“Con el destino jodido”—doomed by fate—this is how José Vasconcelos, historian, minister of education and presidential candidate, described Mexico shortly before his death in 1959. His is a common jeremiad. La patria, the homeland, is seen as being simultaneously blessed and cursed: blessed with a fecund, vibrant soil and a thriving, tenacious ancestral culture and cursed by the admirable capacity to ruin Paradise.
In the last half of the 20th century, Mexico grew astronomically in almost every direction. With a current population of approximately 100 million, today it is, in spite of its flaws, one of the strongest economies in Latin America. In the final stretch of the millennium, a less monolithic, more flexible period materialized. NAFTA brought in the industrial complex known as maquiladora, which in turn opened the doors to transcontinental commerce. Shortly after, democracy arrived in full gear when, in 2000, supporters for Vicente Fox made the ruling PRI party crumble after 70-plus years in power.
As a result, Mexico is fractured at the core. Aboriginal voices have become strident again, the Zapatistas in Chiapas leading the chorus, reawakening after a long period of repression that started in colonial times; and other minorities—gays and lesbians, especially—are moving from the periphery to center stage. Indeed, Mexico seems freshened-up nowadays, blissful, even feisty. Or better, after a long and tortured history of monopolitics, it seems unofficial.
And this is a nation also ferociously reaching out beyond itself. About one of every five Mexicans lives across the Rio Grande en los Unaited Esteits—a total of 25 million outside Mexico altogether. So
the M of Mexico is also the M of maquiladora, of mojado, as wetbacks are described in Spanish, and of the migra, the INS.
To understand the quiet yet dramatic changes under way, one only needs to look at contemporary Mexican cinema. From “Amores perros” to “Y tu mamá también,” the silver screen is giving room to courageous, self-reliant digressions. Something similar might be said about music, theater and the visual arts: The crossbreed between highbrow and pop world views generates some sort of electricity that keeps our attention rolling. The Aztec need not be approached reverentially anymore. And a multiplicity of approaches is more desirable than a single one. To me, at least, Mexico feels without a center, which is, needless to say, reason to rejoice.
As always, among the best thermometers of change is literature. For instance, the so-called Generación del Crack has delivered novels not about the pre-Columbian deity Quetzalcóatl but about the Nazi’s race to create an atomic bomb near the end of World War II. The genres of detective and science fiction also have plunged into the depths of the collective psyche.
And then, of course, is the essay, my favorite form, which in Mexico is embraced as passionately as a sport. In the United States, people make a distinction between the academic and the personal essay, delineating one as erudite and elitist and the other as lighthearted and confessional. Happily, this isn’t the case in Mexico, where the line dividing the two is easily erased. And other lines are crossed with equal ease: the one separating fact and fiction, for instance. What is real and what isn’t, in a Mexican essay, only God knows.
In 1997 I compiled “The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays,” devoted to the Latin American incarnation of this form. The selection started with a newspaper piece by Andrés Bello published in 1849 and concluded with, among others, a communique by Subcoman-dante Marcos issued in the Lacandonian jungle. A generous portion of the contributors to the volume were Mexican. This editorial aspect wasn’t defined by favoritism; along with Argentina and Cuba, Mexico is home to an astonishing array of lasting ensayistas. But is home the appropriate word? Since its inception, the essay form has been rambunctious, a quintessential tool in disassembling the ingredients that make Mexicans so anarchic. And an ongoing quest in the tradition is the act and art of questioning the nation’s identity, la mexicanidad.
These are the reasons I jumped at Lee Gutkind’s invitation to edit a special issue of Creative Nonfiction devoted to Mexico. Mexicans consume essays 24 hours a day. Those essays are ubiquitous in newspapers, on cereal boxes and wrapping paper, in women’s magazines and comic strips, on radio, TV and the Internet, constantly allowing moments of insight, information and self-mockery. In them, the personal and the communal are never divorced. In fact, the form is characterized by an enviable elasticity; absolutely nothing is alien to it. If a thought needs to be articulated, or even reimagined, in Mexico, it is likely to be embedded in an essay.
It is symptomatic, then, that Mexicans portray those who practice the sport as cronistas, which loosely translates into English as “chroniclers.” A crónica is a flashy, slanted depiction of an incident, in idiosyncratic prose. Argument matters far less than style. One could argue that the style is the message, for what matters to the cronista isn’t the truth but the freshly subjective slant the author injects into the content.
In this issue, I’ve sought to represent the bifurcated Mexico we’ve become familiar with. I’ve chosen jazzy, itinerant, unconventional pieces representative of the centrifugal nature of the nation as a whole. Truth is not only relative in them; it is also inconsequential. What I was after as editor was perspective: an eye that becomes an I. I have even gone as far as inviting self-described “permanent Mexican tourists” to chip in their cinco centavos. C.M. Mayo, author of the inquisitive “Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles Through Baja California, the Other Mexico” and a Flannery O’Connor Award-winner who has lived in Mexico City since 1986, offers us an insightful picture of the Mexican capital from the viewpoint of her little, black pug, Picadou. In contrast, Susan Briante walks around the metropolis with pepper spray in her purse, waiting for all hell to break loose. But hell already surrounds her, does it not? Rigoberto González, a Chicano in the tradition of Tomás Rivera whose novel “Crossing Vines” returns Latino literature to the theme of migrant labor in the Southwest, makes art from kitsch—e.g., lo cursi—and vice versa.
Kathleen Alcalá is an exceptional Latina novelist with a restless curiosity for the past that is evident in her novel “Treasures in Heaven.” Her essay here, “The Woman Who Loved Water,” is about the impact of stories on our lives. Sam Quiñones has made a career of
exploring the Mexican underworld; we are indebted to him for the enlightening pieces on the narcocorrido and the telenovela included in his book “True Tales from Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx.” His essay here is a delightful crónica of the flower festivals in Mazatlán, where, according to lore, only two things matter: hurricanes and Carnival.
The above authors look at Mexico from the outside in. In reverse motion, Alberto Ruy Sánchez, editor of Artes de México and author of the novel “Mogador” and its sequel, “The Secret Gardens of Mogador,” set in the Levant, offers a response, of sorts, to Sam Quiñones, in his ceremonial piece, “Vigil in Tehuantepec.” Hugo Hiriart, a celebrated playwright known for his chivalric novel “Galaor,” is an essayist in the tradition of Augusto Monterroso. His piece, “About the Egg,” is a hilarious philosophical meditation on the art of being a huevón.
Sergio Pitol was, for years, an ambassador in Eastern Europe. He is the author of “Vals de Mefisto” and “El arte de la fuga.” His essay, “Sienna Revisited,” is a travel piece about Pitol’s 60th-birthday trip to Italy and his meeting with Antonio Tabucci. Homero Aridjis, a poet and novelist known for his ecological activism—he leads the important Grupo de los 100—delivers a litany about sea turtles. Juan Villoro, perhaps the most promising practitioner of the crónica in Mexico today, and who actually lives in Barcelona, is the author of the thriller “El disparo de Argón.” His essay, “Group Photo: 100 Million Mexicans,” discusses demography, a discipline that most Mexicans see as a form of mythology.
Of course, the point of contact of these viewpoints, from the inside out and from the outside in, is la frontera itself, the U.S.—Mexican border, a site so chaotic, NAFTA and Kafka meet tête-à-tête there. The maquiladoras, migras and mojados all live there. Not long ago, I came across a poem about a civilian victim of the drug wars in Ciudad Juárez, written by up-and-coming Mexican American poet Juan Armando Rojas, that epitomizes this point of contact. Its title is “The Bridge.” The translation is by Jennifer Rothbun:
Four bridges over the river
Four women cross the bridge four men wait at four
Four killed with a .45 assaulting four gringos
Five lovers four wives three daughters and
two sons abandoned in one city
Five mojados wait to cross at five
Five in the afternoon the train will be arriving soon
Four by four by four by four maquilas multiply
Four pesos every time they extend their hand if you work on the bridge
Four stations cut in and out on my quadraphonic radio
Four fingers on his hand they cut it the river carried it away
Three kilos of cocaine confiscated on the bridge
Three men detained by the migra
Three pesos are no longer a dollar
Two cathedrals in the plaza of Juárez
Two cholos fight over a virgin
This issue of Creative Nonfiction, then, is a crónica de crónicas about the unofficial Mexico, made of multiple Ms, a nation with a jodido yet inspiring destiny.
Nota bene: My gratitude to the translators involved in this issue: Jennifer Gabrielle Edwards, Betty Ferber, Jenny Jaeckel and Harry Morales. Their betraying effort—su esfuerzo traicionero—helps make Mexico accessible to the gringos.