Tlaxcala does exist.
It is not an imaginary place, nor are its people paid actors, nor is it a territorial appendix of the state of Puebla, as satirical publications on the internet say.
It is located two hours by road from Mexico City. It has a beautifully preserved historic center, with a kiosk in its central square and tree-lined streets where the lilac color of its jacarandas stands out.
But in the jokes of many Mexicans, the smallest state in the country – with about 4,000 km2 of territory – becomes a source of ridicule and even Google queries about its existence.
Its existence has been questioned not only because it is the smallest state in the country, but also because of its crucial role in the history of Mexico that occurred exactly 500 years ago.
The prevailing popular opinion considers them traitors.
“They ask you ‘where are you from?’ and you tell them ‘from Tlaxcala’ and then the nickname (traitor) comes. Before that situation was stronger than now, but it continues,” says Marcelina Sánchez, a lifelong resident of the state capital.
This attitude acquires contemporary relevance due to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s request to the King of Spain and the Pope to apologize for the abuses committed during the Conquest of Mexico, something that the Spanish government immediately rejected.
And in 1519 the Tlaxcalans – known for being fierce warriors – established an alliance with the Spanish conquerors who arrived in their territory.
The pact was key to the subsequent conquest of the powerful Mexica (or Aztec) empire to such a degree that the Tlaxcalan indigenous people had special treatment from the Spanish Crown during the colony.
These episodes, added to a predominantly negative interpretation of history towards the Tlaxcalans, generated an atmosphere of resentment in the rest of Mexico towards those people.
Even harassment or bullying from the rest of the country, and especially from neighboring states.
“It is a very heavy judgment. This stigma that we have is very difficult, they have been bothering us for centuries with this nickname of traitor,” anthropologist Juan Carlos Ramos tells BBC Mundo.
But it is enough to understand how the events occurred to dismantle that image, as experts on the subject explain.
Fidelity to their blood?
The idea of betrayal has been perpetuated for centuries due to a decontextualized historical interpretation.
It is believed that the Tlaxcalans must have been loyal to the Mexica (or Aztec) empire and defended it against the invasion of the Spanish conquerors. Fidelity to indigenous blood.
But a review of the events shows that the Tlaxcalans were not allies of the Mexica, nor were they under their dominion, nor did there exist an indigenous nation as such.
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When the Aztecs founded their city, México-Tenochtilan (1325), the Tlaxcalteca people already existed and had settled in their territory in the center of what is now Mexico.
The arrival of the Spanish conquistadors led by Hernán Cortés to Tlaxcalan territory was not friendly, and in fact they faced three battles with the armies of the four ruling indigenous lords.
But then came a negotiation against a common objective: the Mexica.
“Tactically, the Tlaxcalans saw that it was better for them to ally with the Spanish,” explains historian José Juan Juárez, from the University of Tlaxcala, to BBC Mundo.
If we consider that context and how war was thought of at that time, not the current one, we can then understand that the Tlaxcalans were fighting for their own homeland, which was never the Mexica.
“The Mesoamerican warrior had an idiosyncrasy in terms of war, in terms of physical confrontation with a human being. And the Spanish soldier had another idiosyncrasy,” remarks Juan Carlos Ramos.
In the opinion of the experts and the Tlaxcalans themselves, there is no betrayal of something to which one does not belong.
Why not fight for the Mexicans?
Although they were not friends, the Mexica and Tlaxcalteca people did know of the battles that the conquistadors had fought in 1519 against native peoples, with very negative fatal results for the indigenous people.
But by the time the conquistadors arrived in Tlaxcala, that town had been suffering from an economic blockade imposed by the Mexica for 60 years, which explains why they did not fight for them.
Because the Tlaxcalans were never subjugated by the great empire of Mexico-Tenochtitlán, their territory was a kind of enclave surrounded by peoples subject to the Mexica.
“A reputation was generated as warriors, fierce warriors, great military strategists, while they were prevented from trading, so the Tlaxcalan locked themselves in,” explains Ramos.
Putting that era “under the magnifying glass of current social morality” is wrong, adds Juárez.
During the next two years, those Tlaxcalan warriors and other peoples rebelling against the Mexica were fundamental to the conquest of the Mexica consummated in 1521.
The alliance was so successful and key for the conquerors that the kings of Spain granted the Tlaxcalans autonomy that no other indigenous people had.
The chiefs of that town and their descendants were named “cousins” by King Charles I, a status that, although it did not reach that of the Spaniards and Creoles, they were on a higher step than the rest.
The Spanish Crown also gave Tlaxcala the title of “Very noble and very loyal.”
A heavy stigma
As before the conquest, during the colony and after the independence of Mexico, Tlaxcala remained a rather closed society towards the rest of the country. Why 500 years later in Mexico they do not forgive Tlaxcala for allying itself with the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés
It is one of the states of Mexico that is most closely related to the Spanish past.
This can be seen in the architecture of its houses and streets, in festivals such as the Carnival adapted between Nahuatl and Spanish, or even in the fact that in the small state there are 36 fighting bull farms.
“Tlaxcala has always maintained its identity, its essence, its origin. This has allowed its traditions to be greatly preserved,” says Roberto Núñez, state Secretary of Tourism.
“We were unfairly labeled (as traitors), but we really are not. This stigma had an impact for a long time on our state, on our spirit,” he tells BBC Mundo.
Five centuries have passed and that Tlaxcalan-Spanish alliance has not been easy to erase even for the youngest who have grown up in an environment of more social openness and communication.
“It’s the mockery and bullying of social networks,” says Jonathan Álvarez, who with his schoolmates visits the government palace that houses a large mural about Tlaxcalan history.
But the Tlaxcalans were not always considered traitors, since in fact that image only took root in the popular imagination until the 19th century, after the independence of Mexico, explains historian José Juan Juárez.
“After independence, conflicts broke out and the feeling of nationalism was raised. As the Tlaxcalans did not support independence at first, they were loyal to Spain, from then on, a resentment towards Tlaxcala began,” he points out.
Even Benito Juárez, one of Mexico’s most admired presidents, reproduced that vision of the “vile” Tlaxcalans as those who “preferred a base revenge over national honor.”
Tlaxcala in Mexico and the world
A little-known aspect of Tlaxcalan history is its participation in conquest and colonization in America and beyond.
There are records of the arrival of Tlaxcalans with Spaniards to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Peru, to cities that today are in the north of Mexico and the south of the United States, Florida and even in the Philippines.
It took almost three decades for Tlaxcala to be recognized as a state after the independence of Mexico, and even the first Constitution (1824) left it unclear what to do with that territory.
The sense of autonomous community for a long time kept the state with a certain degree of separation, but it is something that is changing in recent decades.
For Tourism Secretary Roberto Núñez, the way to “reverse” the stigma towards Tlaxcala and its people is through bringing the rest of Mexicans closer to Tlaxcala.
“There are things in history that cannot be changed, but they can be appreciated. There was an alliance that gave rise to what ultimately became Mexico, the great nation, the mestizaje,” he adds.
“We do not belong to one town or another, we are a mixture.”