mexicans think about it today.  To this end, she interviewed over 100 people and asked them about their thoughts on the conquest of Mexico then and now, and what stories would they like to share for her project. A recurring theme Professor Myers heard is that the conquest of Mexico is not only the one that took place almost five hundred years ago, but it continues today in some form. For example, the government prolongs conquest of indigenous groups by not acknowledging their languages in daily life.  Also many Mexicans view the United States as an ongoing perpetuator of conquest since the nineteenth-century loss of territory.  If you missed the seminar, Professor Myers’ presentation is available online. 

This year’s symposium sought to extend its themes and activities beyond the symposium room. Spanish, Global Studies, and IAH Faculty have integrated themes and ideas into their curriculum.  Faculty and graduate students met earlier with Professor Myers to discuss the idea of conquest and how it affects self-identification and self-fashioning in Latin America and the United States.  Race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status have shaped how individual understand conflict and how it relates to their own self.  In addition, Associate Professor Rocío Quispe-Agnoli  worked with her undergraduate students in her IAH 203 class around these themes and  produced collectively  the video "The Broken Spears" (based on Miguel León Portilla’s Visión de los vencidos) available online.

Events on April 15th concluded the symposium.  Graduate students had a special seminar with experts of Colonial and Contemporary Mexico.  As part of the broad reach of the symposium, the students studied articles by these scholars, presented in their class, and culminated their study by posing questions and engaging in discussion with the authors.  In the evening, the guests, Amber Brian from the University of Iowa, Rocío Cortés from University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and Kelly McDonough from the University of Texas-Austin, joined MSU colleagues Dylan Miner, Zenaida Moreno, and Laura Smith for a roundtable discussion.  This interdisciplinary conversation with the audience dispelled myths about indigeneity and emphasized it as an organic and evolving concept in the context of the Conquest and the images in the exhibition.
Conversations throughout the symposium’s events and in the classrooms shared the themes of historical narratives – be they written, oral, or visual-- contain a bias and authors’ purposes may vary and often need a context to understand a larger story.  Likewise, each person’s concept of self-identity may vary and develop as contexts and stories evolve -- keeping history alive, the present dynamic, and the future open to possibilities.