The first Thanksgiving (and mine)
Reposted from 22 November 2007:
My best Thanksgiving dinner was at “el Rey de Pavo” on calle Simon Bolivar (or is it Motolinía?) — a little semi-hole in the wall joint serving nothing but turkey, 7 days a week — turkey tacos, turkey tortas, turkey soup, turkey mole… With limited seating, I had thanksgiving dinner with a bunch of jolly Quechans from Ecuador who’d come up to Mexico City to sell silk scarves on the streets.
OK, so we had to watch futbol, and not football. And the half-time show was a skinny old guy with a 12-string guitar. I had jamaica, which is the closest thing to cranberry you’re going to find in Mexico (it’s at least a pretty red color, and kind of tart)… but the basics were there. A peaceable dinner of corn and turkey with a bunch of Indians.
I don’t think the custom started with our Puritan Fathers, by the way… though the Plymouth Colonists and Squanto obviously got along a tad better than the folks at America’s first “inter-racial encounter” and dinner-party
Cortés had incredible luck off Cozumel. His ships were separated, and Pedro de Alvarado had arrived first. Alvarado, who turned out to be one of the greediest of the conquistadors, was stealing turkeys from the local villages when Cortés arrived. More importantly for Cortés, his crew had found two Spaniards. They were the last survivors of a shipwreck eight years earlier—the others had been sacrificed and eaten. Gonzalo Guerrero, a sailor, had married the local chief’s daughter. He had three children (these little Guerreros are probably the first modern Mexicans, mestizos – mixed bloods – part European and part indigenous), a responsible job as an advisor to his father-in-law and no intention of becoming a common sailor again.
The other Spaniard, Gerónimo de Aguilar, was a priest and carpenter. It was his carpentry skills that kept him alive; they made him a valuable slave. Father Aguilar was more than happy to be rescued. Slavery was bad and the human sacrifice worse,1 but what terrified Father Aguilar were women. As a priest, he had taken a vow of celibacy and the indigenous people simply couldn’t comprehend a healthy young man refusing to take a wife. Eight years of temptation was enough. He considered his rescuers God-sent. He spoke fluent Mayan and was more talkative than Melchor.
Father Aguilar preached a sermon in Mayan, pouring out eight years of built-up frustration and anger. Though the people had treated their visitors kindly and fed them, the Spaniards insulted their hosts, destroyed the local temple and sailed north. Landing at the mouth of the Usumacinta river (near modern Frontera, Tabasco), they found much warier Mayans—they had evacuated their women and children and cautiously approached the Spaniards, sprinkling incense. The Spaniards thought it was a compliment, but the truth is that Europeans didn’t bathe, and the indigenous people were extremely clean. The Spaniards smelled terrible, but the Mayans were much too polite to say anything about it.2
These extremely polite people fed the Spaniards a turkey dinner and then nicely told them to go home, otherwise, regrettably, they would have to kill them. The smelly Spaniards asked to visit the Mayans’ houses. The Mayans, still polite, suggested the Spaniards had missed something in the translation. Cortés trotted out his lawyers, read the official document and turned his cannons against the Mayan stone clubs and obsidian swords. It was only a test to see if cannons, horses and war-dogs were effective weapons. The cannons scared people as much as killed them. Horses were unknown in the Americas, and the only dogs were small animals (ancestors of today’s Chihuahua) that were used both for food and for pets. Melchor, the grumpy old cross-eyed fisherman, took this as his cue to exit history.
1 When she learned of her son’s shipwreck and his probable fate, Aguilar’s mother became a vegetarian.
2Americans, north and south, generally bathe daily—one of the few indigenous customs adopted throughout the hemisphere. In Mexico City, the custom is so well ingrained that “bath houses” are just that—places to clean up when there’s no water at home. This confuses some gay visitors, for whom a “bath house” has a different purpose, though such institutions also exist.