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Visions and revisions which a minute could reverse

5 June 2019

I have been dithering for years on HOW to revise Gods, Gachupines and Gringos.  In looking what I wrote way back in 2006, I know I overlooked a lot of important (or at least interesting) personages:, who if nothing else, are fun to write about and one hopes, fun to read about:  the Irish Zorro, Guillermo Lombaro; the Nazi femme fatale, Hilda Krüger; the wheeler-dealer would be resettler of ex-slaves, WIlliam Ellis; professional eccentric, surrealist poet and nephew of Oscar WIlde, Arthur Craven; and others.  And, as some astute critical readers noted — women and Afro-Mexicans received far less mention than deserved.  I’ve somewhat changed my thinking about General Santa Anna … perhaps having undergone an amputation myself, I’m much more sympathetic of him than I was back then.  And… writing as I was just after the  (disappointing) election of Felipe Calderón, my concluding remarks were more optimistic about the ensuing 12 years than were warranted.  Of course, at the time, writing history, one couldn’t say what would happen, but perhaps enough time has passed to at least consider the horror show that followed with some even.handedness.

Of course, the prospect of revising a 125000 word book has been daunting, especially given that I have rethought entire parts, and much of the published book was due to a now deceased editor, who shaped what was a hopelessly muddled manuscript into an elegant final product.. in spite of my original intention for a student-friendly priced book.  I’m aware of what books cost, and what a burden it is for students, so I am taking a different tack… writing a series, rather than a single book… that … much as I dislike reading them and much as I think Jeff Bezos is Satan… will be a series of e.books priced for the student market, and I’ll worry about an elegant product later.  I expect to have the first one ready to be e-bookized (or whatever the word is for that) going up thru the Conquest, in a few weeks time.

Here’s the draft of the first page or so…



Hay dos cosas que son muy valiosas en nuestro país, la primera es nuestra cultura, o nuestras culturas, México se fundó hace más de 10 mil años, con todo respeto, todavía pastaban los búfalos en lo que hoy es Nueva York, y ya en México había universidades, y había imprentas.

(There are two things of great value in our country, the first being our culture, or our cultures. Mexico was founded more than 1′ thousand years ago, and with all due respect, buffo still grazed in what is now New York, when Mexico had universities and printing presses.)

When Andres Manuel López Obrador made this remark, the President was widely burlesqued in the Mexican media for his historical naivety. Conventional wisdom has it, that “everyone knows”, Mexican culture only goes back 3500 years, to the earliest Olmec settlements. López Obrador has written a book or two on history, and while, at first glance, his claim seems a bit far-fetched, he’s not wrong. Mexico’s cultures (note the plural) do indeed have roots stretching back 10,000 or more years, and Mexico City did indeed have universities and printing presses while the buffalo roamed through what is now New York.

When we talk about Mexico’s cultures, one must look past the sophisticated urbanites of the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec peoples and much further back, and farther afield than the Iberian peninsula — with its roots in Rome, Greece, Phoenicia, and elsewhere — to central Africa, to northern Europe, to China and Japan… and to people’s perhaps less “sophisticated” than today, less technologically dependent than we are, but no less civilized. We must look back… 10,000 years or more.

For the longest time, the theory has been that the “first Americans” crossed from Siberia to the Americas during the Holocene the “Ice Age” when it’s assumed either Alaska and Siberia were connected by land, or there was an ice-bridge between the Americas and Asia, arriving in what is now Mexico 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. López Obrador was, is anything, on the conservative side in claiming Mexico’s cultures go back “only” 10,000 years. But let us take his 10,000 year estimate.

Our problem when it comes to the earliest history has always been two-fold. First, we are often stuck with a definition of what is, and isn’t “civilized” based on the biases of 19th century Europeans, nd secondly, the relative indifference of those earnest European gentlemen to the history of the Americas pre-dating the “Colombian Exchange”… the rapid change in environment and cultures across the planet resulting from Christopher Columbus’ miscalculation of the circumference of the earth … mere 500 and some years ago.

We can presume those mammoth hunter from Siberia who first entered the America … if they were, indeed, the first Americas were organized in some fashion. Whether, as once thought it was a small band of hunters, or – as more evidence emerges – several different migrations (possibly not just from Siberia to Alaska, but as DNA and linguistic studies suggest, possibly from south Asia via Polynesia and – although more controversially, from central Africa – as well1) – there was some sort of “civilization”: the people had to cooperate in some fashion, and share information and ideas. And, from petroglyphs found thoughout the Americas, it appears they had some sense of themselves as people who wanted to preserve the story of their existence… whether handprints on rocks, or drawings of hunts, it shows they were conscience of their existence and believed in… something. In short, they had a civilization.

Which brings us to the second problem we have when it comes to studying the American past… we are often hopelessly tied to our beliefs that developed in the relatively recent past, Archeology and Ethnology as sciences don’t date back much before the mid-19th century, and there has always been a tempation to interpret what we know about the Americas in terms of how 19th century Europeans interpreted their own past. That is, they were looking for precursors to their own culture, evidence of a people who they might be able to fit into their own conceptions of life in the London or Paris or Berlin of their era as “civilized” and showed little interest in the rest. It’s one reason we read about Mayan “lost cities” and so much speculation about the Olmecs… they were urban people, and the remains are something the Europeans could relate to. And, of course, there was an assumption that people not like them were “lesser” humans, forgetting that much of their own civilization developed over the previous few centuries precisely because of their interactions with… Mexico. And, a Mexico that has inherited 10,000 years of Europe … and Africa, and Asia.

Making sense of it all, and to write about Mexico… the “Many Mexicos” of Leslie Beard Simpson’s classic history of the country, requires one to accept the limitations of our own biases inherited in our own roots in an America indelibly tied to the other hemisphere for the last 500 years, and the limitations and biases of those who have written or thought about this country, or played a part in its on-going story… affected by their own ten thousand year or more cultural inheritance.

Writing “Gods, Gachupines and Gringos” in 2006, I began with an extended metaphor on pozole, described in a small cookbook I had run across (Martita Adair, “The Hungry Traveler: Mexico”, Kansas City, 1997) as: “A filling hominy and pork or chicken soup of pre-Hispanic origin… Table condiments, typically serve in little bowls, are oregano, chopped white onions, sliced radish, and shredded cabbage or lettuce. From each condiment bowl, diners hind-pinch the seasonins, since spoons for this are seldom provided.” And I always add some chiles as well.

As a metaphor for Mexican cultures, pozole isn’t bad, just a bit limited. Out concept of Mexico… a mix of indigenous and Spanish culture makes the assumption that there are two, and only two, historical cultures to consider. Hominy… corn… is certainly Mexican in origin, and pork and chicken were unknown in the Americas in “pre-Hispanic” times… for that matter, so were oregano, onions, radishes and cabbage. So… yes… Mexican culture, the mainstream culture at least, is a mix of what was native, and what was introduced, in varying combinations and quantity according to taste, But much more than European and “native”. Perhaps for dessert one will have a mango (from the Philippines) or a banana (from Africa, via the Canaries). For that matter, Thai and Italian food depend on Mexican ingredients (chiles and tomatoes) so while food can give us an entre into a culture, it is only a reflection of a history, not a history itself. The best we can do is, conscious of the limitations, begin at the beginning.

1Louis B. Leaky’s theories of an African origin for the human species are being somewhat challenged by the discovery of early “homonoids” in the Philippines and may have to be revised. There are several claims by Afrocentric scholars that early Africans sailed to the Americas long before Colombus, which cannot be easily dismissed. A look at a globe shows that west Africa and Brazil are not as far apart as one might think, and it’s quite possible that African explorers, and possibly colonists “beat” the Vikings or Colombus to the “new world” as may have the Japanese.  On the Baja Peninsula remains of Japanese fishing boats have also been found, dating back as much as a thousand years ago.

One Comment leave one →
  1. norm permalink
    5 June 2019 9:39 am

    Have you considered “audio: books as a format. I have more time to listen than I have to read. (I’m always in the car) I’m at least three weeks behind on my periodicals and have still not cracked last Christmas’ book pile of gifts .

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