A few years ago, I had the chance to visit Vienna, the capital of Austria. Wow! That was an experience that I truly cherish. The stunning monuments and palaces, the history behind everything, and, sure, the delicious and guilty chocolaty treats. That happens to be a city where I confirmed that the views we hold of our nations – or of specific historical events recorded within our own countries – are often not quite as objective and clear-cut as we tend to assume.
There I was visiting the enormous insides of a Vienna royal palace. You know how it is, room after room of exquisitely decorated sites where kings, queens, and their courtesans used to mingle, play, and well, rule. As I walked a bit haphazardly through a constricted passageway across two sections of Schönbrunn Palace, I came across a series of paintings and photographs of members of the Austrian and Austro-Hungarian royalty. As the serious faces, old-fashioned hairdos, and extravagant clothing paraded in front of me, I suddenly stopped on my tracks. This was a face I knew all too well. But, Maximilian of Mexico? Who is this?
Never in my many years of history lessons in school and in college had I ever come across those words: Maximilian of Mexico. "There must be some mistake here," I immediately thought. "Someone needs to fix this," was my reasoning. It only took a few minutes, however, for me to realize that, of course, to the Austrians telling the story this was indeed Maximilian of Mexico and not Maximilian of Habsburg, as I had always known his name to be from my lessons in Mexican classrooms with Mexican textbooks and Mexican teachers. In the end, I had to accept that from the perspective of the people of Austria it made total sense; Maximilian was after all Emperor of Mexico – if only for three years – in the mid-1800s. We Mexicans may think that this was a lamentable example of ruthless European imperialism – which came to take over our nation and disgrace our people – but to many Europeans he was, well, the emperor of a far-distant colony called Mexico. "How dare they!" I still mumbled for a while, half smiling.
Portrait of Maximilian I at the National Museum of History. Mexico City.
Notwithstanding my national sensibilities, as soon as I walked out of that huge Austrian palace I came to realize that we indeed have a very personal – should I say nationalistic? – view of historical events depending on where we were born. We often and unjustifiably imprint our national view on events that others naturally view from a totally different, if not opposing, perspective. I believe it is important that we acquire the gift of seeing people, events, even conflict, from that novel viewpoint. We often require a bit of historical empathy, if not justification for perceived abuses and even violence. I understand this is no easy task, just think of the current crisis between Russia and Ukraine. How do foreigners perceive historical events that simultaneously involve my nation and theirs? Maximilian indeed introduces himself in contrasting fashions at Schönbrunn Palace and at the Castle of Chapultepec, where he lived and is now the National Museum of History in the heart of Mexico City. Even his very title is not the same. It is so true that when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.
Execution of Maximilian I by Mexican soldiers. Queretaro, 1867. By Edouard Manet. Kunsthalle Mannheim, Germany.
Indeed. In Connect with Mexico, we hope to share that empathetic technique with you. By learning about this country from Mexicans themselves, you will come to note how they observe their own story and, surely, how it may differ from your own prior conceptions. This offers you a peephole through which to discover how Mexicans think and how they perceive not only their country but the world, Austria included. And just don't get me started on that big dispute between Mexico and Austria: Emperor Moctezuma's headdress, which many Mexicans claim should be in Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology and not at its current location inside the Weltmuseum Wien.
Come to Connect with Mexico to engage in a dialogue about the Mexican story and to gain new perspectives on this country, whether you live here or are simply seeking to understand it better. Moctezuma's headdress may just come up in the conversation. You never know!