A Letter from a mestizo. Thinking as feeling in ongoing times of racism
Iván Darío Vargas Roncancio
Leadership for the Ecozoic
How did ideas of race and nature come to be in social theory and systems of domination? Since the famous – or maybe not that famous –16th century Valladolid Debate in Spain, the law created very peculiar conceptions about humans and nature. The Debate (1550–1551) was one of the first moral and legal disputes in European history to discuss the treatment of Indigenous peoples by the Spanish crown in the Americas. A practical result of this debate was the classification of life as either nature or culture and the division of humans according to the color of their skin, thus the darker the skin of people, the closer they were to nature (Quijano 2000). This technique naturalized hierarchies between the European colonizers and the rest of humanity while inventing laws that justified the colonial domination of peoples and lands in what came to be known as “The New World”. Rather than reconstructing the genealogies of this debate, the following letter is about the ongoing consequences of this foundational act of colonial and racial violence.
A practical result of this debate was the classification of life as either nature or culture and the division of humans according to the color of their skin, thus the darker the skin of people, the closer they were to nature (Quijano 2000)
I’m writing in two languages because I want to tell you a story of border- making
and borderland. I want to tell you a story of impurities and mezclas. I’m not just thinking about what makes me different to my neighbors regardless of how distant they’re in the past or how far they’re in the future. Actually, I’m thinking about how these differences create a world of shared suffering, strength, and imagination. Let me be clear from the beginning. I’ve always felt this border-making machine right under my skin beyond the academic habit of thinking about it.
Over the years, I’ve been created as a mestizo, and for me this is a fact of life. First, let me talk about my ancestors. Multiple streams of blood flow impatiently through my veins and the bodies of those to come will also have the corporeal memories of my Indigenous ancestors that suffered during the Spanish encomienda. The memory of my ancestors emit the aura of una borrachera con chicha de maiz para celebrar la vida (a joyful drunkenness with a fermented maize beverage to celebrate life) and the unknown tubers of their chagras (small plots) have a way to make me remember things I’ve never experienced before (or that I’ve forgotten!). Yet, my ancestors exhale the garlic from the Spanish mouth and the sweat of their furious travels through the Atlantic. You see, my body is not mine and it isn’t here either. It belongs to the memory of this terrible “encounter” between peoples that I didn’t know—and whose stories I hardly remember—but whose kin and memory, in a very intimate sense, I can’t refuse. As a matter of temporal perspective, I even hesitate to say that I’m fully here. I refuse to claim that “I” am actually writing a letter, for I believe that my ancestors somehow guide my hand to say what they need to say. I believe my writing is already woven into this uneasy past. You might hear many voices agolpadas en la garganta de esta historia (crowded in the throat of this story), or at least I hope so…
This encounter was not a pacific one. When I say blood, I mean that there was more blood that moistened the fertile soil of forgotten seeds than the blood that nurtured life in human bodies. I mean that there was far less sweat on the skin of my Indigenous ancestors cazando el tapir en la selva (hunting the tapir in the forest), or sowing the chagra to feed their people. There was more sweat pouring into the dirt of the Spanish mita, as the colonized were digging for silver hurting la tierra against their will, as if they were doing against their natural relatives, the mountains, the same thing that was done to them. I’m sure the Colonizers thought it was right to enjoy the gifts of nature…I think they still do today.
Some scholars would say that the European city is a pure expression of European imagination. And they would say this to keep us silent and obedient. That all those universities, ideas, books, artifacts, railroads and smoky towers, were all the logical result of uncontested superiority and that Indigenous peoples were only good for servidumbre and oblivion. Nosostros siempre hemos creido (we’ve always thought) that all these marvels of European splendor rest upon the sacrifice and subjugation of peoples on the other side of the Atlantic, and of people further South of the edge of the Mediterranean—the “universals” of the Masters of the Four Oceans are only su propia versión de los hechos (their own take on the facts). Yes, another stream of blood flows through my veins: the blood and memories of the peoples that make kin with ceibas, baobabs, zebras, and the powerful djembe. Cimarrones and palenqueros from today’s America are there to put together a better picture. Don’t forget to let them speak and to listen carefully. Especially now!
Créeme! The strategy was perversely simple. The European divided humanity according to the color of their skin and established hierarchies to exert control and justify domination. They put into question the humanity of the First Dwellers of these lands using the cleanest syllogistic logic, and thus invented people’s inherent inability for rational thought, self-government, transcendental experience, and the most mundane capacities of life. The absence of this necessary “traits” of the civilized was an integral part of the machine of total colonial domination over peoples and lands. It went as follows: The conquistador deduced the animal-like nature of our ancestors based on a significant chain of absences in their modes of being, namely, if the dwellers they found didn’t respond to the requerimiento, then it meant that they didn’t know the Christian God (the only God), and therefore they didn’t have a soul. If they didn’t have a soul, then they didn’t have a way to access reason to be able to distinguish right from wrong. If they didn’t have reason to guide their lives, then they were ruled by instinct, which means that they were closer to animality than they were to humanity. If they are indeed animals, they are nature (rather than culture) and therefore objects of appropriation and control (See Quijano 2000). Thus, the exploitation and conversion of the First Dwellers of these lands followed a single and clean scholastic logic. This logic still remains disguised under new arguments and conceptual tricks.
The conquistador deduced the animal-like nature of our ancestors based on a significant chain of absences in their modes of being, namely, if the dwellers they found didn’t respond to the requerimiento,thenit meant that they didn’t know the Christian God (the only God), and therefore they didn’t have a soul. If they didn’t have a soul, then they didn’t have a way to access reason to be able to distinguish right from wrong. If they didn’t have reason to guide their lives, then they were ruled by instinct, which means that they were closer to animality than they were to humanity. If they are indeed animals, they are nature (rather than culture) and therefore objects of appropriation and control (SeeQuijano 2000).
Ladinos, mulatos, zambos and everyone in between populate this continent from the bottom-up since time immemorial and with new names. Our bodies, longings and imaginations are the result of persistent encounters between “civilization” and “savagery”. I've to tell you that imagination retreats when one tries to make sense of the Supreme Violence that brought us here. Some scholars refer to this colonial “encounter” as the Darker Side of Western Modernity. For them, there are no castles, silver plates, exquisite tablecloths, railroads, legal codes and smoky towers without this sacrificial moment. We’re sons and daughters of this past. We owe this very moment to the matrimony of violence and reason, to the mingling of myth and science. More than four hundred years after this “encounter”—a matter of pure chance, for the most part, in Europe’s desperate attempts to find a way out of its historical subordination in relation to the East and China—the self-appointed Master of Humanity with the power to name and classify has reflected many times upon this sacrificial violence. However, He has been unable to acknowledge how this violence actually shapes His “success” in History. Europe (not the place but the set of epistemological, ontological, and value operations that made colonial violence possible) has projected a terrible path into the future, and it has attempted to erase dissident stories of historical change from the collective consciousness of other peoples. And yet “we”, the mezclas, “we”, the impure, are time going forward and time that goes backwards; somos memoria perdida y memoria recuperada (we’re lost memory and retrieved memory). Right at the edge, right at the very limit where these cultural trajectories meet, relentlessly (the one that got interrupted and the one that got pushed forward), something new emerges each time: a plural nosotros, the border plural. Nosotros, the impure. Being nosotros also means being the interruption of the old and the irruption of the new-multiple. Being nosotros means a strong drive to Create Belonging, beautifully and patiently, in the midst of two worlds that are themselves multiple.
Right at the edge, right at the very limit where these cultural trajectories meet, relentlessly (the one that got interrupted and the one that got pushed forward), something new emerges each time: a plural nosotros, the border plural. Nosotros, the impure.
As part of its internal reflection about history, Europe has understood the strong connection between lost memory, recuperated memory, and domination...hence History! The violence that once attacked the body was al mismo tiempo una violencia en contra de los sistemas de vida, de las palabras y las memorias de los pueblos (a violence against the life systems, words, and memories of our peoples). Bare violence was unsustainable. Bare violence meant sacrificing workforce in the altar of nonsense and the very possibility for self-appointed mastery over everyone and everything…the possibility of pending wars in Europe! Europe needed the nation-state to manage all these differences and incorporated them into their codes, constitutions, and all sorts of systems. This recognition of cultural difference via the fiction of national identity was essential to keep the colonial machine going. But don’t be fooled. None of this was set up since the beginnings of time! There was no early mastermind that designed the necessary steps to achieve total domination over people, nature, and time.
Europe needed the nation-state to manage all these differences and incorporating them into their codes, constitutions, and all sorts of systems.
We’re also border in the sense that no historical narrative is neat and tidy. In every step of the way there was at least one sign of struggle that accounts for any historical outcome: luchas populares, movimientos sociales, marchas, pitos, cuerpos pintados…no nos hemos quedado quietos (popular struggles, social movements, creative social protests, we haven’t been quiet). The idea of belonging to one nation beyond state boundaries has served many communities well. We’re border because we are nation(s), but not nation-states. We are border because we can think and feel part of a nation of multiple nations and peoples of the human and nonhuman kind. We are border because we can be nation(s) against the state and because difference comes before sameness.
We’re border because we are nation(s), but not nation-states. We are border because we can think and feel part of a nation of multiple nations and peoples of the human and nonhuman kind.
This is the real issue for me. We’re border because by no being border we castrate the potentialities of imagination. No being border is being the father with the sword in one hand and the cross in the other. But it also means being untouched by history. Being border is being impure because impurity is the possibility of cutting sameness justo en el ombligo (right in the middle); the belly to which the master of everything always seems to return to when he feels powerless or nostalgic.
Let’s mobilize ideas and actions against this power that has already lost!
* Thanks to Dina Spigelski and Deissy Perilla for their comments and suggestions for this piece.