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Discovering Mexico Part 4: National identity: Modern or ancient, Spanish or Indian? Victor or Conquered?

Mexico’s state of “orphanhood” as described by Octavio Paz has puzzled Mesoamerican anthropologists and historians for centuries.

On the one hand, Mexico proudly acknowledges its Indian ancestry; on the other, it clearly prizes its Spanish heritage as a modern symbol of status. Cortés and his misunderstood mistress/interpreter/diplomat, Malinche, brought together two worlds, by their extraordinary efforts, and also by the glamour of their romantic and heroic coupling. As a result of their political, sexual and cultural bonding, neither culture died? And neither totally transcended the other, leaving Mexicans to continue to question their identity: Is it modern or ancient, Spanish or Indian? Victor or Conquered?  Or both? 

As part of their bifurcated national psyche, Mexican American poet Gloria Anzaldua wrote that Mexicans have learned “a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity,” particularly in the realm of race and culture. They called it, “mestizaje.” The word, when coined, attempted to capture the bewildering sense of tension created by interbreeding and racial and cultural mixing (considered by many to have been coerced).  This tolerance however still fosters festering wounds over the slaughter of possibly hundreds of thousands of 16th century indigenous peoples. And so the tension continues to be more than just an historical footnote in the Amerindian psyche. This, despite the fact that Cortés and Doña Marina ended the brutality of human sacrifices, cannibalism and ongoing tribal warfare.

Not all origin stories need to be beneficent and inspirational.  They simply need to be accurate and understood for their time. National heroics are almost always determined by the future, not the present or the past. 

If one applied the cultural convergence of Saxon and Norman, and its eventual melding into one culture, centuries would pass before the merits of the convergence could become historical scripture; and the question of whether the conjoining and intermingling of ethnic groups into one has resulted in something grander and richer. The British and the French would, I have little doubt, agree that it does.

Europeans who came to North America were often just as insensitive to indigenous peoples and yet heroes emerged in their historical record. It’s an age-old story of conquest, that the more technologically and militarily advanced warrior nations will invariably prevail and write a compelling, one-sided history.

But there will always be existential conflicts over such intercourse. Maybe the most interesting is the Cortés-Malinche story, which to many reaches the level of operatic drama. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in the early 19th century, Mexican nationalists denigrated their European heritage and demonized the conquerors in general and, regrettably, Doña Marina in particular, for what they decried as her betrayal of her people. From this portrayal, Mexicans have fashioned a peculiar concept they call malinchismo, which means the betrayal of one’s own. Its current connotation is pejorative, describing: Mexicans preferring the company of foreigners and their outlandish ways over their own people and culture. Such nativist notions exist to this day, all over the world, as we have most recently witnessed. Where they lead is a question for historians and educators and anthropologists.

In Mexican schools today, the story of Cortés and his renowned mistress is taught largely as it has been told here, with neither the nativist or the Spanish perspective emphasized or preferred in any way. So somewhere in the record of the conquest, young Mexican students can find their own view of their nation’s history.

Though financially strapped when he died, Cortés lacked nothing for honors in Spain. The downgrading process began after his death, which occurred in Mexico, the land he may have considered his real home. His marginalizing intensified as Mexican historians embarked on what was called “affirmative action,” which, as the phrase implies, used every public, private, governmental and cultural means to glorify Mesoamerican ancestors while casting the Spanish conquerors as ruthless interlopers. Cortes’ remains are in Hospital de Jesus, in line with his wish to be buried in Mexico City, and are marked by a discreet plaque that would require a guide to find. Malinche would eventually be dropped as his mistress and married off to a general for the sake of propriety when Cortés’ wife arrived in Mexico from Spain, a year or so after the conquest. Malinche then disappears from Mexican history. 

Maybe, after 2017’s national ruminations, Mexicans will explain their identity as one that beautifully fused cultures and creatively adapted to the constant reality of the convergence and collision of cultures and peoples. It’s a lesson for today’s world.

This is the final part of a four-part series.