"You don't look Mexican."

From a different conversation, also in the United States:

— "Which part of Mexico?"
— "North-central Mexico."
— "From Chihuahua?"
— "Oh no! That's too far north."

I think no one in my family has ever been to Chihuahua. Sloppy directions perhaps. Perhaps he was thinking of the Mennonites (related to the Amish).1 To be fair, I've also been called a Mennonite by chilangos.2

Yet another conversation:

— "I was born in Mexico, my parents were born in Mexico, my grandparents were born in Mexico, 7 of my 8 great-grandparents were born in Mexico. The remaining one, from my father's side, was French, a peasant from the Pyrenees. He arrived after WWI."
— "What about your mom? Where's she from? [Expressing dissatisfaction with my previous answer]"
— "She's from a place in Mexico that is known to have received lots of European immigration in the 19th century."
— "Where?"
— "We don't know."

And I still don't know. I was probably wrong to emphasize the 19th century instead of earlier ones, but after having done a little bit of extra research, I must still answer back that nobody exactly knows. The origins of the inhabitants of Los Altos de Jalisco are not super well documented in excruciating detail (and why should they be? I would not like to be the guy in charge of tracing the genealogies of millions of people over an area roughly the size of Switzerland). That said, we can provide educated guesswork based on basic facts about the colonization of America, rough demographic estimates and the available regional historical research.

Los Altos de Jalisco (The Highlands of Jalisco) is a region of the Mexican state of Jalisco, which in turn is part of the greater region of El Bajío (the Lowland), which in turn is part of the greater central Mexican plateau. Yes, geographically it's a small bump within a bigger dent within a bigger bump. Yes, there's a moderate yet noticeable increased proportion of European-looking Mexicans3 (whatever "European-looking" is supposed to mean in this context) compared to other biggish regions of Mexico (say, bigger than a couple towns like Usonian-Canadian4 San Miguel de Allende or (the better assimilated) Italo-Mexican Chipilo, or a posh district in a big city or a hotel zone in Cancun). That said, I know of at least a couple regions in other parts of the country where genetic heritage is eminently of Western African origin, and I wonder whether they are getting as much interest from outsiders.

(Image "Figure ")
Figure - If you have ever seen one of those Valentina sauce bottles, you have been looking at a map of Jalisco, and at Los Altos de Jalisco by transitivity. Los Altos is the upper-right appendage.

The phenomenon diffuses smoothly to the greater Bajío and surrounding cities and states such as Guadalajara, Guanajuato, Aguascalientes, Michoacán and San Luis; and from there it fuses in a continuum into the North and its own historical euro-vicissitudes (may it suffice to say that the bulk of northern regional music is based on polkas and mazurkas). That said, I don't want to convey the erroneous ideas that European immigration has only arrived to these areas (far from it), or that this region is, like the Mennonites, rather isolated from mainstream Mexican culture. Far from it, as we shall see. Los Altos and their surroundings are grassroots rural Mexico: tequila and mariachi music originated there. I always disliked my maternal family's narrow-mindedness and nationalistically and religiously-driven ignorance. The inhabitants eat super spicy-hot Mexican food. Nobody speaks anything other than Spanish, unless it's English as a second language. Mexico's founding father, priest Miguel Hidalgo, was born in the Bajío and is described by contemporary and enemy Lucas Alamán as a "bald, brunette criollo of green eyes" (Alamán was of similar background and appearance himself).

So how and when did they get there?

(Image "Figure ")
Figure - Really, El Bajío alone is slightly bigger than Switzerland. Thank the Mercator projection and Google Maps for our distorted sense of country size.

The short answer is both mind-blowing inasmuch as it is banal: mostly from pre-Columbian Mexico and Spain, but more generally (I'm somewhat less confident about this) from every Catholic corner in Europe at the Late Middle Ages, and I really mean it: many corners in the Western Old World and its sphere of influence at the early/mid 1500s: from Southern Portugal all the way to the Christian Balkans and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, passing through France, the Low Countries, what we would now call Italy, Germany, Austria, and of course!, (to a lesser extent) Mediterranean Africa, Western Africa and East Asia (not only because of commerce with Asia, but also because of slaves arriving from places as far as Kerala).

(Image "Figure ")
Figure - Where in Mexico? These are Mexicans of about my age I've encountered over the course of my life: coworkers, friends, distant acquaintances. Certainly not extended-family or anything like that. It's not super hard to find them around El Bajio (and further north). Their position is based on their place of origin, as best as I could passively learn from interacting with them. As you can see, many aren't even originally from El Bajio proper. Two come from recentish migrations, say like Luis Buñuel fleeing from the Spanish Civil War, but they are far from majority. Only one of them doesn't bear Hispanic last names. I could also make similar maps for my Native American friends, my Asian Mexican friends, my Arab Mexican friends, my black Mexican friends, my mixed-race friends (which would probably include over 90% of the people from the previous maps anyway), but you get the point.

But first, there's something to say about those conversations above. My actual interlocutors may not necessarily espouse the views I'm about to denounce, but turning on the TV or engaging with enough people for enough time is all that is needed to realize these aren't exactly uncommon ideas.

People are amazed that blond phenotypes would come out of Mexico or any other place in Latin America and the Caribbean (except maybe for the Southern Cone). I am doubly baffled by their bafflement: On exhibit A we have Europe: an already intricate pluriethnic continent of complex intra-Old World interactions and more migrations than I can hope to name. On exhibit B we have America:4 the original and most durable European colony, the one which catapulted Western Europe to fortune (and I really mean all of Western and Central Europe5). The original American Dream: where Americans are thrown to the mountains and transmuted into silver (sometimes gold, as in Ouro Preto), which then flows from the mountains all the way to Vienna and London, as the Spanish and Portuguese go shopping around Europe and Asia, eventually fostering the more northern economies to the point of sparking revolutions, industries and funding countless wars in the meantime.6

But who am I to promote this view of history? Maybe the best I can do is to acknowledge that I am biased by birth, and to find clues in the words of serious scholarship. This is the sort of statements in the academic literature (anglosphere alone) I have encountered while looking up the history of the region: "Spanish America was so rich that even the colonies had colonies", "the first instance of a truly global trade" and "the first instance of a global currency",28 "the fertile Bajío basin[...] drew people from Europe, Africa and Mesoamerica. They built a protean capitalist society pivotal to global trade",7 "the new American silver in the hands of Europeans eroded the wealth of all the other countries in the world and allowed Europe to expand into an international market system",8 "one of the two most important events recorded in the history of mankind",9 and finally, "in many regions the Iberian colonizers and their descendants, and later European settlers, came to represent the majority [...] such as Antioquia and Caldas in Colombia, the Altos de Jalisco and other areas in northern[sic] Mexico, the central highlands of Costa Rica and Puerto Rico, and western and central Cuba".10

The real question is: why would anybody not expect all sorts of Europeans to migrate en masse to places like Mexico, Peru or Brazil under these circumstances in the early Modern Era? It's like completely ignoring the whole Afrikaners-British thing in South Africa and then feeling awestruck upon finding that Elon Musk is African.

Here's a more light-hearted rant by a Youtube celeb and fellow Alteña. Perhaps the only reason why they like us is because "we don't look Mexican", which I find problematic to say the least. Perhaps they expect us to renounce our culture and countries, because we look more "like them" and not "like Mexicans".

The cities of the Mexican Bajío. Do these look like relatively opulent cities from the XVI-XVIII centuries, even after considering that most of their wealth was being sent to Europe? ...That's also what European immigrants would have thought.


Zacatecas

Zacatecas

Guanajuato

Guanajuato

Morelia

Morelia

Querétaro15

Lagos de Moreno

Arandas
Guadalajara

The misunderstanding is exacerbated by Eurocentric narratives that dominate not only Western media, but also the world's "commonsense education",11 trying to retrofit grandiose and simplistic civilizational stories, where "white"12 is next to synonymous with "European" — or with Germanic-speaking countries and perhaps France, depending on how narrow-minded you are — and according to which the world since Christopher Columbus (or perhaps Marcus Aurelius or Alexander the Great) revolves around northern Europe and the United States. They call the shots for mysterious causes, or maybe they secretly attribute it to their racial superiority, which in turn entails that ginger-bearded, blue-eyed vikings should not exist in any significant numbers in second-tier countries. A country in constant economic crisis such as Argentina might as well be black.

According to this bichromatic understanding of "us vs them", "they" barely showed up at other places and if they did, they didn't like them enough to stay there (except, of course, the English-speaking countries overseas), because they have been always busy at home thinking about how to lift the rest of the world out of poverty with the wonders of capitalism, or some such nonsense. It is non-white people who want to migrate to their countries (probably ruining them in the process), it's not supposed to be the other way around (unless it's maybe fleeing nazis or religious minorities like the Jews or the Amish).

And of course, according to such simplistic view of history and Europe's role in it, southern Europe doesn't pass the purity test. I mean, as someone who has never been to Spain, this makes you ponder whether these guys also haven't. Or do they assume that every blondie they encounter in their vacation along the southern European coastline is also a tourist? If not, then imagine what that would entail for a country that was occupied (and created) by Spain for 300 years.

Two final strokes before talking about the inhabitants of Los Altos de Jalisco and El Bajío: this also exposes that, despite consistently being among the 10 most visited countries, tourists rarely immerse into actual Mexico, beyond beach resorts and one or two metropolises.13 I pity everyone who has vacationed more than a couple times in Mexico and never left the coast. Sure, there's natural beauties (beaches among them), but Mexico's strongest asset by far is its melting pot of culture and people: one of the cradles of ancient civilization, and one of the main scenarios of one of the most important processes in world history: the clash between Europe and America. Unbalanced in favor of European memes14 and (perhaps, in the long run) American genes, but an actual melting pot nonetheless: with quite different substances actually melting and actually transfusing to various extents on different fronts, tempered by 500 years of history. This is what being a Latin American country — a mixed-race country — means. European-looking Mexicans simply lie at one side of this new substance, at least insofar as their biology is concerned (or rather, insofar as phenotype manifests). Such a national identity might be difficult to apprehend for the United States, which maintained overt racial segregation well into the 1960s, and with ongoing efforts to rationalize and uphold slavery in the education systems of places such as Florida and Texas as I write these sentences, and whose military and immigration policies were, and still are, predicated upon bigotry. This is who we are nonetheless, this is true America, diverse and richer, whether we are recognized or not.

A myriad of problems face the Latin America-Caribbean region, but there are a few things it got essentially right from the very beginning. From slave-born Toussaint Louverture in Haiti, to well-off European Simón Bolivar in New Granada, Miguel Hidalgo in New Spain and José de San Martín in Peru-Chile-Argentina, to European-American Morelos and African-American President Vicente Guerrero also in New Spain: all of the major founding fathers in the region waged war under the banner of abolishing slavery and racial discrimination. This legacy is simply testament to the inherently diverse composition of a society that learned to look in the mirror from the very moment of emancipation.

Lastly, the astonishment I was welcomed with to the United States also stems from a painful fact about the socioeconomic reality and migration patterns of Latin America. This asymmetric and highly imperfect alloy was born with indigenous people and African slaves at the bottom, mixed people in the middle and then European elites, generally speaking. Even the persecuted migrants and poor economic refugees arrive closer to the top than indigenous people, by virtue of being comparatively richer. With only mild attempts at changing wealth distribution, as well as active efforts both from within and without to maintain the status quo, generational poverty has made sure to export certain Latin American stereotype to the United States, and from the United States to the rest of the world via propaganda machine.

You might say Latin America never gained independence, it simply got transferred from an overt Catholic European purview to a more covert Protestant neo-European purview; and in the case of countries like Puerto Rico and Cuba that transfer was quite literal. By ripping the continent apart in their insatiable drive for easy profit (the previous list is restricted to 20th century events north of Panamá, for brevity, but it only gets worse in South America), the United States and its right-wing sectors have greatly contributed to self-fulfill their worst nightmare: tens of millions of poor non-white immigrants. You might even want to split the blame for cases like Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua between them and Marxist drunkenness, to the extent that domestic authoritarian regimes are the only form of domestic government with a chance of surviving corrupting external intervention.16

All that said, the mostly rural people from Los Altos aren't exactly a rich group. Definitely not the poorest, but never morbidly rich. An important slice of the population emigrates to the United States,17 at least temporarily (often times, non-primogenital males, who are left out of testaments in order to maintain family ranches as big as possible). My own maternal grandparents moved to Aguascalientes to escape poverty (they remained poor anyway).18

Back to that Tequila-drinking, sombrero-wearing and ranchera-singing people (non)hiding in the middle of rural Mexico. As far as I can tell the genetic conspicuousness of the Alteños can be broken down into 3 events. In chronological order:

  1. Indigenous people and likely stronger genocidal tactics against them. These indigenous peoples are both local survivors (and often times, winners-turned-allies) against the Spanish, as well as the migrating ones who were already allied to the Spanish (Tlaxcaltecs, Totonacs, etc.). According to every single historical account, their native allies, arriving from other parts of Mexico, always outnumbered the Spanish themselves (at least before plummeting to harsh labor and disease), and in some sense they are the true "colonizers" of Mexico.31 30 Also, Spanish families and troublemakers who started exploring and colonizing northwards of Mexico City after the fall of Tenochtitlan and all the way until the early 19th century. This is the strongest and oldest European component. It likely included all sorts of people who might have inhabited Spain in the decades leading to and after the Christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsula: converted Jews, converted Muslims, neighboring Europeans, etc.30 31

  2. An alleged very early contingent of all sorts of European soldiers, who arrived to aid the Spanish fight in the protracted, yet crucial, Chichimeca Wars.30

  3. A putative (probably small) group of deserting and (from Mexico's point-of-view) fugitive French soldiers, as France withdrew its troops from Mexico in the 1860s to prepare for the Franco-Prussian war (and pushed back by the increasingly stronger Mexican Republic-in-hiding).

The actual conquest of Mexico (some of it)

(Image "Figure ")
Figure - Approximate pre-contact distribution of the ethno-linguistic groups present in contemporary Mexico (and elsewhere). Yes, the indigenous people of Mexico are more strongly related to the indigenous people of the United States' southwest than they are to the indigenous people of Central America (except Guatemala, Belize and maybe half of El Salvador19). Also notice that these groups stand for distinct linguistic families at the highest level of organization.)

If the conquest of present-day Mexico were a book, the demise of the Mexica (so-called Aztec) empire would only be the intro chapter. Just like the Inca in the Andean cultural area, the Mexica20 were a very late and young empire in the North American scene, and let's not mince words, guided by their most sincere religious beliefs, they were also a brutal one. Gods had to be appeased with constant sacrifice, so that the former wouldn't destroy humanity in cataclysm for the fifth time. Jesus' crucifixion to the nth power. Far from being the only country around, the Mexica were surrounded by both allies and, many oppressed foes: the Purepecha, the Totonac (of flying dancers fame) and their own Nahua cousins: the Tlaxcaltecs.

This fact is instrumental in rectifying another bastardization of Mexican history: the Spanish didn't quite conquer the place. Other indigenous peoples and smallpox did, with the Spanish functioning more as a catalyst. No matter how more advanced European military technology was, there's no way 600 men could defeat an expanding empire with tens of thousands of soldiers; and sure enough, the Spanish lost miserably when they first tried to steal some gold and run away.21

Having learned their lesson, they came back with a sizable army of Tlaxcaltecs, and to their favor, an unvaccinated smallpox epidemic arriving from Europe had brought the Mexica capital to its knees. But even this corrected view of history might be an understatement: according to the Spanish conquistadors themselves, the Tlaxcaltecs were this close to wiping them out, but they chose to spare their lives in order to ally against the Mexica. From that point on the Tlaxcaltecs would become the favorite Spanish weapon. They served as cannon fodder in future Spanish expeditions, they usually suffered the most casualties (they were most numerous to begin with), and they were given peripheral neighborhoods in the new European cities to both muffle raids and serve as "exemplary indians" to the curious ones (there's even indication of Tlaxcaltec soldiers sent to the battle of Cayagan in Philippines to fight against Japanese and Korean pirates and samurai: how cool is that).

(Image "Figure ")
Figure - The battle of Tototlán, as depicted in the Canvas of Tlaxcala. Notice the Tlaxcaltec soldiers fighting on the Spanish side.

Relevant to our case is the war against the Chichimeca confederation, which the Spanish were about to discover, after first meeting the Otomi and the Purepecha.

Previously inhabited by the Toltec civilization,22 and by the mysterious Teotihuacán civilization before that, the lands directly north of Tenochtitlan/Mexico City (present-day Hidalgo, Queretaro and parts of Guanajuato), were inhabited (and still are) by the so-called Otomi people. I think they call themselves ña-ñu or something similar: the Otomi are the northernmost group from the oto-manguean language family, to which the Zapotec and Mixtec civilizations of southern Mexico also belong, and with relatives extending at some point in time all the way down to the Pacific coast of Nicaragua and Costa Rica (all dead now, at least linguistically). The Otomi and other oto-manguean civilizations were already annexed to the Mexica Empire, so after its fall they decided to stay cooperative with its new Spanish managers.

If this starts to sound convoluted, buckle up! History is complex, the Mesoamerican landscape was complex (and the native American landscape in general).

West of the Mexica empire there was another advanced state: the Purepecha (roughly, present-day Michoacán). The origins of the Purepecha civilization are pure mystery. Their language, still spoken today, is an isolate. They had a completely different pantheon and more advanced metallurgy (copper and bronze cups, bells, axes, shields and needles were common). Based on this and some similarities in clothing, pottery, emphasis on fishing as well as their location in the Pacific coast, some scholars speculate they might have been in contact with the Andes.23 I don't think there's any naval evidence, though, let alone historic records (writing was only a thing in Zapotec and Mayan lands). The Purepecha had been defending themselves and repelling the Mexica for decades, but a bigger threat came in the form of Hernán Cortés' nemesis. Meet Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán.

After learning of the fall of the Mexica Empire in 1521, Charles V of Spain and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire started fearing that Cortés was becoming too powerful and might even try to challenge his power in Europe. After all, Cortés had disobeyed royal orders in sailing from Cuba to Mexico. Adding insult to injury, he then also defeated Pánfilo de Narváez, who was sent to chase him down. The Habsburg king had no choice but to accept Cortés and Spain's involvement in mainland America as inevitable, but he came up with another idea to keep things under control: competition. He sent yet another batch of Europeans, this time commanded by one of his favorite men and personal bodyguard: Nuño de Guzmán. Guzmán was asked to counter the expansion of Cortés and start a colony that would compete with his, while still subordinate both of them to the newly appointed viceroy of greater New Spain and the Spanish king: the kingdom of New Galicia with capital in to-be-defined Guadalajara. This also explains why Mexico City and Guadalajara have been Mexico's most important cities for most of the last 500 years, as well as their rivalry in things like sports.

Nuño de Guzmán was a bit of a scourge himself, described by many of his contemporaries as the worst scum to have ever landed on American soil. After spending some time in northern Veracruz, enslaving thousands and raising some eyebrows, he decided it was time to go looking for this whole New Galicia thing. Present-day northwestern Mexico sounded like a good choice, because he was convinced by the few psychotic survivors of the first European24 expedition to Florida and the Mississippi (again led by eternal looser Pánfilo de Nárvaez) that, west of the northern deserts, there were whole cities built out of gold; similar to the German expedition sent by Charles V to Klein-Venedig (Little Venice), otherwise known as Venezuela, where El Dorado was to be found. On his way northwestward, Guzmán encountered the Purepecha in 1530. Not satisfied with the king's warm invitation and golden gifts, and in imitation to Pizarro's treatment of Atahualpa, Guzmán had the king tortured, dragged by horse and burned alive. This was not el Dorado he had been hoping for, so the expedition continued north.25

North of those Otomi kingdoms and the Purepecha state be dragons: the so-called Chichimeca nations, roughly: Guamares (Guanajuato), Caxcans, Tecuexes (North/East Jalisco), Zacatecs (Zacatecas) and Guachichils (San Luis). "Chichimeca" was the Nahuatl umbrella term which the Mexica used to refer to them, rather condescendingly. It literally means "fierce dogs" and was used to mean something like "the Barbarians"... people outside civilization, Mesoamerican civilization. To the Mexica these were the actual barbarians: they had no crops, built no cities (maybe with a couple exceptions), wore almost no clothes, didn't practice the Mesoamerican religion, and as the Spanish were about to discover: more primitive actually means harder to conquer. Ironically, the Chichimeca belonged to the same linguistic family as the Mexica: the Utoh-Aztecan[sic] family which extends all the way to Utah in the United States (the southernmost branch being the Nahua subgroup itself: the Mexicas, the Tlaxcaltecs, the Pipil people of El Salvador,26 etc.). Once again, "Aztec" is a whimsical exonym anachronistically and retroactively chosen by a German guy in the 19th century, but if I change the language family name to "Ute-Mexica" or something like that, no one will find anything about it.

The Mexicas were the first to recognize this kinship: according to their own mythology, they had emigrated from Aztlan in North-Western Mexico many centuries ago (possibly Sinaloa or Nayarit), then moving and living in Chichimeca lands, until finally finding rest further south to fulfill their urban prophecy at lake Texcoco. Roughly speaking, linguistic evidence gives them credence.

There was a problem for the Chichimeca nations though: Europeans had arrived driven by greed, and the Chichimeca were living on top of the biggest silver mine in the whole world (if grouped together. Individually speaking, the Potosí mountain in Bolivia probably was the single biggest silver deposit in the world, before being half-transported piecemeal to Europe and East Asia). This is still true to this day, Mexico remains the largest producer of silver at about 25% of the world production, most of which comes from this region (or exactly north of it, like Fresnillo, after the original Spanish mines withered away). Current mines are privately owned by 2 or 3 families: the Baillères, the Slim, the Larrea, a bunch of Canadian companies, and similar rich-beyond-measure oligarchs.

(Image "Figure ")
Figure - The Rich Potosí Mountain of Bolivia (or what is left of it), deathbed of at least a couple million people during the colonial era. Europe had the courtesy of sending a UNESCO world heritage site plaque back, in gratitude.

From the Portuguese Reconquista to the Austrian-Ottoman wars

Historians are well aware that silver mining was the engine of the European colonization of America. The Transatlantic Slave Trade, invented by Portugal and Spain, only took off when it became necessary to cope for the dwindling numbers of Native Americans working in the mines, as well as the plantations to feed population centers.27 This is how important the Chichimeca lands were to Europe, even if most Europeans and "the West" never knew and will never know about them.

By the 1530s the Spanish and the Otomi leader Conín had already founded the city of Querétaro (a multi-ethnic city including Spanish, Otomi, Purepecha and perhaps Guamare families), as well as the city of Guadalajara, mostly by Spanish families who joined Guzmán. Yes, whole Spanish families. 63 families from all of Iberia to be precise, for the first batch. Many cities in the region, like Guadalajara, Lagos, Aguascalientes and Zacatecas proudly showcase the names of their founders at monuments and plazas. Moreover, you can go to Spain and read the royal decrees for the establishment of each major city in the region, making this claim very easy to verify. Unlucky Guadalajara however, it was never able to defend itself from the Chichimeca, who constantly raided, looted and set fire to the city and, according to European accounts, were happy to eat the people they took captive. To be fair, the Iberians had it coming, for they seem to have been first to attack the Chichimeca, trying to enslave them in the process; not to mention that, as every other true Renaissance Christian in the "civilized world", Guzmán and his people reasoned that Native Americans looked Moorish, that they infuriated Jesus by worshiping devils, and that they probably had no soul or a lesser one.

After two years of war (the Mixtón War: the first of the Chichimeca wars), peace was "brokered" in 1542, although my personal assessment is that the Spanish actually lost the war. Pedro de Alvarado (the same petty gold-looter from above's anecdote), second only to Cortés during the fall of the Mexica Empire, actually died in this war. Upon receiving the call for help, he and his men left the southern front in Guatemala, sailing and walking for weeks or months to aid their countrymen in Chichimeca lands. But even the reinforcement proved insufficient. The Spanish had to retreat after "peace was reached". The city of Guadalajara was relocated to a safer place in the more southern Valley of Atemajac, Jalisco (the original Guadalajara is a town called Nochistlán nowadays). The Caxcan leader, Tenamaxtli was sent to trial to Spain, where he defended his case before king Charles V pleading innocent on the grounds that he was defending his people. Guzmán would also eventually be sent back in shackles to Spain, after ruffling some Christian feathers.

(Image "Figure ")
Figure - Beatriz Hernández, one of the women from the 63 Iberian families who survived the Mixtón War. She is credited with choosing the place of current Guadalajara.

Peace would not last long, however.

Expeditions to the north discovered the Zacatecan silver in 1546, and all hells broke loose, both in America and in Europe. More cities and villages started to appear in the region for the purpose of resting and taking cover in the way back to Querétaro and then Mexico City: Zacatecas itself, Guanajuato (1548, which also turned out to be a silver jackpot, sometimes surpassing production at Zacatecas), and intermediary middle-points such as San Miguel de Allende (1555), Lagos de Moreno (1563), Celaya (1570), Aguascalientes (1575) and León (1576). Thus the Spanish treasure fleet and the Spanish Silver Route were born; whose final northern destination was Santa Fe, New Mexico.

And with them the Spanish Golden Age was also born, which only exacerbated religious tensions in Europe. Ever wondered where the name Philippines comes from? Philip Habsburg II (son of King Charles V of Spain and Queen Isabella of Portugal, husband of: Queen Mary Tudor of England, Princess Elisabeth of France, Princess Maria Manuela of Portugal, Anna Habsburg of Austria) never ran out of ideas on how to spend this money handsomely. In 1556 he decided to invade the Papal States. France intervened the next year, but only to be defeated, losing Piedmont and Corsica to the already Spanish-controlled Savoy, Genoa, Milan, Naples, Sicily and Sardinia. Construction of El Escorial, the largest Renaissance building in the world, began in 1563 and was completed in only 21 years. The Netherlands-Belgium impolitely opted-out of the Spanish empire in 1568, although war would last for another 80 years, when the Spanish finally decided to let it go. Under the command of his brother John of Austria, Philip II also oversaw the decisive battle of Lepanto against the Ottoman Empire in 1571. From 1583 to 1588 Spain participated on the Catholic side of the Cologne War. By 1584, Philip II was funding the Catholic side against the Huguenots in France. He tried to invade England and overthrow Protestant Elizabeth I in 1588, 1596 and 1597. Of course all of these were a prelude to the Thirty Years War, where something between 8% and 10% of Europe's population perished.

In summary, Mexico and Bolivia reluctantly funded the Counter-Reformation.

By the time the English and the Dutch showed up off the coast of Virginia and New York, the Spanish and their friends had already been living and building cities in Mexico (and in the current territory of the United States) for some 90 years (as if the hundreds of mighty cities built by locals for the last 3000 years weren't important or something). With the help of our Caribbean friends we could extend that number to 120 years or so. Heck!, before Cortés landed on Mexico, there already was a preexisting generation of shipwrecked Spaniards assimilating with the Maya and raising kids. Today, the downtowns of Mexico City, Querétaro, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Morelia, Zacatecas and the whole Silver Route itself are UNESCO world heritage sites.

(Image "Figure ")
Figure - A must see when visiting Zacatecas city is the Danteanly-named Eden mine, dating from the 1580s. Its partially flooded seven levels of European colonial history also boast a nice rock museum and even a literally underground night club.

This was life changing not only for most of the world (even China started using American silver coins as its own currency),28 29 but also for the region that came to be known as El Bajio and Los Altos de Jalisco in particular. El Bajío now was standing between the two most important cities of New Spain (Mexico City and Guadalajara), and half-way between Mexico City and the economic powerhouse of New Spain (Zacatecas). Food would be needed to maintain the population centers and many garrisons along the Silver Route. Los Altos and neighboring sections of Guanajuato (e.g. Irapuato, Salamanca) are exactly that food-producing region. There are many well-documented cases of migration waves arriving from Spain into the region between the XVI and XVIII centuries (both families and adventure seekers). Soldiers would be needed too, because the Chichimeca were still there. A militarized, zero-tolerance policy towards them was implemented, which probably translated into stronger genocidal tactics and forced relocation out of this strategic zone.

Europeans really wanted that silver.

Every society in the way of the Silver Route was exterminated or quasi-exterminated, but not without forcing them first to work as mitayos in the mines (or achichincles if they were children); because if there is something more despicable than robbing millions of people of their land and natural resources so that they will struggle for centuries to come, that's making them carry out the extraction process for you. This is most evident in the convex surface between Guadalajara and the silver-mining cities (which is another way to define Los Altos de Jalisco).

I am going out in the wild a little bit with this conclusion, but it's hard not to reach it once you put all the pieces of the puzzle together. The events are old enough and Mexico irrelevant enough and misunderstood enough to not merit further investigation. Some sources claim the Chichimeca were not destroyed, but "integrated". The material basis for this claim is the fact that the Spanish really had a hard time winning this protracted war (and indigenous ancestry is still clearly present, Chichimeca or not). I am skeptical. Look again at those cross markings in the map above, they stand for extinct languages. The Chichimeca patches are marked in dark red because evidence (small word samples from early Spanish sources) is only enough to establish their membership to the Utoh-Aztecan family, they weren't necessarily part of the same sub-branch. We simply don't know a whole lot about them, but we know they lived above Europe's trust fund over an area the size of Romania. The nomadic Chichimeca societies as such disappeared early, maybe in the late 16th century or early 17th century (historians mark the end of the Chichimeca War in 1590). For the Guamares of Guanajuato, the first Chichimecas who would have greeted the Spanish, I could not even find indications that their language was Utoh-Aztecan indeed.

You need to account for the fact that this part of central Mexico, the richest region in colonial Mexico, is not only very high on Euro-Mexicans but also devoid of the indigenous cultures that used to be there. As an explanation we are faced with a combination of mass European migration and genocide. The exact formula is a mystery, but I am extremely skeptical of the idea that it was all amicably worked out through assimilation. At the very least you need to acknowledge that there was officially a war between the strongest empire at the time and the Chichimeca for no less than 50 years, and that the whole apparatus depended on indigenous people working in the mines under near-slavery conditions for centuries to come. I mean, like most cities in the region, my hometown was literally born as a military outpost to make sure silver reached its destination at Seville, Antwerp, the Vatican or Manila.

It turns out that soldiers travel a lot.

According to one document published by the University of Guadalajara, for the Chichimeca War the Spanish Crown went as far as recruiting experimented soldiers and militiamen who had fought alongside the Spanish kingdoms in the ousting of the Al-Andalus caliphate from the Iberian peninsula (mostly Frenchmen), as well as soldiers from the Italian states, the Flemish, the Bavarians, the Polish-Lithuanians and Croatians who had been fighting against the Ottoman Empire in Eastern Europe.30

(Image "Figure ")
Figure - Imperial possessions of Charles V by 1544.

Hilariously, this also coincides with one of the defining cultural characteristics of Los Altos de Jalisco and El Bajío: they are rabid Catholics, more than any other place in Mexico (really). While the most visited pilgrimage site in the country is the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City, you wouldn't believe your ears as to what's the second one: a tiny town in Los Altos called San Juan de los Lagos. You place those Holy League crusaders in a rural context with the task of killing the Chichimeca, fast-forward 400 years, have an overtly anti-clerical government elected in the 1920s which starts prohibiting masses and priesthood, and the result will be no other than a Catholic uprising with epicenter at Los Altos de Jalisco, another religious war.

Plot twist? According to a note in Diario Judío (literally, "Jewish Newspaper"), the Alteños owe their peculiar looks to a Jewish community, crypto-jews and forcibly-converted Sephardic Jews leaving the Iberian peninsula for the New World. According to this theory, the reason why these Mexicans didn't intermix as much with indigenous people lies in the longstanding endogamic practices of the Jewish people.32

I think it would be almost impossible not to have some Jewish heritage at Los Altos de Jalisco, but basing the bulk of it on Jewish people sounds quite unlikely; not only because there's no evidence of any monolithic Jewish community arriving to the region (oh, but that's why the story relies on ex-Jews!), but also because, as a descendant of these guys, I don't see any indications of endogamy in my own family.33 At least not any more than the more Aztec-looking inhabitants of Mexico city tend to marry other Aztec-looking inhabitants of Mexico City, nor more than the Maya-looking people from Yucatan tend to marry other Maya-looking people of Yucatan. Remember, we are talking of a region the size of Switzerland with anything between 1 million (Los Altos alone) and 20 million people (the greater Bajío and its cities).

Of my 6 uncles, 3 went to marry Mexican women from surrounding areas (Celaya, Aguascalientes) and 3 went to marry Usonians (a native American, an uber-blond Wisconsinite and someone I know nothing about). Of my 6 aunts+mom, they married all sorts of Mexican men: from brown-skinned, indigenous-looking guys to more "balanced" mestizos, to the somewhat more Europeanized mestizos like my dad (perhaps of Tlaxcaltec/Chichimeca/Spanish ancestry on the Mexican side, based on no priors other than the history of the region and no known migration stories in the family outside the Bajío region).

This is not to say the place and my glorious saintly people have never indulged in racism, but rather, that racism is not more common among them than among other Mexicans. I also have small samples from two other families: a high school friend and my ex-girlfriend (perhaps I got closer to becoming an inbreeder?, at least judging from geography alone): both are the children of clearly mixed-race couples, with only one blondie parent born at Los Altos.

But maybe I should leave photographic evidence of the actual towns speak for itself: they are a combinatorial explosion of colors, except that Europeanish alleles appear more frequently than elsewhere (I failed to capture a black guy I encountered in San Miguel el Alto, clearly of Western African ancestry, having drinks with blondes at the local bar. Unlikely to be a tourist).

(Image "Figure ")
Figure - Jalostotitlán, Jalisco.

(Image "Figure ")
Figure - San Miguel el Alto, Jalisco.

(Image "Figure ")
Figure - Tepatitlán, Jalisco.

Jalostotitlán again.

Lost children of Napoleon III and the Austrian Habsburgs?

My dad, being distantly French, wishfully likes to think that so is my mom. He is not alone in this, many Alteños claim this nowadays (my mother's family doesn't, however). Nevertheless, once again when you look at their surnames, they are all super common Spanish ones (Ramírez, Jiménez, González, Gutiérrez, Álvarez, Fernández, Gómez, Ortiz, Martín, Muñoz, Moreno, etc., even some of possible Genoese and Arabic origin, such as Lozano and Medina) and very clearly coincide with the family names of centuries-old Spanish settlers. Moreover, no one speaks French, nor can I find clear linguistic influences upon the slang or pronunciation (I have tried to learn French as a third language, but my search for influences might still be too narrow).

Why would they claim that?

From 1861 to 1867 Mexico was a de facto French-Austrian colony, taken by military invasion and invited by Mexican conservatives (pro-monarchy religious zealots who had lost power to more Enlightened Mexicans, both in the ballots and in the battlefield).

Paralleling the rumors of the Liqian people of Zhelaizhai, China; legend has it that some soldiers remained in Mexico even after French troops withdrew, and they chose to live in Los Altos de Jalisco. I think it's perfectly possible that soldiers remained, in fact the military history at the end of the French intervention is compatible with battalions in the greater Bajío right before withdrawal, but the idea that most found home in Los Altos (leaving no genealogical or linguistic trace) and that that explains why there's light-skinned people, seems a little bit like another post-hoc explanation working backwards from conclusion: it would be edgy to be French, Los Altos de Jalisco is "mysteriously" white, therefore we are probably French. It should be noted that French culture had a very high standing in Mexico at the turn of the century (the Porfirian Era, yes, exactly after it had invaded the country), providing possible incentives for locals to come up with such a foundational myth.

There are many well-documented instances of French migration to other parts of Mexico (Veracruz, Mexico City), but Los Altos is not one of them. As a popular anecdote told by some Alteños themselves, it's been documented in the press a number of times, but that's not the same as more serious scholarly work. Here's what another hearsay attributed to an elder who lived in Los Altos during the time (Valente Lozano Medina) has to say:

"...People mistrusted them [the French soldiers]. I don't think they stayed for more than a year, since they left little by little, because they didn't have enough food. Some were very pretentious while others did understand people and respect them a lot. They left some kids around, but not many."

If taken as representative, that would mean there's some truth to the story but it was overblown, when in fact they were but a handful of individuals trying to integrate into a pre-existing society,34 scratching their heads and wondering how to fit with people they were never told about.


  1. An Anabaptist group from Lower Germany and the Netherlands which arrived in northern Mexico in the 1920s, invited by racist government policies to "whiten" the population and inhabit sparse areas (an artificial problem created after having killed most of the natives of northern Mexico). 

  2. Mexico City being sort of a big bubble with only 1-way interactions with the rest of the country, and therefore great levels of ignorance about it. 

  3. "Whitexicans" is a neologism enjoying momentum, usually for mildly derogatory purposes. I find it funny nonetheless. 

  4. Not that I want to be the language police, but by popular demand (demands to stop using "American" to refer to myself and all things from the American continent(s)), on a different occasion we will be concerned with explaining why the current demonym of the United States is a dumb historical mistake (no different from dropping the "Latin" from "Latin America"), not to mention incoherent according to basic set theory, and why I'd rather use monosemic terms like "Usonian". 

  5. According to historian Roland Mousnier, American silver ended up as follows (using contemporary country names for simplicity): 33% in the Netherlands, 25% in France, 20% in Italy, 10% in England, 7% in Germany and only 5% in Spain. That's before considering British and French piracy. (Roland Mousnier. Histoire générale des civilisations, Tome IV: Les XVIe et XVIIe siècles). 

  6. This is not to say run-of-the-mill Europeans were living like kings at the expense of colonies. Poverty remained rampant in Europe all the way until the 20th century, when democratic socialism kicked in to make better use of the world's wealth. 

  7. John Tutino. Making a new world: founding capitalism in the Bajío and Spanish North America. Duke University Press. 2011 

  8. Jack Weatherford. Indian givers: How the Indians of the Americas transformed the world. Ballantine Books. 2010 

  9. Adam Smith. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, volume 2. 1776. I'm being somewhat misleading here. In the passage, Smith was talking about the Columbian Exchange and the ensuing Price Revolution in general. He probably had no idea of where exactly in the New World all that wealth was coming from. 

  10. José Moya. The Oxford Handbook of Latin American History. Oxford University Press. 2010 

  11. And I am the first to admit that, to this day, I have not alleviated my deficiencies when it comes to knowing the history of continents other than Europe and mine. 

  12. I try not to think in those terms, yet the article has to acknowledge them in order to talk about them. Racial categories are social constructs with no basis on any biological reality, they have only served to create confusion and problems such as the ones this article tries to expose. Whatever the true evolutionary differences between human groups are, "white" or "European" certainly are not valid distinctions. 

  13. To be fair, those who have visited or heard of Guadalajara are quick to assign it as my birthplace, which isn't far off. 

  14. On a different installment I might focus on criticizing how Latin America is similarly excluded from "Western culture" because of non-cultural traits such as money and race, and even though Western culture replaced most aspects of native cultures. Notable exceptions to the Western rule of Latin America are food and music, where European contributions are kind of co-protagonist (but you might say the glorious culinary achievements of Coca-cola and Starbucks have a higher influence these days), but then again, syncretism is also true of the music of the United States. In any case, as with race, we must also avoid the antithetic Medievalesque caricature of there being such a thing as pure and distinct cultures. E.g: what would European food be without tomatoes, chocolate, potatoes, tea, coffee and spices? And just as there's no such thing as pure-breed European food, there would be no Western culture in the absence of Jewish religion, Islamic scholars, African musicians, Indian numerals, etc. But even this is just a summary description, not a prescription. We shouldn't want to belong to any club which doesn't want us as members. Whatever we are, strive not to please external perceptions, but to enjoy ourselves. Lest we end up like our Anglo friends who, intoxicated by their own farts, reach adulthood thinking that Plato and Michelangelo were carved to their image. 

  15. The gold-plastered interior of the church of St. Rose of Viterbo. Since it shares last name with Beatriz Viterbo, Borges' "El Aleph" probably referenced this church when talking about "seeing a west in Querétaro that seemed to reflect a Bengal rose". 

  16. A quick note to fellow Latin Americans agreeing with my previous geopolitical assessment, yet stretching it to the wrong conclusion: None of the above is to say the solution is to be found in an even more draconian empire coming from China or Russia, with patent histories of abuse and oppression in their own vicinities. I would rather have strength come from within, from regional union of the Patria Grande to the image of contemporary Europe: be it Mercosur, CELAC or anything else... this needs to be worked on at multiple spatial grains. The weaker the countries, the quicker they should be putting unification in their agendas, and avoid the temptation of out-competing the immediate neighbors by siding with the abusive criminal in this story. Central America, I am looking at you. You already were a single country for most of the last 500 years, there's no excuse. 

  17. By the way, it was the United States government who started the now-controversial pattern of Mexican migration (see Bracero Program). The U.S. officially imported around 5 million Mexican workers from 1942 to 1964 to cover up its domestic vacancies during and after World War II. For comparison, today there's an estimate of 10 million Mexican-born immigrants in the United States. 

  18. Which is not to say people are miserable. Quite on the contrary. Believe it or not, most societies outside the United States and closely related countries don't revolve around money as much (which probably explains why they don't prey on other societies as much anymore). After my appearance and nationality, the second most annoying kind of comment I get are tacit assumptions that I'm here for a better life, that I'm desperate to marry a sugar momma and get a new nationality, or that I should be glad to work hard here even in the absence of a salary because I don't want to go back or something (as opposed to my genuine interest in science). I won't deny the morbid consumerism and opulence aren't eye-grabbing on first impression, but the glitter fades away after a few months, once you recognize it for what it is: a plastic facade to an empty culture. 

  19. The Pipil language is on the brink of extinction too. 

  20. Pronounced MEH-SHEE-CAH, like the Portuguese "Xico" or the Catalan "Xavi", which does not imply "Mexico" or "Mexican" are pronounced with an SH sound in Spanish. SH being absent from their phonology, the best the Spanish could come up with was to throw an 'X' at every weird sound they encountered, which back in the time would be read back as HA, HEH, HEE, et cetera (as in the Greek letter χ), by Spaniards encountering the written words without a notion of the sound that it was supposed to represent. Words like "Mexico" still retain this orthography and the Medieval Spanish (mis)pronunciation: MEH-HEE-CO, although contemporary Spaniards complain that it should be spelled "Mejico" to match current ortography rules (for instance, Xalisco did change to Jalisco. Texas started to change to Tejas too, but apparently the process shut after Usionians stole it at gunpoint). Needless to say, this ignores the history of their own national language and the choices and impositions of previous Spaniards upon previous Mexicans and toponymics. 

  21. Just to be clear, those ~600 men did have brutal military campaigns under their belt in the New World, including the massacre at the peripheral city of Cholula. 

  22. The direct ancestors of the Mexica according to the Mexica themselves, with some cultural influence in the late Mayan world too. 

  23. This is a serious phylogenetic hypothesis, just like the Dené-Yenisean hypothesis. Not to be confused with the tabloid-like ideas and Sunday service talk about Olmec heads being African, or native Americans being the lost tribe of Israel, or apostle James making appearances in the form of Quetzalcoatl. 

  24. An Iberian-African-Italian expedition, to be precise. 

  25. Actually, the expedition detoured to the coast before reaching Chichimeca lands. Compostela (Nayarit), Tepic (Nayarit) and Culiacán (Sinaloa) were the next cities to be founded, around 1530 and 1531. 

  26. Pipil people, Pipil people, Pipil people... say it out loud, it's funny. 

  27. Actually, American Spanish (with the exception of Chilean and Rioplatense dialects) is almost identical to African Spanish (Equatorial Guinea, Canary Islands), and more distant to European Spanish. Few Spanish speakers are aware of this. 

  28. Salvatore Babones. The Silver Way Explains How the Old Mexican Dollar Changed the World. The National Interest. 2017. 

  29. Adolfo Arranza, Marco Hernández. Cómo la plata cambió al mundo. South China Morning Post. 2018. 

  30. César Pérez Ortiz, Eliseo López Cortés. Etnografía situacional de la memoria histórica de la región de Los Altos de Jalisco, México. Universidad de Guadalajara. 2008. 

  31. Julio Ríos. Los Altos, región mestiza. La Gaceta de la Universidad de Guadalajara. 2014. 

  32. Presencia judía en Los Altos de Jalisco. Diario Judio. 2011. 

  33. I have nothing but disdain for anti-Semites, but after explaining that I'm neither a Mennonite nor the grandchild of nazis, I must also explain I'm not Jewish. I am named "Isaac" after Isaac Newton. My other name, "David", has been in the family for some generations, because someone thought it would be funny to pair our last name "Reyes" (Spanish for "Kings", originally an Arabic word) with Biblical kings; but as far as I can see, my ancestors were all Christians and neither my parents nor my siblings have Hebrew names (not that I care either way, I'm an atheist). The other last name, "González", is a well-known Spanish last name of Germanic origin. You see, such is the diversity of Spain and its former colonies, and the people of Latin America are allowed to enjoy world culture when naming their kids. 

  34. Juan Francisco Romero Pérez. Tepatitlán y la intervención francesa. Boletín 12 del Archivo Histórico de Tepatitlán.