Mexico Seeks Apology for Catholic Church’s Role in the Spanish Conquest

In a letter to Pope Francis, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador also requested the temporary return of a number of artifacts

The Codex Borgia
A brightly-colored page in the Codex Borgia, one of the artifacts requested by Mexico's president Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The history of the Americas is mired in colonial conflict and controversy—and Mexico is no exception.

Five hundred years ago, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés waged a brutal campaign against the Aztec Empire, conquering the great city of Tenochtitlán and enslaving the majority of the region’s Indigenous inhabitants. By the end of the 16th century, Mexico’s Native population had plummeted from 22 million to 2 million, with European diseases like smallpox, measles and mumps exacting a heavy toll.

Now, reports the Yucatan Times, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has written a letter to Pope Francis asking him to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in oppressing Indigenous peoples during the Spanish conquest. (As Jessica Frankovich wrote in a 2019 Georgetown University blog post, Cortés and his men destroyed Indigenous temples and replaced them with Catholic churches; missionaries also kidnapped Aztec children and forced them to convert to Christianity.)

Per a translation by Valentina Di Liscia of Hyperallergic, López Obrador’s request asks for “a sincere commitment that never again will disrespectful acts be committed against [Indigenous people’s] beliefs and cultures.”

The letter also petitions the Vatican to temporarily return a number of Indigenous documents housed in its library. According to the Guardian, requested works include three ancient codices and maps of Tenochtitlán.

Of the three books requested, the Codex Borgia—a 16th-century painted manuscript featuring calendars that purported to predict the success of marriages, military campaigns and individual destinies—is arguably the most significant. Penned prior to the Spanish conquest, the text is notable for its colorful illustrations and use of the Indigenous language Nahuatl.

Following the fall of Tenochtitlán, Spanish colonizers looted written works, statues, gold bars and other Indigenous treasures. Many pre-Hispanic manuscripts were later destroyed; even the Codex Borgia has sustained damage over the years, leaving some of its images obscured.

Last year, López Obrador issued a similar demand to both Francis and Spanish king Felipe VI.

“I have sent a letter to the Spanish king and another to the pope so that the abuses can be acknowledged and an apology can be made to the Indigenous peoples for the violations of what we now call human rights,” the president said in a video posted on Twitter, per a translation by BBC News.

The Spanish government rejected López Obrador’s request outright, arguing in a statement that the “arrival of the Spanish on Mexican soil 500 years ago cannot be judged in the light of contemporary considerations.”

Though Francis has yet to formally apologize for the Catholic Church’s involvement in the Spanish conquest, the pope did acknowledge Indigenous people’s suffering during a 2016 visit to Mexico.

“On many occasions, in a systematic and organized way, your people have been misunderstood and excluded from society,” Francis told a crowd of thousands, as quoted by the New York Times’ Jim Yardley and Paulina Villegas. “Some have considered your values, culture and traditions to be inferior. Others, intoxicated by power, money and market trends, have stolen your lands or contaminated them.”

López Obrador’s appeals have sparked controversy both at home and abroad. After the president sent the 2019 letter, Peruvian Spanish writer Mario Vargas Llosa argued that López Obrador’s demands were incongruous with the systemic discrimination and poverty faced by contemporary Indigenous communities in Mexico.

“The Mexican president got the recipient wrong,” Vargas Llosa told El País’ Javier Rodriguez Marcos and Jesus Ruiz Mantilla, according to a translation by Hyperallergic. “He should have sent it to himself and explained why Mexico, which joined the western world 500 years ago and has enjoyed full sovereignty as an independent nation for 200 years, still has millions of marginalized, poor, uneducated, and exploited Indigenous people.”