Skip to content

Relación de las cosas de Wikileaks

7 December 2010

In character, he was said to be rash, violent and impetuous, which in the long run led him to commit imprudent, inhuman and cruel acts against the Mayans.

Historians who have examined his life and this work say that he was a typical Western man…

“He” was Fray Diego de Landa (1524-1579), who arrived in the Yucatán in 1549, tasked with converting the Mayans to the One, True, Holy and Apostolic Church. Taking upon himself the role of Inquisitor — notably burning Mayan codices (and presiding over a violent punishment of Mayan non-believers that shocked the “official” inquisitor, Bishop Francisco de Toral, who was no slouch himself when it came to inquisiting).  At the Bishop’s insistence, Landa was packed off to Spain to answer charges of abuse. The case dragged on for several years, while Landa took advantage of his access to the Spanish authorities to lobby for clerical preferments, ending up somewhat vindicated, being appointed Bishop of Yucatán himself, following Toral’s death.  While cooling his heels back in Spain, he also wrote  Relación de las cosas de Yucatán.  The Relación , which remained unpublished until 1863, is recognized today as the essential document on Mayan culture and Yucateca history.

The quote  is from the introduction to an English translation by David Casteldine (An Account of the Things of Yucatán, México: Monclem Ediciones, 2000) that I picked up while in Mérida over the weekend on business.  A business trip that required putting aside my preoccupation with the Wikileaks Affair.   Somewhat.

There was a comment on an earlier post about the Wikileaks by “El Chismoso” carping that

I’m beginning to see a trend on this blog. Every social problem in Mexico is caused by the U.S. It reminds me of this Flip Wilson comedy routine…

“El Chismoso” is presumably from the U.S. and must be around 60, Wilson having been a comedian best known for his routine in which he played a preacher continually claiming “the devil made me do it” whenever his less admirable traits were exposed.  I suppose, Landa having blamed “the devil” for much of what he found less admirable about the Mayans there’s a tenuous connection I hadn’t considered, but  that’s not what  “El Chismoso” — and the U.S. government — has been trying to spin about the “relation of things of Mexico” contained in State Department cables.

Of course, not “every social problem in Mexico is caused by the U.S.,” but one expects U.S. government documents to deal with U.S. government actions, or reflect the view of U.S. government officials.  That’s a no-brainer. And it’s a no-brainer that the Wikileaks, those related to Mexico, or originating from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, deal with U.S. concerns, from U.S. perspectives, and are open to critical analysis. After all, that’s what all this Wikileaks hoo-haw is about. The U.S. government’s own statements about a “social problem” being open to inspection.

That scholars have relied on Landa’s Relación de las cosas for their understanding of the Mayans, doesn’t mean one can’t be critical of Landa’s aims or his methods. Or the long-term results of Landa’s actions. Fray Diego believed, and the Spanish courts that examined the evidence in his trial, and many of his fellow Spaniards believed, that forcing the Mayans to not just accept, but to unconditionally accept his and their belief system, was the right course of action.  They saw nothing amiss with using violence and coercion to enforce hegemony.

Maní, painting by Leonardo Paz

The infamous “auto de fé” of June 1562 in Maní was an action designed to punish “backsliders” against the imposition of the Spanish religious and economic system.    Perhaps Rebecca West might coherently argue that Landa’s tactics were beneficial to the Mayans in the long run, under the presumption that the ways of  the “typical Western man” are superior to all alternatives, and therefore the alternatives should be supressed, and it is a valid argument.  But not one accepted by those forced to make the change.  Converts from the old ways, and those still practicing the old ways fled, and turned “insurgent”.  What Landa didn’t see, and wasn’t noticed at the time, was that his methods of persuasion probably did more to preserve the old Mayan religion and set off wave after wave of repression of the Mayans and violent resistance to outside intervention that has continued to this day.  It was the inquisition at Maní where Landa oversaw the public destruction of Mayan records and documents on a large scale, leaving his version of the Mayan way of life.  Landa — like today’s diplomatic cable authors — “obtained his material from native informants,” as the introduction to An Account of the Things of Yucatán has it.  That Account, just to drive home the analogy, depended on “native informants” — people whose veracity we have no way of questioning at this late date, and who presumably (Landa’s research having been done as a missionary friar) were already tolerant of, or accepting of, the new faith. J

But, unlike the Wikileaks, the manuscript went unpublished for over 250 years, it was a bit late to consider the consequences of the policy then in place, and to consider alternatives to repression and violence.

The Wikileaks allow us to assess the value of the “native informants” and discern those who have accepted the “true faith” of neo-liberalism and those who accept U.S. hegemony and judge accordingly.  By disseminating the Wikileaks one isn’t seeking to prove (or even argue) that “[e]very social problem in Mexico is caused by the U.S.”, but to to consider alternatives to the latest “theology” and presumptions that surround social issues (not necessarily a “problem”) while there is a chance of changing or modifying “rash, violent and impetuous” acts that are seen by many here as “imprudent, inhuman and cruel.”  And may avert a tragedy like the history of the Yucatan Mayans.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ana permalink
    7 December 2010 7:09 pm

    Thank you for another great post linking Mexican (and universal) history to actual historical events.
    I happen to be reading a book about the Maya (and their amazing culture) at the moment so this is a very timely post

  2. 22 February 2018 7:16 pm

    Hey there! This is my first comment here so I just
    wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I truly
    enjoy reading your articles. Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the same topics?



  1. God, Sitting Bull and the free market « The Mex Files

Leave a reply, but please stick to the topic

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: