The Buried Mirror
Spain had been in disarray for some decades before 1492, the year in which Italian explorer Christopher Columbus persuaded King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to finance his efforts to find a route to India and the Spice Islands that did not necessitate a long, dangerous overland trip. The route around the Cape of Good Hope was not conquered by Vasco da Gama until 1498. Fuentes calls 1492 a watershed year for Spain, and few would quibble with that contention.
The Iberian peninsula, emerging from the Middle Ages, had been hard hit by the Black Death of 1350. Spain had a population in 1469—the year in which Ferdinand and Isabella married—of about seven million, half a million of whom were Jews, although Jews constituted about one-third of the country’s urban population. A substantial Islamic community flourished south of Madrid, around Granada.
The kings of Aragon, Castile, and Navarre had preserved their separate boundaries jealously through the early fifteenth century, but the Castilian Isabella’s union with the king of Aragon brought about a relaxation of the territorial imperatives under which Spain had lived, opening the possibility that the country could be unified. By 1492, it was evident that the peasantry, which previously had owed fealty to feudal lords, now saw its first duty as to the crown.
In the name of achieving a unity based on religious orthodoxy and racial purity, the monarchs in 1492 attacked Granada and drove the Muslims from it and into foreign exile. They also demanded that all Jews convert to Christianity or leave. This proc- lamation effectively robbed Spain of the most culturally active segment of its population. It also devastated the economy, because Jews were the tax collectors, the heaviest taxpayers, the bankers, and the professional people of Spain.
It was into this mercurial situation that Columbus came, begging assistance. The monarchs, desperate for a way to fill their shrinking coffers, agreed to provide the backing the young Italian needed. In so doing, they gave their tacit approval to an important and far-reaching hypothesis that challenged common sense. They gave their blessing—and their money—to someone who obviously did not accept the prevailing notion, confirmed by human perception, that the earth is flat. In doing so, they opened a new and significant chapter in the history of the human race.
Setting sail on August 3, 1492, in his three caravels, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, Columbus sailed west for sixty-six days before he landed on the minuscule island of Guanahani, which he renamed San Salvador. He found the natives curious and friendly. They wondered whether the voyagers who had landed were men or gods. The strangers’ clothing and jewelry fascinated the natives, who were soon subdued and enslaved.
The Spanish explorers who followed Columbus—Francisco Pizarro, Hernán Cortés, Pedro de Valdivia—had been brought up in a multicultural Spain that had, in 1492, tried to erase multiculturalism. Nevertheless, these early explorers understood cultural diversity. They came to the New World to gain riches, to convert the natives to Christianity, and to impose their ways upon the inhabitants they found there. They also intermarried, creating a new breed of Spanish Americans.
Although these early explorers served Ferdinand and Isabella, whose chief aim was to bring about Christian unity, and although these explorers shared these aims, they were still sufficiently a part of the tricultural society that Spain was before the expulsion of the Muslims and Jews to realize that they had to deal with the “Other,” as Fuentes calls the non-Spanish, non-Christian group, when they began to colonize. Fuentes notes that when an outside group deals with the “Other,” conflict is inevitable and both groups are altered irrevocably. Such was certainly the case in the development of Latin America, as the invaders “both destroyed and created the culture of the New World.”
Fuentes traces the initial habitation of the New World to a period forty-eight millennia in the past, when a land bridge existed between Asia and the North American continent. The early entrants into this previously uninhabited land mass were nomadic. They hunted, following the animals they quested after, until, at some point between 7500 and 2500 B.C., they learned to cultivate crops, enabling them to settle in one place and lead a more settled existence than their previous lives had allowed. Out of this shift grew native cultures, some of which, such as the Mayan, Aztec, and Inca, were remarkably advanced scientifically, mathematically, and artistically.
With the coming of Europeans to the American continent after 1492, Fuentes points out, Latin America became...
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