The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1978, Volume 24, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor


For Eunice and Eliacim Chavez

THE play you will read in this volume—Lope de Vega’s San Diego de Alcalá—is by no means one of his masterpieces. It can scarcely be compared to works of the quality and complexity of The Gentleman from Olmedo, Justice without Revenge, or Peribáñez and The Commander of Ocaña. For this reason, it has hardly attracted detailed critical attention. Adolf Schaeffer and Wolfgang von Wurzbach have commented on the miracles wrought by Diego and the child-like naiveté that pervades the work. Franz Grillparzer considered it absurd and scarcely acceptable to an audience that was not intent upon witnessing its own values and convictions affirmed. The Swiss historian and critic Sismondi—noted for his protestant dryness by Menéndez Pelayo, his “sequedad protestante,” a phrase he also used to characterize George Ticknor and his literary judgments—generalizes that the “sacred pieces of Lope de Vega . . . are . . . so immoral and extravagant, that if we were to judge the poet after them alone, they would impress us with the most disadvantageous idea of his genius.” After discussing some of the play’s extravagances—the appearance of angels and the Devil, some miracles performed by Diego, and the Saint’s death to the accompaniment of sweet perfume and angelic music—Sismondi concludes that “however eccentric these compositions may be, we may readily imagine that the people were delighted with them. Supernatural beings, transformations and prodigies, were constantly presented to their eyes; their curiosity was the more vividly excited, as in the miraculous course of events it was impossible to predict what would next appear, and every improbability was removed by faith, which always came to the aid of the poet, with an injunction to believe what could not be explained.”

The critic who has written most sympathetically about the play is Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo. And yet, despite his devotion to expressions of Catholic orthodoxy and fervor, he is willing to recognize that it is a work of monstrous dramatic structure. What is there, then, about this play to recommend it to our attention? Is there more to it than the fortuitous detail that the mission founded in this city in 1769 by Fray Junípero Serra bears the name of San Diego de Alcalá? On this score Menéndez Pelayo can be of assistance to us. The play may well be one of the most irregularly made of its kind, still it is rich in poetry that projects with extraordinary immediacy the life and customs of the period Lope would evoke. In fact everything, says Menéndez Pelayo, is presented with such vivacity and color, yet with so little exaggeration, that theatrical illusion becomes confused with reality. Even the miracles, presented on stage with a certain course directness, seem to enter the realm of human affairs, so that the boundaries between reality and the supernatural disappear, all by virtue of Lope’s plastic and naturalist powers.

It may come as a disappointment to you that San Diego de Alcalá is not directly concerned with America. But, in truth, as Professor Stephen Gilman has recently noted in reiterating and reinterpreting the views of Menéndez Pelayo, “Lope de Vega, whose range of themes embarked all the past that was available to him—Biblical, ancient, foreign as well as national—, . . . produced a scanty harvest of plays concerned with the discovery and conquest of America.” In fact, in the vast corpus of his works, we find only two plays that really qualify, namely, The Discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus and Arauco Vanquished. But, if Menéndez Pelayo is correct in his assessment of San Diego de Alcalá, a play about the life of a Franciscan saint who died in 1463, then we should come to know a reasonable amount about the social and historical circumstances from which the discovery and conquest of America would emerge, that event which Francisco López de Gómara would describe in 1552 as “the greatest thing to have happened since the creation of the world, with the exception of the incarnation and death of its Creator,” for which reason the Indies are called the New World.

Before turning our attention to San Diego de Alcalá itself, I should like to look at Lope’s play concerning The Discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus for some insight into his view of the Indies, that symbol of ineffable spiritual and material wealth, that fountainhead of poetic expression, whose very name and inaccessibility would inspire expressions such as these: “!Ah, señor! Fuese a las Indias del Cielo.” (‘Oh, my lord,’ says a servant on observing his saintly master in a mystical trance, ‘he has departed for the Indies of Heaven’).

!O grandes, o riquísimas conquistas
de las Indias de Dios, de aquel gran mundo
tan escondido a las mundanas vistas!

How wonderful beyond words is the conquest
of the Indies of God, that great world
which human sight may dream of, but not see!

The parting of Columbus with Ferdinand and Isabella.
The parting of Columbus with Ferdinand and Isabella. The discovery and conquest of America would later be described as “the greatest thing to have happened since the creation of the world. . . .”

The Indies of Heaven and the Indies of God signify the supreme human aspiration: mystical union with God; a conquest no less awe-inspiring than that of the conquistadores.

Antonio Domínguez Ortiz has recently written that “for a minority [of Spaniards] the missionary ideal was uppermost; for the great body of the discoverers the economic consideration had top priority.” Elsewhere he observes in greater detail that:

“the motivation of human actions is very complex, which makes it futile to debate whether the motives behind the Discovery were of a material or spiritual order. Both had their part to play in differing degree; missionary zeal was no doubt uppermost in the mind of Isabel the Catholic, while in that of her husband Ferdinand, of Columbus himself and of the explorers in general, it took second place to political and economic interests, [but] without ever being totally absent from their cares…. [It should be said, in fact, that the Spaniards fulfilled their charge to convert the natives] even to the detriment of the royal finances. In this regard there is nothing improbable about the anecdote attributed to Philip II, who on being told of the high cost of preserving the Philippines compared to what could be gotten out of them, replied that to maintain the Catholic religion in the Philippines he would spend all the revenues of his kingdoms.”

On the other hand, one cannot forget that, especially in the seventeenth century, there was no lack of clergymen who displayed an excessive attachment to wealth and returned to Spain with large fortunes, using their exalted positions to avoid paying duties on their ill-gotten gains.

In Lope’s play on the discovery of the New World we already find a lively presentation of the conflict between the saving of souls and the plundering of gold. In a most ingenious way, what might have been a long and somewhat tedious soliloquy is infused by Lope with dramatic vitality. As the scene opens, Columbus sits disconsolately with a compass in his hand, poring over a large map. He has just received yet another rebuff in his efforts to obtain financial support for his expedition. As he laments his lack of funds, Imagination appears—descending from on high, dressed in brilliant and variegated colors—and assures him that once the war against the Moors has been won, Spain will come to his assistance. When he doubts this possibility, Imagination carries Columbus through the air to the other side of the stage. And then, as if the play had suddenly become a kind of secularized auto sacramental—reminiscent of a dream that Columbus described in a letter to the Catholic Rulers—a cloth is lifted and Providence is seen seated on a throne, having at his right the Christian religion and at his left Idolatry. A trial ensues in which the Christian Religion and Idolatry plead their respective causes for possession of the Indies. Idolatry maintains that he has lived in the West Indies for unnumbered years and now Christian Religion would take his possessions away by the agency of a poor man, namely, Columbus. When Providence decides that the Conquest must be undertaken in the interest of Christ, Idolatry exclaims: “Surely you know that it is avarice alone that brings these strangers toward those distant shores. Under the pretext of religion—insists Idolatry—they seek the hidden treasure of the country.” Providence responds with nice legalistic subtlety that “God judges only the intention. If because of the gold that it contains, souls are saved, as there is a reward in heaven, it is clear enough that there is also one on earth. Besides, with Ferdinand the Catholic all suspicion must disappear.” At this point the Devil rushes in and urges that Ferdinand should busy himself with his wars and insists that “it is avarice, the thirst for gold, that leads the Spaniards to the Indies. Spain has no need of gold; she has gold herself and should search at home for it.”

Spanish Christians. From Spain, A History in Art by Bradley Smith
In an early manuscript, SANCHO EL VALIENTE (Sancho the Brave) c. 1285, Spanish Christians from the northwest are depicted fighting back after the Moslem conquest of Spain.

In the following scenes, Spain’s greatest glories are relived: the Moors are defeated at Granada and we witness the entry of Ferdinand and Isabel into the city. The King of Granada is sorely grieved. To the Catholic Sovereigns he says: “Enter into your city from which I am forever exiled. Then will I absent myself in the greatest solitude that human patience has ever seen.” When he hears the joyous Christians proclaim “Granada for Don Ferdinand!”, he laments with the poignant lyricism of a traditional ballad: “The weight of such a misfortune overpowers me. Farewell, illustrious Granada, laurel of Spain, whose white and lustrous forehead is hidden in the Sierra Nevada. Today all is red with bloodshed. Farewell, my Albaicín and my beloved Alhambra. Farewell my palace, adieu, my dear country, taken from me by the envy of my near ones joined to the swords of the Christians. From the highest tower to the foundations, pour out your grief for him who begs you to weep for this disaster after having shared in his good fortune.” The reenactment of such moments, the evocation over and over again of such victories, of such richly symbolic events in the plays of Lope de Vega and his contemporaries, served to bolster a waning spirit. By reliving past achievements they hoped to inspire new ones of similar grandeur and—what is even more significant—of identical spiritual content.

Columbus is immediately aware of the conquest of Granada and appears at Court ready to make a deal. “The moment has come,” he assures, “to gain a whole world, for no less than this do I offer you.” With messianic zeal, crusading fervor and a poetic license that enables him to predict an unknown future, he promises “to conquer those idolatrous Indians, for it is just that they be brought to the Christian faith by a king who has been surnamed The Catholic, and by the wisest and most pious of queens who has ever been known since the Golden Age.” Ferdinand asks what is needed for the expedition and Columbus’ reply could not be more direct: “Money, Señor, for money is the master in all things, the north star, the compass, the route, intelligence, diligence, power, the foundation and the greatest friend.” It is as if Lope were remembering Columbus’ own words about the power of gold: “Gold is the most precious of all commodities; gold constitutes treasure, and he who possesses it has all he needs in this world, as also the means of rescuing souls from purgatory, and restoring them to the enjoyment of paradise.”

When Ferdinand inquires of his treasurer where he might obtain the 16,000 ducats that Columbus requires, he informs him that Luis de Santángel could be of assistance. In Henry Lea’s classic on the Spanish Inquisition we read that the name Santángel occurred with wearying repition on the lists of autos de fe. Luis de Santángel, Ferdinand’s financial secretary, who advanced to Isabella the 16,000 or 17,000 ducats to enable Columbus to discover the New World, was penanced on July 17, 1491 for his Judaic faith.

When the Spaniards successfully reach the Indies and make contact with the natives, we are again reminded of the conflict between religious fervor and greed. Listen to this conversation between Columbus and his men:

COLUMBUS. I intend to take back ten of these men, and I shall also take such animals and birds as are unknown in Europe. [Lope does not bother to explain that Columbus—seeing how unimpressive were the material proceeds of his enterprise, according to Domínguez Ortiz—sought to turn it to good account by using Indians as human merchandise, as was already done with Turks, Berbers and African Negroes.]

TERRAZAS. Spain expects something else. I presume you know that.

COLUMBUS. You mean gold?

PINZON. Exactly.

COLUMBUS (showing gold to an Indian). Do you have this here?

TERRAZAS. He said yes!

COLUMBUS. Why so much rejoicing?

ARANA. Because you will find gold here.

COLUMBUS. The salvation of these men is the principal treasure.

TERRAZAS. What good fortune! Gold! Let us look for the gold! (To an Indian) Go, my friend, bring us some of this.

ARANA. He is going.

PINZŌN (to Columbus). That should not make you angry.

COLUMBUS. What angers me is that you ask for it so soon.

When the Indian returns with gold ingots, the Spaniards immediately grab them.

COLUMBUS. Take them with less greediness.

FRIAR. What! You kiss these ingots?

TERRAZAS. Yes, my Father, while you teach these poor people the Faith.

The act ends in a studied climax of Broadway musical proportions, when Columbus exclaims: “Oh Heaven, today I have established the Faith in another, New World. Spain, I bring you this world. New World!” And all respond: “!Nuevo Mundo!”

In the final act, Lope shows his audience yet again the endless attraction of gold, but at the same time he shows its insidious effects.

TERRAZAS. I now know that without contentment riches are nothing. What good is all my gold to me now? The more I have, the more I look for, and I am never satisfied. Oh contentment, since you are not in gold, where are you? You seem to be nowhere, for I begged the heavens to give me more and more of this metal and at present I am rich and I have no pleasure.

ARANA. You are right. I have also noticed that gold is only a delusion, a chimera, like the sand-filled coffers of the Cid. They only deceive themselves who think they can find contentment here on earth. Tell me, Contentment, what are you? Honor, life, riches? He who would have you and thinks you are in gold, does not know where you are.

In the remaining scenes of the play, other significant aspects of the Conquest are reviewed. A beautiful Indian woman, who knows more geography than she should, combines religion and gold in a series of fervent prayers.

TACUANA. May you see this land subject to your laws and may your God and Christ triumph over our Gods. May your cross. . . be worshipped from Haiti to beautiful Chile! And may the Mass which we await move our hearts!. . .May you return to your fatherland, carrying with you enough of the gold of these mountains so that even your poor children will have playthings of gold. And then may you bring us your sons so that they may marry our daughters and mix their blood with ours so that we can all be Spaniards!

It is as if she were aware of the burning polemic between Las Casas and Sepúlveda and sought to mediate between them, recognizing with Sepúlveda that the Indians were socially and culturally inferior to the Spaniards, but understanding with Las Casas that they could overcome their shortcomings by living in intimate contact with the humane and civilizing Christian faith of their conquerors, a faith built on a sense of freedom for all human beings. For, as Las Casas once wrote: “todo linaje de los hombres es uno,” ‘the lineage of all men is identical;’ a declaration that reminds us of his own mixed or “tainted” blood (his Judeo-Christian background) and his passionate urge to minimize its significance. Through his vindication of the Indian, Las Casas hoped to achieve as well social salvation for his New Christian brethren.

Columbus' arrival in the New World.
In an imaginative illustration, Columbus’ arrival in the New World is greeted with Indians presenting treasure.

Later, in a scene that would illustrate how the Spaniards must have communicated the rudiments of their faith to the natives, Terrazas speaks at length to the Indian Dulcan about the Trinity and the Mass, among other things. Dulcan confesses that it is all very obscure to him and difficult to understand. But with uncanny intuition, a desire to please and an innocent irony, he brings together for a moment of illusory harmony the conflictual ingredients of the Conquest:

DULCAN. You cannot say that I do not love your Christ, since I have given you the gold with which you have made what you call your chalice and other vessels.

Dulcan’s sentiments are expressed again in another more formal setting when Ferdinand says to Isabella: “Madame, take this gold; I present it to you that you may use it as you wish.” “And I, my Lord,” she replies, “I shall give it to the church of Toledo to make a proper monstrance.”

It is likely that the Devil’s last words on the subject sound more truthful to us than to Lope’s audience. “You are a fool”—he says to Dulcan—”to believe in the friendship of these Spaniards! They covet your gold, so they make themselves saints and pretend to be decent Christians; meanwhile others will come and take away all your riches and carry them back to Spain.”

In the play’s closing moments we witness the apotheosis of the Discovery and Conquest. To the Catholic Rulers Columbus says: “I give you another world to rule. Here are its first fruits: these men, this gold.” And Ferdinand replies in the unitary voice of Church and State: “In all antiquity there is no captain to compare with you. You deserve the laurels and palms of an incomparable Captain for making this gift to Spain and giving numberless souls to God! You, Christopher Columbus, were predestined for this miracle by your baptismal name. The author of such redemption has in him something of Christ.”

Christianity, the final defeat of the Moors at Granada, greed, the innocent sensuality of easily available exotic beauties that would unleash untold erotic fantasies, civilizing mestizaje, these are the themes that are given dramatic form over and over again in Lope’s limited repertory of works on the New World and in his plays on The Guanches of Tenerife and Conquest of Gran Canarias and Las Batuecas of the Duke of Alba, called in a later version The New World in Castile, since Las Batuecas was an isolated area discovered in the very year Columbus set sail for America.

A quick look at The Guanches of Tenerife will show its relationship to the play I have just discussed. In fact, certain scenes from the Columbus play were erroneously attributed to it. From the outset the inhabitants of Tenerife are identified as barbarians who must be placed under the divine yoke of Christianity. Lope is not unsympathetic to their situation: their poverty, their unaggressiveness, the honest simplicity of their existence. On more than one occasion we hear King Bencomo of the Guanches movingly defend his people and their way of life, ending always with allusions to the absence of wealth: “What wealth do they think I have, what silver or gold? What do they want from me that they persecute me so? … I can well complain about their tyrannical aggression, since I have no wealth that they may covet; still they come to inflict harm on me in the solitude of these wooded hills.” “If all my wealth amounts to a few sea shells, why are Spaniards so interested in conquering my modest possessions?”

The Spaniards, of course, are in search of honor, fame, opinión, though there are the usual allusions to gold and silver. They assure the natives that Ferdinand and Isabella are motivated by Christian piety alone. The appearance of the Archangel Michael with sword in hand announcing that he is conquering the Canaries for Christ and a miracle or two performed by the Virgin and her infant Son make one think of this passage from Don Quixote:

Even in their profane plays they make bold to introduce miracles without any more reason or consideration than because they think that some miracle—or effect, as they call it—will go well, and that the ignorant public will enjoy it and come to the play.

As Otis H. Green would have it, in the Discovery and Conquest of America—in the Canaries too, I would add—things bad as well as good can be encountered, “but the good—he claims—vastly overbalances the bad. The suffering of bodies is of no ultimate consequence; what matters is the salvation of souls, the routing of the powers of superstition and of evil, the growth of God’s kingdom on earth, achieved by frail and sinful human beings who, because of their heroic faith, are miraculously aided by the Divine hand.” Ultimately, what seemed to count for “official” Spain was neither virtue nor merit, only the triumph of Catholicism . . . and the rewards it would bring.

Octavio Paz has observed, building silently on the writings of Américo Castro, that “the Moslems and the Iberians confronted the problem of otherness by means of conversion, European Christians by means of extermination or exclusion. . . . Iberian policy in the New World copies point by point the policy of the Moslems in Asia Minor, India, North Africa, and in Spain itself: conversion, whether voluntarily or by blood and fire. Though it may seem strange, the evangelization of America was a Moslem enterprise in its style and inspiration. The destructive fury of the Spaniards has the same theological origin as the Moslems’.”

It is such a spirit, embodied in a God who for the Indians “comes down from Heaven and talks of nothing but sin” and made effective through his inquisitional agents, that would render impossible the irenic spirit of conciliation advocated by Spain’s New Christian community. In fact, as Juan de Solórzano Pereira wrote in 1647 in his Política Indiana, “from the very beginning of the discovery and colonization of the West Indies, when the Gospel and divine worship were first introduced and presented to them, the Cardinal of Toledo, Inquisitor General, charged and entrusted to the first bishops that they should take action in causes concerning the faith which might present themselves in their districts.” The Conversos’ utopian dream that a pluralist paradise might emerge from the nightmare of history, offering neutral spaces and public places where the descendants of Moors, Christians and Jews might mingle civilly and socially, a social system in which differences in faith made no difference in society, was doomed from its inception. The Inquisition would persecute individuals who took delight in envisioning a world in which all nations would be saved and all souls would be blessed. And it found intolerable the visionary religious syncretism of the Moriscos, some of whom were certain that every individual under the law of Christ, under that of the Jew and that of the Moor, could be saved, if he kept the precepts of his religion fully. What was to prevail was the messianic dream of the Hispano-Christians, expressed in the words of Hernando de Acuña: “una grey, y un pastor, solo en el suelo,” ‘one flock and one shepherd, alone on earth.’ The unity of faith would be achieved at an incalculable cost, even at the expense of essential evangelical precepts.

These last remarks lead us, finally, to San Diego de Alcalá, the play that you will read shortly and in which all the themes I’ve been rehearsing for you will have at least a brief hearing. It is, in fact, a kind of bridge between Spain, the Canaries and the New World both through the figure of its protagonist and in its subject matter.

Some years ago I wrote an article on the first scene of San Diego de Alcalá, using it to demonstrate that the phrase hidalgos cansados, that appears in it and in other contemporary texts, meant Christians of Jewish origin. The scene is an extraordinarily vivid portrayal of a society bitterly divided against itself into Old Christians—those whose families had “always” been Christian—and New Christians or Conversos—converts from Judaism or the descendants of converted Jews—, and justifies—sadly enough—Menéndez Pelayo’s remark that in it, theatrical illusion becomes confused with real life. The scene—amply confirmed in its reality by Nicholas Round’s study of the Toledo rebellion of 1449—presents a council meeting at which are in attendance two village mayors, some peasants, a gentleman-hidalgo and two councilmen. [Note: This is Professor Silverman’s own translation.]

FIRST MAYOR. Have the others arrived?

SECOND MAYOR. No, the representative of the gentlemen is missing.

HIDALGO. He’s not missing; I’m here.

FIRST MAYOR. Evil is never absent for long.

HIDALGO. Am I evil?

FIRST MAYOR. You’re certainly not goodness personified; you’re an hidalgo and that’s more than enough.

HIDALGO. You damn peasants of low breeding!

SECOND MAYOR. You ought to be stoned!

HIDALGO. Am I so much of an hidalgo that I’m hated by peasants?

FIRST MAYOR. What do you think being an hidalgo is, having money and some important position?

FIRST COUNCILMAN. You shouldn’t get involved in such things now. Let’s get down to what’s important.

FIRST MAYOR. Do you think that to be an hidalgo means giving your children the title of don and dressing them in fine capes and caps?

SECOND COUNCILMAN. Sit down, I beg you, please.

HIDALGO. All right, I’ll sit down, but unwillingly.

FIRST MAYOR. Why, what’s the matter? What’ll you catch from us? We’re cleaner than you are. (Más limpios somos que vos. You’ll remember that purity of blood islimpieza de sangre.)

SECOND COUNCILMAN. These hidalgos cansados, they consider us their servants.

FIRST COUNCILMAN. I’ll be damned if they know what work is here or in Seville! Blessed guns, they’re devouring us alive! SECOND COUNCILMAN. There are no slaves like us country folk! Poor, downtrodden peasants! While the hidalgos run everything and eat up everything!

FIRST COUNCILMAN. All right, all right. Shall we calm down, men? Let’s all sit down and talk about the reason for this meeting, so there’ll not be a lesser show of devotion in this procession than on previous occasions.

HIDALGO. What’s all the fuss about? Do we have to do anything more than go out to the shrine in good order, put the holy image on the altar and have the priest say mass?

FIRST COUNCILMAN. Yes, but we will have to give some charity.

HIDALGO. What, what charity? Is it to be given to poor people, or what?

SECOND COUNCILMAN. The Council usually makes a donation to the local people. . .and since it’s not out of your pocket, stop worrying about it.

HIDALGO. Let everyone take his own lunch, the way I am.

SECOND COUNCILMAN. Look, the charity is to be given and nobody is going to butt in.

HIDALGO. Oh, what people I have to deal with!

SECOND COUNCILMAN. And what about the dances?

SECOND MAYOR. I bet he wants to cut them out too.

HIDALGO. Well, isn’t it right to want to save money, to cut out any unnecessary expense?

FIRST COUNCILMAN. You mean cut out the dances?

HIDALGO. That’s right.


HIDALGO. I was never interested in that sort of thing.

FIRST COUNCILMAN. You know, you don’t want to be happy. You’re only interested in paying for those floats and decorations that concern the Passion of Christ, the stations of the Cross.

HIDALGO. And what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be commemorating?

FIRST COULCILMAN. I think, rather, that it’s a ceremony in which you’re personally involved.

HIDALGO. You’re a pig!

FIRST COUNCILMAN. I wish I were, so you’d not dare to eat me!

HIDALGO. You don’t know what you’re talking about.

FIRST COUNCILMAN. I wouldn’t talk if I didn’t know.

HIDALGO. That’s what I get for coming to do honor to a bunch of peasants. I m leaving so as not to dirty my hands.

FIRST COUNCILMAN. Why? Do you think I’m a piece of bacon and you don’t want to defile yourself ?

The hidalgo leaves in a huff, heading no doubt for the nearest kosher delicatessen.

The scene continues with these defamatory, crowd-pleasing comments by the two councilmen:

SECOND COUNCILMAN. Well, he’s leaving all right.

FIRST COUNCILMAN. In fact, he’s leaving the village.

SECOND COUNCILMAN. And he’s pretty put out.

FIRST COUNCILMAN. It’s typical of these people to be put out with everyone.

SECOND COUNCILMAN. They’ve got their sweet ways of arrogantly running everything. Let the procession be arranged with dances and charity and let him get back to the city with his defiled blood.

FIRST COUNCILMAN. Hidalgos! Tiresome people, all wrapped up in their phony honor!

SECOND COUNCILMAN. Don’t get yourself in an uproar.

FIRST COUNCILMAN. An hidalgo has above his door some rusty old coat of arms with six lances and a dart as a doubtful patent of nobility. And he’d like to compare himself to someone who’s got ten salt porks hanging up out there! Let’s get out of here.

SECOND COUNCILMAN. Hidalgos are nothing but annoying stupid heads.

FIRST COUNCILMAN. Let there be crosses and banners; hidalgos don’t make a religious procession.

And with these words—surely a reminder of the Spanish proverb: “Ni música en sermón, ni judío en procesión” (‘No musicians at a sermon and no Jews at a religious procession’)—the scene ends.

One cannot help but admire Lope’s extraordinary capacity to create in this hidalgo a petit bourgeois, and by no means completely repugnant, whose faith was purely formal, made up of empty gestures and ludicrous monetary concerns, devoid of warmth and spirituality, while at the same time offering to his receptive audience a compendium of anti-Semitic humor, based on the most significant aspects of this less publicized, but no less tragic, Spanish Civil War. (It should not be necessary to insist that the mayors, councilmen and hidalgos cansados were all Spaniards.)

Lope de Vega
Lope de Vega, the Spanish dramatist
who authored SAN DIEGO DE ALCALÁ.

What gave these peasants, these humble country dwellers, a corner on Christianity and purity of blood is not too difficult to explain. A hint is provided when the second councilman exclaims: “Let him get back to the city with his defiled blood.” It is a commonplace that the Jew is a city dweller. As David Ben Gurion recently wrote: “The socio-economic structure of the Jews in the diaspora differs from that of the people among whom they dwell. The majority of every nation are farmers, laborers and workers. The number of agricultural laborers among Jews—if there are any at all—is infinitely small. Almost all Jews are city dwellers.” It is for this reason that the countryside was looked upon as the final refuge of purity of blood, a mystical center of Hispanic perfection, unsullied by contact with Moors or Jews. By extension, to be illiterate, to be without technical or scientific skills, was some kind of guarantee that one was an Old, uncontaminated Christian. (Professor Gabriel Jackson observed during the discussion period that Ben Gurion’s claim was undoubtedly an exaggeration. There is substantive evidence in support of Professor Jackson’s contention that the Jews had considerable involvement in agriculture. Still, it is certain that they and, particularly, the Conversos “were city dwellers, in the main.” See Abraham A. Neuman, The Jews in Spain (Philadelphia, 1944), I, 165-166. For other references to the subject, see Yitzhak Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain (Philadelphia, 1966), 2 vols. (Index under Farmers and Land ownership); Haim Beinart, “Hispano-Jewish Society,” Journal of World History, XI (1968), 220-238; Anita Novinsky, Cristãos novos na Bahia (Sáo Paulo, 1972), pp. 25-26; Ellis Rivkin, The Shaping of Jewish History (New York, 1971), p. 107; Joseph H. Silverman, “Some Aspects of Literature and Life in the Golden Age of Spain,” Estudios de literatura española ofrecidos a Marcos A, Morínigo (Madrid, 1971), 133-170: p. 157, n. 27.)

This scene does more than provide a bit of local color. It offers, rather, a well-planned, beautifully executed contrast with the life and activities of San Diego de Alcalá himself. On one side we have the New Christian, characterized—for Old Christian consumption—by shrewdness, business know-how, heartless capitalism at its worst, cowardice, lukewarm faith, a religion of convenience, and on the other San Diego himself, the quintessence of Old Christian religious fervor, bravery, illiteracy, practicing a kind of economía a lo divino—to use a wonderfully expressive phrase of Ramón Carande in order to describe an economic system that had as its supreme ambition the saving of souls. In this way San Diego de Alcalá, who works miracles of the faith in contact with Moors, Christians, and Canarian barbarians, is in himself the apotheosis of Old Christian values, those values that would prevail in the Conquest of America, though not without fruitful competition from the values and achievements of towering New Christian theologians and statesmen.

Let us see, briefly, how this is manifested in the main body of the play and how it relates, in the process, to the other works we have examined. Diego first appears on stage in peasant dress and immediately impresses a hermit with his saintly simplicity mingled with wisdom. “I am,” he says, “un pobre villano.” Elsewhere, he calls himself—and others do so as well—”ignorante, idiota, pobre labrador.” And yet, miracle of miracles, without learning, without study, he understands and speaks Latin and explains subtle nuances of theology.

In conversation with a Morisco who will ultimately embrace Catholicism and renounce the infamous Mohammed, thanks to Diego’s wondrous achievements, he performs a favorite kind of “miracle”— repeated in numerous comedias of historical content—namely, he predicts a future event, an Hispano-Christian triumph, which has already occurred in terms of real chronology. In other words, through Lope’s art of retrospective projection, Diego predicts what is for the audience a glorious event from their past. “It may well be,” he declares, “that some saintly king—to whom Spain will owe more than to any monarch since Ferdinand the First—will succeed in driving the Moors from Spain, so that tainted blood will no longer poison the land.” And, recalling Acuña’s messianic dream of “one flock, one shepherd, alone on earth,” Diego—as he tills his land, baptizing not watering his vegetables—will use an agricultural image closer to the peasant life he knows: “God will unsheath his sword to cut down the contaminating weeds that endanger the health of his wheat.” As late as 1798 José Blanco White could write that “if Saint Peter were Spanish he would either not admit individuals of tainted blood into heaven or he would send them to some remote corner where they would not offend the eyes of Old Christians.”

When Diego is sent to the Canaries, he is ready to do battle with the barbarians, to give his life for Christ, and we learn that he converts many of them through his teachings and the inspiring example of his life. Thanks to Diego, a thousand Spanish students a day are joining the Franciscan order and their number has already reached 3800! (Spain’s problems of underpopulation were surely not divorced from such statistics!)

In the play which follows we see the dramatization of a miracle or two in Diego’s life, but let me offer a few examples of his economía a lo divino, his divinely inspired solutions for the scarcity of food. Like a God he creates ex nihilo, for “sin pan, vino y carne, sobra vino, carne y pan,” ‘without bread, wine and meat, wine, meat and bread abound,’ to distribute among the poor. An apronful of breads that he steals from his monastery for the sick and dying become bouquets of roses temporarily when he is caught red-handed. In the play’s final moment Fray Diego lies in state and a young boy laments:

Father, oh father! He is dead!
I no longer have a father.
And my bread, Fray Diego?
Who will give it to me now?

From out of the coffin emerges Diego’s arm and hands the child a roll amid exclamations of Christian fervor and adoration: “A miracle, a miracle! Even in death he was capable of heart-warming charity!”

Clearly there is something wonderfully wish-fulfilling for Old Christians in the life and death of San Diego de Alcalá. And it is only right that his name should live on in America; for in him there thrived symbiotically the almost superhuman energy, bravery and determination of the conquistador and the limitless compassion, humanity and evangelical zeal of the missionary.


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