Monday, October 11, 2010

A Resented Day of Triumph

Today, is Spain's national holiday; for, it was on this day, in 1492, with the discovery of las Américas that Spain ceased to be a patchwork of feudal kingdoms and became a nation-state. For this reason the holiday is celebrated as el Día de la Hispanidad -- referencing the unity of that territory the Romans had called Hispania.

However, at the same time that Spain became a nation it also -- in a two for one bargain -- became an empire, so that the holiday also remembers past glories and celebrates a "civilizing legacy" that spread Catholicism and Spanish around the globe. For Spaniards, at least for proper ones, October 12th is a day of triumph.

In the United States, October [12th] is rather stupidly known as Columbus Day and has served as an occasion for Italian Americans to revel in their Italian-ness. This misbegotten idea arose from the assumption that Colón was Genovese. He was in fact Catalán although he did travel to Genoa before returning to Spain. But wherever he might have been born, Italy (or Genoa) had very little to do with that cluster of historical realities that ensued from Columbo's quixotic venture. However, it ill-suited English America's studied indifference toward anything Hispanic to acknowledge the stunning phenomenon of Ibero-America. It was better to turn the commemoration into a species of naval holiday celebrating the day we White Boys Came.

On such a basis it was inevitable that the native peoples in the United States would retort that the event marked the day We Red Boys got screwed big time. As a result, and egged on by the academic witches of Victim Studies, October 12th has become, for some, an occasion for recrimination and resentment and, in all events, a pretext for engaging in America's by now favorite passtime: Issue Conflict.

But the dialectic is fundamentally false. This is not to deny the parade of horrors committed by the Anglo-American colonists on the native American Indians who unfortunately stood in the path beat "by Pilgrim feet through the wilderness" (as Katherine Bates rather poetically put it). Just about everything Native Americans (USA) say, egged on by witches, happens to be true. And maybe then some. But those horrors, while they occurred in time after Columbus bumped into the wrong place, were not caused by that event. Post hoc non sit propter hoc.

The crimes inflicted on the Native American in the United States were the result of English-American political economies and racism. And not entirely "English" either; for the British Crown, while not quite the Great White Santa Claus in London, did seek to protect the Indians against the rapacious incursions of the colonists; and this policy was one of the "injustices" alleged as grounds for throwing off the "tyrannical" English yoke.

Things were markedly different in Quebec and the Mississippi Valley. The French political economy, such as it was, was primarily focused on trapping. French adventurers integrated with and learned from their Indian counterparts giving rise to an indian-catholic hunter culture and ultimately a mixed French-Indian race known as the metis. This was hardly a "holocaust". For these Indians, the european discovery of the continent brought a change but something more than unremitting depredation.

In Spanish America the situation was far more varied and complex. There is no doubt that the Iberians -- that is, the Spaniards and Portuguese -- committed atrocities against the people they conquered. There is also no doubt that Spain plundered the Americas under a corrupt, discriminatory and efficient colonial regime. But the Hispanic panorama included much more. The same boats that brought rapacious settlors, also brought jurists intent on protecting the Indians and idealists hoping to establish a utopian new world, free of European stains, with "uncorrputed" native human material.

Through the push and pull of these contending forces, one fundamental fact was clear. The Spanish Court decided very early in the game that the Indian had a soul and was thus entitled to be converted and to participate in the sacraments. To say as much no doubt induces incredulous guffaws among the politically correct progeny of the so-called "Enlightenment". But anachronism is the cardinal sin of historical analysis. Whatever one might think of conversion, today, the fact was that then it was considered a way of incorporating someone into the greater whole of society. And it is then that true history is concerned with. The reception of the conquered natives into the greater civic-communion, provided a context into which they could in turn re-incorporate their own gods. It was thus that destruction gave birth to re-creation. Despite all the depredations and the discriminations, which no right thinking person can deny, this basic policy of incorporation served as the core strand around which all the interweaving of customs and usages that comprise the mestizaje of Ibero-America.

The difference between the Anglo-American and the Hispanic American experience is that the former brought change and exclusion whereas the later brought change and receptivity. Change that opens a path only for one necessarily brings destruction for the other. Change that opens a path for both allows for mutual re-shaping. Thus, for Indians in the United States, the discovery of the Americas does stand as a harbinger of destruction. For Indians in Ibero-America the destruction of their civilizations also brings the memory of discovering another and recreating self. Accepting the inevtiable mix of joys and sorrows, there is something to celebrate.

There are those, down South who, taking their lead from up North, wish to promote a history of victimization. There are also those, particularly in Mexico, who seek to metamorphose the holiday into a celebration of pro-Indian anti-Spanish but somehow Mexican cultural nationalism, for which reason October 12th is known as El Día de La Raza. Confusion arises from the fact that, in Spanish, the word "raza" does not exclusively refer to race. When, for example, Che wrote that from the Rio Bravo (Grande) to the Straights of Magellan, "formamos una raza mestiza" he (being himself white) was not refering to race but to cultural synchretism. Thus, if "La Raza" refers primarily to a cultural phenomenon with attendant biologies, it accurately signifies the facts. However, if and to the extent, that "raza" is intended to point away from Spain -- as if mestizos were really "just" Indians and as if guitars and horses and pigs materialized out of nowhere in a species of "mexican miracle" -- it implies a falsehood. It takes two to tango any attempt to ignore the "hispanicity" of one partner in the dance seems rather another example of resentment making an unnecessary appearance.

The Indian himself spoke a simpler and better truth. We got ourselves conquered, the post-conquest apologia went, "because we thought Cortez was a god". Nonsense. Moctezuma repeatedly tried to ambush and assassinate Cortez. When the two met on the causeway to Tenochtitlán, Cortez's attempt at equal familiarity with the Emperor was promptly cut short. This is hardly the way one treats a god. Nevertheless, blockheads-with-an-agenda seized on the apologia to promote the canard of the wholely "naive" -- and thus wholely innocent ergo blameless and righteous Indian. Again nonsense. There is no indication that the Iroquois thought the Dutch and English were gods, even though the English were 100 years further advanced than Cortez and the Iroquois were not half as urbanized as the Aztecs or Incas. Are we to assume that the Aztecs were especially stupid? Different AmerIndians had different responses to the phenomenon of the European arrival, but none of them, from the Straights of Magellan to Hudson Bay, confused men with gods.

What the Indian apologia stated, in a metaphorical way, was that the Conquest was an historical inevitability. They could see the critical facts as well as anyone: technologically advanced men had arrived from somewhere unknown, but from wherever they came there were obviously more; and if there were more whatever happened would be inevitable. Whether we call it "god" or the "god of chance" the fact is that if, for whatever reason, one group of humans develops faster than another so that at certain point its own dynamic pushes it outward, whether in search of necessities or luxuries, it will conquer what lies in its path. The Indian might fight or accomodate, but there is no indication he expected the Europeans to stay at home. That is a moralizing stupidity the Indians of the time did not engage in.

The result of the inevitable was: hispanidad. And here, in a lovely irony, it was New York City -- that cosmos on an island -- which best proved the point stripped of imperial nostalgia, nationalistic razismo, or recriminations that no longer serve a point. In sartorial microcosm, the parade down Fifth Avenue symbolized hispanic becoming. What was was a Spanish Empire that encompassed an array of peoples as radically different from one another as can be imagined. What emerged in Ibero-America, from the ordeal of history, was a breathtaking cultural interweaving in food, song, dance, clothing, arts, architecture, language and religion.

Viva La Hispanidad!


Fotos © cortesía

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