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  • Written by Miguel Leon-Portilla
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  • Written by Miguel Leon-Portilla
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The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico

Written by Miguel Leon-PortillaAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Miguel Leon-Portilla


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On Sale: February 07, 2011
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-8070-9545-4
Published by : Beacon Press Beacon Press
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Synopsis|Excerpt|Table of Contents


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 of these unexpected historical accounts.


As is well known but quickly forgotten, the victors ordinarily
write history. The losers are usually silenced or, if this is impossible,
they are dismissed as liars, censored for being traitors, or left to
circulate harmlessly in the confi ned spaces of the defeated. Bringing
marginalized perspectives to light is therefore a revolutionary act of
some importance: it can subvert dominant understandings, it might
inspire other victims to raise their voice and pen their protests, and
it always forces old histories to be rewritten to include or at least
respond to the vision of the vanquished. For almost 450 years the
history of the conquest of Mexico – perhaps the most consequential
meeting of cultures ever – was based overwhelmingly on Spanish
accounts. These had the effect of creating a series of false images,
the most important being that the defeat of the Aztecs of Mexico-
Tenochtitlan – always “by a handful of Spaniards” – meant the
complete collapse of all native polities and civilization. Traditionalist
authors wanted us to understand that Spaniards had triumphed
against great odds and had succeeded in bringing about not only
military and po liti cal conquests but also spiritual, linguistic, and
cultural ones. A defeated, silent people, we were asked to believe,
had been reduced to subservience and quickly disappeared as Indians
to become mestizos, or had simply retreated into rural landscapes.
With probing intelligence, scholarly rigor, and humanist concern,
Miguel Leon- Portilla, the dean of contemporary Nahua studies
since 1956,1 has been at the forefront of the struggle to bring the
voices of past and present indigenous peoples of Mexico within
hearing distance of the rest of the world. And no book has contributed
more to this effort than this one. From the time The Broken
Spears was fi rst published in 1959 – as Visión de los vencidos (Vision of
the Vanquished) – hundreds of thousands of copies have appeared
in Spanish alone, and many tens of thousands have been printed
in French, Italian, German, Hebrew, Polish, Swedish, Hungarian,
Serbo- Croatian, Portuguese, Japa nese, and Catalan. The present
En glish edition, which fi rst came out in 1962, has gone through
numerous printings, with tens of thousands of copies sold since
1974. This great international reception among specialists and
lay readers, the book’s extraordinarily wide readership in Mexico,
and its extensive use in universities and colleges throughout the
United States are due to a number of related factors.
First, although the documents included in all editions prior
to this one focus on the sixteenth century, they address topics
that have become urgent throughout the so- called Third World
in the last fi fty years. Interest in the nature of native perspectives
started when the decolonization of Asia, Africa, and the Middle
East was set in motion at the end of World War II, and grew following
the insurrections and revolutions of Latin America, beginning
with Cuba’s in 1959. Ever since, postcolonial nations and
those wishing to overthrow oppressive governments have been
searching for their indigenous truths and have been busily rewriting
their (colonial) histories to match their postin de pen dence
aspirations. These efforts have included the quest for models to
help make sense of the ways in which the dominated at home
and abroad have resisted, adapted, and survived.
A remarkable discussion of how The Broken Spears has served
as such a model is found in the prologue to its 1969 Cuban edition,
written by one of El Salvador’s greatest poets and pop u lar
historians, Roque Dalton.2 The Central American author underlined
the universality and inspirational nature of the book by
observing that, although the documents referred to the conquest
of Mexico, “their typicality is such that they constitute a valid
testimony of the general conquest of the American continent. . . .
[Indeed,] the set of confusions, acts of cowardice, heroisms, and
re sis tances of the Mexicans is very representative of the corresponding
attitudes of all the American peoples in the face of the
arrival of the conqueror. . . . [And] these indigenous accounts and
poems can contribute valuable data to use in locating the roots of
the historical violence of Latin America.” Dalton, who died in
1975 while fi ghting in his country’s civil war, concludes by noting
that, while Leon- Portilla had dedicated his book to students and
nonspecialists, “the Cuban edition of these texts is dedicated to
the Cuban and Latin American revolutionaries, especially those
who, arms in hand, fi ght in the mountains and the cities against
the conquerors [and] Tlaxcalans . . . of today, those who refuse to
permit our historical epoch to close with a vision of defeat.”
Second, for Mexicans on both sides of the border the story
of the Aztecs (or Mexicas, as the residents of Mexico- Tenochtitlan
called themselves) has played a critical historical and symbolic
role in the formation of their collective identity. In par tic u lar,
the tale of the Mexicas has served as the national “charter myth,”
standing behind every important nation- building legend or initiative.
As a consequence, José Emilio Pacheco, one of Mexico’s
foremost writers, dared to speak for all Mexicans, Indians and
mestizos, when claiming the book was “a great epic poem of the
origins of our nationality.” And he did not hesitate to add that it
was “a classic book and an indispensable work for all Mexicans.”
3 In support of this appraisal the National University of
Mexico has published more copies of The Broken Spears than of
any other text in its long history – hundreds of thousands, when
in Mexico printings of nonfi ction rarely number more than three
Third, the Nahuatl narratives in this collection, which now
includes texts from the eigh teenth and twentieth centuries, contribute
to our understanding of some of the most important concerns
in the world today, especially in the more multicultural
nations of Eu rope and in the United States. These include the
challenge of cultural pluralism and social diversity and the search
for common ground in a sea of ethnic differences. In de pen dent of
nationality or po liti cal persuasion, readers who have an interest in
the profound po liti cal, demographic, and cultural transformations
of our anxious age have found something of importance in
this work. Not surprisingly, it has become, as Pacheco claimed, a
classic book, particularly among those in search of an affirming
voice from a non- Western “other.” In hundreds of U.S. college
classes from coast to coast this book has created the occasion for
fruitful conversation on the past and present nature of ethnic
identity, nationalism, racial confl ict, and cultural re sis tance and
adaptation. And as Dalton may have known, by making evident
the ancient paths of tragedy, heroism, and resolve, this book has
been an inspiration and a guide for U.S. Latinos, especially Chicanos
(Mexican Americans), as they attempt to cope, endure, and
triumph in the face of adversity or indifference.
Lastly, since its debut readers everywhere have recognized
The Broken Spears as a “great read.” Leon- Portilla, an eloquent
writer and a masterful editor, has braided in chronological order
a series of episodes – most of which were fi rst translated by the
pioneer of Nahuatl studies, Angel Ma. Garibay K. – that make
the Nahua responses to the Spaniards, and each other, come alive
with pain, pathos, desperation, and fear, along with powerful
life- affi rming doses of heroism, strength, and determination.
The conquest of Mexico is freed from the triumphalist Spanish
interpretations to which it has been moored for hundreds of
years and set adrift in a sea of enigmas, contradictions, revisions,
and discoveries when the Nahuas themselves are permitted to
tell the tale their way and in their own words. But after all that
has happened historically to the Aztecs and to their image in
Western thought, what we mean when we say the Nahuas can
now “tell the tale their way” is not obvious.

Table of Contents

Translator’s Note
Chapter One Omens Foretelling the Arrival of the Spaniards
Chapter Two First Reports of the Spaniards’ Arrival
Chapter Three The Messengers’ Journeys
Chapter Four Motecuhzoma’s Terror and Apathy
Chapter Five The Spaniards March on Tlaxcala and Cholula
Chapter Six The Gifts of Gold: The God Tezcatlipoca Appears
Chapter Seven The Spaniards Are Welcomed in Tezcoco
Chapter Eight The Spaniards Arrive in Tenochtitlan
Chapter Nine The Massacre in the Main Temple during the Fiesta of Toxcatl
Chapter Ten The Night of Sorrows
Chapter Eleven The Siege of Tenochtitlan
Chapter Twelve Spanish Raids into the Besieged City
Chapter Thirteen The Surrender of Tenochtitlan
Chapter Fourteen The Story of the Conquest as Told by the Anonymous Authors of Tlatelolco
Chapter Fifteen Elegies on the Fall of the City
Chapter Sixteen Aftermath
Selected Bibliography


A moving and powerful account, a unique reading experience which should not be missed by any reader interested in history.—Los Angeles Times

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