En español | Rubén Martínez says even though When Worlds Collide, the PBS documentary he co-wrote and hosted, is primarily about the first 100 years of Spanish colonialism in the Americas, it is startlingly relevant because of the current debate over immigration. “Immigration might seem slightly afield from the themes of the documentary,” he says, “but what we’re talking about is the long road that the immigrants in the United States today have been on over the last several centuries in terms of their cultural and political heritage.”
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Martínez, a professor at Loyola Marymount University and author of Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail, travels all over the Spanish-speaking world to illustrate how the collision changed everything: from food to monetary issues, from religion to the creation of the mestizo race. Despite the widespread impact, the story begins and ends literally at home.
Q. When Worlds Collide opens and closes with you pushing your twin daughters in a stroller through a Los Angeles park. Why?
A. We decided to begin and end in L.A. because everything we are talking about has a literal presence or symbolic echo on the streets of L.A. and other cities. In the southwestern United States, we have a long history of contact here between Americans and Latin Americans, and that has not become a part of our national conversation. That story is barely beginning to become part of the national story. The discussion of Latin American history is talking about deep American history; the Spanish Empire was here before the British Empire.
Q. What are the best and worst things that the Spanish colonists did in the New World?
A. The greatness of Latin American music today obviously wouldn’t have happened without the guitar coming over. They were called lutes then. This whole new cultural expression resulted, even though at the same time there was all this death and disease, all this untold suffering. The worst? “La Quemada,” the burning of all the indigenous cities, the physical destruction of a culture and history. The scale with which the Spanish did that was astonishingly brutal.
Q. What was the most important concept or artifact that the Old World gave the New? That the New World gave the Old?
A. From the Old World to the New, the Church. It was an omnipresent institution in Spanish life at that time. [The Spanish] imposed this other order [on] the old indigenous culture, which was pantheistic. There were so many Catholic saints, the indigenous could pick and choose among them. What was a brutal imposition on one hand, of a foreign religion, [the indigenous] could make their own.
From the New World to the Old, the great literature that Latin America gave back to Europe and the world after the conquest. The Spanish we speak is not the Spanish of Spain. We gave them back their language, filled with new words, rhythms and meanings. There was a linguistic revolution that happened after the conquest. Latin America took in the great Spanish romantic tradition, and we gave back to Spain some fantastic poetry and literature, and that continues into today.
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