Often on tours or the lecture circuit folks ask me, “When was life better in Mexico: When the indigenous people ruled the country or after the Spanish conquest?”
That’s a loaded question if only because there is no easy answer. The politically correct answer is to honor the indigenous, however that’s tough to do. They were often violent with human sacrifice and cannibalism the norm.
Now, that’s not to imply it was all butterflies and rainbows once Mexico was conquered, which began the Inquisition from 1520 until the country was free of the Spanish by 1820. Catholic Spaniards had their own gruesome murders and customs. With the exception of Mel Brooks, no one has been able to find humor in the Spanish Inquisition.
Recently, I read a book published in the 1990s by an Irish-American priest whose whole point was how Mexico was better off under the Spanish than it has been since freedom from Spain was codified in 1820. Now there’s a point of view I’ve never heard uttered.
The author’s perspective was that Spain (aka the Inquisition, though he never once called it that) brought civility, culture and the one true faith to Mexico. I am the first to promote the idea that if the Inquisition brought any gifts to Mexico it was healthcare and education. That’s why most hospitals and schools are still named for saints or Jesus’ mother.
Mexico remains a majority Catholic country by culture, if not conviction, and there are advantages to being primarily a one-faith country. Namely, most citizens have similar views on ethics, morality and death, which pervade everything, even traffic. Why wear a seatbelt if the worse that can happen is you go home to God that much sooner? Hence driving in Mexico can be a giant game of chicken where few obey the rules.
On the other hand, once again, it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies following freedom from Spain. Yes, the Inquisition was finally over and the caste system removed, in theory. In reality, like the history of slavery in the United States, it still permeates today. Watch any telenovela and you will see the heroine most often has blonde hair and white skin, while the evil Alexis Carrington-type of character has dark hair and is brown.
For most Mexican people, life didn’t change that much with freedom from Spain. Then came the revolutions and a parade of presidents that were assassinated, replaced and then more assassinations. Not to mention the French ruled the country for three bloody years, leaving a mess behind.
Then a century after Mexico gained its freedom from Spain came the war for the separation of Church and State, plus the reappropriation of Church real estate. That is why Belle Artes in San Miguel de Allende is an art center today and no longer a convent for cloistered nuns.
In his book, the American priest feels modern history ignores the martyrs or those killed fighting for the Church’s side. Hard to ignore here in San Miguel de Allende as many of today’s citizens had a grandfather who served for the Church. The Church lost and those men often lived out their lives hidden in the tunnels under town, fed daily by their spouses.
Still, looking at both the good and the bad following freedom from Spain, being released from a racist, foreign colonial power can hardly be viewed as a bad thing.