On Hispanic Heritage Month, Violence, and Power in Nation-States
A couple weeks ago, I ventured out west to New Mexico for Hispanic Heritage Month. After days of eating nothing but red and green chile, hiking up and down mountains, and going to cultural events something went awry: I was struck by the news that miles away in Española, a former colleague of mine, a Native American activist, had just been shot. This bullet came from a Hispanic- about the statue of a Hispanic Colonizer, Juan de Oñate. While he came out ok, it made me think about the framing of events in today’s polarized media circus.
Juan de Ornate was known as the last conquistador. He was tried and convicted by King Phillip of Spain for his role in excessive violence. While it would be convenient to frame this as a racial issue, Oñate in fact also killed Spaniards, and his conviction in the Spanish courts was of violence towards both Spaniards and Native Americans. His violence, while knowing no racial bounds, adapted to the societal standards at the time, and his much larger count of native deaths reflects that. It was acceptable to cause more harm to Natives and he knew that. The difference lay in the varying calculations of risk based on how much the culture, and accordingly the laws, valued different groups of people. De Oñate was initially hired to build out New Spain in Santa Fe but almost immediately tried to illegally create a new Viceroyalty on his own. He was a man hungry for power, and willing to use violence to maintain that power, much like the Spanish Empire. While this doesn’t excuse his role it did make me think more broadly about these kinds of people and their role in violence, power, and nations.
In that same vein, a couple weeks ago I was at a gathering in Oakland after a delicious meal at a Native American restaurant, where we used the word “re-indigenize.” And while I appreciated the intent, I also thought about my current poetry project “Dios X Teotl” where I highlight the layers of the Aztec heavens and the role religion played in the Empire. The empire used religion for example to support its militaristic endeavors, expansions, and murders, especially of warring tribes that were significantly less powerful, much like Spain used Christianity to the same ends in its conquest of the Americas. Gods were said to be craving humans, and the humans sacrificed were at times Prisoners of War, or other conquered peoples. Power hoarding behavior and violence are a part of most if not all government structures thought to be empires. Like individuals, the hoarding of wealth and power by the state is equally as violent.
And largely this is because the wealth of a nation is often tied to land. And an empire is constantly looking to acquire more land. This almost assures that people will be displaced through violent means for the empire to grow. That their goods, labor, and resources will be exploited. While racial, economic, and technological differences have led to different versions of this it's important to acknowledge the truth that the human brain of yesteryear was not built for the massive empires of the last couple of thousands of years. The move from nomadic to agricultural, and later industrial life created the conditions for violence, as land and resource extraction became the primary method of power building in a society.
With that comes the glorification of the nation reified through the amount of wealth you have as a country, the amount of people you can kill, or the amount of territory and people at your beck and call. Individuals leading massing groups of people like empires also allow power to change them psychologically, and in turn those attracted to positions of leadership in empires hold traits that complement the characteristics of the system.
We need to re-localize governance and de-individualize governance structures for ones that prioritize shared leadership, a leaderful state, and the removal of the self from the people we are claiming to represent. When we are looking for leadership structures we need to ensure that the group, organization, or nation itself is not hierarchical; rather, there is a shared understanding of power, and a constantly shifting definition of who is in power.
We also need to de-identify with nationalism, which is a growing movement across the world. The reason is because when we identify so closely with a nation or an empire, we refuse to admit that they could have committed violence or harm, simply because we see the nation as an extension of ourselves - while the truth is that these structures almost ensure that violence will happen at the hands of the state. It also prevents us from moving forward.
I remember being in middle school and being invited to a birthday party for a classmate of mine. When I got there, a different classmate confronted me demanding to know who had invited me. This lack of social popularity would follow me through school as I calculatedly tried to assure I was welcome in a space, so much as to my detriment until only after I realized I had lost myself in the process.
And when nations like people don't move through moments like this, it can lead to dangerous outcomes. Moments of fear and violence, the collective trauma of a nation, can manifest as vigilance, paranoia, and hyper-security. It leads to the building of hyper-militarized nations and actors and a belief that in order to stay alive we must fight, even if that means harming, and even killing others in the process. The issue however is that this only leads for this energy to maintain itself as it boomerangs back to us. When we engage in violence, that violence will return to us, and the more we throw it, the more it comes back. We feel a sense of temporary safety, imagining that throwing it will lead to its disappearance only to find it back at our feet like a cursed amulet.
Hurt nations hurt nations. And so to move away from that we have to do a couple of things. The psychological dissolution of the nation has to happen much like the dissolution of the self. Countries and peoples are not what has happened to them but rather they are an actively shifting, moving, state of energy. The argument that violence, including murder has been used in the past either to us or as a tool of revolution is not a justification of its existence in the future.
Like my nearly comical attempts at social acceptance, this mindset tells me that as nations we have not moved through that collective harm. We must shift our collective senses of self through grief and move through those feelings to allow a new reality to enter our minds, and then our physical reality.
For example, while I had taken every precaution, almost to paranoia, to quell my middle school social anxiety- I hadn’t actually done anything to move through it. I had built this defense line that didn’t actually build safety, it prevented it. Countries need to grieve, make the appropriate amends and reparations needed to people we’ve harmed in order to build that new reality.
Only then can we begin to put our arms down and move towards collective peace.