Author of Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution, etc.

C.M. Mayo < Speaking <

Transcript of Keynote for the meeting of the Board of Directors
Harry Ransom Center University of Texas at Austin
April 22, 2010

It is such an honor and a delight to be here tonight. First a big thank you to Thomas Staley, Director of the Harry Ransom Center, and Danielle Brunne Sigler, Curator of Academic Affairs. And another big thank you, de corazón, to Mexico's Consul General here in Austin, Ambassador Rosalba Ojeda.

It was right here, in the Harry Ransom Center, that Ambassador Ojeda invited me to view the letters of Mexico's Emperor and Empress, Maximilian and Carlota if you haven't seen these extraordinary documents, you will they are in the wonderful exhibition "Viva Mexico's Independence."

This year, 2010, is a very special year to be celebrating Mexico's Independence, for it is both the bicentennial of Independence and the centennial of the Revolution. Sandwiched in between Independence and the Revolution is the 1860s, the time of Mexico's ferociously resisted second experiment in the monarchical form of government. This is the subject of my novel based on the true story: The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire.

Mexco had a prince?

Several. Mexico's First Empire, the Empire of Agustín de Iturbide, the Liberator, was established after Independence from Spain. When Iturbide's government proved unable to pay the army, among other challenges, he was forced to abdicate and was, to make a long story brief, subsequently captured and executed by firing squad in 1824. But Iturbide had several sons, among them, Angel de Iturbide, who was educated in exile in England the United States, and who went on to make a career as a diplomat. It was when Angel de Iturbide was serving as Secretary of the Mexican Legation in Washington, in the 1850s, that he married Miss Alice Green, a Washington belle and descendant of an old Tidewater Maryland family.

Angel and Alice: these were the parents of Mexico's last prince, Agustin de Iturbide y Green, born in Mexico City in 1863.

When he was only two years old, Agustin de Iturbide y Green was not adopted, exactly, but taken by Mexico's childless second emperor, Maximilian von Habsburg, into his Imperial Household as an Imperial Highness and, therefore, to all appearances, made Heir Presumptive to the Mexican throne. Other than a spinster aunt who joined the court and who became co-tutoress of the child, the Iturbide family was exiled to Paris much against their will. Not until 1867, with Maximilian's Empire in advanced stages of collapse, was the toddler returned to his distraught parents who had gone so far as to lobby U.S. Secretary of State Seward in Washington DC and the U.S. ambassador in Paris, John Bigelow, to try to get their child back.

Captured in Querétaro, Maximilian was executed by the Army of the Mexican Republic that June. And so, on a muddy, cactus-strewn field, ended Mexico's Second Empire, a costly and bloody experiment backed by a faction of Mexican conservatives, the Catholic Church, and that juggernaught of its day, the French Imperial Army.

If you've never heard of Mexico's little prince, not to worry: even many beautifully educated Mexicans have not. Mexico's 19th century history is, to make an understatestatement, a labyrinth of labyrinths. Many Mexicans would prefer not to dwell on the Second Empire of Maximilian, also known as the French Intervention: royalty, foreign invasion, these are less than appetizing topics.

Furthermore, when I came upon the story of the half-American prince, and began to read more deeply, I soon realized that the little that had been published about this episode was riddled with errors and a mystifying vagueness. And so began my plunge into several years of research in archives from Mexico to Vienna to Washington DC and , of course, Texas.

I could talk for hours about my work in the archives, how grateful I have felt on so many occasions, and how very moved by so many things: a list of prayers to the saints, folded over and, apparently, kept in someone's wallet; newspaper clipping lovingly pasted into scrapbooks, documents of all kinds; an invitation sent by Maximilian's secretary to a 15th memorial of his death; cartes-de-visites, as they called the collectable photographic portraits then, those faces, if in sepia, earnest, bright, as if taken only yesterday; and...of course... letters.

To hold a letter in your hand, to see the sweep and cramp of the handwriting, unique as a fingerprint, to feel the paper, it changes how you think of history.

"Beloved angel," Maximilian called Carlota.

But back to the story of the last, half-American prince of Mexico. To recap: this grandson of Mexico's first Emperor was brought into the court of its Second Emperor
an emperor born in Austria and installed in his throne by the might of the French Imperial Army-who if you follow me! announced the honors for the Iturbide family as part of his very public, very energetic celebrations of Mexico's Independence.

Did I mention that Mexico's 19th century history is labyrinthine?

Well, after so much original research, why did I choose to tell the story of the prince in a novel? Because there are questions better answered, however informed by research, by the sympathy of the imagination. The bare facts leave one scratching one's head. Why did the parents of the child, Angel and Alice de Iturbide, give him up to Maximilian in the first place? What species of credulity made Maximilian von Habsburg, Archuduke of Austria, who had a lovely (if underemployed) life in Europe, sacrifice everything, including his sacred rights as a member of the House of Habsburg, to sit on the so-called "cactus throne"? What dazzling Fata Morgana of ambition induced Louis Napoleon to ship his army across the ocean? What fears and illusions made many Mexicans, at least at first, welcome that invading army and welcome Maximilian? (In Mexico City, with rains of flowers no less.)

Emotions and flaws: these are novel's ideal territory.

I believe that ideally, a novel is an education of the heart. Put another way, a novel explores what it means to be human. So often, behind the veils of time, humanity fades. The Conquistadors, Moctezuma, Agustin de Iturbide, Santa Anna and of course, the Emperor Maximilian sometimes they seem more cartoon characters than human beings who lived, who breathed, who maybe, probably, chewed their fingernails.

With historical fiction, the novelist aims to bring her cast of characters back from the dead
nothing less. This attempt, however imperfect, is a kind of healing because it evokes their humanity. Ambition, fear, pride, greed, generosity, loyalty, love, perhaps a taste for apple pie and whipped cream?

It is through specific, sensory detail that a novel works what magic it can
or, rather, you, the reader, make the magic by following the instructions, if you will, I mean, using the words on the page, you form the pictures in your mind. And so, you can travel into the time, into this other world, indeed, into very mind of another.

I'll read a brief scene from the novel. It is of course, informed by research. You can trust that this is as accurate a description as possible. But more than just the rendering of a pile of research, this scene explores one of my first questions, one of the first questions almost everyone has when they first hear about the little prince: Why would the parents agree at first to hand over over their child to the Emperor Maximilian?

There are many facets to the answer to this question. One facet, only one, is revealed in this scene that takes place in 1865, when the prince is just a baby, and the Iturbide family has not yet had any dealings with Maximilian. It is written from the mother's point of view. This was Alice, or rather as she called herself now, Alicia Green de Iturbide. It takes place in Mexico's Imperial Palacewhich some of you may know as Mexico's National Palaceat the time that one contemporary journalist called "the high noon" of Maximilian's empire.

The winter of 1865 saw the first formal ball in the Imperial Palace, and at last, the Iturbides were invited or, as Alicia's oldest brother-in-law, Agustín Gerónimo, wryly put it, commanded to appear.

On the appointed evening at the appointed time (for they had been advised that latecomers would be locked out), their buggy moved slowly through the throngs of Indians and gawkers. At the palace's main doors, French Zouaves, armed with rifles and batons, pushed the crowd back, away from the descending guests. Above the palace roof, which had been illuminated with alternating red and green lanterns, the Milky Way sparkled in a chilly sky. Beneath their mantones, as they called their embroidered Chinese silk shawls, Alicia and Pepa wore gowns of satin and tulle, not new, alas, but re-fashioned by the best Mexican mantua-maker in Mexico City, after the latest patterns imported from Paris. Pepa's décolletage glittered with one of her mamá's antique necklaces; Alicia wore her grandmother's rope of pearls, and her earrings, a gift from her husband on the birth of their son, which were also of pearls. They had been advised that the protocol of an imperial ball was both strict and elaborate. Gentleman had to bow, women to curtsey, one could not speak to a Highness unless spoken to. Alicia had only read about such things. By comparison, a White House levée, with its bumpkin of a president, was a rustic pile-up. Oh, that Potomac backwater with its third-rate consular bureaucrats, those were as reed-birds to real eagles! As donkeys to a Pasha's elephant!

If those belles from Lafayette Square and Georgetown could see her now!

To think that anyone had looked down upon her marrying a Mexican and going to live in Mexico. Things were going to be radically different with a Habsburg here: that was clear to Alicia from the moment she caught sight of the Palatine Guards, Vikings in snow-white coats and silver helmets that shined in the dazzle of fantastic torches, and inside, the gargantuan Venetian tear-drop chandeliers, dripping light over the rustling mass of perfumed guests. The officers and diplomats were in dress uniform, the civilians in tails and white tie, the women alight with jewels. Hundreds of people, indeed perhaps a thousand, were all craning their necks. Who had been invited? Whom did one recognize? Don Roberto, ¡qué gusto! Ceci, ¡qué tal! Alicia recognized a Mexican countess, the Hungarian cavalry captain who lodged down the street, the Belgian ambassador, and, in a huge velvet cummerbund and a diamond the size of a garbanzo bean in his cravat, Don Eusebio, the richest man in Mexico. A buzzing roar filled the air of the stairwell. Kisses for friends, handshakes for acquaintances, and up the crimson-carpeted stairs they swarmed, past tapestries, Sèvres vases, wondrous peacock-like bouquets. Once in the main hallway, still clinging to her husband's arm, Alicia happened to look up: the cedar beams had been gilded! It was hard to believe this was the same lice-infested wreck that Doña Juliana de Gómez Pedraza, back in the 1830s, when her husband had briefly been president, had refused to inhabit. Neither had Alicia's father-in-law lived here. (The Emperor Iturbide's "palace," so-called, was now the stagecoach hotel on the Calle de San Francisco.)

What's more, Their Majesties were only using this palace for formal entertainments; though they had apartments here, they had established their Imperial Residence in Chapultepec Castle, which had lately housed the Military College. (This Alicia completely understood, for, as she had remarked to Mrs. Yorke and others, her family's country estate, Rosedale, was at the same easy-commuting range from the city of Washington.)

If the inside of Chapultepec Castle were half as sumptuous as this, it would be something out of a fairy-tale, Alicia thought, pressing her hand to her fast-pounding heart, sincerely hoping that one day she might be invited there, also.

The Imperial Palace extended the entire length of the east side of Mexico City's Plaza Mayor. The rooms given over to the ball were one extravagant stretch of brightly-lit parquet after the other, all drapes and mirrors and chandeliers, until they ended with the closed doors of the throne room.

At nine o'clock the doors to the street had been bolted, and now the Master of Ceremonies, with the aid of a silver baton and two assistants, divided the crowd; the ladies to line up along the one wall, gentlemen the other. The buzz faded to whispers and then a sudden hush. Alicia went up on tiptoes: yes, the doors to the throne room had swung open.

Soon she could see Maximilian in his Mexican General's uniform greeting the men, and the empress, trailed by her ladies of honor, working her way down the line of women.

Carlota's dark hair was arranged cushion-like over her ears. She was not wearing a diadem, but, à l'espagnole, a single blood-red rose. Her necklace and bracelets were of diamonds; these sparkled in the candlelight. Her gown was of mint-green and scarlet brocade with a train of gossamer lace. She moved smoothly, with hauteur relieved now and then by the slightest of smiles. Next to Alicia, two rotund little señoras, nervously fanning themselves, began whispering and giggling. "Shsh," Pepa scolded. It was an effort to stay back near the wall; everyone wanted a better view of the approaching imperial couple (always, one of the Master of Ceremonies's assistants nudged them back). Alicia could now hear the conversations, Carlota's murmurs of "enchantée," and some question about the work on the telegraph, or, in Spanish, a bland, "buenas noches." Carlota spoke the language of each lady she addressed, a word of Spanish here, Flemish there, German or French or English. This daughter of the King of Belgium spoke no less than seven languages! Alicia could feel butterflies in her stomach. She batted her eyelashes and her hand flew to her pearls: Her turn had come! She tipped her head forward and sank into the reverent curtsey she had been practicing all week.

Once she had straightened, Alicia was startled to realize that she and the empress were exactly the same height.

"Buenas noches, señora," Carlota said, and said again with a slight nod, her diamonds flashing, as Pepa bowed her head (but, as her hip was troubling her, she did not curtsey). The empress was about to move on when Madame Almonte, chief lady of honor, rushed up and whispered into the empress's ear.

Carlota turned to Alicia and said in an unnaturally slow, deliberate and perfectly pronounced Spanish, "Señora de Iturbide, we are pleased to have you here."

"Ma'am, oh, delighted!" Alicia's voice came out strangely high.

Carlota said, switching to English, "Oh, you speak English?"

"I do? I did? Oh, oh, did I—"

Pepa interrupted: "She is from Washington."

"A very beautiful city, I hear, with the boulevards of Monsieur L'Enfant." And before Alicia could recover, Carlota had moved on down the row and was greeting the wife of the Mexican Foreign Minister.

The orchestra erupted into music; Their Highnesses took their seats upon their thrones beneath the canopy of crimson velvet. The platform for the thrones was covered in the same rich, crimson carpeting that ran the entire length of the hallway and all down the stairs. Sitting very erect, Maximilian rested his slender arms on those of the chair, and crossed his ankles. Carlota clasped her hands together; the bracelets in her lap threw sparkles, like freckles, onto her throat and face. Maximilian and Carlota now stood; he took her hand, and led her down to the dance floor. They opened the ball with the quadrille, and then retired to their thrones.

The imperial couple sat watching silently and, it seemed to Alicia, tenderly, as, in a rustling swirl of tulles and satins, the ladies and their cavaliers came back together and, with the aid of the Master of Ceremonies and his assistants, took their places on the dance floor. It was a sight Alicia would never forget for as long as she lived: in one of the mirrors, she saw herself, her golden hair crowned with a wreath of miniature yellow tea-roses, her dainty gloved hand in her husband's, and, to the left, and to the right, and behind them, the rows of the other dancers, so many splendid uniforms, gowns all the colors of the most breathtaking bouquet. Then, she danced as she had never danced before, with a lightness and such precision it seemed the music— ba-bum, tra-la— was her own heart, galloping, singing; oh, surely, her slippers, like Mercury's ankles, had sprouted wings!

When the orchestra took its break, in the crush, Alicia was separated from her husband. She wandered, fanning herself, tucking stray hairs behind her ear (the dancing did mischief to her coiffeur). One of the several balcony doors was open, and by happenstance, as she approached, the three French officers who had been enjoying the cool evening air, brushed past her. Rudely, they looked her up and down. "Bonsoir, mademoiselle," said the last one, a captain, in an oily tone. She answered sharply, "Madame."

So it was that she had the balcony to herself. Below, in the vast plaza, was an astonishing sight: hundreds of faces turned up in silent wonder. Moonlight cast their shadows before them over the pavement. Some of these people began pointing at her. Behind her, the music began again, trilling and soaring; for the first time she realized that they too, the humble people, wrapped in their blankets, had been out here, listening. They had never heard such music; they had never seen such finery, and the whole palace, so long decrepit, now pulsing with light... Of its own accord, her hand moved up— she almost waved, but instead put her gloved fingers to her lips. This was what it would feel like to be royalty, she thought. A heady feeling, headier still knowing that her own husband had once been, long ago, a real prince. Had history played out differently, it would have been her bachelor brother-in-law, Agustín Gerónimo, sitting on that throne. Imagine that, she thought: then, her own husband would have been Heir Presumptive! She would be known to all as— (she silently whispered)— Princess Alicia.

Her bare arms were turning to gooseflesh, but Alicia could not bring herself to leave this magical perch. Her husband would have scolded her severely, for Mexicans believed that to become chilled by night air could cause ear aches, or paralyze one's face. Simpler sorts believed the night belonged to ghosts, bogeymen, and all class of naguals. Such was the magnetic power of royalty, that it could pull all these people out into the open night. She thought, the pavement must be awfully cold. She wondered if some of them were hungry. She bit her lips. Shivering slightly— oh, she could not help herself: she raised her right hand. But only one person waved back. It was the mounted policeman.

As Ambassador Ojeda said in her talk about the "Viva Mexico's Independence" exhibition here, "remembering is understanding." My novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, is an attempt, an alchemy of archival research and imagination, to remember, and so, also, it is an attempt to understand. To understand not just the story of a little half-American half-Mexican boy, but the story of the last princethat is, the living symbol of a future as a monarchy that Mexico was not to have.

Thank you.