Alfonso Borrego comes from the Indian Geronimo on his mother’s side. It is difficult to remain impassive when one attends one of his talks. He became famous for the vehemence with which he defends America’s Hispanic past while indigenist “woke” activists were tearing down statues of Columbus and the old Spanish conquistadors. Alfonso Borrego says no, there is no need to apologise for the conquest, it is the Indians who should “ask for thanks” for all that the Spanish gave them.
It is hard to resist his mixture. Perhaps it is the music of his Mexican accent in which English words are continually slurred, or perhaps it is that he is accompanied by some of the undoubted charisma – or mettle – of the Chiricahua, whose blood still courses through his veins. He wears black in contrast to his already white hair, with a native ornament hanging around his neck. Be that as it may, one day he realised that what they taught in American schools “about the Spaniards, how bad they were, the crimes they committed, it was all bullshit, lies”.
He is not a native acculturated by a pink legend. “I am an activist for my common sense, because it is the strongest thing we have. Where there were Spaniards there are Indians, many Indians, but many! -he emphasises with a Mexican accent. Where there were gringos, there is nothing left”. And then he begins his story, of cases, of things, of conversations, of sad journeys through the reservations. “All of them in the middle of nowhere, all with their casinos, where every Indian gets a cheque from the Washington government. It’s wonderful! But they make sure you’re not going to do anything in life. And my fellow natives can’t see that,” he laments.
And he recalls how Geronimo, from whom his maternal family descends (“my father was Navajo and many other things”), was not really a chief, but a shaman, a man of the highest dignity in his village, the Chiricahua Apache, whom “the gringos” humiliated by taking him from fair to fair until all that dignity was stolen from him.
Borrego affirms his conviction that “the Spanish shared everything with us, and the English did not. It is a story we are telling. It’s not good to forget, it’s not good to stay with a lie all your life”. That is why for years he has been in the battle for his vision, from the native peoples, of the importance of the Hispanic past in the United States. This is not an academic voice, but something grounded in tradition and experience.
He came to Spain two years ago and has now returned, on a lecture tour of Spain. “The reception of my lectures has changed a lot. It has changed tremendously. A lot of people are talking about it, writing about it. Before you didn’t hear much about it and now the debate is there. In Mexico, for example, I have fought a lot since 2013 and now my Camino Real de Tierra Adentro project is very active there.”
The project is overwhelmingly logical. Part of the Camino is a World Heritage Site, as is half of Chihuahua. But why not the rest? The Camino is the Spanish route from Mexico City to Taos and beyond, well to the north, he says. “I think it’s a political question, the gringos don’t care”. His best friend at the Mexican INAH, who used to debate every detail with him, he tells us, called him the other day “to find out if he had made it to the Madre Patria. That’s a breakthrough, something I convinced him, he’s my best friend in Mexico!”
“We’ve all been taught that the Spanish were the worst and nobody said otherwise, so you end up thinking it has to be the truth,” he says.
– When was the first moment when you thought: there has to be another truth?
– When I read about Juan de Oñate’s seizure of the territory. There the chronicler says that he takes possession of all the land of the North River, and he says, in the name of God, of King Felipe II and then he says: for the preservation of them and of us. So when I read that I thought: who are them? Them were us, the natives. That’s when I said to myself that there was a very different story….
– And how did it go on?
– You start to move with the Oñate’s expedition and you start to see the truth. On 20 April they reached the river. On the 30th they took the territory. On the third of May, the sergeant major brought two Indians, the first ones they met on the river, and they gave them clothes and treated them well. A few days later eight Indians returned, which is a sign that they liked the gifts at least a little. And they treated them well. It doesn’t say that we killed them and cut off their heads…. The next day 44 Indians came!
– And what does it say?
– That the Indians helped them to cross the river because the cattle had a lot of wool, so they wouldn’t drown.
The difference is that where there were English there are no more Indians. Borrego says it is very easy to see that now, because he has been travelling for many years, asking the elders of the different tribes for the stories, digging up the memory that flew with the wind of the old prairies and today is reduced to reservations, but no one has a reproach against the Spaniards other than the inertia of false education.
All these stories are frontier tales, dusty, full of meanderings and versions, sometimes myths and blood, the sad memory of peoples amazingly adapted to one of the harshest territories in the world and who ended up subjugated by greed, utilitarianism and the comfort of Washington’s policies.
“We celebrate the Toma every April, we have a symposium, a re-enactment of Oñate. But there is so much more, further north. The basis of it all is the Camino de Tierra Adentro, which nobody understands why only the southern half is heritage. From the Allende Valley in Chihuahua to the border and the US part is not. Puros huevones, the gringos. They say it can’t be done. How can it not be done if it can be done in Mexico?…”
Geronimo’s great-grandson weaves one story into another, back to Oñate, to the traces of atrocities that could never be proven. “I want bodies, proof, something good, and we paid for it! I only heard one, that Oñate cut off the right foot of every warrior in an entire tribe. I spent years talking to different tribes, the Mescaleros, the Jicarilla Apache…, until I found the descendants of those who suffered it, and it turns out that he cut off two of them, as an atrocious punishment, but not the whole tribe”.
And he continues: “I met eight villages after following several Apaches, who are nomadic and it is very difficult to find them, because you see a fire and when you get there they are gone and before they leave they erase all the tracks. But in the villages there were no recorded atrocities either. And I know that the Spaniards were not saints, they were armed people, but they didn’t systematically commit atrocities against the Indians, quite the contrary. There they sold me the marvellous rugs and I told them: the ones you made with the looms that the Spaniards brought, right?”
He reminds us that Oñate went with 120 soldiers, 500 people in all. Nine Franciscans and the rest families with children. It was not a party to go and carry out atrocities. Their mission was to populate. It was hard enough for them to withstand a few clashes. “Some people think they killed 8000 Indians and took 300 women as slaves. Who handled them? How did they do it? If 120 did that… you’re not worth fighting for.”
Alfonso Borrego’s Spanish tour concludes tonight. He has visited the Museum of America, where the collection has impressed him, although he reacts when anyone tries to impose a pre-emptive penance for the conquest of America. Then he went to the Thyssen, whose collection of American paintings he liked for their aesthetics, but from which he draws all the errors of black legend. Those peaceful Indians, who were massacred as soon as the painting was left to dry…
When his plane takes off on its way to the United States, Alfonso Borrego will leave something of that native gaze that brings us back to a shared history that is not easy to accept, in its complexity and its conflicting facts, but which we must see in a positive light when the descendant of that warrior whose name fills two centuries of history with voices defends it in this impeccable way.
We leave the room where he is talking to dozens of people. And before closing the door we still hear him respond to a guest:
– For the gringos the land was ours and so now it is theirs. But for the natives the land is the land, neither ours nor theirs, it is the land and it is everything.
The door closes, with a sound that echoes in some meadow far away from here, from Madrid, between the noise of the traffic and some brakes that screech like coyotes.