Saturday, April 21, 2012

I am 1/4 Indian, 1/8 Spanish, 1/5 Black, & The Rest Eskimo.

I remember somewhere back when I was a kid my mom telling me "Mexicans are part Indian and part Spanish." "How much of each?" I asked. "Half and half". And so I went on to tell people I was a Mexican. I had no particular pride then in being Indian. Indians were killed in the old cowboy movies. "Don't stand in the sun too long", my mom said "Or you get black like and Indian."

Only later when I began to learn about Mexico's history did I begin to get a sense of the great significance of blood lines to people. Indian was bad. Spanish, or European was good. It meant to be "white skinned", not "prieto" or "dark-skinned", and that was good.

When I learned the word "Meztizo", my world changed. It was the term the Spanish Conquerors of the New World called those born of a Spanish Father and an Indian mother (Spanish women did not play  around, I suppose). It was synonymous with "half breed", a person despised by the indigenous for having European blood, and hated by the Europeans for having Indian blood.

More amazing was to learn of all the terms the Spanish invented for the incredible mixing of blood lines which were to come in the New World and they had a word for each and every one:

Peninsular = Spaniard born on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain)
Meztizo = One born of a Spanish father and Indian mother
Creole (Criollo) = Child of a Peninsular but born in Mexico (New World)
Caztizo = A Meztizo + a Creole
Cholo = An Indian + a Meztizo
Mulatto = A Peninsular + a Black
Zambo = A Black + an Indian
Euromeztizo = Indian with Spanish characteristics dominating
Indomeztizo = A Spaniard with Indian characteristics dominating.

In Henry Parkes' A History of Mexico he adds one final absurd footnote to this unholy mixture of bloods: a saltapatras' or "throwback", all the way to the start! How in the world, at the end of this stew of bloodlines, could one return to being a Peninsular?!

But even more incredulous is how the term Meztizo came to mean Mexican; this word that for 300 years of Spanish domination in Mexico was uttered with indignation. But it did.

Its origins are fodder for debate but a prevailing theory is that the people we currently refer to as Aztecs, never called themselves by that term, but called themselves the Mexica (Meshica) or the Mexicans (Meshicans)

After Mexico's War of Independence (1810-1821), the word Mexican would be proudly used for the first time to define the Meztizo, a person born of the bloods of two great civilizations, the European and the Native American.

Strange bedfellow, que no?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me: The First Mexican Martyrs

(Painting showing Aztec fathers putting newly Christianized sons to death)

    Many years ago, I came across a poignant dialogue that describes a first encounter between a group of Spanish Conquistadors, a Captain and a Catholic priest, backed by a host of soldiers, and a group of Maya warriors, led by a chief and a woman who serves as a translator. The Spanish Captain tells the Maya woman, "Tell your chief we have come here in search of gold and silver." Immediately, the Catholic priest interrupts saying "No, no! Tell your chief we have come here so that they may come to know The One And Only True God'!"

    After a lengthy translation by the woman interpreter, the Maya chief says, "Tell this powerful men here (addressing the Captain), that in the Sun which is our gold, and the Moon which is our silver, lies our everlasting hope, but in order for him to reach them, first he must kiss the earth."

    This dichotomy between the acquisition of power and the saving of souls, was the hapless burden of the European conquerors and the Catholic church in Mexico. In her book, "Idols Behind Altars", Anita Brenner tells, among other things, of the church's struggle to convert Indians to Christianity during the early years of the Spanish conquest in 1521. 

    Suspicious and fearful of the new religion, the Indians reluctantly embraced a new Christian pantheon, but often, at the risk of grave danger, covertly clung to their own deities. Brenner describes how the Indians, who comprised the labor force building the numerous Catholic churches across Mexico, sometimes hid idols representing their own gods deep inside the altars as they built them, then quickly covered them up!  Thus, as they reverently knelt and prayed before the altars during mass, they were actually praying to their ancient gods hidden inside them.

    For the first decade after the Spanish Conquest in 1521, the Catholic Church was relatively unsuccessful in convincing the stubborn Indians to convert to Christianity, and despite openly condemning their beliefs, destroying their temples, paintings and idols representing their old gods, only a few brave souls dared be baptized into the strange new faith, some paying with their lives as the image above shows.  I cannot imagine putting my own son to death for his conversion to another faith.

    Ironically, with the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the Indian, Juan Diego in 1531, everything changed and thousands of Indians flocked into the churches to be baptized. Now, they had a new heavenly woman they could believe in, Mary, one like them, dark skinned ("La Virgen Morena"), not like the pale, white gods they had heretofore seen adorning the insides of the cathedrals they had helped build.

    Nonetheless, for years, indigenous beliefs flourished underground in secret, in caves, hidden from the eyes of the Europeans; for it was no easy matter to let go of the gods they had worshipped for centuries, in time forcing the church to find other ways to attract converts, not by pointing out differences in the native and european beliefs, but the similarities.

    Thus, in Mexico today we see this bizarre mix of Indian and Christian beliefs. Where one belief ends, and another begins is a supreme mystery, as Aztec dancers dance before the Virgin of Guadalupe at the hill of Tepeyac in Mexico City, at the very same place where they had once worshipped a female diety, Tonantzin.

     In fact, "La Catedral", the main cathedral in the heart of the "Zocalo" (central square) in downtown Mexico City, is built at the  very same spot, with the same stones that once made up the main pyramid of "Tenochtitlan", the Aztec capital, that Cortez himself had once characterized as the "Constantinople of the New World".

It was leveled by the Spaniards to build the city we know today.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Peonage: Mexico's Legacy of Shame

"The Liberation of the Peon" by Diego Rivera

I never fully understood the real meaning of the word "peon" until I began to read and teach about about the history of Mexico. To me, it had simply meant "a poor, uneducated Mexican."

When Mexico was conquered by Spain in 1521, its people suffered 300 years of domination by its often cruel and greedy hosts. In 1542, new laws were established concerning the "propriatory rights" of natives, indians. They were to be "free people" and slavery as such, was prohibited, except for the use of Black slaves which had been brought into New Spain from the mother country.

Under the new law, the "Encomienda" system was established, in essence a "payment" of land to the Conquisatdores for their "service" to Spain, and the right to Indian labor "for the state" one-quarter of the year. The rest of the year, they were allowed work on a small plot of land given to them for their own sustenance, though these laws were commonly abused. To skirt the law outlawing slavery, they were paid a measly wage, though working for wages was unknown to the native peoples.

After the War of Independence in 1821, the system continued but with a new sinister twist, "debt peonage". Indian workers were given "advances" in their wages with the distinct purpose of getting them in debt. In addition, they were paid in "script", a sort of coupon or promisary note, reedemable only at the company store owned by the "Encomendero", much like sharecroppers of the deep South, in the United States.  

Prices for basic necessities were greatly inflated but the Indians were generously extended credit, plunging them deeper into debt, eventually forcing them to turn over their land and possessions to the master.

If they ran or tried escape, they were mercilessly hunted down, dragged back to the encomienda, or killed.

When the worker, who could never hope to pay off his death in his own lifetime died, his debt was automatically transferred to his first born. The child at birth, assumed the debt of his father and began to acrue his own debt as soon as he was able to work, and so on and so on, generation to generation! This practice continued until 1915, when a decree was passed by President, Porfirio Diaz, outlawing the use of peonage in Mexico.

Despite this law, forms of peonage continued until 1936, when Lazaro Cardenas created the "Ejido" system, agricultural land which had been expropriated from the encomiendas and haciendas, turned into communal farms, allowing natives to earn wages according to the amount of work performed.

Much of the rudimentary rationale behind Mexico's Revolution (1910-1920) was to take the land from the rich and give it back to the poor, as espoused by its leaders Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. For them, the "quaint" Hacienda was a an excess of wealth and land purchased by the sweat and blood of the "los pobres" (the poor). During the Revolution, Villa often rounded up the Hacendados (owners of Haciendas), and executed them, venting the rage of the poor for 400 years of abuse. 

While this practice was obviously and inherently evil in its concept, for me there is a greater evil: the creation of a race of people who came to believe that their sole purpose on earth was to serve a "master", and which endures among many of Mexico's poor today.