Writing Mexico: travel and intercultural encounter in contemporary American literature.
In this project, I turn my attention to contemporary writers Jack Kerouac, Oscar Zeta Acosta, Ana Castillo, and Montserrat Fontes, who all employ tropes of journeying in Mexico. As American writers continue to cross the southern border, they inevitably engage their protagonists in ethnography, the encounter with and representation of others, in this case, an Other that has been marginalized and colonized in the West. What, then, are the continuities and discontinuities between theirs and modernist writing about Mexico? How do contemporary authors of Mexican descent portray this journey? This study attempts to answer these questions by examining literary works from the 1950s to the 1980s that deal with intercultural encounters on journeys to Mexico. I suggest that while Kerouac's famous 1954 novel On the Road builds on modernist traditions of Mexicanism, it strangely coincides not only with Mexican definitions of national identity (mexicanidad) but also with nationalist sentiments as expressed in Mexican-American works such as Jose Antonio Villarreal's novel Pocho (1959) and early Chicano writing. Linking Euro-American theories of primitivism with Mexican reflections on mexicanidad and Chicano nationalism highlights, I argue, a common project of critiquing modernity where Mexico functions as the antithesis to the U.S. But a juxtaposition of these discourses also demonstrates that the Mexican and Chicano nationalist projects are essentially postcolonial moves, while Euro-American Mexicanism is deeply embedded in colonialist structures. Acosta's early Chicano memoir, Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972), and Castillo's epistolary novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986), deploy the traditional rhetoric of Mexico only to highlight its implication in colonial and neocolonial structures. They perform a crucial shift from a colonial and nationalist to a postcolonial imaginary. In her historical novel Dreams of the Centaur (1996), Fontes foregoes the rhetoric altogether. Throughout her reassessment of the country and its people, she creates not a monolithic nation and subject but stresses the diversity of regions and their inhabitants, offering a more complex view of Mexico that takes into account the country's regionalisms and Mexican subjects' dynamic and multiple identities.
Mexicanism refers to a set of attitudes that are born of the colonial imagination; they are a biproduct of imperialism. Said describes Orientalism as "a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western experience" (1979, 1) and writes that the "Orient was almost a European invention." Important for my purposes here is also his assumption that "Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between 'the Orient' and (most of the time) 'the Occident'" (2; emphasis added). As the modernists' reliance on the noble savage and Mexican antiquity demonstrates, Mexico holds a central place in the Anglo-American cultural imagination as civilization's Other, representing the exotic, primitive, and premodern. This interpretative projection engages the language of previous civilizations to describe contemporary Mexicans and refers to exotic and barbaric rites in its conflation of the present and the past. Mexicanism is also a form of primitivism, itself associated with Romanticism and predicated on a rejection of modernity. Thus, in Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas distinguish between chronological and cultural primitivism. Chronological primitivism, "a backward-looking habit of mind" (1973, 7), posits humanity's golden age in its beginnings; history is not marked by progress but by a tendency toward decline. Cultural primitivism is "the discontent of the civilized with civilization" (7), of the modern with sophisticated modernity. Lovejoy and Boas continue, "it is the belief ... that a life far simpler and less sophisticated ... is a more desirable life" (7). Erik Camayd-Freixas contends that the search for this ideal in the present often occurs "in the way of life of exotic or primitive peoples who still survive in a 'state of nature' preserved by remote isolation" (2000a, viii).
The modernist turn to Mexico occurred for a number of reasons. On the one hand, it grew out of post-World War I disillusionment with the West, captured in Oswald Spengler's widely read critique of post-Enlightenment civilization, The Decline of the West (1918). On the other hand, many intellectuals' belief in the ideals of the Mexican Revolution caused Americans' enchantment with the country. Helen Delpar, in her study of Mexican and American relations between 1920 and 1935, also attributes this "enormous vogue of things Mexican" to an increase in international awareness in the U.S. and specifically the country's expansion of hemispheric consciousness. This led to a simultaneous interest in the past of the Indians of the Americas and in the work of Mexican muralists, who painted their country's indigenous past. (4) Like their modernist precursors, the countercultural artists of the Beat generation are responsible for a resurgence of things Mexican in the U.S. As Rachel Adams explains, "huaraches, woven blankets and ponchos, silver jewelery, terra cotta pottery, Carlos Castaneda's best-selling parables of Don Juan, the Yaqui shaman ... become an integral part of the countercultural iconography in the U.S." (2004, 58). Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg's engagement with Mexico constitutes a reaction to the ills of post World-War II American society, a society which they found artificial and controlling. Their travels to Mexico--Kerouac visited the country several times in the years between 1950 and 1961--constitute a simultaneous rejection of U.S. culture and veneration of natural, simple, and uninhibited lifestyles. (5)
Kerouac's road novel, a paradigmatic American genre, reverses one of the dominant narratives of Western culture: that of evolutionary progress from primitivism to civilization. The novel traces narrator and protagonist Sal Paradise's cross-country odyssey and quest for spiritual renewal. Fed up with life in New York City, recently returned from the World War II, and newly divorced, Sal Paradise initially seeks refuge on the West Coast, long the symbol of freedom and pioneerism. When he finds the West unyielding to his quest, he turns beyond the country's borders in search of new land. Critic Manuel Luis Martinez accurately reads this process of re-creating and re-siting the American frontier in an expansionist/imperialist context. Mexican spaces are presented sans the trappings of civilization and inhabited by a people that are represented in form of Rousseauian idealizations of oneness with the natural environment. Like many writers before him, Kerouac illustrates a key primitivist tenet that "Human beings are by nature prone to do good: Their evil comes from self-imposed limitations of their freedom" (Harmon and Holman 1996, 407). Sal's "imperialist nostalgia," his desire to become like or merge with the margins that his own power has established, demonstrates the pitfalls of such romanticism. (6)
Throughout the novel, Sal locates the most authentic behaviors and lifestyles in non-European peoples. The most explicit connection to modernist versions of primitivism lies in his treatment of African-Americans as people who are connected to the land, who engage in the same archetypal activities as when they first arrived on this continent. When in the Southern U.S., specifically in New Orleans, Sal sees African-Americans merging with the landscape, "There was a mystic wraith of fog over the brown waters that night, together with dark driftwoods; and across the way New Orleans glowed orange-bright, with a few dark ships at her hem.... The ferry fires glowed in the night; the same Negroes plied the shovel and sang" (Kerouac 1976, 147). Sal admires the "god-blessed patience [of] their grandfathers" to the extent of "wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.... I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a 'white man' disillusioned" (96, 180). Whether it be jazz artists or cotton pickers, Kerouac's racial essentialism is evident in his lack of individualization of African-Americans in the novel and his erasure of the historical conditions that govern their lives in the U.S. It is his own whiteness in his view that impedes his personal development in the U.S. (7)
Sal's impressions of others are informed by his desire to shed his identity, and his wish to be a "Denver Mexican" or Japanese-American reveals how this desire is implicated in the politics of centuries-old racial inequalities. It is this same desire that filters his representation of Mexico. When crossing the border, Sal exclaims, "We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic" (276). In his view, the country appears as a space free of the strictures of social norms and authority, a place where American individualism can be pursued at full force. Here he finds inspiration among the marginalized, and even the countryside provides relief from the hero's troubles. Sal's Mexicanist epistemology allows him to describe the people as part of the wilderness: "Through the tangled bush we occasionally saw thatched huts with African-like bamboo walls, just stick huts. Strange young girls, dark as the moon, stared from mysterious verdant doorways" (279). (8) Landscape has historically played an important function in primitivist discourses, particularly in Latin America, as Camayd-Freixas explains. Works by Latin American authors have themselves "nourished the myth of 'primitive' America with the primal monstrosity of its savage scenery" (Camayd-Freixas 2000b, 111). Kerouac's descriptions further portray the links between the logic of imperialism and the masculine imagination. As the conqueror's gaze rests on the unidentified, nameless Other, Woman in her innocence, like the wilderness, is to be conquered. Kerouac's depictions are derived from his reading of Spengler's work in the mid 1940s, which focuses on the fictional land of a marginalized people, the fellaheen, who live on the edge of history. Kerouac applies Spengler's term to Mexican Indians who appear as basic, primitive, wailing humanity. (9) On the one hand, Sal seeks to present a nuanced image of Mexicans: they "were not at all like the Pedros and Panchos of silly civilized American lore" (Kerouac 1976, 280); but on the other hand, his construction of them as "great, grave Indians," "the source of mankind and the fathers of it" (280-81), is colored by Kerouac's own romanticism and nostalgia.
Writing in 1939, Mexican anthropologist Pablo Martinez del Rio mocks the modernists' Mexicanisms: "Ah, they say, for those happy times before the coming of the white man! Ah, for the old, lazy, joyous, carefree life....
Ah culture, ah civilization, destined to disappear before that monstrosity imported from Europe, which is no civilization at all, but only a 'so-called' civilization" (qtd. in Keen 1971, 490). Similarly, in his The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), Mexican intellectual Octavio Paz comments on such neoromantic attitudes. Particularly in the essay "The Sons of Malinche," Paz explains that Mexican hermeticism and the fact that "Europe considers Mexico to be a country on the margin of universal history," has led to a view of Mexicans as "mysterious" and "inscrutable" (65). He continues that in this figuration, the Mexican peasant, "remote, conservative, somewhat archaic in his ways of dressing and speaking, fond of expressing himself in traditional modes and formulas," has become a privileged figure of Mexicanness to urban Westerners and represents "the ancient and secret element of society" (65).
These comments occur, however, within the context of intense debates within Mexico around the role of indigenism and national identity. After Independence, the national mythologizers under minister of development Riva Palencio sought to validate pre-Conquest history in the capital's monuments, most importantly the statue of Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec king, on one of Mexico City's main avenues. (10) The Mexican Revolution a century later with its goal of agrarian reform highlighted the plight of Mexico's peasant Indian population and contributed, according to Keen, to the country's "second discovery of ancient Mexico" (1971, 464). In its wake, an artistic renaissance celebrated Indians and their past. Keen comments, "The Mexican cult of ancient Mexico reflects above all an intense nationalism, the desire to accent that part of the national cultural heritage which is particularly Mexican, a justified pride in a great tradition of remote antiquity" (467). This inward looking movement can also be regarded as a gesture to ward off modernity, embodied in the neoclassical turn during the late nineteenth century as well as extensive foreign investment in the country. As Amaryll Chanady has argued, Paz himself experienced a primitivist turn in his discussions of the Aztecs as the founders of Mexican civilization. This turn occurred, she explains, because of his disillusionment with twentiethcentury utopian systems. In his view, the culture of modernity is sterile and lacks any sense of communion and belonging; hence, he views solitude as the fundamental human condition. In Mexico, Aztec history, symptomatically barbaric, repeats itself. In contrast to those who revalorize Mexico's indigenous heritage, Paz positions himself against the glorification of the Aztec empire exhibited, for instance, at the Mexico City Archaeological Museum: instead, he posits a glorious neolithic age to which peasants are the link.
In her discussion of Mexican traditional and avant-garde photography, cultural critic Coco Fusco echoes Keen by stating that "within Mexico definitions of mexicanidad is based on a nationalist romanticism that emerged in the wake of the Mexican Revolution" (1995, 104). This romanticism has led to photography's construction of an iconography that represents Mexican peasants as the essence of Mexico: a rural country that beckons with its picturesque sights, vibrant colors, ancient Mayan and Aztec artifacts, palm trees, and fiestas. These supposedly mimetic representations of "Mexican culture" are circulated and consist of recognizable signs of Mexicanness that depict the country as timeless, brimming with natural beauty, and replete with supernatural belief. This iconography is used by both Mexican and foreign photographers and is the point where Mexican views of mexicanidad and outsiders' views of Mexicanness intersect. As Daniel Cooper Alarcon illustrates, the Mexican tourist industry very pragmatically capitalizes on the perpetuation of such constructions of indigenism. (11) Fusco emphasizes, "Mexican images of Mexicanness dovetail with American images of Other" (107).
This convergence of discursive constructions of Mexico makes clear a strange paradox: it is the same discourse that functions in the West as a marker of colonialism (Mexicanism) that in Mexico signals a nationalism that has at its goal a postcolonial turn (indigenismo). (12) In his collection of essays, Primitivism and Identity in Latin America, Camayd-Freixas links the formation of national consciousness most clearly to anti-colonialism. Latin American indigenism positions itself "as the returning gaze of the colonized, a reappropriation of identity" (2000a, x) that has as its goal a validation of the country's pre-conquest past. But "the nostalgic backward glance towards the golden age of pre-Columbian cultures" is at the same time a constituting moment of national identity. As Rousseau's work was highly influential in Latin America, Latin American Romanticism "learned to seek the exotic at home, finding in indanismo a common expression for a trend with many national varieties" (xii). "Far from being a new import, modern primitivism in Latin America is ... a resurgence, a broad reevaluation of culture, prompted by several facts":
an overdue reaction against positivism; a rise in nationalist sentiments after the Mexican Revolution; a disillusionment with Western civilization after World War I; the rise of ethnology and humanistic anthropology; major archaeological discoveries in the Americas; and certainly, the influence of artistic primitivism propelled by the European Avant-garde. (xiii)
This discussion shows the proliferation of discourses of primitivism in Latin America.
As Camayd-Freixas' words indicate, the critique of modernity is common to both U.S. Mexicanism and Mexican discourses of indigenismo. In Kerouac's work, it takes the form of the authors' establishment of the binary oppositions of modernity (U.S. American, rational, scientific, urban) vs. tradition (Mexcian, folkloric, rural, magical). Representations of Mexico and Mexicans become functions of these binary structures. The city becomes the symbol of the Western malaise; it is described by Kerouac as nightmarish and forbidding. The sense of displacement and alienation Western cities evoke frequently motivates travel, particularly to premodern civilizations, where, Caren Kaplan explains, the past is displaced onto another location (1996, 35). Like Camayd-Freixas, Mexican cultural critic Roger Bartra focuses on this conjunction when he argues that Mexico, like other modern societies, invents its own paradise lost as a reaction to modernization and progress. Bartra contends that "capitalist industrial society searches insistently for a mythical level at which primitive innocence and original order were supposedly lost" (2000, 3). In Mexico, it is once again the figure of the peasant who provides this connection (3): "National culture is nourished by preindustrial history of the country and the ashes of the peasantry" (4). The peasant as a melancholy figure is one of the most important constituents of Mexican character and national culture, harkening back to an agrarian society defined as the ser del mexicano.
Within this context, it comes as no surprise that the Chicano movement in the 1960s also sought to define Chicano identity by reconnecting to a pre-colonial past. (13) In his ground-breaking poem "Yo Soy Joaquin," Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, for instance, develops an identity by establishing a line of descent from the Chicanos to Indian nobility. The figure of the Indian woman is of paramount importance in Chicana texts as well, including Gloria Anzaldtia's Borderlands/La Frontera (1987) and Ana Castillo's Massacre of the Dreamers (1995). Like the Latin American tendencies Camayd-Freixas discusses, protagonists of many Chicano novels, when returning to Mexico, tend to look for the rural, the agrarian-markers of pre-Conquest cultures in their search for "home" and "identity."
Written shortly before the beginning of the Chicano movement, Villarreal's novel Pocho focuses on protagonist Richard's conflict between the values of his immigrant parents and those of the U.S. Villarreal "roots" Richard's heritage in Mexico by referring in the first few pages of the novel to his father's experiences in Ciudad Juarez shortly after the Revolution. After Alvaro Obregon's ascendance to the presidency, ex-Colonel of the revolutionary army Juan Manuel Rubio shoots a U.S. Citizen of Spanish descent in a barroom brawl. Through Juan's point of view, Villarreal delivers a critique of post-revolutionary Mexico where the principles of the Revolution have been betrayed, colonial regimes have been left intact, and neocolonialism in the guise of the U.S. is on the rise. Juan argues that all Spaniards "must be driven out of Mexico" (1959, 7) and mourns the changes in Juarez dictated by the U.S. For Juan, the loss of Revolutionary ideals, which connect Mexican national identity to pre-Conquest values, is at stake. Before he leaves for exile in the U.S., Juan lectures the general who saves his life:
Do you not remember that our people have better manners than this aristocracy, that our ancestors were princes in a civilization that was possibly more advanced than this one? I had enough of your high-class women in Mexico. And as for the pale ones, they do not please me, either. No, my general with good manners, the india is still the most beautiful woman in the world. (8)
In his disillusionment with the present, he juxtaposes the current political elite to the true aristocracy of ancient civilizations. Juan's rhetoric of nobility conflates ethnicity and masculinity, and focuses on the figure of the Indian woman in this pre-Cortesian economy as emblematic of male/national desire. This nostalgic retrospection, where the past represents the ideal, ignores the reality of oppression of women and indigenous people of the lower castes. Through his employment of the traditional iconography of the figure of the peon, the male warrior, and the gun-toting charro who kills a man over a woman in a cantina, Villarreal evokes traditional depictions of Mexico and Mexicans in the name of resurrecting the lost honor, dignity, loyalty, and nobility of the Revolution and, with it, an ancient civilization. To the exile, as Bruce-Novoa explains, Mexico represents "paradise lost" (1990, 59), though its behaviors and lifestyles nonetheless remain normative to Juan for the rest of his life.
Disillusionment with modernity, and treatment of the U.S. and Mexico as antithetical worlds initially govern Oscar Zeta Acosta's Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo as well, though Acosta ultimately points to the contradictory nature of the rhetoric of Chicano nationalism: its simultaneous implication in colonialist assumptions and postcolonial aspirations. The author's affiliation with the Beat movement and specifically with Hunter S. Thompson and the San Francisco counterculture of the 1960s clearly impacts his narrative. The memoir's (anti)hero, Oscar, son of Mexican immigrants, has ostensibly achieved the American Dream by becoming a lawyer. His alienation from mainstream society is, much like Sal's, expressed in physical ailments, emotional turmoil, and experimentation with drugs and alcohol. The western metropolis of San Francisco functions as synecdoche of all the ills of Western culture:
I leave my Polk District apartment and drive through the tunnel under Russian Hill on Broadway, where the sidewalks are covered with ants in Brooks Bros. clothing, computers with simple black brief cases, fancy umbreilas in hand, wearing good old slick loafers to get you down the Montgomery Street, the richest street on the West Coast.... I plunge ahead in my trusty Plymouth decked out to look like a narco's car. Cables, concrete and congestions, these are the things that matter. (1989,17-18; emphasis added)
Oscar mourns, in quasi-existentialist fashion, the inauthenticity of modern industrial society. His sense of cultural decadence manifests itself in his depiction of life in the metropolis as one of excess: of food, women, and drugs. The cityscape is suggestive of the artificiality of Baudrillard's simulacra, copies of the real that become the stand-in for truth: "We roll gently in our black submarine down Bay Street past staid Victorian houses with nooks and crannies, Austrian shades and garages, lit to look like European brothels" (59). The architectural mischmasch of buildings in San Francisco's Italian quarter is matched by the decor at the restaurant, presenting a "world of fat-red carpets, violet tablecloths, dazzling chandeliers, white camellias, red roses and purple spider-mums. Young olive trees and casual green elephant ears are potted along the sides. There are pink brick walls ... and a fountain spouting yellow water from the pelvic bone of a whale" (60). The establishment is populated with people who "wear black suits and black glasses; old women with powder blue, short hair; young women with shivering gowns; furs of dead animals, diamonds from the caves of deepest Africa, rubies from the eyes of Asian dieties [sic]" (60).
Oscar throws away his law license and, like many travelers in search of spiritual renewal, embarks on a trip that takes him across the Western U.S. and eventually to Mexico. This journey south is explicitly related to his identity quest--he travels to El Paso, the place of his birth, and then to the border town of Juarez to find out "who in the hell I really was" (184). As soon as he crosses the border into Juarez, Oscar experiences a sense of belonging: "All the faces are brown, tinged with brown, lightly brown, the feeling of brown" (185). He hears Spanish, the language of his childhood, and muses, "a language of soft vowels and resilient consonants ... a language for moonlit nights under tropical storms" (186). Yet despite his sense of homecoming, his descriptions of the country distinctly reflect a tourist's sensibility, focusing on and taking inventory of street vendors and sights: "Along the Avenida Juarez one could buy felt paintings, sandals from Torreon, and sombreros from Michoacan" (188). The people are described like Kerouac's African-Americans with a centuries-old unchanging demeanor, "that ancient air of patience which I'd always seen in the faces of the indio" (184); he sees "old women with ancient Indian faces carved from the mountains of their very own skin ... old men with sombreros," barefoot beggar boys humming "a romantic melody" of an old revolutionary song (187), and, very importantly, "the most beautiful women I'd ever seen in my life. Millions of brown women with black hair. Graceful asses for strong children; full breasts for sucking life; eyes of black almonds encased in furry nests" (188). Exoticist descriptions such as these are prefigured in earlier sections of the novel when Oscar relates his trip to Panama, a tropical paradise he visits with the goal of converting the natives, always unidentified except in the collectivity, "black Jamaicans and brown Panamanians" (132-33). Oscar resorts to common primitivist discourse, using language that in Western culture constitutes recognizable markers of primitive cultures. So does he employ a traditional iconography when in Mexico.
The climax of Oscar's Mexicanism is his announcement that he has become "a true son of the indio from the mountains of Durango," made in a Mexican whorehouse (190). This identification with his father's Indian heritage can be read within the context of the indianismo that pervades the resurgence of Latin American nationalist and Chicano/a ethnic consciousness. Oscar's mother, perhaps reflecting her criollo prejudice, used "indio" as epithet for all kinds of unwanted behaviors in her husband, a horsetrader from Durango, including drunkenness, laziness, sexuality, dancing, and singing. (14) Oscar's initial adoption of his mother's point of view is clear in his identification of Indian feathers with a general "wildness," or "symbols of bestiality" (86). His acceptance of his father's heritage on the other hand lies in his invocation of the pre-Cortesian past through calling up the dead ghosts of his Aztec ancestors with his clarinet (158)--a classical example of how "Aztec" has gained currency as unspecific symbol of pre-Conquest civilizations.
In addition, Oscar's obsession with physical processes functions to set up his body as a primitivist exhibit. At the beginning of the narrative, Acosta directs our attention to Oscar's body in the mirror, inviting readers' complicity in gazing at a naked native body. Much like an ethnographer views a native, Oscar describes himself with detachment. His body becomes a spectacle, a "return" to a primitive self stripped of ego and cogito, in line with the consistent identification of the body with nature in Western culture. As Frederick Luis Aldama suggests, Oscar has internalized the white gaze's abnormalization of his body (2000, 207). Throughout the novel, Oscar is obsessed with his skin color and weight: he grows up a fat, dark Mexican; his description stresses his Indian features such as his nose, the brownness of his skin, and his "large peasant hands" (Acosta 1989, 11), representing himself as an urban pelado (Octavio Paz's Mexican peasant): "I'm an innocent brown-eyed child of the sun," Oscar declares (54). As a self-styled native in the metropolis, self-references such as the brown buffalo stress the idea of a hunted species and its closeness to extinction.
Skillfully, Acosta brings together Chicano nationalism and U.S. Mexicanism to critique both. Oscar's attitudes are a direct and sarcastic response to the uncritical "vogue of things Mexican" he observes in the U.S. For example, Karin, a wealthy woman Oscar picks up in Nevada, who vacations in Mexico City and Acapulco, offers guacamole with peyote to the wanderer, and has a predilection for lovers of the Latin type, suggesting a connection between race and desire. Acosta also dramatizes the West's desire for the exotic through the wealthy St. Louis woman who has photos of an African safari in her room at the mental hospital (153), or through the rich boy who ran away from his father's money in Denver to see the world and ended up hunting tigers in India (157). I read Oscar's self-styled indigenism as a response to such attitudes rather than an expression of "grotesque physicality" (Hames-Garcia 2000, 467): he consciously adopts the stance of the primitive in front of others who inquire into his ancestry; in fact, he performs for them various forms of darkness and exoticism. When asked for his ethnic identity, as happens on various occasions, he poses as a Samoan, (15) claiming the exotic for himself.
Oscar's ironic manipulation and strategic performance of ethnic identity are clear commentaries on the commodification of ethnicity in the U.S. His is a performance of Mexicanism with a difference. Acosta's elaborate deployment of and, one could argue, indulgence in primitivist discourses function ultimately to satirize the Chicano nationalist quest for roots in ancient Mexico; his perceptions remain those of an outsider to the country. His naive view receives further correction when he comes face to face with Mexican modernity at the end of the novel. Like Juan in Villarreal's text, Oscar finds himself in jail when he insults a clerk in a hotel. But instead of the masculine world of prison and authority, he encounters a female judge who speaks fluent English, humiliates him, and orders him out of the country. With Mexican authority at least partially feminized, this expulsion undercuts his expectations. Thus, Acosta deflates any foundational narrative of Mexico as unchanging homeland or Oscar's nostos.
Like Oscar, Teresa in Castillo's epistolary novel The Mixquiahuala Letters travels to Mexico in search for a homeland, the locus of which is the town of Mixquiahuala (1986, 18). Focusing on Teresa's relationship with her Puerto Riquena travel companion Alicia, the novel recounts the women's experiences in forty letters, all composed by Teresa. As Debra A. Castillo comments, Teresa "projects herself backwards, toward an indiscernible but determinably provincial origin" (153). Like other Chicano/a characters, Teresa, who harbors "intense devotion to the culture that had preceded European influence" (55), sets out to "seek the past," to ground herself in the history of the country she wishes to claim as her own, and in the process to visit "the wealth of ancient ruins that recorded awesome, yet baffling civilization" (52). Throughout her travels, Teresa becomes a "modern ethnographer," as Alvina Quintana has accurately observed, whose letters "systematically observe, record, describe experiences in the daily life of Mexican and American cultures" (79). While Quintana argues that the novel "illustrates Chicanas caught between these two poles, moving closer to self-discovery by drawing and synthesizing usable aspects from both Anglo and Mexican cultures" (76), she does not problematize Teresa's nostalgic conflation of Mexico with the past and her idealizations of old customs. I wish to emphasize how Castillo's pseudo-ethnography dramatizes how Teresa's search for an "authentic," pre-Conquest Mexico is essentially misguided; instead, Teresa encounters a nation that seeks to define itself within the parameters of modernity, and where the past/tradition frequently clashes violently with the present. Teresa, while trying to fit her experiences in Mexico into the iconic language of ethnographers, is constantly confronted with the limits of such rhetoric. Famously, then, Mexico is revealed as maternal, yet ambiguous and contradictory: "it embraces as it strangulates" (65). (16) Here, "relationships were never clear and straightforward but a tangle of contradictions and hypocrisies" (60).
On several different trips, Teresa and Alicia travel to the undeniably urban Mexico City; the small-town fishing village turned world-class resort of Acapulco; the ultramodern metropolis and favorite vacation spot for wealthy Mexicans, Veracruz, one of Mexico's centers of agricultural prosperity; and the colonial city and commercial center of Yucatan, Merida. In all these places, Teresa strives to find "Mexico," "the ancient land where villages still remained unchanged since the sixteenth century" (92). Outraged when she learns about the Mexican tourist industry's marketing of "Mexico" abroad that attracts blond Californians in search of the exotic instead of Chicanos to the Summer Art Institute, a school "with a heavy Aztec name" (24), Teresa nonetheless appropriates strikingly similar language in her own constructions of Mexico. In cafes in the capital, the women listen to "romantic, handsome youth belt[ing] out protest songs with lungs that carried the treble of volcanoes, lyrics of lava, penetrating as obsidian daggers" (26). Teresa's rhetoric here engages staples of iconic language when she alludes to the legendary passion of Latin lovers with reference to some of the most dramatic aspects of Mexican geography, the twin volcanoes over Mexico City. Another common trope is the conflation of the language of Romance and Revolution. The "obsidian daggers" further allude to the rich and equally legendary heritage of the Aztecs. Elsewhere, Teresa reveals her stereotypical expectations; "The truth is i just like to get into my environment, i drink pulque in the pueblitos, mescal in Oaxaca, Cuba Libres in tropical regions and beer in the Southwest" (19). The women also visit several unnamed villages, including a "quaint Mexican town" where time has stood still and native washer women "beat clothes against polished stones; indian children with streaks of blond hair bathed and splashed carefree" (26).
However, Castillo undercuts Teresa's predilection for "Old Mexico." The title of the novel refers to an ancient site to which the women travel. Mixquiahuala is a pre-Conquest "village of obscurity, neglectful of progress, electricity notwithstanding" (25). In this sentence, Castillo cleverly rejects any primitivism or ethnic nationalism inherent in earlier writings by juxtaposing the old ("neglectful of progress") with the new ("electricity'). There is no idyllic and Edenic return to premodern civilizations; modernity has reached into the remotest parts of the continent.
Teresa's binary construction of Mexico as homeland and the U.S. as exile is similarly undermined, and the novel suggests that urbanization does not halt at the border. Teresa's description of the major U.S. American cities she visits at first glance seems to encourage such a binary. For instance, Chicago is characterized by its dull structures as well as "the smell of dead fish and chemicals that rises from the lake" (65). Reminiscent of the sterility and decadence Acosta and Kerouac attribute to American cities, New York City is full of winos, derelicts, pushers and pimps, trash-ridden streets, double parkers and horn blowers, spicy aromas and the stench of urined and vomited halls (105). Castillo; however, blurs the boundary between U.S. modernity and Mexican antiquity. Thus, Mexico City's "ceaseless activity, the constant, congested traffic of aggressive drivers" (26) much resembles the urban environments in the U.S. Kerouac and Acosta deplore.
Castillo's novel very directly presents its post-colonial premises by linking the history of the village of Mixquiahuala to the larger history of the colonial enterprise and by suggesting that there is no point of return to a simple past. A visit to the colonial mansion of an elite family in Mixquiahuala whose origins reach back before the time of Mexican independence "took us back at least to the time of colonial repression of peons and women who hid behind shutters to catch a glimpse of the street" (25). Colonial history and its aftermath features prominently in the novel and are a remarkable counterpoint to the idyllic and rather ahistorical view Kerouac offers of the Mexican countryside. As a constant refrain, the sixteenth century is seen as a watershed in Mexican history, the time "when a world was destroyed and a new one began" (54). This is seen in the emphasis on the geography of towns, which mirror the colonialists' design: "The cobblestones, the women washing clothes in public basins (a kind of laundromat without machines), the white, wrought iron benches skirting the plaza. At its center, the proverbial kiosk where musicians hit their cymbals and blew trumpets in worn uniforms every Sunday afternoon, and, of course, the imposing cathedral (54)." The town square, the music, the cathedral are all testaments to the Conquest. Remnants of the colonial legacy are found even in the paradise of Acapulco, which Teresa realizes has two sides: "Our Acapulco was of Mexicans who were black and kinky-haired with shackled history" (33).
Castillo's first novel is a landmark in Chicana fiction as it takes on the patriarchal underpinnings of the Chicano heritage. Time has stood still, in Teresa's view, with respect to gender relations in Mexico. In Teresa's ethnographic descriptions, Mexican men appear as instinctive, primitive beings that frequently inhibit women's mobility. Narratives of encounters with women are, by contrast, remarkably absent. Apart from brief run-ins with native washer women by the river in Mixquiahuala, women kneading dough at dawn (101), as well as the sisters and mothers of the men the travelers meet along the way, (17) Teresa and Alicia do not interact with members of their own sex. Instead, the focus is on successive encounters with men whistling after the women, asking for sexual favors, or wanting to take care of them. The men's behaviors are described in lurid detail, as is that of Alvaro Perez-Perez, one of Teresa's colleagues and Chicano soulmates who breaks into the women's room in the middle of the night; that of the medical student who lives with his mother and wants Teresa to mother him; or of the Zapotecan artist, Sergio Samora, a wealthy hacendado who promises to buy her a casita and asks her to be his assistant, interpreter, Malinche. The novel presents a series of Mexican men who exploit women and exhibit "animal-like" or vindictive behaviors (59). Symptomatic of the men they meet is also Sr. Montes, head of the engineering department of the entire state of Yucatan, "whose unquestioned authority was impressive," but whose "feudalistic manner" creates derision (95). Patriarchy, Castillo suggests, in Mexico is alive and well, and linked to archaic political structures. Modern Mexico has held on to an outmoded sex/gender system; here, "two foreign women with more book knowledge that the average local official, wearing the faded blue jeans of the day, bandannas tied brusquely around their heads and casually dropping socialist terms in conversations took, [sic] little chance of gaining favorable odds" (92).
I conclude with a travel narrative of a slightly different nature, one that reverses the north-south trajectory depicted in the works discussed so far and that Strives to free itself from the trappings of U.S. Mexicanism as well as from Mexican indigenism and Chicano nationalism to advance its postcolonial critique. Fontes, who has traveled extensively in Mexico and frequently uses Mexican characters and settings in her work, in her novel Dreams of the Centaur, historicizes Mexican Indians and counteracts the image of Mexico as ancient, rural landscape; the country is instead part of a global community connected to the world through trade and migration. Alejo, the novel's protagonist, does not travel in Mexico to escape the U.S. but makes the reverse journey to elude prosecution in Mexico. This move threatens the very foundations of Kerouac's and, in part, Acosta's works--the idea of Mexico as exotic idyll and reprieve from modernity. Instead, Fontes's Mexico at the time of the Porfiriato in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (1884-1911) is rife with violent intra-national conflicts and tensions. The novel, which spans the years from 1885 to 1900, focuses on the ways in which the Durcal family of Sonora in Northwestern Mexico gets caught up in the Yaqui Indians' resistance to their enslavement by the Diaz regime. After killing his father's murderer, for which he is imprisoned in the infamous bartolinas, Alejo is consigned to the army, and, together with his half-breed, half-brother Charco, departs on an involuntary journey through Mexico, whose route precisely follows that of the Yaqui prisoners' deportation. From his ranch near Alamos, Sonora, his travels take him to the port of Guaymas on the Gulf of California, founded in 1769 by the Spaniards at the Site of Yaqui and Guaymas Indian villages, a commercial center where Alejo's father Jose buys his European imports, and which now functions to ship out Yaqui "undesirables." From Guaymas, Alejo accompanies the Yaqui prisoner transport through the state of Nayarit to Mexico City, where Yaqui boys are sold to labor contractors from Yucatan and Tabasco, and on to the Yucatan peninsula. Omnipresent are reminders of Mexico's colonial past, always linked to the exploitation of the native population. When in Merida, for instance, Alejo notes the colonial-era plaza rimmed by government offices, where "Indians were forced to make churches out of their temple stones" (Fontes 1996, 221). Alejo plans his escape from the hacienda San Jacinto, site of Yaqui slavery in the henequen (rope) plantations. After a brief sojourn in his native Sonora, he goes into exile in Arizona.
Fontes' Mexico is a multicultural, multiracial society with Moorish, Spanish, Indian, and African-American influences that cannot be reduced to a single essence. "Who does not or has not lived in Sonora?" Fontes asks in an interview with Roberto Cantu, and she continues, "We have Lebanese, Arabs, Sephardic Jews, Marranos, French, German, Irish, Japanese, Chinese and Mexicans" (Fontes 1997, 4). As Cantu notes, Sonora was the most dynamic state during the Porfiriato in terms of modernization and demographic growth (Cantu 2000, 147), where ranching and mining interests come to clash. The novel's two courtroom scenes following the murder of Jose Durcal, Alejo's father, over a land dispute, and Alejo's subsequent killing of his father's murderer, Esteban, give insight into these conflicts and into the stratification of Sonoran society. Esteban's family, the Escobars, are wealthy hacendados from Hermosillo whose clothes are "elegantly tailored" in European style (Fontes 1996, 81, 142) and who are well connected--"all the way to the Capitol" (90). He represents the political elite, whose interest has shifted towards mining, and who is in cahoots with foreign (U.S.) interests, embodied by American entrepreneur, investor, and land speculator Billy Cameron. Thus, Fontes draws the connection between the country's old Spanish-born aristocracy (the Escobars), the current government ("the Capitol"), and foreign imperialists. The Durcals are self-made ranchers, who, penniless when they arrived in Alamos, were lent land, which they turned into a thriving farm. Noticeably outside of the courtroom, where this allegorical struggle for dominance rages, and listening through open windows, are the commoners, "townspeople" with "faces [pressed] to the window grates" (81). They include small farmers who have turned out in support of the Durcals, merchants, professionals such as lawyer Rafael Castillo who later on finds land for Alejo and moves to Arizona with him, Chinese tailors and domestic workers, and Yaqui ranch hands.
In contrast to Kerouac's Indians, who function not as humans but as historical exhibits, Fontes delineates the historical contradictions Mexico's Indian population faced and contextualizes their struggles. Rather than idealizing Indian life as the antithesis to modernity, she presents the oppression and enslavement of Yaqui Indians by Mexican authorities at that specific moment in history, a history Kerouac, Acosta, and Villarreal ignore. Yaquis are famous for their fierce resistance to the Mexican government; they were the only tribe that refused allegiance to Mexico and resisted all invaders until 1928. Their land, rich in natural resources, was seized, and Diaz authorized their persecution and genocide. They were viewed as a people that, Cantu suggests, resisted progress (export agriculture, mining) and subsequently became victims of colonial warfare (Fontes 1997, 4). The novel traces whole families' deportation to the Yucatan, ultimately depleting Sonora of its agricultural laborers. Not until 1908 did the hacendados plead with the government to let up deportations. Toward the end, the novel returns to Sonora, specifically the sacred mountains of the Sierra Bacatete and site of Yaqui resistance against government soldiers in the Battle of Mazocoba.
In Fontes' novel, Mexico and the U.S. are not antithetical forces. She stresses cross-border cultural continuity as the Durcal family is welcomed in Arizona by friends from Alamos. On the U.S. side of Sonoroa, they are able to continue the lifestyle they had led, that of rural ranching societies. Finally, the novel disrupts the conflation of Mexicanness with masculinity, so prevalent in Villarreal's and Acosta's works. While it evokes the ideal of mythic Mexican manhood--the centaur of the title is Jose Durcal, who has a dream and a vision for this family and is killed for that dream--Fontes highlights the pragmatism and heroic struggles of her female characters. Jose's wife, Felipa, is very conscious of her position in Mexican society, as the following reflections demonstrate, "She saw how men's dreams had shaped her life--her father's search for gold, her husband's desire for land" (Fontes 1996, 168). Her identity nonetheless cannot be reduced to "black hair and black almond eyes" (Acosta). She is a woman who has to make her own living after surviving both father and husband, and whose primary concern becomes fighting for her children's lives. She is a pragmatist with incredible physical and mental strength, who follows her son through the country and into Arizona. Nor does Fontes suggest that she is an exception to the rule; during her trip and the army attack on the Yaquis, she sees many women in wagons searching for family (294).
Positioning contemporary American literature in a pan-American context where crossing national borders leads to intercultural encounter, shows that this encounter is implicated in colonial structures. This is perhaps most evident, though completely unacknowledged, in Kerouac's narrative, which perpetuates this country's romance with Mexico. Much more attuned to the colonial structures that pervade cultural contact, Acosta's, Castillo's, and Fontes' works highlight the discrepancies between cultural projections and historical realities. In both Dreams of the Centaur and The Mixquiahuala Letters, the Conquest and its aftermath are omnipresent. Fontes eschews the language of Mexicanism altogether, locating the postcolonial not in a return to antiquity but in an excavation and display of more recent historical memory. Her choice of the genre of the historical novel allows her to present a wealth of descriptive and contextual detail to further this objective. Recounting and recording events is the purpose of the memoir and the epistolary genre as well. But the first-person narrators of these texts concentrate their descriptions on personal experiences, and in the process, install the rhetoric of Mexicanism only to be confronted by the contradictions such constructions create. (18)
TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY-CORPUS CHRISTI
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Adams, Rachel. "Hipsters and jipitecas: Literary Countercultures on Both Sides of the Border." American Literary History 16.1 (2004): 58-84.
Alarcon, Daniel Cooper. The Aztec Palimpsest: Mexico in the Modern Imagination. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1997.
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Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/ Aunt Lute, 1987.
Bartra, Roger. "Paradise Subverted: The Invention of the Mexican Character." Primitivism and Identity in Latin America: Essays on Art, Literature, and Culture. Eds. Erik Camayd-Freixas and Jose Eduardo Gonzalez. Tuscon: U of Arizona P, 2000. 3-22.
Bruce-Novoa, Juan. "Mexico in Chicano Literature." Retrospace: Collected Essays on Chicano Literature. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1990. 53-62.
Camayd-Freixas, Erik. "Introduction: The Returning Gaze." Primitivism and Identity in Latin America: Essays on Art, Literature, and Culture. Eds. Erik Camayd-Freixas and Jose Eduardo Gonzalez. Tuscon: U of Arizona P, 2000a.
--. "Narrative Primitivism: Theory and Practice in Latin America." Primitivism and Identity in Latin America: Essays on Art, Literature, and Culture. Eds. Erik Camayd-Freixas and Jose Eduardo Gonzalez. Tuscon: U of Arizona P, 2000b. 109-34.
Cantu, Roberto. "Hybrid Resolutions: Liberal Democracy and Ethnic Identity in Montserrat Fontes's Dreams of the Centaur." Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies 4 (2000): 141-58.
Castillo, Ana. Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma. New York: Plume, 1995.
--. The Mixquiahuala Letters. New York: Doubleday, 1986.
Castillo, Debra A. "Borderliners: Frederico Campbell and Ana Castillo." Reconfigured Spheres: Feminist Explorations of Literary Space. Eds. Margaret R. Higonnet and Joan Templeton. Amherst, MA: U of Massachusetts P, 1994. 147-70.
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(1) See Michael North's influential work, The Dialect of Modernism (1994), for a discussion of Picasso's use of African masks and Gertrude Stein's depiction of African Americans in Three Lives (1906), and especially in her novella "Melanctha."
(2) One of the precursors is travel writer Walter Colton, who records his experiences in the Southwest. In his Three Years in California (1850), Mexicans appear as noble savages and as morally corrupt but cultivated beings.
(3) This term is hot to be confused with the Spanish term mexicanismo, which refers to words or modes of speaking specific to the Mexican variety of Spanish.
(4) Delpar argues that "Americans admired Mexico's natural beauty and its picturesqueness, but since the early nineteenth century their perceptions of its people had been colored by racism, ethnocentrism, and antipathy toward Catholicism" (1992, 5). See also Jose E. Limon (1998, chapters I and 2) and Keen (1971, 490-96) for discussions of modernist enchantment with Mexico.
(5) For a discussion of the Beat artists' writing about Mexico, see Adams (2004). See also Martinez (1998), who notes the contradiction between the supposedly subversive nature of the Beats' project and their neocolonial impulses.
(6) See Kaplan (1996) for related discussions of "imperialist nostalgia."
(7) It is noteworthy, though, that while Sal and his friends regard their whiteness as an impoverishment, it is this very whiteness that allows them the privilege of mobility. I would like to thank the anonymous reviewer for this insight.
(8) For such formulaic treatment of Mexicans and particularly Mexican women, see Horsman (1981). See also Octavio Paz (1985) for the connection between woman and mystery. His words seem echoed in Kerouac's passage, "Woman is another being who lives apart and is therefore an enigmatic figure. It would be better to say that she is the Enigma. She attracts and rebels like men of an alien race or nationality. She is an image of both fecundity and death" (1976, 66).
(9) See Martinez (1998) for Kerouac's reading of Spengler. See also Clark (1984) for Kerouac's increasing "identification with the spirit of 'the Indian,'" derived from a reading of Spengler (5).
(10) See Tenenbaum (1995) for her discussion of this period from 1876-1880 (135).
(11) See also Keen (1971, 468) on the Mexican tourist industry's dissemination of images of Mexico.
(12) Several authors have, however, pointed to the problematic nature of a form of postcolonial discourse where the adulation of "Indians" frequently went along with the significant neglect of living Indians in Mexico. See Keen (1971) and Camayd-Freixas (2000a; 2000b).
(13) See Alarcon (1997) and Perez-Torres (1995, especially chapter 3) for critiques of such foundational discourses of Mexican and Chicano identities.
(14) According to Luis Fernando Restrepo, dance in Western society is associated with leisure; for the urban, working spectator, film codifies native rituals as dance or spectacle, creating a primitive world of leisure Westerners desire (1986, 196).
(15) See Smethurst (1995) and Hames-Garcia (2000), who in welcome departures from earlier criticisms point out the non-monological and multiple constructions of identity in his work, argue that he in fact parodies essentialist concepts of identity.
(16) This section echoes Bartra's mourning of modernity and ambivalence about it: "Mexico. Melancholy, profoundly right and wrong, it embraces as it strangulates" (65).
(17) See Debra A. Castillo (1994), who argues that Ana Castillo's treatment of Mexican women in the novel comes dangerously close to tokenism.
(18) This essay was researched and written with the support of a Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi Organized Research Grant.
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