Wednesday, August 11, 2010

South of the Border

Mexico. A country so close to the U.S., and yet the average U.S. citizen truly knows so little about it. In High school I remember spending a trimester on Mexican, Central and Latin American history, but I only really recall learning about the Incans, Aztecs, Cortez and the Alamo. As for current events, well, I know I am terrible. I know about the drug wars, the poverty, the immigration issues, and, conversely how gorgeous the country is and what a great vacation destination Mexico is. In short, I know Mexico in relation to the U.S., but not really much about it on its own. Rather embarrassing. I have visited Mexico, but just the touristy areas of Playa del Carmen and Cozumel. It is a beautiful country and I would love to learn more about it.

On recommendation from friends, I picked up C.M. Mayo's The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. It was fascinating! A fictionalized account (but mostly true to life) of the French invasion and subsequent Habsburg empire in Mexico around the years of the American Civil War. I was amazed. I had never heard of the French invasion of Mexico, and certainly never knew that others besides the Spanish had set themselves up as rulers in that wild and beautiful land.

This novel follows the lives of the main players in this story: the Iturbide family, children of a former emperor of Mexico, the Liberator; Alice Green (later Iturbide), the daughter of a prominent Washington D.C. family; Maximilian and Charlotte, Habsburg archduke and duchess who become emperor and empress of Mexico; and some of the main politicians of the times. The Iturbide child (son of Alice and Angelo Iturbide) is named heir to the throne of Mexico and the ramifications of this decision complicate perception and support for this struggling young empire. This book has it all! Political drama, family feuds, martial disagreements, royalty, adventure and traveling new lands, cultural conflict, kidnapping, insanity, etc.

C.M. Mayo's lyrical, humorous prose brings each character to life--often using historical letters and other writings. The characters were compelling and complex, the court intrigues (both in Mexico, Europe and in the U.S.) revealed why this empire was so short-lived, as do Maximilian's strange decisions . I especially enjoyed the depiction of Maximilian who tried his best to fit the image of a benevolent ruler without truly understanding the needs and desires of his military and subjects. He seemed to live in a fantasy world of what "good" rulers do and couldn't base his decisions on the actual reality he faced in Mexico. Mayo describes the countryside of Mexico and Europe, the cities and castles with such gorgeous details to make each scene come alive. I want to visit the castles Maximilian built! They sound sumptuous.

The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire really made me wonder what Mexico would have been like had the empire lasted, and if that project was ever truly viable. Would everyone speak French there now? Or a mixture of French and Spanish? Could the entire country truly have been rid of the bandits and marauders and united under a European? I feel that the European rulers could never have lasted for too long--they just didn't relate well to the people. This is a great novel, and an awesome way to learn more about Mexican history.