America’s Alternative History

On May 18, Teofilo Ruiz, Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles, took the Wriston Auditorium stage to present a lecture entitled “1492: The History of the Vanquished.” As we all know, 1492 was the year Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas and spread the news that he had “discovered” something great. Ruiz, however, told the story from a different perspective—the perspective of the vanquished. To be more exact, Ruiz told the stories of the Aztec, Muslim and Jewish people of Spain and Mexico and what these people suffered as a result of the “finding” of the Americas.

Ruiz began with the Muslims of the Iberian Peninsula, who crossed the Gibraltar Strait in 711 C.E. to conquer the empire of present-day Spain. They lived in relative harmony with the surrounding populations, and the Jewish people who inhabited the same area flourished under Islamic rule. This peace was disturbed when the Muslim kingdoms crumbled and Christian armies defeated them. Both sides had violently pursued attacks on the other, and this situation would only inflate as time went on. At this point, around 1212 C.E., there was a question of who would control the peninsula. A fear of miscegenation arose and Muslims and Jews began to be targeted for their faith—being sold into slavery and expelled from the land. In the year 1480, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain conquered Granada, one of the only remaining cities under Islamic control. Though the Muslims here were promised certain rights under a treaty, these freedoms were not carried through. In 1492, 8,000 Jews fled Spain because they would not convert to Christianity.

The same path of destruction ensued from 1517-1520 when Columbus and other Spaniards encountered the Aztec population of Mexico. The Aztec civilization—which was bright, civilized and dominant—was undermined by the Spaniards and their allies, and collapsed and was lost as a result.

Ruiz’s message for the audience was that great things may happen in history, but they are often founded on the demise of other people. This is true of the Muslims and Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, and the Aztecs of Mexico. He urged the audience to be thorough in their research and to recognize that advancement for one is often destruction for another. As students and researchers, it is our responsibility to history to internalize this truth.