By Heriberto Escamilla
There is debate among historians as to when and where Hernan Cortez actually set foot on the shores of what was to become the Republic of Mexico. Some say he first landed in Yucatan on the 19th or 21st of April, 1519. Others tell us that on that around that time, he dropped his anchor in the shallow waters of what is today Veracruz. Still other people that study history have the Spanish sails rising out of the eastern horizon a month earlier, on March 13, 1519. While the exact time and place may not be clear, one thing is certain, that event began a series of developments that forever changed the course of generations to come. The gold, silver and other resources extracted from the new world fueled the growth of technology and the industrial revolution, while the original Americans began to lose their connection to the natural forces that had up to that time shaped their consciousness and world view.
By the time Cortez claimed the Mejica lands for the royal families of Europe, the “New World” had already seen the rise and fall of several native civilizations. In Mesoamerica, ethnic groups such as the Olmecas, the Maya and the Toltecas had already added their contributions to the growing body of knowledge that illuminated the paths of their children; knowledge to which we here in the Americas, even in Mexico are seldom exposed. In school we learn about the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. And we must of course grant these people their due. They are the pillars on which western civilization was built. But few of us are ever taught that as early as 3,000 years before Christ, and just a few hundred miles to the south, people were also accurately charting the movement of the heavenly bodies across the sky and that they too were contemplating timeless questions about the meaning of life. Historians often forget that the world is after all round. There is a West, but also a North, East and South as well.
Historians estimate that when Cortez planted the Spanish banner on Mejica soil, as many as 25 million souls were already nourishing themselves with the sacred corn, calabazas and chiles that mother earth so graciously granted. Less than two hundred years later, at the dawning of the 18th century, the population was approximately 6 million. But follow me here, this included Europeans, Criollos and Mestizos. The number of surviving Native-Americans was much lower; some say no more than half a million. The destruction was almost complete.
Some of our ancestors suffered a quick death at the end of sword or spear. Others suffered more protracted deaths, victims of new diseases for which they had no resistance. And according to other historians, a significant percentage sacrificed their lifeless bodies in the gloomy gold mines opened by the Europeans. We are told that our grandfathers’ blood was also used to mix mortar and many lay beneath the great stones of the Christian Cathedrals.
During the 1960’s and 70’s many of us finally buckled under the weight of our sorrow. We started to dig, looked more closely at the history books and questioned the stories that we heard. As we went back in time, piecing together the memories, some of us came to see the indigenous Mexican people as poor victims of greed and injustice. Others glorified them as people that did no wrong. We pitied and admired at the same time. Out of anger, bitterness, and perhaps confusion, many of us who find ourselves between two cultures disavowed our European roots. In search of ourselves, we called ourselves Latinos (a term which unfortunately also has roots in the Roman Empire), Mexican-Americans or Chicanos. Like trees reaching for both heaven and earth, we desperately grasped for both inspiration and roots. But tell me, is it really a name that we need?
Hermanos, as we invoke our memories and search for the “truth”, let us first look closely at the beliefs that we hold inside, so close to our hearts.
What if the indigenous people that Cortez encountered were true warriors, people that had learned to face the inevitability of their death. What if they awoke every morning, knowing that it could be their last. And because of this awareness fully embraced every moment as it passed? What if the “superstitious” practices developed at Teotihuacan (the place where men learned to be like Gods) actually took them deep into their soul, to that place of connection with the natural world, where they witnessed and learned from the unsolvable mysteries? What if the poor and humble people of Mexico saw the bearded invaders as the inevitable darkness that always follows the light? And in this frame of mind, made their final stand, facing the canon with sobriety, with no tears and no regrets. Imagine that world. Would you as a brave warrior fully embracing death want my admiration or pity?
During the first half of my life, I learned about Christianity and for that I am grateful. But brothers and sisters the world beneath our feet is round. There is a West, but also a North, an East and surely a South.
A few weeks ago, I attended a five day retreat to learn some of the teachings left behind by our indigenous ancestors and about the forces of nature that still surround us, whether we acknowledge them or not. I befriended Grandfather Fire, and sat by his side. He showed me how as a young boy my own bitterness choked off my voice; how I shrank from the truth and took refuge behind a mask. And with the help of a few brothers and sisters, I saw in the mirror my own life-long and terrifying adversary, self-pity.
Hermanos, does this sound familiar? Perhaps you’ve caught glimpses. Remember when you feasted on bitterness and plunged headfirst into a bottle of Tequila. Perhaps its his twin that you’ve seen, Self-Pride. Remember the time that you hardened your heart and walked away from your circle, from the people that loved you?
When I returned from the retreat, a dear friend teasingly asked if I had found God? My response was that I hadn’t, but that I had found a footprint or two. Now, as the retreat’s experiences recede into the shadowy darkness from where they emerged, I am still left with one unavoidable reality. My days are indeed numbered and I am miles from home. But with the light of my Grandfather and all of his children and the helping hand of my brothers and sisters, we, you and I can find that place between Pride and Self-Pity. Asi Será.
Heriberto (Beto) Escamilla, originally from Monterrey, Nuevo León, México, was raised in Houston, Texas until moving to San Diego in 1984. He received his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology-San Diego Campus.