Monday, January 26, 2009

History Lessons

Sitting around the dinner table last night (well, in true Mexican fashion it was really a late lunch), the topic turned as it usually does to Mexican history. For those of you who know me well, I would like to state for the record that is was not I who brought it up.

It seems to me that in Mexico I am always learning something new about Mexican history, a different tidbit from everyone I talk to. While it is true that those in Coyoacan are an intellectual bunch, it appears that the topic of el patrimonio has always been dear to them. Of course, in the US the conversation can often turn to the state of the stock market, the president and his cabinet, or the latest set of propositions on the ballot, but rarely do I see lively conversations about Washington's fording of the Delaware or the original settlement in Jamestown. Less still do people know about the original American tribes, which are far too many and unfamiliar for me to name. 

It was at this point that my friend Britta posed the question, or rather the thought, that Mexicans know their history better than Americans do. Of course, even in her statement there was an interesting interpretation of American geography and history: when you say "americano" in Spanish it refers to people from all of the Americas--an American in the United States sense of the word is an "estadounidense" (the rough equivalent of a United Statesian).

Perhaps it is because we are foreigners that the Mexicans feel compelled to recount their history, to correct our errors and our American ways of thinking. Or perhaps it is more a sense of culture, a deeper sense of belonging in the region. Perhaps because the very same Indian blood spilled by the Spaniards runs through their veins that they know the stories so well. In the US, indigenous people are thought of as something belonging only to the past, shuffled off to reservations, forgotten. It is easier to forget a history when it was one you never knew. 

But I think it is more than that. Rarely do we retell even our own family and regional history. It  is left to civil war reenactors and New York Times columnists, not dinnertime conversations and hallway remarks. It was suggested by one of the guests that perhaps it is the nature of struggle in Mexico that makes Mexicans always remember. While US history is treated as fact, stamped in textbooks and recited out loud by choruses of grade school children, Mexicans treat their history as a fight against the dominant narrative. The Spanish tried to erase it when they arrived, tearing down the native temples to use the stones in their own. The US war that took  half the Mexican territory is also well-remembered, for in remembering the Mexicans know what the Americans forget--that it was not always US land in the north.

Even basic facts of Mexican life seem debated. How many died in the student protests of 1968? Many sources say hundreds. The official monument in the square has but twenty names. How many inhabitants are there in Mexico City? Every source I read, Mexican and otherwise, waivers between 10 and 30 million. 

Perhaps it is in the constant retelling of events, this conscious history, that the people have established a sort of oral tradition that defies the official and written narratives. Perhaps in this way they are able to take ownership of their own history.

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