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Grade level: 9-12
Subject: History
Estimated Time of Completion: 1-2-class periods

This activity was designed to address the following educational national content standards:

Curriculum Standards for Social Studies
Prepared by: National Council for Social Studies at http://www.ncss.org/standards/teachers/standard.hmtl
Culture: High School - Interpret patterns of behavior reflecting values and attitudes that contribute or pose obstacles to cross cultural understanding.

Student Objectives:

  1. Students will expand their knowledge of the historical process by using primary sources in the classroom.

  2. Students will analyze first hand accounts in order to contrast and explain the Spanish view of the Aztecs and the Aztec view of the Spanish at the time of contact.

  3. Students will discuss the various implications of these views in the relationship between Native Americans and Aztecs and the formation of Mestizo culture.


Student/Teacher Background Information

In 1492 Christopher Columbus reached the New World. In one giant leap the two hemispheres, which had been separated by vast oceans for millions of years (with the exception of an intermittent Bering land bridge), were again united. Columbus, and those millions of Europeans that followed, brought with them, not only their culture, their traditions, their knowledge, and their technology, but also their animals, their plants, and even their diseases.

After Columbus landed, Spanish conquistadors fanned out over the American continents. And when they encountered the native peoples of the Americas, it changed both their worlds forever.

In Mexico, when Hernando Cortés arrived with his small army of conquistadors, the great Aztec Empire was at the height of its power. But the Spanish, for a myriad of reasons, were able to conquer the Aztecs relatively easily. There are many contemporary letters, documents, and books that tell the story fated story of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Of course, the Spanish sources far outweigh in number the Native American sources – the Aztecs had no written language. However, there are some interesting accounts of how the Aztecs viewed the Spanish at the time of contact. And by examining first hand accounts of these early impressions, both Aztec and Spanish, we can learn a great deal about the Spanish conquest of Mexico as well as the various implications these views had in the relationship between Native Americans and Aztecs and the formation of Mestizo culture.


Primary Sources:

Teachers can use a number of primary source documents and books that describe the Spanish and Aztec views of one another. We recommend:

Secondary Sources:

Books that detail the colonization of the New World and the cultural exchange that followed, include:

Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., THE COLUMBIAN EXCHANGE: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492.

Ramón Eduardo Ruiz, TRIUMPHS AND TRAGEDY: A History of the Mexican People.

Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloe Sayer, THE SKELETON AT THE FEAST: The Day of the Dead in Mexico.

Web site resources:

Teacher Preparation:


A. Divide the class into small groups. Have students read two or more documents, some representing the Spanish point of view, and others representing the Aztec point of view at the time of contact. If you like you can have them supply a title for each document, or outline each document, or compile a glossary of terms or a key word list for each document.

B. Then ask the groups to compare the documents in order to contrast and explain the Aztec view of the Spanish and the Spanish view of the Aztecs at the time of their first encounters. Have students discuss these questions:

C. Student Debate Questions:

D. As homework, using the Internet or other sources:


  1. Examine how the Spanish, with vastly inferior numbers, were able to conquer the Aztec Empire. What roles did disease, religion, military strategy, political and ethnic rivalry, and succession problems play in the Spanish conquest?

  2. Have students access the treatment of the Native population at the hands of the Spaniards. What justification did the Spanish give for the harsh treatment of the natives? What was the background for the requiermiento?

  3. Discuss the ecomienda system and the evolution of labor systems in Spanish America.

  4. The "Columbian Exchange" worked both ways. Have students research the impact that New World plants (tomatoes, potatoes etc.) and other natural resources such as lumber and silver had on the Old World cultures and societies. Can we make a comparison between the relationship the Americas’ had in the global market during the age of discovery and the status of the third world nations today?