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Films >> Otra Conquista, La (The Other Conquest) (1998) >> Issue Essay >>

Selling Faith

By Brian Cohen, with comment by Eddie Strumfels

[1] To begin, I feel that Spanish intervention in the Aztecs' society -- as portrayed in the film The Other Conquest -- is not only acceptable but justifiable. It is human nature's duty for stronger civilizations to overtake weaker ones. This is basic Darwinistic "survival of the fittest," and certainly we as an international community would not have progressed as far and fast as we have without having followed this basic principle. The Spanish rightfully used their new navigation, military, and transportation technologies to discover the New World and spread their values, which were obviously superior, to the natives. And although superiority may seem like a subjective phrase, it is important to note that nearly no aspects of the Aztec lifestyle were retained in modern culture, whereas nearly every aspect of Spanish civilization was built upon and therefore present in modern-day society. (see comment by Eddie Strumfels)

[2] While it is indeed justifiable that the Spanish attempted to impress their own culture upon the Aztecs in The Other Conquest, one aspect of this imposition that was not justified was the Spanish proselytizing them to accept Christianity.

[3] The most obvious inconsistency with this is that Christianity itself condemns the use of violence. That being said, it is completely contradictory to the religion that is being spread to do so using a method that is so adverse to its principles. The Aztecs are then first exposed to a religion whose own representatives could not afford it the respect of abiding by its foremost laws. Thus, if the very foundation of the Aztecs' perceived belief in Christianity is based on a misuse -- a lie, essentially -- then how are they supposed to adopt it wholly and without reservation? In fact, a violent imposition of Christianity is so contradictory as to render the entire effort void. That is to say, like a judge attempting to pass a ruling with no judiciary power, a Christian missionary has no ability to spread the belief of that religion when the ideals of the religion itself are not followed.

[4] Ironically, though, Spanish theologian Juan Gines de Sepulveda (1489-1573), in his mid-16th-century "debate" with the celebrated defender of the Indians Bartolome de Las Casas (1484-1566), argues that war against the Indians is warranted because, in effect, they are "barbarians," and, as such, the Spanish, as the superior culture, have a "duty" to dominate them. Specifically, he claims that a just cause for war is "To eliminate the portentous crimes of feasting on human flesh, whereby the nature of things is most violated, and prevent the worship of demons in place of God, which especially provokes the wrath of the Lord." However, Sepulveda's argument is not valid because it is based solely on Christian values, which only have a basis if one believes in them. Otherwise, they are simply abstract ideals with no further value. For example, although I do not personally agree with or condone cannibalism, to say that it is wrong is completely subjective. Simply because most people do not engage in this activity is no basis for its correctness, but rather a relative instance of majority versus minority. It is just as possible, hypothetically, that more people could simply commit cannibalistic behaviors -- because it is then accepted by the majority, is it right? Even though Christianity might condemn cannibalism, that condemnation has no basis if Christianity is not followed. Thus, since acts such as cannibalism are so subjective (and relative to the beliefs of each individual person), it is impossible to definitively deny its appropriateness.

[5] Furthermore, Sepulveda notes that worshiping "demons in the place of God" will "provoke the wrath of the Lord." Again, this statement is loaded with relativities that bear no significance to non-Christians. Although a Christian might view the God of a non-Christian as a "demon," does that have any effect on non-Christians? Perhaps a non-Christian views the Christian God as a demon, is that then valid? Again, the perceptions of those outside one's faith only bear significance to those within that faith. There is no reason that a non-Christian would share the opinion of a Christian regarding a foreign God. And so, in this case, to say that a non-Christian God is a demon is no basis for "saving" the Mexican population because the "demon" is only such in Christian eyes. As for these actions provoking the "wrath of the Lord," the same concept applies, in that the Lord and His wrath apply to believers of Christian faith and thus bear no weight to non-believers.

[6] Sepulveda also appeals to another justification to engage in war against the Aztecs: "To spread the Christian religion far and wide by suitable means through preaching the Gospel wherever an approach shows itself." This is the most controversial justification that Sepulveda makes for war against the Indians because foremost, the proselytizing by the Spanish to convert the natives was by no means subtle. Relating this fact to The Other Conquest, there is a direct conflict in forcing the Christian religion when there is already an established religion. Friar Diego is a Spanish Christian missionary who is committed to his cause. He encounters Topiltzin, who is vehemently devoted to his own religion. The film depicts a passionate, strained, and emotional back-and-forth between the two men as Friar Diego tries futilely to convert the native. It is perfectly clear that Topiltzin will not accept Christianity, and he dies clinging onto his Aztec beliefs. That is to say, while he does indeed seek the Virgin Mary, it is solely because she is the only remaining representation of his own Mother Goddess as a female Goddess figure. Thus, his love for her is not love for Christianity but, quite the opposite, in instead serving as a reaffirmation of his love for his own religion.

[7] Initially, Friar Diego's intentions are in line with both his Spanish peers and Sepulveda: "To spread the Christian religion far and wide." Even though Topiltzin has a god, the fact that Friar Diego pushes another god -- a Christian God -- upon him likens him more to a salesman for a specific commercial product than a man of God. Perhaps the job of a missionary, then, is no more faith-based than selling-based. Furthermore, as a representative of God, perhaps the idea of religion is much less abstract than intended; it seems in this case that conversion is more a numbers game than anything else. And so, is Friar Diego looking for a devoted Christian in Topiltzin or simply another convert to his ranks? In the latter instance, the spread of Christianity is more similar to commercialism than true faith.

[8] However, in the last scene of the film, Friar Diego addresses God in this striking way: "Your ways are truly a mystery. God of All." Thus, contrary to his position as Spanish missionary, in the final analysis Friar Diego is truly a God-loving man and not necessarily exclusively Christian. He makes this fact clear in referring to the God of "All" ("unum Deum") instead of just his Christian God. In the final analysis Friar Diego simply has an appreciation for the idea of a God rather than an exclusively Christian God. And so, ironically, Friar Diego becomes the one who is converted. As such, he subtly accepts the fact that Topiltzin will not accept Christianity; rather, he is acknowledges and embraces all the more that a man is so committed to a God as to thwart the efforts of a whole aggressively invasive culture. The Other Conquest becomes a story of two men's tolerance and mutual understanding amidst their very dissimilar peers.


Eddie Strumfels 2/27/12

I agree with Brian's final point in this essay -- that ultimately Friar Diego becomes a "God-loving man and not necessarily a Christian." My main problem was this introduction wherein he claims the superiority of the Spanish culture over the Aztecs, pointing to the total absence of the Aztec lifestyle in modern South and Central America. My problem with this is that it's not the truth. To say that the Spanish culture was dominant over the Aztec culture would be a dangerously untrue simplification of Mexican/Latin American culture. While the influence of the Spanish upon the culture of the region has been immense since their arrival, Latin America is hardly a junior Spain. More so than the United States, for example, Latin American culture blends aspects of native art, science, architecture, religion, language, and more with the Spanish influence. Perhaps I'm missing some dripping sarcasm, but it's important to avoid such oversimplifications of cultural assimilation when speaking about the history of Spaniards and natives, so that we do not continue repeated the lies we have been told for generations now.