Since Douglas Cope’s seminal study The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebeian Society in Colonial Mexico City 1660-1720 was published in 1994, historians have understood the caste system, or sistema de castas, that categorised New Spain’s multiracial population as an elite construct to impose order on a disordered plebe, rather than a discourse that reflected existing, clearly defined racial boundaries.
The economic ties between the United States and Mexico are well over a century old, but the coverage of the border rarely contextualizes it in these terms. In order to understand the violence we see today, we must consider the violence that erupted there in the early 1990s.
So freedom is now to be defined against those too poor to deserve its benefits by the edifices and procedures of totalitarianism. What kind of freedom is it, then, that we enjoy in the countries of the West – those exclusive, increasingly well-guarded enclaves of ours?
Grahame Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940), the story of a fugitive “whisky priest” in 1930s Mexico, is a short, pathos-laden novel about religious persecution after the Mexican Revolution. The Catholic Church at that time was under attack for its considerable wealth and social control.
In 1746 Dr. Andrés Arce y Miranda, a creole attorney from Puebla, Mexico, criticized a series of paintings known as the cuadros de castas or casta paintings. Offended by their depictions of racial mixtures of the inhabitants of Spain’s American colonies, Arce y Miranda feared the paintings would send back to Spain the damaging message that creoles, the Mexican-born children of Spanish parents, were of mixed blood.
On October 2, 1968, the Mexican government sanctioned the killings of an estimated three hundred student protesters in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, the main square in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco neighborhood. Hundreds more were arrested, many subjected to torture. Plaza of Sacrifices is the first English-language monograph of the events leading up to and following this massacre.
When Cassiano dal Pozzo, the Pope’s personal assistant, returned to the Vatican from Spain in 1626, he brought with him a Mexican manuscript on natural history, the Libellus de medicinalibus Indorum herbis. The “herbal” was a marvelous Mexican manuscript containing illustrations of more than 180 plants. Commonly known as Codice de la Cruz-Badiano, it is considered the first illustrated survey of Mexican nature produced in the New World.
Relations between Mexico and the United States appear so disappointing these days that we may find it difficult to remember them differently. Mexico-U.S. relations, however, have seen better times and recalling them could serve as a model for what is possible.