29 June 2016

Tell the Truth, Teacher

Music bursts from trumpets and horns. I don't know the song but the sound is the sound of Mexico. The musicians are beneath a raised gazebo protected from the rain that has just begun to fall. It is a misty thankful rain that chases no one away. An old man all silver and grey twirls his wife unaware of all but the music and his girl. He is wearing workman slacks and a cowboy hat slung low. His wife is wearing a pretty white dress with blue embroidery that dances as she dances. And life dances around them; luchador masks dangle from a lazy string, teenagers use their hands to say what the old man can say with a glance, the food of my heart tantalizes like airborne phosphorescence. And it builds; the people, the color, the clamor—a shimmering vibrancy undimmed by the darkening sky.

I am a child of the American West and Mexico is a part of me. It is familiar to me in a blood-deep way and yet I’ve never truly known it. Growing up I wasn’t as curious as I should have been. I rarely dug deeper than tacos, tequila and radio stations that work on the lost stretches of Interstate 5. What I know as California is a mural painted over the adobe walls of old Mexico, a chipped mural with windows to a deep and interesting history. Like most “native” Californians, I have spent a lifetime ignoring opportunities to step into a different past. The signs are literally on the signs. Hermosa means beautiful. Nevada means snowfall. La Cienaga means the swamp. And Manteca means lard. California is, and always has been a treasure map to its Mexican and indigenous past. Maybe when you’re on the map it’s difficult to see, but now that I’m off and looking back, how obvious it seems.

And how sad the lie we’ve been told. Growing up we are taught a pop-up book, hail the Europeans, fairytale version of the Americas. Mexico’s role in the fairytale is well known. The Aztecs were at their height; successors to the Mayans, empire builders ruling from the island city of Tenochtitlan. Hernan Cortes sailed into Veracruz with his silver helmet and pointed beard and the locals thought a god had landed on their shores. He took advantage of their naivety. He huffed and he puffed and he blew their empire down. They outnumbered him 10:1 but his victory was easy and assured because he had guns and steel and the double thumbs up from Jesus.

Even as kids this smacks of bullshit, but we let it go because Teacher said it was true. And then with sharpened #2 pencils we jot down the rest of the fabrication bullet-point by bullet-point. Spain fell because it grew weak. Northern Mexico was washed away in the tidal surge of manifest destiny. Jungles were cleared and ancient empires became tourist traps. The beaches were annexed by the rich. Beautiful colonial towns became forever shrouded in a sepia haze of blown dust; helpless against the encroaching American West. Drug-dealers became kings and kidnappers. The nation, unable to step into the first world, continues to lose its citizens to its northern more prosperous neighbor. Pencils down. No hands raised. No questions asked.

I want to poke a hole in this bloated, rotting fairytale. Just one, but one that I think deflates the entirety of Teacher’s lie.

Say it with me now…

In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety Two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…

And 47 million people died.

95% of the indigenous population of both North and South America eradicated by disease within a few generations.

I’ll bet Teacher didn’t tell you that.

If it wasn’t Columbus it would have been someone else. The Old World was coming and the New World was defenseless against the diseases that would come with it. A few snotty noses, a few unburied shits and half the world fell into a disease apocalypse. Cortes and the rest of the conquistadors shot up a sick ward on fire. The United States ran rampant across North America opposed by fragmented remnants. We are taught that New World history is a story of domination and uneasy assimilation. It’s not. It’s a story of decimation, pride and reclamation.

I wandered through Mexico looking for stories. Not surprisingly most of the stories I found were about overcoming oppression and warding off the unwanted advances of the Old World. I tried to rethink these stories. I tried to forget the dangerous fairytale rhetoric about a fully fledged people being overrun by an older, stronger people. I tried to factor in the truth about disease and its effects. These are stories about Mexico and its people. These are stories about the Aztecs, Mayan, Olmec and a thousand other ancient indigenous people. But more than anything these are stories about the 5%, the survivors of the apocalypse.


I started my journey in Mexico City and once again the signs were on the signs; Calle Hidalgo, Calle Reforma, Benito Juarez everywhere. The city celebrates the heroes of Mexican independence and the political changes that helped shape the modern Mexican state. It is a metropolis with a wealthy business district, trendy hipster neighborhoods, a few stones from Tenochtitlan, lots of colonial treasures and the San Jose flea market I loved as a kid around every corner. It is a loud, lively, celebratory city. It would be easy to miss its underdog pride, but it’s there. At the intersection of Avenida de los Insurgentes and Paseo de la Reforma is a statue dedicated to Cuauhtemoc the last Aztec king. Cuauhtemoc assumed the throne when the empire was all but dead. Montezuma II had died in Cortes’ first wave of attack. His brother assumed the throne and died of small pox within months. The empire was dying of disease, under siege and politically fractured. It was anarchy wrapped in apocalypse. Cuauhtemoc took possession of the embers and he fought. When Cortes soaked his feet in oil and set them ablaze seeking the location of Montezuma’s treasure he remained silent. He never betrayed his people.

My next stop was Cuernavaca, a pretty little colonial town an hour or so south of Mexico City, the place where Cortes built his retirement castle. I went there because the King of Mexico told me to. Let me explain. It is 2008. I am at a hostel in Munich, bellied up to the bar, drinking what is quite possibly the best beer I’ve ever tasted. I am alone and trying not to look like I need a friend. Across from me is a loud, annoying group of dudes that I am just fucking sure are from Orange County. Trying to calculate the odds of Orange County following me to Europe, I don’t notice the tall guy that has taken a seat beside me until he says, “I just took a 12-hour train ride from Rome. I asked the front desk if they had a towel and they said, ‘Do you want a towel or a beer?” Smart people. I’m Dave by the way.” Dave and I spent the next few days wandering around Munich drinking beers the size of our face. Dave is a whiteboy from Ohio but he spent a good portion of his adolescent years living in Mexico. I don’t remember if he called himself the King of Mexico or if I gave him that moniker… Anyway the King insisted that I visit Cuernavaca, the place where he more or less grew up, and he insisted that I meet his friend Jorge.

Jorge turned out to be an outrageously kind and well informed tour guide. We drank the finest Mezcal and ate plate after plate of tacos you would never find on a stateside menu. He took me to the ancient temple of Tepoztlan and taught me that the pyramid steps were intentionally narrow so that worshippers were forced to look down, never disrespectfully up toward the seat of the gods. And we talked a lot about recent (historically speaking) Mexican history. Jorge is fiercely proud of his heritage, knowledgeable and a damn good storyteller. Here is one I didn’t know. If it sounds like the plot to B-movie remember that at the time Europe was ruled by a handful of intermarried families who had been humping each other for centuries.  

The year was 1864, Spain had been ousted and Mexico was still in the nascent years of its independence. As always the super rich and everyone else had different desires. Off the teat of Europe for the first time in three hundred years the rich kids were cranky and none too pleased with the upstart liberal government led by the populace hero Benito Juarez. Meanwhile to the north, the United States (which already felt that it had dominion over the hemisphere) was embroiled in its own bloody civil war. The royal families in Europe started looking for ways to take advantage of the chaos and distraction—the world was their board game after all. Napoleon III of France struck a deal with the rich kid minority in Mexico. He promised them an Emperor, an army and a big suckable European teat. The man he chose was Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian of the House of Habsburg (Austria). Max was a prince but not a first born son so it was unlikely he would ever rule anything in Europe. Naturally Max decided straight away that this country on the far side of the board game was his destiny. He crossed the Atlantic with his pretty Belgian wife Charlotte (who would became Carlota because it sounds more Mexican-y), a French army 30,000 strong and declared himself Emperor. The rich kids rejoiced and Benito Juarez and the young government moved operations to Veracruz where they carried on governing in full defiance of the naked Emperor and his foreign army. “Destiny” was not kind to Max. In 1865 the United States civil war ended and they immediately started getting huffy about Max’s charade. I believe Lincoln’s exact words were, “Monroe Doctrine, bitch!” Seemingly unaware of the geopolitics at play Max ordered his Black Decree which called for the assassination of 11,000 liberal supporters. Obviously this did not go over well. Around that same time Napoleon III did the math. Not enough cash flow + the Prussians again + a pissed off United States = bring the troops home. Without his bullying foreign army Max was left clinging to the top of the mast, ankle deep in an angry sea. By then even the rich kids were abandoning him in droves. He held out for 72 days in the town of Santiago de Queretaro but was defeated by liberal forces and executed by firing squad on June 19th, 1867.

Max and Napoleon’s folly had no lasting effect on the future of Mexican politics. With the invaders gone, Benito Juarez carried on with the business of governing Mexico for Mexico. He was a busy guy with a lot on his mind; global politics, settling strife on the home front, that sort of thing. But every now and then his thoughts would drift to Max and he would shake his head and all exasperated he would ask yet again, “What the shit was that!?”

From Cuernavaca I took a short bus ride to Puebla. While not a major stop on the tourist trail it was a place I had to see—hallowed ground for any California kid.

In 1862 Mexico was flat broke. The Mexican American War (1846-48) had been followed almost immediately by the War of Reform (Guerra de Reforma). Looking to mend finances at home, Benito Juarez suspended all foreign debt payments. The French Emperor pretended to be mad about the non-payments as an excuse to invade. He sent 6000 troops into Veracruz on a march toward Mexico City. They were met on the outskirts of Puebla by 2000 poorly armed, inexperienced Mexican troops led by General Ingnacio Zaragoza. At the time the French Army was considered to be the finest in the world, but in this particular battle they were crushed by a lesser foe. The Battle of the Puebla was a huge David vs. Goliath moral victory for the young nation. And echoes of that victory continue to resound. It is celebrated annually and in some ways daily in Puebla. And further north it is celebrated wildly once a year. It is the inspiration for my favorite bastardized American holiday, the unofficial start to summer in Southern California, the day we drink an ocean of margaritas and bath ourselves in guacamole. Cinco de Mayo! Cinco de Drinko!

And guess which French Emperor got his ass kicked in that battle? Napoleon III—the man who would send in meddlesome Max only two years later. Someone should have given homeboy a luchador mask because he loved coming at Mexico from the top rope.

Here is a scary thought. More than one historian has postulated that if France had won the Battle of the Puebla and gained control over Mexican territory they would have supplied troops to the Confederate Army in the United States Civil War. That makes sense I guess; destabilize the only threat in the hemisphere, lock down shipping routes throughout the Gulf of Mexico, but Frenchie and Johnny Rebel in the same camp? Come on!? I have to believe that if that had happened a giant suckhole of improbability would have opened up and swallowed them all.  

I love Oaxaca, both the city and the state. I spent two weeks there studying Spanish and absorbing life in a colonial town. It is a charming place—a place that seems charmed; as if it’s hidden in the woods just off the dangerous path. And yet, despite its tranquility, Oaxaca more than anywhere I visited, encapsulates all that befell Mexico and the Americas.

The Oaxaca region has been populated since 11,000 BC. Its landscape is harsh. Over the millennia many different indigenous groups flourished in the pockets between its geographical boundaries. The Zapotec and Mixtec people jostled for power regionally but it was not swallowed by a larger empire until Montezuma and the Aztecs invaded in 1457. When the Spanish arrived in 1521 the subjugated people of the Oaxaca region thought that perhaps prophecy had been answered and the Aztec would fall. And they did, but at an unimaginable cost.

“Before the first century (of Spanish rule) had ended, some nineteen major epidemics had come and gone. The exposure of the Oaxacan Indians to smallpox, chicken pox, diphtheria, influenza, scarlet fever, measles, typhoid, mumps, influenza, and cocoliztli (a hemorrhagic disease) took a huge toll. As a result the native population declined from 1.5 million in 1520 to 150,000 people in 1650.” 

Oaxaca rebuilt. The survivors remembered who they were and persevered until one of their own led the entire nation to independence. Benito Juarez was born on March 21st, 1806 in San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca. He lost both his parents and grandparents at a young age but never had any questions about his Zapotec heritage. He described his parents as "Indios de la raza primitiva" or "Indians of the original race of the country." Trained as a lawyer, Juarez began his political career on a local level before rising to national prominence. Throughout his career he fought for separation of church and state and the equal rights of all native people. He helped shepherd Mexico through the most turbulent time in its history and remains a symbol of survivors strength. 

I wandered through Mexico looking for stories and the more I learned the more indignant I became about the lies we tell. Here is how Wikipedia describes the horrors that befell Oaxaca. Remember 1.5 million people reduced to 150,000. Entire societies lost forever. 

"After the fall of Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards took over Oaxaca which led to the eventual decrease of the Native population and the increase in African slaves."

Read that again. Read everything that it does not say. Wipe the lipstick off that pig.

"After the fall of Tenochtitlan, European borne diseases ravaged the native people. 19 major epidemics reduced the population from 1.5 million to 150,000 in the span of 100 years. With no one left to work the land they had stolen the Spanish responded by kidnapping people from the West Coast of Africa and forcing them into slavery."

All of history is a story, but we have got to stop spewing these rotten fairytales. We need to start telling the true unvarnished story no matter how brutal it may be—a story that will make our children stronger. By teaching them that the great civilizations of the Americas fell with hardly a whimper to a handful of Europeans we are supporting the racist dogma of that long gone era. European superiority, the gullibility, barbarism and less evolved nature of non-Christian peoples. What are our children supposed to gain from that? We tell them that racism and subjugation are wrong and then we tell them fairytales that whisper superiority into their little ears. Burn the fairytale. Tell the truth. European diseases killed 95% of the native populations of North and South America. Civilizations were decimated to near extinction. Centers of science and learning died with them. The Europeans stepped into the void and took advantage for a few hundred years. Then from the ashes a new people arose; a mixture of indigenous and invader, a people the world had never seen before, a people who would grow strong and retake their land.

The truth teaches our children that even the greatest hardships can be overcome. It teaches them to condemn rather than celebrate subjugation. It teaches them to embrace their culture and ancestry. It teaches them that loss does not make you weak, it gives you reason to grow stronger. Aren’t these better lessons? Isn’t this what we should be teaching?

Tell the truth, Teacher.


In the year 2020 a small island will be discovered in the South Pacific. The inhabitants of the island will grow curious about the outside world and begin to travel. The novelty of their existence will make them instant pop culture stars. They will be embraced by the nations of the world. A small group will visit New York City, bringing with them diseases our bodies have no way to combat. It will start slowly, a flu sweeping across the Eastern seaboard. And then people will start to die. Panic will start to set in. Five years after their arrival twenty million Americans will have died from New Plague. The economy will be near collapse. There will be riots in the street, people demanding that the government fix the unfixable. 25 years in few will care about the remnants of the government. 100 million will have died from New Plague and the terrified remnants will be unable to see anything beyond survival and escape. Amidst all this the visitors from that small island will have flourished, unaffected by their own diseases. In a coordinated attack they will swarm Washington D.C., immobilizing and eventually wresting power away from the government. The American people will fight back, but they will be too fractured to overtake the invaders. With survival as their primary objective people will accept the new rule and turn their attention to family and community. A few will survive. Many more will die. After 100 years there will be only 18.7 million Americans—5% of a people who once thought themselves invincible. Their bodies will have learned to fight off New Plague and the rumblings will have started. Down with the empire! Down with the empire!