The Indian boy

November 23 2006

The dark side [of the post-Columbian chapter of Mexican history] is dark indeed, but, in partial compensation, the bright side has its highlights; and these present themselves to my mind’s eye in two vivid visual memories.

I remember my vision [1953] of the landscape, by the shore of Lake Pátzcuaro [now in the state of Michoacán, west of Mexico City], in which Bishop Quiroga set himself to translate Utopia into real life.

Vasco de Quiroga was a judge in the second (1531-35) audiencia that governed New Spain. He founded the hospital-pueblo of Santa Fé, now part of Mexico City, with his own money: his first attempt at building a Utopia on the model of Sir Thomas More. He converted many indigenous Indians to Christianity.

Audiencias were civil or criminal appeal courts under the Spanish crown which sometimes had executive power. The first was founded at Valladolid in the kingdom of Castile in 1371. Audiencias were founded in Spanish colonies, from Mexico to Manila. The final colonial audiencias were created at Buenos Aires in 1661, Caracas in 1786 and Cuzco in 1787.

Quiroga sat on the tribunal that ordered the bloody conquistador and president of the first, and discredited, Mexican audiencia, Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán, to be returned to Spain in chains, where he spent the rest of his life in prison. When the Chichimec Indians of Michoacán, west of Mexico City, rebelled in 1533, Quiroga pacified them and founded another hospital, also on More’s principles.

In 1535 the second audiencia turned over its governing powers to the first viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza. And from 1537 Quiroga was the first bishop of Michoacán.

[He evokes the landscape of Quiroga’s memory.] And now I am once again breaking my journey from Mexico City to the pyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacán [the pre-Toltec site a few miles to the capital’s northeast]. I am turning aside from the road to visit the lovely monastery of Acolman. This was founded, in the next generation after Bishop Quiroga’s, by Augustinian fathers. The exquisite carving that adorns the façade of the church was designed by them in the West-European style of their age; but the fathers did not execute their design with their own hands; the work was carried out by Indian apprentices whom the Spanish fathers had trained; and the fineness of the result is evidence that the work was a labour of love.

How were these Indian masons moved to throw themselves into an artistic enterprise that was so alien to their native tradition? I found an answer to my question when I looked out of a window at the peaceful countryside. As I looked, there passed across my field of vision a little troop of animals – a donkey, two cows, and a bunch of sheep and goats – that were being tended, ever so lovingly, by an Indian boy. He, too, was throwing himself into his work, and, for an Indian, this work, too, was exotic. Like the Plateresque style [this means stone carving “in the style of a silversmith” and was derived from Spain] of the carving on the portal of the church, the entire tribe of the Indian boy’s beloved animals was an import from the Old World. Not one of these species had figured among those that had been domesticated by the Indians themselves before the arrival of their European conquerors. Yet it was evident that this twentieth-century Indian boy loved his exotic animals as whole-heartedly as those sixteenth-century Indian masons had loved the exotic style of the work that the Spanish fathers had taught them to do.

No, the conquest was not an unmixed evil.


The Augustinian church at Acolman

Between Maule and Amazon, OUP, 1967

2 Responses to “The Indian boy”

  1. […] with that of Protestants: the Protestants come off much worse. We’ve had a little from him on Mexico already (a country of whose race relations he has a rather rosy view) and on the treatment of black […]

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