The story about the true color red is one of many subtopics in an upcoming 90-minute PBS television program, "When Worlds Collide."
The documentary is about the century after Columbus' first contact with a whole new, previously unknown continent and what it meant to Europe and to New World people after 1492.
The program is co-written and narrated by journalist, author and performer Rubén Martinez.
"It's a story that matters today above all others," says Martinez. "And as a result, the nature of identity and ethnicity was dramatically transformed right down to our own times."
So relevant is it that he brings his own twin daughters into the picture to illustrate his point. They are, like many people, of mixed ethnicities. In the New World, the term mestizo has evolved. It is the term applied to talk about the continuing merger of people through marriage and birth, resulting in mixed ethnicities. This implies shared identities and personal histories. Notions of racial and ethnic purities have no meaning in this context, until or unless those behaviors are superimposed in the natural course of events.
The storyline for "When Worlds Collide" mercifully does not get bogged down in overworked comparisons of one group versus another. Instead, it is about reciprocity. The story is about culture and continents and the clash that occurs between differences and the eventual accommodation. Too often, when stories about conflicts are told, the part about the resolution is left out, giving the impression it's been some kind of continuous embattlement.
Take red for instance. Before contact, Europeans did not have a true red color for their textiles. They had a dirty orange instead. However, the native people of what is now the "Americas" mass-produced a true red dye, coming from the cochineal, an insect that feeds on prickly pear cactus. That is how the true reds in Rembrandt's master work painting The Jewish Bride got there. They came from cochineal dye. At one point, this true red ranked only behind gold and silver in value.
New plants and foods (maize, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, beans, sweet potatoes, chocolate, peanuts, sugar, tobacco) revolutionized European tastes and health because the average person in the so-called New World was probably better fed than those of Europe.
Martinez touches lightly on other aspects of culture contact. One that has interested me, and went mostly nuanced in the documentary, is how Christian theology was challenged to explain what this New World thing was all about. At first contact, the Americas were alternately believed to be Eden, Paradise and Utopia. Some explorers placed it in other mythological locales.
The New World saga, a half millennium old, coincides with the rise of the European nation states and colonialism, as they later became known. We have been imbued with accounts in support of national identities, war, conquest and imposed iron wills instead of shared traditions and technologies. A more balanced view, for our next half millennium, may help put things in perspective.
Too often, interpretations of history are not intended to instruct but to rationalize for one side or the other. Unfortunately, historical accounts are often used, like propaganda, to advance ideas about an inevitable dominance or superiority. The days of those notions are over. The objective truth is starting to prevail. It shows that the story behind the history is one about how different ethnicities (meaning people from differing histories and traditions) share their knowledge, exchange and trade goods, and blend through bloodliness.
Early in his beautifully filed account, Martinez says the mixing of ethnicities was one of the most dynamic eras of human history, when the new was conquered by the old. In the context of the Americas, the question still remains, which one was new, and which one was old?
Produced by Carl Byker with cinematography by Mitch Wilson, "When Worlds Collide" airs Sept. 27 on PBS.
Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.