The arrival of the Zapatistas was barely noticed. On June 11th, after 47 days at sea, a group of delegates from what we may describe as a confederacy of Maya communities in southern Mexico, whose militias occupied the capital of the state of Chiapas back in the ’90s, arrived at the Azores islands. From there, they set off for Vigo, Spain. They have since been to several of the continent’s capitals, and are now back in their indigenous country (“autonomous municipalities”).
Some outlets, those that did cover the story, tended to describe it as a symbolic counter-conquest. This would contradict Zapatista ideas, but it is fair to say that a certain symbolic symmetry was indeed being sought: in their inaugural declaration, the newcomers gave Europe an Indian name (“Slumil K’ajxemk’op,” precisely—and quite generously—meaning something like unconquered land), just as America has a European designation.
To understand the point of the operation, we need to cite last year’s statement in which the group first announced the trip. It was released on the heels of the Mexican president Obrador’s request that Spain and the Catholic Church apologize for the conquest of Mexico (by which he means the Aztec empire) 500 years previous. It is important to highlight that the Zapatistas, whatever their faults, do not engage in apologetics on behalf of the Aztec empire, being quite allergic to the kitsch of Moctezumist nationalism currently in vogue. The most obvious legacy of European intervention, then, namely the end of that theocracy and its economy of human sacrifice, is not rejected:
We do not want to return to that past, neither alone, nor, much less, led by the hand of those who sow racial resentment and intend to feed their outdated nationalism with the supposed splendour of an empire, that of the Aztecs, whose expansion came at the cost of the blood of their fellows. Of those who want to convince us that, with the fall of that empire, the original peoples of these lands were defeated.
Neither the Spanish State nor the Catholic Church have any reason to ask us for forgiveness for anything … What would Spain apologize for? Having birthed Cervantes? … Antonio Machado? Lope de Vega? Bécquer?
We have here an explicit repudiation of the politics of resentment, an indigenismo (“nativism”) that does not subsist on the tropes of the Black Legend, that centuries-long propaganda campaign against Spain and her works. The articulation of pre-imperial, native identity in terms that explicitly push back against identity cum resentment are not often highlighted. That the latter exist, however, should encourage defenders of the legacy of European empires to reciprocate and not engage in one-sided apologetics, instead looking favourably upon modern assertions of pre-imperial cultural forms.
After the rise of anachronistic political brands based on refuted myths against the empire on both sides of the ocean, most recently and vociferously in the cases of Venezuela, or in Obrador’s gambit, and by Podemos in Spain, a reaction is afoot. Political Hispanismo—the idea that the Hispanidad, the Spanish-speaking world, should constitute a geopolitical block, alike a rehabilitated British Commonwealth—is gaining popularity, cultivated in Spain by a certain loss of enthusiasm for the EU, and in Central and South America by the long-standing failure of established political options.
Even if one supports this, which I do, it is worth making an effort to become aware, and grow appropriately wary, of its more spurious elements. Indeed, there is a tendency among its proponents to think of the Hispanidad as an exclusive work, at once anti-European and anti-indigenous American, producing a kind of identitarian spectre for an otherwise legitimate enterprise.
But the imperial past should not function as a national identity. It is trans-national. In this context, we may consider the work of Argentine professor of Political Science Marcelo Gullo Omodeo, especially his recent book Madre Patria (Motherland), which I very much recommend, although it has yet to be translated into English. (I should pause to point out that, although I am going to be critical of Gullo, I find his work extremely valuable.) The professor often remarks that Spain is not Spain, but a small piece thereof. “Spain” proper must mean the whole of its former empire. This position relies on a (very modern) confusion between empire and nationhood. It must ignore both the historical conception of Spain and the degree to which the empire conceived of its subjects as including non-Spaniards. Already in the 14th century, Alfonso de Cartagena defined empire as a coordination of states, not a state in itself, and Spanish intellectual tradition (Father Vitoria, etc.) did not articulate the rights of indigenous peoples abroad as Spaniards in potentia, but as human beings and as members of pre-existing political communities.
Gullo and others present Hispanic identity as the heir to what they contend was a purposeful fostering of intermarriage between peoples within the empire. In itself, this would not be so benevolent a policy, but could be interpreted as a way to dissolve existing societies in the Americas, rather than converting and integrating them. As it happens, intermarriage between Europeans and Americans was simply (for the most part) not impeded, rather than being a matter of policy one way or the other (albeit there were exceptions, as instigated by the viceregent of Peru, the Count of Nievas, leading intermarriage to be disallowed in some cases, for a time—neither should we gloss over instances of racially-based legislation, as in the case of laws passed during the late 1500s barring people of native and African descent from public office.)
Queen Isabel’s testament is often cited with regards to its call for equal treatment of Spaniards and Indians as anticipating a new, transatlantic identity, but she considered Spain as such (the old Regnum Hispaniae of the Visigoths) to have been restored, and to, therefore, be complete, with the taking of Granada in 1492 (albeit she also wanted to turn the western Mediterranean into a “Spanish lake” by invading north Africa). From St. Isidore of Seville’s 6th/7th century works, such as the extremely influential Etymologies, to King Alfonso X’s 13th century History of Spain, to Cervantes’ Siege of Numancia, Spain has traditionally, and quite unproblematically, been conceived of as different from the empire (a term which principally meant the “Holy Roman Empire”). “Empire,” “kingdom,” and “nation” were very much distinct.
Those voices that advocate for the existence of Spain in a Hispano-American sphere (or Britain in the Commonwealth, etc.) frequently present this option as being at odds with participation in the European sphere. This is especially the case with Gullo and the brilliant Santiago Armesilla, but is, unfortunately, a general sentiment among the more prominent defenders of political Hispanismo. They do this, even as they anchor their narrative in a clear sense for the historical robustness of Spanish identity. Yet one cannot cite the History of Alfonso X as proof that Spain was already a political identity in the Middle Ages without also embracing Europe, because that king conceived of Spain as European (putting in a bid for holy roman emperorship, and citing a tradition from St. Isidore and the pre-Christian Book of Jubilees according to which Europe was assigned to a single Biblical patriarch after the universal deluge, constituting a unity).
Similarly, one cannot invoke emperor Charles V or his son’s campaigns against the Lutherans as proof that Spain is a Catholic nation at odds with Europe, without thereby also highlighting their European orientation. The propaganda and vision of Charles precisely presented Europe as an organic unit, printing maps in which the continent was personified as a queen, Europa Regina, with Portugal as her crown, Spain her head, the Pyrenees her necklace, France and Germany her chest and heart, the right arm Italy, holding the orb of the world as Sicily, and Denmark her left arm. No comparable image of organic personhood was produced to encompass overseas territories.
In general, we cannot speak of the empire, or, more correctly, the Hispanic monarchy (Spanish regents did not generally refer to their realm as an empire) without recalling that this included not only the vice regencies of Peru and New Spain, but also Flanders and the the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Neither is it true that Europe, as a civilizational concept, refers to Protestantism, liberal modernity, and the nation state, and that, without this, it is only a geographical category (the mediaeval and early modern sources I’ve cited, for example, bear this out).
Indeed, although many of the better known defenders of a political Hispanidad are Marxists (as is the case of Pedro Insua and Santiago Armesilla) and atheists (Elvira Roca Barea), their work is sometimes reminiscent of an old Catholic traditionalists sentiment (hearkening to thinkers like Ramiro de Maeztu and Manuel García Morente): namely, that liberal Europe must be rejected for an imagined, illiberal America, as though there were less liberal thought in Argentina than in France, or a greater sociological affinity between Spain and Ecuador than between the former and Italy. We have here a curious opposite Catholic conception to Hillaire Belloc’s “the faith is Europe, Europe is the faith.” (There also seems to be a tacit belief on the part of these Hispanistas that the character and future of Europe constitute an arena too fraught for them to contend in, whereas Hispano-America is somehow more easily influenced.)
Leaving such anachronisms aside, to cease participating in Europe would be as much of a strategic blunder as Spain’s long estrangement from her overseas sister nations has been. If Spain is thought to be capable of contributing to a radical change of course for Hispano-America, there is no reason why this should not also be true for Europe. Indeed, membership in one sphere strengthens her hand in the other. Nor should it be ignored that participating in Europe and rebalancing power therein is a more direct route to subverting those entrenched interests that impede Spanish geopolitical ambitions. It is, at least, more direct than the long and probably difficult process of forging a prosperous American union (not that the latter is not also worthwhile).
Pretending that Spain’s political trajectory is not, or should not be, European, is as dissonant as celebrating the empire—with its early production of systematic grammars for native languages like Quechua and Nahuatl (even producing a Nahuatl translation of the Bible), making these co-official in her viceregencies, and its recognition of indigenous states, such as that of Tlaxcala, who were given hidalgo (aristocratic) status—while also preferring that people describe themselves as “Hispano” rather than “Indio.”
In this context, we may consider the demerit imposed by King Philip II upon the viceroy of Peru, Francisco de Toledo, when the latter executed Túpac Amaru, last of the Inca monarchs. The king is credited with what can be read as a declaration of intent for America: “I sent you to serve kings, not to slay them.” Philip apparently considered Túpac a king, and the Incarnate a kingdom. In fact, Philip’s intentions had been made explicit in a letter he wrote to the Incan royal Sayri Tupac (nephew to the famous Manco Inca) in 1552, forgiving all previous rebellions by the Incas, admitting these had been incited by the misbehaviour of local Spaniards, including Pizarro, and promising that rulership of the city of Vilcabamba would never be assigned to a Spaniard, remaining instead under Indian authority.
It is appropriate, therefore, that Miguel de Cervantes, who lionized Philip II, also celebrated pre-Roman native Iberians in his Numancia play, presenting them as his country’s archaic foundation. He does this while bemoaning Rome’s excesses and the lack of freedom granted to her subjects. Rather than rejecting the imperial idea altogether, Cervantes shows his indigenous insurrectionists to have preferred the Roman fold, if only its yoke had been lighter.
To ignore the Habsburgs’ attempted preservation of pre-Columbine structures in favour of the relative homogenization that demography, disease, and technological differential produced (although indigenous culture is still very much alive and well in the Americas), is not really to champion the empire, but only the ebbs and flows of history.
In light of Philip’s letter, I would suggest that the Incan revivalism advocated in some circles by Bolivian or Peruvian thinkers (as in the work of Carlos Macusaya or Pedro Portugal) need not be viewed as wholly incompatible with celebrating the imperial legacy. And I would add—some would say quite spuriously—that those of us who are heirs to the Reconquista should be sympathetic to quixotic revivals of long-defunct structures.
Indeed, the difference between a Spaniard and a modern Quechua villager from Bolivia or a Nahuatl-speaker from the Mexican Veracruz is, in part, testimony to imperial pluralism and non-assimilationism. It is this quasi-medieval associationism that best reflects the legacy of empire. In contrast, newly independent American republics often did persecute indigenous peoples in their pursuit of Jacobin centralisation. Writes John Milbank: “Nation states…by monopolising sovereignty in the centre…are less subsidiarist and less pluralistic [than empires].”
Contrastingly, if we assume that the essence of a nation is in its former empire, we treat that former empire as an as yet uncongealed nation. In this context, Gullo sees an opportunity for just such a congealment in the Spanish demographic crisis. He suggests this populational sinkhole should be plugged in more or less the same way as prevailing policy goes about it, that is, through immigration, only this is to be rigorously Spanish-speaking. Consider, for example, the conclusion to his Motherland:
It is undeniable that Europe’s population pyramid is funerary…. Given this circumstance—one we do not think is alterable—it is evident that only the mass immigration of Hispano-Americans could perform the miracle of allowing Spain to remain Spain.… Dear reader, for Spain to continue to be Spain it is necessary for you and all European Spaniards to remember now—and never again forget—that no Hispanic American … is a foreigner in Spain.
Such a project is complicit with whatever dynamics lead to low birth rates in richer countries and emigration-generating economic deprivation in poorer ones. Following the professor, however, it seems that, if there is a solution to this—and, ultimately, there must be—it should only be sought after the desirable feat of social engineering through “mass” (his word) immigration has been brought to term.
The only legitimate national identity is to be that of an empire redivivus. The Spaniard whose national feeling is not transatlantic and the native American who does not define himself as Hispanic are, therefore, twin obstacles. To be clear, I support political unity for Hispano (Ibero)-America, commercial ties, joint R&D, etc., all with Spain and Portugal’s participation, who should adopt a far more Ibero-Atlanticist orientation. However, that such a project ought to correspond with the local and personal identity of an Aymara in the Andes, or that a Spaniard should cease to consider himself part of a European civilizational sphere and conceive of his identity as a vector towards Mexico City or Buenos Aires instead, is as impertinent as it is irrelevant.
Something similar occurred during the Brexit campaign. Along with specific arguments against the EU, there was the notion that the UK is culturally displaced in its geography, and at home in the Commonwealth. Correspondingly, its woes were to be reversed, in part, through Commonwealth immigration. Nigel Farage considered Polish immigration more culturally distant from modern Britain than that coming from India, and contended that the UK would receive more (anglophone) African immigration after leaving the EU. Part of this was to be a means towards a more meritocratic points system, but it would also expand the population of Britons with some familial memory of empire. This has been replaced now by the need for a “global Britain,” a notion that justifies operating in political orbits not formerly its own. As Novalis’ wrote of another era, in Europe or Christianity “[w]hat had been lost in Europe they sought to regain multifold in other continents, in the furthest Occident and Orient.”
This kind of empire revivalism suggests that Spain, or any country with an overseas legacy to draw on, can save itself from being a mere periphery of world order, side-lined in the EU, which is in turn side-lined by existing and emerging powerhouses like China. It is a means towards becoming a centre for prevailing (often poverty-generating) global dynamics, not towards altering these. If successful, it would likely raise GDP and bolster exports, but many of the pathologies now at play—the reliance on global inequality facilitating the concentration of qualified (or merely cheap) labor, the eroding quality of life of working people, pressures on the middle class, and so on—would remain in place.
And yet, another use of the imperial past is possible: one that does not collapse empire into nationality, one that assumes overlapping rather than contradicting spheres. One that seeks economically and socially sustainable arrangements—not just economic competitiveness—when rendering post-imperial cultural ties politically relevant. Again, Milbank expresses this general idea in his theses on empire: “We need … stronger pan-Latin American and African groupings, and these need to be systematically linked to European and North American cross-border federations.”
Given such linkages, Spain can exist at the overlap of Hispano-America and Europe, and the same is true for Britain and the Commonwealth, France and the Francophonie, and so on. This expresses the same ethos that should render the defence of the imperial past compatible with assertions of pre- and post-imperial identities. We have a test before us, a test of the imagination, to proceed without resentment, either of past or of present political rivals; to allow ourselves to name and be named by the foreigner (recall that Maya dubbing of Europe with which we started), and thereby rediscover the place of the imperial principle and the indigenous prerogative, both.
Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.
A previous version of this essay was published by The Mallard in September 2021.