Mexicans, Spaniards, Incas, and Their Art


On August 10, 1519, five ships, under the command of Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese captain in Spanish service, set out from Seville on an epic voyage that would end on September 6, 1522, when the Victoria, with eighteen survivors on board, limped back into Seville, having circumnavigated the globe. Meanwhile a Spanish adventurer, Hernán Cortés, after disembarking in April 1519 on the Mexican coast with a small band of Spaniards, overthrew the “empire” of its Mexica overlord, Montezuma II, with the help of large numbers of indigenous allies, and laid the foundations of Spain’s “empire of the Indies” in the vast area of conquered territory that he christened “New Spain.” That brief span of three years between 1519 and 1522 marks the emergence of two dominant themes in the history of the succeeding centuries—globalization and territorial-based European imperialism. Between them they have transformed the world.

Daniel Giannoni/Private collection, Lima
Anonymous Cuzco artist: Virgin of Cocharcas, circa 1730–1750

Colin MacLachlan, a professor of history at Tulane University whose previous publications include Spain’s Empire in the New World1 and a co-authored work, The Forging of the Cosmic Race,2 tells us in an autobiographical prologue to his new book, Imperialism and the Origins of Mexican Culture, how his experiences as a child of empire, specifically of the British and American empires, awakened his interest in imperial themes. He also tells us how he was struck, in what sounds like a Gibbonian moment, by the fate of “a once magnificent empire of the New World,” while living and studying “atop the ruins of Tenochtitlan, destroyed and rebuilt as Mexico City by Hernán Cortés.” He displays a truly Gibbonian ambition in seeking to relate the histories of Mesoamerican civilizations, Roman and medieval Iberia, and the Moorish–Christian encounter to the post-conquest creation of “mestizo Mexico.” The dedication of his book to his “mestizo son” suggests a degree of personal involvement in a theme of universal significance.

We live today in a mestizo world. Sebastián de Covarrubias defined mestizo in his Spanish dictionary of 1611 as “what is engendered from [the mixing of] different species of animals,” and derives it from miscere, to mix.3 There seems to be no adequate English equivalent of mestizaje. The Oxford Spanish Dictionary uses the questionable definition “people of mixed race.” “Miscegenation” has too many pejorative connotations, and such words as “hybridity” and “hybridization,” although neutral, have not caught on as terms applicable to human relationships.

In discussing these terminological questions Colin MacLachlan writes:

Although the racial definition of a Mestizo is a person born to Indian and European parents, a better definition of a Mestizo is a person who functions within a modified culture drawn from both the indigenous and European historical-cultural experience: in short, those who embrace cultural mestizaje and organize their personal life and behavior accordingly.

Under this wide definition, almost everyone in…

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