Teaching Latin American History via Historical Fiction

Teaching Latin American History via Historical Fiction May 17, 2024

One afternoon in early November 1519, a Mexica youth named Mitzli, son of a skilled jewel worker, was walking along one of the footpaths in Mexico-Tenochtitlan, capital of the Mexica people. Nearing the southern causeway to Ixtapalapa, that is, a raised road built into Lake Texcoco to provide access to the mainland, he noticed a commotion. Moctezuma, the Tlatoani (Great Speaker) of the Mexica people was standing near a newcomer, whom he would later learn was Hernando Cortés; both leaders had entourages accompanying them. Let’s listen in:

As Mitzli observed from a distance, a sudden commotion drew his attention. A clumsy teenager named Omacatl stumbled over an uneven stone, his feet tangling awkwardly beneath him. With a graceless lurch, he tumbled forward, his ungainly descent interrupted by an abrupt collision with Cortés and Moctezuma. The scene unfolded in slow motion as Olmacatl’s flailing limbs disrupted the dignified atmosphere, causing a momentary pause in the conversation. Cortés, his expression a mix of surprise and irritation, steadied himself with a furrowed brow while Moctezuma regarded the clumsy youth with a mixture of concern and bemusement. Embarrassment flushed Omacatl’s cheeks as he scrambled to his feet, stammering apologies in his native Nahuatl. The tension in the air was palpable as silence enveloped the causeway, broken only by the nervous shuffling of onlookers. Mitzli watched from the sidelines, a mixture of amusement and anxiety churning within him. In that awkward moment, the collision of cultures was laid bare, encapsulating the complexities and uncertainties of the encounter between the Mexica and the [foreigners]. As the incident resolved and the conversation resumed, Mitzli couldn’t shake the feeling that the clumsy misstep of one youth held more profound implications for the future of his people. With a lingering glance at the scene before him, he continued his journey, mindful of the shifting tides of fate threatening to reshape the world he knew.

On the causeway in November 1519: Malintzin interpreting for Moctezuma and Cortés.
Florentine Codex, Book 12

Have I discovered a collection of long-lost historical annals describing one of the most well-known encounters in history? I wish! Do we have evidence to indicate that this incident did, indeed, occur? None. Could something like this have occurred? Possibly. Does this sound true to life? Yes. And that’s the point. Historical fiction places fictional characters into a historically-accurate environment, teaching readers about the past, often without them realizing that they are learning. I have had students read historical fiction in my classes for years for this very reason, but not until the last couple of years have I asked students to produce historical fiction.

Final Projects in HIST 484: Nahuas Before and After Iberian Invasion

The scene above, for example, I pulled from “Forged in Tradition,” an 18-page piece of historical fiction submitted as one of the final projects in my Spring 2024 course: Nahuas Before and After Iberian Invasion @ Azusa Pacific University. The beauty of this scene lies not only in the lovely language, the evidence of scholarly research, and the student’s nuanced understanding of the implications of this historical moment, but in the cameo appearance of another student’s character – Omacatl.

How did one student’s character appear in another student’s story? During our final class session, students took turns summarizing their projects, reading aloud selections of their drafts so that the class and I could provide feedback, and asking and answering questions. When the author of “Forged in Tradition” realized that a fellow classmate had imagined his protagonist stumbling onto the causeway in his story, “Moctezuma, Cortés, and Omacatl,” he decided to add the stumble into his own causeway scene. Brilliant!

Assigning Historical Fiction in History Classes

Though I have an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and thus have experience producing and teaching creative writing, until I began writing historical fiction, I did not realize just how research-intense the process could be. By way of example, moving my protagonist, Juan Diego, from the mainland across the northern causeway into 1530s Mexico City required multiple bouts of research, including books produced by scholars specializing in urban history, art history, Nahua history, architectural history, Mesoamerican history, and anthropology. Similarly, learning enough about a Nahua household to accurately describe the backdrop during one brief interior scene took me beyond my usual collection of scholars to a book about indigenous fashion history. Why? So I could accurately detail the process of making clothes from maguey cactus fibers. It was only by doing that I discovered historical fiction could serve as a wonderful assessment of student learning in a history course.

Image captured at English I: Historical Fiction Unit: Home

Don’t take my word for it. Students provided a brief reflection on their experience of writing historical fiction for their final project. The assignment was to show me a native person moving through his or her world before and after the Mexica-Castilian War (1519-1521) and to write to the audience of their choosing. The results were impressive. I am proud of my students for how invested they became in this project and how much they learned. Here are some reactions:

  • Realized that breezing through the assignment with the knowledge gained from readings and class discussion was not possible. Kept multiple tabs open and called classmates to discuss ideas
  • Enjoyed absorbing the small details of history in a new way
  • Was a new experience to spend so much time searching for information for one tiny detail
  • Research and creative writing blended well in this project to create a challenging but enjoyable experience not offered in other classes
  • This project required a similar amount of research as a traditional research paper
  • Super valuable to do a “deep dive” into topics student wanted to include in the story
  • Could not simply reword information into an argument, had to understand it to explain it in a real-life situation
  • Did not anticipate flipping through three different sources at once to try and think of the best way to describe a flower or an item of clothing
  • The assignment expanded student’s knowledge of simple day to day experiences
  • Believed that detailed notes about readings and an outline based on additional research would make the story easy to write, but discovered this to be untrue

I’ll close with a lengthy reflection from a student who wrote “One Day at the Marketplace,” a marvelous piece about a woman who made the transition from Nahua vendor under the Mexica to Nahua vendor under Spanish colonial rule because she sold a product with staying power: chocolatl. A wife and mother who accepted Christianity, she nevertheless struggles with the thought that her son and daughters will have a childhood vastly different from her own. She wonders if one day she’ll wake up and not know who she is, and whether it would be the fault of the Castilians, or her own.

Every single detail, every single implication suggested within each sentence needed to be researched and/or verified. The amount of time and energy that was required to write a cohesive, accurate, well-rounded paragraph was unlike anything I have ever experienced. With regular research papers, one can absorb information and sometimes just spit it out, even with insightful analysis attached to it. With creative historical fiction, that is the very foundation of the paper, but it is not the actual paper. The application element was the most challenging part, yet it was the most rewarding. I had to take in and understand the content, make it into something new, then maintain its integrity while doing the history justice creatively. There were many times I found myself about to write a sentence to just continue the story, but had to pause and conduct research to ensure it was correct or to clarify how something was done back then within their culture. Guaranteed, my understanding of the Mexica culture–especially the details relating to my story or even just points I came across in my research–was significantly deepened solely due to the way we had to present our knowledge. Despite the fact that I recognize this as a difficult assignment, I truly did enjoy it. Partially, that could be for my personal appreciation of creative writing, but it was simply such a wonderful, new way to interact with history. It was a daunting, extraordinarily ambitious task, but I am very proud and satisfied with the final product.

So am I!

I’ve had great success assigning a creative final project in three upper-div Latin American History courses (i.e., with history majors); my favorite part of this assignment is how much I learn from my students. To other history educators out there, offering students a creative option in exams, essay prompts, or longer assignments may provide a wonderful opportunity to deepen student learning. Not all courses lend themselves to creative assignments, nor do all historians feel comfortable assigning and grading creative assignments, but for those who do, I encourage it. Your students may discover talent they never knew they possessed, or a calling they never considered.

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