Fusion of Cultures
Mexican people today still grapple with the fusion of cultures that resulted from the Spanish Conquest. While the storied romance between Cortés and Malinche, the Aztec woman who served as the Spanish general's translator and lover, remains controversial, many Mexican artists have explored the violent and emotional interpenetration of the Europeans and indigenous in vivid ways.
Ross Chambless: The impact the Spanish invasion has had on native Mexico is something that’s still discussed to this day. For hundreds of years artists have tried to express the tense emotions: anger, grief, sadness, as well as nostalgia, pride, and wonder – that Mexican people feel about who they are – and about the fact that so many modern Mexican people are a blend of two worlds: a cross between Spanish and indigenous peoples.
To this day in Mexico, a name that gets bandied about occasionally is “Malinchista.” It’s not a nice name to call someone. It basically means a traitor to one's own people, someone who prefers a foreign culture over his or her own. This disparaging insult stems all the way back the early days of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico in the 1520's. So let's go there.
La Malinche is prominently a central character in this mural titled "Discussions between Taxcaltecans and Hernan Cortés", by Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin, located in Palacio de Gobierno, in Tlaxcala city.
Luis Lopez: So, Hernan Cortés was one of the leaders of the Spanish. And La Malinche can be described in many different ways. She can be described as translator, slash lover, slash captured person, slave whatever you want to say.
Ross: Some people would say whore. Others might say traitor, but we’ll get to that.
Luis: There are different ideas about whether they actually had a romantic relationship, or whether she was just being used. But essentially, she was the one who could communicate between Mayan and Nahuatl. And another person could translate from Nahuatl to Spanish. So, by utilizing her, Hernan Cortés and the Spanish were able to communicate with indigenous communities. And so, that's how they made their ways. They had someone who could give them safe passage. The argument is, if Malinche wasn’t there, would they have been successful? We don’t know.
Scene from the 2015 Spanish dramatic series “Carlos, Rey Emperador” that depicts an interaction between Cortez and La Malinche.
Ross: La Malinche’s romance with the Spanish Conqueror Hernan Cortés has been depicted in different ways throughout Mexico’s history. This was from a popular dramatic series called “Carlos, Rey Emperador.” This is Nuevas Voces, this is part 5 of our podcast that examines Mexican art and history. As Cortés’ mistress, La Malinche – who some Mexicans pronounce it La Malintzin, or who the Spanish called Doña Marina – gave birth to a son who would have been among the first Mestizo children – a person of mixed race in Mexico. One of the depictions of the couple, in particular, remains compelling and controversial.
Jose Clemente Orozco painted this mural of a naked Cortés and Malinche in El Colegio de San Ildefonso in Mexico City, in 1926.
Susan Vogel: This painting was done by José Clemente Orozco, between 1923 and 1926. It’s a fresco mural high up on the ceiling, at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, in Mexico City, the site of the preparatory school where Frida Kahlo was studying when she met Diego Rivera.
Ross: It was one of the first murals painted after the Mexican Revolution.
Susan: And it shows a naked Cortés and a naked Malinche. So, it’s very much like Adam and Eve: the parents of all humans and these are the parents of Mexicans. And he’s very white, and she’s very dark. One of his hands is holding her hand, and the other arm is against her. It could be seen as protective or holding her back. And they’re sitting, and under their feet is a naked person laying on their stomach, and Cortés’s foot is on top of this person. So, when Orozco painted this it was very controversial. And the Damas Católicas, the Catholic ladies, basically covered up these naked pictures, because they were considered irreverent. And people shot bullets into them. People were very upset with this painting.
"El sueño de la Malinche" or "Malinche's Dream" by Antonio Ruiz, located in the Galería de Arte Mexicano, Mexico City, (1939).
Fanny Blauer: I think Malintzin played a very smart and important role in the way the conquest took place.
We in Mexico really evaluate the position of Malintzin as a traitor. And it has played a very powerful, negative context on the concept of being a woman. And we can see it here in the painting. That’s the message I get when I see this. It’s, 'I’m holding you, because I’m your protector, but I’m also holding you back.' You are a woman. You are the instrument. But I’m the man, the one who makes the decisions. And that’s extremely powerful in terms of how after the colonization the role that a woman played. It was the woman’s fault that we lost the war against Mexico.
Luis: I think it plays a role in how Mexicanos see ourselves as well. There is this term "hijos de la chingada," “the sons of the screwed.” The screwed one being Malinche. Sometimes they internalize this idea, right. That’s what happens, because ever since then, we’ve been screwed, right. But there is an alternative perspective that I like, that maybe Malinche was truly a woman of vision. We portray her as just an instrument being used, but maybe she was just an active participant and allowed this to happen and orchestrated it, because she knew that when these two worlds collided, there would be this third world, right. Which we tend to refer as “Malinche’s Vision”. From that third world, we have mestizos, which turned into what we have today as Latinos. This big mix. So I like the idea that she had the foresight that no one else did, she knew what would happen. She was an active participant.
Ross: Another image that depicts these colliding worlds in stunning fashion, is called “The Fusion of Two Cultures” or “El Abrazo,” the Embrace.
Susan: It’s by Jorge Gonzalez Camarena. He lived from 1908 to 1980.
Ross: Camerena actually painted two versions of this, one as a mural, and one with acrylics on canvas 20 years later. See both of them on our website. Fanny here, actually has a print of this painting displayed in her home.
Fanny: So, this painting for me is very powerful. The colors are very bright, what we see in the background and what is actually happening. It’s called El Abrazo, but also the painting is in the museum of Castillo de Chapultepec, which is a very fancy museum in Mexico City. It’s interesting because that museum is a representation of the whole period of colonialism and pre- and after- independence. In the museum, they’ve called this painting "Fusion". When I look at it, you see this feathered man, and this man wearing a metal outfit, which represents the Spanish. And they are both being killed; they are killing each other. They are both dying. It’s fusion; although I don’t really detect any image of life, other than death.
However, the message I get from this painting is that both needed to die, ideologically, to create this new fusion, this new culture. That’s how I see Mexican culture. Mexican culture still has its indigenous roots, and also those who claim to be purely Spanish, but still, being born in Mexico they also claim their Spanish roots. However, when you live in Mexico, you live both. It’s a combination of the cultures, the language, and the religion, and the traditions that Mexicans have been able to combine in many ways. That’s what I see in this painting. We are not one or the other, we are a combination of both. And that’s the wonderful thing about being Mestizo I would say.
Luis: I agree with what Fanny said. But I also see this as a sacrifice. Both of these cultures are being sacrificed so that my culture could have life.
Susan: One thing, the Aztec eagle warrior was the most ferocious, esteemed, incredible warrior. And here he is, his spear piercing the armored Spanish. And then the sword of the Spanish guy piercing through that eagle warrior. If you look at the historic codices and murals from Mexico, you’ll see this eagle warrior revered. It’s just so sad really. It’s sad, it’s a powerful painting. And there’s a huge fire and destruction behind them. Everything surrounding them is going up in flames, like the end of the world. You look at Diego Rivera’s murals, and everyone is kind of plump and round, and if someone has a wound it’s got a little band-aid on it. But this is so destructive, horrifying, and end-of-the-world-ish.
So, I think it’s interesting that Mexicanos have to reconcile this. Whereas we in the West, we’re pretty self-righteous. We haven’t addressed what we’ve done to the indigenous populations, in order to gain our prominence and domination. So none of us are having to look at an image like this and saying "I did that, that’s me. My heritage is right here." We just ignore it, we’ve ignored it.
El abrazo ("The Embrace) is by Mexican artist Jorge González Camarena, painted in 1980. It is an easel version of "La fusión de dos culturas". This version was painted less than 20 years later with acrylics after his original mural. It is 2 m wide and 1.4 m tall. It is part of the permanent collection of Museo Soumaya in Mexico City.
Luis: I think for me, this is something I still process. Both of these cultures are in me. As a Chicano, I definitely identify with the indigenous side of my ancestry, because I didn’t get access to it growing up. So I’m trying to reclaim it, right. And many times when I’m learning about my own culture, I’m learning about what the Spanish did. But my last name is Lopez. There is no denying that I have Spanish roots. So you inherit trauma from both ends, and how do you begin to heal? I think many of us still struggle with that.
Ross: So, my middle name is Sequoyah, named after the Cherokee Indian chief who invented the Cherokee language. Although it turns out it’s wrong. I have a little Native American in me, but it’s Choctaw Indian. I’m probably 1/64 Native American. It comes from one of my distant ancestors who had a native wife, probably in the Mississippi area. That’s the story I’ve been told. So even myself, I have that sort of heritage. And like you said, I certainly haven’t reconciled it, at all. I’m part of that predominant, white culture that hasn’t given it much thought.
Susan: Yes, and you’ve looked at your ancestry, and all of us should, to learn more about the world and the connections between us, because we're probably all related. From the Vikings and whatever they were doing on the Iberian Peninsula that affected my DNA. Also, going to Norway, and seeing what they did to indigenous peoples there, very, very similar to what we did here in the U.S. to the Native American population. Really, just incredible parallels. So, throughout our history, we all have things that are horrendous, things that are wonderful, and I think we need to reconcile those and realize that we all have similar backgrounds. Those parallels join us and It’s about discovering who we are, and how we should behave towards people in the future now that our world is so much smaller.
Fanny: For me, I wouldn’t necessarily call it good, but it’s the normal evolving process of human beings. When we talk about globalization nowadays. I would include the 1500s as part of globalization. It was a part of discovering the rest of the world. Discovering what others were believing. Discovering how others were living. What I wouldn’t justify were the atrocities and the way it was implemented. I feel that the Spanish really didn’t reconcile with the idea that: OK, this is what we found, and we are going to sit down and talk about how we can complement each other. It was about conquering, about destroying, about forcing their ideas on what already existed. And the level of atrocities that occurred during that time really is still in our blood. That’s how I see it. This lack of identity. And this lack of unreconciled thoughts. When I see this painting, I really feel it very strongly in terms of was this all necessary to implement these ideas? That’s where I have a hard time. I don’t justify any of that.
Ross: That’s interesting to hear you say that, but yet, you have this in your house. It's significant to you. It’s thought provoking. But it doesn’t necessarily bring you complete joy. So it’s part of you?
Fanny: For me, it’s part of being Mexican. But I am not only Mexican now. I am a U.S. citizen. I am a Mexican who has lived in the U.S. for the last 21 years. And it’s not only me now, I have two children who that come from two cultures, from the Mexican culture and the American culture. When I say American culture, my husband is a white American, who was born here in Utah under the religious predominance of the place. I come from a completely different background. My two children are a result of these two cultures, and when I see this painting, I see myself. I see my relationship. Not in terms of killing each other, but somehow something has been produced here. Something new has been born. Those are my children. And I see this moral obligation for my children to learn both sides, so they can reconcile with their heritage, so they know who they are.
Ross: You can see both of the images we discussed on this episode at the website for this podcast Artes de Mexico en Utah and you can also go there to chime in and add to the conversation.
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Thanks to our commentators Susan Vogel; Fanny Guadalupe Blauer; Luis Lopez; Episode produced and edited by Ross Chambless; Thanks to KCPW 88.3 FM for the studio space; Music credit: Antonio Pinto, Ricardo Lozano and Jorge Ramos, Elliot Goldenthal, Joaquín Rodrigo. Also germane to our discussion of fusing cultures, thanks to the band Metalachi for their awesome rendition of "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns 'N Roses. This podcast is made possible thanks to Utah Humanities.
Engage with Us:
Tell us what you think? Has the Mexican identity - a mix between Spanish and indigenous heritage (Mestizo) - ever fully been reconciled? If you have Mexican ancestry, do you identify more with your Spanish roots or your indigenous roots? What aspects of your cultural identity make you proud?