For more than fifty years, in book after book, Alfonso Reyes has demonstrated the excellence and universality of Hispano-American letters. Poet, short story writer, essayist, critic, theoretician, meta-physicist, and a scholar in the best humanist tradition, he has ranged for his themes and materials from Athens in the classic age to the Indian pueblos and the history of his native Mexico. Under these circumstances it may seem somewhat arbitrary to let a single essay, even one commonly found in separate publication, represent a writer of such variety and scope. But VISION DE ANAHUAC, written in Madrid in 1915 and published in San Jose de Costa Rica two years later, is one of those seminal works in which significance or influence bears no relationship to bulk. It is a prose poem, a landscape painting, a patriotic invocation, a study in history, an archaeological reconstruction, a literary critique, an exercise in style. The late Gabriela Mistral, Chilean poet, called it the best single piece of Latin American prose.
Anahuac was the Nahuatl name for the Valley of Mexico, site of the great city of Tenochtitlan and the center of the Aztec civilization which fell to the rapacity of the conquistadores under Hernan Cortes in 1521. In a style that is subtle, evocative, and varied, Alfonso Reyes re-creates the wonder of that place and time when two races, two societies, confronted each other and the feudal barbarism of the Old World performed its act of violence upon the Indian barbarism of the New. Years later Bernal Diaz del Castillo, chronicler of the conquest, voiced his lament for a despoiled culture that was passionate and cruel but also beautiful and splendid: “Now all is lost, razed, so that there is nothing.”
In the epigraph to his essay Reyes welcomes the traveler to the most crystalline region of the air. In this luminous prose and vivid imagery every object stands out, distinct and immaculate in color and form, bathed in the blue and gold intensity of sky and sun. For the sake of analogy Reyes invokes the name of Giovanni Battista Ramusio, who began to publish his collection DELLE NAVIGAZIONI E VIAGGI in Venice in 1550. Among the illustrations in this old work are scenes of the New World as the explorers saw them and wrote about them. These pictures, ingenuous in conception, meticulous in design, present an exotic world of nature in the vegetation of New Spain: the ear of corn, the clustered banana, the strange tropical fruits distilling their own fragrance and honey, and in stiff array the varieties of cacti, emblematic plants of a semi-arid land where the cactus, the eagle, and the serpent are the appropriate heraldic devices for a coat of arms.
To the priests and warriors of the tribe that entered the valley early in the fourteenth century—the last of such migrations into Anahuac—the legendary vision of the eagle and the serpent was the fulfillment of a prophecy. Behind that roving band lay a history of many wanderings and wars in which memory and fact faded into a primitive myth of warriors who came out of the Seven Caves to which the seven tribes traced their dim beginnings. There they built a city, a flower of stone on water, and the city became an empire, cyclopean like those of Egypt and Babylon, over which Moctezuma the magnificent but weak ruled in the ill-omened days that heralded the coming of the white man. The stage had been set for the last act in an ancient drama of conquest and settlement when Cortes and his followers crossed the snow-capped mountains and descended through fields of maize and maguey to the valley floor.
Ahead of them, connected with the mainland by three stone causeways two lances in width, Tenochtitlan rose like a mirage from waters that caught and held the color of the sky. In that clear atmosphere every detail of the city and its environs could be viewed as if through crystal, an intricate pattern of temples, palaces, public squares, streets, canals, and gardens bright with flowers. Over the city loomed the bulk of the great temple, with wide streets radiating from its four corners. Smoke rose from the sanctuaries atop the holy pyramid, and through the still air came the echoing rumble of drums and the thin music of flutes.
To the Spaniards the sight was like some vision of enchantment, for the conquistadores carried in their blood the same strain of wonder that had produced the romantic story of Amadis of Gaul. “As soon as we saw so many cities and towns in the water,” Diaz del Castillo wrote, “we were struck with amazement and said that it seemed like things from the book of Amadis because of the great towers and temples and houses which they had built in the water, and all of them of stone and mortar, and even some of our soldiers spoke of what they saw as if they were in a land of dreams. . . .”
As Alfonso Reyes points out, the life of the city revolved around three central points: the temple, the market place, and Moctezuma’s palace. In all sections of the city, the pattern was repeated in the smaller shrines, the market squares, the palaces of the nobles. The proud, somber Indian of Anahuac was a worshiper of fierce gods, a shrewd trader, a lover of ceremony and display.
Within the serpent-carved wall of the sacred enclosure...
(The entire section is 2160 words.)