Let’s Drop Christopher Columbus, and Celebrate Bartolomé de las Casas

Across the USA, there is a movement brewing that is asking us to reconsider historical figures from the past, asking if we should continue to revere them today. Christopher Columbus is often brought up in these discussions, and for good reason—it is hard to reconcile his boldness and visionary qualities as an explorer with the fact that as an administrator he was a monster, even by the standards of the time.

Given the problematic nature of Columbus’s legacy, let me suggest that we remove him from the pantheon of cultural heroes, and replace  him with a different figure from the Age of Exploration… a man who moved in the same circles as Columbus and experienced many of the same things as his contemporary did, and yet took a very different path. Let us consider life and times of Bartolomé de las Casas.

Back when I was a working Latin American historian, I wrote the following as an article for the Encyclopedia of American History: Three Worlds Meet – Beginnings to 1607 (Facts on File Press: 2003), which in the age of Wikipedia is long out of print. Because it’s a published work, I’ve pretty much left it as-is, retaining the format of an encyclopedia article. It has not been updated to reflect new research, nor have I updated the reading list at the end. Please note that the capitalized terms indicate linked entries in the print edition that curious readers could turn to for more information.

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BARTOLOMÉ DE LAS CASAS

A former encomendero (holder of an ENCOMIENDA) who after experiencing the plight of the native peoples under Spanish rule in the early sixteenth century, took the vows of a DOMINICAN friar and became an energetic champion of native rights on both sides of the Atlantic.

Las Casas remains one of the most controversial figures in Latin American history.  His attempts to convert and protect the indigenous people of the Americas earned him the adulation of missionaries and several key figures in the Catholic Church.  Religious and secular leaders in England, France, and the Netherlands argued that he was a courageous figure for standing up to the corrupt, destructive actions of his fellow Spaniards, and his works were widely read in these countries.

In Spain itself, however, he faced a more mixed reaction—many Spaniards felt that he was unpatriotic, soiling the reputation of national heroes.  His later writings seemed to undermine the legitimacy of the conquest, causing Las Casas to lose favor with the royal government.  Many of the conquistadors and their families felt personally attacked by his writings and moved to have them denounced at court.  One sixteenth-century polemic against Las Casas bore the revealing title: Against the Premature, Scandalous, and Heretical Assertions which Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Has Made in His Book About the Conquest of the Indies, Which He Has Had Printed Without the Permission of the Authorities.  The controversy over his life and writings has continued through the twentieth century, where Spanish historians called him “mentally ill” (1927), “a pigheaded anarchist” (1930), a “leveler possessed by the Devil” (1946), and “a pathological liar” (1963).  Those who doubt the veracity of his works have argued that he was creating a “BLACK LEGEND” about Spain’s actions in the New World, while his supporters have claimed that he is perhaps the only reliable figure of the conquest era.

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My Minneapolis Neighborhood—War Zone

With your indulgence, I’m going to get political. I live near the 3rd precinct Minneapolis police station, at the corner of Lake Street and Hiawatha that is the center of the protests. The Longfellow neighborhood where this is taking place is my neighborhood. Last night letting our dog out one last time, I could hear the steady stream of helicopters, sirens, and flash grenades, and knew it was going to be a rough night.

It was.

Overnight our neighborhood became a war zone, and this morning we’re still seeing what the damage is.

Neighbors fought with garden hoses and buckets to save homes after rioters set fire to a multi-story affordable housing complex under construction near the Third Precinct Station. Photo: Mark Vancleave – Star Tribune

Let me describe a bit about that busy corner, a hub of neighborhood life—and of our lives. There is an independent book store, one of the best around, that has thrived in the Amazon age by being a community partner and community center. Next door to it is a farmer’s market, that has brought fantastic produce into the city at affordable prices. There is a bike shop, a law office specializing in immigration law, our post office, and a group of excellent, immigrant-run restaurants specializing in food from Africa, Latin America, France, India and Japan. Immigrant-run, and immigrant-staffed business. An affordable housing complex was under construction. There is a branch library, built just a few years ago, that serves as a community center. There is a Target where many new Americans work, and other affordable grocery stores. The old fire house was converted into a theater that serves as a great venue for music, with a flamenco dance studio tucked behind it. An immigrant-run liquor store where I had a good rapport with the staff, who appreciated that I spoke Spanish.

This corner was part of the weave of our daily lives.

Reports are flying this morning, and news is spotty, but it is clear that my neighborhood was hit hard. Some of the places I listed have been burned to the ground. Some have been looted. Some, who are likely too small to gain national news coverage, are as yet unaccounted for. Places that just a few months ago I proudly showed off to our South African guest are now sitting in a sea of broken glass.

This is a link to news footage some of the carnage via MPR.

My community has been brutalized and tear gassed, and my fellow community members have been wounded in the fray. Yes, some protesters got out of hand. But it’s not entirely clear that the protestors were actually from the neighborhood, or even Minneapolis itself. Other protesters—my neighbors—were working to put out the fires. And at least one person seeking to help, was shot as a presumed looter.

I… feel.

I feel pain. I feel profound sorrow. I feel loss. I feel sorry for so many outstanding, community-focused places that were small, and successful, that have been dealt a critical blow at a time like this. I feel fear about what can, might, and will happen to my neighbors.

And I feel anger that so much of what has happened has been sparked by the police, who are here to protect and serve. For developing a culture where racism and power politics thrive. For resisting attempts to break this cycle. For resisting accountability. For callously taking the life of a community member, and meeting community anger—and a peaceful protest—with war footing. Anger that armed protests resisting “government” attempts to enforce safety protocols in a pandemic are treated with kid gloves, while community members protesting a needless killing are hit with rubber bullets and tear gas.

So many choices were available. So many chances to take a different path.

And the community is paying the price.

One final thought. As dramatic as the protests have been, it is important to keep focus on George Floyd… and the issues surrounding his death, which is at the center of this tragedy. That is the real story, and the real challenge we have to overcome.

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A Classical Playlist for Cinco de Mayo

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

It’s a curious holiday with a curious history—it commemorates the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, between the Mexican army and invading French forces sent by Napoleon III, who hoped to conquer the country and bring it into France’s orbit.

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BattleofPuebla2

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The French troops landed at Veracruz and marched inland toward Mexico City. Mexican forces, who had been beaten badly in a series of skirmishes, retreated back to the heavily fortified city of Puebla.  The French commander, believing he could end the Mexicans’ resistance with a single stroke, chose to attack the city from the north.  It was a costly mistake.  The Mexican defenders held, and as the French pulled back Mexican cavalry flanked them and turned the retreat into a rout.

The world expected the French to easily conquer the country, and the Mexicans’ unexpected victory served as a huge morale boost for the beleaguered defenders.  That said, the success was only temporary; the French regrouped, and with the arrival of additional troops were able to win the Second Battle of Puebla in 1863.  The French moved on to capture Mexico City, where they installed Emperor Maximillian as a pro-French puppet.  This “Mexican Empire” survived until 1867, when Mexican forces under Benito Juárez defeated the last remnants of the French army and had Maximillian executed.

With this background, it’s easy to see why Cinco de Mayo remains more of a mid-level holiday in Mexico today—it was a plucky, momentary victory on the eve of a large-scale defeat.  In truth, within Mexico the holiday is mostly celebrated in and around Puebla itself.

That said, Cinco de Mayo has taken on a new life north of the border, where it remains a major holiday among Mexican-Americans.  Here, it is a festive expression of cultural pride and a time for the honoring of cultural symbols.  In this way, it shares strong similarities to St. Patrick’s Day, which is a much larger event in the US than it is in Ireland.

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Mexico is an intensely musical place; it is the home of a wonderful range of musical styles and forms, in both popular and “formal” styles.  In the spirit of today’s holiday, allow me to share some recommendations of works in a more classical vein. Continue reading

Program Notes: “Rachmaninoff’s Three Russian Songs”

[In spring 2020, the Minnesota Orchestra commissioned me to write program notes for Rachmaninoff’s Three Russian Songs, which would be performed with the Minnesota Chorale (and, yours truly). Unfortunately, the concert was canceled due to the coronavirus. But the Orchestra authorized me to post them anyway, and I am happy to do so below. Enjoy!]

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The Russian Revolution profoundly disrupted Sergei Rachmaninoff’s comfortable life, in ways that would resonate for decades. As chaos spread at the end of 1917, the composer began to fear for his family’s safety. In December, Rachmaninoff gathered his wife and daughters and fled overland from St. Petersburg toward Helsinki in an open sleigh, taking only what they could fit in their suitcases. He later learned his family’s estate had been burned to the ground; the family had lost nearly everything. Continue reading

Program Notes: Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms”

[In spring 2020, the Minnesota Orchestra commissioned me to write program notes for Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, which would be performed with the Minnesota Chorale (and, yours truly). Unfortunately, the concert was canceled due to the coronavirus. But the Orchestra authorized me to post them anyway, and I am happy to do so below. Enjoy!]

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One reason Igor Stravinsky’s music is so exciting is that the composer absolutely refuses to follow convention. Symphony of Psalms is a perfect case in point. It was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 50th anniversary 1930.  The commissioners wanted something “symphonic,” and Stravinsky’s publisher pleaded for him to compose something “popular.” Stravinsky complied… but in ways they could likely never have foreseen. Continue reading

An Unwarranted, Unfair Editorial

What the…?

…?

…?

Okay… sorry, I still can’t believe the recent editorial in the local Star Tribune about… yes, that blasted Minnesota Orchestra Lockout of 2012-2014—a half-page editorial that uses the lockout to preemptively complain about negotiations surrounding the Orchestra’s new labor contract with its musicians.

Let’s just drop all the elegance and introduction and get into why this has got to be one of the most idiotic things our state’s “newspaper of record” will publish this year.

And while we’re at it, let me say a few words about why I’m so hopeful about the situation.

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Cualli netlācatilizpan! Celebrating Christmas with Aztec Christmas Carols

Colonial Mexico was a spectacular land of opportunity for musicians—composers and performers alike.

By the end of the sixteenth century, Mexico’s great cities were some of the wealthiest cities in the world. Flush with wealth brought in from the lucrative silver trade, the great churches of the region recruited a steady stream of musicians and composers from Europe. A Chapel Master in Mexico City could make a fortune relative to his peers in Italy or Germany, and many musicians eagerly immigrated to the New World to enjoy a standard of living they could never attain in the Old.

Once set up in the New World, these musicians discovered the rich, vibrant musical traditions of the native peoples. These musical stylings hit composers like a thunderclap and led to a revolution in composition that fused European traditions with those of the indigenous people. Soon church composers were taking things a step further, composing religious motets in native languages, such as the Aztecs’ Nahuatl, to reach and engage local audiences that couldn’t speak Spanish or Latin. The result is a stunning musical tradition that crackles with rhythm, drive, and excitement.

Mexican Baroque music was born.

And some of the most delightful Mexican Baroque music being written was to celebrate Christmas, at times using texts in native languages.

That means that yes, there were Aztec Christmas carols. Continue reading

My Favorite Classical Christmas Music

As we charge toward Christmas, I wanted to send along my very best wishes to all my readers who are celebrating this magical time of year. As a musical Christmas Card to you all, here’s a quick list of my favorite classical Christmas music. I don’t claim this is an exhaustive list, or that these they are the best selections, but all are of personal meaning to me.

Enjoy the holiday, stay safe, and may you have many blessings in the year ahead! Continue reading

A Classical Winter Solstice

Today is the Winter Solstice!  It that time of year when we finally—and for those of us in Minnesota, usually far too slowly—start working our way back to summer’s light.  But winter has charms all its own, with fairy-tale frost, crisp air, and wonderful snowscapes everywhere.  So, let me welcome the new season with a playlist of winter-themed classical music.  Some of the following selections are delicate, some melancholy, some dramatic… but all take winter, ice, or snow as their point of departure.  Note that I have deliberately avoided Christmas or holiday music here… Christmas music deserves its own post.

Cheers! Continue reading

Music in a Time of War: Vaughan Williams’ “Dona Nobis Pacem”

The Minnesota Orchestra asked me to provide program notes in Showcase magazine for the upcoming concert of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem. Since I love both the composer and the work, I was all too happy to comply. You can see the pages here; but with the Orchestra’s support, I’m also providing my program notes below.

Please come out this concert if it is at all possible—it features powerful music that calls on us to remember our shared humanity and work for peace. Plus, the concert serves as a reunion with our artistic partners from South Africa! The work will be performed with the Minnesota Chorale, Gauteng Choristers, and 29:11, along with soloists Goitsemang Lehobye and Dashon Burton. Tickets and further information are available at the Orchestra’s website, here.

And look for me among the singers… I’m thrilled to be performing in this concert, too!

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