Mexico’s “love-hate” relationship with the former Spanish colonial ruler

Mexico City (AFP)

Mexico is celebrating 200 years of independence this month from Spain, the former colonial ruler with whom it now maintains a “love-hate” relationship.

Most Mexicans have mixed European and indigenous ancestry and have contrasting feelings about the violence of the conquest, which imposed culture, language, and religion on the country.

Spain is thus seen as both the homeland and the enemy.

“There is this love-hate, but it depends on the social scale. Among the middle and upper classes, we see this ambivalence, but in the lower classes the hatred is deeper,” told AFP the historian Lorenzo Meyer.

Relations between the governments of the two countries have also seen ups and downs, he said.

The Spaniards enjoyed good relations during the reign of Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz of 1884-1911, but moved away from the upheaval of the Mexican revolution of 1910-1920.

Ties improved again during the Second Spanish Republic from 1931 to 1939, before dictator Francisco Franco took power.

Outside of politics, Spain has given Mexico a “cultural salvation” from American influence, Meyer said.

There is a passion in Mexico for bullfighting and music, with popular songs like “Madrid” and “Granada” written in the 1930s by Mexican composer Agustin Lara.

The affection is mutual, said Mikel Alonso, a chef of Basque origin with Mexican nationality.

“In my hometown, when people sing, there are only two types of songs: the deep and nostalgic Basque and the joyful ranchera,” he said.

– ‘Open arms’ –

Mexico served as a safe haven for anti-Franco Spanish Republicans, who even established a government-in-exile in the Mexican capital between 1939 and 1946, and had diplomatic representation until the 1980s.

“Franco was never recognized. The Republican embassy here was the one that endured the most in the world,” Meyer said.

“They lived with the fiction that there was a Republican ambassador but there was a representative of Franco (at the Portuguese embassy) who was really the one who ran the day-to-day affairs,” he added.

Mexico has hosted around 20,000 Republicans, including intellectuals who have supported educational institutions.

“The welcome extended to Spanish Republican exiles will never be forgotten,” said Carlos Martinez Shaw, of the Royal Academy of History in Madrid.

“They were received with open arms in Mexico,” he added.

At first there was reluctance from Republicans and even a demand for their children to have Spanish teachers, Meyer said.

“They did not come out of love, but by force. Mexico offered them asylum and gave them facilities. They had nowhere to go,” he said.

– Mutual ambivalence –

One exile was Angel Sarmiento Gonzalez, a Republican MP who promoted land reform.

Pursued by Franco, he came to Mexico in the 1940s with a wife and five children.

Indigenous peoples celebrate the 500th anniversary of the last day of Indigenous rule before the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan to Spanish conquistadors in Zocalo Square in Mexico City RODRIGO ARANGUA AFP

Her granddaughter, Veneranda Merino Sarmiento, remembers gratitude towards Mexico, but also sometimes resentment.

“There was always someone calling us gachupinas,” a derogatory Mexican name for the Spaniards, she said.

The Spaniards arrived poor and became rich, causing both offense and envy, Meyer said.

“But they also looked down on Mexicans, calling them ‘Indians’,” he added.

Resentment resurfaced after Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in 2019 asked Spain to apologize for the events of the conquest.

Madrid categorically rejected Lopez Obrador’s request, saying the conquest “cannot be judged in light of contemporary considerations”.

Mexican constitutionalist Francisco Burgoa considers this request to be in contradiction with the Treaty of Calavatra of 1836, the definitive recognition of Mexican independence.

The agreement “puts an end to any dispute or claim between the two countries,” he said.

Jesus Bustamante, historian at the Spanish Superior Council for Scientific Research, sees the request as part of “nationalist rhetoric” at a time when Mexico faces a myriad of domestic challenges such as criminal violence.

“Maybe what is happening is that addressing these rhetorical and identity issues and holding Spain to account is kind of a distraction,” he said.

But there are also still “open wounds,” said Meyer.

In the logic of Lopez Obrador, “representing the grievances of the popular classes is not harmful, on the contrary”, he declared.