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.




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

Singing Truth to Power: A Musical Protest during the Aztec Empire

The gathered musicians were, unsurprisingly, terrified.

They were about to take part in a musical protest of sorts, using a specially-written song to challenge their oppressor face to face, and demand justice for their people. But their oppressor was the most powerful person they could imagine… the leader of the Aztec Empire.

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Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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

Lady Six Monkey: The Great Warrior Queen of the Mixtecs

Far too often, the stories of great women—or perhaps more accurately, great writers, politicians, scientists, and leaders who simply happen to be women—have been lost, forgotten, or otherwise written out of history. All of us have a duty to help reclaim these stories… to bring these voices back into the open.

With that in mind, I wanted to share the story of a remarkable woman, whose story really deserves to be better known. She was Lady Six Monkey (Mixtec: Ñuñuu Dzico-Coo-Yodzo), a great warrior queen of the Mixtec people of southern Mexico who was born into the royal house of the Mixtec city of Jaltepec in 1073. Lady Six Monkey was a formidable empire builder who played a pivotal role in the history of the Mixtecs.

The warrior queen Lady Six Monkey in her element, leading an attack and capturing prisoners of war

And believe me, Six Monkey lived in a dangerous time. In 963, a century before Six Monkey was born, a clash of dynastic politics had ripped the Mixtec world apart, culminating in a ferocious war known as the “War of Heaven.” Whole cities were annihilated, and whole royal dynasties wiped out. The conflict led to a major restructuring of Mixtec power politics, with a number of new centers rising out of the ashes. One was a new kingdom centered around the city of Tilantongo, another was a neighboring kingdom based at Jaltepec—Lady Six Monkey’s hometown. Between these two kingdoms was the smaller kingdom based in Huachino. In the War of Heaven’s aftermath, Huachino was one of the last of the older, classical kingdoms left standing. It was much reduced in power, and struggled to hold its own against the new kingdoms rising around it, but its royal house was still one of the most ancient, venerable lineages in the region. Six Monkey’s story played out against a backdrop of these feuding, rival kingdoms that sought to seize ultimate power in a Mixtec-style Game of Thrones involving communities across La Mixteca.

And for a while, no one played this game better than Lady Six Monkey. Continue reading

Reflections on Cuba: Talking Pirates in a Pirate Fortress

[Now that things have calmed down, I wanted to share some personal reminiscences about my time in Havana with the Minnesota Orchestra.]


Like many people, I’ve had a long fascination with pirates. (Well, perhaps I should say like many people in the English-speaking world; people in the Spanish Caribbean tend to have a somewhat different view of the “golden age of piracy.” In these parts of the world, Sir Francis Drake is still remembered as “El Draque,” a monstrous bogeyman used to frighten children.) Continue reading