The best books on the Aztec-Spanish War (aka “Conquest of Mexico”)

David Carballo Author Of Collision of Worlds: A Deep History of the Fall of Aztec Mexico and the Forging of New Spain
By David Carballo

Who am I?

I’m an archaeologist at Boston University with a transatlantic family that spans Spain and Latin America.  My research has primarily focused on Mesoamerica, and prehispanic central Mexico more specifically, but the deep roots of these transatlantic entanglements have always fascinated me personally and as a historically minded scholar.


I wrote...

Book cover of Collision of Worlds: A Deep History of the Fall of Aztec Mexico and the Forging of New Spain

What is my book about?

Mexico of five centuries ago was witness to one of the most momentous encounters between human societies, when a group of Spaniards led by Hernando Cortés joined forces with tens of thousands of Mesoamerican allies to topple the mighty Aztec Empire. It served as a template for the forging of much of Latin America and initiated the globalized world we inhabit today. The violent clash that culminated in the Aztec-Spanish war of 1519-21 and the new colonial order it created were millennia in the making, entwining the previously independent cultural developments of both sides of the Atlantic.  Collision of Worlds provides a deep history of this encounter, one that considers temporal depth in the richly layered cultures of Mexico and Spain, their similarities and differences in transatlantic perspective, and their interweaving in an encounter characterized by conquest and colonialism, but also resilience on the part of Native peoples.  

The books I picked & why

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The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico

By Miguel León-Portilla,

Book cover of The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico

Why this book?

A vivid account of life in the Aztec world and the tragic Aztec-Spanish War told by Indigenous scribes writing in Nahuatl during the decades following these events and the transformation to colonial New Spain. Mexican authors began publishing translations of Native-author sources in the late eighteenth century; yet, together with his former advisor, Ángel María Garibay, León-Portilla did more than any other twentieth-century scholar to elevate the voices and perspectives of Nahua peoples, the descendants of the prehispanic Aztecs. The Broken Spears was first published in Spanish in 1959 and translated to English in 1962. It has been translated into many other languages and revised versions since.  Its key sixteenth-century texts include portions of Book 12 of the Florentine Codex, compiled by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, and sections of the Annals of Tlatelolco. Within these composite sources, readers can sense the multivalence of the Native authors and the micro-patriotism on behalf of the Mexica of Tlatelolco, as well as the subtle critiques they levied against the Mexica from the much larger and more powerful sister city of Tenochtitlan. The texts highlight what Nahuas found both interesting and horrifying about the bearded foreigners who invaded their lands; their nostalgia for the material culture and poetic rhetoric of the former Aztec world; and the sorrow they felt over its demise.

The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico

By Miguel León-Portilla,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Broken Spears as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For hundreds of years, the history of the conquest of Mexico and the defeat of the Aztecs has been told in the words of the Spanish victors. Miguel León-Portilla has long been at the forefront of expanding that history to include the voices of indigenous peoples. In this new and updated edition of his classic The Broken Spears, León-Portilla has included accounts from native Aztec descendants across the centuries. These texts bear witness to the extraordinary vitality of an oral tradition that preserves the viewpoints of the vanquished instead of the victors. León-Portilla's new Postscript reflects upon the critical importance…


The History of the Conquest of New Spain

By Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Davíd Carrasco,

Book cover of The History of the Conquest of New Spain

Why this book?

Although Spanish conquistador accounts of their invasion of Mesoamerica began with the letters Hernando (“Hernán”) Cortés began writing to Charles V while these events were still in progress, the most engaging eyewitness account was authored decades later by the foot soldier Bernal Díaz del Castillo. He wrote it partially to justify the landholdings he had gained through Spanish colonization, at a time when they were under threat by the colonial administration, and partially to counter the great-man narrative provided by Cortés himself and by his secretary and chaplain, Francisco López de Gómara, who wrote a history based on interviews with the aging conquistador but never journeyed to the Americas. This abridged edition is very accessible to readers and contains an informative introduction by Carrasco with interpretive essays authored by him and other specialists following the primary text. Carrasco characterizes the highly readable narrative penned by Díaz del Castillo as akin to Don Quixote, minus the amusing satire of Cervantes. It is the most detailed eyewitness account of the invasion, Spanish-Aztec War, and its aftermath, and became the foundation for most subsequent histories.

The History of the Conquest of New Spain

By Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Davíd Carrasco,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The History of the Conquest of New Spain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The History of the Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a new abridgement of Diaz del Castillo's classic ""Historia verdadera de la conquista de Nueva Espana"", offers a unique contribution to our understanding of the political and religious forces that drove the great cultural encounter between Spain and the Americas known as the 'conquest of Mexico.' Besides containing important passages, scenes, and events excluded from other abridgements, this edition includes eight useful interpretive essays that address indigenous religions and cultural practices, sexuality during the early colonial period, the roles of women in indigenous cultures, and analysis of…


The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World

By Carlos Fuentes,

Book cover of The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World

Why this book?

The great Mexican author Carlos Fuentes wrote this book as a commemorative reflection of an earlier quincentennial, that of 1492-1992. Fuentes’ book is transatlantic in scope and considers the fraught history of Hispanic heritage in the Americas. The title metaphorically employs the mirror—both of the kind fashioned from obsidian by the Aztecs and the one bringing the viewer into Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece of Spanish golden-age painting, Las Meninas—in reflecting on this mixed inheritance five centuries later. Cultural mixing, or mestizaje, defines the creation of Latin America and its millennial-deep roots in the exchange networks, migrations, political alliances, and colonialism on the part of Mesoamerican and Iberian peoples, on both sides of the Atlantic. Fuentes is a gifted writer and Buried Mirror is what first got me thinking about these historical entanglements when I read it as a college student.

The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World

By Carlos Fuentes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Buried Mirror as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A best-selling and lavishly illustrated history of Hispanic culture from the "Balzac of Mexico," The Buried Mirror is a classic in its field.

The renowned novelist Carlos Fuentes has crafted a unique history of the social, political, and economic forces that created the remarkable culture which stretches from the mysterious cave drawings at Altamira to the explosive graffiti on the walls of East Los Angeles.

“A bittersweet celebration of the hybrid culture of Spain in the New World…Drawing expertly on five centuries of the cultural history of Europe and the Americas, Fuentes seeks to capture the spirit of the new,…


Malintzin's Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico

By Camilla Townsend,

Book cover of Malintzin's Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico

Why this book?

Townsend takes a novel approach to the Spanish invasion of Mesoamerica by centering the narrative on one of the most pivotal yet misunderstood figures: the Native woman christened Doña Marina by the Spaniards and known historically as Malintzin or La Malinche. The last term is still a barbed one within Mexico, as it has been used historically to impugn Mexicans said to prefer foreign culture to their own and can be synonymous for treason. Malintzin was from the central Gulf Coast frontier between the Aztec and Maya worlds. Her ability to speak the Aztec imperial lingua franca (Nahuatl) and one or more Mayan languages, intelligible to the marooned Spaniard Jerónimo de Aguilar through his grasp of Yucatecan, made Malintzin the key translator of this historic encounter. She was enslaved prior to the Spanish arrival and then was gifted to the Cortés expedition following a truce after an early battle with the Maya. This made Malintzin a sexual servant to conquistadors and she bore a son by Cortés following the fall of Tenochtitlan. Through a careful reading and reinterpretation of the historical Malintzin, Townsend illustrates the tensions between human agency and social structures of power and oppression.

Malintzin's Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico

By Camilla Townsend,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Malintzin's Choices as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Malintzin was the indigenous woman who translated for Hernando Cortes in his dealings with the Aztec emperor Moctezuma in the days of 1519 to 1521. 'Malintzin', at least, was what the Indians called her. The Spanish called her dona Marina, and she has become known to posterity as La Malinche. As Malinche, she has long been regarded as a traitor to her people, a dangerously sexy, scheming woman who gave Cortes whatever he wanted out of her own self-interest. The life of the real woman, however, was much more complicated. She was sold into slavery as a child, and eventually…


When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History

By Matthew Restall,

Book cover of When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History

Why this book?

For a couple of decades, Restall has been at the vanguard of a group of historians developing what is known as the New Conquest History, an effort to balance the Eurocentrism of earlier histories of the Aztec-Spanish War and its aftermath. I’ve used an earlier book of his, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, in my teaching, as it is succinctly argued and provokes students to think critically about the early history of Latin America. This book builds on that and narrows the focus to how the historic encounter between Moctezuma, the Great Speaker of Tenochtitlan and the most powerful individual in Mesoamerica, and Cortés (on November 8, 1519) has been reinterpreted in the years since.  It ranges across five centuries of history, art, and aesthetics, and pop culture to poke holes in narratives that center Cortés’ presumed military brilliance and problematize notions that Moctezuma considered the Spaniards gods or behaved cowardly in “surrendering” his city and empire. It is the latest must-read book for readers looking for a more nuanced understanding of this historic encounter and how to reflect on it five centuries later.

When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History

By Matthew Restall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked When Montezuma Met Cortés as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A dramatic rethinking of the encounter between Montezuma and Hernando Cortes that completely overturns what we know about the Spanish conquest of the Americas

On November 8, 1519, the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes first met Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, at the entrance to the capital city of Tenochtitlan. This introduction-the prelude to the Spanish seizure of Mexico City and to European colonization of the mainland of the Americas-has long been the symbol of Cortes's bold and brilliant military genius. Montezuma, on the other hand, is remembered as a coward who gave away a vast empire and touched off a wave…


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