VALLADOLID, The Yucatan—This is not my first time in the Yucatan nor in Mexico, and every time I visit, always as a turista (to act otherwise would be disingenuous), I feel a connection with the country, a stronger one with it and the rest of Latin America than with that country north of the border, where my wife and I live, even as the tangled layers of bloodlines, colonial history, and economic imperatives, among other things, tie us to both the Hispanic world and that of the norteamericanos. Perhaps this can be explained by the simple fact that Las Islas Filipinas—that perla del mar oriente—was under the Iberian thumb far, far longer than the roughly half a century of US colonial occupation. The United States did take over a Southeast Asian country but one that was already Hispanicized.
Walking around this lovely, un-bustling 16th-century colonial town, blessedly far from the hordes of visitors that clog Cancun on the Caribbean coast but not too far as to be a long haul from the Cancun airport, I do have a sense of déjà vu, even if this may be my first visit to this particular pueblo that is still largely Mayan.
Whenever asked, I always facetiously summarize the legacies of more than three centuries of Spanish rule as the fiesta, the siesta, and la iglesia—with the last being a legacy the Philippines would be much better shaking off. (In this sense, the Mexicans very astutely circumscribed the role of the Catholic Church in both public and private life, a consummation to be devoutly wished in a still heavily clerically influenced Philippines.) And la fiesta, la siesta, and la iglesia are all in evidence here in Valladolid. Many businesses do close for lunch and a brief siesta. As for iglesias, this small town has at least four, one of them a cathedral, and one church forming part of a monastery, on the aptly named Calzada de los Frailes. The weekend before we returned to a freezing New York the town was holding its annual feria in the spacious main plaza, right in front of our hotel—an unexpected treat, with dancers wearing their traditional huipil garb, the men clad in white pants and simple long-sleeved white shirts. This wasn’t the fiesta of course, but that would come later in the year.
In his “A Question of Heroes,” Nick Joaquin writes that the treaty between Spain and Mexico “permitted the two imperial provinces that were formerly ruled through Mexico, to choose between Mexico or remaining with Spain. The Philippines thus got the chance to break away from Spain in 1821,” when Mexico threw off the Spanish yoke, “but the Philippine government—or the Spanish Governor-General, anyway—chose to keep the islands under Spain.” Not surprising, of course, that the head of the civil government in the islands preferred the status quo. Otherwise, we could have been Mexicans, and this would have been written in Spanish—denied the masses by a friarocracy whose zeal for earthly power far exceeded their sacerdotal aspirations.
Since we share the heritage of the colonized and the same colonizer, the ties that bind us to Mexico are more meaningful and deeper than those that bind us to Iberia. With the Basque Miguel de Legazpi, who had been living in Mexico when he was ordered by the Crown to set sail for Asia, and who successfully started the process of bringing the islands under Spanish control in 1565, the tradition of having Mexicans, largely Creoles, assigned to the Philippines in a variety of roles began. With the galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco (that actually began not in 1565 as conventionally believed but in 1572, when Intramuros was built up by the Spanish, who had mostly relocated from Cebu), people, goods, and ideas flowed back and forth.
The Mexican imprint can be seen in vegetables such as sayote, kamatis (tomate), and in peanuts (mani or cacahuates)—all brought over from the other side of the Pacific. It can be seen in the Black Nazarene domiciled at Quiapo Church, and on this trip what brought home this connection most tellingly, in a land that was in so many ways as tropical as the Philippines, was a completely black vertical Nazarene, that greets you when you enter the church of the Convento de San Antonio de Padua, in the Mayan town of Izamal. (The Convento, with its wide porticoed courtyard, replaced the apex of the largest pyramid, older than the ones at nearby Chichen Itza. The Spanish Franciscans lopped off the top, at the behest of a Fray Diego de Landa—later to be imprisoned in Spain due to the abuses suffered by the indigenous population at his instigation—and used the stones in their construction.) This Christ is different, and hangs from the cross rather than bearing it, as the one in Quiapo does. A guide bringing around an English couple (I could tell by their plummy accents) describes this Black Christ as the Farmers’ Christ, for only someone working in the fields could be this dark. It could also be called the Waiters’ Christ, as almost all of the wait staff at the hotel were Mayan and brown, and the Spanish-speaking clientele mostly mestizo and fair-skinned.
It occurs to me that perhaps the Quiapo icon originated from the Yucatan. It is a tantalizing possibility, and one among many that makes me even more curious about the historical and cultural ties that bind two countries on opposite sides of the Pacific.
Copyright L.H. Francia 2013