Friday, February 06, 2015

talking the talk

The deed is done.

Yesterday I presented my lecture as part of our church’s Cultural Awareness series.  My topic was: “Who is a Mexican: The Mestizo Myth.”

How did it go?  The actor in me says: “You could have done better.”  The writer in me says: “There wasn’t enough time.”  The appellate lawyer in me says exactly the same thing he says after each Supreme Court argument: “You nailed it.”

I will leave it to others to write the review.  But I thoroughly enjoyed sharing my research with an appreciative audience.

I promised Jennifer Rose I would at least publish my notes.  It appears I can do a bit better.  I have retained my notes with commentary.  It was rather easy to expand it into something that approximated my presentation.

It is long – too long for one of my usual essays.  It was a one-hour presentation.  Feel duly warned.

Here we go.

Who is a Mexican?:
The Mestizo Myth

It is April 1519. Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, the son of a respectable, but impoverished, Spanish family, stands on the deck of his flag ship, looking at the coast of Mexico -- the land he is about to invade. What is he thinking?

How am I supposed to know? I’m an historian; not a psychic. But I am positive one idea that did not enter his Castillian head was the notion that he and his soldiers were about to establish a new race -- an idea that would take 400 years to grow. But grow it did.

If you return to church services here on Sunday morning at 10 (and I hope you do), Nancy will be standing behind her electric piano over there -- and she just may ask you to turn to number 132 in the hymnals (“the hard-bound books,” as she would have it) to sing that old hymn of the church “Power in the Blood.”

Coincidentally, that is today’s topic. Not the theological power of the blood. But the secular power. The blood of Mexico.

Or to put it another way: “Who is a Mexican?” It sounds like a simple question. But it is a question that has been floating around since Cortes waded onto the beaches of the future Veracruz. And the answer has changed over the centuries.

This afternoon, I would like to walk you through the various answers over the last 500 years. And we can talk a little bit about where the definition is now -- and where it may be heading. Because it will change.  I am certain of that.

I wish I had a film crew with me this last week. Knowing I would be standing up here in front of you, I decided to ask random people that question – Who is a Mexican?

The most common answer? “Anyone born in Mexico.” But that leaves out a lot of people – and it may include people who other Mexicans do not consider to be Mexican – and some who do not consider themselves Mexican.

Let me tell you three stories to illustrate just how tricky that question is. At least, psychologically.

Story #1. Last November, Barra de Navidad celebrated the 450th anniversary of its brush with global history. You know the story. You heard it from me and from Luis Davila last year.

How, in 1564, the Spanish built two galleons and two tenders to cross the vast Pacific from Barra de Navidad to conquer the Philippine Islands, and to set up trading centers with China. That fleet was commanded by a financial bureaucrat, Miguel López de Legazpi. That part of the mission went without a hitch.

The more difficult part was getting back to Mexico. The known currents and trade winds all went one way -- west. That did not deter a friar, Andrés de Urdaneta, who was placed in charge of the return voyage. With a bit of logic and a lot more luck, he discovered an east-bound current -- and the rest is history. 

And what about Legazpi and Urdaneta? The great Spanish explorers. They are still honored here as heroes with streets named after them in Barra de Navidad. Plus a nifty monument on the jetty.

Last November, the town pulled out all the stops to celebrate that first voyage. A lot of state and local politicians showed up. Along with the Philippine ambassador to Mexico. For days, there was live music. Pageants. Almost everyone in town got dressed up as a pirate or a friar or a slave.

There was also a parade to welcome home the cross that once stood in the shipyard where the galleons were built. If you have not heard Luis Davila tell that story, you should search him out -- or ask him when he is here next Thursday. A grand parade it was.

I was there shooting photographs and noticed something unusual -- groups of red and yellow balloons festooned together. I saw a realtor acquaintance and asked her why those colors.  Red and yellow. She had to ask one of the organizers. They represented the beads of the rosary.

I thanked her and then said: ”Those are also the royal colors of Spain. Red and yellow.  I thought the parade might be honoring the Spanish heroes Legazpi and Urdaneta.” She appeared shocked, and responded: “They weren’t Spanish; they were Mexican.”

Story #2. I occasionally visit the Indian school out at Pinal Villa. As you probably know, the compound provides living space and food for some of the migrant workers who work in our local fields. But, for me, the central part of the compound is the school where the children, after spending the day in the fields, attend classes in the evening. Most of the migrant workers are Mixtec Indians from Guerrero and Oaxaca states.

Over the past six years, I have had three memorable conversations with boys at the school. I had asked each the same question (“How are your enjoying school?”), and each answered similarly. With a grin filled with pride, they said: “I know more than Mexican boys.”

Story #3. One of the first conversations I had with a Mexican neighbor several years ago involved the birth of his first child. His wife had gone to a clinic to give birth. When my neighbor’s mother returned with the news he had a new son, his first question was: “Is he brown or white?”

Now, what do those three stories have in common? A well-educated Mexican woman who claims explorers of the Spanish Empire were Mexican. Mixteco boys who see themselves as something other than Mexican. A Mexican man concerned about the skin tone of his son.

Where does all of that come from? If you know me well, you know how I am going to answer. It comes from the long history of this country where we choose to live.

Let me give you a little refresher from last year’s history course. But this time, keep in mind our question. Who is a Mexican? We will take a look at five periods of history: before the conquest, the colonial era, independence, the revolution, and now.


Before the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, the various pieces of Mexico had been ruled by a succession of Indian tribes. One conquering the other. When Cortes arrived, there were at least 150 separate tribes in what we call Mexico.

They broke into two groups: the urbanized cultures with grand architecture and hierarchical societies (the Aztecs, the Maya, the Purepecha around Lake Patzcuaro, the Tlaxcala) -- the places we visit on tours with Dan Patman. The second group were nomadic tribes -- mainly in the northern portion of the country.

When the Spanish arrived, who was a Mexican?

No one. At least, in the way we use that term. There were the Mexica -- one of the tribes of the Aztec Empire. We get the word “Mexico” from them.

But none of the other 149 or so tribes would have considered themselves Mexican. Remember the Mixtec Indians I mentioned earlier. They are listed as one tribe, but they spoke 50 different languages. There was no united nation-state of Indians. Had there been, Cortes would have been in deep trouble. And my lecture would have ended with that delightful hat.

2. Colonial Period

That all changed when Cortes invaded. The Spanish arrived as conquerors, not as settlers. They were here to be lords. And the Indians were to be their serfs. The Spanish ruled the land; the Indians tilled and mined it. And within a few years, most of what the Spanish came to conquer was theirs.

The conquered land was primarily where the civilized Indians had ruled.

If you had asked the Spanish or most of the surviving Indians: “Are you a Mexican?”, they would have been baffled. Mexico’s nationality was defined as its place in the great Spanish Empire. They were subjects of New Spain. Subjects of the Spanish crown. Mexico did not exist.

Because they did not come as settlers, Spanish men outnumbered Spanish women by over 10 to 1. What happened next was predictable. Babies born of Spanish fathers and Indian women started popping out all over. Including from the conqueror himself and his Indian mistress.

That presented a dual problem for the Spanish. The first was social. The Spanish were lords. The Indians were slaves – at least, until 1542 when the Catholic church convinced the Spanish crown to prohibit enslaving the Indians. Slavery was then replaced with what amounted to a feudal serf system. But how were the mixed children to be addressed socially? They were neither Indian nor Spanish.

The second problem was moral. The church could not stop the fraternization. So, it started marrying mixed status couples. And legitimizing the children. Mixed marriages were later outlawed, and, to no one’s surprise, mixed race babies continued being born. Now, the with the stigma of illegitimacy.

When Indian slavery was abolished (after the Indian population was reduced by 90% through disease), the crown authorized shipping African slaves to Mexico for 60 years -- from 1580 to 1640. That added a third component in the racial mix. Spanish and Indian blood was soon mixing with the black slaves.

Thus arose the caste system – casta, in Spanish.

The Spanish brought with them what sounds to our modern ears as an odd -- if not racist -- view on nationality. The year that Columbus sailed for the East Indies (1492) two other big events happened in Spain. 1. The Moors were expelled from their last bit of land in Spain -- ending 780 years of Moorish occupation. 2. The Spanish monarchs expelled their Jewish subjects from their kingdoms.

The Spanish, having been a conquered people themselves for almost 8 centuries, were obsessed with the notion of “purity of blood.” To have “purity of blood,” a Spaniard needed to prove he descended from 3 generations of unblemished Christian ancestry. And out of that obsession, the Spanish Inquisition was born -- to ensure that Spaniards did not carry Moorish or Jewish blood.

To maintain “purity of blood” in Mexico, the Spanish set up a caste system. It started rather simply. At the top were the Spanish -- all of them initially born in Spain. Indians ranked below. And African slaves below them. It was the mixing of the three classifications that was to cause confusion.

The mixing started in the first year of the conquest. A child born of a Spanish father and an Indian woman had a secific name. Mestizo. That name applied only to that combination when the caste system was initiated. Full-blood Spanish father; full-blood Indian mother. 50-50. Any other combination would have a different name.

The Spanish added a complication within their own families. Within a generation, a new classification was created when Spaniards born in Spain bore children in Mexico. Those children were called Criollos -- to distinguish them from Spaniards born in Spain. That mere fact of birthplace put those whites in a lower legal and social position than Spain-born Spaniards. And that classification was about to play a huge part in the story of Mexico.

And what would happen when a Mestizo man -- born of a Spanish father and an Indian woman -- married a woman with Indian and African blood? To the Spanish, that was easy. They simply created a new category.

Eventually, of course, the categories multiplied. They finally stopped somewhere around 16.

Mexican Castes

Father Mother Classification
Spanish Indian Mestizo
Spanish Mestizo Castizo
Spanish Castizo Espomolo
Spanish Black African Mulatto
Spanish Mulatto Moor
Spanish Moor Albino
Spanish Albino Throwback
Throwback Indian Wolf
Wolf Indian Zambiago
Zambiago Indian Cambujo
Cambujo Mulatto Alvarazado
Alvarazado Mulatto Borquino
Borquino Mulatto Coyote
Coyote Mulatto Chamizo
Chamizo Mestizo Coyote-Mestizo
Coyote-Mestizo Mestizo Ahi te Estas

It became impossible to track each birth with any precision. Government officials even commissioned paintings to assist them in classifying the mixed races. If you go online, you can see those paintings. Some are quite good art.

The castes mattered. Depending on where you were classified, your legal and social rights would be affected. The amount of taxes due. Who you could marry. Where you could live. Your eligibility for public office and employment. Entrance into the priesthood. Emigration to Spain’s other territories.

The classifications became so complicated, and the incentive to be classified in a higher category were so great, that a new occupation was created in New Spain -- forger of genealogical records.

What New Spain ended up with was a very stratified, hierarchical society on paper, and a society that acted differently in operation. Otherwise, nothing could have been done.

Remember last year when we talked about why Mexico seems to be a country with strict laws, but little enforcement? You can see the roots in the caste system. What existed on paper only approximates what exists in reality.

The caste system applied primarily to the central portion of Mexico. The parts first captured by the Spanish and where the “civilized” Indians lived.

But a parallel society was forming. There were a group of Spanish subjects (mainly Mestizos) who were tired of living in a society where they did not fit -- where they were neither Spanish nor Indian, and neither society would accept them. The fact that a large portion were also illegitimate simply added to their pariah status. Their status made them willing to risk their lives to get away from the restrictive rules of central Mexico.

So, they set off into Indian country. You can almost hear the Wagon Train theme song playing in the background. The north was populated with nomadic Indian tribes who had not yet been conquered, and did not take kindly to these strangers invading their land.

But the land was good cattle country, and better horse country. Enterprising souls set themselves up as ranch owners or as vaqueros (cowboys). Without the caste social strata, they could ride horses, own guns, be someone. All things they could not do in Mexico City.

As early as the 1700s, they created a distinct society in northern Mexico. One that would return to the stage in the Revolution.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  We are still in the Colonial Period.

The social structure in central New Spain in the late 18th century began to erode. Remember that group of Mexican-born whites? The Criollos. They began chafing under the rules that would not let them serve in high military or government positions.

That restriction mattered. Both in Spain and New Spain, the only way to get ahead in society was to attain a position with the crown or the church. What was important was the title, not the service itself. The position often became personal property. As inheritable as a dukedom. And the Criollos resented the fact that they were prohibited from sharing in the best pieces of the cake.

Because they felt like second class citizens in their own country, they did not feel Spanish. Instead, they called themselves “Americans.” The seeds of feeling Mexican had been planted. They were not yet Mexican, but they certainly no longer felt Spanish.

3. Independence

Not surprisingly, the aggrieved Criollos were the leaders of the independence movement from 1810 to 1821. When independence from Spain was won, they could now call themselves “Mexican.” And they did.

But who did they include in that word -- Mexican? It was primarily their own Criollo group. The white Mexicans (or Mexicans who had documents claiming they were white).

Between 1821 and 1910, two Criollo groups competed to rule Mexico. The conservatives and the liberals. One of their greatest disagreements was the question of Mexico’s identity.

The conservatives wanted Mexico to be Catholic and reflect Spanish values. The liberals wanted Mexico to be secular and looked back nostalgically and romantically on the Indian myth -- especially the Aztecs, even though they had no concern for the Indians living amongst them. When pushed, the liberals decided they wanted Mexico to reflect French Positivism.

For almost another 100 years, they would be the people who led Mexican society and used it for their benefit.

If you had asked a resident of Mexico who was a Mexican in those years, I am not certain what you would have heard. The country’s identity literally was up for grabs.

4. Revolution

And, in 1910, the grab occurred.

Remember the group of Mestizos who had headed north over the prior centuries? The people who developed what we now know as the cowboy culture?

In 1910, they revolted against President Porfirio Diaz who had stolen the presidential election from their favorite son of the north, Francisco Madero. The northern forces militarily defeated the southern government forces and put Madero in the presidential chair. The political revolution had occurred.

But it was also a social revolution for the Mexico City society. The Criollo monopoly on power was gone. The age of the Mestizo had arrived.

The big change was in the definition of who was a Mexican. No longer was it just the white Mexicans who had ruled Mexico for a century. The revolution declared the emergence of a new Mexican. In the years between Independence and the Revolution, the people of mixed races (especially Indian and Spanish) had become a majority of the population. Today the percentage of Mestizos in the population is 60%. Compare that with the 18% Mestizo population in 1790.

Post-revolution Mexico celebrated the fact that it was made up of a new race. La Raza. Mixed Indian and Spanish blood. With the conquering power of the Spanish and the romantic nostalgia of the Aztecs.

That definition was also very convenient for the leaders of the revolution. Most were far more interested in creating order than in creating a permanent, ideological revolution. So, they tamed the fervor of their more radical colleagues with the Mestizo myth -- a myth that had faint echoes of the Spanish “purity of blood.” Mexico had found a way to live with its Spanish and Indian past -- or so they thought.

But, right from the start, using race to define nationality had flaws. Between the first and second world wars, Mexican fascists used the Mestizo myth to argue that the Mexican race – the Mestizo race -- was racially superior to all other races.

5. Situation today -- and the future

The Mestizo myth has the advantage of containing most of the population. 60%. It also has the advantage of attempting to reconcile the conqueror with the conquered.

But it leaves out full-blooded Indians from the definition. 30% of the population. To be fair, a large portion of those Indians do not want to be Mexican. They avoided being assimilated by the Spanish and the Aztecs. They want to retain their own tribal nationality. In that sense, Mexico is like every other modern nation -- it contains distinct groups that do not want to be part of the larger nation. Think of France. Or Turkey. Or Russia. Or China.

And then there are other nationalities who have immigrated to Mexico -- Mennonite farmers in the north, Central American communities in the south, and a large Lebanese community that has produced government ministers -- and the richest man in the world. They are not part of La Raza. But they are certainly a significant part of Mexican society.

Several observers have pointed out a major flaw in the Mestizo myth. Starting with Ocatvio Paz in The Labyrinth of Solitude.  Paz claims the Mestizo myth is flawed because it is based on national self-loathing: hating the Spanish heritage for conquering its Indian side, and shame that the Indian side could not resist.

So what is the future of Mexican nationality?

I don’t know.  I am an historian, remember; and not a psychic.  But there are some themes currently working their way through the political fabric in Mexico.

Some political forces feel uneasy with a national identity based on the definition of blood. The hard left, for example, would prefer to define Mexicans based on a compliance with permanent revolutionary principles. One group who believes in a permanent revolution has made its way back into the news. The teachers and students involved in the protests over the deaths of the 43 radical students in Guerrero.

Liberals are more likely to favor a definition that centers solely upon citizenship as defined in the Constitution of 1917 -- natural-born Mexicans and naturalized Mexicans.

Others of a post-modern bent see hope in putting the Mestizo myth behind as Mexico pushes away from some of its isolationist past by becoming a true global economic power. And defining the Mexican nationality by its economic place in the world as the 12th largest economy with the same promise Mexico showed in opening global trade in the
16th century.

Let me sum up with those three stories I started with.

Legazpi and Urdaneta may have merely been operatives in the great Spanish Empire. But to Mexicans here in Barra de Navidad, they were the heroes who opened Mexico to worldwide trade. We can certainly celebrate them as Mexican in that sense.

To the three Mixteco boys at the school who were proud because they knew things better than Mexican boys, I would point out that they are Mexican -- at least, they are walking the education road that will make them part of Mexican society, to be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

And to the father who was concerned that the tone of his son’s skin could affect his future, I can understand that concern.

Take a look at who television and advertisers portray as leaders in Mexico. They look white enough to have been vetted by a 17th century caste chart.

But I would ask that father to take out a 20 peso note, and look at the face on the note. That is Benito Juarez. A full-blood Zapotec Indian who was President of Mexico during one of its most tempestuous times.  His features should be a reminder that substance can overcome form.

Race and features are not destiny. That is something we northerners with our European backgrounds need to remind ourselves. For all of its odd history with race, Mexico has always turned to utilitarian principles -- asking: does it work -- and often chooses the best path.

I personally wish Mexico -- and its people -- godspeed in its next 500 years of history.

A Partial Bibliography

Jorge Castañeda; Mañana Forever?: Mexico and the Mexicans 

T.R. Fehrenbach; Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico 

S.C. Gwynne; Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History 

Richard Grabman; Gods, Gachupines, and Gringos 

Enrique Krauze; Mexico: Biography of Power -- A History of Modern Mexico (1810-1996) 

Charles C. Mann; 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus 

Charles C. Mann; 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Discovered 

Robert W. Merry; A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent 

Henry Bamford Parkes; A History of Mexico 

Octavio Paz; The Labyrinth of Solitude: The Other Mexico 

Alan Riding; Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans

Photographs courtesy of Jack Brock and Nancy Klein.

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