Bernal Díaz del Castillo and the Reimagining of Colonial Mythologies
This article explores the role of stories of encounter as sites for post-colonial redefinitions of the meaning of the colonial past. Such stories become the centrepieces of subsequent debate about the relationships between different cultural groups. Hernán Cortés's meeting with Motecuzoma Xocoyotl is arguably the premier example of a historical circumstance which has been transformed into an overarching metaphor of contact and colonisation between European and American peoples. Bernal Díaz's Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España [Conquest of New Spain] was an early and significant contribution to turning this specific meeting into a story and thus transforming individuals into narrativised, mythic figures whose identities are battlegrounds for the cultural meaning of the colonial encounter. Díaz explicitly positions himself as a reteller who responds to previous stories by tellers with higher social status and different stakes in how the encounter was represented. As such, the Historia verdadera occupies a key position among the few enormously influential primary sources describing the event. Just as Díaz wrote in response to other texts in order to reframe the moment of encounter, later accounts recontextualise and even reject elements of Díaz's version of events in attempts to represent the identities of participants differently. Colonial-era readings support the imperial project as well as the religious mission, while later interpretations emphasise different characteristics of the story. This intertextual proliferation transforms a single historical relationship into a foundation myth for understandings of European American encounters.