| PERSONAL ESSAY
By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
“At first a great pestilence spread among us, a widespread illness. It began during Tepeíhutl. It spread among us, a great destroyer of people. It covered some of them, every part of their bodies, over all of their bodies it spread. On the face, on the head, on the chest.
It was very destructive, this illness. Many people died from it. Nobody could walk, they were just laying down, prostrated on their beds. They could not move, they could not turn their necks, they could not move their bodies, they could not lie face down, they could not rest on their backs, they could not turn from side to side. And when they moved, they screamed. Many died of a sticky death, caked, the harsh illness of the pustules.
Many died from it, but many died by starvation. Many died of hunger, nobody was taking care of anybody else, nobody could worry about anybody else.
The plague lasted sixty days, sixty fateful days.”
— The Broken Spears, Miguel León-Portilla
The Great Tenochtitlan, a metropolis of 200,000 and the capital of the Aztec empire, fell to the forces of the Spanish invader on Aug. 13, 1521. Built on an island surrounded by lakes, Tenochtitlan was described by Bernal Díaz del Castillo as “an enchanted vision from the Tales of Amadis,” that astounded the Spaniards. “Indeed some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream,” Díaz del Castillo wrote.
The enclave we now call Mexico City succumbed to Hernán Cortés and his rapacious soldiers after a two-year siege, leaving a scar that has never fully healed. The date has been on my mind a lot lately not just because of its approaching 500th anniversary, with intellectuals and artists waxing poetic about its meaning, and even some commemorations being planned, but because the circumstances leading to the Mexica’s surrender became a lot easier to envision starting March 13, 2020.
It is often said that the Aztec empire fell due to the technological superiority of Cortés’s army, with the swords and horses and guns the Spaniards imported from other parts of the world that Aztecs did not have. The rivalries are also mentioned: the Mexica rulers had a lot of enemies, neighboring kingdoms that were only too happy to ally themselves with the foreign invader to best their foes. What’s not mentioned nearly enough is the Spaniards’ biggest, most effective weapon, one they probably didn’t even know they possessed: the variola virus. Smallpox.
Cortés and his gang of murderers had been squatting in Tenochtitlan for more than a year, had been defeated and run out of town, and were trying to regroup, when a smallpox outbreak killed 40 percent of the Mexica population in Tenochtitlan. Unlike the invading army, descendants of pestilences past, my ancestors had no immunity. Women, children and the elderly were particularly vulnerable to this deadly disease. Two out of every five people died within two months. Eighty thousand people vanished within 60 days, the massive funeral pyres the only sign they ever existed.
There was an eerie feeling about East Salinas and the Alisal at the height of the COVID pandemic. It was the peak of the summer, a time when apartment complexes usually teem with activities — barbecues on patios, children playing with their neighbors and teens rushing to paleteros as their carts roll by.
This time, summer 2020, there was no one playing soccer in the parks, no children on the playgrounds, no neighbors stopping to chat in the hallways. In the stores, where the workers usually arrive after a full day at the fields, the ominous feeling intensified as hardly anybody wore masks. A scene that could have lent normalcy became instead a symbol of our collective failure to take care of our essential workers, the Latino immigrants and their families who call Alisal and other communities of the Salinas Valley home.
Suddenly I was overcome by an intense fear of the microscopic creature, the virus none of us can see with the naked eye but we know is there. Attempting to talk myself out of it, I’d say to myself not to be irrational. I barely knew anybody who had contracted COVID-19, much less died. It’s only me and my partner and the cats in our apartment and I’m not going out, nobody is going to give me the bug. Everyone in my family is OK. Then I’d look at the stats, at the impossible numbers ripping through my community, and another nagging voice would rise. Remember the pictures of the overflowing hospitals in Italy? The refrigerated trucks parked outside funeral homes, the mass graves dug out in New York? It could happen here too. That kind of catastrophic loss of life had happened to our ancestors 500 years ago.
By chance I found out my siblings were attending mass — and taking our mother with them — and I became hysterical. The frantic texts in the middle of the night, accusing them of risking our mother’s health, declaring it would be their fault if anything happened to her, cursing their irresponsibility and bad judgment, became commonplace. The idea of losing my mother to the pandemic made me shake uncontrollably, doubled me over with pain, clouded my thinking. Ah, the bug, the dastardly SARS-CoV-2.
My mind unraveling, I imagined what my ancestors must have gone through when they faced a similar, invisible threat to their collective existence. An exercise in masochism, a desire to put myself through something atrocious in order to reach another level of understanding, perhaps also a desire to punish myself because I was not suffering enough. I was not sick. I was not at risk. I was safe, unlike the farmworkers who had no choice but to go out and work to survive, COVID-19 and raging fires notwithstanding.
My irrational angst, my inability to operate, my confusion and helplessness was no longer just mine, but also that of my 16th-century ancestors trapped inside their own city, the Great Tenochtitlan, under siege by an invisible organism. But theirs was more sudden, completely unexpected, brutal. Because there was no understanding of microbiology, their collective fear of the unknown must have exacerbated their anguish a thousand times over. One day you’re having dinner with your loved ones, warm tortillas with chile and tomatoes and calabacitas, hot chocolatl or pozol, celebrating a harvest of plenty, making the most out of your life now threatened by the invader. Next thing you know, everyone is covered in pustules, prostrate, feverish, then gone, all of your loved ones disappeared in a moment. Your sijtli, your teikautli, your siuakonetl. Grandma, little brother, daughter, all gone in two months by the huey ahuizotl.
The despair and loss is truly unimaginable today.
Recovering from the death of a loved one takes months, even years. Imagine that loss compounded by thousands: you have lost kin, breadwinners and caretakers, playmates and confidants, teachers, community leaders, builders, farmers, merchants — all at the same time. Your suffering is far from over. Imagine becoming a slave soon after, in your own land, and seeing your deities destroyed, replaced by a foreign God you had never seen and you could not trust because He was imposed by the invader. Imagine all of that precipitated by an invisible creature over which you had no protection.
While you’re still trying to figure out what hit you and all your loved ones, imagine being ordered to work on behalf of the invader. Hobbling physically and emotionally from this brutal epidemic, you now have to build his temples and palaces and streets and plazas. The new masters will whip you like a beast if you don’t comply, starve your children to death if you refuse, so you stagger along, your spirit in tatters, because your ancestors brought you to this point and they won’t let you quit — for your own children’s sake.
And of course, to facilitate his job, the invader will call you savage, beast, and to prove how backward you are he will destroy all your writings and your culture, claiming it’s not art, it’s not culture, that they have no value anyway. All that’s valuable is your gold but they tell you you don’t even know how valuable it is, so you don’t deserve it, and the invader loses it on the lake as he tries to escape like the coward he is.
And out of those ruins, the ruins of your temples, the temples where you worshiped the Rain and the Sun — and Moon and Corn and Maguey, all that’s natural and holy and gives you life — you have to build a new world even though you’re considered nothing but a beast. And you do help build it, not because you believe you are, but because you don’t. You have a sacred destiny to fulfill, and for that, you must remain alive, and you must continue inspiring your children, so they’ll in turn inspire their own children, and the children of their children. It may take one hundred years, or five hundred, or more. What’s 10,000 years in the history of the world? A brief, brief space.
There are many painful markers in the history of European colonization of the Americas, including the accidental arrival of Cristobal Columbus on “Hispaniola” in 1492; the capture of Atahualpa, the last Inca Emperor, in 1532; the disembarkation of the Mayflower Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in December 1620. The fall of Tenochtitlan after the capture of Cuauhtemoc, the last emperor of the Aztec empire, is high on the list. Indeed, the events mark the beginning of a “new world order” on this continent, one marked by repression, slavery and genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, their subservience to the European squatters.
One way or another, we continue to live with the consequences. Colonization still echoes in the disproportionate impact COVID-19 had on Latinos and Black/Afro Americans. The reasons are well documented: people of color have jobs that cannot be done from home, like harvesting crops or cleaning offices. They also tend to live in more crowded conditions — COVID-19 spreads faster when there are 20 people living in one home. And when you don’t have health insurance, you’ll probably neglect that cough until you need to be put in a respirator.
In Virginia, Hispanic individuals make up 9.6 percent of the state’s population but accounted for 36.2 percent of all COVID-19 hospitalizations in the 60-day period that ended June 24, 2020. Four times over. The colonized, Black and Brown people, still suffer from the effects of social ills, of colonization, fourfold. Four times the burden, four times the weight, four times the effects.
Can you see how the Spaniards built a “new world” on the backs of the Indigenous Peoples who had been almost completely decimated by disease? How Europeans systematically denied Indigeous people basic human rights? How this cycle repeated itself over and over for centuries, not just with the Spaniards, but the English and the French and the Portuguese and the Dutch? Europeans behaved in similar ways towards America’s Native Peoples. Can you see why indigenous people all over this continent still have to migrate to distant lands to find jobs, to make a living, to survive? Why we have indigenous people from Oaxaca and Yucatán and Central America working on our fields in the Salinas Valley, or in Oregon, in Washington, in Florida and North Carolina?
And on the reverse, on the people who benefit from this system, is it any wonder that wealthier, whiter folks were eager to open up the economy months before many of us Brown, working-class folks were ready? Eager to go back to have their meals prepared and served by Black and Brown cooks and servers at trendy restaurants and bars, while people of color everywhere continued to urge caution? Is it any wonder rich folks flocked to Cabo San Lucas and San Miguel de Allende and Puerto Vallarta and those resorts where vaccination rates are abysmal and locals remain unprotected from the deadly virus — at a time when more potent variants are developing?
Hear its echo in the fight to establish and grow ethnic studies, to defend critical race theory. At a time of great upheaval in the United States, a time when Black and Brown people were questioning their place in this society, ethnic studies and critical race theory emerged. What these disciplines are attempting to do is simple: they are casting a critical lens on U.S. society to understand the role that racism has played in the development of its institutions and its laws. Are Black people incarcerated at higher rates than whites because they’re more “prone to violence?” No. There are laws that punish Black people at higher rates than white people. It is well documented that usage of crack cocaine (used by Black people in higher numbers) carried harsher sentences than powder cocaine (the drug of choice of white executives).
Here’s another thing that ethnic studies attempts to do: recast the experience of people native to this continent, native to Aztlán, to Turtle Island, to Tawantinsuyu, as something to be proud of. Our ancestors built pyramids, domesticated corn and squash and beans, raised them from wild crops until they could sustain whole civilizations. Their planting seasons were guided by the stars and the movement of the sun, hundreds of years before Galileo was persecuted for believing in heliocentrism. They were a lot smarter than the invaders made them out to be, a lot more knowledgeable, a lot wiser. But how do you prove that when their temples and their writing were burned, when their words barely exist to defend themselves? You can’t. All you have is the word of the invader against yours.
Yes, my ancestors were decimated in Tenochtitlan, and their corn was burned and their homes ransacked to drive them away from their own land. But they were not annihilated, nor did they vanish forever. They survived, built palaces and fought wars and defended their right to exist and contribute to the history of this continent, of the territories now called Mexico and United States and beyond. Their descendants live among us, and continue helping us plant our crops and feed us and take care of our children. And their children want to have these histories known because they explain where they come from and contribute to their sense of well being, because it gives them purpose. Is that too much to ask?
Witnessing the huge opposition that has developed against ethnic studies, I know the answer.
In 1998, Tucson Unified School District high school teacher Curtis Acosta established the Mexican American Studies Department Programs, an idea he had to inspire Chicano/a and Latino/a students reach their full potential. The department grew from offering a few classes to about 43 classes in the years following. And you wouldn’t know it, but students who took these classes blossomed. Drop-out rates for Latino students who enrolled in this program was 2.5 percent, when the national average was much, much higher. Those classes were giving children a sense of identity, a purpose, a sense of self that inspired them to reach for the stars.
But the haters would have none of that. The program was targeted by opportunists who know Black and Latino and Indigenous people make perfect piñatas — the gang bangers, the illegals, the criminals — and a law was specifically drafted to make it disappear. House Bill 2281 was signed into law by governor Jan Brewer in 2010, which effectively banned the program.
The program creators sued, and in 2017, a federal judge sided with them, declaring that the law banning ethnic studies violated students’ constitutional rights and were racist in their motivation. “Both enactment and enforcement were motivated by racial animus,” federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima said in the ruling. The Tucson program may have vanished, but their creators went on to establish XITO, the Xicanx Institute for Teaching and Organizing. There have been at least two XITO-led institutes in Salinas, at Hartnell College. The conferences were held for teachers to learn what ethnic studies is about. They learned the story of Tucson Unified, and how students of color flourish under these teachings, a fact proven by a Stanford University study led by white professors. Imagine that.
The concepts XITO folks teach are the scary ones that have Fox News viewers with their chonies bunched up. Colonialization: the subjugation of people by taking pre-populated lands.
As in: the Europeans took a bunch of populated land, claimed it was inhabited by savages, and proceeded with a plan to exterminate them so they could continue profiting from the land and their indiscriminate use of it.
As in: gold-hungry Spanish adventurers claimed the Mexica were savages and idol worshipers so they could destroy their temples and kill their women and children and occupy their land and take their gold and not feel bad about it. Does learning that make children hate one another? I don’t think so. It teaches children of European descent that their ancestors did really really bad and ugly things. It teaches children of color that their ancestors suffered incredible penuries, that their existence on this earth is practically a miracle. Are children of color supposed to blame their white peers for this? Absolutely not. Are white kids and children of color going to hate each other because of their shared, painful history? I expect better of them, and young people hardly ever disappoint me — it’s the adults who do.
Do I hate white people because of my knowledge of this? Of course not. I find some of them annoying, but then again, my sister is annoying sometimes, and I love her to pieces. I believe some white people live under the delusion that they’re superior to people of color, just like some people of color live under the delusion that they’re inferior to white people. We, white people and people of color, are brothers and sisters under a collective colonial delusion.
There’s another scary concept that the XITO folks teach and it’s called “intergenerational trauma”: trauma that gets passed down from those who directly experience an incident to subsequent generations. As in: the horror that you witnessed and experienced will be inherited by your children and grandchildren, not just in the stories you tell them (or chose to hide from them) but in your fears and your phobias and your distrust of people and other things.
“The transgenerational effects are not only psychological, but familial, social, cultural, neurobiological and possibly even genetic as well,” reads a report in the American Physiological Association.
Can you imagine how traumatic it was to survive the Holocaust, to know that you’re the only person in your family to make it out alive? How about the bombings of Hiroshima of Nagasaki? How hard was it for the survivors to move forward? Did they pass on their collective trauma to their offspring? And their children, to their children?
Have we, people of color, inherited traumas from our ancestors? Do we still have nightmares about the times when white settlers sicced dogs to kill our mothers and fathers? Are we afraid to leave our children alone because they can be snatched and taken to a “school” where they’ll be buried and discovered a century later?
Are we utterly petrified about an invisible organism that could wipe out an entire village in 60 days, its knowledge, its songs, its art and its culture gone like they never existed? I know I am.
So here is a toast to the 120,000 who made it alive, 500 years after their ordeal was over — or barely began. You rose above the trauma and helped build the invader’s palaces and streets and plazas — and in the process, you made them your own. You remained alive, and after working like servants all day, you stayed up by candlelight to learn the invader’s writing.
You adopted their religion, molded it to be your own, and you passed it on to your children — their Guadalupe became your Tonantzin. You wrote testimonials so you could be remembered, so your children and the children of their children, my ancestors, would be inspired, remain inspired, for centuries to come. So your sacred destiny could be fulfilled. We owe you everything, and we’ll honor you by learning everything we can about you and your struggle.
Maybe your story can be shared in an ethnic studies class. Wouldn’t that be grand?
PHOTO: The Great Tenochtitlan mural by Diego Rivera at Mexico’s National Palace, the residence of Mexican President Manuel Lopez Obrador since 2018, and home to the national archives | Public Domain
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