A Lesson from Mexico: How to Forgive Historical Wrongs to Do Right in the Present

Sometime in the past ten years, a statue of a child went missing from a little-known park in Mexico City. The details of the disappearance are a mystery, but the reasons for it are easy to divine.

The statue depicted the child Martín, the son of Hernán Cortés and Malinali. Before he was stolen, the bronze boy stood between his bronze parents. On his right, his father: the Spanish colonizer who led the overthrow of the Aztec Empire. On his left, his mother: the Nahua woman who became lover and interpreter of Cortés. Next to Cortés: a lion, mouth open, mammalian embodiment of the Spanish Empire. Next to Malinali: an eagle, regal avian representative of pre-colonial Mexico. The statue is called ‘Monumento al Mestizaje’: a memorial to Mexico’s mestizo roots.

The monument was not well received, to say the least. Initially, in 1982, it was placed in the central plaza of Coyoacán, a village neighborhood in the south of the capital, near the site of what was once Cortes’ historical estate. It was immediately perceived as an insult. The people, students in particular, did not view the statue as a celebration of love between their Spanish and indigenous ancestors, as it was intended, but instead a tribute to the colonizer Cortés and the traitor Malinali. They wanted no such tribute. The village erupted in protests.

Debate broke out across the country. “Cortés represents military conquest and genocide. In my opinion, no conquistador deserves a statue,” said the Spanish-Mexican historian Gastón García Cantú. The famed Mexican writer Octavio Paz disagreed: “The hatred of Cortés is not hatred of Spain,” he said, “it is hatred of ourselves.” Writer Carlos Fuentes took the matter further: “I want to see Hernán Cortés in a Mexico City plaza so that we rid ourselves of this complex. There is no reason to negate the father, the mother, or the brother. We accept all that we are. I want to see a statue. I would love to. We are children of the prostitute, of the Conquistador, of la Malinche.” 

(Called ‘Malinali’ in the indigenous language Nahuatl and ‘Doña Marina’ in the colonizers’ Spanish, ‘La Malinche’ became this historical figure’s mestizo name and one of the most bitter insults in Mexico today. To call someone ‘una malinche’ is to call someone a traitor to the race, a colonial sympathizer, and an opportunist of the worst kind, comparable to calling someone an ‘Uncle Tom’ in the United States.)

The protesters won the debate. The statue was not long to stay in the center of Coyoacán. Soon after its central placement in the plaza, it was moved to the edge of Parque Xicotencatl, a small, leafy, hard-to-find park in the eastern outskirts of the neighborhood. Seen as a public embarrassment, it was left off to the side, meant to be overtaken by foliage, intended to be forgotten.

And so when an unknown vandal came to steal the statue of Martín — the naked boy, son of Spain and pre-colonial Mexico, one of the very first mestizo people in the nation to be born, pointing optimistically into the future — his theft barely made a ripple.

As far as I know, the bronze Martín was stolen long before my arrival in Mexico City four months ago, and so I have only known the statue with a hole in the center, with Cortés and Malinali gesturing to empty space. And I have only known it in relation to another statue in Parque Xicotencatl, not more than a five minute walk away: a large, overpowering bust of the former Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas del Río. 

As I have written before, Cárdenas was the president responsible for letting over twenty thousand refugees of the Spanish Civil War into Mexico. Put another way, he was the statesman who once again opened Mexican territory to the people of Spain.

In the history of immigration and refuge, it is the exception, not the rule, for a nation to open its borders to refugees; more often than not, steps are taken to keep foreigners out. This fact alone makes Cárdenas’ political and humanitarian gesture exceptional. It is all the more so because these refugees came from the very country, the very culture, that colonized Mexico in the first place.

It was not an uncontroversial act. There was plenty of hispanophobia to go around in Mexico in the early twentieth century. The legacy of colonialism left deep marks of resentment among the population, and understandably so. This hatred was easy to extend and exploit. For example, as Mexican-American historian Kevan Aguilar explained to me, in the 1920s and 1930s, leftist organizers would make a point of calling opportunistic landlords gachupines, the derogatory term for Spanish elites, to generate support for rent strikes — even when the landlords weren’t Spanish. Playing off of anti-hispanic sentiment was just the tactic they needed to build momentum and solidarity among Mexican tenants.

Hispanofobia also marked the experience of the Niños de Morelia, the group of nearly 500 children whom Cárdenas invited to come to Mexico to survive the Spanish Civil War. They proved to be the first Spanish exiles, among thousands, to seek refuge in Mexico. (The story of these children is the primary focus of my time here in Mexico as a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storyteller.)

It is now well documented that Lamberto Moreno, the first principal of the Spain-Mexico Industrial School, the boarding school where these children were housed and educated, was a notorious hispanophobe. In one text he is quoted as saying, “If I could, I would take out every last drop of Spanish blood that I have in my veins.” With this attitude, he exploited his authority over the children as a means to exercise his hatred of Spaniards: his educational policies were draconian, his discipline corporal, and his expectations extreme.

Moreno’s drastic educational approach reached a pinnacle — and his term as principal came to an end — with the death of a twelve-year-old Spanish boy, Francisco Nebot Satorres, just two months after the children’s arrival in Mexico. Having returned late from a movie, Francisco and a few other Niños de Morelia found themselves locked out of the school. Per the principal Moreno’s instructions, they were to spend the night on the street: punishment for their tardiness. This decision worried Francisco. He thought it would be unsafe to spend the night outside, especially for the girls in the group. He tried to enter the school by climbing the gate. He caught a live wire. He was electrocuted on the spot.

All of the surviving Niños de Morelia I have interviewed remember the death of Francisco Nebot Serrot. They remember the reign of terror of Lamberto Moreno. Each can tell me an anecdote or two about the anti-Spanish discrimination that they experienced in Mexico.

But even more common than these experiences of prejudice are their memories of warmth and welcome from el pueblo mexicano, the people of Mexico, who were willing to look past the historical wrongs of the children’s home country in order to do right by them in the present. 

Beginning with their first steps on Mexican land, the children were celebrated as Republican heroes. When their boat docked in Veracruz, fifteen thousand people came to the port to welcome them. The people of Veracruz flew flags and sang songs. They shouted greetings of celebration. They showered the children with gifts. They wrapped them in hugs.

 

 

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This reception continued as the children traveled by train to Mexico City. In each town they were welcomed and honored. In the capital they were given a parade. They were greeted with a long itinerary of cultural performances and dances. Each child met the President and First Lady. In Morelia, their final destination, more than half of the town’s population came to the train station to greet them.

And though there were a few tense moments between the Spanish children and the town of Morelia, in particular as each sorted out the other’s relationship to the Catholic Church, in the end the children and townspeople developed a lovely, mutually affectionate relationship. The Morelianos showed special care for these young parentless refugees, recognizable about town by the identical government-issued overalls they wore. And the Niños de Morelia, now elderly, remember their generosity. They recall meals specially made, candies and clothing gifted, spare change pressed secretly into little palms, and movie showings seen for free in the local cinema, the theater owner clandestinely ushering the children into the balcony where paying customers wouldn’t notice or would willingly look the other way.

“The truth is,” Niño de Morelia Juan Llop Plans told me, “they were all very good people.”

Of course the question of identity, of history, of colonialism and liberation continues to be a complex one. It continues to provoke protest and disagreement about something as seemingly simple as the placement of a statue — or its very existence.

(Seemingly simple, I want to emphasize. As now we too know in the United States, reckoning with difficult history through monuments and memorials is no easy thing, and can easily turn from controversial to divisive to even violent.)

Because issues of identity and history are still so present, I am all the more moved by the example of these Spanish children and the Morelianos who took them in. The townspeople of Morelia forgave a national history of terror and trauma in order to see a group of people — that is, children — in need of cariño, that special Spanish word that means love, affection, and care. And the Spanish Niños de Morelia exhibited tremendous resilience in the face of their own personal histories of terror and trauma, in their own acts of surviving war and exile.

It strikes me that we have much to learn from both.

Human Journey

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Destry Maria Sibley is a freelance writer, media producer, and educator. As a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow, she is traveling throughout Mexico collecting the stories of Los Niños de Morelia, a group of child refugees who fled the Spanish Civil War and settled in Mexico in 1937. Destry's grandmother was among this group of children, and it is her personal experience of flight, exile, and assimilation that has motivated Destry to learn more about the lives of child refugees -- historically and in the present.