My family is an old and proud one, and early on the Spanish awarded my ancestors titles of nobility, extending the indigenous hierarchy that already existed. We have always played roles in the growth of Mexico, before and after the conquistadores
. Our influence often reached clear to Spain; it ebbed and flowed with the prerogatives of whoever was Marqués de la Mirada at the time.
As a child, I was raised with the unambiguous purpose of continuing the political work my father had begun. Ashamed of his own father, who was a lout and a philanderer, he spent his life building and consolidating power for our family, for Mexico, for New Spain, and for the Crown. Yet he also harbored dreams of an independent Mexico; he oscillated between supporting rule from Spain and undermining it. So my lessons in noble loyalty were somewhat muddled.
I was the only one of my parents’ children to survive infancy. My mother spoiled me, and my father pressured me. Too protective and fearful to let me out of arm’s reach, their attention kept me from making many friends. But my childhood was not terrible. It is only now, with the clarity of hindsight, that I look back and spot anything missing from my youth.
What I see when I look back is loss. My parents mourned five lost children after my birth, and some number of others before me. Our palace had on its grounds, in a sort of indoor courtyard, an area that with the limitations of language I can only describe as a shrine. Objects that my mother viewed as connected to my lost siblings—a rattle made for a daughter, booties sewn for a son—were left next to candles and incense and medicinal plants. Her connection to these objects was baffling to me, but she drew comfort from them. She dutifully maintained the little shrine throughout the year, never entrusting its care to our family’s servants. It was beautiful to behold, but it cast a shroud over my upbringing.
My first journey beyond Mexico was to Nueva Orleans, a territory which had previously belonged to France. I was just on the cusp of adulthood at the time. My understanding of society was limited to Mexico and what I heard of Spain from Spaniards. But in that fascinating city, I learned that people are people wherever they are. Frenchmen, Africans, plantation owners, slaves, clergy, heathens, all are as giving or as duplicitous as any other. We share the sane needs, the same weaknesses, and the same inclinations beyond the personalities that initially make us unique.
You might surmise that from this very basic seed of an observation, my interest in philosophy was born. You would be correct. (My views have evolved since then, but that is a discussion for another time, or several other times.) Also: I learned more about the strange effect little trinkets had on the grief of my parents. You see, much as the native peoples of Mexico hold complex views of death, a separate but not wholly dissimilar approach is held by some African societies, from which the slaves in Nueva Orleans had come, and I spent my time there and on subsequent visits learning more about these traditions.
The similarities are not limited to concepts of death, but also to the importance of objects and their meaning. We attach certain properties to certain items; it is only human nature that we search for meaning and apply it in ways that have use to us. This manifests as a sort of spirituality. In an oblique way, my mother associated her trinkets with the souls of my lost siblings, and she believed in that showing affection to those items, her love transcended the bounds of life and death, reaching their souls in eternal peace.
My position as the heir of a marquess allowed me to travel often, mostly among the territories of New Spain and to Spain itself, but also at times to other places. Meanwhile, in Mexico, politics abounded. Our Bourbon overlords in Spain were enacting new reforms in hopes of saving the Spanish empire, but these reforms stifled growth among the colonies, particularly in New Spain. These new policies were written with Spain in mind. The various governmental officers we had promoted locally were replaced by ones chosen by the Crown. Most of the port cities were barred from exporting goods on ships other than Spanish ones, making trade with other countries impossible, in theory. In practice, Spain could not enforce this from a sea and an ocean away. We continued to export at will, and this posed a problem.
My father sent me with a group of high-ranking nobles to discuss the situation with the King. I traveled with no one else near my age. The idea was that I would learn from these older lords. Well, perhaps I did. I am no reliable judge of my own progress. And at any rate, our complaints went unheeded. A folly for them, as upon our return murmurs of breaking free of Spanish rule grew expansively. The Americans had just succeeded in this. Why not Mexico?
Due to this, it was some time before I traveled abroad again. My father wished to conclude the extensive grooming he had put me through since childhood. I would soon ascend to the head of the family, after all, and I had not even married yet! It was untenable, to him. As for me, it was only that I was busy all the time. I was studying philosophy and metaphysics, I was learning music and arts, I was involved in politics, I was perfecting my knowledge of many languages. I hardly had time for myself, let alone a lover!
…But I did have one. Her name was Sonia, and it was a match made at court. Her family was smaller and less influential, but at least as old as ours. Fortune had not been so kind to them; or, if we are speaking only between ourselves, their past patriarchs had not managed their wealth well. So it was seen as an act of charity that we should support them through my marrying their daughter. We got along well, but her ambitions did not extend beyond raising a family. She had no interest in learning or seeing the world.
Well, we married, and she became a dutiful wife and caring mother. She first gave birth to a daughter, then to a son. I am certain that I am the father of those two children—and yes, I do have to qualify that statement. A few months after the birth of our son, I was called away to Spain. My father was too ill to travel or manage more than the smallest of family details, so again I traveled across the ocean with the delegation. As it turned out, I was away for nearly a year, shoring up support among various European powers and engaging in further study of my philosophical theses. When I returned, Sonia was heavily pregnant! It was impossible that the child was mine, and Sonia admitted to infidelity—but she did not know which of the other men she had lain with was the father! Outrageous. The new baby was a girl, thank God; she would inherit nothing in any case, so she need never know that her father is not me. Her mother can suffer with that knowledge alone.
With my household in shambles, I have taken to spending more time abroad. Do you blame me? The children are old enough now that they hardly notice that Papa is away. Sometimes they travel with me, but that is not the case this time. My son is old enough now that he almost runs the house himself. So I travel, and I have recently returned to my home in Venice. Here my home serves also as a salon for the intellectuals, encouraging thoughts and ideas among the philosophers and the artists and the scientists of the Serenissima
. Venice has been a refuge for individuals of all sorts since before the Inquisition. As revolutions are sparked around the world, this is the case more than ever.
I still write and I still study philosophy and spirituality, particularly as regards death and grief. These are subjects that Venice is suited for in particular. We speak of fading, and many suggest that Venice is fading, fallen from its old role as a maritime superpower into some unknown ruin. If so, where do empires go when they fall? Is that what we hide behind our masks?
*Writer’s note: Desi chose to tell his own story. While most of the facts are accurate, he’s indulged in a bit of exaggeration, a little misremembering, and a few flat-out lies. Good luck pinning them on him, though!