A very significant historical anniversary is coming up. On Good Friday, April 22, 1519, Hernan Cortez founded La Villa Rica de la Veracruz, The Rich Town of the True Cross. Like any good real estate promoter, Cortes knew that a prosperous-sounding name would attract investors and settlers, and if he was anything, Cortes was always about getting rich.
Veracruz became his outpost on the east coast of Mexico. From here he set out to conquer the vast Aztec empire, which he accomplished by August 13, 1521 with the help of virulent European diseases, steel, guns, horses, and a whole host of Indian allies.
In this country we don’t pay much attention to it, but 500-years later both Mexico and the U.S. still see the effects of the Spanish Conquest, and therefore that history is not just Mexico’s, it is also ours. The thing about history is that it forces us to be honest, even when that is painful or embarrassing.
History is always a stepchild in American schools. We don’t think it’s very important. I once gave a talk to a roomful of soldiers at Fort Carson, the Army post that has shaped our character as a military town. One young man raised his hand and said, “Sir, I don’t need to know any of that stuff you’re talking about because it happened before I was born.” How can you argue with that?
Like the English invasion of North America, the Spanish Conquest was deadly for the natives. In 1519 the native population of Mexico numbered around 5 million. Less than 100 years later it was down to 1.5 million. That’s the first thing we should remember about the Spanish Conquest: it was genocide for the Indians.
History points out important differences between the English and Spanish patterns of colonization, which still have profound social effects.
As a rule, the Spanish soldiers and priests were not accompanied by wives and families. This led to widespread intermarriage with native women, giving birth to the mestizo, or mixed-blood nations of Latin America and the consequent race consciousness which still defines U.S. attitudes toward both long-established brown-skinned U.S. Latinos and recently arrived immigrants.
But Latin countries are also affected. Watch Alfonso Cuaron’s award-winning film, “Roma,” and you will see the latter day Mexican equivalent of the lord and serf relationship between Spaniard and Indian laid down 500 years ago. What you will see is a rigid caste system with light-skinned Mexicans on top and Indians at the bottom. In Iberia, the Spaniards were accustomed to intermarriage with people defined as “other,” because of the 700-year presence of huge numbers of Muslim Moors and Arabs. And intermarry they did, which is why Spain and Portugal share culture and blood with North Africa.
The English had no religious or racial other in their small island and therefore were not inclined to intermarry with the Indians in North America. The usual conclusion drawn this historical fact is that the U.S. is a “white” country but Latin America is not. But not so fast. The U.S. is not a “white” country. The secret about us is that millions of white people are actually descended from white slave masters ”text-decoration: underline;” their African slaves.
At its height the Spanish empire in the western hemisphere extended from the Arkansas River in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south. In this vast stretch colonial society was divided into gradations. The outline goes like this: At the top were the “peninsulares,” also called “gachupines,” people born in the Iberian Peninsula. Below them were the “criollos” or “creoles,” people who claimed pure Spanish blood but born in the New World. Purity of blood was honored more in the breach than in the observance. Next were the mestizos, the offspring of Indians and Spaniards. At the bottom were the Indians and the Africans.
It was an unjust, racist system, but at least those at the bottom, the Indians and Africans, had a fixed, recognized place in society, with legal and ethical protections.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.