Have you, folks, heard of the covada?

It’s a tradition that existed among some primitive tribes in South America, Indonesia, and Europe (among the Basques, for instance). When time would come for a woman to give birth, the baby’s father would take to bed and start pretending to go into labor. Everybody would gather round him and go, “Push, just push! It’s ok, txiki, you can do it! We can almost see the head!” The father would huff and puff and scream like he’s really in labor.

In the meanwhile, the laboring woman would go alone into the field or the woods, give birth without any help or company, come back, and hand the baby over to the father. Then she’d go back to work while everyone would gather around the beaming father and congratulate him with giving birth. The father would stay in bed for a few days, recovering from “labor” and pretending to breastfeed the baby, and everybody would fuss around him.

Covada was common in matriarchal societies that were on the verge of transforming into patriarchal societies. Men would pretend to be women to rob women of their power. By pretending to take over the female childbearing role, they signalled that women were dispensable, unimportant. We all know how that transition worked out for women.

Happy Men’s Day, ACLU!

Running With It

I hated the idea of teaching next semester because, aside from my wonderful class on contemporary Latin America, I have two sections of Intermediate Spanish II. And I hate that course. It’s unnecessary, it’s boring, the textbook stinks, the grammar is boring students out of their heads, I hate this bastard of a course.

So after hearing a colleague speak today, I was inspired to throw out my whole syllabus, the textbook, everything. Instead, I will teach a Hispanic Poetry course. It’s a ton of work to prepare but Hispanic poetry! I came home and erased that whole stupid grammar syllabus.

And I’m beginning my new course with Roque Dalton, the greatest Salvadoran poet of all time.

Also, I’ll finally do myself the favor of teaching all the Nicolás Guillén that I want. (He’s a great Afro-Cuban poet, in case you don’t know.) I always teach him but I want to really teach him. Like in teach him and teach him, and play Cuban son on class until we all can’t stand it any more.

We’ll start with easy stuff: Mistral, Marti, etc and progress to hardcore poetry. I’m so psyched. I’ll die of exhaustion but I’ll die happy. No more language courses ever again.

And by the way, I’m running unopposed for departmental chair. So it’s not like anybody can stop me.

Las Casas

Las Casas was a Spanish priest who came to the New World in the early years of the conquest. He was so horrified by the cruelty of the Spaniards’ treatment of the indigenous people that he spent the rest of his life trying to stop the carnage. He was not the first or the only Spaniard to advocate for the indigenous but his writings on the subject were so voluminous, and he made such a strong legal argument in defense of the indigenous that his work had the greatest impact.

Unfortunately, Las Casas was a really shitty writer. He was a fantasist, and he peppered the witness accounts he collected with the most ridiculous stories of his own invention.

Here is one example. Las Casas was trying to narrate the story of his personal awakening to the injustice of the Spaniards’ way of treating the indigenous and he described the day when he and a group of Spanish conquerors came upon an unexplored area. The Indians were stunned to see the Spaniards but we’re still very friendly. They gaped at the horses, the beards, and the weird clothing of the visitors but they were very hospitable.

But then something horrible happened.

One of the Spaniards had spent a lot of time on the way there sharpening his sword. So the bastard decided to see if the sword was sharp enough and started hacking into a completely peaceful Indian. Mass hysteria started, and Spaniards began to hack at the horrified, unarmed Indians left and right.

This is a true story, and both Las Casas and the civilization that produced him must be commended for this pretty exceptional (at the time, and often even today) capacity to see that this was beyond wrong.

But then Las Casas just had to go and spoil the story by integrating his fantasies into it. He tells of an Indian whose belly was slashed by a Spaniard to the point where his guts were spilling out. The Indian supposedly approached Las Casas and asked to be baptized into the Catholic faith. He survived for as long as it took to baptize him, and died immediately after, happy in the knowledge that his soul would be saved.

The story is major BS. How could an Indian who just saw Spaniards for the first time know about the meaning of baptism? How could he understand the concept well enough to care about baptism more than anything while his guts were spilling out? What language was the conversation conducted in? This is all crap on steroids. Las Casas was trying to make the point that the indigenous were desperate to convert and killing them was wrong because it would create lots of unsaved souls. He was setting the foundations for a legal argument he was preparing to make. But in the process, he didn’t just fudge the truth. He created the image of Indians as simple-minded to the point of congenital idiocy, childlike, and quite inferior.

The whole enterprise of the Spanish conquest was done without a whiff of racial superiority. The Spanish crown promoted intermarriage between the Indians and the Spanish with a maniacal singularity of purpose. But Las Casas – who was motivated by compassion and did achieve crucial improvements in the status of the indigenous people – actually laid a foundation for a narrative of racial inferiority.

The Las Casas vision is the one we have adopted for teaching today. We don’t teach the conquest as a fight between equally fierce, sophisticated, powerful civilizations – which the indigenous were except for a couple primitive tribes – where one won because it had better weapons and a more seasoned immune system. Las Casas was the definition of a white savior, and yet the approach we take to his writings is often that of an unquestioning deference.

P.S. I’m writing this because there seemed to be a lot of interest in the subject of Spanish history. There’s a lot more where this came from, so let me know if I should go on.