Álvaro Enrigue Won’t Romanticize Mexican History

In Mexico City, history bleeds into the present everywhere you look. I live just off a street called Chilpancingo, for example, a word derived from the indigenous language of Nahuatl, which was the dominant tongue in the region until the imposition of Europe. Yesterday, I spent the afternoon perusing the murals by Rivera and Orozco at the Colegio de San Ildefonso, which was built by Jesuit colonizers in the late 16th century. Just down the street from that are the ruins of the Aztec’s Templo Mayor, which was razed by the conquistadors of Hernan Cortés, its stones then used to construct a cathedral that stands beside it to this day. At the adjacent plaza, one can reliably expect to encounter concheros adorned in traditional Aztec garb dancing the old dances.

In Álvaro Enrigue’s latest novel, You Dreamed of Empires, that Aztec-meets-colonial past is brought brilliantly, humorously, and sometimes horrifically to life, exploring the arrival of Cortés and his mercenary ilk at the ancient city of Tenochtitlan, then the seat of Moctezuma’s teetering empire and primogenitor of what became the capital of Mexico. While Enrigue lends the book a speculative edge, the day-to-day lives of the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan are fleshed out in vital, vivid detail.

“The dream city of Tenochtitlan has been a lifelong obsession for me,” Enrigue explained from his home in New York. Born in Guadalajara but raised in Mexico City, he is a self-proclaimed “colonial lit guy” who has taught 16th- and 17th-century literature of the Americas at some of the top universities on the continent. Suffice it to say that he knows the city and its history well.

I talked with Enrigue about the history underlying You Dreamed of Empires, his upbringing amid the literary scene of Mexico City, the importance of food and psychedelics in Mexican culture, and his lack of concern for the “superstition” that is the suspension of disbelief.

Nick Hilden: You’ve written about Mexico City extensively even beyond this book. What interests you about it so much?

Álvaro Enrigue: Ciudad de México is my town and I have always been fascinated by it. It’s an 800-year-old city in the Americas and has been a capital city during all that time. It has been the commanding town of the Mexica [Aztec] empire, the capital of the kingdom of New Spain, and the center of the (failed) Austro-Hungarian expansion in the Americas. It’s a city so big you can disappear in it, that has the population and budget of a medium-sized republic—seven times the population of the whole of Uruguay. It’s the playground for all mestizaje projects, the first global city in the modern world, a true multiracial hub that has been so for 400 years.

NH: Where in the city have you lived?

ÁE: We spent our childhood in Colonia Napoles, then in the then-run-down and kind of dangerous neighborhood of Del Carmen, in Coyoacán. That change meant everything for us. We were living now at walking distance of downtown Coyoacán, where there were bookstores, open-air cafés, a decent library, classical music records stores, etc. It was a revolution in our lives.

NH: A lot of people know nothing of Mexican art beyond Frida and Rivera, but Mexico City and Coyoacán in particular have long been home to a significant art and literary scene. What was it like growing up in that?

ÁE: Well, imagine you are a Mexico City kid. All my childhood and youth was like, “Diego, Diego, Diego” and all my adult life has been like, “Frida, Frida, Frida.” But it is also true that they were an exceptional pair and that there is something enormously fascinating about her. My students are always wondering—and myself with them—about this Mexican thing. A tremendously patriarchal country that ends up giving to the world very strong women who change the rules of the game on a planetary scale: Malinche, Sor Juana, Frida.

As for growing up in Coyoacán, it was a stroke of luck that we ended up living there. Now a family like ours could never afford a home in Colonia Del Carmen. When we arrived at Coyoacán, you could still see Gabriel García Márquez and Juan Rulfo having a coffee at El Parnaso—then a great bookstore with an open-air café. They usually got together at El Ágora on Insurgentes Sur, but it was not rare to sight one of them—or Sergio Pitol, or Margo Glantz who still lives there, or Carlos Monsivaís—just hanging around. Now I think how fortunate we were. They all were a bunch of titans and moved around like normal folks, just buying their books or having lunch. You could talk to them and they all were kind. The offices of Vuelta Magazine, directed by Octavio Paz—a more remote figure, almost like some sort of king—were also in Coyoacán, so when I began writing reviews there—at 21, imagine that—I could just walk to drop off the article.

Álvaro Enrigue (Photo: Jaime Toussaint)

NH: Much like the Iliad, I noticed that food pops up frequently in You Dreamed of Empires.

ÁE: Food is always in my novels. I read about it, I’m curious about how it was done in the past, and there is extensive literature about food and its preparation in the Americas before the European invasion. There is this study of kitchen floors in Teotihuacán. The food found in the earth composition of those millenarian kitchens is tremendously similar to the composition of the dirt in the floor of a kitchen in a modern Mexican household. We have been eating the same things for two thousand years. In You Dreamed of Empires it was important for me that a reader more or less familiar with Mexican food could recognize the dishes served to Moctezuma or the Spaniards. It’s a lyrical answer to the question “Where did Tenochtitlan go?” It didn’t go anywhere—it’s still in the heart of Mexico City.

NH: Psychedelics appear frequently throughout the book too.

ÁE: They were part of the counterculture that bubbled up in the later years of the National Revolutionary regime, for sure. I don’t think they were considered by the rock and roll kids of the time as only recreative. There was a certain pride about rock and roll giants like John Lennon making the pilgrimage to see the then still-living shaman María Sabina. I think that natural psychotropics were a way to relate to what is sacred in a world that had been orphaned of gods for decades.

NH: At some point the character Aguilar makes the meta-sounding statement, “When somebody puts what’s happening to us now in a book they’ll think it’s more chivalric romance bullshit.” How much of your portrayal of the Aztecs and the conquistadores is romantic vs. realistic?

ÁE:  It’s a desperate effort to show urban Indigenous fellows as regular urban characters and not as those mysterious, enigmatic, fragile brown men that Eurocentric narratives have done of them. To present the Mexica as impenetrable Martians has done a very poor service to the millions and millions of people that guard their heritage. They had a more glamorous sense of fashion than Europeans, but that’s all.

NH: There are a number of times in the book where you break the fourth wall. Were you ever worried about disrupting the suspension of disbelief?

ÁE: Suspension of disbelief is a 19th-century superstition. What I love about fiction is that it is fiction and I know that it is fiction when I’m reading it, all the time.

NH: I was taught by the U.S. educational system that the Aztecs were a highly complex civilization but also backward savages who practiced human sacrifice. Your book portrays such so-called “savage” acts as integral to that sophisticated society. I’ve never met a sophisticated society that didn’t incorporate irrational violence. What do you think of this tension between a “sophisticated society” and its “savage” acts?

ÁE: It’s all textual constructions. If you read the early European testimonies—the entry logs of Pedro Mártitir de Anglería, even the second letter of Cortés—they are full of admiration for the people of the Americas and hardly mention human sacrifice, cannibalism, or sodomy, another accusation common in the late 16th century. There is this wonderful entry in the personal journal of Albrecht Dürer written the day he saw the Mexica treasure and people in the court of Charles V. He didn’t have anything but admiration for the people that he perceived as richer, more beautiful, and more sophisticated than the Europeans.

It’s not until after the fall of Tenochtitlan, when the population of the Americas became possible slaves, that the Europeans began to talk about human sacrifice and cannibalism. And the stereotype was convenient for the whole European colonial enterprise, so it stuck. There were human sacrifices and there was ritual ingestion of the flesh of an enemy warrior, and that is not nice, but there was an economy and a rationale for it. Human sacrifice was a way of controlling the calamities of war. War was only fought during the period of the year when the fields were not productive and it was heavily ruled. It was negotiated, it happened in specific spaces where the civil society could not suffer its effects, and the idea was to capture an enemy warrior to take him to the sacrificial stone after the end of the conflict, not to kill everybody—which is not super smart if you think about it in economic terms. I insist, it’s not cool to sacrifice people, but war was not the mass murdering event that it became after the arrival of the Europeans and the prohibition of human sacrifices. But stereotypes are hard to erase when they are convenient for the owners of the means of production of a globalized society.

Nick Hilden
writes about art, travel, and science for the likes of the Washington Post, Esquire, Scientific American, National Geographic, Afar, and more. You can follow him on Twitter @nickhilden or on Instagram @nick.hilden.

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