Only That Which Is Felt Is Real
Four Mexicans are born every minute. In the time it takes to read this essay, we will supply enough babies to fill an auditorium. The most populous Spanish-speaking country celebrates its national day today and approaches the magic figure of 100 million citizens. Or perhaps it has already been surpassed. The Consejo Nacional de Población [National Population Council] states that there are 101 million of us, and the Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía y Informática [National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Computer Science] announces that at the end of the year, we’ll reach 100 million. Who should be believed? The truth be told, we’ve never been fond of accuracy. The discreet Mexican considers going around and counting oneself to be in very bad taste. The paranoid Mexican believes that the government manipulates the figures to increase its profits and mitigate its losses. In the city of Aguascalientes, a glass building safeguards the figures of a center with enough names to promise certainties: the Instituto Nacional de Estadística. The rectangular igloo interrupts the desert landscape as a memorial to inscrutable efficiency. The snooper doesn’t see anything but his face when he approaches the polarized windows.
On one of the streets in that area, you will find the Mesón del Borrego, a bar that invites easy dismissal of any official data. Several centuries of authoritarian culture have accustomed us to have more faith in what the taxi drivers say than in what the institutions report. In step with the mariachis and tequila, we choose the way we are. We will accept, for the purposes of this text, the figure of 100 million and proceed to the group portrait, which leads to certain questions. Do we really have a collective soul? And if we do, is it worth the effort to get to know it? If it is like radioactive magma, shouldn’t it remain intact?
Mexican culture has dedicated some of its best pages to the examination of national identity. From “La querella de méxico” [The Dispute of Mexico] by Martín Luis Guzmán to “La sangre y la tinta” [Blood and Ink] by Roger Bartra, intelligent language has looked for the signs of its differences. The most recognized remnant of this endeavor is “The Labyrinth of Solitude” by Octavio Paz, published in 1950. For almost a century, the portrait of Homo mexicanus was the following: a man who shelters himself in nationalism in order to overcome his isolation and complexes. Today, Roger Bartra describes this archetype as a myth; the Mexican in a pure state doesn’t exist. The members of the identity expedition drew marvelous maps for a dragon safari. At least that’s how things look in the 21st century. “Nationalism is an ideology that disguises itself as culture,” Bartra states. “We’ve had an excessive amount of national identity, exorbitant nationalism, unrestrained revolution and abundant symbolism.”
After this tonic against exaggeratedly patriotic exaltation, is it possible to define a country of 100 million, where 10 million are indigenous and speak 62 languages; three million live illegally in the United States; and an incalculable number are born and die in jungles and deserts without leaving a signature in the civil registry? One thing seems certain: Fertility is our main pursuit. The panda at the Chapultepec Zoo, one of our icons, is the only one that procreates in captivity outside China. A few years ago, the French anthropologist Serge Gruzinski described the people of Mexico as a “chaos of doubles,” a phrase worthy of “Blade Runner.” The surprising thing about these clones is that they look more like each other than the person from whom they are cloned. What does this mean? Octavio Paz clarified it in “Postdata,” a book that combines certain themes of “The Labyrinth of Solitude:”
The Mexican isn’t a being but a history; he assumes changing modes. We can resemble each other like identical grains of improved corn, but we lack genetically modified content to unify us. The idea of one identity has become obsolete.
Bartra, during a break from the television series he is preparing about the history of melancholia, also discussed the hybrid nature of the contemporary Mexican: “The hegemonic culture no longer operates in connection with nationalism; there’s no doubt there will be a rebirth of the subject and diverse sections of the political arena will hide behind it, but we are advancing towards cultural fragmentation. I don’t think the search for an identity that will give us legitimacy is possible or necessary. I also see some sort of reconciliation with the foreign otherness, mainly the Hispanic and the American, the two ‘others’ that define us. Also contributing to this have been the external changes: the Spanish transition and democratization, although a bit timid and quiet, of the political exterior of the United States.”
Defining oneself is an exercise in comparison. Mexico and the United States share the most frequently crossed border in the world, and to a good extent, that which is “Mexican” is useful in distinguishing us from Gringolandia, that Siberia where the guacamole stops being spicy. Hollywood suffers from the same assertive eagerness and has codified the Mexican as the man asleep next to his donkey who wakes up to betray his mother for a bottle of aguardiente, regrets it too late, and beats his sombrero against the floor (always full of dust). Recent films repeat the canon. In “Pulp Fiction,” a couple robs a diner in Los Angeles, screaming, “Get the Mexicans out of the kitchen!” And in “Traffic,” the scenes that take place in Tijuana seemed to be developed in oil for frying quesadillas: a yellowish refuge for drug traffickers. We wash the dishes of California and supply a good portion of the drug demanded by the noses of the empire.
We are so bored with these stereotypes that we have found new and more terrible ways of portraying the Mexican. From the cinema of Ripstein to “Amores Perros,” from “Pedro Páramo” to the paintings of Frida Kahlo, from the Mexican folk song to Molotov, Mexican art has profited from violence, spite, machismo and other variants of opprobrium in order to realize aesthetic achievements. Our reality has been shaken, but the way of living it and documenting it rejects reductive or uniform visions. It can’t be any other way in a country where the colonial buildings have been turned into “traditional” locations for filming telenovelas. The American baroque style is a set for the María Encarnación on duty to cry in a photogenic manner and export her over-sentimentality to the entire world.
Strangely, the genuine article usually comes from afar. That which is “Mexican” is more a state of mind than a designation of origin (as demonstrated by the Japanese who bottle their tequila in inventive gods of stone). Alberto Barrera, a Venezuelan poet and writer, arrived in Mexico to give the telenovelas a political slant and to refine the art of making people cry with “Nada personal” [Nothing Personal]. At the moment, he is occupied with two feats: to stop smoking and to create a drama that tackles the indigenous question without prejudice.
“Mexico is, in great part, responsible for the sentimental education of Latin Americans,” he comments, with the look of someone who searches for pride—and ashtrays on the adjoining tables. “Once while I was having dinner in a restaurant in the United States, a waiter approached me and announced that he, too, was Venezuelan. He told me that, to combat nostalgia, he listened to our music every night. I asked him what music he listened to. ‘Pedro Infante,’ he replied, with patriotic certainty. The Mexican folk song is as much from Bogota as it is from Caracas. When all is said and done, only that which is felt is real.”
Mexico is the world’s largest exporter of soap operas. How can anyone explain our inclination to suffer in 150 episodes? “You people don’t understand life without melodrama,” Barrera says, with the voice of a pilot who understands the turbulence of the subject. “You’ve created an image that can immodestly unite the icon of the macho man with a mustache and sombrero with the lavish display of the most amazing weeping.” The macho man, who feels insulted if he doesn’t receive the first plate of rice in his house, accepts his ruin in the Mexican folk song in the midst of the elements (the Virgin of Guadalupe, his mother and wife, in that order), suffers greatly, and never asks for forgiveness. From the other side of the spectrum, the feminine voice of Paquita from the neighborhood responds, “I cheated on you three times: the first time out of anger, the second on a whim, and the third for pleasure.” Mexican emotions become art in an increasingly less-traditional manner, as proven by the novels of Sergio Pitol, the oil paintings of Vicente Rojo, the installations of Gabriel Orozco and even in the artistry of the guitars of Paracho to the Fender Telecasters manufactured in Mexicali.
It’s no coincidence that in this cross-cultured region, the most famous of our countrymen are anonymous. In some location of the Lacandon jungle, Subcomandante Marcos files the machete and the words. There is no face under the mask; masks are identity.
Obedient and Rebellious
I met Manuel Lapuente, the former coach of the national soccer team, at a meeting to prepare a program of the television series “Zona abierta” [Open Zone]. On a table in a coffee shop, Lapuente re-enacted the fatal play Germany used to eliminate Mexico in the ‘98 World Cup. The packets of saccharine were Germans, and the ones of sugar were Mexicans. I asked him what quality he most appreciated in the national soccer player. Lapuente, who knows as few others the idiosyncrasies of our athletes, responded without taking his eyes off the packet that represented Cabrito Arellano, “Obedience.” I shared his opinion with the Argentine coach Angel Cappa, who suffered a season as the head of Atlante, and he said, “Lapuente is right. The Mexican soccer player doesn’t realize that the coach’s instructions are intended for him. He functions better with solid orders.”
If the soccer fields are decisive for our epic valuation, then our real valuation depends, to a good extent, on tourism. For Rodolfo Roth, the former executive of the Camino Real Hotels, the cardinal quality of the chambermaids and the waiters is the same as that of the soccer players. “The Mexican is very disciplined and reliable, but you have to tell him what to do. If you grant him the initiative, he becomes very nervous.”
The Aztec empire, the Spanish colony, 30 years of Porfìrista dictatorship and 71 years of steward governments made little propaganda out of individual initiatives. When I was studying sociology, a teacher would give us the following instructions for field study: “Don’t listen to what the people say but what they mean despite what they say.” In Cantinflas’s country, clarity has been a mortal sin.
That’s the way things were until the transition to democracy, whose symbolic date was July 2, 2000, when the PRI [Revolutionary Institutional Party] lost the election. The country that believed that no means of communication could surpass the whispered intrigue now lives in a talk-show state. When he isn’t representing the vox populi in front of a television camera, the average Mexican finds himself responding to opinion polls.
The results of this verbal furor sometimes make one nostalgic for the era of secrecy, when political causes would reveal themselves thanks to a friend whose cousin shared a hairdresser with the president. Televisa astonishes us with this poll: 86 percent of Mexicans think that their telephone is tapped. The unanimity of the paranoia attracts one s attention, especially because there are fewer than 15 million private telephones. (Perhaps the paranoia exists because one has a telephone.) Before going on, I confess: My telephone is tapped.
Do we really have so many secret things to say? In “The Labyrinth of Solitude,” Paz explored the conflicts of the Mexican who is discovered committing the sin of frankness. Our courtesy has been a refined formula of concealment, a verbal mask in order not to offend with our sincere feelings. Amiability protects to the point of confusion with its unnecessary attention. A short time ago, I asked an Aztec ballerina drinking Gatorade in the esplanade of the Templo Mayor, where Licenciado Verdad Street was located. “I don’t know,” she replied, with an uncomfortable gesture. “May I offer you another street?” she added solicitously. The adage “Lo Cortés no quita lo Cuauhtémoc”1 captures the Creole sense of our civility. We are kind but brave; that is to say, we courteously give answers to questions we’re not asked.
Until a few years ago, the polls reflected our reluctance to offer an opinion on our own. Mexicans talked one way and voted another. Contrary to the polls, in the 1988 presidential election, there was an avalanche of votes for Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the leader of the left. In light of this unexpected turnout, the minister of the interior interrupted the count and informed everyone that the computer system had “crashed.” The fraud gave the presidency to Carlos Salinas de Gortari. It was the last time the majority acted without being anticipated by the polls. Today the country of the lonely, for which Paz diagnosed “labyrinthitis,” is a wild party in which no one stops talking. Perhaps that’s why 86 percent of us fear that they’ve listened to us.
To protect us from our truths, we’ve resorted to humor. The logical result: The country is replete with cartoonists like Rafael Barajas El Fisgón. “John Lennon said that the people who suffer the most are the ones who have the best sense of humor. If this is true, we Mexicans are a humorous superpower.” In the living room of his house, surrounded by empty boxes and Carlos Salinas in miniature, Barajas comments with the proper severity of a humorist: “A web of chieftains whose roots predate the pre-Hispanic universe, a culture of corruption that comes from the colony, and the most brutal social disparities are a few of the constants of Mexican life. To this, one has to add elite delinquent finances, 71 years of PRI, and finally, a president who was a Coca-Cola executive. In light of this panorama, one has to ask oneself, ‘Why does the Mexican laugh?’ The answer is simple: because there’s nothing else he can do. It isn’t possible to put up with so much crap without a sense of humor.”
The guffaw as the final show of defiance to an adverse environment has been a constant in the country that El Fisgón draws with sharpened pencils. “The Mexican Faust,” Barajas adds, “calls the devil to sell him his soul, only to discover that the devil has already mortgaged it and is not willing to give him anything in exchange.” This situation of powerlessness facilitates the task of searching for villains. “The great humorists of the country are the top functionaries. One of the most well-liked political columns in Mexico is also one of the most comical: ‘Por mi madre bohemios,’ (I Swear to God, Bohemians!) by Carlos Monsiváis. It’s a compilation embellished with brief commentaries, of the stupid remarks often made by the current leaders. The column includes gems of humor like these: ‘At the Central de Trabajadores de México [Workers Exchange of Mexico] we’re more Marxist than the Pope’ or ‘In the State of Guerrero, the only people who complain are the poor (who constitute 89 percent of the population)’. Here, the politicians have been cynics since colonial times and look increasingly more like their caricatures.”
Instructions for Being a Mexican
It is rumored that despite globalization, Mexico will continue to be populated by Mexicans. Even though the culture changes and produces multiple children, is it possible to search for constants in our character? Despite the divergences, certain common traits endure, not with the pomp of national identity but in the fashion of primitive tastes, bad habits and pride that pertains only to us. One could venture, for example, that a specific form of Mexican relaxation exists. “Aztec yoga” includes listening to mariachis for six hours, receiving electrical massage, eating peppers that make the top of one’s head sweat, and fighting with a knife in hand for the privilege of paying the bill. This isn’t considered entertaining everywhere. But it would be simplistic to say that we boast about our personality. Self-derision is one of our characteristics. (To do something “in the Mexican style” or “worthy of Mexico” is never positive.)
Be that as it may, the Mexican’s search seems to be completed. “I hope we’re at a closed chapter,” says Roger Bartra: “Unlike other countries of Latin America, Mexico jolted itself with a very violent revolution; the ruins had to be interpreted in a process of identity reconstruction. The 1910 revolution was a catalyst that invoked a national personality. That’s how a mask that lasted the rest of the century (and that is now unnecessary) was created.”
Resigned to not finding the Homo mexicanus, we can at least share certain affinities. Shortly before dying at 33, Ramón López Velarde wrote the long poem “La suave patria” [Sweet Fatherland], which Borges memorized entirely. In that poem, Mexico appears as a vast territory where “the train runs on the track like a small Christmas toy” and the sky splits open with “the green lightning of the parrots.” An enemy of grandiloquence, the poet writes, “Sweet Fatherland, vendor of chía.2” Borges was particularly intrigued by this verse. Already blind and very old, he met with Octavio Paz and asked him what chía tasted like. The poet responded, “It tastes like dirt.”
The scene suggests a parable: For a century, the Mexicans searched for an indispensable country, without realizing that they were drinking it every day.
Harry Morales has translated the works of Mario Benedetti, Ilan Stavans, Emir Rodríguez Monegal, Juan Rulfo and Cristina Peri Rossi, among others. His work has appeared in Quarterly West, TriQuarterly, the Literary Review, Agni, Kenyon Review, Manoa, Bomb, Iowa Review and Michigan Quarterly Review.
1A play on words: “The Spanish doesn’t cancel out the Indian.” The original saying is “Lo cortés no quita lo valiente” (Courtesy doesn’t cancel bravery).
2Beverage made from sage seeds, lemon juice and sugar.