Yalitza Aparicio as "Cleo" in Alfonso Cuarón film, "Roma"
In “Roma,” Cuarón returns to “Y tu mamá indígena también”
Two guest reviews of the Alfonso Cuarón film, “Roma”
First Review, by Álvaro Ramirez
There is a scene in Alfonso Cuarón's film “Y tu mamá También” where the protagonists, Tenoch, Julio, and Luisa are traveling through the Mexican countryside, oblivious to the campesino world passing outside their car window. Suddenly, the narrating voice interrupts the endless flirtations between the characters, as Tenoch looks at the town where his indigenous nanny comes from. Her name is Leo, and he called her “mother” until the age of four. In his mesmerizing new film, “Roma,” Cuarón returns to “Y tu mamá también” to pick up the story of these others, the indigenous mothers who raise the children of the middle class and rich Mexicans, a story that has yet to be fully explored in Mexican cinema. (Warning: MANY spoilers for “Roma” ahead!) Cuarón sets his story in 1970-1971 in the neighborhood of Mexico City called La Roma, and paints in black and white the parallel, everyday lives of a middle-class family and their indigenous servants. What is refreshing is that the director presents the story from the point of view of one of the maids, Cleo. As we follow her daily routine behind the scenes of family life, Cuarón takes us into the bilingual spaces where these invisible people forge the urban sustenance enjoyed by their white employers. Through great acting, directing, and camera work, Cuarón intricately weaves the lives of domestic workers with that of the family they serve, showing the class differences between them. At the same time, we note that they have much in common, especially Cleo and Sofía, the lady of the house: both women's lives begin to unravel after the men they love abandon them. Sofía is left with a family of unruly children and little money, and Cleo with an unwanted pregnancy. At first, a social distance that causes friction between them separates mistress and servant, but their trials and tribulations as abandoned women soon begin to bring them together. The personal struggles of the two women are subtly and symbolically set against scenes of the political and social upheaval that Mexico is also going through. “Siempre estamos solas” (we women are always on our own), says Sofía to Cleo in a pivotal scene, which emphasizes that sense of disruption, vulnerability, and violence present for all women in Mexico regardless of class or ethnicity, as depicted in this film. Cleo's situation, however, is further compounded by her indigenous background and uprooted existence; far from her village in the countryside, she is at the mercy of men and of her mistress as well. Forced by the circumstances, Cleo must choose whether to return to her native town, also beset by political turmoil, or confront her new urban reality and try to convince the father of her unborn child to marry her, but soon finds his more sinister side, which leads to a horrible experience and leaves her traumatized. Sofía and the children convince Cleo to make a trip with them to the beach in Veracruz, where she will have to confront once more a hard decision which will either redeem her or end disastrously. “Roma” goes beyond “Y tu mamá También” and is also far ahead of all the falsified female representations in telenovelas. It is a beautiful film that gives us a view of the social texture of a country in which the indigenous female strands are embedded and recognized for the important role they play in everyday life of the city. They are represented fully with an inner and outer existence, at work and at play, and with a complex intimate life. However, the success of “Roma” ultimately rests on Cuarón’s skillful film narrative, in which he shows that, despite class, social, or ethnic differences, indigenous and white Mexican women suffer similar fates at the hands of men; and that the survival of the family is not only dependent on the resilience and strength of females, but on their understanding of the human bonds that unify them.
Álvaro Ramírez, a native of Michoacán of Purépecha ancestry, has taught Spanish Golden Age and 20th Century Latin American Literature in the Department of Modern Languages at Saint Mary’s College of California, since 1993. At present he is also director of the Ethnic Studies Program. A scholar on the writings of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, essayist on Mexican culture and film and Chicano studies, he recently published a collection of short stories titled, Los Norteados (Ediciones Alfeízar, 2016) a couple of them first published in Somos en escrito.
Alfonso Cuarón and Yalitza Aparicio on the set of "Roma" Photo by Carlos Somonte
Cuarón’s “Roma,” a world of astounding diversity of indigenous stories
Second review, by David Martínez
Insofar as “Roma” is inspired by someone, Libo Rodriguez, who meant a great deal to the director, Alfonso Cuarón—she was the maid who raised him during his childhood in Mexico City—it is not surprising that the story of “Cleodegaria Gutiérrez,” who is affectionately called “Cleo,” and is played by the incredible Yalitza Aparicio, feels more like an act of veneration than merely a movie. Cuarón obviously wanted to honor the life of this woman in a way that did justice to both her character and her struggle by remembering cinematically her humanity in a world that largely overlooked people like herself.
As a Nahua-speaking indigenous person, Cleo is a part of the underclass of “Indios,” the poor, the peasants, whose ancient civilization has been appropriated into the national image of Mexico—such as the eagle and snake emblem of the Mexican flag—yet, whose modern descendants are accorded little more than second class citizenship.
Cleo, who has migrated from her unnamed village, where her people’s land is being seized by the Mexican federal government, works for a doctor and his family in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. The doctor’s family is not only wealthy but also “criollo,” meaning of European descent. In spite of the significant class differences, Cleo is regarded as a part of the family. Even compared to “Adela,” played by Nancy Garcia, who is the other maid in this household, Cleo has a more affectionate relationship with her employers, especially their four children. Having said that, there is no doubt that Cleo, and Adela, not to mention others in the family’s employ, are treated as servants. The mother, for example, “Sofia,” played by Marina de Tavira, does not hesitate to be direct, oftentimes terse, in her directions to her staff. More to the point, Cleo’s interaction with the doctor’s family affirms the normality of the class relations between the petit bourgeoise criollos and their indio servants.
As for the story that Cuarón tells about Cleo, ultimately it is a narrative of hardship and endurance, especially in the lives of women in Mexico. Occurring during the late 1960s—the 1968 Olympics is mentioned—Cleo’s personal ordeals, including a tragedy, are rendered against a backdrop of political upheaval in Mexican history.
Not many remember outside of Mexico the massacre that took place on October 2, 1968, when government troops surrounded a mass student protest at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in the Tlatelolco neighborhood, in which dozens were gunned down indiscriminately. The massacre is referenced to in frightening detail during a scene in which Cleo is shopping for a baby crib. She is pregnant, alone, and afraid.
Indeed, it is while the shooting occurs and some students run into the furniture store for safety that Cleo sees “Fermín,” played by Jorge Antonio Guerrero, her former boyfriend, who simply glares at her, gun in hand, before disappearing back into the chaos of the streets below. As I watched this scene unfold, I thought about what I had read about this terrible event. More specifically, I thought about Elena Poniatowska’s monumental 1971 book La noche de Tlatelolco, which was translated into Massacre in Mexico by Helen R. Lane (1975).
More to the point, I thought about the hundreds of testimonies that Poniatowska recorded in the pages of her book. Yet, there was neither any mention of the rights of indigenous people, their land disputes with the Mexican federal government, or, for that matter, of women’s rights. The student movement was mostly a middle-class movement, people who would become like the family that Cleo worked for, and who were fed up with their authoritarian government, led by President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. In light of which, I realized sadly that there was no one protesting on behalf of people like Cleo, be they indios or women. She had to persevere on her own.
At this point, it is important to observe that in spite of the layers of discrimination that Cleo encounters on a day-to-day basis, Cuarón is consistently respectful of her struggle. Despite her flaws, such as not returning home upon hearing that her mother’s land has been seized or choosing a boyish fool like Fermín for her lover, Cuarón is never judgmental or condescending toward Cleo or the community she represents.
If anything, “Roma” reveals that hardship in Mexican society is not limited to the poor, but goes all the way up the social ladder, including Sofia, whose story of misery parallels Cleo’s. On this level, the relationship between Cleo and Sofia, if Cuarón condemns anything explicitly in his film it is the way that Mexican society, especially its machismo culture, berates women.
Consequently, when “Roma” explores the coinciding lives of Cleo and Sofia, the film becomes a compliment to “Y Tu Mamá También” (2001), in which another woman’s tragic life unfurls in subtle yet dramatic tones, complete with a life-changing journey to the ocean. With this in mind, I am reluctant to join the chorus of critics who have faulted “Roma” for not being more aware of Cleo’s indigenous culture, either in terms of the villages that Mexico’s indigenous peoples inhabit or the urban subculture they maintain allover North America (including the immigrant community that certain US politicians love to demonize).
I am also reticent about criticizing Cuarón for not being more ideological or didactic about the colonization, racism, and globalization that created Cleo’s world in the first place. On the contrary, Cleo’s story is all the more profound for the way it shows how historical and inter-generational trauma, not to mention political and economic exploitation, come to dominate the lives of their victims without any banners, slogans, or lectures attached. One often has to go through much before one accesses the perspective that enables one to understand what has really happened and why.
As I watched Cleo’s epic tale unfold with each black and white scene, I thought about the many women in my life—I grew up poor and with very few advantages—whose generous yet vibrant spirits shaped me into what I am today, and how my memories of them have been nurtured by age and experience. Cuarón and I are of the same generation, and like him many of my memories were captured in countless black and white photos, which influenced the way that I remember people and events.
At the same time, this is not to say that the people I remember from long ago are without life and vitality. Aesthetically, Roma’s cinematography evokes the photographs of Manuel Álvarez Bravo and Graciela Iturbide. As such, Cuarón’s black and white images illustrate the mythology, the oral tradition, the Creation Story of the world that Cleo inhabits. For me, that is what “Roma” accomplishes when it recreates the world-building power of word and image.
In this sense, Cleo is a culture hero, like the icons portrayed in retablos, which express an adulation for the lives of saints. However, Cleo—Is she Catholic? Probably. Who knows?—does not affirm the teachings of the Church, but rather of the generations of migrants who have endured the travails of an indigenous world that has survived the Spanish Conquest, the Mexican Revolution, NAFTA, and now the threat of Donald Trump.
In the end, if I have any criticism of “Roma” it is that it was a bitter reminder of how infrequently stories like Cleo’s have been told, be it in film or novel. Gregorio Lopez y Fuentes’s El indio (1935) comes to mind, as does Carlos Fuentes’s La región más transparente (1958). In terms of film, only Gregory Nava’s “El norte” (1983) arises for immediate comparison.
My paltry list, however, does not mean that this is all that there is about this type of story, namely the indigenous class struggle. It only indicates how irregularly such stories appear in film and literature. On the other hand, there is a significant number of movies and novels about the Mexican, sometimes Central American, immigrant experience, not necessarily indigenous, such as Tony Richardson’s The Border (1982), Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Babel” (2006), Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Sin Nombre” (2009), and Jonás Cuaròn’s “Desierto” (2015).
With respect to literature, aside from the titles mentioned above, there is Gloria E Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), Victor Villaseñor’s Rain of Gold (1991), and Ron Arias’s The Wetback and Other Stories (2016), to name but a few. In the case of the indigenous experience, more than a subgenre of film and literature, the lives and stories of the peoples and nations of the Western Hemisphere constitute an expansive chronicle of communities whose roots go millennia beyond the arrival of the European settlers during the late 15th century.
As such, there is a connection to land, language, and kinship that informs the modern effects of globalization and transborder migration. Cleo’s story, if anything, is a story of how even when the Mexica homeland appears to be buried underneath layers and layers of colonial history and society, the indigenous claim to this place interjects itself into the contemporary lives of the people around them, reminding them of who really owns the land and how their days in this place may be numbered after all.
While there are undoubtedly many ways of telling Cleo’s story, including from the point of view of an indigenous writer and director—which we will hopefully see sometime soon—Cuarón’s “Roma”and Aparicio’s “Cleo” nevertheless transformed me. More specifically, as an indigenous person myself, I genuinely felt inspired to learn more about this world and the astounding diversity of indigenous stories and experiences that it holds.
David Martínez (Akimel O’odham/Mexican) is an associate professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University, Tempe Campus. He is the author of Dakota Philosopher: Charles Eastman and American Indian Thought (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009); editor of The American Indian Intellectual Tradition: An Anthology of Writings from 1772 to 1972 (Cornell University Press, 2011) and author of the forthcoming Life of the Indigenous Mind: Vine Deloria Jr and the Birth of the Red Power Movement (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).
Fragments of Tales and the Bonemeal of Humankind Two excerpts from Feathered Serpent Dark Heart Of Sky Myths of Mexico
By David Bowles
Five hundred years ago, Mexico was quite different. The Triple Alliance of Anahuac—what we now call the Aztec Empire—dominated an area that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific coast. Arrayed all around them were dozens of other nations: the Maya, the Purepecha, Zapotecs, Yaqui, Huichol, Huastec, and Tarahumara, among many others. All of these peoples had different languages, gods, and traditions. Over the centuries, though, migration, trade and conflict had spread certain common cultural traits widely. Twenty million people lived in this land when the Spanish arrived in 1519. But the conquistadores were not interested in the cultural richness of Mexico. In their single-minded hunger for glory and gold, in their zealous drive to see the “Indians” kneel to the Christian god, the Spanish swept across the landscape with their steel swords, their guns, their armored horses. They also brought with them diseases that devastated the indigenous population. It was genocide. Seventy-five years later, only one million people remained. Most of these survivors converted to Catholicism. Many blended with the Spanish colonists who came to occupy lands emptied by conquest. That fusion of races and ethnicities is called mestizaje. In time, a caste system was created to carefully separate this new hybrid population into special groups. Spaniards—both those born in Spain, peninsulares, and those born in Mexico, criollos—had the greatest rights and privileges. Below them others were ranked by how much Spanish blood ran through their veins: castizos (75%, with 25% indigenous), moriscos (75%, with 25% black), mestizos (50%, with 50% indigenous), mulattoes (50%, with 50% black). Pure indigenous and black individuals were at the very bottom of this social hierarchy. As a result of this caste system, the sort of life a person had was essentially determined by the number of Spanish ancestors they laid claim to. Light skin and eyes, European features—such attributes brought advancement and opportunity. As a result, those who were products of mestizaje often turned away from their own native heritage and sought to be more like the Spanish conquerors, even oppressing people with less Spanish blood than they had. Even after the caste system broke down and Mexico won its independence from Spain, traces of this old prejudice stubbornly survived. A fledgling Mexican identity was arising, however. The late 19th century saw a renewed interest in the pre- Colombian glories of the nation. But much had been lost. The few traditions that survived were diluted and fractured. And so they have remained, even down to my own generation. By the time my grandfather Manuel Garza was born, his family’s indigenous past had been wiped away. They were Spanish-speaking Mexicans, then Mexican- American Texans, heirs to traditions from across the sea. Ranches and cattle were the lifeblood of their community in northern Mexico and deep South Texas. Their norteño music and weekly mass were also European, if flavored with native spice. One of the worst insults was indio. Everyone swore their ancestors were pure Spanish. Even though the stories my grandparents, aunts and uncles told me when I was child were thick with local lore—strange boogeymen and wailing women—no trace remained of the old gods, the ancient priests, the vaunted heroes of Mexico’s pre- Colombian past. In school, I was taught—like my father—the myths of the Norse, the Egyptians, the Romans, and especially the Greeks. I devoured the Odyssey, hungry for those Bronze-Age sensibilities, that interweaving of human and divine. On my own I read other great epics of Western mythology: the Iliad, the Aeneid. I widened my net, plunged into India and its Ramayana, sought out the Sunjata of West Africa. But it wasn’t until I took a world literature class in college that I read a single Aztec or Maya myth. Amazing. I had attended schools just miles from the Mexican border, but not one of my teachers had spoken of Quetzalcoatl or Itzamna, of Cihuacoatl or Ixchel. My family also knew nothing of these Mesocamerican gods. Something important had been kept from me and other Mexican-American students. At first I was shocked and a bit angry. Yet who could I blame for five centuries of syncretism and erasure? Rather than lash out in response to the loss I felt, I began to scour the local libraries for every book I could find about pre-Colombian Mexican myths. In the end, I realized, it was my responsibility—knowing of this lack on my part—to reconnect with that forgotten past. That duty to the history of one’s people has never been better expressed than in one of the few remaining poems of the Maya, from the colonial-era manuscript Songs of Dzitbalché:
It’s vital we never lose count Of how many long generations Have passed since the faraway age When here in this land lived Great and powerful men Who lifted the walls of those cities— The ancient, awesome ruins, Pyramids rising like hills. We try to determine their meaning Here in our humbler towns, A meaning that matters today, One we draw from the signs Those men of the Golden Age-- Men of this land, our forefathers— Urged us to seek in the sky.
Consecrated to this task, We turn our faces upward As darkness slowly falls From zenith to horizon And fills the sky with stars In which we scry our fate.
I found quite a lot of meaning in those scattered myths. They helped me through some very dark moments in my life. In time I became a school teacher, then a university professor. Though no standards required it, I did my best to share the heritage I had rediscovered with my students. My passion for our lost past drove me even further: I began to study Mayan and Nahuatl, wanting to decipher the original indigenous texts myself without the filter of a translator’s voice. The difficulty was that so much had been destroyed. The Conquest not only decimated the native population of Mexico. It also eviscerated their literature, their history. Conquering soldiers and zealous priests had burned many of the indigenous manuscripts, and converted native minds shrugged off the lore of millennia. Though some Spaniards and mestizos sought to preserve what they could of the venerable old words, setting down songs and sayings using the foreign alphabet, the damage had been done. Today, we cannot just pick up the indigenous equivalent of the Odyssey and read it—beyond the Popol Vuh, a Quiché Maya text from Guatemala, no such work has survived in Mesoamerica. What we have are stories and fragments of stories, preserved piecemeal across multiple codices and colonial histories or passed down word-of-mouth for centuries in remote communities. As a result, the work of a chronicler or teacher is made very difficult: we have no cohesive narrative of Mexico’s mythic identity, no mythological history to rival other classical epics. As I pondered the dilemma, I saw a need for an exciting fusion of the different stories, one that could make Mesoamerican mythology come alive for a Western audience the way William Buck’s abridged take on the Ramayana did for Hindu epics, one that employs engaging, accessible, yet timeless language, much like Robert Fagles’ translations of the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid. So I set out to write the book you hold in your hands. Of course, I am hardly the first to retell these tales. The collections I found as a college freshman in different border libraries existed because of wonderful scholars and authors who gathered together written and orally transmitted myths and legends. What makes the present volume different is that—instead of telling the tales separately, discretely—I craft a single chronological narrative. Drawing from a variety of sources (especially Nahuatl and Maya texts such as the Popol Vuh, Cantares Mexicanos, the Codex Chimalpopoca, Primeros Memoriales and the Florentine Codex), this fresh take blurs the line between the legendary and the historical. My intent has been to stitch together myths and legends, organizing the tales so that they trace the mythic past of Mesoamerica from the creation of the world to the arrival of the Spanish. As a Mexican-American author and translator, I see myself as one of many transmitters of tradition down the generations. My renditions treat these stories with respect and intimacy, as though they depict actual events. Because of the state of the existing lore, however, I have used several different techniques to create English- language versions. A few of the pieces are simply translated with some editorial adjustments to fit the larger narrative. Others are looser adaptations of myths and legends with some partial translation. Many are straight-up retellings, often of orally transmitted stories. Quite a few of the myths are themselves syntheses of multiple sources, interwoven into a coherent narrative that I have quilted into the chronological sequence of the book itself. For the most part, I have synthesized several texts together from a single cultural tradition. A few times, however, I have blended Maya and Aztec cosmovisions wherever their overlap suggested an older Mesoamerican mythology from which both may have drawn. In such instances, I am not trying to erase the distinctiveness of the two very different cultures, but to reflect the hybrid mestizaje that has long been a characteristic of the Mexican identity. I have provided notes on my sources and a comprehensive bibliography. My hope is that readers will become intrigued or excited by the mythological history I have woven and feel compelled to dive into the original texts as I once did, seeking to find some part of myself reflected in those ancient, enduring words. David Bowles August 22, 2016
Armando Rendón. Feathered Serpent Head From Teotihuacan.2018. Photograph. Exhibit at de Young Museum, San Francisco
The Creation of Human Beings
The Fourth Age had come to an end. The gods, saddened at the destruction of the earth, gathered in Teotihuacan. “The sea-ringed world emerges. The heavens have been restored. But who will sing us songs? Who will worship us? Who will keep the cosmic wheels turning?” Feathered Serpent turned to the Divine Mother. “We must once more strive to make human beings. Let this new attempt combine all the strengths of the previous.” “To do so,” she told him, “we will need the bones of those who have died.” Hurricane smiled. “Brother, if you want them, you will have to descend to the Land of the Dead and petition the king and queen of that fell demesne.” “So be it,” Feathered Serpent declared, departing. He came to the river at the edge of the Underworld, which the dead can only cross on the back of a hound. Twinning himself so that his nahualli stood before him, he addressed that hairless spirit dog: “Xolotl, double of my heart, bear me across broad Apanohuayan so that on its farther shore I may seek the bones of the dead.” “Gladly, my plumed master. Seize the folds of flesh upon my back, and I will swim you to your destination.” And so all dogs buried with their owners for this purpose are called xoloitzcuintle to honor the nahualli of Feathered Serpent. With Xolotl’s aid, the creator god easily navigated the next eight obstacles and stood before the King and Queen of Death in their eldritch, windowless palace at the heart of the Underworld. “What brings you to our realm now, after so many years, O Feathered Serpent?” asked the king, his eyes like pinpricks of fire in the black orbs of his skull, framed by his owl-plume headdress. The god’s tilma and breechcloth were spattered with blood, and round his neck he wore a chain of human eyeballs. “I am come to take the precious bones that you have guarded with such diligence.” “And what will you do with them, Lord Creator?” asked the queen. “The gods in Tamoanchan need humans to ease their sadness. With these remains, I will fashion a new race of men and women to praise and honor us. They will be mortal, so their bones will return to your hands, as will the bones of their children and their children’s children, for as long as this Fifth Age shall last.” “Very well,” replied the king. “First, however, as a sign of honor, take this my conch and travel four times round my realm, sounding an exultant call as you go.” Feathered Serpent agreed, but as he prepared to sound the shell trumpet, he realized the conch had no hole for blowing. Summoning worms, he had them burrow in at the apex of the spire and smooth its hollow interior. Then he had bees and hornets fly inside, adding their distinctive buzz to the air he sent rushing through the whorls of the conch. The resulting call could be heard in every corner of the Underworld, even in the very throne room of Lord and Lady Death. After his fourth circuit of the Land of the Dead, Feathered Serpent made his way back to its center and stood once more before the sovereigns of that realm. “Very well, take the bones,” growled the King of Death. Once Feathered Serpent had departed the palace to collect the bones, however, the skeletal god called together his council, the lords of that frightful realm. “Go after that plumed snake, my vassals, and tell him that I have changed my mind. He must leave at once without the bones.” The ghastly messengers caught up to the creator god and repeated their sovereign’s command. Feathered Serpent reluctantly agreed. “I will leave then. Tell your king and queen.” The lords of the netherworld watched him fly off, heading out of the Land of the Dead by the eastern route the sun once took to emerge at dawn each day. They themselves traveled back to the eerie castle to inform their masters. But they were deceived. When Feathered Serpent had heard in his heart the command of the King of Death, he had told Xolotl: “I must take these bones, forever. I need you to change shapes with me. Having assumed my form, you will agree to the king’s wishes. Once you and the messengers have gone, I will steal the remains and flee.” So it was that he emerged from a place of hiding in the form of his nahualli, gathered the bones of men and women, wrapped them in a bundle, then rushed like the wind to avoid detection. The god of death became aware of the ruse, however, and he called again to his council: “Lords, Feathered Serpent is at this very moment stealing the precious bones! Use all haste to cut him off before he emerges in the sea-ringed world: dig a pit into which he will fall and be trapped!” Using hidden routes known only to the rulers of the Realm of Fright, the dread lords raced ahead of the Feathered Serpent and fashioned a vast and cunningly disguised pit. The creator god, startled by a covey of quail that swirled about him on the king’s command, tumbled into the trap, smashing the bones into smaller bits. Shooing away the birds, which had begun pecking and nibbling at the fragments, Feathered Serpent gathered up the remains and assumed once more his true form. “Ah, Xolotl, how was I so easily deceived? Not one of them is whole.” The twin of his heart answered from within. “All is as it must be. The bones have been shattered, but they will have to suffice.” Feathered Serpent seized the bundled bones in his canine jaws and ascended to Tamoanchan. He placed the bones in the Protector’s hands, crying out: “Divine Mother, the bones are broken! What can we do?” The Divine Mother smiled. “All must be broken before it is made whole. We will now grind the remains into powder, my sister and I. Then all of us must do the proper penance to moisten the bone flour so it can be kneaded and shaped.” When the Divine Mother and the Protector had used metate and mano to pulverize the bones, Feathered Serpent pierced his flesh and bled into the flour. Then each of the gods in turn did the same. The resulting dough was shaped into men and women who were brought to life by the spirits wending their way down from Omeyocan, sent by our grandparents to inhabit the sturdy new forms. Feathered Serpent bowed his head as the humans opened their eyes. “Thus is our hope born. We did penance to deserve their existence. Now they will do penance to preserve ours.”
David Bowles, has taught English and education courses at the University of Texas since 1997. A product of an ethnically diverse family with Latino roots in the Río Grande Valley of south Texas, his focus is on the study of indigenous philosophy, mythology, and legend through primary sources. He is the award-winning author of several books, including Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry (2013); Shattering and Bricolage (2014); Border Lore: Folktales and Legends of South Texas(2015); and The Smoking Mirror (2015). His translations have appeared in various venues, including Somos en escrito. He may be contacted at:email@example.com or www.davidbowles.us.Feathered Serpent is available from Cinco Puntos Press,www.cincopuntos.com.
Comment from: Rosa MIzerskiMarch 25, 2018 at 11:00 AM Beautiful English rendition of "The Creation of Human Beings." The themes of the underworld, "Prometheus," and dogs as companions in epic journeys resonate with those of the Eurasia, even though it had been at least 10,000 years since the human migration from the old world. Nothing is truly destroyed. It is remembered once again in the imagination. --Rosa Martha Villarreal
Felicitas Peña Morales, Tlaxcatecan, the author’s paternal grandmother
By Rosa Martha Villarreal
When Elena Garro wrote her short story, “La culpa es de los Tlaxcaltecans,” she was drawing from the popular Mexican myths about the fall of Mexico-Tenochititlán, in which the innocent Aztecs were destroyed by the evil Spaniards with the help of Cortés’s treacherous Indian allies. Foremost was Malintzín, the Nahua noblewoman who was sold into slavery by her own mother and step-father and who later became Cortes’s lover-translator and mother of one of the first mestizos, Martín Cortés. Second on the list of villains were the Tlaxcaltecans. A popular Mexican saying goes: How could Cortés with 500 men and 15 horses conquer La Gran Tenochtitlán? Blame the Tlaxcaltecans.
However, history is more complicated than myths, especially those predicated on grievance and victimhood. I bring this up because my paternal grandmother, Felicitas Peña, was a Tlaxcatecan. She was actually a mestiza, descendant also from some of the prominent founding Spanish families of Northern Mexico, but she identified with her indigenous ancestors who made up most of her DNA, the Tlaxcaltecans.
Once, when my father was in grade school, he told Felicitas about what he had learned in school about the conquest of Mexico. Mexico in the 1930s was in its heady days of nationalism and a long-overdue embrace of its indigenous origins. When people thought of Jose Vasconcelos’ “LaRaza Cósmica,” they imagined themselves as Aztecs.
My grandmother listened intently and waited for my father to finish. Then she told him, “The Aztecs were defeated because they were assassins.” Their victims were my grandmother’s people, the Tlaxcaltecans, whom the Aztecs not only wanted to conquer but whose captured warriors were premiere sacrificial victims for their blood-thirsty national god, Huitzilopochtli.
Although all of the Mesoamerican societies, including the Tlaxcaltecans, practiced human sacrifice, none matched the Aztecs in scale. The level of human sacrifice increased during periods of crisis. There was no bigger crisis than the foretold doom of the world in the year of Ce Acatl Topiltzin, 1519 C.E.
Cortés offered the Tlaxcaltecans the opportunity to rid themselves of their nemesis once and for all, which they did with brutal efficiency.
For the last 25 years or so, Mexican historians have begun to re-examine the history of the conquest through the lens of post-nationalism. As with other contemporary historical revisions, different narratives are taken into perspective. For example, the role of Malintzín. Historians now question the traitor label, instead focusing on her as an individual woman.
What could she have done differently given the circumstances? What would anyone of us do if confronted with her situation while disempowered? The name “Malinche,” which means “Malinalli’s captain” in Nahuatl, referred to Cortés. “Here comes Malinche,” the Indian noblemen would say whenever they saw Cortés. Because he always kept his translator at his side, the name incorrectly stuck to her.
But I digress. My grandmother remembered her heritage and history so vividly that she spoke about the enmity between her people and the Aztecs as if she had lived in the times of the conquest, a living memory confirmed in the written records of the learned (surviving) Indian wise men of the era, Catholic Frays, and even in the letters, official decrees, and the church records which at times offer the commentary of the parish priests. These records were ignored, marginalized, or dismissed in favor of the big picture narrative, the binary mythology that was emotionally satisfying but only a partial truth.
Tlaxcatecans in the Parish Records of the Villa de San Esteban de Tlaxcala, 1693 (Saltillo, Coahuila)
When Cortés landed in Vera Cruz in 1519, he conquered one Indian nation after the other. His arrival coincided with the prophecies of the end times for the native peoples. (It was either a coincidence or else some skillful manipulation of space-time and consciousness by the magicians and wise men.) The ambivalence of the people first enabled Cortés essentially to run over the native towns, since they feared he was a god.
All went as planned until he tried to conquer Tlaxcala, a confederation of Nahua-speaking chiefdoms. Tlaxcala was one of many civilizations in Mesoamerica. It had a capital city, located at the archeological ruins of Cacaxtla, replete with its pyramids and ceremonial centers. They practiced the same religion and customs as the Aztecs. (Tlaxcala today has some of the best-preserved Mesoamerican murals.)
However, the Tlaxcaltecans were not an imperial nation like the Aztecs. The latter set out and conquered all of the surrounding civilizations and subjugated the Mixtec, the Olmec, the Tarascan, the Maya, among others. Tlaxcala, nestled high in the mountains east of Tenochtitlán, was another story. The Tlaxcaltecans maintained their independence and freedom from Aztec hegemony through the use of defensive fortifications and an excellent cadre of warriors, among them the legendary warrior, Tlahuicole.
When he was ultimately captured by the Aztecs, he was offered amnesty by Moctezuma II if he helped conquer the Tarascans, which he did. When the emperor asked him to take his sword against his homeland, he instead chose a ceremonial death for his honor and his country. Chained to a stone, he battled one Aztec warrior after another, killing many until exhaustion made him an easy kill. Tlaxcala never forgot. Today, it is Tlahuicole, not Cuauhtémoc, whom the Tlaxcaltecans revere.
When Cortés approached the borders of Tlaxcala, the council of chiefs, headed by Xicotenga the Elder, debated whether to confront the invaders or surrender. Many were fearful because of the horses. The giant “deer,” they said, became a single creature with the man. But Xicotenga’s son, Xicotenga the Younger, was unconvinced. These were mere men, he argued, and the deer were just animals unknown to them. The warrior argued that if a horse could be killed, then it was not some supernatural creature. Although the Tlaxcaltecans suffered large losses in the battle, Xicotenga killed a horse and turned the tide. Cortés sued for peace. His god charade was over.
The Tlaxcaltecans agreed to ally themselves with Spain on certain conditions, mainly retention of their territory and freedom from servitude and tribute. Spain for the most part honored their end of the contract. They did infringe on some territory, but Tlaxcala basically remained intact. The Tlaxcaltecans, unlike other indigenous peoples, were addressed as Don/Doña; they rode horses, wore boots, and given privileges reserved for Spaniards.
In 1591, the Spanish Crown asked the Tlaxcaltecans to colonize the hostile north and help subdue the local nomadic peoples. On July 9th, 1591, four hundred families, my grandmother’s forebears among them, departed northward. Every year, the people of Tlaxcala commemorated this event in the Festival of the Parting of 400 Families.
My grandmother’s people settled in the vicinity of Saltillo, Nueva Extremadura (Coahuila) and founded the town of San Esteban de Tlaxcala, and later she’d say that her family still had ancestral lands there. In 1800, a group of Tlaxcaltecans moved north, to the Villa of San Andres (Nava, Coahuila). The Villa de San Andres was first founded in 1753 but failed to take root and was essentially abandoned. In the waning days of Colonial Mexico, the Spanish crown determined to re-establish the town, most likely as a defensive settlement against the war-like, horse-riding Chichimecas (Apaches and Comanches, et al.).
The Tlaxcatecan forces served as auxiliaries in the War of Conquest. Source: Lienzo de Tlaxcala via Wikipedia
While investigating my family’s genealogy, I’ve recovered some of the names of Felicitas Peña’s Tlaxcatecan ancestors among them Don Ygnacio Ramos and Doña Juana Balbina. (One of Felicita’s Spanish ancestors, Juan Peña was also an early settler of Nava.) Spanish and Tlaxcaltecans settlers, besides land, were given a starter kit of sorts, consisting of a wagon, beast of burden, hardware, seed, and cattle. They were to provide their own weapons and horses and serve in the king’s militias.
Many of the men were killed by Chichimecas in ambushes and pitched battles. I’ve come across pages listing the dead of these battles. Some of the descriptions of the corpses are graphic accounts of mutilations and desecration of the dead. The nomadic Indians were fierce, brutal, and determined warriors, far from helpless victims of contemporary myths. Needless, to say, there was no love lost between the settlers and the Chichimecas. But, unlike others who, remembering the stories of their ancestors’ Indian wars as if they themselves had lived them, Felicitas never hated other Indians.
I always remember her being kind and generous to the Kickapoo whenever they---the Kickapoo--migrated back and forth from their land, Nacimiento, in Múzquiz and their lands in Texas. She was never openly affectionate or given to weeping like my grandfather who would cry if he sang a sad song. She had the taciturn manner of her native ancestors and retreated into her silences.
Sometimes, when she’d hear of another’s suffering, she’d murmur, “Pobre,” and seemed to drift back into the solitude of the forgone centuries of life in the harsh and unforgiving Extremadura, a land where time lost its significance, and all of the past seemed as if it were yesterday. Her own mother died at 28, and shortly thereafter her father was murdered. Shaped by sorrow, she is one of my heroes. From her I learned that despite hardship and violence, our hearts are still capable of love.
This all brings back the popular Mexican narratives. The fallacy of the Mexican (and, by extension, the Chicano) narrative is that it posits that our mestizaje is Aztec based, when it is diverse: Tarascan, Huichol, Tarahumara, Kickapoo, Maya, Otomi, Olmec, Toltec, and so on. The fallacy of all “race” based nationalistic narratives is, in fact, that they ignore the marginalized narratives, histories, and archeological evidence, which confirm that ethnic admixture was the norm.
The Tlaxcaltecans, for example, were a mixture of ancient Tlaxcaltecans, Otomis, and Olmecs. The Spanish were Celtic-Iberians, Phoenicians, Jews, Visigoths, Vandals, Moroccans, Arabs, Basques, Vikings, and Romans. It is fascinating to know our origins and take pride in the accomplishments of our ancestors. However, other peoples, too, are equally enthused and proud of their ancestors.
This factor of the human condition being equal regardless of our origins, we (I hope) are entering into a new era, one that moves away from identity politics. Myself, I identify with classic critical thinkers of all backgrounds who love exploring new ideas and are inclined to deconstruction of conventional constructs. These are my people of choice. As for our biological identity, the empirical data reveals that there’s only one raza cósmica: Homo sapiens. Felicitas Peña understood this from the collective memory and wisdom of her people.
Rosa Martha Villarreal, a retired Adjunct Professor at Consumnes River College in Sacramento, California, is author of several novels important to American literature, including Doctor Magdalena, The Stillness of Love and Exile, and Chronicles of Air and Dreams, and a children's book, The Adventures of Wyglaf the Wyrm. Copyright Rosa Martha Villarreal, 2017.