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Silver, Sword and Stone
Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story
By Marie Arana
Simon & Schuster. 477 pp. $30
Five hundred years ago, before the Spanish conquista, the region we now call Latin America was home to some of the most advanced civilizations on the planet. The Aztec empire encompassed city-states of impressive size and architecture, with a developed economy and thriving commerce. Thousands of miles to the south, Inca rulers controlled as many as 37 million people, enriched by such abundance that the nobility clothed themselves in gilded raiments and decorated their homes with gold and silver ornaments. In what is now Central America, the Mayan civilization had by then declined, but at its earlier peak, its cultural achievements surpassed anything European. All three civilizations developed sophisticated systems of agriculture, engineering, timekeeping and astronomy, and their peoples lived strictly in accord with their spiritual beliefs and ancient moral codes.
Today, the region is impoverished, dysfunctional and violent. Of the 50 cities with the highest rates of homicide on the planet, 43 are in Latin America. The level of income and wealth inequality, though diminishing, remains the highest in the world.
Marie Arana, born in Peru of mixed ancestry, argues compellingly that the very strength of the indigenous empires in Latin America helps explain what befell them. In the territory that became the United States, native tribes were largely displaced or exterminated, their history erased. Not so in the lands colonized by Spain. There, the encounter between conqueror and conquered was so momentous and cataclysmic as to resound across centuries. “Latin America,” Arana writes, “still lives with its colonial and post-colonial scars.”
“Silver, Sword and Stone” is the story of that scarring. Latin America’s fate was driven by the deeply rooted and recurring interplay of exploitation (silver), killing (sword) and religion (stone). The indigenous peoples of Latin America, less nomadic than those in the north, developed their complex societies over centuries, with hierarchical structures and professional warriors. Their rulers discovered their precious mineral wealth and extracted it carefully with the organized labor of their people. The Spanish conquistadors arrived and marveled at what they found, plundering all the gold and silver they could get their hands on and enslaving the local populations in that greedy pursuit. Resistance was met with violence, continuing a pattern long established by ruthless native chieftains.
The brutal conquest proceeded with the blessing and even the urging of the Roman Catholic Church. Prior to attacking a community, the invaders would read out a “requerimiento statement,” advising the assembled villagers to surrender peacefully to Christ and Spain or face subjugation and death. “Shouted from great distances – at times only mumbled – the declaration was little more than noise to the Indians who heard it,” Arana writes, “incomprehensible babble, hardly distinguishable from the barking of dogs.”
The sad tale of the conquest and what followed over the next centuries in Latin America has been related many times before, but Arana, a novelist, has turned it into literature. Though meticulously researched, the book’s greatest strengths are the power of its epic narrative, the beauty of its prose and its rich portrayals of character.
Among the entertaining moments is Arana’s account of the first encounter between the “foul, slovenly” retinue of Hernán Cortés and the “fastidious, hygiene-conscious” Aztec emperor Montezuma, arriving “on a litter under a magnificent canopy of emerald-green feathers, encrusted with gold and silver and hung with pearls and jade.” Before any subsequent meeting, Arana wryly notes, Aztec emissaries insisted on fumigating the Spanish soldiers with incense.
On both sides, the gulf of misunderstanding was immense. The colonizers, charged exclusively with the mission to bring back treasure and convert heathens to Christianity, were incapable of seeing the natives of the New World in any other context. The indigenous civilizations, on the other hand, had developed in total isolation from the world whence the colonizers came, and the strangers’ bizarre conduct and values left the natives baffled.
Arana returns to that encounter repeatedly, as it reverberates through the years. The dynamic established at the outset of the conquest is never overcome in that “calvary of culture shock.” Long after the colonial period was over, “the spirit of colonialism remained very much alive,” she writes. “Absolute power still beguiled. New republics became as oppressive, insular, and isolated as Spain had encouraged its colonies to be. Latin America’s culture of violence … seemed to morph, almost overnight, into a culture of intimidation, with the landed gentry acquiring an ever sharper aptitude for cruelty, and a pumped-up military that never seemed to stand down.”
The organization of the narrative is thematic, not chronological. By moving smoothly across 500 years, from the conquest to the 21st century and back again, Arana highlights the continuity of Latin America’s experience of struggle. In the Peruvian Andes, Leonor Gonzáles still scours the rock spills for flecks of gold, just as her Inca ancestors did. She and those who share her tradition still regard stone as sacred, and they instinctively avoid mountain tunnels when possible, guided by an age-old sense that such penetrations of the Earth violate an eternal place of wisdom. The fire of ancient religions “has never quite been extinguished,” Arana notes, and “the rubble of conquest still holds abiding power over the land.” Illegal drugs become the new silver, and violent gang warfare the new sword.
Arana’s challenge is to avoid fatalism, and it is not easy. She returns several times to Aesop’s fable of the scorpion and the frog, wherein the scorpion stings the frog even while the frog is carrying him across the river. “It’s not my fault,” the scorpion says. “It’s just my nature.”
What has gone wrong in Mexico, Cuba, Central America, Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia, Arana sadly concludes, is “what always went wrong: the dictators, the rapine, the seemingly insurmountable indigence, corruption, inefficiency. It’s just our nature.”
To be sure, Arana writes with affection for her heritage – the Latin “love of family and tradition … human warmth and natural ingenuity [and] courage in the face of adversity.” She admires such heroes as Xavier Albó, the Catalan priest who went to Bolivia as an 18-year-old Jesuit novice determined to bring the natives to Christ, only to be converted by them to their wisdom. “He was sure,” she writes, “that it was the rural (BEGIN ITAL)indios(END ITAL) and their progeny, clinging to an ancestral past, keeping alive their daily rituals and beliefs, who held the fate of Latin America in their hands.”
Arana’s strength is the power and passion of her storytelling, and her explanation of what has shaped Latin America over the past half-millennium has the ring of truth. In the opening pages of her book, she writes, “I am convinced that there is a commonality – a concrete character, if you will – that emerges from the Spanish American experience.” It is a bold assertion, but by the end of this marvelous book, she has definitively and eloquently made the case.
Tom Gjelten is a correspondent for NPR News and the author of “Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba.”