Cultural ties between Spain and Mexico continue amid political storm
It’s been 500 years since the Spanish conquest of Mexico but a line that winds around a block of Madrid shows that the legacy of half a millennium is more than resentment.
The queue was for an exhibit last month at the Casa de México cultural institute – a Day of the Dead exhibit that drew 65,000 visitors, mostly locals. Families waited patiently to see traditional altars filled with models of skulls and ceramics, large green glass candelabras, and other examples of Mexican folk art.
This level of interest, in a city where rival attractions include some of the world’s greatest museums and galleries, contrasted with a transatlantic slang match between politicians.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, President of Mexico, has stepped up his campaign for Spain to apologize for conquering his country. Isabel Díaz Ayuso, head of the regional government in Madrid, disputed that Spain gave the Americas the Spanish language, Catholicism, “and therefore, civilization and freedom.”
This year still promises to be eventful for relations between the former capital and the former colony: 2021 also marks the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s declaration of independence from Spain.
Perceptions of the colonial period differ radically. Mexico is so marked by the experience that people say “requested“-” order me “- instead of” what “? As a former Mexican journalist now in Spain, I always do a double take when walking past streets named after Hernán Cortés, the conquistador who remains the number one public enemy of many Mexicans. Cortés is a sinister, minauding presence in Diego Rivera’s large murals at the National Palace in Mexico City, where the Viceroys ruled and where López Obrador now holds court.
Yet even as politicians yell at each other to rally their bases, culture can be a meeting point. One of the reasons my family went to the Day of the Dead exhibition was because my son, like many other elementary school children in Madrid, is discovering Mexico.
Some Europeans appreciated Mexican art from the start. In 1520, the German artist Albrecht Dürer visited an exhibition of Aztec treasures looted in Brussels and wrote:, and I marveled at the subtle ingenuity of men in foreign countries.
While those gold necklaces, scepters and mosaics have vanished, melted down for their gold amid the despoiling of the Aztec Empire, the much more humble exhibit at the Casa de México is an exercise in bridge building. “We are a window on Mexico in Spain”, declares Ximena Caraza Campos, its general manager.
As a Mexican cultural institution, the Casa, which receives more than 130,000 visitors a year, has government representatives on its board of directors. But its day-to-day operations are privately funded and it was founded by Valentin Díez Morodo, a son of Spanish emigrants who made millions with Grupo Modelo, Mexico’s largest brewery (now part of AB InBev ). La Casa is its desire to bring the two countries closer together, by promoting cultural and commercial ties.
These links run deep. Mexico is a place of pride, especially among the Spanish left, for welcoming Republicans during and after the Spanish Civil War. Among them was Luis Buñuel, the surrealist filmmaker of Aragonese origin, who produced, among other Mexican masterpieces, Los Olvidados, on the street children of Mexico City.
When I lived in Mexico City 25 years ago, I walked around Parque España, where a statue of an open hand pays homage to Mexico’s welcoming of exiles. After landing a freelance job with the Financial Times, I celebrated by taking a slow train to Veracruz and traveled to La Antigua, Mexico’s first Spanish city, where rainforest grows among the ruins of the House of Cortés. .
On the other hand, when the Spaniards built on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, which became Mexico, their work lasted. Mexico remains the country of mestizo, or blending, its Spanish heritage an essential ingredient as the cultures of the two countries cross the centuries. Places such as the Casa de México make the subtle ingenuity of inhabitants of faraway lands a little closer.