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What a tangled web we weave, when debts we seek to retrieve

17 August 2016

In revising Gods, Gachupines and Gringos I have been filling in the “back-story” on some of the more inexplicable events in Mexican history, one of which was the selection of an Austrian archduke by a French Emperor to be the would be ruler of Mexico. 

The concept of monarchism itself doesn’t always make much sense to those of us outside those few countries that still have monarchs (and not even to most people in those countries), and why anyone thought Maximilian Hapsburg was ideal for the job still doesn’t make sense, but I’ll get there … eventually.  In the meantime, how the whole fantastical idea came together warrants a longer explanation than I gave in the first edition. 

Better call Benito!

Better call Benito!

After thirty years of mismanagement, foreign invasion and civil war, México had a bankruptcy lawyer as president. The Church land sales hadn’t brought in nearly the funds needed—with the Reform War, the government had been forced to sell land for whatever it could get. Like any lawyer representing an honest debtor, Juárez sought to negotiate with his creditors for more time.

The new government was willing to acknowledge the debts that it inherited from the past governments, but it was going to have to stop payments for the next two years. The United States would wait. They were on the verge of their own civil war and in no position to collect, nor could not afford an unfriendly nation on their border.


In The United States the Civil War was seen by many as “God’s punishment” for their own recent invasion of México, which was only one factor in its willingness to write down, or defer repayment of old debts. More importantly, the United States wanted to end the rebellion by economically isolating the Confederacy, which depended almost entirely on cotton exports for its revenue. Although the United State Navy could effectively blockade southern ports, the Confederates had access to their French and British buyers exporting cotton overland from Texas to Mexican ports. A friendly government in Mexico, was essential to the Lincoln Administration’s war aims.

England and France, both supporting the Confederacy, along with Spain and Prussia, were less forgiving. The four European powers “demanded” that México reform its government (which was the whole point of the new Republic under the 1857 Constitution) and pay off the debts incurred by the previous governments: immediately. Doing both at once was impossible.

The IMF's spiritual godfather, Jean-Baptiste Jecker.

The IMF’s spiritual godfather, Jean-Baptiste Jecker.

Most of the French debt was in the form of bonds, held by a Swiss banker, Jean-Baptiste Jecker. Like a modern “vulture fund1” manager, Jecker was not concerned about how the debt was repaid, or who collected it. That he was Swiss was of minor consideration. He took on a partner, the Duc de Morny, conveniently the step-brother of the French Emperor, Napoléon III 2. Should Jecker’s bonds be considered part of the French debt, and France, together with England and Spain, were to force Mexico to pay off those old bonds, Morny (and his step-brother) would turn a nice profit… all they had to do was make Jecker a French citizen. Done.

With Prussia — for unrelated reasons, friendly to the United States (and, seeing an economically stable México as a potential customer for its own growing manufacturing sector) — pulling out, the three remaining powers agreed to cooperate in the standard 19th century way of international bill collecting: taking over a few ports and pocketing the customs duties. While it would slow the recovery, the Mexicans — being in no position to militarily resist — agreed, withdrawing their naval and land forces from Veracruz and allowing a joint expedition to occupy the port in December 1861.

With the return of the yellow fever season, the Mexicans offered to temporarily move the foreign troops to a healthier climate, a move seen by theEnglish and Spanish negotiators as evidence that the Juárez government had been negotiating in good faith and doing the best they could under the circumstances.

Humiliating the Mexican government, or economically punishing them further, really wasn’t in their own interest anyway. Spaniards, after the restoration of relations in the late 1830s, had been returning to México and were again active in the business community. English-owned mines and haciendas were again showing profits. If this honest government collapsed there was no telling when they would be repaid, or if their citizens would be safe. The British and the Spanish sailed home, only to realize their governments had been used, out-smarted by Napoléon III.

Claude Raines and Gayle Sondergaard recreate (and simplify) French geopolitical machinations in the 1939 MGM production "Juarez"

Claude Raines and Gayle Sondergaard recreate (and simplify) French geopolitical machinations in the 1939 MGM production “Juarez”

Like his famous uncle, Napoleón III had ambitious plans to expand French power. With conquering swaths of Europe out of the question, he had focused on establishing colonies in Indochina and Africa. México was a tempting target for several reasons. The Pastry War had made France a laughingstock in Europe; Mexican silver mines and farms appeared to be a good investment; the United States, in the middle of its own civil war, was in no position to interfere and, for years, Paris had been the favorite refuge of Mexican exiles, both relics of the brief Iturbide empire, and “ultramontanists” — the extremist Catholics who pined for the old days when Church and State were one and the people unquestioningly obeyed their betters. The most prominent of the latter was the Archbishop of Mexico City himself, Pelagio Labastida. Having failed, despite his best efforts (and massive financial support) to prevent the Liberals from imposing Ocampo’s reforms, Labastida had exiled himself to Paris in 1857. He had his own connections to Napoléon III, having become a favorite of the ultramontane, Spanish-born Empress Eugenia3.

Others, like Juan Almonte, Morelos’ son who had made a name for himself as Santa Anna’s second-in-command, but had never given up his father’s dream of a racially egalitarian state, made the argument that a foreigner—not criollo, not mestizo, not indigenous—owing allegiance to no one but the state was the only way to create social equality. And, there were the rich criollos who simply craved stability, if it preserved their own fortunes.

A toutes les gloires de la France.

A toutes les gloires de la France.

And, the French textile industry needed cotton. A new Confederate States would be an ideal supplier. A convergence of interests — Napoléon’s brother’s financial investments, the Emperor’s own ambitions, the needs of French industry, the Empress’ religious convictions, the pan-European interest in stabilizing Mexico — made it worth calling in the Mexican exiles. Inventing the term “Latin America”, Napoléon could claim he was not looking at conquest, but that the powerful French military machine had a duty to protect those “Latin” (as in formerly ruled by Spain, which had been under the Roman Empire and was Roman Catholic, i.e., spoke a language descended from Latin) against the perfidious middle-class traditions and Protestantism of the English-speaking Americas: the United States and Great Britain in particular. Beefing up his military force in Veracruz, he began looking for a suitable candidate to act as his tool in Mexico. To save the “Latin” people, his choice would fall on a German-speaking prince.

1 A vulture fund buys up “bad debt”… usually bonds… at a discount, and pressure the issuer to repay the debt at the original value, or at least at something much higher than the “vulture” paid for the debts.

2 THE Napoleón abdicated in 1815. Napoleon II was the famous Napoléon’s four-year old son, “technically” the Emperor for a few days, while the Bourbon family, thrown out in 1794, figured out which of their surviving relatives was the next king. Another revolution in 1830 threw out the Bourbons, but kept the monarchy, putting a Bourbon cousin, Louis Philippe d’Orleans, on the throne. A THIRD revolution threw out the monarchy in 1848. Louis Napoleón, a nephew of the first Napoleon, did Santa Anna one better. He had staged a failed coup, he made a political comeback to be elected President of France in 1852, then overthrew his own government, making himself Emperor Napoleón III. México was not the only unstable country in the early 19th century.

3 Eugenia had a somewhat dubious background for an aristocrat. Her mother was a Scottish barmaid, who married an elderly Spanish nobleman. He died bankrupt, but, he left a title to his daughter noble enough among the older aristocratic families of Europe for whom the Bonaparte family were seen as upstarts and poseurs, to make her husband’s assumption of the title of Emperor acceptable.

Music for the occasion

7 August 2016

One of Don Porfirio’s favorites:

Carlos IV, we hardly knew ye

6 August 2016

In updating Gods, Gachupine, and Gringos, I’ve had to rethink some of my opinions.  I was too dismissive of Carlos IV in my first edition, describing him a a particularly clueless monarch.  While he was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, whether by accident or design, he managed to have a huge impact on culture and science that needs to be mentioned. 

A draft from GGG, the reboot:

Carlos IV and family, 1800.  Franciso Goya.

Carlos IV and family, 1800. Franciso Goya.

Carlos the First gave México a Spanish government and instituted effective rule. Carlos the Second was an incompetent, but the bureaucracy was able to survive. Carlos the Third reorganized México, sending both Viceroy Bucarelli and Inspector Galvez to reorganize the colony. The reign of Carlos IV would mark the end of Spain’s dominance in the America.

The Spanish Empire was at its greatest extent during his reign, and Mexican cultural activity was at its height. The sheer size of the realm when Carlos came to the throne was still uncertain. The Malspina Expedition of 1789-1791 attempted to get some sense of what exactly was out there. As much concerned with discovering where the exact boundaries of the Empire were as anything, the expedition included a cadre of scientists, looking first for whatever natural resources might have been overlooked, who, in the course of things, discovered numerous new plant and animal species both in the Americas and in the Pacific. Hearing rumors from the Spanish Ambassdor to Moscow about Russian colonies somewhere north of New Spain, a side expedition was launched from Acapulco to find out what the Russians were up to in the Americas. Alaska turned out to be much further north of California than anyone realized, and the Russian fur trading posts were no threat, but the expedition did map the north Pacific, brought back samples of plants and animals unknown to science at the time, and… at least the first scientific mention of a man-like hairy creature the indigenious Alaskans said was sighted now and again, but greatly to be feared. Although he didn’t take the stories seriously, we have the expedition’s science officer, Moziño Suárez, to thank (or blame) for first describing the mysterious Sasquatch or Big Foot.

Alexander Douglas Studio

Alexander Douglas Studio

While the Malspina Expedition of 1794-98 expanded our knowledge of geography and biology, a smaller expedition of 1799 had a much greater impact on science, and on México itself. Aboard the Pizzaro was a young Prussian nobleman and geologist, who had been thwarted in his attempts to join a French expedition the previous year, Alexander von Humbolt.

Humbolt’s voyages throughout Spanish-America would turn out to be one of the most important contributions to science, and to our general understanding of the world ever. Although a geologist, between Humboldt and his assistant, Aimée Bonpland, their research laid the foundations for all modern earth sciences, biology (including theories later refined by Charles Darwin) and ecology. As well as studies of economics, anthropology, and political science he committed to paper during his stay in México City in 1803. His Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain , published just as México achieved independence would have a profound impact on the furture nation, mostly because when it was published in 18091, it opened the eyes of business interests in Europe and the new United States to the natural wealth of México specifically and Latin America in general.

1803 was also the year Carlos sent out an new expedition of conquest … but, not, like those of Isabella, of people or territory. The Balmis Expedition had one mission… to conquer smallpox. The deadly disease that had started the holocaust in the Americas at the time of the Conquest was still the world’s worst disease, and was devastating the colonies. One of Carlos’ America’s adviser, José Flores, a doctor from Chiapas, suggested not only inoculating the army ( George Washington had tried to have all Continental soldiers inoculated during the American Revolution, and Carlos’ orders to inoculate his own army was a relatively simple matter of giving an order) but of inoculating as many people in the Empire as possible.

balmis_historia-256x180Carlos signed his decree on 28 June 1802. It gave Dr. Francisco Xavier Balmis absolute authority, putting not just a single ship under his command, but ordering all civil, military and clerical officials throughout the Spanish Empire to obey the doctor’s orders. With no way to keep the vaccine fresh available at the time, the crew included 22 Spanish orphans under the care of the only woman on the voyage, Isabel de Zenada y Gomez. Her job was to vaccinate the children one by one. Smallpox vaccine is another disease, cowpox, that raises a small blister but is otherwise harmless. As each child became infected, pus from the infection was used to inoculate the next child, and so on. ho, one by one, were vaccinated, the harmless infection that then resulted passed to the next child and so on.

Although smallpox itself would not be completely eradicated until the 1970s, the Balmis expedition was the world’s first public health campaign, and was largely successful in reducing smallpox outbreaks to an occasional, but still to be dreaded, regional problem, instead of a chronic one throughout the world.


Carlos was honored by the “City of Palaces” (as Humboldt described México City) with a monumental sculpture … considered one of the greatest of its kind ever… designed by Manuel Tolsa, the architect and artist responsible for many of those palaces that grace central México City today. Unusually for a statue commemorating a king, Carlos is not carrying a sword, but a roll of paper… his decree authorizing the Balmis Expedition. Despite everything that would go wrong during his reign, and the contempt the Mexicans would feel towards Carlos (the only thing that saved the statue from being destroyed after independence was fondness for the horse on which Carlos sits. The model for the horse, at any rate, was a particularly handsome Mexican horse), the King does deserve credit for doing a few worthwhile things during his otherwise disastrous reign.

1 Although a German, Humboldt wrote in French (possibly influenced by his close relationship with Bonpladt, who today is assumed to have been his lover, as well as his scientific partner), had been translated into English in 1816 … while México was still in the middle of its own war of Independence.

Get around, get around, I get around…

5 August 2016

In a city of five million cars , the best way to get around is by bicycle:


I’m still in the learning stages of how to put videos together.  Not much I can do about the crappy sound quality.

Jesus saves, but the Jesuits invest

3 August 2016

Back to working on a revised (and expanded) Gods, Gachupines and Gringos.

One who felt [the prejudice and discriminatory policies against Mexican-born colonial elites] keenly was the criollo Jesuit priest, Francisco Clavijero. Although his father was a gachupine government official and his mother a “pure” Francisco_Xavier_Clavijero,criollo, Clavijero, more than anyone, instilled in the Mexican conscience pride in their indigenous identity. Like Sor Juana, he showed an early gift for languages, mastering Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Nahuatl, Mixtec, Hñähñu (Otomí) and several other indigenous languages by the time he entered the seminary in 1748, at the age of 17. The Jesuits were receptive to the “new philosophy” and, as a professor and college administrator, Clavijero pushed for higher education focused on a curricula based less on theology and more on science, the humanities and modern languages… including the indigenous ones of his own country. He amassed the largest library of Nahuatl documents known, and would write a defense of the Aztecs quite different from those of the past, which attempted to at most see the native people as “misguided” or childish. He compared the Aztec favorable with the great western cultures, writing “The state of culture in which the Spaniards found the Mexican exceeded greatly, that of the Spaniards when they were known by the Greeks, Romans, Gauls, Germans and Britons.” Going one step further, he put the Aztec culture above that of the Romans and Greeks, saying that while human sacrifice and cannibalism were part of the religion, the Aztecs at least were less superstitious and their beliefs less ridiculous than those of the Romans.

Ironically, Clavijero would have to write his La Historia Antigua de México not in Mexico, but in Italy. Although the Jesuit order (Society of Jesus) had been founded by Spaniards, and had been ceded the administration over vast regions of the Empire the crown found it unprofitable or difficult to administer (notably, California in New Spain), they were never fully trusted as loyal subjects. The Jesuits — who answered only to the Pope, and not their King — had a history of militancy on behalf of the Church, even when their actions went against the best interests of the realm. Recruiting the “best and the brightest” (like Clavijero), the Jesuits were more than just scholars. It is not always as a joke that they are known as “God’s Marines”. In England, they had worked as undercover agents for the Church (as Thomas Gage had been expected to do), while their missionaries in Japan and elsewhere in Asia, had acted as military advisers (and even as officers) for local rulers, even fighting against other Europeans. Within Mexico and throughout the Spanish Empire, the Jesuits had carved out a reputation not only for providing elite education, but for their business acumen.

One of their more innovative ideas was what today is the modern endowment fund to finance not-for-profit enterprises. Baja California, mostly desert, isolated from the mainland, and sparsely populated, was strategically important to the crown (if only to prevent English pirates from establishing a base from which to attack Spanish shipping in the Pacific) but unprofitable and, although there were mineral resources, unattractive to colonial investors. As was done in other isolated parts of New Spain, missionaries were expected to act as the civil government, as well as to provide religious services. Most were self-supporting, the priests or friars often running (and sometimes owning) extensive business operations that exploited the labor of the local community they were meant to serve. In the Baja, the distance from markets, and the scarcity of labor mean any missionary work would have to be supported through charitable contributions.

But, rather than ask for donations to be given directly to the California missions, the Jesuits asked for donations to what they called the “Pious Fund”. The donations were used to buy cattle ranches in mining districts, an extremely profitable investment. The fund more than paid for the missions, amassing a fortune that allowed the missions to later expand into what is now the U.S. State of California, but to become a sustainable income source that provided funding for the Catholic Church until late in the 20th century1.

Unfortunately, the Jesuits in Spain had been involved in plots against the king, and 1767 were expelled from the entire Spanish Empire. This caused riots in some parts of México, where the Jesuits were seen as relatively good landowners. The Jesuits were not the only religious orders who had invested in income properties, and they hadn’t only invested in ranching. Religious orders were the biggest slumlords in México City, but the Jesuits were either better landlords, or gave better terms to their tenants, being popular with the poor, because they would work out terms for tenants in arrears on the rent, and less likely to evict.

There were two unintended results from expelling the Jesuits. Clavijero was not the only Mexican Jesuit writing anti-Spanish, pro-Mexican tracts and books. Smuggled back into México, it educated people to be able to see themselves, not as Spaniards living in the Americas, but for the first time, as Mexicans who lived in culture very different from Spain. The other unintended consequence was that the forced sale of Jesuit property (the Baja missions were turned over to the Franciscans, and the Pious Fund — although less well managed — continued to grow) revealed how much of México’s land and wealth was in Church hands.


1 In the 1830s, the fund would be taken over by the government, by which time it was supporting Catholic missions goldin Alta California as well. Alta California became the U.S. State of California in 1849. In 1869, on behalf of the Catholic bishops in California, the United States sued the Mexican government for twenty years of back payments and interest due from the fund. Although there was a partial settlement, the case dragged on, becoming the first ever heard by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 1889. IN 1902 the Permanent Court awarded California’s bishops $1,420,682.67 in gold, and an additional $43,000 a year to cover back interest. Although the fund was effectively liquidated, Mexico continued to make the interest payments until 1912. The Mexican government finally liquidated the fund with a lump sum settlement payment of $720,000 to the California bishops in 1966.

Give up? (yesterday’s trivia question)

20 July 2016

Agustín Lara’s classic, Solemente un vez, became an international hit, when debuted by Mexican tenor José Mojica, in the 1941 film “Melodías de América“.  Born in 1896, Mojica emigrated to the United States in 1918 to launch a career as an opera singer.  One of the major stars of the 1920s (sales of his recordings rivaled those of Enrico Caruso), he was offered Hollywood contracts (being an extremely handsome guy helped, too), appearing mostly in Spanish-language jmojicamarket early talkies (singies?) and one or two forgotten English-language films, playing “exotics”.

Unsatisfied with the roles he was offered by Fox, he returning to Mexico in the late 30s.  A mega-star throughout Latin America, he lived well, bought properties and partied with friends like Dolores del Rio, María Felix, John Huston, and… of course… Agustín Lara.

Although known to be devout, it was a complete surprise to everyone when, in 1942, he decided to become a Franciscan friar, and gave away his material wealth … but held on to what he considered a “God-given gift”.

He continued to perform both religious music and Mexican popular ballads into the 1960s, made several tours of Latin America and even appeared in a few films, and on television specials doing duets with other stars of the time.  He was the one in the brown habit.

After he lost his hearing in the late 1960s, he spent his last years back at the monastery in Cusco, where he died in 1974.

Maybe it was foreshadowing, but in the 1935 Fox Film  La Cruz Y La Espada, the future singing monk plays Hermano Franciso… a singing monk.



Musical trivia time

18 July 2016

How did this Mexican friar come to inspire an Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash jam session?