Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s recent letter to Pope Francis has been widely reported as a request for a conquest apology. While this is not entirely untrue, it misses the other elements in Obrador’s letter, including other petitions and the exact terms in which the conquest apology request is made.
In a two-page letter dated October 2, hand delivered by Mexican first lady Beatriz Gutiérrez Mueller, Obrador wrote a three-part petition on behalf of the Mexican government to Pope Francis. The letter is written in a tone that is not typical of Latin American state correspondence. It is personal much more than sounding honorific or diplomatic.
Obrador begins in this almost nostalgic way: “It has been five years since we met at the Vatican, a Wednesday in October in St. Peter’s Square.” He continues in the same tone, ending with a subtle double expression of religious and political respect. “Time has passed, and you continue to be a man of ideas and the way in which you proceed is consistent with them. Because of this, I continue holding you in high regard as a religious leader and head of state.”
As the letter moves from salutation to content, Obrador strikes a more self-congratulatory pose, one which many Mexicans will find odd or even perhaps offensive. While Obrador claims to “represent a government that is carrying out a profound process of transformation whose distinctive traits are honesty, justice and moderation, and also love of neighbor,” his early response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the corruption allegations that plague his presidency strike out against this image. Here the diplomatic element comes into play. Obrador is trying to unite his government to his triumphalist decolonial account of the history of Mexico to contextualize the request that this letter, carried by his wife in a visit to the Vatican, contains.
This slow progression is important but ultimately a set up for what the letter is asking. The real context is to be found in the triad of anniversaries that will occur next year: “700 years since the foundation of Mexico-Tenochtitlán” and “500 years since the Spanish colonial invasion,” and the “bicentennial of [Mexican] independence.” Concerning the latter, Obrador notes that Mexican independence was “headed by two good and rebellious priests: Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and José María Morelos y Pavón whose profound love of the Mexican people led them to pay for the liberty [Mexico] longed for with their lives.” The dual notes of religious and political martyrdom unite these Latin American priests, in an oblique way, to the Latin American Pontiff.
Obrador then takes a paragraph to add verbatim source quotes to show the abolitionist bona fides of Hidalgo and prove that Morelos was on the side of the indigenous and the poor. After these preambles and contextualization, Obrador makes an enumerated request to borrow three indigenous codexes and a set of maps of Tenochtitlan in the year 2021, with a guarantee of following all the requisite legal and security orders. This request carries the letter onto the next page.
After this first request, Obrador make a second request. Parsing this petition with extreme precision is crucially important. Obrador does not ask the Vatican for a solitary apology directly, instead he writes, “I take this chance to insist that, on the occasion of these ephemeris, the Catholic Church, the Spanish Monarchy, and the Mexican State should offer a public apology to the original peoples who suffered under the most disgraceful atrocities to steal their goods and lands and submit them since the Conquest of 1521 until the recent past.” This apology request is remarkable because it is posed as a shared culpability between the Church, the Spanish crown, and the Mexican nation-state. Obrador continues his insistence by adding that the original peoples of Mexico “deserve not only this generous act from our part but also the sincere promise that these acts irrespective of their beliefs, culture, and, far less, will they be judged or marginalized because of economic motives or racism.”
It is only at this point that Obrador singles out the Catholic Church, asking that it vindicate the historical record and reputation of Hidalgo from the accusations of heresy. Obrador quotes Hidalgo’s rousing defense against accusations of heresy directly in words that echo an older Spanish idiom and also the Pope’s own teachings: “Open your eyes, Americans, and do not let yourselves be seduced by our enemies: they are only Catholic for politics: their God is money and their injunctions only seek oppression as its object. Do you really believe that one who is not a subject of the Spanish despots cannot be a true Catholic?”
Echoing the rhetoric of Hidalgo, Obrador makes his third request to the Pope: “Do you not believe that a reference in honor of Hidalgo and Morelos, instead of harming the Catholic Church, would raise it up and bring happiness to the majority of Mexicans?” Obrador concludes his third petition with a personal touch, “Only your sensibilities can understand the transcendence of this act of historical contrition.”
While there is certainly a request for a conquest apology from the Vatican in Obrador’s letter to Pope Francis, the request is made in triplicate and accompanies two other requests. Of the two other requests, the codices and maps are not demanded to be returned but are instead asked for on temporary loan to mark a historical occasion and the vindication of the Hidalgo and Morelos is, perhaps, more of a suggestion than a direct petition.
At a wider contextual view, there are elements absent from the letter, and rather conspicuously.
Chief among them would be the heavy emphasis on the dual religious and political office of the Bishop of Rome along with the mirrored roles of the Fathers of the Mexican War of Independence. Ever since the Revolution of 1910, which ushered in the fiercely secular and anti-clerical regimes of Porfirio Diaz and Plutarco Calles*, the Mexican state has struggled to reconcile the contrasting sides of its independence and more modern revolution.
In this letter, there may be glimpses of a fresh approach to this struggle, perhaps inspired by the Latin American Pope.
Sam Rocha teaches at the University of British Columbia.
*An earlier version of this piece identified Benito Juarez as a post-1910 revolutionary figure, though his presidency was a 19th century precursor to the revolutionary upheaval that culminated in the Revolution of 1910.