Magellan’s Mask

My grandmother used to say that we should be thankful to the Spanish Crown and their opportune ventures in the continent they called America for their two most precious gifts: the Spanish Language and their One God. I never felt too attached to the first, and renounced the second as soon as I could leave my parent’s house without having to turn back. I hold no sympathy for the conquerors, who spent their days pillaging and destroying this new world, but I admit there is a certain nostalgia that I -that all of us- inherited from them. When they burnt their ships and built their churches here, they also became cursed by the certainty that the Old World was to be left behind. This nostalgia was the fertilizer that nurtured in most of them (and all of their children) the seeds of independence from Spain. Oedipus, tired at last, kills his aging mother so he can continue to live.

But they continued to cry her death for several hundred years, and with those tears they built a New Spain as they yearned to return to the old one, and they taught their children to cry as well, and to produce tears of stone and quarry and crosses and sins, and these children had children, and eventually my mother had me.

It is necessary to explain this yearning, this inherited longing for the old world of my ancestors, in order to understand the hidden causes that might have lead to the second part of this story, for you see, so strongly was that lineage imprinted on my ancestral soul that one day, as a kid, among dozens of worthless antiquities and dust-collecting junk, my hand found itself unequivocally attached to a most strange vestige of my people’s past.

It happened on the top floor of my grandfather’s pharmacy. My grandfather, a doctor by the Sorbonne and only apothecary of the Spanish-founded town of Cotija (where I spent my childhood) owned a century-old house that stands to this day, and established his business in one of its wings. I loved to climb up to the rooms upstairs because, first, it was sensibly forbidden (drugs were made there, and there was no shortage of dangerous substances), second, it was full of glass vials of all shapes and forms containing liquids of all imaginable colours, and third, there were plenty of antiquities from the old continent; each one rang with a different aura, and all of them called my name, but one of them was stronger than the others.

“It is Magellan’s mask” said my uncle.

This Magellan’s mask was quite unremarkable. Crudely carved on asperous wood, and probably painted blue some hundreds of years ago, it was now full of brown spots and tried, miraculously, to keep itself together perhaps by virtue of not having been exposed to sunlight in the last hundred years.

“It used to have some red feathers” continued my uncle “but that was so long ago, when I found it as a kid -just like you, in this very spot-, in 1953”

“What happened then?” I asked.

What happened was that my uncle (only ten years old then) found the mask as both were simultaneously found by my grandfather. The mask went back to a box, and my uncle was duly spanked and escorted off to his room. I couldn’t conjure an angry version of my grandfather, but they tell me that nephews are magically immune to the regime that parents impose over their kids.

This narration was corroborated by my grandmother, who also told me the mask was a gift from one Don Enrique Maldonado when my grandfather had to come back from France at the onset of the second world war. Apparently, he and Enrique met in France and came back on the same ship (the Mexican government had provided a transatlantic ship to bring back as many nationals as possible). Agustin (my grandfather) had put the mask in the safest place of the house and kept a particularly watchful eye on it.

As for my poor grandfather, he was just then entering the tragic penumbra of Alzheimer’s disease, and could not provide any more information.

I took to Cotija’s library. Ferdinand Magellan was not Spanish but Portuguese, and had travelled all the way down to what is now Argentina by the year of 1520. Financed by the Spanish crown he went as far as Philippines with mortal consequences (the natives had a spear or two with his name on them). However, it is not Magellan’s role that caught my eye, for there was another curious character in this story: Lapu-Lapu was then the king of Mactan, Visayas. Ferdinand attempted to destroy him since he would not convert to Christianity, and because Magellan came from Europe, Lapu-Lapu became the first warrior to withstand and repel an European invasion. He was said to be invincible by virtue of a strange artifact that granted him eternal life. Antonio Pigafetta, his only chronicler, mentions that this very artifact was stolen by Magellan’s personal servant after his master’s death, and where Magellan failed, centuries of other conquerors prevailed.

But, what became of that artifact, and of this servant? I imagined him going back to Europe carrying the most precious treasure of all, and then surviving up to this day (much like a vampire) thanks to this secret possession. Could that object be my grandfather’s mask? You will understand that being only ten years old, my imagination was running wild with theories of everlasting life and magical artifacts. I decided to investigate further and, how fortunate for me: The previous owner of the mask, Enrique Maldonado, was still alive and well.

Enrique was drinking mezcal in the ‘solar’ (a sort of inner patio) of his house. It had taken me forty minutes to get there on my small bicycle. He lived outside of town, but we could see the dome of Cotija’s main church from where he was sitting.

“You are Don Agustin’s nephew” he said, with the tone of someone who spends more time establishing facts than asking questions.

“How old are you?” I asked. Right to the point.

“About the same as your grandfather” he said, then he winked, and then he drank some mezcal.

“Why did you give grandfather your mask?”

Enrique smiled, looked around like he was waiting for my grandfather to appear from behind a tree saying “Surprise! Just dropped by with my nephew to share a drink or two”, then looked back at his own drink, no longer smiling, and spent three very long seconds like that.

“I didn’t give him the mask. It was his”

“But grandmother said…”

“I was returning it. We’ve been sharing it for a while, it’s a game we like to play” He was smiling again.

I didn’t know what to do with this information, so I decided my best option was to sit down and look at the sun, as it was setting behind the dome of Cotija’s main church.

Nobody said anything for a long time. Enrique finished his mezcal; it was starting to get chilly. The whole thing was a bit uncomfortable, and so I stood up, said my goodbyes, and went for my bike.

“You know” started Enrique as I was leaving “Agustín never really wanted to come back to Mexico, he had a good life in France. He liked the flavour of things over there…”


“The times were changing, and we both loved the sea. I said to him: wouldn’t you like to sail back? To cross the ocean once more. You said it yourself: things are good here, but the paradise is over there”

Silence. What was he talking about? This last thought was surely written on my face, because then he said:

“Agustín came back for your grandmother”

“Oh” I said. Enrique poured himself another glass of mezcal.

“When Agustín is gone…” he continued. He wasn’t talking about death, that much I understood “keep the mask, but take good care of it”

He didn’t say more, and so I left.

Five more years went by. We moved to a different city (the first of many moves for me, ending with my current one in Canada) and life continued undisturbed. We would come back to visit my grandparents every now and then, and in one of those occasions I realized with deep sadness that the time had come. I climbed up the stairs into a dark room that hadn’t been opened for a long time, reached inside a certain box, and took the mask with me.

Although its magical aura had vanished along with my childhood (perhaps we only yearn for our ancestor’s past until we live enough to start yearning for our own), I kept the object because of its emotional value and a certain nostalgic feeling, like that of a rainy day over an old, deserted city, which I could never completely shake off.

And then one day a most curious thing happened. I was already living by myself in another city where I was attending university. I had been looking for one of my notebooks from back then, and after turning the whole apartment over, I remembered a box where I kept most of the things I had brought from the house of my parents. The box had been placed atop a tall closet, and in my clumsiness I threw it to the floor as I was trying to bring it over.

I opened the box and, with horror, discovered that the mask (which was kept there as well) was broken.

The phone rang that very night. My grandfather had died. Enrique was found dead at his home the next morning.

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