by Annette Leal Mattern
Spanish rule of New Spain brought with it a strict cast system carried over from the Spanish Reconquista, an efficient method of distinguishing pure old-blood Christians from converted Muslims or Jews. In Latin America, this distinction held Peninsulares, Spaniards born on the Iberian Peninsula, at the top of the social order. It was they who were appointed by the crown to the highest ecclesiastic, political and military positions. The next rank among the citizenry was the Criollo, pure blooded Spaniards born in the Americas, who were mostly elite land owners. Next in line were the "Mestizos," half Spanish and half Amerindian, assigned as local administrators and managers of the indigenous people. Finally, the lower classes comprised of mulatos (mixed African and European or Indian), Indios, and blacks - destined to live their lives as laborers, peasants and slaves.
The following is a story. A fairytale set against a horizon in history.
The Indian bowed his head before the alcalde awaiting permission to speak. The day was scorching even for September, the kind of day when sweat stood on every living, breathing being. He stood for most of the afternoon in that same position, focused on a small spider hard at work releasing its prey from a strategically placed web, a distraction that helped him forget the pain in his legs from standing after the five days’ walk to arrive at the provincial government headquarters. His wife had died in childbirth and he was here to request permission to bury her on ancestral burial grounds. But he has no voice here and must wait…and wait…until it suits the administrator to review his case.
The staff officers in the room show their incredible disdain for the Indian, not because he is different but because he is too much alike.
The alcalde, a Mestizo educated in Seville, despised the Indians and the notion that their blood ran in his veins. His authority and superiority were a constant denial of his mixed bloodline, his ambition fueled by the perception that Indians were born lazy and stupid and were therefore destined to be slaves.
Now that he finished the other matters of state, he allowed the Indian permission to speak, if for no other reason, to remove the smell from his office.
“Please sir,” the Indian spoke in crude Spanish, “here is the government paper. It shows the rights of our people. I ask only to bury my wife there.”
The alcalde looked at the dark-skinned slave with disdain. This poor fool had no rights, save those Mother Spain bestowed upon him in her generosity. They were so like children.
“I’ll decide what that paper says, you ignorant worm. You can’t even write you name! How dare you tell me what an official government letter says.” He sneered as he grabbed the worn, dirty document.
“But, I can read, Excilencio. I learn in the mission.”
The alcalde reviewed the document, all the while thinking what a mistake it was to educate the peasants. He would speak to the Bishop about this at dinner.
The document was a form of treaty, dated one hundred years earlier, as part of a settlement of an uprising, involving ancient, historical and religious sites confiscated by the Spanish. It ceded property near Guadalajara to the family for religious purposes.
“I do not see why you would travel all that distance with a dead body, anyway.” He laughed and he turned to his staff to join in the ridicule of the Indian.
“Can you believe the Army is worried about a revolt from these stupid fools? They need a good beating just to keep them awake.” More laughter.
“Well, peasant, you will need a letter of permission to inter your dead wife- oh, and any litter she might have dropped at the time. As this is a very old claim, it may take some time to verify. You do know this land is practically worthless, don’t you. There have been no new strikes in those mountains in years.” Like a cat tormenting a wounded sparrow, he toyed with the Indian who was now drenched in sweat.
“The government controls all mining activities anyway, you see. Therefore, we could dispense with the investigation if you will simply transfer the mining rights to us straight away. In this situation, I can simply grant you immediate permission to get that body in the ground before it falls apart or is eaten by maggots. Go ahead, sign. Let’s see if you can, indeed write your name, Indian.”
On the matter of burying his beloved wife, he cared very little what vile words they used to speak of her. They were vermin and soon would be dead. Moreover, this was the worst of the lot, the Mestizos, children of mixed parentage, always Spanish fathers and Indian mothers. Their impure blood so repelled Spanish society that most returned to Mexico after being educated in Europe. Here, they became the dogs of the ruling class, the tyrants of their half brothers.
“I will sign, Excilencio. I must take my wife. All the women of her line must be buried there.”
And with that, he was gone. Finally.
The territorial official swaggered home that evening and added the new registration to the safe in his mahogany lined library of his sprawling hacienda, a splendid residence styled in all things perfectly European. He congratulated himself on his scheme to build an estate for his retirement far away from this wretched place, his plan to return to Europe a wealthy man. No one would laugh at him then as they had when he was in school. Southern Spain had every kind of blood in the modern world, especially Andalucía where questions of heritage were seldom asked. And, with enough money, one could always enhance one’s bloodline records.
In preparation for his eventual escape, he had countless mining rights assigned to him personally; not to the state as was his duty, but to himself, the man who would soon leave with his beautiful, fair-skinned wife. It mattered not at all that he was exploiting the Indians for they were hardly more than animals. They were merely a conveniently embedded labor force, unlike other territories that had need of African slaves. Fortunately, these Indians were all that was necessary to feed Europe’s voracious appetite for Mexico’s rich natural resources.
As alcalde, he governed the entire district of south-central Mexico from his comfortable office in Guadalajara. Even though he loathed the country and its ignorant natives, he knew that he was sitting atop gold and silver veins that generated infinite wealth. The question was when to leave…when was it enough to live a comfortable, elegant life in Europe?
The year is 1810. In France, Napoleon has his marriage to Josephine annulled so that he can marry Marie-Louise of Austria while France continues its acquisition of European territories from Holland to Seville.
In the United Kingdom, King George III, widely rumored to be mad, is formally recognized as insane. Meanwhile, 4,000 American sailors have been captured by the British, halting trade between the US and England and building up tension that will erupt into the war of 1812.
In the United States, John Jacob Astor launches the Pacific Fur Company in Oregon, creating a trading ring between New York, the Oregon territory, Russian Alaska and China. Meanwhile, the Republic of West Florida declares freedom from Spain and is annexed into the United States.
Spain is besieged by colonial uprisings throughout Central and South America. West Florida, Columbia, Argentina and Chile gain independence. Tension spreads like an epidemic across the colonies, ideas of freedom and revolution - no longer whispered - become louder and louder.
Undaunted by the rumblings, the alcalde is nestled in his home in Guadalajara, humored by the latest boon to his personal treasure. Life is good and he can tolerate a little more inconvenience before he leaves Mexico forever. It is the night of September 15, 1810.
Coincidentally, in neighboring Guanajuato, a major colonial mining center, a revolt takes place that night under the leadership of an unlikely hero. A criollo priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, declares war against the colonial government in a call to arms that becomes known as El Grito de Dolores, the cry for independence.
The next day, September 16, throngs of peasants join forces to eliminate the oppression of the lower class. So impassioned are the revolutionaries that they barricade the leading citizens in a warehouse and set fire to the building, massacring most of the town’s elite, followed by a bloody decade of war. The Mexican War for Independence had begun and in an instant, a cast system that so clearly defined the value of a man was drowned in a sea of justice.
Father Hidalgo and Historic Guanajuato
About the author:
Annette Leal Mattern held numerous corporate leadership positions where she championed development of minorities for upper management. She received the National Women of Color Technology Award for Enlightenment for her diversity achievements and was recognized by Latina Style and Vice President Gore as one of the most influential Latinas in American business. In 2000, she left her corporate work to devote herself to women's cancer causes. Her book, Outside The Lines of love, life, and cancer, helps people cope with the disease. Annette serves on the board of directors of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance and founded the Ovarian Cancer Alliance of Arizona, for which she serves as president. Annette also writes for http://www.empowher.com.