Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Reading history

The act that you are doing now, turning a page of paper and interpreting what is written about time, place and power, has been going on in Mexico for more than 20 centuries. The tradition continued, in Mesoamerican style, into the late 16th century. To see what I mean, go to the exhibit “Codices de México: Memorias y Saberes” (Mexican Codices: Memory and Knowledge) on display at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

There you’ll see 44 previously unavailable codices. Some are the size of a book. The largest, almost-square Coixtlahuaca measures 12 square meters (130 square feet) and was meant to be extended on the floor while priests interpreted its content to those standing around. Even experts with access to the museum’s vault have not seen the codex fully extended until the exhibit opened in September.

The last time the long and narrow Pilgrimage Strip was fully extended for public display was in 1824 in London. Using pictographs, it documents the places the Aztecs lived while migrating from mythical Aztlán to the Valley of Mexico.

Typically folded accordion-style, codices were unfolded one page at a time. Their intricate drawings kept records of oral history and knowledge. They were written by scribes, called “tlahuicos” in Nahuatl, on deerskin, cotton or maguey fabric, and amate-bark paper. A few are written on European paper. Once tlahuicos learned the Spanish alphabet they wrote in their own languages using Spanish letters phonetically. In some cases they combined Spanish text with pictographs – or hieroglyphic text, in the case of Maya scribes.

At the time of the Spanish conquest, codices dedicated to astronomy, rituals, mythology, theology, societal structure and history were found throughout Mesoamerica. Early Christian evangelists considered Mesoamerican religion a cult to the devil and whole libraries of codices were burned in “acts of faith.”

Roughly 500 codices survive and are known to exist in the world today – 16 of them pre-Hispanic. Mexico has possession of close to 200 of them. By hook or crook, others are slowly returning. The Chimalpahin Codex was welcomed home on Sept. 17.

The three-volume Chimalpahin Codex is probably the oldest existing description of indigenous daily life in central Mexico. Poet and philosopher Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora had it in the late 17th century. A confidant of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, it’s fun to imagine him sharing this treasure with her in the San Jerónimo convent.

After Sigüenza’s death in 1700, the codex was acquired by José María Luís Mora Lamadrid. One of Father Mora’s favorite causes was national literacy and he traded it with the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) for a shipment of Protestant Bibles.

For 200 years, the Chimalpahin Codex lay forgotten in the archives of the BFBS in England. When Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) discovered it was to be auctioned by Christie’s it made private arrangements with the BFBS and now it again belongs to the nation.

Another codex on display has a cloak-and-dagger story. The divination calendar Tonalámatl de Aubin was part of the Lorenzo Boturini collection, sold to Count Jean Frederick Waldeck, who in turn sold it to Joseph Marius Alexis Aubin who took it to France in 1840.

Facing financial ruin as a result of his investment in the Panama Canal, Aubin sold his entire collection to Eugene Goupil, a Mexican antiquarian, who willed the collection to the National Library of Paris.

In 1898, French President Félix Faure decreed this collection could never be sold or gifted. In June 1982, Mexican lawyer and journalist José Luis Castañeda gained access to study the Tonalámatl in the library research vaults. He stuffed newspaper in its place and returned with the codex to Mexico. When discovered, the removal caused an international scandal. Castañeda was arrested but released two days later and treated as a hero by the Mexican press for returning illegally obtained patrimony. Over the protests of the French government, the Aubin Tonalámatl was deposited in Mexico’s Museum of Anthropology Library.

INAH Director Gastón García Cantú recounted that in October 1982 he took the Aubin Tonalámatl to France in his briefcase as part of a face-saving gentlemen’s agreement. Mexico would return the Tonalámatl and France, in a goodwill gesture, would give it to Mexico. It all came to naught in the French minister of culture’s office when France’s national library director produced President Faure’s decree that nothing from Goupil’s collection could be gifted. García Cantú kept his briefcase closed and the codex slipped out of France for a second time.

France severed cultural relations with Mexico until 1991 when Mexico and France negotiated an agreement allowing Mexico to keep the codex on a three-year renewable loan. In 2009, France and Mexico reached a permanent agreement that Mexico is the rightful owner.

The exhibit runs through January 11, 9 a.m.-7 p.m., Closed Mondays. All of the codices exhibited can be downloaded and viewed at www.inah.gob.mx/codices. However, it is difficult to conceptualize the size, color, texture and beauty of the codices without actually going to the exhibit.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Madero's writings

It’s hard to say when the Mexican Revolution began or ended, but last month we commemorated the Anniversary of the Revolution of 1910 on the day Francisco I. Madero called on the Mexican people to rise up against Porfirio Diaz’s administration. This was after the fraud-ridden election in which Diaz claimed to have won his seventh presidential term.

Porfirio Diaz had said he would welcome an opposition party candidate to run against him. Francisco Madero published “The Presidential Succession of 1910,” his campaign platform, and ran. On election day, Diaz claimed a landslide victory and had Madero arrested.

Madero escaped to San Antonio and there wrote a nine-page document published in San Luis Potosí on October 5, 1910. In it he set the date and time for the uprising against Diaz: 6:00 p.m., Sunday Nov. 20. Despite his precision, fighting began a few days before.

The San Luis Potosí Plan was successful in leading to Porfirio Diaz’s exile and Madero’s election as president in 1911, but turmoil continued for close to a decade. Madero did not live to see a post-Revolutionary Mexico. He was assassinated along with his vice-president in February 1913.

As learned this at a talk about Madero by C. M. Mayo last Tuesday in Mexico City, it turns out that Francisco Madero didn’t just write about politics and revolution.

Originally scheduled in the National Palace, the venue shifted across the street to the Archbishopric Palace. The topic of the talk was so much on my mind that as I entered the building I asked the uniformed doorman, “Is this Madero 4?” He corrected me, “Moneda 4.”

Indeed the street is named “coin” or “currency” because the first mint in the western hemisphere was down the block. If one wondered about the Colonial power’s priority, the treasury was located in that spot even before the Cathedral was built!

C.M. Mayo, the author of “The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire” about Agustin de Iturbide, is Catherine Mansell’s penname. Born in Texas, raised in northern California, she received her M.A. in economics in 1985 from the University of Chicago. In 1986 she married a young Mexican economist and moved to Mexico City. I have no doubt that in the United States, where it’s common for married women to take their husband’s surname, she’s received many invitations addressed to Dr. and Ms. Carstens.

She told us about visiting the archive of Madero at the Treasury Secretariat shortly after having published “The Last Prince.” “The curator had arranged a selection of the collection’s most outstanding items on a table that nearly spanned the width of the room: Madero’s masonic regalia, photographs, documents. We walked the length the table as she explained the importance of each piece. Not halfway through the presentation my gaze fell on a little book “Manual Spiritista” (Spiritist Manual) by ‘Bhíma.’

“Who was Bhíma?”

“Madero himself,” the curator answered.

Mayo told us, “Once I’d confirmed the work had never translated from Madero’s original Spanish, I knew I had to translate this book.”

And she did. However, it wasn’t the weekend project she had expected. Scarcely three pages in, she said, “I was dumbfounded. I had no context for such ideas. Frankly, it gave me the creeps. So instead of translating I started reading – four years worth of reading.”

That reading led to Mayo’s book – published this year – “Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book.” The book includes the full translation of Madero’s “Spiritist Manual.”

Spiritism is the belief that humans are immortal spirits that attain moral and intellectual improvement through reincarnation. According to “The Spirit’s Book” published in 1857 by Allan Kardec, “Spirits exert an incessant action upon the moral world, and even upon the physical world … Spirits are incessantly in relation with men. The good spirits try to lead us into the right road, sustain us under the trials of life, and aid us to bear them with courage and resignation; the bad ones tempt us to evil: it is a pleasure for them to see us fail, and to make us like them.”

Mayo told us “Almost unknown and curious as it may sound, a vital taproot of the Mexican Revolution lies in the Burned-Over District of New York state,” an area between Albany and Buffalo known for the fiery passion of 19th century revival movements. In her book Mayo describes the North American Spiritist movement spreading to Europe. “Scottish-born American D.D. Home’s séances, like his audiences, attained a new level of glamour…Attended by royalty, including Emperor Louis Napoleon and his Empress Eugénie and high society of all stripes.”

It was from France that Madero’s father acquired Allan Kardec’s books. Madero wrote: “I did not read Kardec’s books; I devoured them. For their doctrines were so rational, so beautiful, so new, they seduced me and ever since I consider myself a Spiritist.”

Nevertheless, Madero kept his Spiritism very private. Not even sharing it with members of his cabinet. Did it affect Mexico? In the very least it must have given Madero the strength to take on the daunting task of confronting the entrenched Diaz administration.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Finding Bermeja

Take a cruise around the western Caribbean and chances are you will stop at the port in Progreso, just north of Mérida in the Yucatan. Getting off a cruise ship can take a while, but getting off the Progreso pier can take even longer. It’s a 6.5 kilometer (four mile) trip to shore.

Progreso’s pier was a mile long when it was inaugurated in 1942, and then extended to be the world’s longest pier in the 1980s. Now it can accommodate container ships and cruise ships.

Why so long? Or, better question, why is the water so shallow? The Yucatan Peninsula is the above-water part of a large limestone shelf that extends out into the Gulf of Mexico. It extends more than 100 miles undersea, mainly to the north and west.

At the very edge of that shelf sits the tiny Bermeja Island.

Over the years I’ve followed the island’s rise and fall. Bermeja appears from time to time in Mexican newspapers and has been discussed numerous times on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies, but the island has gone missing and no one seems to know where it is or if it was ever there.

Bermeja Island made its literary appearance in 1539 with the publication of “The Yucatan and Nearby Islands,” written by Spain’s Alonso de Santa Cruz. A year later, Alonzo de Chaves described the island as “reddish-gold” and placed it at approximately 22.3 degrees north latitude and 91.22 degrees west longitude – pretty much straight east of Tampico and north of the Laguna de Terminos. The island is shown on ancient maps as Bermeja or Vermejo, both derived from the Spanish for “having a reddish appearance.”

Over the next centuries most maps of the Gulf of Mexico show Bermeja. No one had reason to doubt its existence. On the other hand, no one went looking for it.

Now with billions of dollars of oil money at stake, the search is on.

The Gulf of Mexico has enormous unexplored oil fields. In the United States, oil rigs are ubiquitous in the waters off of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. While more than 38 percent of the gulf is shallow intertidal water where drilling is relatively easy, much of the Gulf is part of a deep canyon that reaches a maximum depth of 2.6 miles (4.4 kilometers). Until the technology of deep sea drilling advanced the potential to drill for oil in very deep water, the area outside intertidal boundaries was of little more than theoretical interest.

For many years, the United States, Mexico and Cuba all claimed portions of those reserves that fell outside the customary territorial waters – considered to be approximately 12 miles offshore.
In 1970, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea formally awarded each country “the right to natural resources within a 200-mile (322 km) Exclusive Economic Zone.” That means that each country controls a 200-mile band surrounding its territory.

Where claims overlap, the Law of the Sea requires competing countries to negotiate separate bilateral or multilateral agreements.

The 1970 ruling left two areas in the Gulf of Mexico disputed. They became known as the Eastern and Western Hoyos de Dona, better known as “the donut holes.” The Western donut hole is 6,744 square miles (17,467 square kilometers) and disputed by Mexico and the United States. The Eastern donut hole is 7,720 square miles (20,000 square kilometers) and disputed by Mexico, the United States and Cuba.

Bermeja Island is in the international waters of the Western donut hole. If Bermeja Island could be located, it would significantly extend Mexico’s portion of the donut hole and its bargaining power with the United States.

As all the debate, exploration, and gnashing of teeth continued, geopolitics changed. Cuba and China entered into an agreement allowing China to begin exploration in Cuba’s area of interest in its territorial waters and the Eastern donut. Meanwhile, the United States began drilling deeper and deeper in the Gulf of Mexico, pushing the limits. The ecological disaster of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred at the deepest deep-water well.

Mexico frantically searched for the missing island but could find nothing. In 2009, the Chamber of Deputies ordered three investigations. Though the most advanced technology available was used, there were no results. Not only did investigators not find the island, they were unable to find evidence of an island ever having existed at, or near, the location specified on early maps.

Did the ocean rise? Did the island sink? Did a tectonic shift destroy Bermeja? Conspiracy theorists suggest the United States blew up the island to improve their economic interests, but early satellite photos – even from the 1960s – provide no evidence of Bermeja’s existence.

Could it be time to consider the possibility that Bermeja never existed? Could it have been invented by early mapmakers to mislead their rivals?

Regardless, 22.3 degrees north latitude and 91.22 degrees west longitude is located close to the northwestern tip of the limestone shelf that holds up the Yucatan Peninsula – where the gulf is still shallow and a small, perhaps unstable, island could perch.