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The Mexico Podcast: History & Present

A podcast about every aspect of Mexico's history. Wars, politics, culture, religion, rood, chocolate (chocolate), music. Nothing is off limits. Contact us at mexicopodcast@gmail.com

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Narcos: Mexico - 1


29 Nov 2018

Rank #1

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Fall of Tenochtitlan 2

A conquistador incites a massacre, the Aztecs retaliate, Moctezuma chooses a successor, and the Spanish get backed into a corner. Get the Fall of Tenochtitlan book:  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01E03WMQ2


13 Feb 2014

Rank #2

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Fall of Tenochtitlan 3

In this episode the Spanish decide to flee the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. The ensuing midnight battle nearly crushes them. Those left behind are sacrificed. Later, Cuitlahuac looks for allies among the surrounding cities, as does Cortes. Cortes's native allies have gotten some scorn for joining him, so I spend a moment considering the legacy they left behind. Near the end of the episode, two of the most important factors that decided Tenochtitlan's fate are set into motion. Get the ebook: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01E03WMQ2


25 Feb 2014

Rank #3

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Chapultepec Castle

Read the article here: https://www.thedailybeast.com/chapultepec-the-mexican-castle-that-drove-a-belgian-princess-to-madness-and-an-austrian-archduke-to-the-firing-squad


19 Jul 2018

Rank #4

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Revolution 1.1

This episode is an intro, explaining the factors that led to the Revolution, and then ending just before the Revolution officially began. The best way to explain the structure of this series is to compare it to TV shows that have seasons and episodes. Like TV shows, the individual episodes in a season will come out regularly, but the seasons will be spaced out a little more. In between the seasons, we’ll have shorter one-off episodes, some of which will be related to the Revolution but not part of the greater narrative, like an episode about an individual person in the Revolution, and there will be episodes completely unconnected to the Revolution, such as the execution of the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtemoc, or about the Cathedral in Mexico City, or news and culture. I also want to feature more pieces by other people, like I did with the mezcal episodes. Okay, that’s it. Let’s get to work. Leadup The Mexican Revolution wasn’t one thing. It was a series of civil wars, betrayals, assassinations, and reforms that encompass 5-7 years in some senses, and about 20-30 years in a broader sense. Then there’s the romantic (and true) idea that the reverberations are still being felt today. There weren’t two opposing forces fighting for clear objectives. It was more like Game of Thrones: multiple factions of idealists, opportunists, and freedom fighters making temporary alliances and then turning on each other. And almost every major figure gets assassinated. Spoiler alert. It’s disorienting and convoluted, with several people taking the role of president, claiming the last guy was illegitimate for X reason, and then doing X. The wars weren’t fought all over the country. They were more localized. The states of Morelos and Chihuahua were the most violent. Mexico City and the center of the country saw frequent fighting. But most of the country didn’t see much violence. The most obvious way to explain the conditions that led to the Revolution is to talk briefly about a man called Porfirio Diaz. He led a coup against a President who he said had served too many terms. He thought a leader should get one term and then step down. Diaz declared himself interim president. Elections were held. Diaz won. Then he served just one term in 1876 and stepped down when his term was up in 1880. Then he served another just-one-term in 1884. Then another in 1888, 1892, 1896, 1900, and 1904. Some sources call him a dictator, but it’s important to remember that in a few of those elections he did actually have to face an opponent. That opponent was an astrologer who lived in an expensive private mental institution. The bills were paid for by… Porfirio Diaz. So the man who said presidents should serve one term ended up ruling for about 30 years. What happened in those 30 years is described as both dictatorship and development. He stole vast amounts of land, violated property rights, granted monopolies to his supporters, and he made it so that the only way to remove him from power was the same way he had taken it: By force. During his rule electricity, railroads, trolleys, and the telephone all arrived in Mexico. Gross National Product greatly increased. Life was very good for the coutnry’s elite, who were allowed and encouraged to take land and export natural resources to industrializing nations. Porfirio was stabilizing some aspects of the country, but the trade he made was modernization and increased wealth for the upper classes in exchange for returning Mexico to colonial status: The country almost literally belonged to foreign investors. The people who worked on haciendas and ranches lived basically as slaves, even if that word wasn’t used. Whipping was a common punishment. Workers were forced to buy from the company store on the ranch or farm. Prices were much higher in those stores than in the nearby towns. Workers who didn’t purchase from those stores were whipped or docked pay. High officials in Diaz’s government were mostly of European descent. The ideologies in vogue among them were French Positivism and social Darwinism. They called themselves cientificos – scientists. Legal, paper-based land ownership was a new requirement that the cientificos had imposed on the country, and on people who had inhabited the same land for over 800 years. The people who lived there had never needed a piece of paper saying they lived there, and even if they would have had that custom, the Spanish conquistadors in the 15 and 1600s had been more than thorough in their destruction of indigenous books and documents. In 1883 a law passed in Congress that allowed foreign companies to come in and take land they considered undeveloped. Now communities that had been living on the same land for generations were suddenly told by outsiders that their farms were actually haciendas belonging to some guy who had never even visited the place, and now the communities were basically forced into something so similar to slavery that we may as well just call it slavery. They now had to work the lands while paying rent on their own homes and fields. The harvest of course went to the new owner. A special division of police were given authority to deal with peasants trying to defend their land (or peasants who couldn’t pay the rent, or who protested). Meanwhile Porfirio Diaz’s regime tried to paint a positive picture of Mexico to the outside world. They claimed Mexico was now safe, tamed, open for business. The Cientificos sold land to telegraph companies and railroad companies, which allowed the transport of natural resources to port cities. Mexico City was having a sewage problem at this time. The city is surrounded by mountains and there’s no natural drainage, and population growth was causing problems. When it rained, the sewers overflowed and streets flooded. In 1886 they began what Richard Grabman calls one of the greatest engineering projects of the 19th century, or any century. It took 14 years, but in the end they had built a 36-mile canal and six-mile tunnel that carried the sewage to the other side of the mountains and dumped it into the Lerma River. Mexico’s new industrialization came through use of death camps in the Yucatan peninsula and the valley of Oaxaca. Porfirio Diaz, who was from Oaxaca, has often been called Mexico’s first modern leader, which leads me to a point of speculation. If you’re listening to this, it’s very likely that you know of Dan Carlin’s podcast called Hardcore History. In the first episode of his series on the Mongols, he compares Genghis Khan to Hitler. He starts the episode by saying he has an idea for a book. It’s a book he wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole, but it’s a book that he’s certain will be written eventually, maybe in a couple hundred years, when the European Holocaust is no longer so close at hand. What will people say about Hitler in a few hundred years? Dan thinks it might be similar to what people now say about Genghis Khan. They’ll say Hitler was a force for modernization, development, industrialization, etc. I think the historians who talk about Porfirio Diaz as Mexico’s first modern leader are putting on the Genghis Khan Goggles, which are similar to beer goggles, but for historical events. Today some people wear Genghis Khan Goggles when they think about Hernan Cortes and Porfirio Diaz. Someday people might put on Genghis Khan Goggles when they think of Hitler. The comparison to Hitler works and is not just a meaningless invocation of Godwin’s Law because Diaz in some cases pioneered the techniques that would be used by the Nazis and by Stalin. Specifically, concentration camps. In Mexico, these concentration camps are referred to today by the lovely word hacienda. If you travel in Mexico you’ll probably see tempting offers to stay at a bed and breakfast that was an old hacienda, or eat at a restaurant that was a hacienda. The meal after my wedding was at a restaurant on a hacienda. The neighborhood I live in used to be a hacienda as well. The haciendas in the Yucatan and Oaxaca were ways to industrialize a place quickly while eliminating unwanted ethnic groups. One ethnic group that put up resistance was called the Yaquis. About 30,000 of them were deported to the Yucatan peninsula, which was thousands of miles away from their land and was a much different type of climate. The Yucatan is a humid jungle. The Yaquis came from the north of Mexico, the southern US, an arid desert climate. If you’ve never been to the Yucatan jungles, the heat and humidity there is unbearable in December, on vacation. Like the Jews in the Holocaust, the Yaquis were transported on overcrowded cattle cars. Many of them died along the way. Most of the people who arrived didn’t live long. They slept in overcrowded barracks, were underfed, and were literally worked to death. All of this was justified to Europe and the United States as the way of civilizing an inferior people. A reporter called John Kenneth Turner visited these death camps and his publications became very popular in the US. People were outraged, and American citizens began smuggling weapons into Mexico. Diaz became very disliked by middle class voters in the US. The US government and American business interests thought change was coming to Mexico, and they wanted to control the outcome. Historian Earl Shorris says there are several probable causes of the Mexican Revolution. The causes, or maybe precipitating factors, worked together. No single cause could have sparked the Revolution on its own, but several of them working all at once could. First, Porfirio Diaz was old. In his 80s. The average age of his Cabinet was 68. And Mexico was a young country. In 1910 a third of the population was under 10. More than half were under 20, and fewer than 10% were over 50. Dictator or no, he would soon die, as would many of his Cabinet members. Change was inevitable. Second, economics. The final two years of his rule saw contractions in the economy. These contractions hit the poor harder than anyone else, and made their lives even more difficult. Third, haciendas. The governance system in most of the country was basically feudalism, at least outside the major cities. There were no limits on how much land someone could own. Anything considered “unused” land could be settled. Any land owned by people who lacked the recently-imposed legal documentation could be taken. An enormous amount of land was stolen. Fourth, the decline of Positivism. Young Mexicans rebelled against the philosophy of the older generation. The Positivism of Pofrifio’s cientificos was losing its appeal. A new philosophy, sparked by Henri Bergson’s book The Creative Mind, connected with them deeply. Shorris says the impact of the new philosophy on the Revolutionaries is undeniable. Fifth, Diaz had been quoted as saying that this would truly be his final term and that he would welcome an opposition party in the next elections. He said Mexico should be prepared to change their government at every election and not have to face armed revolution. That interview was read by some of the most influential Revolutionaries, and nobody would forget what he had said. Sixth, freedom of the press. Diaz allowed the popular socialist polemicists, the Flores Magon brothers, to get out of jail and go to the U.S. and continue publishing articles against him. Many of their ideas made it into the 1917 Constitution, which has been called the first socialist constitution, coming even before the Soviet one. Seventh, the federal army proved that they were not invincible. An early battle before the Revolution resulted in the massacre of an entire village called Tomochi. But the people in that town of about 200 killed several soldiers in the fighting. One of the federal soldiers who survived wrote a book about it, and he said “every rebel was worth 10 federal soldiers.” The news of the battle spread quickly. The eighth cause or factor in the Revolution was strikes. A third of the land was owned by foreigners. Foreign investors owned about 90% of the value of industries in Mexico. The French owned the textile industry. The Americans owned mining. Various other countries owned the railroads. The British and Americans owned the oil. In all those industries the owners put their own countrymen in the best positions. In return for all this, foreign governments rewarded Diaz. He got rewards from Switzerland, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Venezuela, France, Japan, Italy, Belgium, Prussia, Hungary, Austria, Persia, Great Britain, the Netherlands, China, and Russia. There were at least 250 strikes or demonstrations during his dictatorship. The strikers mostly demanded better working conditions. In one of those strikes dozens were killed. Local police were helpless to stop the strikers, and the Mexican military was nowhere nearby. So the governor of Sonora actually requested US military, since the strike was at an American-owned copper mine. Eventually the Mexican military arrived and demanded the American soldiers leave. The presence of foreign soldiers protecting American interests against Mexican workers was….unpopular. That was 1906. Things did not improve after those strikes. The pressure kept building. In 1908 a man called Francisco Madero published a book called The Presidential Succession of 1910. He met with Diaz and suggested that he himself be nominated Vice President, rather than the man Diaz was considering. Diaz refused him. Madero later recalled that meeting, saying he was not impressed by the dictator. He must have felt what Christopher Hitchens famously described: The moment you begin interacting with statesmen and realize, to your horror, that they are even less intelligent than you are. After Diaz refused Madero, Madero continued his own presidential campaign, calling his party the Antireelectionists. He began touring Mexico and founding Antireelectionist clubs all over the north. And he was getting more popular all the time. He was gathering the support of cowboys, railway workers, miners, small town businessmen, cattle rustlers, and indigenous leaders. For the first time, Diaz faced serious competition. Another contender for the presidency was Bernardo Reyes. Reyes was part of the Diaz government, but he was setting up his own opposition party. Diaz sent him to Europe, ostensibly to study military recruitment systems, but the effect was exile for Reyes. Now without their candidate, his followers joined Madero’s Antireelectionists. In April 1910 the Antireelectionists held a convention. Madero was voted in as their candidate. Diaz had pro-Madero newspapers closed, his people attacked Antireelectionist rallies, and he jailed their leaders in several cities. Some were able to flee to safety in the US, but Madero was arrested and imprisoned in San Luis Potosi in June 1910. In the June 26th elections, Diaz’s people blocked suspected Antireelectionists from voting, so they called Diaz out for committing voter fraud and petitioned Congress to annul the vote. Congress basically ignored them. While in prison Madero was visited by prominent members of his anti-reelectionist campaign. He said that now was the time to take up arms. They made plans to buy weapons and recruit men willing to die for the cause. The call to arms would go out in October, after the country was done celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Mexican War of Independence. Madero came from a wealthy family, and his father bailed him out and used his influence with the governor to allow Madero to get around the city during the day. On October 7, 1910 he escaped his guards on horseback and fled to the US, helped by sympathetic railway workers. He went to San Antonio, TX, where his family owned a house. The railroads were perhaps Diaz’s biggest accomplishment, and they were the key to controlling Mexico. If you control the railroads you can send soldiers quickly to any part of the country. And the key to the railroads were the workers. Francisco Madero had the support of those workers. With their help he smuggled guns and propaganda into Mexico. From San Antonio, Texas, he wrote that the revolution would begin on November 20, 1910.


26 Jun 2017

Rank #5

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Wanna learn Spanish? (Or English?) Subscribe to my email list for a free guide that will show you the path. It's here: https://www.digitalnomad.mx/ If you're not interested in that, but you want to support the podcast, the best way is to buy The Fall of Tenochtitlan ebook: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01E03WMQ2 But seriously, you should just join the email list even if you're not interested in learning Spanish. There's a LOT of Mexico-related stuff going down in the email list. Subscribe here: https://www.digitalnomad.mx/ The Malinche article is here: http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/spanish-conquest/dona-marina-part-1 And here: http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/spanish-conquest/dona-marina-part-2


14 Feb 2019

Rank #6

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Why Nations Fail 2

Spain and England colonized the Americas in very different ways. That led to different cultural values, which led to different constitutions. Mexico has had to update and rewrite the Constitution several times since the first one in 1824, because that one was a disaster. So let’s talk about how that constitution came to life.   Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808, and sent the nation into a crisis. In September of that year King Ferdinand was captured, and he abdicated the throne. In response to this, several Spanish administrators declared themselves the new government, basically a government in resistance to the French. They formed a parliament that produced the Cadiz Constitution in 1812, which called for equality under the law, and a more democratic legal system. Now the rulers of Latin America had to decide how to respond to this. They had been loyal to the Spanish Crown, which had put them in the positions they were in. But now Spain was preoccupied with the invasion, and so the Latin American rulers were given a little more space to make their own rules. Independence and The Constitution But Spain wasn’t totally distracted. A wave of independence spread over Latin America. The first movement was in La Paz, Bolivia in 1809. Spain sent troops from Peru to crush that one. The Mexican response to the Spanish crisis was complicated by a movement in 1810 led by a priest called Miguel Hidalgo. Hidalgo and his men sacked the city of Guanajuato and then started killing every white person they could find. The line between class warfare and ethnic cleansing totally disappeared. Mexico’s elite at that time was largely white, and as they watched that little example of popular participation in local politics, they remembered the Cadiz Constitution, which called for even more popular participation. They could never embrace that kind of document. So Mexico’s elite stayed loyal to the Spanish Crown. In 1815 Napoleon’s empire collapsed and King Ferdinand took the throne again. But he now faced mutinies and was forced to recognize the Cadiz Constitution as well as the parliament that had written it. The parliament was now becoming more radical and was calling for the abolition of slavery. The Mexican elites watched this as well. They no longer had an ally in the Spanish Crown, so they decided independence was a better fate than adopting the Cadiz Constitution. Those elites wanted Mexico to become its own independent constitutional monarchy. The man who led their independence movement decided that he should be the emperor. And he wasted no time giving himself dictatorial powers. He didn’t last long, but the cycle of dictatorship, coup, dictatorship, coup haunted Mexico for about a hundred years. During those hundred years Mexico endured the disastrous misrule of Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, the guy who attacked The Alamo and lost the Mexican-American War. The extreme political instability in Mexico during the 1800s was, obviously, disastrous. Mexico lost about half of its territory during this period, including basically all of the American southwest. Since the arrival of the Spanish, the Mexican elite had structured their society entirely around slave labor and monopolies, AKA extractive economic institutions. So after hundreds of years of those extractive policies, by the time the Industrial Revolution rolled around, Mexico was in no place to take advantage of it. In the United States in the early 1900s, people from most walks of life could get a patent to develop products. Once you had a patent, you could get a loan from a bank to start a business. By 1914 there were almost 28,000 banks in the U.S., and the competition was fierce. In Mexico at that same time, there were about 40 banks, and no competition among them, meaning there was no incentive for a bank to provide a better service than the bank down the street. Since there was no competition, the banks could charge huge interest rates, which basically meant that only the superrich could get loans, and then they could use that easy access to credit as a way of gaining even more control over the country. The American Constitution placed huge constraints on executive power in the United States, but in Mexico there were basically no restraints, and the only way for someone to get rid of a president was the same way he originally took power: By force. Presidents in Mexico violated property rights with total impunity, they expropriated tons of land, and they granted monopolies and political favors to their supporters. The reason the United States banking system worked better for Americans than the Mexican system was because of the political and economic institutions of both countries. The stable banking industry worked in conjunction with political institutions that were much more democratic. So American bankers and politicians could try to corrupt each other, and were often successful, but politicians could be kicked out of office during the next election. A nation with extremely unstable political institutions can’t hold people accountable in the same way. England’s Path to the Industrial Revolution We don’t have time for a full recap of the conditions that put England and Spain on different roads, so if you want that, you’ll have to get the book.  England’s road to the Industrial Revolution was long and winding and difficult. The elites fought every attempt to limit their power and make the nation more democratic, but in the long run those elites failed just often enough. One important event was the signing of the Magna Carta. It was not “liberty and justice for all,” but it was a tiny step in that direction. The king was forced to sign it. Later the Pope annulled it for him, but the seed was already planted. In the late 1400s the Lancasters won the War of the Roses. Their king, Henry VII, disarmed the aristocracy, basically giving the crown, or the nation, the monopoly of violence. Then Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell turned the government into a set of bureaucratic institutions rather than what it had been before, which was just the private household of the king. Acemoglu and Robinson’s thesis rests on the assumption that power needs to be centralized in a kind of Goldilocks balance, not too little, not too much. Too much centralization causes North Korea. Too little centralization causes Somalia. Without centralization, political institutions are not possible. Henry VIII fought to make himself more powerful, and the elites underneath him fought against him, and they ended up indirectly making the government more pluralistic, making a system of checks and balances (more or less). The institutions in England were still extractive at this point, but they were laying the foundations for England’s longterm success. As both sides fought each other, they were able to centralize the state just enough, but also limit centralization just enough so that absolutism didn’t creep in and destroy their longterm success, like it did in Spain. Later, King James I did everything he could to become an absolutist ruler, but he had to fight a civil war over it, and he was defeated and executed. But a dictator replaced him. After this long series of conflicts came more conflicts that we don’t have time for. But since you’re a podcast listener you’ll be able to find podcasts that go into these topics in ways that I just can’t. There are probably at least 6 podcasts on the history of Great Britain. The path to longterm national success is not obvious, and it was even less obvious in England before the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution The Industrial Revolution began with transportation and textile. As you might guess, it was not a straight/simple path forward. One family invested £6000 of their money to make a river navigable, and in exchange the government granted them the right to charge people for navigation on the river. But the government tried to backpedal, and so they had to go back and forth fighting it out. The issue was resolved in favor of the family, thereby setting a precedent and demonstrating to the people that their property rights would be respected. If we compare that with Venezuela today, we see a place where the government can walk into any private business and say, “This now belongs to me.” Nobody in Venezuela has any reason to open a tiny café or a corner store in their neighborhood and hire a few neighbors (in a country with at least 25% unemployment, by the way). People know that if their government sees them being successful, they could lose everything they worked for and have to start all over from zero. So it’s smarter to not do anything. England avoided becoming Venezuela in part because people believed their property would be secure. There are lots of other factors, but that one is key. At any point in England’s development, the wrong person could have come into power and could have held onto it for too long, but luck as well as virtuous cycles or positive feedback loops put England’s economy in the best position for longterm success. So the Glorious Revolution in the late 1600s increased pluralism and led to the creation of the Bank of England, which sparked a financial revolution. People could then take out loans and start businesses, which gave more power to the commoners, which in turn created even more political changes that kept the cycle improving decade after decade. The political and economic institutions became more favorable to innovators and entrepreneurs, and property rights got more secure. That played a role in the transportation revolution, which laid a foundation for the Industrial Revolution. England also made smart use of economic nationalism and protectionism. Just as companies are in constant competition with each other, so are nations. The government made it illegal for foreign ships to carry products to England or its colonies, and they made it illegal to transport English products on foreign ships. English trade had to be transported on English ships. This obviously encouraged English traders and manufacturers to continue innovating and looking for profitable activities. Property rights were improving, infrastructure was improving, more people had access to finance, and manufacturers and merchants were protected overseas. In 1760 the number of patents jumped way up as a result of people’s faith that they could benefit by going into business. But, as I’ve mentioned at least twice now, it wasn’t simply a complete and steady improvement. People tried to set up monopolies and tried to change laws to make it illegal to compete with them, and the government tried to weasel out of agreements, but the general trend was positive. A strong economy is a changing one. An economy is a living organism, and the only constant for a living organism is change. Death is a part of all living things. Skin cells die and get replaced by new ones just like old industries die and get replaced by new ones. Anticapitalists like to use periodic market contractions as evidence that capitalism will soon fail, but that’s kind of like saying humanity will soon go extinct because so many of them die. Humans are not eternal, and neither are businesses or industries. It’s a process called creative destruction. It’s a scary process. It creates winners and losers. And ultimately that is why most countries are poor. The people who are scared of creative destruction have held too much power for too long. They are scared of change because they very well could lose in a competitive economy. As cotton started booming in England, the wool industry declined. New technologies were invented to speed up the production of cotton fabrics, and that meant people who wanted to join the cotton boom had to learn to use those new machines. People who adapted to the changes survived and prospered. People who could not adapt did not. Path-Dependent Change The world economy exploded during this era. The leaders of extractive countries could get rich by exporting natural resources to the nations that were expanding. I’ve already talked about Mexico during the Porfiriato, which is the 30-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. If you want more about that, you can listen to the episode called Revolution 1.1. Mexico underwent big changes during his rule. But these were what Acemoglu and Robinson call path-dependent changes. Since these resource-rich countries with extractive institutions were already on that path, the path of extraction, the changes that took place were simply an evolution of the processes that had already impoverished them. Globalization made the frontiers economically valuable. Large, open spaces that took forever to cross by horse were now seen as areas filled with valuable resources. The people who lived in those areas were not able to defend themselves, and so they were pushed out. As a tangent, that moment in history, colonization and the forceful dispossession of people from their lands, gives us an extremely powerful lesson for today. Cultures that are not strong will always be trampled by people from other cultures who are hungrier and better-organized. If we take nothing else away from the history of cultures interacting with each other, we need to take that lesson. It’s true in international relations as well as business. Stronger, hungrier, and more desperate companies can put others out of business, like Amazon did to bookstores. Remember, Amazon was not as big as Borders Books or Barnes & Noble. But it was hungrier and smarter. Apple did it to the music industry. When successful companies and successful nations grow complacent, when they get too comfortable, that’s when disruption happens. So the newly-discovered value of those wide open spaces led to more divergence between the U.S. and Mexico, because both countries reacted to those wide open spaces in different ways. The indigenous populations in America were pushed out of their land, and then the United States gave broad access to those frontier lands. This made those lands economically dynamic, in the words of Acemoglu and Robinson, as well as somewhat egalitarian. In Latin America the same dispossession happened, but those lands were not then made broadly accessible to the public. They were given to the politically powerful, which allowed the elite to concentrate their wealth and expand their power even further. Porfirio Diaz used the opening of frontier lands as a way to enrich himself and his allies. He sped up the cycle of extraction. And of course there were consequences for him, and you can’t just flat-out condemn every single thing that happened under his rule. But he continued Mexico’s path of extraction. Extractive institutions can cause economic growth, but only for a limited time, and only in limited quantities. Extractive economic policies don’t work in the long term. And so eventually Diaz was overthrown, but Mexico was sent into at least a decade of chaos afterwards, and probably closer to 15 or 20 years of chaos. This pattern of extraction, like I said, causes short-term growth, but it comes at a very high price to the country at large. There were civil wars, coups, revolutions, and economic stagnation all over Latin America through basically the entire 20th century as a result of the Spanish Crown’s original extractive policies. There was a revolution in Mexico in 1910, in Bolivia in 1952, Cuba in 1959, Nicaragua in 1979, and civil wars in Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Peru, and attempted agrarian reforms in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, and Venezuela. For many Latin American countries, democracy didn’t arrive until the 1990s, and even today they’re not very stable. In my own opinion many Latin American countries have made great strides toward developing more inclusive economic and political institutions, and even where they have failed to make improvements, the internet is a tidal wave rolling over Latin America and letting the people communicate with each other and conduct business even if their governments are doing everything possible to keep the old extractive models in place. At least in Mexico almost everyone I know who’s my age or younger has a Facebook account, which means they have regular access to the internet. The internet is probably the most powerful economic equalizer in world history. Unfortunately 97% of those people will use the internet exactly like Americans and Europeans use it, as a way to waste as much time as possible rather than learning something valuable. You can give people an equalizer, but you can’t force them to use that equalizer to get the equivalent of a university education every two years if they’d rather watch 30-second Facebook videos all day. Monopolies The authors of Why Nations Fail illustrate the modern difference between the United States and Mexico by using the example of two of the world’s richest people: Bill Gates and Carlos Slim. They say Gates largely became successful through innovation, and they point out how the monopolistic tendencies of Microsoft were punished by the U.S. Government. In 1991 the Federal Trade Commission investigated the issue of whether Microsoft had become a monopoly. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Microsoft in 1998 claiming the company had abused monopoly power, particularly by tying Internet Explorer to the Windows operating system. In 2001 the company reached a deal with the government. They didn’t face the penalties many people had wanted, but they didn’t get off scot-free either. Carlos Slim, on the other hand, got his money through intelligently manipulating the legal systems of Mexico. His initial success came through stock market deals and through buying and revamping failing businesses. The government privatized a telecom company Telmex in 1990 and did the thing that seems reasonable to socialists, they turned it into a state monopoly. Then they sold it to Slim, turning a state monopoly into a private monopoly. If you’re a Mexican entrepreneur, you face huge obstacles, including expensive licenses, truly labyrinthian red tape, and a financial sector that colludes with your largest competitors. Slim is a smart man who simply uses the system to his advantage. But Mexico is becoming more competitive, and Carlos didn’t build his empire by being the strongest competitor. He did it by finding loopholes, and loopholes are not a longterm economic strategy. As Mexico becomes more competitive, it gets more and more important for individual citizens of Mexico to get ahead of the curve. It is the world’s 15th largest economy, and now in the internet age every business with an online presence has to compete globally. Mexico might not be the easiest place to start a business, but I see a lot of ways in which it is somewhat easier than where I come from. I don’t want to turn this into a tangent on doing business in Mexico, so I’ll keep this short, but the level of business sophistication in Mexico is extremely low, which makes it easier for Mexicans to outperform their competition simply by being dedicated to their customers and willing to go to the bookstore and buy a couple business books every month. I’m not saying it’s easier in Mexico, but your competitors are extremely unsophisticated and unwilling to invest profits into their business. That counts for something.


15 Aug 2017

Rank #7

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Fall of Tenochtitlan 4

PART 4 The people of Tenochtitlan were starting to feel the effects of a virus that had only recently been introduced to the population. And it has to be considered one of the major contributing factors that led to the fall of the city. Here, I’ll quote from Miguel Leon Portilla’s translation of an Aztec account of Tenochtitlan suffering smallpox: “It lasted for seventy days, striking everywhere in the city and killing a vast number of our people. Sores erupted on our faces, our breasts, our bellies. No one could walk or move. The sick were so utterly helpless they could only lie on their beds like corpses, unable to move their limbs or even their heads. They could not lie face down or roll from one side to the other. If they did move, they screamed with pain.” At first they cremated the bodies. Later on, so many people died that they gave up and just dumped them in the lake. When women contracted the disease, they got too sick to grind corn and cook, resulting in a severe food shortage. The emperor, Cuitlahuac, also grew ill. The Aztecs had no knowledge of smallpox and, unlike the Spanish, no immunity against it. Their desperate remedies did nothing to stop the spread of what they called The Great Rash. They covered the wounds with obsidian powder and wrapped them in casts. To stop nosebleeds they put stones into nostrils. One remedy actually made things much worse. Steam baths, usually a treatment for sickness, were the perfect medium for passing the disease. I mean think about it: a dark, hot, wet environment. If you wanted to engineer the perfect smallpox-spreading weapon, you would just put people inside a big sauna for a couple minutes. The virus made people so weak that they couldn’t get up to look for food, so they died of hunger in their beds. Many of those who survived were left paralyzed and blinded. The emperor Cuitlahuac died of smallpox on December 4, 1520. Some estimates claim that half the city died. In the 16TH century alone (according to an estimate in Charles C Mann’s book 1491) as many as 100 million natives in the Americas may have died, from disease alone. To put that in other terms, it was roughly one in every five people on Earth. Remember that Tenochtitlan at that time (as well as today) was one of the largest cities in the world. And activity there ground to a halt with so many infected. And that was just inside the metropolis. It also brought down the kings of nearby regions called Chalco, Cholula, and Tacuba. The Spanish, meanwhile, were all but immune to it, most of them were exposed to it as kids.   CORTES ON THE THRONE Enjoying his new found position of power over a mostly leaderless region, Cortes took time to write new legal documents solidifying his authority over Mexico (at least according to Spanish law). He wrote letters to King Carlos of Spain in an effort to preempt any legal actions against him (by, for example, Diego Velazquez, his direct superior). Cortes even suggested a name for the landmass. He called it, redundantly, New Spain of the Ocean Sea. (Maybe “New Spain of the Ocean” was already taken.) He sent ships to procure supplies from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. He sent one of his captains, Sandoval, to crush the towns of Jalacingo and Zauta in the same way they had done in Tepeaca. More slaves were kidnapped, and although the women were given to the soldiers to rape at their leisure the soldiers complained that they only got the old and ugly women, while the captains kept the best-looking ones for themselves. So Cortes suggested a solution: the women would be sold to his men. The women they most desired fetched the highest price. He spent Christmas 1520 in Tlaxcala, where the leaders asked him to help name a successor to Maxixcatzin, who had, also died of smallpox. Cortes chose one of the dead ruler’s sons and made him a knight. It was, perhaps, the first such act in the Americas. The son was baptized, as was Xicotenga the Elder, and both converted to Catholicism. The shipbuilding was moving on schedule and the workers were highly dedicated to the project. Martin Lopez had, by now, invested his own money in it.   A NEW EMPEROR In Tenochtitlan the Aztec council had chosen a new emperor, a man in his early 20s who worshiped Huitzilopochtli, opposed any concessions to Christianity or the Spanish, and who according to one Aztec codex threw the stone that killed Moctezuma. (That last one seems unlikely to me, but what do I know?) His name was Cuauhtemoc, and he would be the last Aztec emperor. Cuauhtemoc had proven himself during the battles of Tenochtitlan and he got to work right away. He sent spies to report on the Spaniards’ conditions and activities, he started fortifying the city and digging caves for ambushes. The lances lifted from the corpses of Spanish soldiers were adapted as anti-cavalry weapons. Cuauhtemoc made attempts at diplomacy, too, by sending gifts and making appeals to nearby tribes and cities, but centuries of Aztec domination, combined with fear of Spanish wrath, kept many cities from participating fully.   ENCIRCLING THE EMPIRE Meanwhile Cortes organized his own army. He had 550 foot soldiers, including 80 rifle- and crossbowmen and 10,000 Tlaxcalan soldiers. Another 70 thousand would stay behind and march if called upon. In a speech to his men, he once again mentioned his deity and the righteousness of their cause. Then, he again paradoxically declared the Aztec nation to be vassals of Spain and in rebellion against their rightful leaders. Futhermore, he added, they had killed Spanish citizens and therefore required a quote “great whipping and punishment” unquote. His logic nonetheless rallied his troops. He read a list of proclamations. Newly prohibited activities included blaspheming Cortes’s preferred god, gambling (unless one happened to be in Cortes’s private quarters), rape, insulting friendly indians, using indians as gifts, taking their clothes, doing violence against them, and pillaging their towns… unless one had Cortes’s permission. The list was, clearly, written so that Cortes could do anything he wanted. It reminds me of something my dad wrote when he was about 5 (and my grandma framed it and stuck in the bathroom, of all places).  “This letter makes NAME REDACTED a member of the Sly Spy’s club. He can be doing anything he wants.” This is where I show my obvious historical biases. I’m gonna give my father the benefit of the doubt. Unlike Cortes, I don’t think the 5 year old author had genocide on the brain when he penned his declaration. Cortes’s last commandment rule prohibited taking any gold or slaves for oneself. Breaking that rule was punishable by hanging. The Spanish marched at the end of December. Their destination was the Aztec capital. At one point they came across a roadblock. The Aztecs had cut down trees to stop the army’s advance. The soldiers expected an ambush, so they cleared the debris nervously and continued marching. There was no attack. They entered the Valley of Mexico and saw smoke signals rise in the distance. Cortes told his men that they would not turn back until they had taken the city or died in the attempt.  The trail narrowed and passed by a waterfall. Farther along, a large squadron of Aztecs waited for them, but the native army scattered when 15 cavalrymen charged, impaling some. They passed through a ravine and heard local inhabitants yelling insults at them from above. But it seems they passed through without incident. At the village of Coatepec, they were welcomed by the King of Texcoco’s brother. The man was unhappy about his brother being chosen to rule, AND Texcoco was demanding tribute from Coatepec. Tribute, basically, means gold, and victims for sacrifice. He was glad to see Cortes and said he could offer gold and support. He would even march beside Cortes when he took Texcoco. On December 31, they met with chieftains of other local villages, who apologized for the resistance Cortes faced while passing through the Valley of Mexico. Cuahtemoc had ordered the attacks, they said. The leader of their own city desired peace and friendship, and they had friends in Texcoco who would receive them as allies. The Aztec empire was made up of what’s called the Aztec Triple Alliance. Three kingdoms had united to rule vast portions of Mexico. The kingdoms were Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tacuba. Tenochtitlan was the most powerful of the three, but Texcoco was vital to Cortes’s plans. Texcoco was the second most populated city of the Triple Alliance, but the Spanish and Tlaxcalan army found the suburbs nearly empty. Bernal Diaz and other captains climbed to the top of the city’s pyramid and found out why. The lake was filled with canoes and the streets were clogged with people. Everyone was fleeing. They were going into the woods. Cortes was furious,. He’d been deceived, so his men smashed idols, burned buildings, and rounded up the remaining families. They were branded with the cattle iron and sold as slaves. He considered his situation. The lords of Texcoco had fled, meaning, at the very least, they would not ally with him against Tenochtitlan. On the other hand he had taken Texcoco without losing a single man, or even facing resistance. The city was now without visible rulers, so he installed a boy called Tecocol as de facto king. Two months later the boy would… mysteriously and, conveniently die. His position would fall to to Ixtlilxochitl, the brother of Texcoco’s fleeing king. The Spanish explored the nearly-vacant city. I’ll quote Buddy Levy here: “Cortes and his men encountered a magnificence that nearly rivaled that of neighboring Tenochtitlan, with remarkable botanical gardens, an outdoor theater for public performances, a music hall, a ball court, a zoo, and a great market (which was closed). The nobles’ houses were immaculate timbered buildings built on high wooden pylons, with terraces overlooking the lake.”  A few days later, chiefs from three local tribute villages arrived, saying they had participated in the evacuation of the area, but now they begged Cortes for forgiveness. They said they would submit to Spanish authority. Cortes then did something that might surprise you: he gave them a pardon, on the condition that they return to their cities and bring the women and children back home. Within a few days people started returning. People came back to Texcoco as well, and the city returned to a semblance of normalcy. Cuauhtemoc knew that nearby cities had been forging alliances with the Spanish, so he sent messengers to win them back. But the messengers were captured and brought to Cortes, who told them to go back to their leader and warn him to bow down before Spain or face the destruction and death. Cortes got no response, so he mounted a reconnaissance mission to Iztapalapa, an important Aztec city south of Tenochtitlan. Captain Sandoval would stay in Texcoco, in command of about 4000 Tlaxcalans and 350 Spanish. Cortes took roughly 7000 indigenous soldiers and porters and 200 Spanish soldiers. They went with cavalry, marching south. Smoke signals again filled the air. The Aztecs organized themselves quickly and launched minor attacks, but they were ineffective. When the Spanish got to Iztapalapa, it was far from empty. The island city was kept above water by a dike. The Spanish entered the city, killed large numbers, and expelled the rest of the situation. Shortly before, the Aztecs had smashed a part of the dyke. The streets were filling with water. Chiefs from Texcoco went to Iztapalapa with Cortes, though — and they knew what was happening. They advised an immediate retreat. The army met light resistance on the way out and the Spanish, as always, lit buildings on fire. (That’s a curious way to spend time in a city that’s being flooded.) At one point, apparently Ixtlilxochitl fought a duel with a rival and, later, burned him to death. When they escaped and took stock of their situation, many Mexican allies had drowned and one Spaniard. Most of the gunpowder was too wet to use, so they left it behind. They spent the night hungry, soaking, and cold, but alive. They had planned to spend the night in the city, but clearly that plan had been scotched. In the morning they retreated to Texcoco, fighting most of the way back. The Aztecs viewed it as a victory since their own battle tactics were, once you gained a position you didn’t retreat willingly. Retreat was equal to failure. Cortes spent the next few days gaining more allies. The Otomi apologized for their role in earlier attacks, saying the Aztecs forced them to fight. Messages came from Chalco, too. They would ally with the Spanish if Cortes would help drive the Aztecs from their city. Cuauhtemoc had set up a military outpost in Chalco and was forcing them to support Tenochtitlan. Cortes agreed and sent a force to battle the Aztecs. Cuauhtemoc’s soldiers tried to use their retrofitted Spanish lances against Sandoval’s cavalry charges, but they got crushed. As they retreated, Sandoval sent his men after them, killing everyone they could. Then the combined Spanish and Mexican army fought their way into Chalco, eventually taking the plaza and driving out the Aztecs. As I said before, Tlaxcala gets a lot of scorn for allying with Cortes, but what other option did they have? They had been under the thumb of a greedy empire for a long time, and the foreigners offered something that must have seemed like an escape from tyranny. If you’re gonna play the blame game, I think certainly the Spanish take the lion’s share, but the Aztec empire fostered so much dissent and dissatisfaction among the tribes of Mexico, and they gained enough enemies, that they probably created the perfect conditions to ensure their own destruction.  When the fighting ended, Sandoval was told that the king of Chalco had recently died of smallpox, leaving behind two sons. Sandoval brought them back to Texcoco with him. On a side note, long ago that same king had allegedly predicted that one day Mexico would be ruled by bearded men coming from the direction of the rising sun. When he saw the Spanish, he knew he was right. I don’t know whether that’s actually true. And whatever I say about it could easily get me in trouble. If I say it seems false, then I’m gonna get yelled at by people accusing me of trying to rewrite history. (They’re, of course, forgetting that these histories have already been rewritten… by the Spanish. I’ll then be accused by the other side of “not respecting the prophecies of an old religion.” But if I say I believe the story, then everybody gets mad all over again for different reasons. There’s no winning.) This is the same issue that comes up when you talk about the omens that supposedly predicted the arrival of the Spanish, and the issue of whether Moctezuma believed Cortes was actually the god Quetzalcoatl. So going one way or the other on this also puts me at odds with just about everyone on all sides of this history. A lot of the native accounts were written decades after the events actually happened and a lot of them were written by Spain’s native allies: old enemies of the Aztecs. When I use the term Aztec Codex or quote from Aztec Sources, realize that it’s hard… sometimes impossible, to tell who actually wrote any given codex or who originally told some given oral history. Just because something is called an Aztec Codex doesn’t mean it’s an official history sanctioned by Moctezuma or Cuitlahuac or Cuauhtemoc (in which case it would be just as suspect as anything written by the Spanish). Even the word Aztec itself has a complicated history. It didn’t really come into heavy use until the 1800s thanks to western historians. The Aztecs might have called themselves something like the Mexica. The name of the country, Mexico, comes from the mexica. Let’s get back to Chalco, now kingless. But with two princes. Cortes made one of the two boys Chalco’s new king. The other son would rule twonearby cities. In late January 1521, Cortes ordered Sandoval to check on… let’s call it Project Warship… back in Tlaxcala. He told Sandoval that, on the way, there was an Aztec village called Zultepec that had killed 45 Spaniards the year before. Cortes wanted revenge. Sandoval took the city easily, and some locals showed him to the temple at the top of the pyramid. The walls were smeared with Spanish blood. A message had been written in charcoal: “Here was imprisoned the unfortunate Juan Yuste and many others of his company.” The 45 Spanish soldiers had indeed been killed here. The faces of two had been flayed and stretched out in front of Aztec statues. Sandoval blamed the Aztecs for the killings, but he took some of the locals as slaves anyway — the word “irony” was probably not in his vocabulary. He pardoned Zultepec and some surrounding villages on the condition that they submit to the king of Spain. The chiefs agreed — almost certainly out of fear. They knew the repercussions would be harsh if they rejected. They were also angry at the Aztecs for trying to rule them. And this takes us again to the issue of native politics before, during, and after the Spanish Conquest. These people weren’t just defenseless tribes getting steamrolled by conquerors (although there certainly was a lot of steamrolling going on). They were making calculated decisions by joining one side or the other. Some groups thought it was best to flee and let the apocalyptic forces destroy each other. The chiefs of the region made their calculations and got ready for war. When Sandoval finally got to Project Warship HQ in Tlaxcala, all the ships had been completed. Project Lead Martin Lopez had built a dam in the river, where he floated the ships and checked them for seaworthiness. After being deemed worthy, each ship was dismantled and organized into neat piles. Think about that labor for a minute. Nearby tribes cut down trees and hauled them to the build site. Martin Lopez and his Spanish and native laborers cut the logs into enough pieces for 13 warships. They built a dam and put each individual ship together and checked it and then took it apart again. And then they loaded up all 13 ships. Ten thousand Tlaxcalans would carry the pieces while another 10 thousand guarded them, ready for ambushes along the road. Cortes knew Project Warship was the key to his entire campaign against Tenochtitlan, so the caravan was heavily guarded while en route. They marched for four days through forests and mountain passes, stopping only at night. The wooden serpent, as the Aztecs called it, stretched for five miles. Every day Sandoval expected an attack, but none came. When the head of the serpent reached Texcoco, it took half a day for the line of people to file in and set down their cargo. With that done, the next phase of Project Warship began. For two months 40,000 men dug a canal and buttressed it with giant slabs of wood to prevent a cave-in. The canal was 12 ft wide, 12 ft deep, and a mile long. Cortes was impressed, but he had work to do. The city of Xaltocan had caught his attention. Cuauhtemoc still had many allies to the north, and Cortes wanted to make them his. After hearing mass Cortes left with 250 soldiers, 30 horsemen, quote many musketeers and crossbowmen and all the Tlaxcalans unquote (whatever that means). The captains Alvarado and Olid — as well as a company of warriors from Texcoco — went with. They got near Xaltocan and faced a large group of enemy soldiers. The Spanish fired on them before charging with the cavalry. The enemy fled into the bush and were pursued on foot by “our friends the Tlaxcalans” who killed or captured about 30 of them. Xaltocan was, like the Aztec capital, surrounded by water, and the next morning the Aztecs attacked from across the canals, wounding 10 Spaniards and “many” Tlaxcalans. A few days earlier the bridges had been demolished by hand to keep the Spanish out. There wasn’t much Cortes’s men could do. They fired upon the shielded canoes, though they didn’t do much damage. Diaz writes that the soldiers cursed the town and:  “were half ashamed because the Mexicans and townspeople shouted at them and called them women and said that Malinche was a woman too, and that his only bravery was in deceiving them with stories and lies.” In many of the Spanish accounts of the time, Malinche is called Lord Malinche and referred to using masculine pronouns. So, really, Diaz is doing the same thing the Aztecs are doing. And it strikes the modern mind as ridiculous: Hey! You’re all women, and so is that woman with you. She’s a woman too!  While this was going on, 2 of their native allies had found a way into the city. The Spanish followed them, wading through waist-deep water. The enemy saw this and put up heavy resistance, but couldn’t keep them out. The Spanish and Tlaxcalans got in. Before long the citizens fled in their canoes. Cortes’s men burned down some buildings (because why not) and left after looting whatever gold they could find. The next day they came to a village that had been abandoned right before they had arrived. They slept there, and Diaz says all the property had been carried off by the villagers. Then they came to another abandoned village, and another, and then they got to a city close to Tenochtitlan, called Tacuba.  If you recall, Tacuba is the same city they fled to on the Noche Triste. This time they clashed with a large host of Aztecs and various allies, but eventually the enemy retreated. Diaz says that the next day the Aztecs attacked in even greater numbers, killing several. Again, the Spanish drove them back and eventually entered the city and burned down some buildings. When that news reached Cuauhtemoc in the capital, he sent even more men. At one point the Aztecs ordered a false retreat, luring the Spanish onto a causeway and ambushing them. About five of the Spanish were killed and many were injured. Aztec and Tlaxcalan casualties are unknown. Cortes ordered a retreat, and they fought the whole way back. After a while the enemy gave up and the Spanish made it to camp. They fought in Tacuba for five days, and then left for Texcoco. Cortes had been gone for 2 weeks and when he got back his men had news. A number of villages near Veracruz had allied with them. Plus, reinforcements had arrived from Cuba. Cortes now had 200 more men, 60 horses, and lots of gunpowder, swords, crossbows, and firearms. There was more news: The ship Cortes had sent last fall had arrived in Spain and its crew had spoken with the king, informing him of Cortes’s efforts and… “discoveries”… Also, their mission in Mexico was a favorite topic of conversation in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Hearing the news, Cortes then sent another ship bearing what little treasure he had managed to collect as well as artifacts from the region including large mammoth bones. Spanish scientists concluded that clearly, these were the bones of men who stood 25 feet tall. But discontent still brewed among some of the soldiers. There was another conspiracy against Cortes. Another mutiny. And this one would lead to blood.


29 Aug 2015

Rank #8

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Mexico and the United States: Labyrinth of Solitude 1

This is part 1 in a 2-part series on The Labyrinth of Solitude. The differences between the U.S. and Mexico go back long before Europe discovered North America. In what is now Mexico, there were massive and complex civilizations. Farther north there were mostly nomadic tribes. The Aztecs and Maya were economically richer than, say, the Apache and the Cherokee. Spain and England were also different, though not as different as the Aztecs and the Cherokees. The south, Mexico, had different natural resources than the north did. I’ll talk more about the divergent paths that the U.S. and Mexico took in a future episode, but for this one we’re again talking about Labyrinth of Solitude. The author, Octavio Paz, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990, and I’d be surprised if anybody who’s ever taken a Spanish class hasn’t at least heard his name. Paz says there’s one fundamental difference that helps to explain the modern differences between Mexico and the U.S. “In England the Reformation triumphed, whereas Spain was the champion of the Counter-Reformation. Spain had been under Islamic oppression since roughly the year 700 until 1492, when Arab domination  of the Iberian Peninsula ended. But after 700 years of something, a culture can’t really help but internalize some aspects of it. And so conversion by the sword as well as crusades and holy wars and inquisitions had become a fact of Spanish life and it became part of Spain’s brand of Catholicism, which Spain then exported to Mexico. Paz writes that conquest and evangelization are as fundamental to Spain and to Catholicism as they are to Islam. For them, conquest meant occupying foreign lands, subjugating the people, and forcing them to convert. The conversion then legitimized the conquest. English colonization was different in that evangelization was not quite as important. Mexico was conquered by people who were orthodox, inflexible, dogmatic, and authoritarian about their faith, and extremely violent. The United States was conquered by people who were also very religious, but who were largely dissidents and who felt that religion should be read and understood by everyone, not just by a priestly class. Broadly speaking, the American vision was one of Protestant Reformism, while the Mexican vision was one of Catholic Orthodoxy. Mexico’s Catholic orthodoxy was defensive rather than critical, it resisted modernity. It prevented examination and criticism. Paz writes that these two styles of religious thought are irreconcilable, the rigidly dogmatic and the interpretive. And that irreconcilable difference played out in the structure of the religions. The hierarchy of the Catholic church is complex, and the mass itself focuses mostly on ritual and sacrament. In the Protestant tradition, scripture is freely discussed and examined and questioned, hierarchy between the clergy and the believers is less, and the focus of mass is more on delivering an ethical message than ritual. This difference comes from the Reformation, which was a criticism of European religion. The Reformation led to the Enlightenment. Spain closed itself off from the Reformation, and the Enlightenment never happened in Spain. That’s going a bit too far maybe, but when anyone thinks of the Enlightenment, no Spanish names come to mind, whereas several French and English names are immediately recognizable. John Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu. Immanuel Kant was German. For Octavio Paz, Mexico’s vision of progress comes from looking to the past, whereas America’s vision of progress comes from looking toward the future. The founding of the United States was done with a promise of a better future. One major difference is that in Mexico there are still millions of indigenous people. In America there are few, and even then, most native people are corralled into reservations and forgotten. America was founded as a land without a past. In Mexico, the past is still at war with itself. Cortes and Moctezuma are still alive. Emiliano Zapata’s great desire was a return to the past, a return to pre-Hispanic communal ownership of land. Paz writes that clear-thinking Mexicans have been wondering about modernization since the 18th century. “In the 19th century it was believed that to adopt the new democratic and liberal principles was enough. Today after almost two centuries of setbacks, we have realized that countries change very slowly, and that if such changes are to be fruitful they must be in harmony with the past and the traditions of each nation. And so Mexico has to find its own road to modernity. Our past must not be an obstacle, but a starting point.” I want to take a moment to point out that I’ve had this thought independently of Octavio Paz. Therefore I am extremely smart and impressive. But seriously, the major discovery that I’ve had while living in Mexico is that the singer Selena was wrong, and Gloria Anzaldua was wrong, and every other whiny post-modernist was wrong in the assumption that it’s oh-so hard being bicultural. In reality it’s a superpower. (And by the way, what the whiners fail to realize is that if they were monocultural, there would still be parts of their culture that alienated them, because no culture will ever fit anyone perfectly. Nobody in France is perfectly in tune with all aspects of French culture.) I say that being bicultural is a superpower because you get to see the good parts and the bad parts of both cultures, and you get to see them from both an insider perspective and an outsider perspective. You can see each culture more clearly, and then you can decide for yourself which of those good and bad parts you want to keep and which ones you want to get rid of. In Mexico, I am not normal. I am a foreigner. I haven’t been to the U.S. in about four years, and I’m sure when I go back I won’t be normal there either. I’ve discarded things I don’t like about the U.S. and I’ve discarded things I don’t like about Mexico, and I’ve combined the stuff I like about each country. And when nobody considers you normal, when nobody expects you to be normal, you realize that it doesn’t matter whether you’re normal or not. All that matters is that you live the way you think you should live and that you strive to improve constantly. And so my message about Mexico’s path forward is close to what Octavio Paz seems to be laying out. I don’t think Mexicans need to be like me, bicultural out of choice, but millions of Mexicans live in the U.S anyway. And besides, Mexicanness is a combination of Spanish and indigenous culture, and there are dozens of indigenous cultures in Mexico. For people living in Mexico, the biggest cultural force besides Mexican culture is American culture. And nearly every family has relatives who’ve been to the U.S. or who are living there right now. All that’s required is to awaken this dormant superpower and use it. Just take inspiration from the good parts of Spanish culture, American culture, and Mexico’s indigenous cultures, and then get rid of the crappy parts. Not everyone is going to agree on what the good and bad parts are. That’s up to each person to decide for themselves. But in my own humble opinion, Mexico has been going about it blindly for 500 years. But Mexico isn’t alone in this; every culture moves unconsciously. Octavio Paz writes that Mexico needs to reconcile itself with its past in order to move forward. He may not be explicitly proposing this, but in my opinion the only real practicable way to carry that out is through education. Most people don’t want education. I do, which is why I do this podcast. You do, which is why you’re listening to this podcast. But most people don’t want education, because it’s just easier to not learn. And even when we do want to learn, most teaching methods are outdated and low quality. When you think of public schools in the U.S. or Mexico, quality is probably not the first word that pops in your head. If you think of a business school, are they teaching you how to operate in 2017? Or 1988? Yeah, 1988. Paz then writes about how the nations that inspired Mexico’s 19th century liberals, (meaning France, the US, and England,) are no longer inspirational like they were centuries before. He wrote this particular essay in 1979, but I think his point is still valid today. The thinkers who inspired Mexico’s liberals were people writing about freedom, writing about escaping tyranny. And they were writing about the future. They were engaging in a transformation of their cultures. But then in the 20th century the United States went from inspiring freedom to being yet another colonizing empire. I’m oversimplifying it way too much and I have very little patience for the Noam Chomsky style of everything-bad-is-America’s-fault, but no one can deny that the U.S. has done things to make lots of people in lots of coutnries less free than they would have been had the U.S. not interfered. The country that inspired tons of independence movements later became a cynical geopolitical manipulator seeking nothing but power. However, I also think Paz is exaggerating a bit, or at least he’s too close chronologically to see what had just happened in 1979. In the 60s and 70s America and England went from producing inspiring intellectuals to inspiring cultural figures. Some of the greatest art in all of human history came out of the 60s and 70s. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Dylan are all such unbelievably great artists that eventually everyone on Earth has to recognize their greatness. Even those of us who wanted to rebel against our parents by pretending we didn’t like those bands…eventually had to admit that we were wrong. And that’s just music. We don’t need to get into this whole conversation, but I think I’ve made my point that the inspiration went from intellectual to artistic. Octavio Paz is searching for a source of inspiration for Mexicans on how to move forward as a country. But I think he’s missing the point of classical Liberalism, which is about the sovereignty of the individual. And I think the message of the Liberals is more important today than ever. The 20th century was the great science experiment of liberalism versus collectivism, and we’ve seen the horrors that collectivism always produces. And now in 2017 as collectivists are trying to take over Western civilization, yet again, we must draw inspiration from the classical Liberals and remind people that the only real minority is the individual and that freedom must be defended fiercely against any force that seeks to limit it. The people who inspired Mexico’s 19th century liberals are still relevant, and they can still serve as a source of inspiration for Mexicans today, and for people of any country. Paz points out that Mexico’s position is much better than many other countries. That was true in 1979 and it’s true today. Paz mentions Latin America’s military dictatorships, most of which were propped up by the U.S. The U.S. propped up those dictatorships in order to keep collectivism from spreading like cancer, but military dictatorships and communist purges are both terrible options. And life in some Asian and African countries post-independence was sometimes worse than it was during colonialism. Then at the end of his essay he gets into some things that aren’t really relevant to anybody. He was writing before the fall of the Soviet Union. His assessment of history is great. His analysis of his present was less impressive.


24 Jul 2017

Rank #9

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Virgen de Guadalupe

Read Diane Douglas' article here: https://medium.com/a-remarkable-education/why-the-virgin-of-guadalupe-lives-in-every-heart-in-mexico-442e72aaea88 She wrote a series of great articles on the same website. Check them out if you have time. Other sources: Mexico: Biography of Power - Enrique Krauze Life and Times of Mexico - Earl Shorris


19 Jan 2019

Rank #10

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Fall of Tenochtitlan 5

PART 5 In Texcoco, discontent brewed among Cortes’ men. There was a conspiracy against him. The plot was to kill him and all his captains while they were in a meeting and then sail for Cuba. Cortes found out about the plot and confronted the leader (a man called Villafaña) and found a letter signed by about 300 co-conspirators. In the confrontation he took the letter, but told his men Villafaña had swallowed it before he could read the names. This strategy ensured that he could keep an eye on the ones who signed it, while at the same time putting them at ease. As a message, Villafaña was hanged. Cortes then used a full time bodyguard and slept in his armor at night. As spring began, a rumor circulated that an army was near Chalco, organizing an attack. Cortes sent Sandoval to drive them out. As Sandoval got closer to the village he sent messages advising the leaders to leave peacefully rather than die in battle. As a response, the Aztecs sent a hail of stones and darts. The Aztec encampment was at the top of a hill, which the Spanish stormed. The Aztecs sent boulders tumbling down. Sandoval was struck in the head during the charge, but his forces made it to the plateau, where the men fought to throw each other over the slopes. Eventually the Spanish won the struggle and returned victoriously to Texcoco. In response to this humiliating defeat, Cuauhtemoc ordered reprisals against the villagers for having helped the enemy. Twenty thousand soldiers marched against the village. Chalco sent for Cortes's help. When Cortes found out that that his men had left without ensuring the village's safety, he yelled at them and ordered Sandoval to return and defend Chalco. Before Sandoval could get there, though, the villagers had mounted a successful defense and had sent the Aztecs running. Cortes took this as a sign that the enemy was slipping and losing their control over the region. Sandoval returned again to Texcoco with 40 slaves, and, as they had in the past, the soldiers complained that the good-looking women had been hidden and kept for the captains. The Aztecs were interrogated and they told Cortes that Cuauhtemoc would take no prisoners. All the Spanish would be killed. Cortes decided to gain control of an even greater swath of Mexico, so he planned to circumnavigate the region and win more allies. They rode out, leaving Texcoco. First they stopped at a city called Chimalhuacan, where nearly 40,000 local warriors joined them. Later they came upon a hilltop fortress. The base of the mountain was about three miles around and the Aztec soldiers above, as always, threw stones and spears down at them, shouting insults. Cortes ordered his army to scale the face of the mountain. He sent about 60 soldiers up the steepest section, supported from below by rifles and crossbows. The Aztecs pushed boulders down at the climbing team. Bernal Diaz writes that about eight of them were killed in the attempt, having been crushed by boulders. Many of them were injured. All were extremely thirsty. After far too long, Cortes called off the assault. They hadn't had any water for the entire day, and when they went to sleep under the stars, they were “half dead with thirst.” The Aztecs in their fortress shouted down at them and played drums and trumpets all night. The next morning a scout found water three miles away. After the horses had been watered, they again attempted to scale the mountain, this time trying the more gradual slopes. The fighting lasted for about half an hour. Aztec women started waving cloaks in the air and making signs with their hands indicating they were willing to bake bread for the Spanish. So Cortes met with a few chiefs, scolding them for fighting, but saying that they would be forgiven since now they sought peace. He said that if they refused, the Spanish would wait until the men on the hilltop died of thirst. They all knew they were in a neighborhood, as Diaz calls it, with hardly any water. After the chat, Cortes ordered a few men to climb the hill anyway and check out the fortifications. He warned them not to take so much as a grain of corn from the area. When they got to the top, Diaz found boxes of things he thought would be sent as tribute to Cuauhtemoc, so he told his Tlaxcalan porters to load it up. When a superior officer saw this, he reprimanded Diaz, reminding him of Cortes’ words. Diaz said that taking the items in question would not violate Cortes’ orders, but he was outranked and forced to return the items. When they got back to camp, Cortes yelled at the officer for not letting Diaz take the stuff with. The Spanish army stayed there for 2 days. The wounded were sent to rest and recover at Texcoco while Cortes and his men continued their reconnaissance mission. Along the way they passed through Oaxtepec, which was famous throughout Mexico for its luxurious botanical gardens. It was a place built by Moctezuma's father (also called Moctezuma). Mexico's political elite vacationed there. Levy describes the city nicely and I'll quote him here so you can get a sense of the place.             “Cortes was received warmly. He found himself amid what were arguably the finest botanical gardens in the world. Resplendent summer homes sprawled over miles of spring-fed countryside; small streams meandered through the city punctuated by lovely ponds. Cortes was impressed, choosing to rest there for a day. “There are summer houses spaced out at distances of two crossbow shots,” he recorded for his emperor, “and very bright flower beds, a great many trees with various fruits, and many herbs and sweet-smelling flowers. Certainly the elegance and magnificence of this garden make a remarkable sight.” Diaz wrote that he had never seen a place as beautiful. Cortes and another Spaniard agreed that there was nothing so beautiful in Spain. After spending the night there, they struck out for Cuernavaca. (In Nahua, the Aztec language, it was called Cuauhnahuac, but the Spanish mispronounced it so often that they just renamed it, and the mistake became the new official name.) They marched for two days before reaching the outskirts. Cuernavaca was – and still is – a wealthy city, surrounded and protected by deep ravines. The only way in or out was via two bridges, both of which had been raised to keep the Spanish away. Cortes later claimed that if the inhabitants had put up a fight to keep them out, he wouldn't have been able to get it even with 10 times the men he had. Bernal Diaz noticed a place in the ravine where two trees grew on opposite sides of the gorge. The trees bent toward one another. One of the Tlaxcalan soldiers began climbing the tree. He approached the center of the ravine, and jumped. He grabbed a branch on the second tree and was standing on the other side a moment later. Others followed. Most who made the attempt got across unharmed, but three of them lost their grip and fell into the river below. One of them broke a leg. The army split up. Diaz and some foot soldiers crossed via the trees while Cortes took the cavalry to find another way into Cuernavaca. They found an alternate passage and fought their way across. Another group of cavalrymen found a dilapidated bridge and crossed it. Eventually all the soldiers regrouped. They faced resistance but when they got to the center of the city, it was empty. Almost everyone had fled. The chiefs apologized for having fought the Spanish, but said the Aztecs forced them. They agreed to an allegiance with Cortes who subjected them to the usual legal mumbo jumbo that the chiefs may or may not have agreed to simply to be spared an otherwise certain death. In Cortes's mind, Cuernavaca and all its people were now property of Spain. After Cuernavaca they headed north and back toward Tenochtitlan to the city of Xochimilco, which today is a borough of Mexico City. It was a town built on the water, somewhat like Tenochtitlan. It's a series of small, island-like mounds of earth called chinampas. As Cortes approached, the Aztecs threw darts and spears, retreating often and drawing the Spanish closer to the city. They fought across the causeway, experiencing a terrifying replay of the night they fled the capital city. Cortes was pulled from his horse, but the Aztecs who nearly had his life in their hands made a tactical mistake. Rather than killing him on the spot, and thereby dealing a serious blow to Spanish morale, they dragged him off for sacrifice. Seeing this, two soldiers – one Tlaxcalan and the other Spanish – hacked their way through the mob surrounding their leader. They saved his life, but a number of Spanish and allied soldiers did not survive the battle. Many were taken captive, to be sacrificed. Cuauhtemoc himself personally dismembered the corpses. Their limbs were paraded through Tenochtitlan and the surrounding provinces as a message: We are still in control and we are defeating the invaders. That night the Spanish took shelter behind a barricaded wall, pouring hot oil onto their wounds. The crossbowmen built new arrows and the Tlaxcalans constructed a makeshift bridge to get out of the city at dawn. The causeway bridges had been removed, so this was their only hope of escape. In the morning Cortes went to the top of the pyramid to assess the situation. What he saw must have filled him with dread. The lake was filled with warriors in canoes. They were paddling toward Xochimilco. A messenger ran to Cortes, telling him an additional force of 10,000 warriors was closing in on foot. Cuauhtemoc's army was making a play to end the Spaniards, who fought again to get across the bridge. They made it to land, leaving Xochimilco burning and destroyed. On April 18, after three days of continuous mobile fighting, Cortes and company got to Coyoacan, about 17 miles away. Can you guess how they found it? Yep, abandoned. From there, they continued the forced march back to Texcoco. On the way they lost two young pages and several soldiers in the fighting. They had been taken alive, almost certainly to be sacrificed. The army returned from their mission on April 22, 1521. The campaign had lasted three weeks and had left an unknown number of Tlaxcalans and Spanish dead. Nearly everyone was badly injured. One of Cortes's captains rode out to meet them. He had news: reinforcements had come. Fresh weapons, soldiers, and horses were in Texcoco. Furthermore, Project Warship had been completed and the men awaited his orders. They were ready to deploy. In Tenochtitlan, Cuauhtemoc met with his captains and military architects. He knew Cortes would launch several large ships against him, so he ordered the architects to build traps under the surface of Lake Texcoco. Thousands of canoes were to be improved: wooden shields would be attached to them, offering protection against arrows and bullets. The emperor wanted to mobilize as many soldiers as possible inside the city, but he didn't get nearly the numbers he called for. Tenochtitlan had already been ravaged by smallpox during the previous winter, and now the city was facing a food shortage. Cortes's recent campaign to encircle the Aztec capital had caused a number of villages to abandon Cuahtemoc. Without a constant stream of tribute payments in the form of food from these cities, the Aztecs wouldn't have enough to feed everyone. The problems of urbanization are eternal. It was planting season and a lot of the men who Cuauhtemoc wanted to mobilize as soldiers were farmers. Cortes's soldiers usually faced overwhelming numbers, but even the men who weren't actually soldiers – probably the majority – still had steel armor and steel swords. They also employed steel-clad dogs along with muskets and cannons. The Aztec farmer-soldiers set up defenses, digging pits in the ground, filling them with spikes, and covering the holes with planks and dirt. But the Aztecs did have some dedicated warriors. The most highly revered were eagle and jaguar knights. The eagle knights wore feathered helmets with large beaks. The jaguar knights wore the pelts of jaguars. Their heads looked out from the animal's mouth. These men had attained the highest military rank attainable. They got their either through birth or by taking captives in battle. As Cuauhtemoc made plans with his knights, Cortes made plans with his own officers. Fifty thousand arrowheads had been delivered to the Spanish by local villages. The crossbowmen made them into arrows. Blacksmiths pounded new horseshoes and swords and lances. The cavalrymen practiced wargames with the horses. On April 28 they held mass and watched the warships launch. But this wasn't battle yet. The ships performed training and test missions for three weeks. With every test, each ship was checked for leaks and defects. Cortes requested 20,000 soldiers from Xicotenga the Elder back in Tlaxcala and while he awaited reply the Spanish gathered in the town square. Cortes inspected them. He had 86 horsemen, 118 rifle and crossbowmen, and 700 foot soldiers. Some estimates, the more conservative ones, say that there might have been almost 200,000 indigenous allies as well. Those allied divisions gathered outside the city, and when they filed in, the train of soldiers lasted three hours. As requested, the forces from Tlaxcala had arrived, led by Xicotenga the Younger. But, on the final night before the assault on Tenochtitlan, he left. His father was gravely ill and he saw an opportunity to declare himself the new leader. Cortes viewed this as a desertion and ordered a group of Tlaxcalans to catch him and bring him back. When they rode into Texcoco with him as prisoner, he was hanged in the square as a message: all deserters would meet the same fate. The last part of the plan before the main assault was to cut off the city entirely. The Spanish soldiers were divided into four divisions that would move in on foot. One division would take control of the causeway at Tacuba while two more divisions took two more causeways. Once those three groups were in place, Cortes's division – the warships – would sail onto the lake and surround the city. This four-pronged assault would leave Tenochtitlan cut off from food, water, and trade. After hearing mass on May 22, Cortes gave a last speech to his men. He spoke about god and country and king and honor, etc. A crier addressed them on the rules of engagement. When all that was done, the ground division set off to take the causeways. It had been months in the making and had involved feats unprecedented in military history, but now – as the men marched to their destinations – the siege of Tenochtitlan had begun.


5 Oct 2015

Rank #11

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Why Nations Fail 1

Intro Before we get into today’s episode, I want to take a second to plug a pretty cool thing I made that can really help out anybody who has learned a little bit of Spanish and wants to go much deeper. It is the Mexican Spanish Master course. It’s 90 minutes of video lessons about Mexican slang, culture, and profanity. You can download the videos, the audio files, as well as the transcripts, and listen to the course in your spare time. This course did not exist when I needed it to exist, but it does exist now, and you don’t have to spend hundreds of hours listening to people say these words but not understanding them, and then slowly putting together a vocab list of new words that your teachers never bothered to tell you about because they were teaching you a generic international Spanish. If this sounds interesting, check out digitalnomad.mx and scroll down right below the email signup form, and you can join The Mexican Spanish Master Course. That’s it. Let’s get into the show. Nogales VS Nogales My research for The Mexican Revolution took me on several detours. One of those detours was the Labyrinth of Solitude. Another detour was Why Nations Fail. If I could go back in time to when I was 18 or 19, when I was deciding to go to college and thinking about majoring in Global Studies, which is the ridiculous Marxist version of Poli Sci and International Relations, I would say tell myself first of all not to major in Global Studies because it would be a colossal waste of time, and I would tell myself, “If you really want to understand global development, college will not explain it to you. You should start with two books. One of those books is Why Nations Fail. The other is Guns, Germs, and Steel.” In college I had to read a ton of irrelevant nonsense: Postmodern imbeciles like Horkheimer and Adorno, Foucault, and a bunch of other people whose appraisal of global development is so flawed that it’s honestly baffling to me that anybody takes them seriously in the 21st century. These two books basically took my Bachelor’s degree, threw it in the garbage, set it on fire, and then spit in my face. They showed me that my degree is EVEN LESS VALUABLE than a Gender Studies degree. I graduated with a piece of paper that’s worth less than Comparative Literature. But Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson, and Jared Diamond have at least helped me stop believing the total nonsense I believed in my 20’s. I can’t turn back the clock, but I can hopefully serve as a warning to anybody who’s thinking about going down the same stupid road I went down. Don’t do it. Just read the two books I mentioned. Why Nations Fail and Guns, Germs, and Steel offer arguments that in some ways compete with each other and in some ways complement each other. Right away in the first chapter of Why Nations Fail, they smacked me so hard that my face still hurts. The simplest way to understand the basic argument of the book is to look at the differences between Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. And then North Korea vs South Korea. The differences between those places are not explained by geography or culture. These are places separated only by a little fence, not by oceans and not by cultures. Just a fence. There are differences in culture, especially between North and South Korea, but they didn’t start that way. And those cultural differences didn’t cause the South Korea to win and North Korea to fail. Acemoglu and Robinson argue that the real determining factors in a country’s prosperity are its economic and political institutions. To put it in as plain language as I can, the countries with good institutions are prosperous while the countries with bad institutions fail. To be clear, Acemoglu and Robinson aren’t calling them “good” and “bad” institutions. I am. The language the authors use is inclusive institutions and extractive institutions. We’ll talk a bit more about those definitions later, but for now we’ll just say that inclusive institutions give people incentives to start businesses and to get involved in the democratic process, while extractive institutions either don’t incentivize people or they actively punish people for starting businesses. What I just said should be totally obvious. Of course there are competing theories, but none of them, especially the ones coming out of Global Studies departments, come even remotely close to reality. But there is a semi-competing idea put forward by Jared Diamond. If you’re not familiar with Jared Diamond and his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, he proposed a theory of global development that was based largely on geography. He spends 500 pages laying out his theories, and so I’m not going to even attempt to explain him adequately. But the basic argument is that Europe became a world power because they got a lucky roll of the dice geographically. His theory is very powerful and makes more sense the more you think about it. But geography is not the whole story. And this is where Acemoglu and Robinson come in. Jared Diamond’s theory does not explain, for example, North and South Korea. And it doesn’t explain the reversal of fortune on the American continent. What do I mean by “reversal of fortune?” I mean, why is Mexico so poor today if the Aztecs were so much more economically powerful than North American tribes before colonization? If Diamond were correct and geography was the main determinant, then Mexico would still be the dominant power in North America. Geography is extremely important, but it’s only about half the story. Institutions are the other half. So how did those different institutions come about? Why does Nogales, Arizona have different institutions than Nogales, Sonora? To find the answer, we have to talk about how Spain and England colonized the continent. (They did so in some very different ways.) We also have to talk about WHY Spain and England were able to begin colonization in the first place. Then we have to look at how exactly they did it, because their styles were very different. So first: Why did England become the primary superpower? The Black Death, also called the Plague, was a disease that ravaged Europe in the 1300s. It lasted about seven years and killed between 75-200 million people. At that time the estimated world population was 450 million. The Black Death killed potentially HALF the world’s population. Before the Black Death, English peasants had a bit more political power than the peasants of most other nations, especially the ones in Eastern Europe. After the Black Death, which killed roughly half of all the populations that it came into contact with, the English peasants were able to agitate for even more rights. In Eastern Europe, the Black Death only resulted in the government squeezing its people even harder. There were small differences in peasant rights before the Black Death, but the Plague was a critical juncture that each nation’s political institutions had to respond to. It was a turning point that made the relatively small differences between nations larger. The response of each nation to that critical juncture put each country on a somewhat different path than others. Some of the most important critical junctures in Europe were the fall of Rome, the Plague, the Atlantic slave trade, the colonization of the Americas, and the Industrial Revolution. Before Colonization of Americas Absolutism began to crumble in England, but increased in Spain as those two societies began structuring themselves differently in response to the decline of Rome, and then to the Plague. England and Spain were more similar before the fall of Rome, but they took separate paths as Rome fell. Same with the Plague. At each critical juncture, the societies drifted further and further apart. The nation of Spain was born in 1492 with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella. With that marriage, the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile became one. The Reconquista also happened in 1492, when Spain liberated itself from the Moors, the Arabs. And of course Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas and began claiming territoiries for Ferdinand and Isabella, who funded his voyage. In subsequent years, through marriages, their dynasty acquired more land in the Americas as well the Netherlands, Germany, and part of France. The Spanish monarchy was now in charge not just of the Iberian Peninsula, but of a multicontinental empire. The emperor, Charles, strengthened the absolutism that Isabella and Ferdinand started. The North and South American territories that Spain took were rich with gold and silver. The discovery of those precious metals strengthened the Spanish crown and led to even more absolutism. As the crown became stronger and more absolutist, the laws of the empire became more and more extractive, as Acemoglu and Robinson call it. By the year 1600 Spain was in economic decline. Property rights were highly insecure. Jews and Arabs were forced out of Spain and were not allowed to take any gold or silver with them as they left. Spain defaulted on debts in 1557 and 1560, and 8 more times in the following 100 years. The banking families who had lent money to the Spanish crown were totally ruined by those defaults. Spain’s colonization style funneled money to the top while England’s colonization style spread wealth much more broadly among the citizens. There was no free trade in Spanish America, and trade was highly regulated. For example, merchants in Mexico could not trade with merchants in Colombia. If the crown could not get a piece of the action, nobody could. This policy did nothing to help Spain’s decline, and in fact it only sped it up. Spain’s version of Parliament primarily represented a few of the biggest cities. In England, Parliament represented people in urban AND rural areas. This meant the English government represented a broader range of people with different and competing interests. As that power was spread more and more broadly in England, the people could use their influence to push for less and less absolutism. This obviously led to a virtuous cycle in which English citizens had more incentive to start businesses and innovate and create wealth. Spanish citizens had basically no similar incentives. In the 1500s Spain was getting massive amount of wealth ffrom Latin America. Spain was much, much wealthier than England, but the crown was spending its wealth stupidly and setting up future generations for failure. Official positions could be bought and sold, or passed down through inheritance. By the way, that system is STILL in place in some sectors in Mexico. You can just buy your way into an important job even though you have no credentials, or your mommy or daddy can give you their job when they retire. By the end of the 1600s England was growing and industrializing while Spain declined. The citizens of England had more incentive to innovate and to generate wealth than almost anybody in the world. And the nation prospered as a result. But this wasn’t because the English government was just more benign, more fair. The English didn’t colonize the Americas differently than Spain just because they thought it would be a smarter longterm move. They weren’t playing 3-dimensional chess. In fact, they originally wanted to copy the seemingly-successful Spanish model of colonization. Colonization: The authors write: “The Spanish strategy of colonization was highly effective. First perfected by Cortes in Mexico, it was based on the observation that the best way for the Spanish to subdue opposition was to capture the indigenous leader. This strategy enabled the Spanish to claim the accumulated wealth of the leader and coerce the indigenous peoples to give tribute and food. The next step was setting themselves up as the new elite of the indigenous society and taking control of the existing methods of taxation, tribute, and, particularly, forced labor.” Spain was richer than England at this time. England was a minor power, and suffering the effects of the War of the Roses. As such, England was in no condition to begin colonization when Spain did. But roughly 100 years later, England had recovered a bit and they were building up their navy. Spain tried to invade England, and famously the Spanish Armada was defeated. Spain’s navy was much more powerful, and they could easily have overthrown Queen Elizabeth and taken Britain as their own territory. But bad weather conspired against Spain, as did the death of one of Spain’s best naval commanders. So at the last minute Spain had to choose someone else to lead the attack, and the guy they picked was not a great tactician. The English defeated Spain’s armada, which opened up the seas, meaning England now had new trade routes and could really start colonizing. So by this time England was a latecomer in the colonization of the Americas. All the rich lands had been taken by Spain. They were left with the part nobody else wanted: North America. Unlike Mexico and South America, the indigenous population of North America was small and spread out. Spain took advantage of dense populations in their colonies. Indigenous slaves worked in the fields and mines, and a giant percentage of the wealth generated or extracted there went straight to the Spanish Crown. The settlers who founded Jamestown were heavily influenced by Spain’s method of conquest. They wanted to take the local ruler hostage and use him to force the locals into slavery in fields and mines. This didn’t work. The locals were not cooperative, and they didn’t live in huge cities like the Aztecs and Incas. And there was no gold or silver. So the English settlers were forced to work for their food. John Smith, yes that John Smith, was in charge of the settlers. He wrote to England asking for them to send more carpenters, agricultural workers, blacksmiths, and masons, rather than adventurers and dreamers. All the goldsmiths who had come were useless. He soon instituted a new rule, “He that will not work shall not eat.” That is perhaps the only thing that helped Jamestown survive the second brutal winter. Smith was working for the Virginia Company, which was losing money in Jamestown because of the lack of gold and free labor. So he was forced out of the colony and he went back to England. The guy who took his place tried to coerce the settlers into working. He told them that anybody who tried to leave the colony would be executed, anyone who stole food would be executed, and anyone trying to get back to England would be executed. But his strategy did not work. So the Virginia Company had to adapt. The Company decided to give the settlers incentives rather than coercion. They gave 50 acres of land to each male settler, and 50 more acres for each family member. Each adult male settler was given a say in the laws and institutions governing the colony. They saw that the only way to make a colony economically viable was to give the settlers incentives to work hard. Every time the English elites tried to set up a system that restricted economic and political rights, they failed. In Spain’s American colonies they were able to force the locals into slavery and ship all the wealth to Spain, leaving a few rich foreigners to govern the massive impoverished local population. The Spanish Crown won big in the short term but bankrupted an entire continent and screwed over future generations of Spanish citizens. Today Spain’s unemployment is around 18%. That’s almost as bad as Greece. For comparison, unemployment in the UK is around 4%. I said in Episode 1 of the Fall of Tenochtitlan that a huge portion of Spain’s wealth today comes directly from the colonial period, and that’s true. But Spain is also feeling the negative effects of absolutism from hundreds of years ago. End So we’ve seen the very beginning of the processes that put Mexico on a different path from the United States. In the next episode we’re gonna watch how the Latin American indpenedence movements impacted Latin America’s ability to join the Industrial Revolution. And we have to talk about how all of this influenced Mexico’s first constitution. Outro Thank you for listening to The Mexico Podcast. And again, visit digitalnomad.mx for the Mexican Spanish Master Course. Or sign up for my email list to get the free version. It’s up to you. How deep do you want to go with Mexican Spanish? You can reach me at brandon@digitalnomad.mx with any questions or comments.


7 Aug 2017

Rank #12

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Mezcal Dogma

Thanks to Alvin Starkman for his article. Check out his website: http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com/ The full article is here: http://www.oaxaca-mezcal.com/alvins-blog/-mezcal-and-dogmatism-in-oaxaca-harmful-or-just-blowhardism


19 Oct 2016

Rank #13

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Porfirio Diaz

Check out the new Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/mexicopodcast The 1908 article about Porfirio Diaz can be found here: http://www.emersonkent.com/historic_documents/creelman_interview_1908_pdf.htm


13 Jun 2018

Rank #14

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Fall of Tenochtitlan 6

Get the ebook on Amazon. THE SIEGE OF TENOCHTITLAN When the two combined divisions of Olid and Alvarado reached the city of Acolman at the end of May 22 (the first day of the siege against Tenochtitlan), fighting broke out among the Spanish. The town was deserted and there were strong disagreements about which division would get the privilege of spending the night in the nicest houses.             A soldier galloped back to Texcoco and told Cortes about the situation. Cortes sent a priest to read the bickering soldiers a letter of reproach and to order Alvarado and Olid to stay focused on the mission. Still, the men barely slept that night.             On day two they marched to another abandoned town and spent the night. The next day they stopped at another abandoned town. Then they got to Tacuba, also abandoned, and stopped marching. They had raided all the houses the last time they had passed through.             Aztec soldiers were already at the causeway. The Spanish could not take it without a fight, but it was near dusk and the soldiers stuck to Cortes’ plan. They fought minor skirmishes, but didn't attempt to win the bridge.             Even if they could have fought their way across, that wasn't part one. First they had to destroy an aqueduct that was Tenochtitlan's major lifeline. The aqueduct was heavily guarded and the fighting was fierce. Diaz says the enemy had better ground, but his people were able to force them to retreat.             The Spanish smashed the conduits, severing the capital’s access to fresh water. Olid then took his division south to Coyoacan, which was deserted. When Cortes got word that the two ground divisions were in place, he sent division three to take Iztapalapa, 25 miles away. They marched the full distance in one day, driving away groups of attacking Aztecs.             Cuauhtemoc barely put up a fight to defend the three cities that Cortes now controlled. He assumed – correctly – that he would need most of his men to defend against the warships. He consulted with his priests and then made special sacrifices. Two of the victims were the young Spanish pages captured during Cortes’ mission of encirclement.             On June 1, Cortes boarded his flagship, La Capitana, and sailed for Iztapalapa to support the ground troops. On a small island in the lake there was a communications post sending smoke signals to Cuauhtemoc. Cortes took 150 soldiers to smash it.             Twenty five Spaniards were wounded in the skirmish, but their mission was a success. They looked out on the lake and saw canoes racing toward them. They ran to their ship, ready for a fight. Cortes waited until the canoes came within two crossbow shots. He unfurled the sails. They caught a strong draft and sped straight at the Aztecs, smashing the tiny wooden boats and sending large numbers to flail and drown in the water. They fired volley after volley from cannons, splintering and sinking more canoes. The crossbowmen and musketeers did their work, too, and soon parts of the lake were filled with bodies.             The Aztecs realized that it was useless to shoot arrows and spears at the hulls of the ships, and they retreated. But for six miles the Spanish pursued them.             The ground divisions saw this and were emboldened. The soldiers under Olid pushed forward across a causeway. They finally drove back the enemy after Cortes arrived in his ship.             He disembarked with 30 men and smashed two temples. Looking out at the city he saw the lake filled with returning canoes, and he saw the causeway from Xoloc to Tenochtitlan teeming with warriors. He had three cannons unloaded off his ship and aimed at the foot soldiers. During the barrage one of his men accidentally lit all the gunpowder on fire and the resulting explosion was so forceful it sent a number of Spaniards flying into the water. But it also sent the Aztecs running.             An Aztec account recalls the launching of the brigantines: “The Spaniards now decided to attack Tenochtitlan and destroy its people. The cannons were mounted in the ships, the sails were raised and the fleet moved out onto the lake. The flagship led the way, flying a great linen standard with Cortes' coat of arms. The soldiers beat their drums and blew their trumpets. They played their flutes and whistles. When the ships approached the Zoquiapan quarter, the common people were terrified at the sight. They gathered their children into canoes and fled. They left all their possessions behind them and abandoned their little farms without looking back.”             The Spanish spent the night on Xoloc. They were attacked in the darkness, but the warships were close by and they repelled the Aztecs.             They spent weeks there, fighting every day to cross the causeway while besieged on all sides by warriors in canoes. They repaired broken sections of the bridge while pushing forward. By night they retreated to Xoloc while the Aztecs smashed the bridge.             On the Iztapalapa causeway there was a large gap, so the Spanish anchored two ships end to end, creating a makeshift bridge. They discovered that the Aztecs were using the Tepeyac causeway to bring food and water into the city.             Cortes’ plan was to leave the causeway open so that the Aztecs would abandon the city along that route, allowing his cavalry to run them down. That part of the plan had clearly backfired. He sent Sandoval with 100 infantry, 23 cavalry, 20 crossbowmen, innumerable native allies, and two warships to disrupt the flow of supplies. With that done, he hoped to starve Tenochtitlan into surrendering.             On June 10, they made a concerted effort to break into the city. They marched up the causeway, flanked by warships on either side. The project took until the afternoon. They got to the gate of the eagle, a massive stone structure that served as yet another layer between the protected Aztec capital and the outside world. On top of the gate, in the center, was an eagle statue. On the right and left sides were a jaguar and a wolf. After passing the gate they came up against yet another bridgeless span of water. So again they anchored two ships end to end and crossed the gap.             If you had been a citizen of Tenochtitlan before that day, your city must have felt impenetrable. It was connected to land only by long, mobile bridges. Cortes’ mission might have been impossible if not for the ships.             As the soldiers marched toward the city center, the Aztecs hid. However, in the main plaza was a huge group of warriors. Two Aztec priests ran to the great temple and sounded the war drums. It was a signal to protect their religious center. Again, I'll quote Portilla: “Two of the Spanish soldiers climbed the stairway to the temple platform, cut the preachers down with their swords, and pitched them headlong over the brink.             The great captains and warriors who had been fighting from their canoes now returned and landed. The Spanish, sensing that an attack was imminent, tightened their ranks and clenched the hilts of their swords. The next moment, all was noise and confusion. The Aztecs charged into the plaza from every direction. The air was black with arrows and gun smoke.”              The Spanish fired at will, but eventually they had to retreat. They had left a cannon behind. The Aztecs dumped it into the lake. As they retreated, Cortes’ men set fire to buildings so the enemy couldn't attack from rooftops anymore.             Cortes made it back to camp by nightfall. He got reports from Alvarado and Sandoval, whose divisions were across the lake. Their messengers told him about the fighting. They said the causeway at Tacuba was filled with traps – spike-filled pits. As the men fought to cross they were attacked from all sides. Cavalry was ineffective, so they relied on infantry.             Word of the Spanish foray into the center of the city rallied their allies, who now sent reinforcements, weapons, and food. Until this point the men had subsisted mostly on tortillas, but now they got shipments of chicken, fish, and cherries. The allies helped repair the causeways and patrol at night, watching for attacks. They built temporary huts for the soldiers.             On June 15, Cortes ordered another sortie. Again the ships supported the soldiers crossing the bridge. They fired at the defending Aztecs, causing many to flee and allowing Cortes to once again arrive at the Gate of the Eagle.  From there he ordered the allies to repair the bridge as permanently as possible.             Cuautemoc was dismayed by the enemy's weekly progress. He abandoned his current military headquarters and set up a new base in the north of the city, on top of the tallest temple, where he would oversee everything. Watching parts of his city crumble, he ordered his men to send up smoke signals to rally whatever allies he had left.             On June 23, despite Cortes’ orders to only camp outside of Tenochtitlan for safety reasons, Captain Alvarado grew impatient and tried to make headway by spending the night inside the city with half his cavalry. And, well, of course they were attacked.             The Aztecs engaged the invaders on three sides. After a short time they pretended to retreat... and the Spanish bought it, chasing them through the streets. They had drawn Alvarado's men into an ambush. The Spanish had come into the city on the causeway, but one part of it was underwater and the only way to cross was by wading through the shallow breach.             The Aztecs had filled the gap with warriors in canoes. They knew Alvarado would retreat along that causeway. A few minutes later, that's exactly what happened.             The Spanish retreated for the causeway, hoping to reach the mainland. But when they saw the water filled with canoes they took another route and ran into more traps. Several of them fell, horse and all, into pits lined with spikes. Several more were taken captive, while still others were bludgeoned to death.             Many of them survived by swimming across the lake, including Bernal Diaz, who crawled to land and could barely stand up. His arm had a large gash and he was losing blood, but he made it to safety.             Nearly all the men who survived were seriously wounded, and when they got back to their base they learned that Cortes was not happy.             In fact, he was so angry that he wanted to personally rebuke Alvarado, but when he arrived in his ship and saw how far they had gotten into the city, he praised and congratulated the officer.             The expedition had given Cortes an idea, so they now worked on a plan to make a massive push into the marketplace, where the Aztecs were gathering.             Cuauhtemoc was making plans, too. He realized the warships posed a serious threat to the safety of his city, so his men devised another trap. (Before Cortes had even launched his armada, the Aztecs filled the lake with giant spikes.) Now, as Cortes and his captains discussed a push into the market, Cuauhtemoc ordered an ambush against the ships.             A large number of camouflaged canoes filled part of the lake. The warship captains thought they were bringing supplies into the city, so two ships sailed toward them. The brigantines came to a shallow canal, and the men were thrown forward.             They had run aground on the spikes. The men hustled to dig their way out of the trap and as they worked, more canoes emerged from the rushes. All the soldiers engaged the enemy. As always, many Spanish were dragged away for sacrifice. The Aztecs were highly adaptable, using elaborate decoys and feigned retreats against an army that, apparently, fell for it every time.             The Spanish were growing edgy. Several captains lobbied to assault the city as soon as possible. Their men were soaked every day by the rains, and froze at night. They never removed their armor. Their clothes grew dank and foul-smelling. They ate almost nothing but tortillas, herbs and cherries.             The daily reconstructions of the bridges, followed by nightly re-demolitions by the Aztecs, was wearing on their mental and physical energy.             Cortes acquiesced, though he was wary of attempting an operation outside the range of the ships' guns. Nonetheless, he had a strategy: Sandoval's division would enter the city and lead the Aztecs to an ambush where Alvarado's division waited. From there the two divisions would move to the most dangerous and deep breach in one of the causeways and rebuild it, covered by six warships and 3,000 canoes bearing native allies. When that was done, they were to meet Cortes’ division at the marketplace.             I've been calling them “divisions” this whole time, and that might cause some confusion, especially for military history buffs. I don’t know exactly how many people were in these groups, but they weren't divisions in the exact military sense. There were probably closer to battalions or companies – smaller groups of soldiers.             Cortes’ division would split into three groups and gain control of three main avenues in the city. Cortes’ group would consist of 100 infantry, eight cavalry, and “a throng of allies.”             Andres de Tapia would command another group of 80 Spanish and roughly 10,000 natives. Cortes’ treasurer (yeah, treasurer...) would lead the third group, comprised of 70 Spanish and perhaps as many as 20,000 allies. They would be protected at the rear by eight cavalrymen.             On Sunday, June 30, they launched the assault. Cortes’ group moved slowly, facing near constant assaults. But the treasurer's group progressed quickly. But before reaching the marketplace, they were ambushed.             They had entered Tenochtitlan and came to a broken section of road. The gap was about eight feet deep and filled with water. They moved quickly, filling it with debris and wood until they could cross one man at a time.             When most of them had crossed, the Aztecs jumped out from behind houses and started attacking. They knocked a number Spaniards back into the water and jumped in after them. Cortes, not far off, heard the battle and charged in to support his men. Some of them were hauled away alive in canoes.             Cortes arrived and could only pull bodies from the water, watching the slaughter on the other side of the tiny makeshift bridge. Then, a group of Aztecs seized him and, like before, failed to kill him on the spot, preferring to sacrifice him instead. If the account of Cortes’ second capture is true, the Aztecs learned nothing from their previous attempt. Once again a Spanish soldier leaped into action and began swinging his sword. He chopped off the arms of several enemy soldiers. More Spanish soldiers joined the fight, saving Cortes, but costing another man his life.             Cortes’ bodyguard was there and called for a horse to take the Commander away from the battle, obviously understanding Cortes’ value to the Spanish more than Cuauhtemoc did. They got their horse and escaped. Back at camp they assessed their losses, which were monumental. Numerous lives had been lost, as had morale. Something like 50 Spanish died in the fighting as well as untold numbers of allies. But that wasn't all; nearly 70 soldiers had been taken captive and would inevitably be sacrificed.             During the battle, Alvarado's division had gotten close to the market when they were confronted by a large group of warriors. The Aztecs had tied together the severed heads of five Spaniards, which they threw at Alvarado. He ordered a retreat. The same happened to Sandoval's division.             From their bases outside the city the Spanish could see the sacrifice ritual playing out at the top of the temple. Their brothers-in-arms had been stripped naked and were being forced up the steps. Bernal Diaz describes it: “When they got to a small square in front of the oratory, where their accursed idols are kept, we saw them place plumes on the heads of many of them and with things like fans in their hands they forced them to dance before Huitzilopochtli. After they had danced they immediately placed [the Spanish] on their backs... and with stone knives they sawed open their chests and drew out their palpitating hearts and offered them to the idols that were there, and they kicked the bodies down the steps. The Indian butchers who were waiting below cut off the arms and feet, and flayed the skin off the faces. Their entrails and feet they fed to the tigers and lions.”             After the ceremony Cuauhtemoc sent messengers to villages in the region. The messengers showed the village leaders severed Spanish heads and told them that half of Cortes’ men had been killed. Native allies abandoned the Spanish in large numbers after that. It was now clear that the invaders could indeed be defeated. Cuauhtemoc had another message: Within eight days not a single enemy soldier would be alive. RECOUPING             The Spanish spent a week resting and healing their wounds, as well as filling in the breeches in the causeways. Every night more of their men were sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli. Neighboring tribes on opposite sides of the war were fighting one another. Representatives from Cuernavaca arrived, telling Cortes they were under attack and needed help. Although Cortes knew he couldn't afford it, he agreed to send soldiers. His men complained, saying they would be stretched too thin, but Cortes sent 80 infantry and ten horsemen. The leader, Andres de Tapia, was given 10 days to quell the uprising.             A tribe in Tlaxcalan territory faced a similar situation, and Cortes sent 100 soldiers and 18 cavalry. He knew it was a dangerous gamble, but he wanted to say to Cuauhtemoc something like: We're still kicking, we can send spare hundreds of men, we're nowhere near defeat.             Tapia took his company south to Cuernavaca, where his cavalry had the advantage on the open plains. The attacking tribe fled. Tapia returned to Tenochtitlan victorious and with native allies to support the ongoing siege.             Sandoval led the mission to Tlaxcala and was similarly successful. He returned with nearly 70,000 allies.             Cuauhtemoc's proclamation that the Spaniards would be killed in eight days proved false, and soon the warriors that had fled a week earlier returned to Cortes.             The Spanish got word that a ship had landed at Veracruz bearing gunpowder and soldiers (not to mention horses and crossbows).             The Aztecs were, by now, in extremely dire circumstances. They were starving to death. They had been stacking dead bodies in buildings to hide their losses and had dressed women up as men to make it appear that they had more warriors than they really did. They had even stopped trying to dismantle parts of the causeways at night.             An Aztec account states: “There was no fresh water to drink, only stagnant water and the brine of the lake. Many people died of dysentery. The only food was lizards, swallows, corncobs, and the salt grasses of the lake. The people ate water lilies and chewed on deer hides and pieces of leather. They roasted and seared whatever they could find and then ate it. They ate the bitterest weeds. They even ate dirt.             Nothing can compare with the horrors of that siege and the agonies of the starving. We were so weakened by hunger that, little by little, the enemy forced us to retreat. Little by little they forced us to the wall.”             Despite these conditions, when Cortes sent messengers saying he would stop the siege if Cuauhtemoc surrendered, the emperor remained defiant. He responded that his city would fight to the death.             Cortes then made the decision to reduce what he called “The most beautiful thing in the world” to rubble. He later wrote:             “My plan was to raze to the ground all the houses on both sides of the streets along which we advanced so that we should not move a step without leaving everything behind us in ruins.”


13 Jun 2016

Rank #15