Saturday, April 15, 2017

Relativity, continued

Now I am fifteen, sitting in my American History class, in a Catholic high school in the Deep South. I am a little nervous because we are studying the discovery of America and I fear that my teacher, like my Ecuadorian teacher before him, will attack me for Spain's role in the conquest. But I needn't have worried. The talk here is all about Columbus, which makes the Italian kids in the class feel important. Just before the bell rings, almost in passing, the teacher briefly mentions the queen of Spain.

How is this possible? In my Spanish school, Isabel, la Reina Católica, was presented to us girls as a paragon of womanhood, a queen who shared equal power with her husband, Fernando de Aragón. She unified the squabbling kingdoms of the peninsula into one great country, won a decisive victory over the Moors, and was the only European ruler who listened to Columbus and gave him the money, the men, and the ships to embark on his crazy adventure. But in this American classroom, the queen and her magnificent enterprise are dismissed with barely a word. Perhaps, I tell myself, we will learn more about Spain's role in America in the next class.

But instead, in the next class we celebrate the arrival of the English in North America, and the establishment of the New England colonies. Not much is said about the the Indians that the colonists encountered, and I wonder what happened to them, since there don't seem to be nearly as many around as there are in South America...

I have now studied the events of 1492 in three different countries. In Spain, we were taught the discovery and conquest of the New World as a glorious chapter in the history of humanity. In Ecuador, my teacher presented Spain as a cruel and greedy imperialist power. Now, in my American classroom, Spanish history is all but ignored. One historical era, and three completely different versions of it--my adolescent brain is beginning to suspect that history class may not be all that different from literature class.

Three years pass, and now I'm sitting in Western Civ, in my liberal arts college, also in the Deep South. We are back to 1492, and the professor, unlike my high school teacher, does pay Queen Isabella some attention. But now she is presented as a monster who expelled the Moors and the Jews from Spain and gave the Inquisition the power to torture and kill in the name of the Catholic faith. Oddly, I don't remember being taught about the Inquisition in  my Catholic high school.

Soon we get to Elizabeth I, and I am amazed to hear her described as a powerful, enlightened monarch who vanquished Spain and put England at the head of the civilized world. I dimly recall my teacher in Spain describing the Virgin Queen as a thief who paid pirates to sink Spanish ships...

I am older now and these discrepancies no longer upset me like they used to. I realize that Western Civ is a handy framework on which to hang what I am learning in other classes on European art, philosophy, and literature. And for relief from the treacherous sands of history there is always my Biology major, which I have chosen because it seems to offer firm ground for my wobbly mind. In my white lab coat, inhaling formaldehyde fumes, I can put a slide under the microscope and identify this tiny swimming animal as a Paramecium and that tiny photosynthesizing plant as a Euglena, and take comfort in the belief that scientists all over the world agree with my identification.

This is the 1960s, however, and Biology is changing rapidly. Little do I suspect that by the end of the decade both Paramecium and Euglena, no longer clearly identified as either animal or plant, will be dumped into that swamp of uncertainty, the kingdom Protista. But by then I am in graduate school, studying French literature, which everyone agrees is just words anyway.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Relativity


"You, Benejam, stand up, please," says Madre Mercedes del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús ("Corazón," for short). "Tell us what you think about what I have just said."

She teaches the fifth-grade class in Quito, Ecuador, where I have recently arrived from Spain. And what she has just said is that, shortly after Columbus discovered America, Francisco Pizarro and two-hundred Spanish soldiers, impelled by greed and blood-lust, conquered the Inca empire that extended from Colombia to Chile. They captured the Inca ruler, Atahualpa, and, even though Atahualpa offered them a room filled with gold to a man's height in exchange for his life, they basely murdered him and untold thousands of others.

What, Corazón  wants to know, do I, as a Spaniard, have to say to that?

Standing in the back of the room, with my classmates' eyes upon me, I open my mouth and quickly close it. My ten-year-old mind is blank. Corazón's account of my country's conquest of America is strangely different from what I learned just a few months ago in my history class in Barcelona.

There I was taught that the conquest of the Americas was one of the greatest achievements not only in the history of Spain, but in the history of mankind. Braving the dangers of an unknown ocean in ridiculously small boats, our fearless ancestors sallied forth to bring to the new continent our language, our culture, and, most important, the Catholic faith, thanks to which the natives stopped offering human sacrifices to their gods and started going to heaven after they died. We should feel proud, our teacher said, of what Spain did for America, and the proof was that our former colonies call Spain la madre patria and have become our friends and allies.

Right now, Corazón, all but sneering as I squirm, doesn't seem very friendly to me. Neither do my staring classmates, even the ones who have told me proudly that there was "a real Spaniard" somewhere in their family tree.

I scour my brain for clues from the bits of history I know. Before the conquest of America, Spain herself had been conquered in turn by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Celts, Romans, Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, and Moors. They had swept over the peninsula leaving blood and carnage, but also roads, temples, aqueducts, and mosques, in their wake. Just two centuries ago the French under Napoleon had invaded Spain. Does this mean that I should hate Françoise, the pianist from the Paris Conservatoire who plays sonatas with my father the way that Corazón seems to hate me?

I stare out the classroom window at the light glinting on the snows of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, and think of ways to defend myself. "But wait!" I say, "haven't killed any Indians. Neither did my parents, or my grandparents, or my..."

"Sit down, Benejam," says the nun, "and be quiet. The conquistadores were from your country, and you should be ashamed."

It strikes me, as the lesson continues and I sit fuming, that there are strong parallels between Corazón's train of thought and the doctrine of Original Sin. Because Adam and Eve ate an apple a million years ago, I now bear the taint of sin on my soul, which means that, as a "daughter of Eve," I will be punished with menstrual periods and labor pains. How much more unfair can you get?

From that day on, whenever the subject of Spain comes up, I keep a low profile. This is especially important when we sing the Ecuadorian national anthem, which with its references to Spain as a bloody monster (monstruo sangriento), a defeated lion (león destrozado) roaring with impotence and spite, may cause my classmates to turn on me in a fit of patriotic fervor.

I was neither sophisticated nor carefree enough to navigate these choppy international waters. If I had stayed in Spain, I would have continued to think comfortably of the conquest of America as one of the glories of European civilization. But now, despite my anger at the way Corazón had embarrassed me in front of my classmates, I had to admit that she might be right. Did the "gifts" of "civilization" and the one true faith really compensate all those poor Indians for their terrible losses?

Nobody explained these things to me, but I soon began to suspect that history might not always be an exact account of what really happened. Perhaps what I read in the history textbooks had been written to make children grow up to be patriots who would defend their country no matter what. But if one nation's story of glory and heroism could be another nation's story of suffering and pain, what did patriotism really mean? (To be continued.)