In trying to weave a coherent narrative of centuries of Latin American history, Arana too often relies on a handful of thin sources and simplifies complicated events. In her telling, venal, self-interested elites (“silver”), violent rulers and rebels (“sword”), and cynical, compromised religious institutions (“stone”) have perennially plagued the region. The Aztecs, the Incas, and the Spanish were all bloody-minded peoples tamed only by brutal despots; homegrown revolutionaries inevitably became “tinpot dictators, insatiable caesars.” Arana’s bleak vision sees no enduring success stories, no emerging middle-class democracies, no meaningful social progress. Latin America is defined only by “the essential exploitation at its core, the racial divisions, the extreme poverty . . . the corrosive culture of corruption.” By perpetuating such profoundly negative (and poorly substantiated) stereotypes, Arana inadvertently provides ammunition for U.S. President Donald Trump’s disparaging comments about the region.
In sharp contrast to Arana, who uses lurid, florid prose, Townsend employs the meticulous language of a scholar who has immersed herself in primary texts. Townsend mined the accounts written in the Aztec language, Nahuatl, by indigenous historians in the decades immediately following the Spanish conquest. These texts present an invaluable counterpoint to the self-serving narratives of the Spanish conquistadors and their priests. Townsend rejects the portrayal of the Aztecs as driven by blood lust, superstition, and fatalism. Instead, she shows that the Aztec emperor Montezuma II behaved rationally, drawing on his extensive intelligence-gathering system, carefully weighing his policy options, and tending to the responsibilities of government. The Spanish forces’ superior weaponry and access to reinforcements from Spain—coupled with the devastation wreaked by smallpox—eventually led to the defeat of the Aztecs. Other histories have also shown how the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés skillfully exploited divisions among the indigenous tribes, who aligned with the Spanish often out of spite for the Aztecs. But Townsend’s book is still a landmark masterpiece, powerful in its precision and subtle in its weaving of tragedy and glory.