Xicoténcatl: An Anonymous Historical Novel

This might be the most boring and poorly written book ever, but it has historical significance. It’s Xicoténcatl (1870), translated and edited by Guillermo I. Castillo-Feliú. It is an anonymous text, one that attempts to outline the myth of the Americas from the perspective of the natives. It is about the Tlaxcalan people and Spanish conquistadores, specifically Hernán Cortés in 1519.

xicotencatl cover

We learn about the history through fictionalized accounts of Xicoténcatl, a tragic Tlaxcalan hero, and his bride-to-be Teutila. Among other adventures, Teutila is detained by Cortés and his sidekick, who has a crush on her. She fights him off. “Violence and force would have finally consummated the crime had the frightening screams of the innocent victim, fighting off her angry oppressor, not caused great alarm in the encampment” (p. 80). She escapes by jumping out of a window and maintaining her virtue, but Xicoténcatl is upset that she is gone overnight and assumes the worst. The two argue and are separated by anger during part of the book. However, this episode is symbolic of conquest, and we know that rape is often used as a metaphor for the conquering of nations. This connection is used in the novel to describe and foreshadow what Cortés will eventually do to the Aztec empire and his supposed allies the Tlaxcalans.

Another woman in the book, Doña Marina, represents the other side of womanhood, the dark or “bad” woman. She and Teutila play off of each other throughout with metaphors about light and darkness and virtue and vice. The book frequently caricatures women, as it does with all of its characters, but ultimately I found the narrative instructive. I saw a connection to the use of women as symbols to a book I reviewed called Woman and Nature by Susan Griffin. The women in this novel are often linked to nature, or their “traits” are used to make similes and metaphors. One quote tells us this: “The sovereignty of states is like a woman’s honor: when people maintain it intact, they are respected and esteemed, as is the case with an honest woman in all countries; but when self-interest, corruption, weakness, or any other cause make them yield their appreciable jewel, neither one nor the other is more than the object of contempt, worthy, at the most, of pity and commiseration” (p. 118). Not only are women linked to good and evil and nature in the novel, but we see the common use of women as nations.

Much of the novel is taken with moralizing and didacticism. When it was written and published, it was meant as a critique of government and narratives about the foundations of American nations. It attempts to rewrite historical narratives with the “other” in mind, and it is critical of power, domination, and conquest. One character says, “Government by one does not seem to me to be bearable except among peoples whose ignorance makes them incapable of looking out for themselves or whose vices and degradation make them insensitive to oppression. This government has, for me, the great inconvenience of the natural propensity of man to abuse power, and when one individual’s power is dominant, there are no laws other than his will. Woe to those whose happiness depends on the virtues of one man alone!” (p. 57).

Additionally, the author often interjected as an omniscient narrator, with commentary on the broad picture of what was happening in the novel. In one instance, we learn, “The cowardly monarch was so vile that he ordered the people to lay down their arms. What a terrible lesson for those who delegate their rights or suffer their usurpation by the arbitrariness of a man!” (p. 113). We again hear criticism of monarchy and rule by one person.

The ethic of justice also tends to rule in the chracter’s minds when it comes to defending their nations. I’ve read in other theory about how the ethic of justice and the ethic of care are enacted as polar opposites, and we often tend to attribute the ethic of justice to the masculine and the ethic of care to the feminine. In Xicoténcatl, we see an imbalance of these ethics, with such a focus on the ethic of justice that civilizations fall because of it. Xicoténcatl’s father explains to Cortés in negotiations that “Justice is the only rule that must direct the interests of all causes, and without there is no politics or government, only despotism, disorder, and tyranny” (p. 73). While he’s arguing for rule-of-law with Cortés, I saw a lack of the ethic of care throughout the narrative, especially when it came to the treatment of the main female characters.

The book also addresses religion, with the prostitute Doña Marina solilioquizing on her loss of religion. She says, “[M]y ambition of going from servitude to lover or a powerful man influenced me to renounce the religion of my ancestors in favor of yours” (p. 120). She ends up deciding to reclaim her old religion because her new one isn’t working out. She says, “Doctrine is preached through example” (p. 121). She’s surrounded by bad examples of living one’s religion and ultimately converts away from it. Other characters are religious figures, and we see how important and wrapped up religion is in any culture or government situation. Many of these situations reveal hypocrisy.

Overall, this was a slow-going novel to read, and I only read it for my American Studies research seminar last fall. I enjoyed the class discussions immensely, and those helped me to tease out the themes of the novel and to appreciate its historical significance. It isn’t well written and it isn’t a page-turner, but it represents a time and place, both through the narrative and through its printing lineage, that give us a sense of what it means or doesn’t mean to be American, how to participate in and approach American cultural studies as a scholar, and how historical events are usually told through the eyes of the victor.