Letter to the President of Peru: Hands Off History

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Most of your country’s population is not indigenous, but mestizo or directly descended from Europeans. Reconciling with that identity is a necessity if we are to move forward into the future without complexes or backward quarrels.

Mister Castillo. I congratulate you on your election and wish you all the best in your journey as President of Peru. You will need it if your recipe is that of the banana republics that abound on the continent, which we have already seen how they end up. I hope you leave a country as beloved by Spaniards as is Peru better than you found it, and perhaps you will achieve this even while carrying an ideology as outdated as communism on your back. What is most urgently needed in countries like yours is simply stability, strength and the ability to unite all Peruvians. That is in your hands.

Convent of San Francisco in Lima

Convent of San Francisco in Lima

I am writing this letter to warn you of the dangers of inflaming the public debate with identity or historical issues that are unlikely to be resolved, especially unlikely if it is politicians who address them and not historians, in order to avoid getting to the heart of the pressing problems you have on the table. I am sure you have more important matters to attend to than, as you said in your inaugural speech, “ending the bonds of domination that have been kept in place for so many years” by the conquistadores. All these flames will only serve to further divide society and, in general, weaken the entire Hispanic commonwealth.

Please avoid this well-known path. Chance put Andrés López Obrador, the grandson of Spaniards, in charge of Mexico just as the 500th anniversary of Hernán Cortés‘ Conquest was about to be commemorated. His determination to demand anachronistic pleas for forgiveness and to reinvent history in radically indigenist terms has spoiled any chance of getting something positive out of the anniversary, something that might actually serve to bring Mexico closer to its roots. And chance, let’s call it the Peruvian electorate, has placed you at the head of Peru when the commemoration of the beginning of the Conquest of Peru by Francisco Pizarro five hundred years ago is already in the distance. I have no doubt that, if you are still in government then, you will try to ensure that the black legendary story will also spoil the opportunity to build bridges between your country and mine.

Take care of your history, take care of our common history, please. It will make you stronger, as strong as we became when the whole Hispanic community was pushing in the same direction. The envy of the world. The terror of the Anglo-Saxons. The viceroyalty that your country occupies today was a prodigy of the Baroque period, one of the epicentres of the world economy, a place where the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, “the prince of the writers of the New World”, son of an indigenous woman and a Spanish conquistador, who dominated the Spanish language with a silken fist on both sides of the ocean, developed his work.

Peru is not, as you implied in your investiture speech, the same as the Inca empire. Peru is the resulting mestizo reality that brought together parts of both worlds. The country’s customs, cultures and institutions today have more to do with the former viceroyalty than with the pre-Columbian peoples. Yes, all as a result of a traumatic birth where the indigenous population bore the brunt in the form of disease, violence and demographic collapse. No one is saying that the conquest was a path of flowers, but it is part of the past, of our common past, and of a historical process where there is no room for moral judgements to evaluate from our comfortable viewpoint the behaviour of those societies 500 years ago.

Incas coat of arms 1545. General Archive of Indies Seville

Incas coat of arms 1545. General Archive of Indies Seville

Denying the Spanish identity of your people condemns you too (I’m guessing that the surname Castillo has something to do with the legacy of Castile) to schizophrenia, to not knowing who you really are. Most of your country’s population is not indigenous, but mestizo or directly descended from Europeans. Reconciling with that identity is a necessity in order to move into the future without complexes or backward quarrels. It is not even a problem of Peruvians with Spain, but of Peruvians with Peruvians. And it is you, and not us, who are the true children of the conquerors.

I can already predict that it will go badly if your presidency takes that lucrative populist path of presenting the Spaniards as a disruptive element of “ancestors who for millennia found ways to solve their problems and live in harmony with the rich nature that Providence offered them”, as you said in your first speech as president. Either you are not well informed or you are lying to keep alive that almost legendary figure, born during the Enlightenment, of the myth of the “good savage”, which depicts indigenous and pre-Columbian societies as a lost paradise corrupted by Europeans. Nor were those societies idyllic, nor were those that remained after the departure of the royalist forces.

Plaza de Armas, Cuzco, Peru

Plaza de Armas, Cuzco, Peru

The situation in the central Andes before Pizarro’s arrival was light years away from being a happy Arcadia. The first thing the Spaniards encountered on their advance towards Cajamarca was the ravages of civil war between the Inca military establishment, represented by Atahualpa, and the priestly establishment of his half-brother Huáscar. The war was then being won by the former, as the Spaniards were able to guess on their advance from San Miguel into the interior of the Andes. In the fertile province of Caxas, Hernando de Soto described a horizon of corpses of the priestly side hanging on high hills.

Not to mention that Inca religious rituals included the sacrifice of boys and girls from all over the empire, largely the children of local caciques who were forced to cede their offspring to the central power. Sacrificing children does not seem the best way to achieve harmony in the Andes. And I have to tell you with all the pain in my heart – because I know it will hurt – and you know I wish you well, that the Spanish empire, despite its many faults, gave a better fit to all the native realities of the continent than the Incas did.

Without bridges, without roads (remind me one day to tell you about the logistical and cultural landmark that was the Camino Real linking Buenos Aires with Lima) and without a common language, such as that of Cervantes, all those peoples who lived in supposed harmony, the most they could aspire to was the famous hakuna matata, live and be happy, each one in their own village without interacting with whoever they had on the other side of the river. Empires, as hard as it is to admit, the bigger they get, the more they unite.

What is more, the Indians found greater shelter in the Catholic monarchy than they did in all those independent and fragmented republics to which you are indebted. The Laws of the Indies kept legally protected and shielded indigenous communities that were not ready for what, with Western arrogance, we call civilisation. However, when the republics arrived, with the idea that everything Spanish had to be amended, the protection mechanisms collapsed and left the Indians without land, without rights, in the face of what the libertarians called progress and equality. And equality destroyed them. It left them helpless.

In conclusion, to end this rambling of historical facts that you probably don’t give a damn about, I strongly recommend that you stop with the anachronistic battles. Put your history books on the floor and slowly walk away from them with your hands on your head. There are already professionals dedicated to these things: they are called historians. If you really care about the welfare of Indians, worry about the living, not the dead, who continue to suffer a state of marginalisation in many corners of your country. And if you really want to collect pardons for these communities, don’t go back five hundred years. Start by apologising yourself, and the fathers of the republic, for the laws that have brought the Indians to their most recent plight.

P.S. I have read that you wear the “chotano” or “bambamarquino” hat, woven from palm thatch, in a nod to the rural and indigenous population you come from, but I am pretty sure that, like your surname, that cowboy style was brought by the evil Castilians. I regret to say that he is to indigenous what Pizarro is to Inca.

Sources

This post was translated from:

Cervera, C. (2021) ‘Carta al presidente del Perú: saque sus manos de la Historia’, 28 August. Available at: https://eldebatedehoy.es/noticia/historia/28/08/2021/carta-al-presidente-del-peru/ (Accessed: 31 August 2021).

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