Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Sorry About the Ancient Plunder

By David G. Young

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, March 26, 2019 --  

Mexicans shouldn't expect Spain to apologize for colonial-era abuses. Descendants of perpetrators and victims are often one and the same.

When Mexico's new lefty President Andrés Manuel López Obrador sent a letter to Spain demanding an apology for colonial-era abuses1, the messenger was a perfect example of why the idea is so absurd. The Mexican politician describes himself has having descended from two grandparents from Spain, one of indigenous Mayan heritage from Campeche, and another from a mix indigenous and African heritage from Veracruz.2

This makes him typical of Mexicans -- mostly Native American and Spanish with a little bit of African ancestry for good measure. This mixing has its origins in the colonial era, when pure-blooded Spaniards raped and pillaged indigenous people. By some estimates, the population of Mexico collapsed by 95 percent in the first century after the conquest3 -- victims mostly of European disease, but also of land expropriation, and exploitation. The importation of African slaves as replacement workers added a new pool of victims to the nation.

But after 500 years of mixing, today's Mexicans are mostly the descendants of both the abusers and the abused.

Blaming those in Spain seems like an easy way to scapegoat those who have no way of claiming ancestral victimhood for themselves. Of course, no Spaniards in Spain alive today had anything to do with the conquest. And the vast majority of Spaniards in the colonial era never saw any benefits from the abuses a half a world away. Obrador's grandfather is probably one of these people. He migrated from Spain to Mexico in the 1860s. The Spanish government gave AMLO a copy of his birth certificate as a gift after he assumed the presidency.4

Is AMLO's grandfather as responsible for the conquest as other Spaniards? Is AMLO therefore responsible?

Perhaps an argument could be made that the Spanish royal family is responsible. Clearly the Spanish Crown benefited enormously from the conquest. But the current king is from the house of Bourbon, which took over after the War of Succession, when the childless Charles II of the house of Hapsburg died. Today's royal family may have inherited some of the wealth of the conquest, but it is difficult to argue they are responsible for the acts of their ancestral cousins.

Similarly the Spanish government itself, like that of Mexico, has undergone a series of revolutions to new regimes. Spain ditched the monarchy after the Fascists took over in the Spanish Civil War. It was restored with the return to democracy, but as discussed before it was a different royal house than during the conquest and the government is most certainly not the same regime.

The best case for those responsible for the conquest would be the descendants of Hernandez Cortes -- the actual head conquistador. Most of his descendants though, are through illegitimate children born in Mexico and long since absorbed into the general ethnic mix of Mexico. Two legitimate sons did survive to live in Spain, but like countless scions of business magnates over the centuries, they never amounted to anything and probably blew any residual wealth on lavish lifestyles. Should we blame some poor sap today just because his distant ancestor was a wealth-blowing son of Cortes? If so, should we should blame the mestizo illegitimate descendants as well?

This thought process would not be complete without mentioning that the Spain's conquest of Mexico was in a sense just a takeover of the existing Aztec Empire based in Mexico City. That empire itself was raping and plundering other subjugated people — although they all looked a similar brown color to European eyes. But is brown-on-brown abuse somehow better? Or are the descendants of the Aztecs to blame, too?

It should be obvious by this point that this exercise is futile. For the most part, everyday Mexicans (like AMLO himself) are the descendants of both oppressors and victims. People today are all equally blameless -- none of them committed these acts, and nobody is ever responsible for the actions of their ancestors.

None of this is to suggest that Mexicans shouldn't remember their tragic and fascinating history. They certainly do. At many Mexican festivals, parades are filled with those dressed up as Aztecs and Conquistadors -- with little correlation between the type of dress and the color of skin behind it. Honestly remembering the past is the proper way to honor its victims. Sanctimonious finger-pointing at modern Spain accomplishes nothing.


1. Agence-France Presse, Mexico Demands Apology for Colonial ‘Abuses', Spain Says No, March 26, 2019

2. Polemón, El Nacimiento de AMLO Relatado por él Mismo, November 13, 2016

3. Zambardino, Randolph A. Mexico's Population in the Sixteenth Century: Demographic Anomaly or Mathematical Illusion? Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Summer 1980 4. Agence-France Presse, Ibid.