ON WRITING ABOUT MEXICO:
SECRETS AND SURPRISES
of Centennial Lecture
University of Texas El Paso
El Paso, Texas, October 7, 2015
you, Diana Natalicio,
President of University of Texas El Paso, and everyone at here
who made my visit and this lecture possible. And thank you very
much to Roberto Coronado and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas,
El Paso Branch. And thank you all for making the effort to attend
this evening. Special thanks to my much-admired creative writing
colleague and old friend, Lex Williford.
My husband, who is
Mexican, likes to joke that I missed being born Mexican by five
miles. You might guess that means that I was born right here
in El Pasothis "City of Surprises," as writer
and editor Marcia Hatfield Daudistel calls it. My dad was an
artillery officer stationed at Fort Blissand I understand
that he took some engineering classes here at UT El Paso. So
it is a very special honor for me, as a native El Pasoan, to
have been invited to speak to you today.
I can't say it's like
coming home, because my parents are from Chicago and New York,
and when I was still a baby, my dad decided on a career in business,
and he took the family out to Californiato the part of
the San Francisco Bay Area now known as Silicon Valley. Culturally
speaking, I'm a Californian.
But back to El Pasoto
quote Marcia Hatfield Daudistel again this "dark-eyed
stranger abducted into Texas by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
For me, to be here
in El Paso is like coming home in another, deeply meaningful
sense. This is a border city. I am a border person. Where others
might be... let's say, a little nervous... we border people go
back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico with ease, we are
oftentimes bilingual, bicultural or at least we don't blink
at some of the more exotic juxtapositions, whether culinary or
musical, and the mixed up lingo. I too, have been known to speak
my gringa-chilanga version Spanglishor, I might throw clumps
of español para que me entiendes bien
into my English.
I don't live on the
border geographically, but culturally. I mean to say, when I
got married 29 years ago, my husband and I moved to Mexico Cityhis
home town, Chilangolandiaand now I have lived in Mexico
City for more years than I have lived anywhere else, including
California. And I should mention, I don't live in Mexico as a
typical expat, coccooned among my fellow Americans and Canadian
snowbirds. I am enconsed in a Mexican family, living in a Mexican
neighborhood, and I have many very dear Mexican friends and colleagues.
Long story short, over the last three decades of my life, although
I remain a U.S. citizen, Mexico has become my world. This is
why my books are all about Mexico.
I hope my books might
be both beautiful and usefulI write them with as much courtesy
for the reader as I can muster. But the truth is, the reason
I write them is because I want to delve in and explore the complexity
around me, and then, having gained a new level of understanding,
tell the story my way. Living in Mexico, very quickly, I learned
to distrust the easy assumptions and much of the narrative about
Mexico spooned out for us, whether on this side of the border
or the other, whether in tourist guides, newspapers, television,
paperback novels, movies. And sometimes... even in textbooks.
In Mexico, it is often
said that nothing is as it seems. If you halt the show and question
sincerely and energetically question read the bibliography,
and read beyond the bibliography; take the time to interview
people, really listen, with both an open mind and an open-heart;
go to places and stand there and look around for yourself; roll
up your sleeves and dig into the archives... it has consistently
been my experience that you will uncover secrets and surprises.
Of course, that could
be said about the whole world, from Azerbaijan to Zambia. And
El Paso, Texas, itself. But Mexico is what my books are about.
I won't stretch your patience to go on about all the books. I'm
going to give you but three examples.
The first is from my travel
memoir, MIRACULOUS AIR: JOURNEY
OF A THOUSAND MILES THROUGH BAJA CALIFORNIA, THE OTHER MEXICO.
The title comes from
a quote from John Steinbeck's The Log from the Sea of
Cortez. "The very air here is miraculous and the outlines
of reality change with the moment."
There were a multitude
of surprises for me in writing this book, but here is one:
What I had been told as a child in the California public school
system, that the California missions, founded by the Spanish
padres, began in San Diego, was not only not trueit
obscured one of the greatest, strangest, and most tragic stories
of the Americas, that of the indigenous peoples' encounter with
the Jesuit missionaries, whose first permanent California mission
was hundreds of miles south of San Diego, on the Sea of Cortez
Loreto: Yes, that is an Italian name. The Jesuits named it after
after an important basilica in Italy which enshrines a brick
house as the Church asserts, this is house of the Virgin
Mary, brought from Nazareth during the Crusades by angels who
flew it over the Adriatic Sea.
Loreto was founded in the late 17th century roughly the
same time that in the province of Texas, we see the first Spanish
settlement at San Francisco de los Tejas.
When the Jesuits arrived
in California, as they called this nearly 1,000 mile-long peninsula,
they believed it was an island. Today we call it Baja or Lower
California and unlike Upper California, lost to the United States
after the US-Mexican War, it remains part of Mexico.
Spanish padres all?
The Jesuit missionary who founded Loreto was Giovanni Salvaterra,
an Italian from Milan, who, on arriving in New Spain, hispanicized
his name to Juan María Salvatierra. One of his right-hand
men, and a founder of other missions in California, was Father
Francesco Piccolo, a Sicilian. Among the Jesuit padres in California,
or as we say today, Baja California, there were a Frenchman,
a Czech, a Scotsman, a Bavarian, a Bohemian. Many Germans.
In 1767, for reasons
known only to himself, the Spanish king decided to expell the
Jesuits from his realm. The newly appointed governor of California,
Don Gaspar de Portoláwho would, eventually, head
north with the Franciscans who would found the so-called California
missions that I learned about in school arrived in Loreto
later that year.
And this is what happenedthe
part of the storyand it is only a partas I told it
from the Jesuits' point of view:
From all over the peninsula
the missionaries began to arrive at Loreto: from the South, Ignác
Tirsch and Johann Bischoff; from Dolores, Lambert Hostell; from
San Luis Gonzaga, Johann Jakob Baegert; José Juan Díez
from La Purísima, Franz Inama von Sternegg from San José
de Comondú, Miguel del Barco from San Javier. Francisco
Escalante came from Santa Rosalía de Mulegé, José
Rothea from San Ignacio, and Victoriano Arnés from Santa
María Cabujakaamung, leaving still-green his first crops
of wheat and cotton. At Mission Santa Gertrudis, Georg Retz had
broken his leg and could neither walk nor ride; his neophytes
carried him on a litter the nearly two hundred miles through
the canyons of the Sierra de San Francisco, the Vizcaíno
Desert, and the Sierra de Guadalupe. Wenceslaus Linck arrived
last, because he was delayed tending to the dying in an epidemic
at his Mission San Francisco de Borja. When the missionaries
reached Loreto, Governor Portolá embraced each of them
and, as was the Spanish custom, he kissed their hands.
Portolá had read the Order of Expulsion and taken possession
of the Jesuits' treasury and storehouse: a meager supply of gold
and silver coins, a few bolts of cloth, tools for the soldiers
and other gente de razón, and some dried meat and grain.
No one was arrested.
The Jesuits were to sail on February 3, 1768. Their ship, the
poor two-masted Concepción, waited at anchor in
the harbor. They would cross the Sea of Cortés, then travel
overland to Veracruz; from there, they would be sent to exile
with their fellow Jesuits in the Papal States and Germany.
Against the king's explicit orders, Governor Portolá permitted
the missionaries a final High Mass. Father Retz celebrated before
the Virgin of Loreto, which was draped for the occasion with
a black shroud. Father Ducrue gave the sermon. After supper,
the missionaries returned to the church, to pray for California
and ask God's mercy and assistance. And then, as they walked
towards the shore, wrote Father Ducrue,
"behold we were surrounded on all sides by the people, the
Spanish soldiers among them. Some knelt on the sand to kiss our
hands and feet, others knelt with arms outstretched in the form
of a cross and publicly pleading for pardon. Others tenderly
embraced the missionaries, bidding them farewell and wishing
them a happy voyage through loud weeping and sobbing."
The Indians carried the priests on their shoulders through the
surf to the launch. There the priests recited the Litanies of
the Virgin of Loreto, their voices carrying over the darkness
of the water.
"We were sixteen Jesuits in all," wrote Father Baegert.
"Exactly the same number, that is, sixteen Jesuits, one
brother and fifteen priests, we left behind, buried in California."
The Jesuits had been on the peninsula for nearly seventy-one
At midnight they boarded the Concepción.
The second example is from
my novel, THE
LAST PRINCE OF THE MEXICAN EMPIRE.
Though fiction, this
book is based on several years of original archival research.
What empire? What prince?
Well, it turns out that Mexico's first emperor, the Emperor Iturbide,
had a grandson. Those of you know know your Mexican history will
recall that the Emperor Iturbide was the final leader of Mexico's
Independence from Spain, he was crowned Emperor of Mexico in
1822, he abdicated in 1823, and alas, he was executed in 1824.
The Emperor Iturbide had two grandsons, actually, but I'm going
to simplify and just talk about the one who was a two year old
child in Mexico City when the second emperorMaximilian
von Habsburgwhose arrival in Mexico had been made possibly
by the armies of Louis Napoleonmade a secret contract with
the Iturbide family to bring this child into his Casa Imperial.
It's wasn't an adoption, exactly, but kind of sort ofthere's
more to say about that, but the bottom line isand here
is the surprise: in 1865-1866, the "high noon" of Mexico's
Second Empire, the heir presumptive to the throne of Mexico was
a two year old half-American.
And this was Agustín
de Iturbide y Green. Green like the color green: that was
his mother's family name.
And then came a tremendous
drama, for his heart-broken mother tried to reclaim her child.
The Emperor Maximilian arrested her and expelled her from Mexicoand
she went straight to Paris, to her ambassador there, and got
up such a scandal that the story made the front page of the New
York Times: about "the kidnapping of an American child"
by the "so-called Emperor of Mexico."
This was the same time
that the U.S. government was supporting Benito Juárez
and his Republicans in their struggle to overthrow Maximilian
and expel the French. Benito Juárez, as in Ciudad Juárez.
As I wrote elsewhere,
Last Prince of the Mexican Empire came out in 2009 and
in Spanish in 2010, two reactions surprised me. First, that many
readers, especially younger ones, were disturbed by the photograph,
a formal carte-de-visite, of the little prince. Agustín
de Iturbide y Green was a beautiful child, with a cupid's mouth,
and he looked more like, say, an English prince than a typical
Mexican. Those readers would make a twisted face, asking, "Why
is he in a girl's dress?" (Well, folks, that's how they
dressed aristocratic little boys back then.)
Second, that so many
marveled at my having spun a novel out of "a little footnote."
Except for misinterpreted snippets, the story of Agustín
de Iturbide y Green in the court of Maximilian may have been
forgotten in the archives until I dug it out but it was no mere
footnote. In a monarchy, the heir presumptive, though he be in
a dress and diapers, is the living guarantee of the regime's
future, and more: he is the living symbol of his future peoplehis
Would Mexicans be subjects,
creatures born to obeyor citizens, men and women who with
their full rights participate in creating their own polity? This
had been Mexico's bitter and bloody question for the whole of
the nineteenth century.
In telling the prince's
story, from the high-noon of the Second Empire in 1865 to its
collapse, and his return to his parents in Washington in 1867,
I was telling the story of the fall of Mexican monarchism, a
powerful idea up until that time, which asserted the mystical
embodiment of all Mexicans in the person of a hereditary sovereign.
To be honest, in sorting
out Mexico's most convoluted and transnational episode, it took
me more time than I would like to admit to boil my aim down to
so few words. And so, in fairness, I should not have been surprised
by the reaction of those readers, for whom (as it was for me)
monarchism is just a quaintly ridiculous thing preserved in the
formaldehyde of textbooks or the syrup of entertainment, and
where still living, as in Spain and the U.K., its royal families
harmless fodder for the sorts of magazines one reads at the hairdressers.
But back to the last
prince, Agustín de Iturbide y Green.
The child's father, the second son of the Emperor Iturbide, was
a Mexican diplomat, and his mother, née Alice Green, was
a Washington belle, descended from the Platersa very prominent
Tidewater Maryland familyand she was a granddaughter of
General Uriah Forrest, who had been an aide to General George
Washington in the American Revolution.
So if you can believe it, I was able to find items of interest
about the last prince of the Mexican empire in the libraries
of the Society of the Cinncinati and the Daughters of the American
Revolution in Washington DC.
And much more in Washington
DC: Agustín de Iturbide y Green's personal papers are
at Catholic University; there is also a small archive at Georgetown
University; and many documents, including the record of his parents'
marriage and much about the family estate at Rosedale, in Washington
DC, is in the Historical Society of Washington DC.
Most crucially, the
archive of the Emperor Iturbide and the archive of the Iturbide
Family are not in Mexico but in the Library of Congress.
Yes, there certainly
are archives of interest in Mexico and in Texas and New York
and Vienna and elsewhere, but the most pertinent ones for the
story of Agustín de Iturbide y Green are in Washington
DC. Why Washington DC?
Upon the execution
of the Emperor Iturbide in 1824 his widow and children had fled
to Washington DC, under the protection of the Jesuits in Georgetown,
where they had their college overlooking the Potomac. Flash foward
to the early 20th century: Agustín de Iturbide y Green
was living in Washington DC, teaching Spanish and French at Georgetown,
when he sold the Emperor Iturbide and Iturbide Family papers
to the Library of Congress. I'm sure he needed the space and
the money, but given the turmoil in Mexico at the time, this
was probably the wisest decision he could have made to preserve
the papers. And I for one am immensely grateful that he did.
Ah, archives, they
are full to the brim with secrets and surprises. Which leads
me to my latest book, which was prompted by a visit to an archive
in Mexico City's National Palace where I found... a secret book.
And on a whim, because I am a translator, I offered to translate
it. And it was such a strange little book that I then felt compelled
to write a book about that book.
My book is: METAPHYSICAL
ODYSSEY INTO THE MEXICAN REVOLUTION: FRANCISCO I. MADERO AND
HIS SECRET BOOK, SPIRITIST MANUAL.
Well, here we are at
the US-Mexico border, so I am sure that most of you know perfectly
well who Francisco I. Madero was after all, he prepared
for the famous Battle of Juárez from here in El Paso.
And in the thick of that 1910 Revolution he came over here to
El Paso to have dinner a few times, as well, as I recall. But
if you're rusty on your Mexican history, these are the barebones
Francisco I. Madero
was the leader of Mexico's 1910 Revolution, and President of
Mexico from 1911 to 1913, when he was overthrown in a coup d'etat
and, with shocking casualness, executed. The Mexican Revolution
then exploded into a new and more violent phase, churning on
until 1920 with Alvaro Obregón's presidency or, as some
historians argue, the end of the Cristero Rebellion in 1929.
Here is a little bit
more about Madero from my book, to quote:
Popular imagery of the
Mexican Revolution usually features rustic characters in bandoliers
and washtub-sized sombreros, such as smoldering-eyed Emiliano
Zapata, with his handlebar mustache and skin-tight trousers,
or Pancho Villa, who always seems to wear the smirk of having
just quaffed a beer (though he was a teetotaler; more likely
it was a strawberry soda).
Less often are we shown Don Francisco, handsomely-dressed scion
of one of Mexico's wealthiest familiesusually bareheaded,
occasionally in a top hatfor he was and remains a confounding
figure. He was a Spiritist, and what the devil is that? I had
no idea. And until 2008, it had not occurred to me to wonder.
2008 was when I first
encountered his Spiritist Manual. Any student of the Mexican
Revolution learns about Madero's first book, La sucesión
presidencial en 1910, or The Presidential Succession in 1910,
which was published in 1909. This spelled out Madero's political
platform, and it worked like a magnet to bring together his political
party and the nation-wide support for his candidacy and presential
Less known is that in 1911, when Madero was president-elect,
under another nameBhima, after a warrior in the Hindu sacred
text known as the Bhagavad Gita he published his Manual
espírita or Spiritist Manual.
Madero was in fact not only an ardent Spiritist but a Spiritist
medium who left a substantial archive of his mediumnistic notebooks.
In other words, Madero practised what is called automatic writing,
or channeling written messages from what he believed were disembodied
consciousnesses. These spirits urged him to write La sucesión
presidencial en Méxicoand to write the Manual
What exactly is Spiritism?
In essense, to quote from my book, Metaphysical Odyssey into
the Mexican Revolution, it is the belief that
We are not our physical
bodies; we are spirits, and as such we are immortal and we are
destined, lifetime by lifetime, not by any ritual intermediated
by clerics, but by freely chosen good works, to evolve into ever
higher levels of consciousness and so return to God.
To quote Madero himself
in my translation of his book, Spiritist Manual:
Spiritism is the science
concerned with investigating the powers of the human spirit,
its past before ariving in this world, and its fortune on abandoning
I hasten to mention,
I am not the first to write about Madero's Spiritism.
Enrique Krauze, probably Mexico's best-known historian, published
Francisco I. Madero, místico de la libertad, which
introduced the topic to a broad public, back in the late 1980s.
Yolia Tortolero, who wrote her deeply researched thesis at El
Colegio de México under the highly regarded historian
of the Revolution, Javier Garciadiego, published that as El
espiritismo seduce a Francisco I. Madero. Dr. Tortolero's
is a both vital and superb work and by the way, you can
now download that in Kindle.
Others to mention are Mexican historians Manuel Guerra de Luna
and Alejandro Rosas Robles, and the novelist Ignacio Solares
who wrote the now classic novel Madero, el otro.
That said, few of the histories of the Revolution give Madero's
Spiritism more than a passing toe-curlingly brief!
mention. His main biographer, Stanley Ross, relegates the Spiritist
Manual to a footnote! And one otherwise excellent university
press textbook on Mexico says that Madero was an atheistwhich
is rather like calling the Pope Protestant.
My contribution was to have translated the Spiritist Manual
and to have given Madero's metaphysics more of an historical
and North American context in a narrative that you might call
"creative nonfiction''in other words, it's not a novel,
but I hope it reads like one.
I also had the prividege of being able to go through Madero's
personal library which is the Centro de Estudios de Historia
de México in Mexico Citywalking distance from my
house, happily for me, because I had to visit multiple times
to get through what is, very probably, one of the most important
collections of esoteric literature in the Americas. Many, many
secrets and surprises in there... Books on reincarnation, Williams
James' favorite medium, Madame Piper, books by Madam Blavatsky,
Annie Besant, Papus, Swami Vivekenanda, Dr. Peebles, Dr. Krumm-Heller,
aka Maestro Huiracocha. ... But I am racing the clock.
To conclude. The Jesuit
missions in California, a half-American heir presumptive to the
throne of Mexico, a revolutionary hero and president who was
a Spiritist medium: each is a story that has interests who would
prefer that it not be told.
As for the Jesuit missions of California, my guess is that those
setting the teaching agenda for the California public school
system of my timethis would have been in the early 1970sfelt
constrained by the available number of teaching hours and the
state border, and if a major limb of the story didn't fit in
their box, well, whack! Amputate as needed.
As noted, until I drew it out, the story of the little prince,
Agustin de Iturbide y Green, was languishing in archives outside
Mexico and, in the days before the Internet, these were very
time-consuming to track down and consult. Furthermore, until
relatively recently, say, the past two decades, in Mexican academic
circles, Mexican monarchism has been a hot potato of a subjectbetter
not to touch. And in some ways it still is a hot potato of a
Another complicating factor, perhaps the most important, however,
was that for the Mexican monarchists, the Emperor Maximilian's
entanglement with the Iturbide family was embarrassing. It underscored
the fact that after eight years of marriage Maximilian and his
wife Carlota had been unable to produce an heir. And, alas, Maximilian
and Carlota's treatment of the child's very young and heartbroken
mother was hamfistedly cruel. Many things about the arrangement
with the Iturbides were mystifying even to those close to the
imperial couple, and especially for those unfamiliar, as most
Mexicans were, with the rarified traditions of the House of the
Habsburgs and of other European royal families.
On their journey from Europe to Mexico in 1864, Maximilian and
Carlota wrote a book of court protocol, Reglamento y ceremonial
de la corte, which was published in 1865. Almost unknown
is the fact that in 1866, a second edition was published with
an all-new first chapter on The Iturbide Princes. It explained
that the Iturbide princes were not imperial princesfor
they were not children of the sovereigns. However, they had the
status of the Murat princes.
The Murat princes! Then, as now, for most they would be, shall
we say, pretty obscure. The Murat princes were descendants of
the King of Naples, Napoleon Bonaparte's brother-in-law. So the
Murat princes were descendants of a sovereign and cousins to
Louis Napoleon and so considered part of his Imperial Household.
So we see that the eyewitness memoirs that were sympathetic to
Maximilian are all strangely vague on the Iturbides or, as in
the case of José Luis Blasio's Maximiliano íntimo,
serve up slanderous stories about the Iturbides that are flatly
contradicted by official birth, marriage and death certificates.
But as an aside, I must mention that one of the biggest surprises
for me was to have encountered José Luis Blasio's Maximiliano
íntimo. Yes, I have my quibbles with it, and it is
politically very incorrect: Blasio was Maximilian's loyal and
admiring secretary. But it so sparkles with heart and with life
that I would put Maximiliano íntimo on par with
Díaz del Castillo's True History of the Conquest of
New Spain as one of the greatest literary treasures of Mexico.
And for the periodMexico's Second Empire or "French
Intervention" Maximiliano íntimo is
a gem beyond compare.
I. Madero. For not all, certainly, but for many Mexicans, and
indeed many members of Mexico's intellectual and political elite,
Francisco I. Madero, Mexico's "Apostle of Democracy"
as a Spiritist medium is a disturbing image. They regard the
idea of communicating with spirits as a species of supersition,
or pura locura, craziness, beneath the dignity of serious
consideration. Moreover, if you didn't know already, I am sure
you guessed, the Catholic Church prohibits Spiritism and its
main ritual, the séance.
The poet Alan Ginsburg,
perhaps channeling Gertrude Stein, said, "Notice what you
notice." As I understand it: that means, remove the filtersthe
filters other people want you to wear to distort your clear vision.
Notice. Notice what you notice! Next step: really look. And look
again. Keep looking. Delve in. Whether your concern is Mexico,
or the border, or El Paso, or the world itself, all manner of
secrets and surprises await you.