Thursday, February 3, 2011

Envivo De Michoacan V: The Magnificent 7 Reconsidered

My image of Mexico came mostly from the Magnificent 7 and other such westerns. Hapless peasants in white pajamas and sombreros run about intimidated by sadistic banditos with ammo belts strapped diagonally across their chests until heroic blonde Americans (think Steve McQueen) set things right.

Today Mexico looked rather different to me. I visited the oldest University in the Americas, The College of St. Nicholas, founded here in Morelia in 1536. That is precisely 100 years older than Harvard. It is a beautiful place with a magnificent court yard. This college town which today has 100,000 students in programs of higher education is a manufacturer of ideas, a builder of minds.

Today I visited the oldest Music Conservatory in the Americas. Yes, here in Morelia once again, founded in 1754. During WW II, great musicians fleeing Europe took refuge here. This is a world class center for classical music. I listened to the students practicing. It’s not all history. Magnificent music is happening here, now.

I visited elegant buildings that were turned to public use as libraries and cultural centers after 1767 when the Jesuits who had built them were deported in a single night on orders of King Charles III of Spain. Why? Charles said it was “for urgent, just, and necessary reasons which I reserve in my royal mind.” Many suspect it had to do with Jesuit teaching that all people were equal and sacred in the eyes of God, a humanist doctrine which upset the Spanish caste system. But it was too late. Those ideas had already been planted in the Mexican soul. I walked past the special prison built during the 1810 revolution to hold all the priests, monks, and nuns who were participating in the revolution. It was a prison just for priests, monks, and nuns. It was large.

Today I visited a 16th century church built for African slaves in Mexico. I didn’t know there were African slaves in Mexico. There were, but slavery was banned in the Mexican Constitution decades before we abolished slavery.

This place is rich in culture, music, architecture, history and religion. A ciudad authentica, the real deal, with much to teach and much to admire. I wonder how that Magnificent 7 image of Mexico may shade my attitude toward the Latinos I encounter in Nevada every day. How has my benighted knowledge of Mexico shaped my assumptions about Latinos? I don’t know the answer to those questions. But I am glad that when I encounter Latinos in Nevada next week, the veil of false stereotypes will have been somewhat lifted from my eyes.

Envivo De Michoacan IV: Mi Historia Es Su Historia

The 3rd largest organ in Latin America was silent at mass on Sunday. That was a disappointment. But the chant was beautiful. There was a good cantor in some invisible place. The people chanted back as directed. The acoustics of the 18th Century baroque building (redecorated in neo-classical style afterthe Revolution) were lively so the resonance was rich. Can sound, vibrating not just through the ears but the whole body, heal and revive the soul? I felt stronger for having been there and grateful for such a good place to say prayers for people and churches in Nevada.

After mass, I took myself across the street to the Hotel Virrey y Mendoza for brunch al fresco. It was my second meal away from my host family home and the first “nice meal” out since I’ve been here. I had Huevos Tarascan (Huevos Rancheros with a different salsa and some sliced of avocado -- Tarascan is a word for the Purhepecha – a word now generally out of favor). It was a truly excellent meal (for the rough equivalent of $16 US including tip), a leisurely brunch under the arches of a hotel built in 1744. The hotel has hidden doors and secret passageways where people conspired about revolutionary plots in 1810. The old churches in Morelia are connected by underground tunnels which were dug for the same purpose.

The age of the place made me think of our history. I read recently that a disturbing number of young adults do not know from whom the United States won its independence. We cannot know ourselves as individuals unless we know the people and the land to which we belong. We cannot know the people and the land unless we know their story.Without history, politics is like doing psychoanalysis with a victim of amnesia.

But even those of us who think we know our history may be missing huge parts. For example, just what was Nevada’s role in the 1776 Revolution which we celebrate each July 4? Nada. We were not part of the original 13 colonies. Do we want to trace our connection to Sam Adams and company through our church history? Better not. Anglicans were on the wrong side of that one, so our bishops skedaddled to Canada. Or is it our genealogy? A few of us can trace some such tie. One of my ancestors was in on the American Revolution, but most were not. Some of my ancestors were still in Germany and others would soon be learning to write from Sequoia. So what is our history if history belongs to the land?

Well, we weren’t involved in 1776 because at that time we were part of Mexico, a colony of Spain, not England. Most of the population would have been First Nations people. Spain owned us and governed us but did not pay much attention. Precious metals had not been found here yet, but they had been found further south.

Then came the Revolution of 1810 led by revolutionary priests. Fr. Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla was the first George Washington figure. But he was executed in 1811 and the torch passed to his friend, Fr. Jose´ Mari´a Morelos y Pavo´n. Fr. Morelos simultaneously led the military campaign, formed the first Mexican Congress, and wrote a Constitution that contained provisions comparable to the U.S. Bill of Rights and the 13th and 14th Amendments. A half Spanish, half Indio person, he was his nation’s first real leader. He was eventually captured, then executed by a Spanish firing squad in 1815. This city bears his name. So does the street that runs parallels to the street where I live in Henderson, but I had no idea who Morelos was until now.

There were other heroes of that revolution. The bravest and most defiant revolutionary was Maria Gertrudis Bocanega de de Mendoza de Lazo de la Vega (Gerturdis Bocanagra for short, but maybe you noticed she had the same last name as Zorro -- same fight). Gertrudis Bocanegra was the daughter of a Spanish aristocrat (more Zorro parallels, hmmm) who was converted to the cause of the indigenous people by her nanny. After her husband and brother were executed for smuggling guns to the rebels, Gertrudis died a fiery death at the hands of the Spanish army in the public square of Patzcuaro while hundreds of citizens nearly rioted in protest.

We were not called Nevada in 1810. That name was given us by the U. S. Commission on Territories in the late 1850’s when we were separated from Utah. In the early 1850’s, maps called the Great Basin “the mystery land” or “the unknown country.” The only places with names were Washoe and later the Comstock. But in 1810, the name for our land was Northern Mexico, and people in Michoacan were fighting and dying for our independence.

I love the stories of what happened at Lexington and Concord as much as anyone. I have stood in the Old Manse from which you could have watched the first shots fired. I have visited Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the home of Paul Revere in Boston, the Bunker Hill Monument, and the rest. I claim what happened there as part of the story of my land. But what happened here is part of our story too. If we don’t know this part our how our land came to be what it is today, we are missing a part of who we are as a people.