10 November 2009

When will we ever learn?

There is an old cliche about "history repeating itself". I think it first came from the poet and philosopher George Santayana who is reported to have said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". You never know though, someone might have said that long before him. The Bible puts it this way in Ecclesiastes 1:9-11 (New International Version):

9 What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;

there is nothing new under the sun.


10 Is there anything of which one can say,

"Look! This is something new"?
It was here already, long ago;

it was here before our time.


11 There is no remembrance of men of old,

and even those who are yet to come

will not be remembered
by those who follow.

I was doing some reading the other day and I came across something that almost made me fall out of my chair and I would like to tell you about it. I was reading about a man named Vasco de Quiroga who was sent to New Spain by the Spanish King about 1550 to investigate reports that the Indians were being maltreated. Because so many things were dominated by the church back then, he was ordained a priest and then consecrated as a bishop so that he would have both temporal and spiritual authority. While he was in this transition he came upon a copy of Saint Thomas Moore's book "Utopia" and decided that it had been divinely inspired and he took it upon himself to follow it as a guideline. He founded many communities for Indians and created hospitals for them in what is now the Mexican State of Michoacán and the surrounding area including the area where I live.

This man Quiroga is a hero of mine and also of a lot of other people and to this very day the locals fondly call him "Tata Vasco" (Papa Vasco). He was a contemporary of Ignatius Loyola who had recently founded the Jesuit order and he asked Loyola to send Jesuits to New Spain which Loyola eventually did but sadly it wasn't until after Tata Vasco died. Things were very complicated in those days...probably as politically and morally complicated as they are today. In fact, the period of the early 16th Century and the early 21st Century have some things very profoundly deep in common even though the people are separated by almost five centuries. In doing a little research into the life of Tata Vasco I came up with some interesting stuff.

In 1550 and 1551 there was a famous dispute between a bishop named Bartolome de Las Casas (another champion of Indian rights) and a man named Juan Gines de Sepulveda. This dispute was of immense historical importance because it was one of the only times in history when the powers that be paused to consider their actions and the consequences thereof. Sepulveda held that force could be justly used to overcome the many difficulties in converting people to the Spanish way of thinking. Las Casas held that force must be opposed as much as possible because it subverted free will. Thus, the problem was how could the most powerful nation in the world go about making over the whole world in its own image? There was no question about "if" but only about "how". To their way of thinking the world would only be a good place when it was made over like the Spanish decreed. The debate was whether military or peaceful means were the best way of achieving a uniform international community based upon the Spanish way of thinking and of worshiping their Creator.

Sound familiar? The Sepulveda crowd said that the Indians were ungrateful, shameless barbarians, who did not recognize the greatness of the Spanish teachings. They only understood war and so the Spanish should give them war. The Las Casas crowd said that the Indians are rebelling BECAUSE the Spanish were repressing them. "Let us show them peace, and give them justice, food, and health, and then they will embrace our teachings". Only a few people were willing to say "Leave them alone and let them have their own teaching as long as they remain peaceful and part of the world community". Now, fast forward 450 years to the debates of the U.S. president and congress. The more things change, the more they look the same. However, the decisions made back then led to 450 years of war. I hope we don't make the same mistake again. That old saying about history repeating itself is scary isn't it? I just thought you might be interested in this little slice of history as it relates to Mexico.

"Hey, wait a minute", I hear you say, "So how did the debate turn out?". Well, it turned out like these things always do. Politically it was sort of a tie. At the end of the debate the Spanish King, Charles V, adopted neither Sepúlveda's or De las Casas' arguments and instead he adopted the recommendations of a man named Francisco de Vitoria who is now regarded the father of international law and who is best remembered for his defense of the rights of the Indians of the New World against Spanish colonists and for his ideas of the limitations of justifiable warfare. He formulated what he calls the“right of natural partnership and communication” along with corollary rights to migration and to commerce and free dealings with all peoples. It is essentially the same thing that children are taught in kindergarten to this very day..."Everybody be nice!". Sadly, his advice fell on deaf ears and the rich Spaniards went on trying to take advantage of the natives and the natives did their best not to cooperate. In the end a few people lived lives of incredible wealth, another group lived quite comfortably, and the majority lived like slaves for over three hundred years. That is how the unofficial motto of the land came to be..."Chinga o te chingan." (Screw'em or they screw you).

Obviously there is a lot more to it than I mentioned above but my short synopsis is certainly an eye opener and food for thought. I wonder what will happen next...here in Mexico and in other parts of the world. Your guess is as good as mine but I am wondering...will we ever break the cycle?

3 comments:

Tancho said...

I know how much you love the railroad....however I think you would have been an absolutely grand professor!

Your unselfish dedication to knowledge is bestowed upon your readers on a continual basis.

For that I thank you! I discover things that I am too lazy to otherwise do on my own.
Bravo!

glorv1 said...

I totally agree with Tancho. You always are in research mode and we are lucky to be able to learn from you. Bravo to Quiroga or as he was better known,"Tata Vasco."

Bob Mrotek said...

Tancho and Gloria,

You people are very kind. Thank you.

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About Me

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.