Latin American Studies program director wins prestigious book award

Susan Burlingame
November 13, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Matthew Restall, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Latin American History and director of Latin American Studies in Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts, has won the Conference on Latin American History’s Howard F. Cline Memorial Prize for his book, “When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History” (New York: Harper Collins, 2018).

Restall will receive his award during the American Historical Association’s 134th annual meeting, which will be held in New York City in January 2020.

The Cline Prize, established in 1976, is awarded every other year to “the book or article in English, German, or a Romance language judged to make the most significant contribution to the history of Indians in Latin America.” Affiliated with the American Historical Association, the Conference on Latin American History is devoted to encouraging “the diffusion of knowledge about Latin America through fostering the study and improving the teaching of Latin American history.”

“When Montezuma Met Cortés” retells the long-accepted story of the meeting of the Aztec emperor of Mexico and the famous Spanish conquistador — an event that occurred on Nov. 8, 1519, almost exactly 500 years ago — and the months that followed, which ultimately led to the Spanish colonization of Mexico.  

The story is not nearly as cut and dried as historians, authors, and even composers would have us believe, explained Restall.

“History paints that meeting as a surrender,” said Restall, whose extensive research revealed to him that the meeting of the two leaders was in fact a “magisterial welcoming,” and the months that followed were much more complicated. The stories told before now, he said, create an easy-to-believe narrative that justify the war and the Spanish settlement of Mexico.

“According to the narrative, the conquest of Mexico, which I prefer to refer to as a war, ends in 1521 when the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, falls to a siege. What I suggest is that we see that moment as the beginning, rather than the end, of the conquest of Mexico. The Aztecs were not destroyed but rather transformed over the next two generations.”

Restall said his fascination with Mexico began when he was a teenager. Originally from London, England, he moved all over the world with his parents. An essay contest landed him in Mexico, a Latin American country he had never visited, and he “fell in love” with the Yucatan Peninsula. Surprisingly, it reminded him of his home in Southern England.

“I had lived in both Spain and Venezuela as a child, and I was fascinated by Spanish and Spanish American history,” he said. “The churches, the layers of history, the shrub-lined streets felt like home to me and yet were so different. I wanted to know more.”

Restall, who joined the Penn State faculty in 1998, became an award-winning scholar with expertise in colonial Mesoamerica (Yucatan and the Maya), Africans in Spanish America, and the Spanish Conquest, having published more than 20 books and 60 articles and essays. Educated at Oxford University and UCLA, Restall has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow (among others), and he is the current senior co-editor of the Hispanic American Historical Review.

Restall says he is honored that his book is receiving the Cline Prize.

“It’s a great honor and I am very grateful,” he said. “What amazes me even more is that members of the public are interested in the topic.” Restall receives almost daily emails from people from all walks of life asking questions or praising the book. “Through this book, I’m reaching an audience with a topic that has ramifications for how we think about the world we live in today.”

“When Montezuma Met Cortés” has garnered national attention; it was even named “book of the month” in August 2019 by Hudson News, the largest distributor of magazines and books in the Northeast U.S. with retail stores in airports from New York to Washington, D.C.

"Matthew Restall’s ‘When Montezuma Met Cortés’ is another example of his skill at presenting innovative research and novel perspectives in a way that’s a pleasure to read,” said Michael Kulikowski, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Classics and head of the Department of History. “I’m always delighted when faculty take seriously the task of communicating the significance of their research in an accessible way, and I’m even more delighted to see this achievement recognized with so prestigious a prize.”

  • MontezumaCover

    Called “a remarkable achievement” by the Wall Street Journal, Matthew Restall's book is garnering national and international attention. 

    IMAGE: Heidi Lynne
Last Updated November 13, 2019