In The Words of Others…

Festival of Conquests/Reconquest Plays

Blackman Mask.

Festival of conquest plays were commonly held to visually depict aspects of Spanish conquest. The conquest plays that were produced crossed language barriers and were used to reinforce the notion of Spanish dominance while visually displaying the roles of Spaniards, Native Americans and Africans in conquest. Workmen, usually African and Native American, constructed the sets for each play. Conquest plays were often filled with mock battles and were given when the Spanish experienced victory or a Spanish conquistador arrived in any given town.

With regards to the portrayal of people of African descent, specifically males, these plays offer a glimpse into the importance of Africans as auxiliaries and conquistadors. They also attest to the ubiquitous presence of Africans in the Spanish territories as early as the mid 16th century. Latin American festivals commemorating Spanish conquests still exist today (Najera-Ramirez 1997). The prestigious blackman mask worn by dancers in Michoacán, Mexico, recalls the days when blacks were overseers of Indian workers in this region (2005 Más Caras). The following quotes from Seven Myths of Spanish Conquest illustrate the depth of the African presence within the plays and Spanish American society as a whole:

“For Africans, their entrance into the play on horseback must have been a proud celebration of their military prowess, of a conquistador status so seldom permitted in public recognition. All those present must have been reminded that barely 18 months earlier, in the autumn of 1537, an unknown number of the 10,000 Africans already resident in Mexico City had allegedly plotted a slave revolt and crowned a rebel black king. The slave monarch, along with other black leaders, had been publicly executed and was surely resurrected, in the minds of the city’s blacks, in the form of the festivals African king.”

“Whatever their identity or perspective, none of the inhabitants of Mexico City in 1539 would have viewed a black presence in that year’s festival of conquest as incongruous. All took for granted the fact that Africans too had participated in the real Conquest. Indeed, Africans were ubiquitous not only to the Conquest of Mexico but also to the entire endeavor of Spanish invasion and colonialization in the Americas. Because the majority of such Africans arrived as slaves, and because of their subordinate status in the increasing ethnocentric Castillian worldview, the widespread and central role of blacks was constantly ignored by the Spaniards writing about the Conquest…Evidence of black roles is thus scattered and often opaque, but when the pieces are put together, it is incontrovertible (Restall 2003).

NPS Ethnography Program