Race, Slavery and the Casta System

“His mind was taken with his servant’s story and what it revealed about this strange land, now his home for nearly fifty years. The strangeness of the casta system, its artificial chopping and slicing of human families into rigid categories was now laid bare in the roots of a single man. The Spaniards, so precariously perched on top of this fluid and diverse mass of humanity, went to great extremes to hold this babel at bay, even though with each generation their families became more intimately entangled with the polyglot population of this new continent.  He thought back on his father’s words about the elephant and thought about the Spaniards’ fears, their need for separation, for dominance. The elephant wants what it needs, and the rider just makes it all up as he crashes along on its back.   

"Wasn’t it all just a lost cause? How long can the few criollo families continue to intermarry? Already here and there, from one generation to another, a third son or a homely daughter is settling for a mestizo or a morisco, a torna atras or an albina. Not to mention the little families created on the side, the children a few shades lighter than their Indian or mestiza mothers. His own son married the favored daughter of one such family, the father making up for the tawny cast of her skin with a hundred head of cattle and a couple of house slaves. In time, Chapa wondered, won’t we all end up as one great mongrel people?"    P.36

“Francisco despaired of his daughter’s rejection of her beautiful Indian face and body, but he knew that a woman’s status, her very worth as a human being, depended on how European her hair, skin and face appeared. His grandmother once told him that the conquest of Mexico was really the conquest of the Indigena woman; the imposition of Spanish blood on Indian bodies now set the standard for beauty and worth.” P. 89

“How then did you become a free man?” asked Chapa, trying to steer the subject away from these incendiary ideas, ideas that struck just a little too close to the bone. It was true, he knew. Once a slave was part of the household, they became so familiar that it was impossible to see them as they had to be seen in order to justify their enslavement. The idea that they were somehow less than fully human was put to the lie each time a master reached for a slave, or a peninsular baby cried for her ama. Chapa shook his head suddenly, as if to free himself from his own thoughts.” P 159

“Most came in search of a dream, a better life.  You have to know, Francisco, the wild exaggerated stories that were told about the boundless wealth of New Spain. People came with this hope, but I won’t lie to you, Francisco, there was often a darker impulse as well. In Spain a peasant is the lowest of the low, but here, no matter how poor, he is the superior of even the richest mestizo or mulato. And women, countless women of Indian blood could be had easily, too easily I’m afraid—the devil places that desire in all men’s hearts. In some ways it is shameful that the roots of New Spain rest so deeply in the greed and lust of those who came to settle her.” P. 133. 


Philosophy and Morality

“What drives men to seek portents and signs? Wasn’t the natural world God created miraculous enough? Did men use miracles and visions to bridge the gaps in their understanding, to fill the spaces between the naked observations of life and the beliefs they held in their hearts? Were these superstitious visions necessary to stay sane in such a harsh and confusing world? […] These questions weighed on him more and more of late, in a way they had not since those distant afternoons with Don Martín. Chapa had always felt superior to those who saw the devil in every sick cow, or the act of an angel in every misplaced key or unexpected meeting with an old friend. He knew it was because they couldn’t live with the ambiguity of this vast and complex world, couldn’t just accept that it was well beyond the comprehension of any human mind.” P 172

"We all knew it, but never dared speak it aloud: all knew that maintaining this empire required the free labor of the Indians. Without that foundation, the whole edifice would collapse. So-called reforms shifted the names and conventions just enough to appease those few moralizing factions within the Church, just enough to help the priests keep their hold on hearts of the Indians." P. 173

"How deep was that bargain? Was the promise of a Christian world merely muddied by petty greed that could be cleansed, or were the very beams of the house rotted from the inside? Kings naturally serve themselves and the glory of their nation. But the Church, supposedly, served the greatest, yet most elusive power of all. Who did the Church in New Spain really see as its true master? Were it shown its own true reflection, its own dark mirror, would the Church choose to serve Power, or would it choose Truth? Chapa was reminded of Seneca’s pithy statement, which he had once read but could never repeat out loud, “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false and by the rulers as useful.” P.174


Church and State in Colonial Mexico

"Here, at the end of life, his cheap delusions were unraveling, the truth laid bare before his eyes. Francisco’s persistent questioning, polite though he was, were serving as a different kind of mirror, a darker glass that forced him to reexamine all the justifications of Church and Crown, the partnership that had conquered an ancient land and built this new empire across the waves, this New Spain."

"The Spaniards needed labor to build their empire, the Church created the encomienda system of force labor and justified it in the name of bringing the Indians to God. When reformers inside the Church finally forced her to recognize the brutal encomienda as the slavery it was, the Spaniards developed the more refined repartimiento, a different kind of forced labor, this time managed directly by the Crown. [Hide Here]This ‘enlightened’ system, which he had spent his career enforcing and protecting, was supposed to ensure more Christian treatment of the indigenas, but in his heart he knew it was just a new coat on the same fat, corrupt hidalgo." 

"We all knew it, but never dared speak it aloud: all knew that maintaining this empire required the free labor of the Indians. Without that foundation, the whole edifice would collapse. So-called reforms shifted the names and conventions just enough to appease those few moralizing factions within the Church, just enough to help the priests keep their hold on hearts of the Indians."


Dreams, Imagination and
the Illusion of Consciousness

“Like all men, I have always had nightmares on occasion, particularly in times of great peril or stress. But the dreams which trouble me now are different, darker and more intense. They first came to me when I started writing my Historia. I wrote incessantly from 1686 almost until 1691, determined to finish the work Don Alonso de León had started when he wrote his first history of Nuevo León. I discovered that after a long night of writing, especially if it concerned a matter of great personal significance, when I went to sleep I would relive the subject of my writing with an intensity and vividness that frightened me. At times, I could almost direct my dreams—in some cases even the nightmares.

Chapa paused, considering how to phrase his next thought. “But I wonder now whether my writing directed my dreams or were my dreams, somehow, dictating the course of my writing? I still don’t know. I have often asked myself whether I was too fearful to write of some events because of the dreams that would follow? Other times, I wondered if there was some unseen power that was guiding me through my dreams?  Regardless, Francisco, I will say that sometimes it felt almost magical, the way my writing became intertwined with my dreams. I became obsessed, even though some of the nightmares were terrifying. But I didn’t care. It was like eating hot chile; I couldn’t stop myself. I kept wanting more.” P.96-97

“Francisco thought for a moment and then began. “My Indian grandmother always said that dreams are as powerful as waking life. They reflect a person’s true nature as clearly as a still, dark pool of water; deep truths that are more powerful than we care to admit,” said Francisco. “My grandmother told me that dreams are like the slate-black pyrite mirrors found in the Aztec pyramids: they have the power to show us not just the truth visible on the surface, but the secret truth that lies buried within.” P 98