Sunday, May 8, 2011


Henry Otto Wix - 'View of Cuernavaca', watercolor, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Here are some glimpses of the landscape, town and churches of Cuernavaca, the vibrant Mexican "city of eternal spring" associated with two Belgian princesses. The unfortunate Empress Carlota of Mexico, daughter of King Leopold I and Queen Louise-Marie of the Belgians, adored Cuernavaca and spent vacations there, at the spectacular Borda Gardens, with her husband, Emperor Maximilian I. It was also from Cuernavaca that she set out for Europe to appeal, in vain, for support for her husband's doomed cause. Over a century later, Carlota's great-niece, Queen Maria José of Italy, daughter of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians, moved to Cuernavaca. In 1991, the aged, tired, depressed Queen arrived from Switzerland, initially for a brief vacation, at the invitation of her youngest daughter, Princess Maria Beatrice, and her son-in-law, Argentinian diplomat Luis Reyna Corvalàn, then living in Cuernavaca. Like her great-aunt Carlota, however, Maria José fell in love with the city, and she decided to settle there for a time.

Reinvigorated by the climate and the energy of the place, touched by the warmth of the people, she regained her humor, curiosity, fighting spirit and love of life. (She said that her beloved old dog, Alaska, was also restored by his new environment). She spent four culturally active, sociable years, in a modest, welcoming, single-storey villa, at 1005 Palmira Avenue, becoming increasingly close to Maria Beatrice and her husband, before before returning to Switzerland to live with her son, Victor Emmanuel, and his wife, Marina Doria. According to Luciano Regolo, Maria José's home in Cuernavaca clearly reflected her spirit: her reserved, but constant sentiments, her cult of history and art, her preference for lively colors and her cheerful irony. She was assisted by a small, but loyal and affectionate entourage: a talkative lady-in-waiting, Madame Claudine Estrayer, a French-speaking secretary, Monsieur Dominique Voghel, who kept the Queen in contact with the courts and cultural institutions of Europe, a Spanish teacher, and medical, security and household staff, including the Queen's majordomo, Juan, and her housekeeper, Zenaida Isabel. Many distinguished visitors, ranging from Mexican ministers to European ambassadors, as well as her own nephew and niece, King Albert II and Queen Paola of the Belgians, came to pay their respects to Maria José in Cuernavaca.

AlarconStCVMaria José had vivid childhood memories of her great-aunt Carlota, whom she had visited as a little girl with her parents. Albert and Elisabeth had taken their daughter to pay their respects to the tragic, deranged, exiled empress, living in seclusion in the Flemish castle of Bouchout. According to her later account, recorded by her biographer, Luciano Regolo, Maria José doubted Carlota's insanity. During Maria José's childhood visit, the old lady, after appearing lost and vacant, suddenly changed completely when Albert and Elisabeth, who were talking among themselves, were trying to remember the name of a newly appointed minister of state. Interrupting the conversation, Carlota supplied all the particulars of the person in question. The little princess was stunned; whereupon, Carlota turned and confided to her: "I will tell you a secret: when you want to escape from your past, pretend to be mad. Nobody will ask you any more indiscreet questions". In her last years, following her move to Mexico, Maria José's interest in Carlota's life would deepen.

The Queen also became increasingly intrigued by Mexican history, archaeology and culture in general. She was fascinated by the pre-colonial period, and tended to sympathize with the native populations rather than the Spanish conquistadors. (In this respect, she resembled her brother, King Leopold III of the Belgians, who was also sharply critical of many colonial methods, once again giving the lie to those who portray the entire Belgian royal family as ruthless imperialists). Maria José also developed a great admiration for the Mexican revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata, devouring biographies of her hero, laying flowers at his tomb, and proudly displaying a large portrait of him on her wall. Some suggested to her that it was inappropriate for a queen to honor a revolutionary. The always broad-minded Maria José, however, viewed the matter differently. Zapata, she believed, deserved every respect, since he had been willing to die for his ideals of "land and liberty", ideals which raised him above partisan differences. Maria José also had a more humorous encounter with Mexican history on a visit to Oaxaca. The local authorities were enthusiastically praising President Benito Juarez, who had been responsible for the execution of Emperor Maximilian I. Amused by the irony of her situation, the Queen carefully avoided reminding her hosts that the figure in question had killed her great-uncle...


Cuernavaca Catedral de madrugada


MadMonarchist said...

Very interesting stuff! Cuernavaca is a beautiful place, one of those Spanish colonial towns where the vistas, the weather and everything seems perfect all the time. It is tragic now, somewhat, since Mexico has become so dangerous that tourism is way down. The only way I could possibly visit some of my favorite spots now would be to fly into Mexico City and then go from there -in a group with an escort -and I'd hate that.

It is hard to imagine the Queen of Italy, a princess of Belgium, being such a fan of Zapata. Yet, I can sympathize with the position that I have been in myself regarding certain historical figures, when you oppose them and admire them all at the same time (though it doesn't sound like she opposed Zapata at all). It's also nice to think that perhaps Carlota was playing a massive trick on everyone. Of course, many insane people regularly have lucid moments and this was commented on about her even at the time and if she was aware enough to talk about being mad that does suggest she might not have been. Who knows? If it was all an act, it was quite a performance.

Matterhorn said...

Sixty years seems like a long time to be play-acting. I tend to think she did have some kind of breakdown, at least at the beginning. Whether she ever recovered, I suppose we will never really know for sure.

Jorge said...

VERY interesting post about the Queen's Mexican years. Just a small comment: nowadays the word "colonialism" is indiscriminately attributed either to the Spanish and Portuguese dominions in America between the XVth and XIXth centuries and also to the British, French, Dutch, Belgian, Italian colonies between the XVIIIth and the XXth centuries, but the concept that remains is the XIXth century one, when European powers exercised a brutal oppression over their possessions in Africa and Asia. Spain, at least, was not like that and the Spanish Sovereigns were extremely interested in protecting the rights of the native people, approving laws for this respect, etc. Unfortunately, many of the Spaniards who emigrated did not respected these laws. There was repression and persecutions, of course, but the Spanish Indies were considered another kingdom, equal to Castille, Aragon or Navarre, under the headship of the King of Spain. The great American empires, especially the Mayas, were brutal and extremely cruel. So I thank the Spaniards for coming to America and abolishing those inhumane practices. I think that in general, the Spanish colonization has proved quite positive for America, unlike what happened in many African countries during the XIXth century due to European oppression.


Matterhorn said...

Thank you for the wonderful comment, Jorge! I agree with you about those great American empires, and I also think the Spanish colonization had many good results. In this post, though, I was talking more about what I had read of Maria José's opinions on the matter, not my own views.

Jorge said...

I understand, thank you for clarifying it, Matterhorn. As a Latin American I am increasingly interested in the positive sides of Spanish colonization, as opposed from the negative sides that the media usually portrays (due to the bad image the Spanish monarchy received from some groups during the independence process).