Friday I walked into La Compania, a baroque Jesuit church ornately carved out of volcanic stone in the Centro Historico of Quito, Ecuador. The remains of Ecuador’s first saint, Mariana of Jesus, are venerated in the main altarpiece. In this spectacular church she first devoted herself to her God and later died here in 1645.
While churches more ornate and spectacular may exist, I’ve never seen one. Even though the building is far smaller than the Vatican in Rome or Notre Dame in Paris when it comes to interior decor — after seeing La Compania — it’s tempting to accuse the people who built those more famous sanctuaries of cutting corners.
It says on the flier you receive as you enter the church that “La Compania was built by numberless hands from the unique School of Quito, who left their print and their skills to carve and work with the fine 23-carat gold lamina in every centimeter of the church.” Art from School of Quito peppers the old city. But in this church, the masters used more than 110 pounds of gold leaf to reflect the brilliant colors cast by the countless stained-glass images.
The Jesuits began construction in 1605. That’s 15 years before the Pilgrims stepped on Plymouth Rock. If you don’t pay attention to Colonial history, you might forget the jump those Spaniards got on the Brits. See, in this part of the Americas, the Incas battled those pesky conquistadors back in 1533.
According to Ecuadoran tourism literature here, Inca ruler Atahualpa first made the mistake of thinking the Spanish conquerors were “an innocent bunch of foreigners. He welcomed them into his empire and befriended them.” The Spanish couldn’t believe their good luck when the king made himself so vulnerable, and they kidnapped him for ransom. Atahualpa paid large amounts of gold and silver — the accounts don’t specify how much — but the invaders killed him anyway.
Incan pride remains strong nearly 500 years later; streets and businesses — even burger joints — are named Ruminahui after the general left in charge when his king was slaughtered. He and his Inca warriors fought back ferociously, but within a year “hundreds of thousands of Incas” were dead. Ruminahui, determined that the Spanish would not inhabit their city, burned Quito to the ground.
Which brings us back to La Compania: It is one of the few buildings in the Centro Historico not built on Incan foundations left behind after the fire. The Spanish Jesuits started from scratch.
After that defeat in 1534, the Spanish language also built a foundation here at the geographical center of the Americas. It’s remarkable that we don’t all speak Spanish. Over the next century there were certainly enough Spanish colonies across the Northern and Southern Hemisphere, to justify their language becoming dominant. In fact, so many settlements that no one in the U.S. should resent anyone who speaks Spanish: But sadly some do.
Even the personal networking site Facebook — my primary means of messaging people back home while I’m down here — has an ill-advised page titled “If you’re in America speak English.” Obviously this page was developed by a person who was unaware that he or she lives just in the United States part of America and that most “Americans’” official language is Spanish. Check out that Facebook page at your own peril — unless you’re a likeminded bigot — because the comments are stomach-turning. Here’s a tame one, “Don’t move into my country, illegally, and then expect ME to speak YOUR filthy language!”
Perhaps that’s the intolerance some developed when they learned the language of English conquerors instead of Spanish or French conquerors.
But I have good news. We seem to be making progress, if not for tolerance’s sake then for practicality’s sake. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, for the first time the decennial U.S. Census has issued bilingual census forms, modeled after the Canadian bilingual census forms. The Feds hope to get an accurate number of the 35 million or so Spanish speakers in the U.S. today.
And if that irritates the Euro-descendants who don’t speak Spanish, better buy a history book. If you resent your fellow Americans because they don’t speak English, oh, well, they were here first.
Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.