Plundered: An Introductory Excerpt from McSweeney’s #65

January 5, 2022 | 9 min read

America has endured five hundred years of plundering. Exactly five hundred years ago, after almost two years of relentless warfare, the largest city in America fell to European dominion. The great Tenochtitlán—now the historic center of Mexico City—was seized in 1521 by Hernán Cortés and his men, who had disembarked on Mexican shores following a rumor, spread by Christopher Columbus almost three decades earlier, of abundant stores of gold in the “new” continent. Before the Spaniards attacked Tenochtitlán, the Mexica emperor Moctezuma had given Cortés a map drawn on a piece of nequen, detailing all the rivers running north of the city where gold dust was regularly collected. Once he was sure there was gold in the region, Cortés proceeded to invade Tenochtitlán, imprison Moctezuma, and sack the Mexica treasury.

Similarly, in 1532, Francisco Pizarro and his men ambushed and held for ransom the Inca ruler Atahualpa, who controlled modern-day Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and parts of Chile, Colombia, and Argentina. To buy his freedom, Atahualpa filled one large room with golden artifacts and two with silver. Metals had been crafted in the region for at least three thousand years prior to the arrival of the Europeans, so by the time Pizarro arrived, the Incas were making highly complex artwork with gold, such as miniature gardens that simulated earth with gold granules, gold figures of men, llamas, and corn stalks. Oblivious to their craftsmanship, Pizarro’s men melted the artifacts that Atahualpa surrendered, cast them into neat rectangular bars, and sent them back to Spain. Atahualpa, in return, was not granted his freedom. He was tortured, forcibly converted to Catholicism, baptized “Francisco” after the conqueror, and publicly strangled.

The stories continue. There is Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who in 1540 led an expedition to modern-day Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas, feverishly looking for the (non-existent) “Seven Cities of Gold.” There is Nuño de Guzmán and his nephew Diego de Guzmán, voracious slave raiders, who instituted a system of slave trade across Mexico in the 1520s. Nuño de Guzmán later tortured the Tarascan leader Tangaxuan II to get him to reveal the supposed secret locations of stores of gold in what is now Michoacán. There was no gold, and Tangaxuan II was dragged by a horse through the streets and burned alive in 1530. He also was baptized “Francisco” before being killed

Always gold, always what they wanted back in Spain was gold. And if not gold, then silver. Between 1500 and 1650, the Spaniards extracted 181 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver from America. In return, they brought a mixed bag: smallpox, horses, the Spanish language, Catholicism, Cervantes, guns. They brought a new economy too: one based on mining, indentured servitude, and slavery on a scale never before seen on the continent. Between 1525 and the late 1800s, more than 5 million Indigenous Americans and more than 12.5 million Africans were enslaved—in mines and, later, in agriculture.

coverWhen it was no longer silver or gold, it was sugar. Columbus had brought sugar to the Caribbean, to what is today Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and the plant, a grass, grew quick and bountifully. Sugar—or “white gold,” as it was called—was highly coveted in Europe, and the increasing demand led to a rapid mass systematization of indentured servitude and to the consolidation of slavery across the continent. This system expanded in successive waves as new crops joined the market, and schooners, galleys, and naval ships triangled across the Atlantic—between Africa and America, and from America to Europe. After sugar came tobacco, coffee, cacao, and cotton. As Eduardo Galeano writes in Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, a book that is fifty years old yet still entirely current: “The more coveted by the global market, the larger the misfortune that a product brings to the Latin American people who, with their sacrifice, have to produce it.” Indeed, now that avocados have become the “green gold” Mexico exports to the United States, generating nearly three billion dollars in revenue per year, farmers in the state of Michoacán are being murdered, extorted, or displaced by drug cartels, often in concert with government officials and international captains of industry, secure in their impunity.

Across America, from the northern prairies to the southern pampas, land was grabbed, claimed, and partitioned into brutal ways of producing: latifundios, ingenios, haciendas, plantations. And later partitioned, also, into ruthless ways of belonging and excluding: settlements, reservations, and later, in the cities, favelas, solares, tugurios, projects. During the colonial period in America, the particular ways in which European powers usurped land, settled it (such a dainty word for such a violent act), and managed it differed in detail but not in essence. The Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, and Spanish all enslaved and exploited in order to extract whatever the land yielded.

As European power began to wane and the former colonies gained independence, a new power took hold, reproducing many of the old mechanisms and systems. As early as 1891, in his seminal essay “Our América,” José Martí heralded the arrival of the United States as the new colonizing force that would take the seat left empty by the European powers. Referring to “our América,” or the Latin portion of the continent, he writes: “The hour is near when she will be approached by an enterprising and forceful nation that will demand intimate relations with her, though it does not know her and disdains her.” And, of course, he was right. In 1898, the United States took over Cuba; the following year it took over Puerto Rico and still has not let go; 1899 also marked the founding of the United Fruit Company, the still-existing corporation (now Chiquita) through which the category of the “banana republic” came into being. (To the Latin American ear, the liberality with which the term banana republic is still dispensed by news anchors, politicians, and journalists in the United States is, to say the least, ironic: they seem to disdain the mess they themselves created.)

coverThe United Fruit Company monopolized not only the fruit trade in Central America but also the management of basic services in the region: the electricity, post office, telegraph, telephone, railroads, and maritime routes. It took control, as well, of the political administration of the countries themselves, meddling in all domestic affairs. Neruda writes in Canto General (as translated by Jack Schmitt): “When the trumpet sounded / everything was prepared on earth, / and Jehovah gave the world / to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda, / Ford Motors, and other corporations. / The United Fruit Company / reserved for itself the most juicy piece, / the central coast of my world.” Meanwhile, the plundering continued north of the Rio Bravo as well: treaties regarding Indigenous lands were routinely ignored; residential schools stole children from their families as part of a “civilizing” project. And then there was the concatenation of horrors known as the Jim Crow laws (and their less codified afterlives).

The US stronghold in Central America continued through the twentieth century, with administrations successively funding military dictatorships and civil wars. There was, for example, the 1954 coup d’état against Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala—backed by the CIA at the urging of the United Fruit Company—which destabilized democracy in the country and led to thirty-six years of civil war and genocide that took more than two hundred thousand lives, predominantly of Mayan peoples. In this same period, from 1979 to 1992, the Carter and Reagan administrations funded a long and ruthless civil war in El Salvador, during which the military-led government relentlessly massacred left-wing opposition groups and civilians alike. Around one-fifth of the population of El Salvador had to flee the country. The aftershocks of these interventions come, still today, in waves of displaced adults and children who now seek asylum in the United States, and upon arrival are locked up in camps, shelters, detention centers, and cages.

US interventions did not stop at the Panama Canal but extended into the Southern Cone. One of the most well-known instances is the US-backed Chilean coup d’état against Salvador Allende, who had nationalized US-owned copper mines in Chile. Aided by the CIA, on September 11, 1973, Chilean troops seized the seat of government, Allende took his own life as the soldiers stormed his office, and Augusto Pinochet began a vicious dictatorship that would loom over Chile for the next seventeen years. The coup was part of a broader series of military interventions in the region known as Operation Condor, which, under cover of Cold War scare tactics, sought to eliminate those leaders who were not inclined to offer favorable terms for US trade with their nations, or who, heaven forbid, resisted the privatization of their natural resources.

This issue features works that explore these forms of past and present colonial violence and that look at the effects of this violence on both the land and bodies across America. At the same time, they reveal diverse forms of resistance. They dig below the surface of deserts and decadent nightclubs, explore the questionable cultural politics of museums and theme parks, and take us into prisons of both body and mind. After Karen Tei Yamashita and Ronaldo Lopes de Oliveira’s bracing reboot of the Brazilian modernist Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 “Cannibalist Manifesto” (which gleefully gnawed on the bones of the European canon), we’re transported to the Musée du Quai Branly, where we find Gabriela Wiener (translated by Gabriela Jauregui) examining her reflection in a glass case that houses the cultural patrimony stolen from her native Peru by her own great-grandfather. The institutional space of the museum is also central to Laia Jufresa’s short story “Colorscape,” which drops the reader into the middle of a performance art piece about state violence and forced disappearance in Latin America. Carlos Manuel Álvarez (translated by Julia Sanches) writes a firsthand account of a recent hunger strike in Cuba, addressing the government’s marginalization and persecution of Black and Brown bodies, while Sophie Braxton, in “Flat Earth Society,” explores the psychology of alienation as it relates to both labor and human connections in the southern United States.

Shifting gears, we get a dizzying dog’s-eye view of the historical layers of Mexico City/Tenochtitlán in Gabriela Jauregui’s “The Island,” and then follow the Pan-American Highway through the bone-riddled sands of the Peruvian desert in Julia Wong Kcomt’s “Chimbote Highway” (translated by Jennifer Shyue), before watching the Mexican countryside quake and split open in Brenda Lozano’s “A Volcano Is Born” (translated by Heather Cleary). In each of these texts—as in Mahogany L. Browne’s incandescent “Reft of a Nation,” the poem at both the sequential and the ethical center of the collection—the fires of the earth and the injustices it has witnessed refuse to be contained.

Next, Samanta Schweblin’s “An Unlucky Man” (translated by Megan McDowell) and Sabrina Helen Li’s “Worldly Wonders” explore different forms of strength under conditions of vulnerability; in the first, a little girl navigates both a family crisis and an intimate crisis of her own; in the second, a young woman’s body is exoticized and infantilized for public consumption at a nationality-themed amusement park. The next pair of stories introduces us to two men displaced by very different circumstances, trying to rebuild their lives: the narrator of Edmundo Paz Soldán’s “El Señor de La Palma” (translated by Jenna Tang) finds himself embroiled in a cult (or is it just a pyramid scheme?) as he flees the dubious legalities of his own past, while the protagonist of Nimmi Gowrinathan’s “One Man and His Island” is a refugee trying to cultivate Sri Lanka in a tiny corner of Los Angeles.

And then there are the bodies bound: MJ Bond draws a bright, pain-streaked line between the body in transition and the molecular structures of glass and obsidian; in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” C. T. Mexica takes us inside prison walls that cannot keep the mind from soaring, while a letter from Claudina Domingo reminds us that the mind itself can also be a prison. Also in the issue’s letters, Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil reminds us of the importance of recognizing non-Western conceptions of the natural world and our relationship with it; Karla Cornejo Villavicencio asserts her right not to reproduce; and Lia García (La Novia Sirena) shares a lyrical reflection on bodies labeled and persecuted as monstrous, and why we should consider the cockroach.

The pieces selected for this issue draw on diverse traditions and aesthetics, and more than half are translations. By placing these authors from different latitudes within the same pages, it becomes obvious that neatly defining American identities is an impossible and absurd task. As Natalie Díaz said in an interview for The Rumpus in 2020, identity is often weaponized, particularly in the United States, “as a thing to pin us down and hold us still… I am imagining ways to become unpinnable.” The unpinnable cannot be extracted; it cannot be plundered, swallowed, homogenized, commodified.

Among the many questions we discussed as we worked with these texts, one kept coming up: What to do with the accent in América? Such an apparently trivial thing—a small typographical mark—but one that carries so much political weight. Should we keep the diacritic as it appears in Spanish, offering a visual reminder to the reader that America is not a country but a continent1? Or should we “translate” América by removing the accent, and in doing so challenge the Anglophone reader in the United States to pause and look at this familiar word anew?

We went back and forth with the translators. We went back and forth among ourselves. We turned once again to Martí’s “Our América” and to its translator, Esther Allen. When we asked her to share the thought process behind her choice to keep the diacritic, she responded:

In the Penguin Classics anthology I did of Martí’s selected writings, there’s a version of “Our America” without the accent mark; at that point I didn’t think one was needed. The essay itself makes it pretty damn clear what he’s talking about, even specifying the region’s geo- graphic boundaries in the final paragraph: “del Bravo a Magallanes.” When I redid the translation for the website of the Centro de Estudios Martianos in Havana a few years ago, though, I really felt it was necessary to include the accent because I’ve seen all too often how the word America leads to misreadings—many deliberate—as monolingual Anglophones assume it is synonymous with the United States and can only mean the United States.

In other words: América is not America is not the Americas. Sometimes an accent can be a geopolitical statement. There isn’t one right way to approach this question of the accent, and there shouldn’t be, just as there should be no pinnable, all-encompassing approach to what America is, no trans-historical shortcut for addressing cultural specificity. While the diacritic was essential to translating Martí’s text at a certain moment and continues to generate important conversations, at this moment and in this context, we chose the more naked America. Our goal in selecting texts from across this vast expanse and uniting them under this rubric is to reclaim and redistribute the name America, fraught provenance and all, and to assert the plurality contained within its singular as a constellation rather than a consolidation.

An excerpt from McSweeney’s Issue #65 by Valeria Luiselli and Heather Cleary, reprinted with permission from McSweeney’s Books.

Valeria Luiselli is the author of the award-winning novels Faces in the Crowd (2014), The Story of My Teeth (2015), and Lost Children Archive (2019); and the nonfiction volumes Sidewalks (2014) and Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017). Luiselli is the recipient of a Guggenheim and a MacArthur Fellowship. She teaches at Bard College. // Heather Cleary’s translations include María Ospina’s Variations on the Body, Betina González’s American Delirium, and Roque Larraquy’s Comemadre (nominee for the 2018 National Book Award). A member of the Cedilla & Co. translation collective, she has served as a judge for several national translation awards and was a founding editor of the digital, bilingual Buenos Aires Review. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.