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  • The Other Country:Mexico, the United States, and the Gothic History of Conquest
  • Jesse Alemán (bio)

The idea of the "Western Hemisphere" . . . establishes an ambiguous position. America simultaneously constitutes difference and sameness. It is the other hemisphere, but it is Western. It is distinct from Europe (of course, it is not the Orient), but it is bound to Europe. It is different, however, from Asia and Africa, continents and cultures that do not form part of the Western hemisphere. But who defines such a hemisphere?

Walter Mignolo, "Coloniality at Large"

In the introduction to Robert Montgomery Bird's 1834 Calavar, or, The Knight of the Conquest, an American wandering through Mexico sits on Chapultepec hill and muses on Mexico's pre-conquest history. The Toltecs first populated Mexico, the American imagines, and were "the most civilized of which Mexican hieroglyphics . . . have preserved in memory" (v–vi). Other tribes followed, but none brought civilization until the Aztecs. "[F]rom this herd of barbarians," the American thinks, "grew . . . the magnificent empire of the Montezumas, . . . heaving again with the impulses of nascent civilization" (vi). Finally, the "voice of the Old World" rolls over the eastern mountains, but instead of fully civilizing the Aztecs, the "shout of conquest and glory was answered by the groan of a dying nation" (vii). So goes Mexico's romantic history of conquest for the dreamy American. Spanish colonialism killed the "incipient greatness," the potential for new-world civilization, in the Aztec empire and left Mexico in the hands of "civilized savages and Christian pagans" (viii). Mexico must "rekindle the torches of knowledge" (viii), the American thinks out loud, and he is not alone in his idea. A Mexican curate has overheard the American's musings and agrees that Mexico must regenerate itself from its post-revolutionary [End Page 406] "Pandemonium" of ambitious rulers and servile citizens to reassert its past, indigenous potential as a civilized new-world nation (xii). Until then, Mexico is a "gust of anarchy," the curate explains, that will "disease thy imagination, until thou comest to be disgusted with the yet untainted excellence of thine own institutions, because thou perceivest the evils of their perversion" (xiii).

The curate presses the American to leave Mexico and to take with him to translate and publish several volumes of Mexican history "which will teach thee to appreciate and preserve . . . the pure and admirable frame of government, which a beneficent power has suffered you to enjoy" (xiv). A historian and descendent of Montezuma, the curate has penned a history that finds no favor in Mexico because Mexicans are too benighted to appreciate the nascent civilization of their indigenous past. "Your own people," the priest explains, "are, perhaps, not so backward" (xix). Written as an Aztec palimpsest, the volumes span pre-conquest to the 1821 revolution and assert that "reason reprobates, human happiness denounces, and God abhors, the splendour of contention" (xix). The American accepts the volumes—with rights to the profits accrued from their republication, of course—and returns to the US where he unsuccessfully attempts to crack the palimpsests until he reads of the curate's death in a Mexican newspaper. The padre, it turns out, is a genius historian whose manuscript pages were "arranged like those in the form of a printer" (xxv). Once the American unfolds the volumes, "he beheld the chaos of history reduced to order" (xxv). He transcribes the hieroglyphic text and discovers among the volumes a story about the cavaliers of the conquest, which he translates, edits, and republishes, after deleting much of the curate's philosophy and changing the title to fit the "intellectual dyspepsia" of American readers. The result is Calavar, or, The Knight of the Conquest, which the American calls a Historia Verdadera (à la Bernal Diaz del Castillo), a fitting subtitle, the introduction insists, because "the history of Mexico, under all aspects but that of fiction, is itself—a romance" (xxviii).

Calavar's opening scene invokes a common frame for historical romances in which the ghostly voices of bygone times inhabit a locale and impress themselves on the mind of a romantic wayfarer, and Chapultepec in particular is a significant site for hemispheric musings. Linked by a causeway to...


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pp. 406-426
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