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Faces and Masks (Memory of Fire Trilogy) - Eduardo Galeano 1785: Guanajuato

Silver Portrait

Using the language of fluttering fans, ladies chat in the leafy gardens. Somebody pees against the wall of the church and on one side of the plaza two beggars, sitting in the sun, pick at each other's lice. Beneath the stone archway a distinguished doctor in a huge cloak talks of the Rights of Man, and a monk moves down the lane muttering eternal condemnations against the drunks, whores, and rowdies who cross in front of him. Not far from the city,
collectors hunt Indians with lassos.

Guanajuato has long since dethroned Potosi. The world queen of silver is hungry for labor. The workers,
free wage earners, don't see a coin in all their lives, but are prisoners of debt. Their children will inherit the debts and also the fear of pain in prison and hunger, and of the old gods and the new.

1785: Lisbon

The Colonial Function

The Portuguese crown orders Brazil's textile workshops closed down; in the future they must only produce rustic clothing for slaves. In the name of the Queen, Minister Melo e Castro issues the orders. the minister observes that
in most of the captaincies of Brazil have been set up, and are spreading ever more wildly, various factories and manufactories of cloth with differing qualities, including even gold and silver braid. These, he says, are pernicious transgressions. If they continue, the result will be that all the utilities and wealth of these most important colonies will end up as the patrimony of their inhabitants. Brazil being such a fertile land, so abundant in fruits, said inhabitants will become totally independent of their dominant Metropolis: consequently it is indispensably necessary to abolish said factories and manufactories.

Above are two vignettes from Faces and Masks. The material that is not italicized in the selection is italicized in the original text to show that it comes from historical documents that Eduardo Hughes Galeano has used as his sources. If you have not discovered Galeano, I recommend you do it soon. He takes what might have been dry in history books, and brings it poignantly to life. His Memory of Fire trilogy chronicles the Americas from the native creation myths through the 20th century, turning snippets of historical record from hundreds of disparate sources into a moving episodic narrative. I learned little about South and Central American history in school, and I am happy to have been taught by this master. Galeano is no fan of the colonizers and enslavers who had little time for human rights, but he is a sympathetic advocate of the voices in the wilderness who fought for education, cultural preservation, and equity in the history of the new world. Last year I read and loved Genesis, and I just finished Faces and Masks, which brings the narrative of the New World to the year 1900. I await the final volume, Century of the Wind, which I will read next year, both eagerly and with trepidation, as I know that the 20th century in the Americas has been no less brutal than the preceding centuries. Still I want to visit this era with Galeano as a wise and eloquent guide, to learn what is dangerous to leave forgotten.