Sunday, December 07, 2014

riding with cortés

History can be a cruel mistress.  And, now and then, a mistress can be cruel to history.

As you know, Barra de Navidad has been celebrating its 450th anniversary of the expedition establishing the trans-Pacific trade route linking China, The Philippines, Mexico, and Spain in a giant closed circuit that would make Spain one of the wealthiest nations in sixteenth century Europe.  The fiesta has been quite an affair.

The cross that theoretically once hung in the chapel of the shipyard where the galleons were built was returned to Autlan last week.  It may be another 450 years before it makes another visit to its ancient home.

Mexico loves these large digit anniversaries.  The year after I moved here, Mexico went into celebratory overdrive with the 100th anniversary of its revolution and the 200th anniversary of its declaration of independence from Spain.

All of this historical high-fiving set me to thinking about a very big date that is almost upon us.  Just under five centuries ago, Hernán Cortés, in the name of his Spanish tribe, invaded Mexico and dethroned the then-ruling tribes. Out of that conquest would come a new people.

Cortés's conquests were aided greatly by La Malinche, one of twenty slave girls the Spaniards were awarded by a Mayan chief.  They were essentially spoils of war.

La Malinche had a rare talent.  Because of her background, she spoke the language of the Maya and Aztec.  That proved to be a valuable tool for Cortés in building alliances with anti-Aztec tribes -- and in negotiating with the Aztec themselves.

Cortés saw other talents in La Malinche.  By all accounts she was beautiful.  She ended up playing the role of the conqueror's mistress.  In that capacity, she provided him with a son, Martin.  Even though other children had been born to Spanish fathers and Indian mothers in Mexico prior to his birth, Martin is often seen as the symbol of a new race (the Mestizo) that, following the Revolution, would finally answer the question: "Who is a Mexican?"

For all of that, Cortés and La Malinche do not figure amongst the heroes of the Mexican pantheon.  La Malinche is accorded some favor with the title "Mother of the New Mexican People."  But most Mexicans tend to see her a traitor to the pre-Columbian tribes.

There is no ambivalence, though, about Cortés amongst Mexicans.  They see him as Diego Rivera painted him on the walls of the National Palace.  Ugly.  Destructive.  A presence to fear, but not to respect.

A dozen years after
Cortés conquered Mexico, Francisco Pizzaro would invade Peru and conquer the Inca Empire.  Even though both conquistadors carried out similar "nation-building" programs, their conquered lands treat them quite differently.

An equestrian statue of Pizzaro stands prominently in Lima.  Even though some Indians have objected to its place of prominence, Pizzaro has long held a place of honor in Peru.

Not so, Cortés in Mexico.  After he died in Spain, his remains were moved to Mexico in 1566 -- where they were shuttled from place to place, until they were interred in the Hospital de Jesus in 1794.  Reportedly, there was a great ceremony.  Not surprisingly.  Spain still ruled Mexico, but that was about to change.

Sixteen years later, Mexico declared its Independence, and finally achieved it under its first Mexican emperor in 1821.  Many of the remaining Spaniards were expelled from the country. 

Fearing that someone may try to destroy Cortés's remains, his mausoleum were shipped off to Italy, and his remains were secreted, to be rediscovered in 1946.  To avoid further desecration attempts, the bones are now hidden.

Ironically, the statue of Pizarro is actually a generic piece.  It was originally given to Mexico in the 1930s to commemorate Cortés.  Mexico turned it down.  Thinking that one conquistador is as good as another, Peru morphed it into a Pizarro statue.

In the 1970s, President José López Portillo attempted to honor Cortés, La Malincha, and their son -- as an homage to the Mestizo.  The gesture fell flat.  The statue was originally intended to be placed in a central place of honor in Coyoacan.  Instead, it was hidden away in a small, remote park.

That is why I was so surprised to see this hand-painted street sign two blocks from my house. 

Barra de Navidad honors its local* heroes, Miguel López de Legazpi and Andrés de Urdaneta, with well-paved major avenues.  It appears Hernán Cortés is considered worthy of only a narrow street of dirt.

So, will we be lifting glasses high to Cortés while cohetes paint the sky in a few years?  If history is any guide, I doubt. 

The Mestizo myth has successfully replaced the ongoing wrestling match between the respective partisans of Mexico's European or Indian roots.  And, even though
Cortés and La Malincha literally added their DNA to the Mestizo stream, they have never been seen as a part of Mexico's honored history.

And that is too bad.  History that tunes its scale to despising The Other will tote around a heavy burden.

I think it was Anne Lamott who said: "
Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison, and then waiting around for the rat to die."  The quote has the advantage of being both witty -- and true.

Maybe it is time for the Cortés clan to come in from the cold.

* -- I advisedly refer to
Legazpi and Urdaneta as "local."  Both of them were Basques serving the imperial interests of Spain.  During the festival, I had a pleasant conversation with a very well-educated and articulated Mexican woman.  We have known one another since 2007.  When I referred to Legazpi and Urdaneta as "Spanish," her back went up.  "They were not Spanish; they were Mexicans."  Myths run thick in this country.  

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