December 16, 2005

First Person

A Closer Look at Mestizaje

By Heriberto Escamilla

On November 3rd, my wife and I stepped into one of those big jets, with seven seats across the cabin. Fourteen hours later, we landed, some 6,000 miles away from home. Within an hour we were lugging our bags onto the AVE, a sleek, ultramodern train that reduces the distance between Madrid and Sevilla to a mere three hours. Twelve days later we were anxiously making our way through secondary inspection and then running through the airport, looking for gate B-30 and the plane that would bring us back home. We were the last to board, with the doors literally closing behind us.

Back home, I am realizing that in my haste, I must have inadvertently left parts of myself along the way. I’m not sure what or where yet, maybe part of my soul is still strolling down the narrow cobblestone streets of Sevilla; stopping to sip sangria at Doña Elvira’s tapas Café.

Maybe part of me is still sitting in the balcony of Los Gallos, a flamenco tablao in the Sevilla’s barrio Santa Cruz, a Jewish enclave until the reconquista. I’m still listening to the emotion-filled wails of the Flamenco cantos, accentuated with the powerful, passionate thumps of the dancer’s feet. Their dark eyes captivated my attention and it wasn’t until after the performance, when the dancers allowed their faces to relax into a comforting, humanizing smile that I too sighed and settled back into my seat.

Little pieces of me probably dropped onto the colorful and intricate “Spanish” tile that adorned the rooms of the Alcázar. The massive Moslem masterpiece, completed sometime in the 11th century sits in the shadow of Sevilla’s cathedral, the purported burial place of Columbus and the third largest Catholic cathedral in the world. Spanish speakers will recognize in this name, the origins of our word for house, casa. This was the big house, the palace of the Moorish royalty that inhabited this structure for 400 years. I was not the first to leave part of my soul in Sevilla.

I’ve probably left a little of myself in the halls of the Alhambra (the Red Castle) that towers over the city of Granada. And you thought it was in Los Angeles. The Moorish castle lies on a mountain overlooking the Darro River. Historians believe the Alhambra was erected over a first century Roman fort. It was a seat of Moorish power until 1492 when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the Catholic Kings re-conquered it for Christianity. It was, according to historians the last Moslem stronghold to fall. No, I wasn’t the first to leave something there. People have been “conquering” and reconquering since time immemorial.

On the opposite bank of the river lies the Albayzin, which according to one guide we overheard, means “place of the miserable ones” in Arabic. The neighborhood was inhabited by the cave-dwelling servants of the royal families. Today it is home to many of Granada’s Gitanos or gypsies. Gitano is from the Castilian word for Egyptian. Historians tell us that the Gitanos originated in the Punjab region of India and traveled through Egypt and into Spain in the 15th century. The cave dwellings have been upgraded and modernized, but many Gitanos still find themselves chained to damaging stereotypes and trapped in Spain’s underclass. I suppose we have always needed scapegoats on whom to project what we don’t accept in ourselves, haven’t we?

I remember reading about the Romans, the Goths, Visigoths, Moors and Gypsies in high school classes, but life is different for me today; people mean more when you see their hearts and souls carved into the houses, into the walls and palaces that have survived them. They are not words anymore, but real people whose presence persists in the food and songs we enjoy, even here in the “new world.” No, I didn’t build or create anything on my trip. I mostly left pieces of my soul.

I am a Mexican Mestizo, which means that I accept that my roots can be traced to some carnal connection between a conquering European and a conquered indigenous Mexicano. We always assumed that conquistador was male and the conquistada was female, but sometimes it happens the other way around. Not in my house of course, but it happens. I don’t know how it was back then, but let me also tell you that I am one of those Mexicans that cannot deny European ancestry. My ancestors killed, raped and oppressed. And my ancestors were also killed raped, and oppressed. My being houses both memories and the consequences of those actions. Life is a little confusing sometimes. I pray for clarity a lot.

So part of my ancestry is Mexican and I’ve known for a while were the name Mexico originated. It’s from the Mexica, or Mejica, one of the Nuahtl speaking people then exerted great influence in what is the central region of modern day Mexico between the 14th and 16th centuries. Mejica refers to the people that the Spanish conqueror Cortez defeated, clearing the way for the eventual and full European invasion. The Mejica had earlier terrorized and conquered many of the people that lived in the area. So the Mejica were not the only inhabitants of Mexico and their reign was relatively brief, about 200 years. In short, Mestizo also means that my American ancestor that either conquered or was conquered by the European could have been Tolteca, Olmeca, Huichol, Mixteco, Tarahumara, Chichimeca or something else. I have no way of knowing.

But getting back to the European side of my ancestry, do you know where the name España originated? Well I learned that it comes to us from the word, “Ishbanya,” what the Moors called the entire Iberian Peninsula. Visiting Spain confirms something that I have believed for a long time. My European forefather could have been of Italian, Germanic, Moorish or even Egyptian or Indian ancestry. My family tree is probably teaming with pagans, Christians, Jews, Hindis, and Moslems. I have no way of knowing.

Now I still get chill bumps when someone on the Seleccion Mexicana scores a goal (not too often these days), but I see the world a little differently after my visit. The fierce nationalism that excludes and oppresses people with different names, religions or beliefs seems a little more irrational to me. Maybe someday I will be completely sane. I would like to think that what I left in Spain was a little pride and do you know what? It didn’t hurt all that much. Asi sera.

Heriberto (Beto) Escamilla, originally from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon Mexico, was raised in Houston, Texas until moving to San Diego in 1984.

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