Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Nation Building

Back in the 1600s when my own colonial forebears in New England were starving to death in huts made of sticks and mud, the Spanish were raising structures like these all over Mexico.

I think this building was originally part of a seminary. It's in Patzcuaro, a lovely town south of Morelia known for its gracious central plaza and the scores of sellers of beautiful ceramics and textiles who line its narrow streets.

What keeps striking me as remarkable as we get to know Mexico is how vast, rich and varied the architectural legacy of the Spanish empire is all over the country and presumably the rest of Latin America.

Roman arches and Moorish filigree adorn the avenues of even modest towns. Massive and ornate cathedrals, colonnaded educational, ecclesiastical or government buildings, aqueducts, fountains and statuary are everywhere, built for the ages out of whatever rock was handy. In this case it was cantera.

In the United States, what few small buildings survive from our early years of European settlement are limited access tourist attractions long since surrounded and overwhelmed by generations of helter skelter growth.

Whereas here, people still worship, study, transact business or make and enforce the law in the oldest structures in town. Even in major cities like Guadalajara, the artifacts of Spain's colonial ambitions still dominate everything around them.

How did those busy Spaniards manage in the New World to replicate or even exceed the architectural accomplishments of their homeland while my English-speaking forebears were bunking with their livestock in hovels that have long since fallen down?

I'm only guessing, but I'll bet part of the answer was their ability to suborn or compel the indigenous population into providing much of the labor, and the fact that many of these highly civilized people were accomplished engineers and stonemasons long before their oppressors arrived.

One thing's for sure, my Anglophile history education really shortchanged the impact of Spain on my hemisphere.

I was astonished last year to pick up Charles Mann's book "1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created" and read that long before the Pilgrims had carved their first turkey the conquistadors had made Mexico City the most cosmopolitan city on Earth and the first true center of global business.

From the site of Montezuma's former capital, gold and goods flowed not only back to Spain but west to the Philippines and then to China.

One of the features of this 17th Century opening to Asia was that when the Chinese saw the kind of furniture and fashions their new trading partners liked, they quickly made and sold copies back to them, infuriating Spanish merchants and artisans whose customers naturally preferred the cheaper knockoffs.

Sound familiar?

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