In the beginning

Gregory Rodriguez, a columnist for the opinion pages, is director of the California Fellows Program at the New America Foundation and author of the just-published "Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America."

You’ve heard the old saw: You can’t get to where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.

It’s as true for peoples and countries as it is for individuals: We all need narratives to give meaning to our lives; we all look to archetypes and symbols to explain who we are. Ethnic and national “origin myths” may be pure fable (two divines, Izanai and Izanami, giving birth to the islands of Japan; twins, born of the gods and suckled by a wolf, founding Rome) or something closer to material reality. But fact or fiction barely matters: What’s important is what stories we choose and what we understand them to mean.

Here in the United States, Abraham Lincoln helped elevate the first Thanksgiving to the status of a modern national-origin myth when he set aside a federal Thanksgiving holiday in 1863. In the midst of a terrible civil war, he was trying to encourage Americans to count their blessings. But the holiday came to have broader significance. It is, as one historian, James Oliver Robertson, put it, a “ritual affirmation of what Americans believe was the Pilgrim experience, the particularly American experience of confronting, settling, adapting to, and civilizing the New World.”


Of course, the “we gather together” Thanksgiving narrative glosses over other stories. Clearly, Anglo settlers didn’t always have cordial relationships with Indians; for the sake of history, we need to supplement origin myths with more sober facts. Still, as Joseph Campbell once said, “myths are public dreams”; they aren’t merely idealized versions of the past but contemporary calls to action and guides to the future.

But not all origin stories are constructive or inspiring. Mexicans, in particular, mythologized a tale of the violent and tragic conquest to explain their birth as a people: the story of the Spaniard Hernan Cortes and his indigenous translator and mistress, Dona Marina, a.k.a. La Malinche.

Marina was Cortes’ victor’s prize and, in 1522, she gave birth to Martin Cortes, one of many mestizo children born to the conquerors’ mistresses and paramours. Four and a half centuries later, in 1950, the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz famously wrote that the “strange permanence of Cortes and La Malinche in the Mexican’s imagination and sensibilities reveals that they are something more than historical figures: They are symbols of a secret conflict that we still have yet to solve.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, the psychic power of the Cortes-Malinche story, you won’t find many monuments to them in Mexico City. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in the early 19th century, Mexican nationalists, who sought to distance themselves from their European heritage, demonized the conquerors in general and Dona Marina in particular.

At the imposing two-story stone house at 57 Higuera St. in the Coyoacan district of Mexico City, for example, there is no plaque to indicate that Marina once lived there. Though for centuries she had been described as a beautiful, noble woman who commanded respect, 19th century depictions began to condemn her for her role in the Spanish conquest. Out of these portrayals arose the peculiarly Mexican concept of malinchismo, which means the betrayal of one’s own.

Paz contended that the Mexicans’ fixation on -- and ultimate rejection of -- both progenitors in their origin story left them in a state of “orphanhood, an obscure awareness that we have been torn from the All.” The history of Mexico, he wrote, “is the history of a man seeking his parentage, his origins.”

This alienation resonates profoundly throughout the culture. On the one hand, Mexico proudly acknowledges its Indian ancestry; on the other, it clearly prizes whiteness as a status symbol. It endlessly questions its identity: Is it modern or ancient, Spanish or Indian? And the Cortes/Malinche story, instead of defining Mexico’s origins in a constructive way, merely prolongs and exacerbates the country’s ambivalence about its history as a conquered nation.

Mexican mestizaje -- racial and cultural synthesis -- may have begun in a violent conquest, but it didn’t end there. Interracial love and attraction also played a role. Ultimately, racial mixture was rampant, and it combined with a rigid colonial caste system to create a society in which race was a malleable category. Mexicans developed -- in the words of Mexican American poet Gloria Anzaldua -- “a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity,” particularly in the realm of race and culture.

As Mexicans came north to the United States, that long history of mestizaje was also brought to bear on another cultural force, Anglo America. One scholar, Roberto Bacalski-Martinez, has described Mexican American culture in the Southwest as “incredibly ancient on the one hand, and surprisingly new on the other. Indian, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo elements have gone into its formation, and they continue to affect it. In each case, the introduction of new elements began as a clash between two peoples which eventually resulted in a newer, richer culture.”

So, with this history of cultural collisions and convergences in mind, I propose that Mexicans and, particularly, Mexican Americans choose a different symbolic story to explain their identity. It’s not a new story, but too few know it. It’s right out of “The Conquest of New Spain,” Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s 16th century eyewitness account.

This story begins with Hernan Cortes arriving on the island of Cozumel in 1519. There, a friendly band of Mayans informed Cortes that some years before, two Christians had been taken captive in the neighboring land of Yucatan. The chief of Cozumel rejected the Spanish captain’s request that he send a search party to locate the captured Europeans. He feared they would be killed if he did. Undeterred, Cortes dispatched his own messengers to bargain for the captives’ release. The scouts took trinkets for ransom and a letter from Cortes that one man concealed in his hair.

The messengers found the two men -- Jeronimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, the only survivors of a 1511 shipwreck -- living in very different conditions. Aguilar was a slave desperately trying to hold on to Spanish ways. In exchange for some beads, his captors released him. He then joined in the search for his shipmate.

They found Guerrero 15 miles away, no longer a captive. He had married the daughter of a Mayan nobleman and was so thoroughly assimilated into Mayan life that he felt he no longer would be accepted by his Spanish countrymen. His face was tattooed and his ears were pierced. “What would the Spaniards say if they saw me like this?” he asked of his would-be liberators.

Guerrero’s Mayan wife angrily interrupted her husband’s conversation with Aguilar. She demanded to know why this “slave” had “come here to call my husband away?” Before Aguilar left, Guerrero explained to him the primary reason he could not leave. “Brother Aguilar,” he said. “I am married and have three children, and they look at me as [a leader] here, and a captain in time of war.” He then pointed to his children and said, “Now look at my three children, how beautiful they are.” Guerrero was describing Mexico’s very first mestizos.

Peoples and nations need stories not only to remind us of where we came from but also to give us a sense of our potential. Cortes and Malinche’s tale of conquest and betrayal isn’t the only way to unfold the plot. Gonzalo Guerrero’s takes the same story line and finds “beautiful” possibilities. It speaks volumes about the ability to fuse cultures and creatively adapt to the constant reality of change.