The Galleon and the Good Hardworking People

The Galleon and the Good Hardworking People

Dear friends,

As three-year-old Evelina* has grown, a friend of her dad’s, thinking that she looks Asian, has come to jokingly call her ‘la coreana’, the Korean girl.

Evelina is a daughter of the state of Guerrero in southwestern Mexico, far from Seoul and Pyongyang. But poor racial approximations aside, it’s not that she was born in a place that has no connection to Asia—Korea included. Between approximately 1565 and 1815 the port city of Acapulco on the Guerrero coast was the live node connecting Asia and Latin America, across the Pacific from Manila in the Philippines. Once a year for more than two centuries the ‘Nao de China’, or the Manila Galleon, ferried goods like silk, porcelain and silver between the two ports. Humans, too—indigenous people from the Philippines, India, and Africa were traded as slaves by the Spanish crown as it grew fat and shiny off its colonial holdings.

In a doctoral study completed in 2019, Mexican geneticist Juan Esteban Rodríguez discovered that about one-third of people whose DNA he sampled in Guerrero had up to 10 per cent Asian ancestry, a higher percentage than in the rest of Mexico. The Filipino language Tagalog includes a number of ‘loan words’ from Nahuatl (the language of indigenous Nahua people like Evelina’s dad): paruparo or paparo, from papalotl - butterfly; tatay from tahtli - father; tskilet or tsikle from chichli - chewing gum (= chicle in Spanish). (English has them too: xocolatl - chocolate, tomatl - tomato, ahuacatl - avocado).

If the fates of Mexico and The Philippines are indelibly intertwined, so too are they between all of us throughout the world, fates inaugurated by empire-building of various kinds. A note from a prison camp in China is found in a box of Hallowe’en decorations in Oregon. A lost shipping container surfaces thousands of Garfield phones on a beach in France. Briefly, lobster is cheaper in Sydney. For six days in the Suez Canal, a stock of ‘Snuggy’ wearable blankets may never make it to their buyers. Cornish miners in Hidalgo create a lasting legacy of pasties. What will happen to cellphones everywhere and labouring children in Democratic Republic of the Congo if the cobalt bubble bursts? A traveler gets a tickle in their throat that begins in Acapulco and peaks in a positive test for covid19 in Mexico City. We have more, and also less, to do with each other than we think.

Coup-talk and family values

Mainstream media debate in Mexico these days is set by the President, who has corralled some two hours of public broadcast every weekday morning to set the agenda. This week, one theme is the international media and its criticisms of the Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) administration, most recently an investigation by the New York Times into the collapse of the Linea 12 rail bridge that killed 26 people early last month. The Times said with the authority of evidence what everybody knew: a structure held together with little more than concrete dust and corruption was doomed from the start.

An observation that is not really news, nor can it deliver the power-punch of journalism: few expect things to be different in a country where public infrastructure has long been gutted and foreign-owned projects take much of the rest (with a tidy cut for long-standing national elites, all structured in the shadows by the ‘organized violence’ of state<->'narco' complicity). President AMLO knows this—in fact one of his signature moves is to invoke among the voting public a shared patrimonial knowledge and fate, with an avuncular wink. On the Linea 12 collapse,  referred to the people of the working-class neighbourhoods that use the line and lost their family members as “good, humble, working people who understand that these terrible things happen”. His party, MORENA, just received a majority in the recent elections for Congress, state and local government positions, with these very peripheral communities of Mexico City helping to deliver it. Of the Mexicans, mostly of middle-class households, who did not vote MORENA or who switched their vote back to another party after the 2018 AMLO victory, he claimed that individualism, aspiration and the possession of university degree made them “very difficult to convince”.

This sits alongside repeated claims that criticism from civil society organisations like press freedom group Article 19 and groups opposing his Tren Maya megaproject are part of a US plot to infiltrate his government, on account of them receiving funds from places like USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy —indeed, a ‘coup against Mexico’ as I reported recently for Foreign Policy.

Similarly, AMLO has hit out at international media outlets that, in varying tones, have raised criticism of his administration in recent weeks (e.g. The Economist, Le Monde)  — they, like the media in Mexico that also criticises him, “lack ethics” and “manipulate the population”.

The good, hardworking population, that is also frequently figured by the President as the patriarchal family; the nucleus of national solidarity. The unaspirational (read: unsinful) salt of the earth, the organic base of his ‘republican austerity’. Will he succeed in maintaining this cloistered notion of Mexicanness in a country with at least five centuries of global significance?

In other news

Check out English-language translations & reporting of independent news and analysis from Latin America:

Thankyou <3

For sticking with The Troubled Region despite the unprompted five-month hiatus. I lost many of my words as the time spent 90-100% inside my apartment ran into a year; strangely I seem to have gotten some back as I too finally caught the goddamn rona. A shorter, milder case thanks to having been vaccinated, and well, yet another reminder that this thing really isn’t over, for any of us. Next month I’ll write another missive, as per new normal; shifting platforms (there’s issues with Substack) is also on the cards, if I can do it with minimal trouble to you all.

I hope you’re keeping well, friend. I love to hear from readers so don’t hesitate to write me if there’s something that bugs you or something you’d like to see. Did you like having an audio version back in October? We can do it again. For sure.

Till soon,


~ ps. regular updates on twitter & insta if you can’t get enough here ~

Monument to La Nao de China/Manila Galleon @ La Quemada, Acapulco. Photo: June 2021.

*a pseudonym

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Jamie Larson