Friday, January 20, 2006

Chasing a Mirage


The Coronado National Memorial commemorates the first organized European exploration of the American Southwest. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, a 16th century conquistador, led the exploration. I visited the memorial just two days before Christmas last year. The memorial is in southeastern Arizona along the U.S-Mexico border, at the southern end of the Huachuca Mountains.

The guide at the visitor's center, a man in his early sixties, told us the memorial was free. He had a gray beard and his eyes had a certain intensity. He seemed more interested in the wildlife of the memorial than in Coronado. And that is indeed the other main – and perhaps more relevant – purpose of the memorial: to preserve the wildlife and the oak woodlands of the Huachuca mountains. At the back of the visitor's center was a large glass window, through which the guide showed us birds – hermit thrushes, acorn woodpeckers, Mexican jays – in the trees just outside. “I’ve seen nearly forty species of birds this morning,” he said proudly and with awe.

From the visitor's center a 2-mile road (mostly unpaved) leads to the foot of Coronado Peak. It was desolate that afternoon, and the views of the mountain ranges of Mexico and southern Arizona were excellent. Coronado’s expedition might have passed someplace close, perhaps within a ten or twenty mile radius of where I stood.

The only other car parked in the lot was that of the Border Patrol. With Mexico so close, its presence shouldn’t have been unexpected, yet I found it unsettling. All around me was the inhospitable landscape of low desert bush and oak trees. It is a landscape that hundreds of Mexicans, Central and South Americans attempt to overcome, hoping for a piece of the American dream. Many of them succumb to the difficulties of the journey; the desert is specked with the death of many of these migrants.


A lure of a different kind had been at work in the 16th century, during Coronado’s time. In the decades after Columbus’s landing, conquistadors from Spain were possessed of a frenzy that would unravel much in the New World. A lot of this frenzy had to do with the ease with which Cortez and Pizarro brought down rich, magnificent empires of the region – the Aztec and the Inca. Suddenly, there was considerable wealth to plunder, and other conquistadors dreamed of discovering their own rich cities, their own Tenochtitlan and Peru, and claiming the spoils for themselves and Spain. In the excitement and delirium of those years, every distorted tale of an unfound empire with unimaginable riches would have seemed legitimate.

The 1530s seems to have been a decade rife with rumors. The most famous of them of was that of El Dorado. The quest for El Dorado would occupy explorers for two more centuries. VS Naipaul in his short essay Columbus and Crusoe wrote: “And even in the violated New World, the Spaniards themselves remained subject to the fantasy. The quest for El Dorado became like a recapitulation of the New World adventure, a wish to have it all over again; more men and money were expended on this in twenty expeditions than on the conquest of Mexico, Peru and New Granada.”

Another, less glamorous rumor was afoot around the same time. This had to do with seven cities of gold located far north of the lands that the Spaniards had conquered in Mexico. The legend of the seven cities of gold was an older one; it came out of an Old World conflict, when the Muslims (the Moors) in the 11th century managed to conquer Merida in Spain. It was said that seven bishops had escaped this conquest and in a far-away place, each bishop had set up his own city of gold.

The legend found its way to the New World; it seemed to some Spaniards that through their transatlantic journeys and new findings they had come to that far-away place. The reports from some explorers seemed to substantiate notions that these cities existed to the north of Mexico, in what is today the southwestern United States. The reports spoke of “large cities, with streets lined with goldsmith shops, houses of many stories, and doorways studded with emerald and turquoise!”

An expedition of roughly 350 Spanish soldiers, 4 Franciscan priests, 1100 Indians and 1500 heads of livestock was organized. Coronado, who was then a governor of a province in Mexico, led the expedition. The journey started Compostela, a coastal town in the west of Mexico and traveled hundreds of miles north in two years (1540-1542): through Arizona, New Mexico, and eastern Kansas before returning to Mexico. Perhaps from what they had heard, Corondo and his Spanish expedition might have expected a land dusted, specked and studded with gold. Instead they found desert villages of the Pueblo people with flat adobe dwellings, large storehouses of corn and beans, a beautiful but stark landscape, and the impassable Grand Canyon that sprang upon them from nowhere.


At the visitor’s center of the Coronado memorial there is a short ten-minute video, a sort of documentary on the expedition. It shows Coronado and other bearded conquistadors on their horses. (The horse can go unnoticed today but when it made its appearance with the arrival of the Spanish in the New World, it had a telling role to play in conquests.) The video also shows the disappointment of the conquistadors when, on reaching a village of Pueblo Indians, they realize there are no cities of gold, and that their arduous journey through the desert is probably a fruitless one. The actors in the video simulating disappointment with their grave expressions only manage unwittingly to caricature the conquistadors. And since beneath all the talk of endurance and valor is just the avaricious core, the feeling of tragedy comes across as comic.

1 comment:

k.r.a.k.t.i.k said...

That was an excellent post! Very riveting. You really should write more.