A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Monday, February 04, 2008

Sunday night I watched the 1998 Mexican film La Otra Conquista by director/writer Salvador Carrasco. It was in Spanish, the flowery Spanish of the 16th century and in Náhuatl the language spoken by the Mexican peoples of the State of Mexico. Náhuatl would be almost the same as the language of the ancient Aztecs.

I was forced to see the film almost as if it were a silent film in that I had to guess such obvious lines like, "The gods have abandoned us!" and some that were more complex that somehow I had perhaps grasped because of my Catholic upbringing and my 15 year stay in several parts of Mexico before I moved to Vancouver. When it became quite violent Rosemary abandoned me and I felt a profound sense of loss in not being able to share the magnificence of this film with anyone that I might know.

The film brought to mind two wonderful novels on the conquest of Mexico. The first by Spanish novelist and statesman Salvador de Madariaga, was published in 1942. In Spanish it is called El Corazón de Piedra Verde and in English it was published as The Heart of Jade. Unless you read (with a very Spanish point of view) Bernal Díaz del Castillo's (he was a soldier who fought with Hernán Cortés) Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España, your only readily available source of information on the conquest of Spain was Madariaga's Heart of Jade or the swashbuckling but extremely innacurate 1948 Hollywood film, Captains from Castile with Tyrone Power and Jean Peters. Cesar Romero played Cortés in an early prequel to his Joker.

In 1991 the situation was brought to some balance by Mexican writer Homero Aridjis who published Memorias del Nuevo Mundo which reads sort of like a conquest of Mexico with large dabs of magic realism. This superb novel (one of my favourites ever) has only been translated into French.

Few in North America will understand the difference between Columbus Day (even 50 years ago) with the Latin American Día de la Raza which translates to the Day of our Race, infering the mixing of the Spanish with Indian blood to form a new mestizo race. Few monuments to Christopher Columbus leave out the presence of the Indian. The one in Mexico City is extremely elaborate. And yet as my mother used to point out there was not one street or avenue in Mexico City named after the conquistador Hernán Cortés.

It was in the early 1950s that Mexican Bantamweight champion, Raúl "Ratón (mouse)" Macias began to talk about the colour of his skin being bronze. He advertised a Mexican imitation of Coke called Mexicola. You could sense that there was a beginning source of pride about being of native origins. At the time many women refused to shave their legs since Mexican peoples had little body hair. Men of humble origins tried to grow moustaches. In the late 60s Mexico City passed an ordinance prohibiting its police officers from growing moustaches. The hair on their legs or those minute moustaches proved that, no matter how dark their skin was they had glorious Spanish blood! By eliminating the moustache the police department wanted to eliminate racism within its ranks. I often wonder if Frida Kahlo's moustache was less protofeminist protest and more an assertion of her European roots.

In Argentina the racial barrier between the lighter skinned Argentines with the darker aboriginals can be clearly seen by the not endearing but deprecating term "cabecitas negras" or "little black haired heads" to denote those of local ethnic background. Argentine rugby and polo teams have always managed to keep the colour light skinned either through the money needed to participate or simply by first having to be members of exclusive sports clubs. One of the few avenues for economic advancement for those cabecitas negras are the football teams. Only when Maradona (an obvious cabecita) was famous all over the world did he become almost accepted in his country by the upper crusts. And when he went on his drug bust shenanigans the excuse that he was a common cabecita was raised.

Many of my family are wealthy and live in barrios cerrados or "walled neighbourhoods. I asked one of my relatives, recently, what he would do if some day (I would believe soon) people of the other classes decided to climb the walls. He went into a closet and pulled out an Itaka sawed off shotgun (generally used by police assault squads), a Luftwaffe issue Luger pistol and an Argentine version of the Colt .45 automatic. He then told me, "I would target practice."

Racial prejudice was just as rampant in Mexico when I married Rosemary 40 years ago. I told a Mexican friend (educated in Switzerland) that I was getting married. He inquired (in as indirect a manner as he could) what Rosemary was like. I mentioned that she was Canadian and blonde. My friend said with obvious relief, "Gracias a Dios, vas a mejorar la raza." It translates to, "Thank God you are going to better the race (by helping to make it lighter skinned)." When children are born the first question asked is usually answered, "Blanquito," or "the little one is sort of light skinned." On the other hand the ignorance on race goes both ways. My soon to be mother-in-law dispatched Rosemary's sister Ruth to Mexico to ascertain what caliber of civilization I had reached and if I ate with a fork and knife.

I did not learn to swim well until I came to Canada 37 years ago. I did not know how to play tennis either. In Mexico and in Argentina you would learn to swim and play such elitist sport like tennis in clubs. The entry fees were horrendous. That is why so many Argentine tennis champions are so light skinned. My mother would have never taken me to a municipal swimming pool in either Buenos Aires or Mexic City. How could I possibly mix with the lower classes!

My godmother in Buenos Aires cannot believe that Rebecca's father drives buses for Trans Link. ""¡No te creo, che!" (I don't believe you!) she says. Argentina pretty well has the two-tier health system our Canadian National conservative party and our BC Liberals want to establish here.

My friend Juan Manuel Sanchez, the Argentine painter who now lives in Buenos Aires recently fell. He is 76 so it is serious. I asked him what he did. He told me he paid $100 pesos (about $200 Canadian) to go to the hospital for treatment. "I didn't want to wait with the rest," he told me. He did not have to elaborate. I understood.

I wrote about "what if" novels here and of a particular one that has some bearing to today's blog here.

When Quetza the protagonist of the novel lands in his Mexica made ship near the Spanish town of Huelva (before Columbus was to sail in the opposite direction) relates (my translation of the text) in Federico Andhahazi's El Conquistador :

Upon landing Quetza ordered his men to wear their war clothing. They wore breastplates, wide rings around their arms, animal shaped masks and in hand they had their obsidian swords.

Quetza was euphoric to find out that the new lands contained men. He made a sign with his arm to the young man (a shepherd). He wanted to catch up to him to introduce himself. For an instant they stared at each other, transfixed. They were about the same age with the same expression of surprise on their face. Qutza stopped to notice the pale skin and the strange hair with light coloured curls. In spite of the young man's wooden staff he looked harmless. The Mexica captain began in his language, "I am Quetza. I come in my king's name, the emperor of Tenochtitlan. As of now you are his subject..." But before he could finish, the young man ran away as fast as he could until he disappeared at the end of the path. Quetza ordered his men to advance in the same direction to make him understand that he had no reason to fear them.

From the above you might suspect that the discovery of the old world by the new was not going to be any different from Columbus's, but you will have to wait for the English translation of this novel as I don't plan to spoil the ending.


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