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Communication and Culture in the Spanish Conquest

In 1492, the Spanish conquistadors arrived in what is known as the Americas, initiating a process of massive colonization. Upon their arrival, they encountered a completely new and unknown world of cultures, lands, fauna, flora and languages that they had never heard before.

At this moment, a degeneration of the culture and social constructions encountered by the Spanish conquistadors begins. Historians, philosophers, and professors such as Livi Bacci, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Antonio Espino López, and Tzvetan Todorovhan have shown why the linguistic destruction caused by the Spanish in their eagerness to communicate managed to annihilate the people they encountered in every possible way.

Image of Antiguo, Conquista and Fuerteventura
Figure 1. Image of Antiguo, Conquista and Fuerteventura (2019)

New lands, new languages

Christopher Columbus was an Italian navigator, admiral, cartographer, and explorer who managed to convince the Catholic King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castilla to support his journey in search of a new trade route to India.

When Columbus arrived in October 1492 in what would be known as the New World, he found intact and functional indigenous civilizations that had complex social structures, used engineering, mathematics, and astrology, and established channels of communication and trade. Like the Spanish conquistadors, the native people were completely unaware of the existence of cultures other than their own.

Figure 2. Atahualpa

The stories and diaries of Spanish explorers such as Cristóbal Colón, Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, Alonso de Ojeda, Hernán Cortés, Juan de la Cosa, or Pedro de las Casas, among many others, reflected on the constant difficulty they had understanding these cultures due to the persistent language barrier. There were two hundred indigenous languages, grouped into 120 language families, as mentioned by Mann (2006). This was also reflected in Columbus's diaries, where he repeatedly mentions that the people with whom he had contact did not understand him and he did not understand them, and in his effort to communicate, he even mistook their meaning for the opposite of what they were trying to tell him.

This problem was not only experienced by Columbus, but also by the indigenous people, who could not understand the Spaniards' language and often mistook them for divinities or negative omens. As Fernández (2019) states:

"On the other hand, some Aztec, Quechua and Mayan texts, which reflect the indigenous vision of the conquest, show that the natives also experienced strangeness and rejection of the Spanish language" (p.5)

Figure 1 : The great Tenochtitlan
Figure 3 : The great Tenochtitlan

To analyze this communicative problem, we can refer to an argument mentioned by Todorov (1982), which identifies why it was so difficult for the Spanish conquistadors to understand the indigenous people. The indigenous people saw the world as a structure in which everything had to be interpreted in a certain way, everything happened for a reason and nothing by chance; it was a cyclical perspective that was represented in the form of their calendars, which were created in a circular form. On the other hand, the Spanish conquistadors had a completely different perception of the world that understood communication as an exchange between equals and not an interpretation of the environment as such; their perception was linear and, therefore, for them everything that happened did not need prophecies or interpretations.

According to Todorov (1982):

"We are accustomed to conceiving communication only in its inter-human aspect, the Indians, instead, prioritize the second type of communication: that which takes place between the person and his social group, the person and the natural world, the person and the religious universe" (p.75)

Figure 4: The Taking of Tenochtitlán by Cortés (1521)

Cultural shock

The Spanish intended to seek new trade routes to India as the Ottoman Empire blocked European trade routes, making travel difficult. Finding land with great wealth such as gold, pearls, and precious metals, in addition to a variety of new species of fauna and flora, caused a change in the objectives of the next trips made by the Spanish conquerors. For the Spanish kings, it meant the possibility of increasing their wealth and obtaining new territories, thus increasing their power. Columbus sought to personally evangelize those people who, in his eyes and beliefs, and as he mentions in one of his 1492 letters, "should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, as it appeared to me that they had no religion" (p.38).

The Spanish conquerors did not expect to find indigenous civilizations that had well-defined social and economic structures or languages that varied according to the region or the people. Although they tried to make themselves understood by these cultures, they were unable to assimilate their customs, which included human sacrifices. Wade (2018) mentions how these sacred practices were viewed by the Spanish conquistadors, explaining that "for them, the skulls – and the whole practice of human sacrifice – evidenced barbarism and justify the destruction of the city." (p.1)

Figure 5: Capture of Atahualpa.

Ultimately, the signs and symbols used in their languages, as well as different cultural aspects, clashed strongly with the Spaniards' beliefs. Canún (2022) states:

"As Spanish Catholic men, these conquerors and their crews - and very soon the Spanish Empire - justified their invasions and thefts with evangelization. They said they were going to new lands to spread the word of the Lord and save the souls of the natives from eternal damnation." (p.1)

All this was reflective of the strong convictions the Spanish conquerors held of cultural superiority, which is corroborated in their travel diaries, where they described the Indians as lacking language and religion, which for the Spanish conquerors was a sign of inferiority. As Todorov (1982) writes, "the Indians, physically naked, are also, in the eyes of Columbus, beings stripped of all cultural assets: they are characterized, in a certain way, by the absence of customs, rites and religion" (p.44).

Figure 6: Conquerors and indigenes

Communication barrier

Columbus' frustration with not understanding the Indians is reflected in what he wrote in his travel diaries, where he expresses his concern about his difficulties in reaching a concrete communicative process to achieve the purpose of his first voyage, finding the new trade route to India and solving this problem with the Ottoman Empire. While he took interpreters in languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, and others, he did not achieve satisfactory and concrete results.

According to Kurz (2012), the main strategy that the Spanish conquerors clung to was to capture indigenous people so that they could learn Spanish and be useful in future trips, where they would work as interpreters and guides.

Figure 7. Moctezuma

They never accounted for the depth of their cultural roots. When captured, they jumped from the boats, and when they returned to their lands they escaped or rebelled against those who enslaved and massacred them, as mentioned by Araguás (2016):

"These captured young men did not usually make faithful translations because of their limited knowledge of Spanish and, moreover, it was frequent that they tried to escape and join their people against the Spaniards" (p.29)

The difficulties in communication were so great that there were cases such as that of Moctezuma II, emperor of the Mexican empire. Moctezuma was one of the strongest, most successful expansionist emperors of the Aztec empire (Restall, 2018), who "with the arrival of the Spaniards saw how the prophecy of Quetzalcoatl began to be fulfilled and his fall from power was predicted" (Todorov, 1982). This prophecy generated an ambivalent perception of the Spanish conquerors, which caused Moctezuma to receive them with gifts and invitations so that they would leave. However, this was understood by Cortés as a symbol of weakness, but as Todorov explains, this was not weakness but a difference in perception.

Figure 8: Cortés and Moctezuma

The Interpreters: helpers or destroyers?

As previously discussed, communication in the Spanish conquerors' first voyages was exceptionally complex. It is important to understand the linguistic challenges of these first explorations, because only then does the importance of the indigenous interpreters, who were initially captured as slaves and subjected to learning a new language, culture, and religion, come into view.

According to Castaño (2005), the interpreters were responsible for creating a human environment that would facilitate the development and imposition of colonialism. Although the interpreters were seen as a very valuable tool, we now see them as the ones who allowed the chaos, destruction, and death of these cultures to occur, even as they made the communicative process possible.

Figure 9. Malinche

The problem more complex than is believed, as Castaño (2005) clarifies:

"The relative oblivion to which many of them have fallen is explained by the reluctance to admit the presence of a third, that could overshadow the importance of the powerful figures involved in transcendental negotiations. This reluctance can also be understandable given the low position that most interpreters occupy in society as servants, slaves, lower caste members and women" (p.1)

The Spanish conquerors did make great advances in their expeditions thanks to the interpreters' aid, but the interpreters, as explained by Araguás (2016), often hid behind the excuse of not understanding Castilian perfectly in order to provide incorrect translations or direct the Spaniards on routes that would delay the process of conquest in attempts to protect their people.

Figure 10. Landing of Columbus

There were many interpreters at the time of the conquest. Some of their names are recognized and remembered by history, such as Diego Colón, Melchorejo, Julianillo, La Malinche, Orteguita, Gerónimo de Aguilar, and Enrique de Malaca; there many others for whom we only have incomplete records. Many of these interpreters had memorable roles in history, such as Diego Colón and La Malinche. The latter was given as an offering to Cortés by the Tabasco tribe and served as his faithful interpreter, playing a fundamental role in the advance across what is now Mexico and also a fundamental role in Cortés' life, as the mother of his son, the first meztizo child. Fernandez ( 2019) describes how La Malinche's fidelity to Cortés was born from their personal relationship, though this still generates discomfort in many current Mexican tribes, where she is often seen as a traitor.

Anderson (2021) described the widespread hatred Mexican society felt confronting La Malinche’s role in the conquest:

"After Mexico became independent from Spain at the beginning of the 20th century, La Malinche became a symbol, and the truth of her experiences was marred by widespread hatred towards the conquerors. She became a traitor in public memory because of her help and incitement to the conquest of Latin America and the genocide of her people, her own people" (p.1)

Figure 11 : Native baptism

The shock over the mixing of cultures that was generated in these societies is something to which Conversi (2010) refers to by asking the question of who's responsible and who should bear the consequences of an act as great as to provoke the disappearance of language. In this case, the dialects of the indigenous people became extinct despite the efforts to keep some of them alive, such as Las Náhuatl, Maya, Mixteco, Tseltal, Tsotsil, and Zapoteco. The destruction of the collective knowledge, cultural systems, and social constructions of these peoples, who were subjugated by the conquistadors and subjected to discrimination and ethnic persecution was experienced by the indigenous people during and after the conquest.

"Homogenization implies the interests that are somehow transmitted throughout this process, which seeks to standardize or equalize the characteristics defined as the most important to live in society" Conversi (p.1)

Figure 12: Malinche and Cortés


The imposition of a language, culture, and religion results in the destruction of a network of cultural imaginaries that have been built for generations within a culture. Strong convictions of superiority generates changes in society that degenerate others' beliefs, imposing those that are perceived as correct.

Although language and culture sought ways to adapt and transform themselves, the Spanish conquerors' processes of evangelization, slavery, subjugation, and death annihilated the indigenous peoples' roots, displacing them and transforming them into a "mestizaje," which brought new consequences and collective imaginaries. Although today the descendants of the tribes that managed to survive fight fervently to rescue and cultivate their cultures, languages, and beliefs, that mark will always remain as an event that destroyed entire communities due to the ideological convictions of some, and the economic and political interests of many others.

The thirst for expansion, power, and wealth has no limits, and it has an uncontrollable capacity for destruction, which has been demonstrated over the years not only in the conquest of the Americas, but in many other historical scenarios throughout the progress of humanity. It is this same unbridled expansionism that generates social mutations within the same cultures that, despite struggling to remain intact, must at a certain point change and adapt so as not to die.

Bibliographical References

  • Alonso Araguás, I. (2016). Interpreting practices in the Age of Discovery: The early stages of the Spanish empire in the Americas. En K. Takeda y J. Baigorri Jalón (Eds.), New Insights in the History of Interpreting, 27-46. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

  • Conversi, D. (2010). Cultural Homogenization, Ethnic Cleansing, and Genocide. International Studies.,of%20a%20unified%2C%20organic%20community.

  • Canún, N. (2022, March 21). 5 Most Brutal Conquistadors of the New World. Homeschool Spanish Academy. Clayton, Alex; Klevan, Andrew, eds. (2011).

  • Harvey L. Johnson; A Cultural History of Spanish America. From Conquest To Independence. Hispanic American Historical Review 1 November 1963; 43 (4): 548–549.

  • Kurz, I. (2012). Acceptance speech. Danica Seleskovitch Prize 2012. París

  • Mann, C. C. (2006). 1491 (Second Edition): New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Stati Uniti: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

  • Nicole Burns, S. (2023). Hernán Cortés's translator Malintzin. HistoricalMX.

  • National Humanities Center Resource Toolbox (1493). Letter of Christopher Columbus on his First Voyage to America.

  • R. Markham, C. (Ed.). (1893). Journal of the First Voyage of Columbus. Hakluyt Society.

  • Ríos Castaño, V. (2005). Fictionalising interpreters: Traitors, lovers and liars in the conquest of america, Linguistica Antverpiensia

  • Todorov, T. (1999). The conquest of America : the question of the other. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

  • The linguistic conquest of Spanish America: First -contact interpreters and translator acquisition strategy as primary cause of military conquest, 1492–1565. (2001). [Doctoral thesis]. Auburn University.

  • Villalba Fernández, M. (2019). La figura del intérprete en el descubrimiento de América [MA thesis]. Comillas Universidad Pontificia.

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Author Photo

Manuela Jaramillo

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