Near the beginning of his new book, “Talking to Strangers,” Malcolm Gladwell puts Mexico at the center of the 16th-century world. The scene is the conquistador Hernán Cortés’ arrival at the fantastical Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan and his fateful meeting with Montezuma. Among the many bloody conflicts of the age, the destruction that would spiral from that moment was unique.
Unlike the wars of Europe, which were largely among neighbors who knew one another well, this was a meeting of two worlds that had virtually no understanding of each other. The leaders needed two translators simply to talk to each other, one to translate from Spanish into Mayan and a second to translate from Mayan into the Aztec language of Nahuatl.
The misunderstandings that arose between those two strangers was world-altering. The mightiest empire of the Americas was conquered, and European colonization was set on its inexorable path.
But in this week’s cover story, our Sara Miller Llana looks through the prism of that moment 500 years ago and sees something different: the complicated past and pride of modern Mexico.
Every country’s past is complicated, of course. The United States faces the stain of African slavery, Germany faces Nazism, Japan faces the inhumanities of its imperialism, and so on. And like those countries, Mexico has struggled with its own legacy. Over the past two centuries, Cortés has been seen as a villain and a usurper. But speaking of a nascent shift in thought in Mexico, one archaeologist tells Sara, “Today as a Mexican you cannot complain of the Spaniards, because part of you is a Spaniard.”
This is Mexico’s mestizo, or mixed, identity – not indigenous, not Spanish, but both. And at a time when the world faces a crisis of “strangership” – with globalization forcing unprecedented interaction between peoples who have virtually no understanding of one another – mestizo might be the seed of Mexico’s greatest superpower.
The world tends toward binaries. “I am indigenous” or “I am Spanish,” for instance. “I am both” seems harder to wrap our heads around, especially when coercion and violence is an essential element in creating that “both-ness.”
Yet that is precisely what the world is demanding of human beings today – a larger sense of identity that transcends lines that seem difficult and at times impossible to transcend. This doesn’t mean taking away borders, but it means finding some “us-ness” with migrants or people of other races or of other political parties to ensure that policies – whatever they are – have both wisdom and genuine compassion. Mexico is beginning to learn the power of its mestizo identity.
At the end of his book, Mr. Gladwell concludes, “To assume the best about one another is the trait that has created modern society.” When that trust is violated, the consequences are tragic. “But the alternative – to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception – is worse.”
As a new patriotism takes root in Mexico, it is having to wrestle with the stranger within itself. And in that is a lesson for the world.