As my father and I moved forward, facing the three men at the top table, they stood up.
When we reached our appointed place, the men at the side tables followed the three men’s example and gave a stiff bow in our direction. All except the middle of the three at the top table then sat down. He remained standing and spoke to us.
“Welcome, señores. We welcome you to our valley. I am told you are of our country. Is this true?”
“We are Spanish,” my father replied. “We have travelled here from Veracruz.”
“Ah – the city of Cortez. We have stories of the city handed down from our forefathers.”
The man fell silent for a moment, then: “What is your name?”
“Domenech. I am Jaime Domenech and this is my son, Juan.”
As my father announced our names, a gasp came from all the men seated at the tables.
“That is a true Spanish name, Señor. Have you and your family lived in the New World long?”
“My parents left Spain just after I was born. I have lived here in this country that we call Mexico all my life,” my father answered.
“And what about your father’s ancestors?” the man asked. “Where did they live?”
“Many lived here in the Americas. Our family have always had close links with these lands. Two came to the New World with Cortez in 1517. One died in battle in 1521. The other also died, but later and we know not how. He commanded a troop of experienced soldiers into an unknown part of the Aztec empire. Nothing was ever heard of them again and they were presumed to have perished at the hands of the Indian warriors.”
The man’s face lit up. “You know your family history well, Señor.”
“Our family have a long history. I am proud of it,” my father replied.
“You should be, Señor. You should be.” The man stood there at the head of this strange gathering and nodded. “Yes, you should be proud,” he repeated, almost to himself.
He fell silent. For a moment there was no sound in the hall. Then he turned and walked to the wall behind him. He stopped and stood against a large, light coloured panel in the centre of the wall. “Come Señor. Come here and learn the true story of your missing ancestor.” He motioned for us to join him at the panel.
All the assembled village councillors rose as we walked round the tables to join the man.
“Look,” he said as we reached him. “Read, and be proud of your ancestor!” On it was carved, in sixteenth century Spanish, the story of the missing soldiers.
The stone panel told how the soldiers had been surprised and cut off by the Indians. They had spent many days defending themselves, always being forced toward the mountains. By sheer good fortune they had entered this valley and found, to their relief, that the Indians did not follow them. The valley was sacred to the Indians’ god, Quetzalcóatl.
The soldiers stayed, recovered from their long battle, and waited for the Indians to go away. While they waited, they built a chapel, and carved their story on the stone we were now reading.
Father and I stood in silence. At the bottom of the panel was carved the name of the leader, Jaime Domenech, and the date – 1523!