Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cante de ida y vuelta

They destroyed their temples. They built churches in their place. But the old lived on, and to this day we can peer through stained-glass windows at what was there before.

By the time the conquistadores arrived at Tenochtitlan and spelled its ruin, Spain was already well-versed in the iron art of imposing Roman Catholicism. Today archaeologists scour the Templo Mayor in Mexico City in search of ancient secrets the great cathedral never fully hid. The architects of both the cathedral and the entire colonial system tried to make squares out of circles, and when the whole enterprise began to fall apart at the end of the eighteenth century, Spanish America was left with the twisted remnants of a strange new alloy that coiled upon itself and broke apart, brittle, but inextricably fused in a new substance: an independent land. Since then, Latin America has been searching for the time before the furnace, for the answer to the brokenness, the secrets from the past that will determine future success. The secrets are still alive, in La Virgen de Guadalupe, an incarnation of the goddess Tonantzin, in the muertitos that Mexicans remember on All Saints’ Day. The secrets are there; we need only peer beyond the colored glass and listen to the soul of a language we only think we have forgotten.

The Great Mosque of Córdoba stands as a scarred testimony to the iron rule that shaped the conquistadors’ mindset when they set foot in the New World. Originally a Christian Visigothic church in the seventh century, the building was transformed into a mosque by Abd Ar-Rahman I and his descendants during the time of Al-Andalus, the Islamic empire in Spain. In the thirteenth century, Fernando III of Castilla captured Córdoba as part of the long process of the Reconquista, in which the royalty of Spain exercised their divine right to control the Iberian Peninsula and impose Catholic feudalism. A mosque, then, was not to be tolerated, and so Castilla chiseled a rectangle out of the forest of arches and planted there a cathedral, so ornate and baroque it bewilders the eye. Years later, Hernán Cortés would carve the same wound in the shape of a cross on a Ceiba tree in Mexico. For the Maya, the Ceiba tree is the religious center of the village and indeed the very center of the universe and cosmology. With his sword that day, Cortés raped the Maya, forcing his culture into the very flesh of America, just as the Crown had done to Al-Andalus. Indeed, it was in Córdoba in 1481 that the Reyes Católicos, Fernando and Isabel, decided to conquer Granada. Eleven years later, Isabel held the Alhambra in her left hand and America in her right. Spain seemed solid; not until the reign of Felipe IV in the seventeenth century did the sun begin to set on her empire.

Photo courtesy of Cassandra Paulk
Spain still celebrates this time. October 12th was a holiday here, just as it was in America. The day has many names, given its problematic nature. In the U.S. it is Columbus Day, and people every year protest, saying that Columbus committed genocide and therefore should not be celebrated. In Mexico some call it El Día de la Raza and celebrate mestizaje and the birth of a new race as a result of the mixing of cultures.1 In Spain, it is called El Día de la Hispanidad, which connotes the spreading of Spanish culture around the globe, or El Día de las Fuerzas Armadas, celebrating the military might that made this possible. During the years of Franco, it was called El Día de la Raza but it had a different meaning from the one we know on the American continent: Franco meant to celebrate the Spanish race and its diffusion across the Atlantic. And, of course, a Catholic figure provides the most agreed-upon name for the holiday: La Virgen del Pilar, patron saint of Zaragoza where, incidentally, her church was built on the site of a “mozárabe” church; that is, a church of converted Muslims. In any case, the day is a celebration of traditional, Catholic, Spanish values. In Granada, which has the vibrancy and international presence of a city but also the surprising provincialism of a town, a short but ostentatious parade of government authorities and two uniformed bands made its way from the town hall to the cathedral in the morning. In the afternoon, La Virgen del Pilar made her way through the city on the shoulders of suit-clad men who marched to the rhythm of drums that sounded just like Semana Santa. 1492 brought two worlds into contact and changed the course of history, but even now, with planes and Internet, the great Atlantic stretches between us—the great conveyor and translator of cultures whose waters still hide our true selves from one another.

The sun eventually did set on the Spanish Empire. In his poem “Velázquez: La infanta Margarita,” Manuel Machado writes:

Italia, Flandes, Portugal… Poniente
sol de la Gloria, el último destello
en sus mejillas infantiles posa…

Granada is in fact the embodiment of both the glory and the ultimate tragedy of the Spanish Empire. It was here that Boabdil finally surrendered and Europe was officially rid of the heathen forces of Islamic rule, prompting bullfights in Rome as the Spanish pope celebrated. And it was here that Fernando and Isabel asked to be buried. Indeed their bodies lie in the Capilla Real at the center of town. The Capilla is a shrine to glorify the dead rulers of a now-dead empire. The forces of Castilla and Roman Catholicism could not stamp out the tremulous cries of the lands they conquered and reconquered, could not erase memory from the places they invaded, could not silence the music of the people who lived there.

When I entered the great Mezquita de Córdoba, I felt the intensity of the religious construction, and its ancient silence overpowered me. The silence of Islamic geometry and masterful arches coexisting alongside crucifixes and chapels. My first sensation was an acute awareness of being in the universe, as the arches seemed to extend forever, as though reflected in invisible mirrors that faced each other endlessly, like the mirrors of Altamira and Tezcatlipoca that Carlos Fuentes imagines in El espejo enterrado. As I made my way through the forest of arches, the Christian art surprised me and seemed out of place, even as it formed an integral part of the same stoic silence. When I arrived at the cathedral within, I felt disoriented spatially, temporally, and cognitively. Its beauty seemed completely displaced, like a Vera Wang model startled to find herself in a luscious African jungle. It is a relic of the time when Spain painted in oil colors over lands it called canvas, before the canvas rebelled and refused to be a simple backdrop in the work of art and war that was the Spanish Empire.

The dichotomy of the Christian and the Muslim in the Mosque of Córdoba is more jarring than it is in the Alhambra. In the Alhambra, the Spanish Reconquista was content to leave most of the architecture intact and simply add virgins and crosses to facades, with the exception of the Palacio de Carlos V, which usurped a great amount of territory and now stands in full Renaissance splendor, recalling the great monuments of Rome. Because the columns of the Mezquita provide necessary structural support, they crowd right up next to the interspersed Christian structures, hugging the very flanks of the cathedral. The effect is a surprising mirror for the outside world beyond its walls, the many different types of people and cultures that inhabit the Andalucía of the twenty-first century. The mosque lies at the heart of the judería, the traditionally Jewish neighborhood. The Jews may have been expelled in 1492, but they left their living mark on the land they left behind, and their spirit still inhabits the city.
Perhaps the greatest mirror for the fine, complex tejido of Andalucía today can be found in flamenco. In the cante jondo that gypsies play at the Mirador San Nicolás while facing the Alhambra at sunset, these aching songs of sinews torn long ago, in the hammering zapateados, in the unsettling but patterned rhythms of the palmadas, we can feel the rushing blood-beat of India, Africa, and Spain, of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and gypsies, and even the red veins of America. Flamenco has evolved orally and so this ever-changing, ever more complex art is at once the most up-to-date and the most ancient manifestation of the character of Andalucía. Exchange with the New World after 1492 brought about cantes de ida y vuelta, songs of coming and going, and I offer these words to Andalucía as my own humble cante de ida y vuelta.

1Personally, I will not complain about the day off. Contact between two worlds has never been easy, and Columbus, for all his shortcomings and moral imbalances, was ultimately an adventurer who pursued a crazy dream and made it happen, even if he and his successors turned it into a nightmare for the people he encountered (not discovered). He literally sailed uncharted waters, and how many of us can claim as much in this age of pre-packaged vacations and GPS systems?

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