Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

I’ve been asked several times recently to explain the story of Thanksgiving. Of course, the people asking are my Mexican peers, not American 3rd graders… So, I tell it with lots of disclaimers.

Well, the holiday was only institutionalized 200-years after the supposed event.

But, it’s about the first English pilgrims to America suffering incredible hardship… And then the Natives show up and teach them how to farm and give them food…

Of course, it doesn’t acknowledge any of the anti-Native treachery or conflict in our history.

So, they had a big feast to celebrate their survival and give thanks to their god and they invited the Natives and everyone ate a lot…

Which for then, probably meant that everyone got something to eat. Not that they put themselves into a food coma in front of the ballgame.

Amazingly, Mexicans have a painted history of this early colonial period in the slightly more southern Americas in their Palacio Nacional –done by the master, Diego Rivera. It is not one bit saccharine or glamorous. Rivera may have sweetened Native culture a bit, but he is raw and honest about the human cost of conquest. This would be like having a wall-sized mural of the 1622 Virginia Colony Massacre juxtaposed with the Trail of Tears in the White House.

Pre-Columbian society as imagined by Rivera.

Spanish conquest and the twisted, sickly Spaniards enslaving and murdering the Natives in their quest for gold.

I explored the Palacio Nacional a little more thoroughly with my guests and walked through the portrait gallery for the first time. Mexicans have stunning portraits of Aztec kings hung next to Spanish dictators and Mexican revolutionaries. The portrait of Emiliano Zapata is striking (Vincente Fox, on the other hand, should ask for a do-over while he has the chance).

So, in more than a few cases, you have portraits of the people who killed and overthrew the people in the potraits next to them. That blew my mind. There’s a certain honesty there about history that I think we’ve come not to expect in the United States, but that we should be striving for.

When we’re able to talk honestly about ourselves, where we’ve come from and what’ve we learned, only then, I think, are we truly able to move forward.


First contact between Europe and the Americas is such a bizarre thing. Inevitable, tragic, and in this globalized and increasingly homogenous world, increasingly difficult to imagine. Cortés and his conquistadors arrived at the gates of Tenochtitlan a mere 490 years ago. Not surprisingly, the ripples of that cataclysmic confrontation are still jostling Mexico.

Native culture was literally buried for about 250 years while the Spaniards turned New Spain into their idea of a civilization, helped greatly by, as Jared Diamond put it, guns, germs, and steel and their own sense of what norte americanos called Manifest Destiny. In 1790, while excavating for new construction in the main plaza of Mexico City, the broken remains of a tremendous Aztec temple were rediscovered, sparking a Mesoamerican renaissance and a mental reconciliation of the halves that construct the whole: native and European, Maya, Mexica, Aztec, and Spaniard. In Mexico today, there is great pride in both.

It’s an infinitely complicated and compelling history and many of the artifacts that aren’t still scattered across Mexico and Central America are gathered in the Museo Nacional de Antropología which I visited this past Sunday. I’m a huge and unapologetic museum nerd, so if intricately carved basins for collecting sacrificial human hearts and tremendous, ornate feathered headdresses aren’t your thing, I can’t help you here.

Montezuma's headdress and tiny museum visitor doing the only logical thing. If you are thinking that it looks awfully good for being 500-years-old, it isn't. It's a replica.

Jaguar basin --said to be a receptacle for sacrificial human hearts. It's a hard thing to get by, human sacrifice. The Spaniards were burning people at the stake, of course, and perfecting the instruments of the Inquisition... Everyone needed a human rights workshop.

The famed Aztec Calendar and tiny person for scale.

The Aztec Calendar or Sun Stone --originally called a calendar, now thought likely to have had some role in ritual human sacrifice. In any case, it's crazy cool looking.

The courtyard of the museum --the reed-filled pond represents the marshy highlands that were settled by the original inhabitants of Mexico City.

Maya glyphs and carvings.

Death mask of Pakal --Maya ruler of Tikal in present-day Chiapas.

Maya codice --the Maya had a fully formed and complex written language and books.

Maya ruins in the muesum garden.


This is a quote from Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander who was arrested yesterday, upon his incarceration. After 15-years of living a fairly public life under the not-at-all conspicuous pseudonym of Milorad Komadic, Serbia finally apprehended Mladic to answer for his crimes in the International Criminal Court (ICC). Apparently the crimes are well documented and well known, even filmed, even celebrated by some. The most interesting thing to me here, however, is the sense of entitlement and the profound disconnect. His lawyer apparently passed along the message that his client (accused of, among other things, murdering 8,000 people of an ethnic minority) would like some fresh strawberries. And apparently Mladic got them.

Here is what British comedian Eddie Izzard has to say about mass murderers. “If you kill ten people, you go to Texas, they hit you with a brick. That’s what they do.”

The ICC, first proposed in 1919, took the United Nation’s requisite 80-years to gestate and be born. You might have thought that the events of the Jewish Holocaust in World War II would’ve sped up the process of establishing an international body to try those individuals who commit crimes against humanity and you would be wrong. While the idea of a panel like the ICC had been kicked around for decades, it took the horrific events in Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s to really get things moving again. A treaty to establish the ICC was finally voted on in 1998. The United States (in the warm company of China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar, and Yemen) voted against it.

Whatever you think about the idea of world government and international courts, this is what we have right now. A tribunal with no enforcement arm recognized by some nations and ignored by others. But at least the threat of their existence ruined George W. Bush’s visit to Europe. At least they can do something about Mladic’s abuse of the word deserve. I sort of hate this word because I think that deserving-ness is a false concept, but let’s not get into that. I’ll just say that I think if Mladic actually wanted  someone to sit down and do the math to see what he supposedly deserves, I think the ICC or anyone would find that it’s a hell of a lot less than fresh strawberries.

Here’s an excellent video from 2007 that provides a lot of background and context, though be warned it’s 24-minutes long and really heavy.