In Search Of Mexico: Latin America’s Enigma
By Gaither Stewart
29 December, 2009
Who are these Mexicans who disturb the tranquility of the USA enough to necessitate a wall to separate the two North American peoples? Who are literally “dying” to get into fortress USA? What is their country like that they so readily abandon in order to work in Yankee supermarkets and California orchards, on New York skyscrapers and in households of the Atlantic seaboard? How is it possible that these two neighboring peoples are so dramatically different one from the other? In this essay I offer some personal answers.
THE FIFTEEN MONTHS I SPENT IN MEXICO deepened and consolidated a fundamental transformation long underway in me. The Italian writer Ignazio Silone was right: I had to step backwards from what I once was and where I was before in order to see myself and the world. Or maybe it was simply the altitude of Mesoamerica … and the winds … and also new inclinations toward unrestraint. Or maybe what happened to me in Mexico was simply because it is not necessary to live south of the border very long in order to begin to see American imperialism at work, contributing to the existing economic disparity between north and south. It is a mystery why things are the way they are. Still, it became clear that powerful evil forces combine to compel millions of Mexicans to sneak into the United States and live a dog’s life just to eat. Though it is true that because of the missing social idea America’s poor are poorer than Europe’s poor, Mexico’s poor are still worse off. Their poverty makes them seem to grovel for sustenance. Most certainly Mexicans don’t work on the skyscrapers of Dallas and New York City and wash dishes in cafeterias in Atlanta and in Charlotte and pick fruit in California because they are enamored with Yankee life. They prefer Mexico. They are north of the formidable Rio Grande border with its growing wall for the simple reason that though man does not live by bread alone, he must eat. For anyone with eyes to see it is clear that something is startlingly and tragically out of whack in North America.
Contrary to what some smug bien-pensants pseudo-sociologists and self-righteous capitalists pontificate, Mexicans do not choose to be poor. Otherwise why the perilous nocturnal crossings over the Rio Grande, risking drowning, betrayals by the same bandits who organize their passage, beatings and arrest by the Texas Rangers, and being shot down by military reservists along America’s Berlin style Wall—a Wall to keep Mexicans out, they say, but soon, who can say for sure? maybe also to keep Americans in.
The old saying about Mexico’s ills still holds: “Pobre Mexico tan lejos de dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos.” Poor Mexico, so far from God and so near the United States. (The aphorism has been credited to Porfirio Diaz, but some historians argue it was Simon Bolivar who coined the witticism, with all of “Latin America” as the victim instead of just Mexico.) For there is no better place than Mexico to see first-hand the negative results of the pact between American capitalism and the tiny “have” class of Mexican society that has exploited the country’s hard working people for one hundred and fifty years. John Mason Hart’s monumental Empire and Revolution that I once reviewed answers the question many Americans are asking today: “Why do they hate us so much?” At the outset Professor Hart, University of Houston, quotes a passage from Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes’ masterpiece, The Death of Artemio Cruz, the gist of which is that one cannot commit what North Americans (and the Mexican elite) have committed against Mexico and expect to be loved. Hart sees the historical attitudes of the United States toward its southern neighbor as the model for America’s drive for world hegemony today. It was in Mexico that the historic compulsion of American elites toward external wealth and global power was first expressed.
“From the beginnings of the nineteenth century until the present era, the citizens of the United States attempted to export their unique ‘American dream’ to Mexico. Their vision incorporated social mobility, Protestant values, a capitalist free market, a consumer culture, and a democracy of elected representation….The evolving pattern of American behavior in Mexico has reflected and usually anticipated the interactions of U.S. citizens in other Latin American and Third World societies.” Hart traces from its origins the role of America’s economic-financial elite in Mexico, for whom annexation has been the traditional goal. Many Americans have favored outright political annexation of parts or of all of Mexico. Many have considered it a question of time. If one is amazed by the number of Mexicans immigrating to the United States today, Professor Hart reminds us of the mass immigrations of Americans to Mexico. In the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries Americans purchased large tracts of land in Mexico and then immigrated there in increasing numbers. The idea was to buy Mexico! By 1910, 40,000 Americans had swarmed into the new frontier territories—12,000 in Mexico City itself—where rich Americans settled in the plush Las Lomas quarter of the capital. Foreigners came to own thirty-five per cent of Mexico. Many opened bars and nightclubs, dance halls, bordellos and casinos—as later in Cuba—rather than investing in agriculture and industry. Thus many became early on exploiters of the common people. Hart documents how privatization and foreign investment policies of the regime of Porfirio Diaz in Mexico City from the latter part of the Nineteenth century up to the Revolution in 1910 enriched the oligarchy but left little for the people. The Mexican elite and the North American capitalists took all. Foreigners had the benefits and the power.
At the same time American financiers and industrialists in Mexico were gaining influence in Central America and the Caribbean, and participated with their British partners in expansion into South America, Africa and Asia. (A fine old tradition, British and American cooperation: one people, one empire!) Thus, when the Mexican Revolution exploded the people’s ire was directed against both the Diaz regime and foreign capitalists—chiefly Americans. Shouts of “Long Live Mexico” and “Death to the Yankees” are echoed today in similar protests ringing out from Afghanistan to Africa to the Middle East. Mexican rioters then attacked American targets as do Islamic terrorists today. When the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata proclaimed that the rich of Mexico City treated their horses better than the people, he attracted poor peasants from all over Mexico. No wonder the Mexican government has never ceased to fear the Zapatistas, as the movement for “tierra y libertad” (land and freedom) is still called today, and who periodically march on the capital to demand their rights.
Empire and Revolution shows how American-Mexican relations anticipated the issue of globalization that emerged in the 1990s. Now globalization, the division of wealth and the economic disparity between the United States and the Third World are sharpening the conflictual relationship between the rich and the poor worlds in general.
Before we moved to Mexico, Milena and I flew there to look around for a place to live. Since I had benefits with KLM Airlines as a Dutch journalist, we traveled a mysterious but revealing route of Rome-Amsterdam-Detroit-Mexico City. The approach from the north to the geographic triangle of Mexico was a peculiar physical-metaphysical happening. After overflying the Rio Grande and the Tropic of Cancer, the earthen mass below surged upwards to us hovering motionless in the air. Suddenly the whole world was in movement. Change was underway. Five, six, seven, ten ridges, spreading, swelling, narrowing toward the south, rolled toward us from western skies like huge oceanic waves, a lonely image of abandonment among the elements; the black mountains clamped us in their grasp; the past skipped away across spinning gossamer clouds; in contrast to everyday life on earth the planet moved while the plane hung over the earth like a giant prehistoric bird; invisible worlds zoomed around us; white vapor trails crisscrossed the blue southern skies; Mexico narrowed and the sky retreated heavenwards; transient white clouds cast menacing dark shadows on the undulating green and brown fields below, spaced by narrow rivers winding toward the Gulf; billowing chains of darkness approaching from the west collided with the east, and together rolled southwards, and then, again climbing toward the sky, combined to form the great plateau that is Mesoamerica, the heart of Mexico.
Bluish-black mountains filled the triangular plateau to form a gigantic pyramid surrounded by the seas. It was the top of the world, the center, where time stands still. In the vacuum you feel a sensation of enormous power. Finally, under the last layer of smog and mist, the sun was hazy and matted. A buoyant voice concealing a note of irony announced that we might see the pyramids as we flew over the city.
No such luck. No signs of pyramids. Only smog.
And, on the ground, the long dreamlike black and yellow airport corridors leading into the New-Old World generated simultaneous sensations of challenge and hesitation.
I must have been looking for the comfortable old city I had visited decades earlier. It was nothing of the sort. Though Mexico City seemed familiar, it was another world from what I remembered. The rhythm had changed—the traffic, the noises, the masses on the streets, the way people moved, the park of the Alamos, the arcades, the sudden vistas, the Italian style palazzos. Still, though it was the Old World located in the New World, there was something there I didn’t feel before. The city had something universal about it absent in ephemeral Detroit, something it would never occur to any sane person to search for in the city of the automobile.
.For despite their poverty, Mexicans, in my experience, are the first to say: “Not by bread alone.” Earthly bread is necessary but not enough for a man. Universality resides in the Mexican people. Everything changes, south of the Rio Grande. I had just read a sociologist who labels the Mexican a historical chameleon who changes his skin according to circumstances. Mexico’s Nobel writer, Octavio Paz stresses that the Mexican is more Indio than Spanish, which must have something to do with his strangeness and adaptability and also his universality … with his venerable 30,000 years of age.
Paz, as most Mexican artists, was obsessed with the differences between Mexicans and their North American neighbors: “Mexicans lie out of fantasy, desperation, or to conquer the squalor of their lives; North Americans don’t lie about the true truth that is always unpleasant but about social truth. North Americans want to understand; we to contemplate. Americans are credulous; we believers. We, as our forefathers did, believe that sin and death constitute the foundation of human nature.”
Since we both felt immediately at home, Milena and I quickly concluded that the Mexico is nonetheless more European. On the other hand, the Mexican nature also makes one wonder if it is positive to be so universal that you can accept anything philosophically? For universality has not brought great fortune to Mexico, no more than has its proximity to the USA. It seems only ancient peoples like perhaps Sicilians or Sardinians are capable of being simply men. Men who don’t strive for perfection. It came to seem to me that men who just lead good lives are perhaps universal without realizing it. It makes them free, but at the same time vulnerable to the claws of the hawks.
After a week, the initial resemblances with Italy began fading. Then, suddenly, they were gone. The light changed. Eyes burned. Beggars besieged the entrances to marvelous museums; the dirt and grime from the earthquake zone sullied the white walls of Palacio de Bellas Artes; the revolutionary murals of Siquieros, Rivera and Orozco didn’t make the public water drinkable; the daintiness of Sanborn’s eatery seemed precarious and anachronistic; the spring temperatures didn’t freshen smog-filled throats; the white-capped volcanoes, gigantic and invisible, were only legend; the blasé rich in Zona Rosa restaurants ignored the withered women on the streets rationing tortillas to tiny children. One day, after visiting the Frida Kahlo Museum, we sat at a café on the plaza of Coyoacán watching flashy people sauntering in and out. In the village atmosphere the air seemed purer than it was. One could even smell cotton candy. On the opposite sidewalk under a row of trees an old man in a cowboy shirt with two small children licking red ices was begging. We decided we didn’t want to get used to the beggars, the eternal problem of living in places of widespread poverty.
Most of all I wanted to know who these Mexicans are who make this another world from the rest of North America. In his El Laberinto de la Soledad, Octavio Paz explains that just as behind the Greeks stood the Egyptians or behind the Romans stood the Etruscans or behind the Russians, the Varangians and Mongols, behind the Aztecs and the Spanish conquerors who formed today’s Mexicans there stand millennia of peoples in a long and crazy past. In the end I came to see Mexico as a tragic country. It has do with its ancient origins. Or its solitude on its highlands and in its jungles. Rich in an ancient culture and, as you see on Mexico City’s eighty-kilometer long Avenida Insurgentes, at the vanguard of modernity, Mexico is a political caveman. A modern dictatorship based on corruption and retention of power. But somehow—my hope is that some of the reasons become clear in this writing—it is not decadent as were the Aztecs by the time the Spanish arrived. I see Mexico as a viable society, on its way up. While the United States has passed its zenith, Mexico can still rise again.
Most everything that reflects Mexico happens in its capital city of between twenty-two and thirty million people—no one knows how many since its uncounted people in its uncounted shantytowns extend the limits of the city each day. Still, as New York is not America and Paris is not France, Mexico City is not Mexico either.
Milena and I decided to investigate a town a French-Italian woman artist who lived there part of the year had told us about: San Miguel de Allende, a tourist destination four hours north of Mexico City. Before the reader scoffs at our choice, read further. We boarded a first-class, darkened, air-conditioned Flecha Amarilla bus headed north. The town looked right—church steeples and towers, red tile roofs, white and pastel-colored houses, green parks and gardens. A lake shimmered in the distance. Blue mountains lay to the west and canyons to the east. A block from the main square we found the kind of colonial hotel I had imagined. Since this was off-season, there was a wide choice of rooms and we finally took an apartment on the hotel roof overlooking the town. When evenings the sun fell toward the ridge of the mountains and dropped in a burst of flames before disappearing into nothingness I understood why the Indios worshipped it.
In those first days of discovery I liked to sit at the jardín, the park in the town center, and watch people and events. Toward evening when the Gringos stood up from the benches and began discussing restaurants for the evening, the Mexicans, as if according to a preordained plan, moved in unison from the shade of the trees in the park to places in the cooling sun. Two worlds occupy San Miguel, one Mexican, one gringo—two worlds apart, coexisting so peacefully in the same time and space that it made me feel guilty for the subterfuge and duplicity it conceals. Under the arches around the main plaza Mariachi bands hang around waiting for evening engagements. The men stand along the walls, divided in groups according to the colors of their suits, some smoking long cigars. So elegant. So mysterious. The sad-serious expressions on their faces seem like the masks of old Mexico. Milena loved the hundreds of buttons on the tight jackets and pants and the sarapes thrown so casually over their shoulders against the cool nights. I think there is nothing more Mexican, nothing more lonely, than a sarape.
A few months later, Milena and I moved, we thought definitively, to Mexico. I was bored of Italy, my romance with the Bel Paese was over. I was no longer deceived by it; the façade of Italy had fallen in shreds at its feet and the peninsula seemed nude and barren. My newspaper had anyway begun dismantling its network of foreign correspondents. It was just as well. I was tired of reporting on the repetitiveness of Italy’s changing governments. My views on the country were no longer fresh and the newspaper devoted little space to Italy once terrorism finished and the so-called Second Republic was born.
Still, it was not only disillusionment with Italy. The time had arrived to escape from Europe itself. Time to abandon my beloved Europe. I wanted to go beyond Europe. I imagined that going to Mexico was like going to war used to be for young men—escape from the dead-end-you of home when your hopes and possibilities begin to decline and your dreams fade and you have to do something, anything, to survive. My boyhood dream of Mexico became reality. The Mexican Revolution and Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa had fascinated me as a boy in Asheville. Besides, I had begun writing my first novel, part of which was to be set in Mexico. It was not our intention to just visit Mexico. We rented out our house in Rome with the plan of settling in Mexico where also our meager retirement would suffice, as it did not in Europe. I believe I thought of Mexico as another exile. Exile has an aura about it; it projects a kind of halo over the exiled one. There is something romantic and gratifying to one’s vanity in it. You seem to stand on a kind of pedestal over the heads of others, free and unfettered. Free from involvement in local issues. Throughout history the exile has been a literary archetype, a character of Greek myth and Bible stories. My rare critics have noted that nearly every character in my fiction is an exile in one way or another, concerned with departure and the impossibility of return. For that reason the exile dwells more on the past than the present or the future. The danger arises from the stamp of nostalgia (the yearning to return) and the resulting melancholy that hangs over the past and the exile’s longing for something indefinite that never existed in reality and is enormously, gigantically absent in the present. What the exile says of the present, as of the past, is somewhat off-base, out of tune with real reality. His is also a different view, seen from another angle, another slant. He works with quarter notes. He works from memory, though a fading memory, misapprehended memory, frustrating, elusive and deceptive. His attempt to grasp his often unreal and artificial present creates in his mind chaos. So I hang onto my exile characters standing at the intersection between their own vague history and an eternal embryonic present and who in their struggles seem to have lost the power of choice.
At the same time my move to the old part of the New World reflected also my own search for myself. Something was missing and I hoped to find it in the ancient mystery of Mexico. I was searching for a new exile where I would become a new person. But to do that I had to discover that person or thing I felt in me. The mysterious thing dangling just out of reach, the thing whose presence I think everyone must feel but never recognize. It must have to do with who we are and where we come from, and also my conviction that we are more than Shakespeare’s “Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole and keep the wind away.”
The drive to Mexico is a piece of cake. Straight southwest to Dallas, then turn left south toward San Antonio and Laredo. For me crossing the border by car was precisely the perplexing sensation I had imagined: you drive across the International Bridge over the narrow Rio Grande and magically step into another world. Once past Monterrey, each new curve of the climb onto the plateau called Mesoamerica presents a new vista, grayish colored hills, mesquite trees and narrow ravines transformed into hillsides of giant agaves and majestic organos. Twisting upwards, the road winds through the raw passes of the Sierra Madre. As if from nowhere dark people appear along the highway with animal skins on sale or they lead laden donkeys along dusty paths. They are not primitive; they have been doing the same things forever; they have held fast to what was theirs; nothing has ever happened to change it. Not distance or trains running on time count here, but the passing of centuries and volcanic eruptions and migrations of peoples. Purity must live here, I thought.
At mid-day, the old town of San Miguel de Allende stands exposed as if at the summit of an Aztec temple. Father Sun is insidious. Beguilingly yellow, soft and warm, the sun hovers low for a few hours in the crisp morning before at noon its concentrated rays explode, violent, burning white. The fulgor of the tropical noonday sun is ambiguous. It burns black. For hours then the town lies helpless as if under a giant magnifying glass. Then after the damage has been done the sun slides toward the West, gradually at first, serenely, almost innocently, before in an instant plummeting behind the Sierra Madre in orange splendor leaving the Bajío Region in darkness.
Some people blame the sun for the generalized folly infecting San Miguelians—perhaps many Mexicans. The high sky over the great plateau of Mexico exudes stillness. Yet the repose of the heavens never descends to the dusty noisy earth to soothe people’s hearts. The dust of Mexico! The fearsome noises imprisoned within the town’s stone walls—gaseous cars and buses and bellowing motorcycles, construction echoes, barking dogs, fiesta music, fireworks, winds and rains—unite to crush mind and spirit. Old gods seem to have infused secret purposes in the hearts of its self-ostracized peoples. Playful and deadly Tezcatlipoca, Lord of the Here and Now, who places children in the womb of Mexican women, willed to them an atmosphere that slays thought and withers impulses of reaction to oppression.
Afternoons, all kinds of people of San Miguel sit on the iron benches under the trees of the central plaza. The Gringos sit in the front row along the street facing the church towers—Texans, Yankees, Canadians and a few stray Europeans, engaged in looking at one another. Right over there is one with a long gray beard and hair bound in a pigtail wearing an off-shoulder Mexican shirt. And sitting on a low wall is a red-faced fat lady in a straw hat eating a huge cone of ice cream, sensually licking around the edges. And there are the predictable young blond tourists in jeans artificially torn at the knees, playing guitars and singing folk songs, largely ignored by the Mexicans sitting on the Town Hall side of the plaza and in the center under the trees around the bandstand. They too are watching one another—whites, various shades of mestizos and white, negro and white, negro and indigenous, migrants from Mexico City and Monterrey, from Guadalajara and Chihuahua, grandfathers and grandchildren, school girls in blue and white uniforms, street vendors, cowboys in white sombreros, policemen, and, at evening hours, the Mariachi. Each of the two distinct worlds lives against the background of the other, forever present, yet ignoring each other as if each were invisible to the other’s eyes. Purposeless peoples, exiled peoples, hounded and chased in search of asylum, and yet united by the shadow of past discontent, mistakes, misunderstandings, abuses, crimes, and now by the pigeons and stray dogs wandering indiscriminately under the feet of all, searching for a morsel of food here, or there, a careless caress.
The town of San Miguel de Allende is five hundred years old. But the territory was long inhabited by peoples descended from the men who 30,000 years ago crossed the Bering Straits from Asia and filtered to the South. Men with Mongoloid features discovered today’s Mexico 21,000 years before Columbus by chance reached America. When the Genoese navigator arrived the peoples were not “Indians.” Instead, Otomí, then Nahoas, then Chichimecs—the latter name allegedly means “uncivil dirty dogs”—and Guachichils or “red-painted faces,” lived around today’s San Miguel de Allende. According to Spanish priests, “going naked, eating rats and snakes, worshipping pagan gods, and scalping the whites” who were pushing through their lands in search of gold and silver.
After time slowed, ironclad armies on horses and priests armed with the cross combined to discover the silver and, with boiling lead, to wash their civilizing religion down the throats of the indigenous peoples. The pax catholicus took root and the natives added Jesus Christ to their pantheon of gods. The Franciscan Juan de San Miguel founded the town of San Miguel in homage to his Patron Saint and dedicated his life to exhorting the native peoples to cooperation with their bloody conquerors: baptism was synonymous with civilization. The Friar wandered over the countryside singing the Franciscan canticle for the pleasure and edification of the “naked, pagan, rat-eating, Christian-scalping, uncivil dirty dogs of Chichimecs:”
Highest, Omnipotent, good Lord,
Praises, glory and honor and every blessing are Yours.
Praise be to You, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
Especially to Lord brother Sun,
Who is the day, which illuminates us.
Praise be to You, my Lord, for sister moon and the stars:
You created them bright, precious and beautiful in the heavens.
And so on and so on goes the canticle, for brother wind, for the air, the clouds, the sky, and all the weather, which sustains His creatures. For water, fire, the earth. At the end of the canticle come the bleakness and blackness new to the pagans:
Praise be to You, my Lord, for our sister, corporal death from which no mortal creature can escape.
Ay! for those who die in mortal sin!
Fortunate those who will be in Your Holy Will.
For the people the history of San Miguel was implacable. As the Spanish swarmed over the country more land went to the conquerors and less remained for the natives, until finally Spanish exploitation led to the uprising of future Mexicans. Mexico’s War of Independence was forged in the rich silver and agricultural territory around San Miguel. In 1810, the Grito, the Cry for Independence, resounded through New Spain from the nearby town of Dolores Hidalgo, and San Miguel de Allende became the cradle of the struggle.
Still, independence never resolved the ills of racism, exploitation, corruption, the system of latifundio whereby a few rich landlords owned vast rural properties, and the tradition of foreign intervention. In the turbulent Nineteenth century, French, American and “Allied” forces intervened repeatedly in Mexico but San Miguel remained silent and apart. So that finally, in 1910, with predictable unforeseenness in the Mexico that was already Third World, the explosion of the Great Revolution shook the country, seven years earlier than in Russia. The revolution rode on waves of revolt against the Old and dreams of the New as depicted in the murals of Diego Rivera, David Siquieros and Clemente Orozco.
But the long wide sweep of Mexico’s tragic history proved to be more powerful than its Great Revolution. Some of the revolutionaries became tyrants and the revolution degenerated into a new tyranny. Old ills returned to haunt its heirs. Soon Mexico again languished under the rule of another oligarchy, described so vividly in Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz. The Great Revolution—with its one million casualties— was put away in a museum and institutionalized in 1929 under corrupt one-party rule supported by police and military power and above all by its rapacious neighbor, the United States of America.
At the beginning of the new millennium reformists again sparked hopes for renewal for this country demographically the size of Italy and France together. If nothing of the Great Revolution remains, something is going on under the surface of its social fabric that may reemerge as in recent years in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Venezuela, something enormous, something as gigantic and unstoppable as the winds sweeping down the Bajío.
Yet San Miguel de Allende is once again distant from change. History has passed it by. It is a long way to Mexico City from this conservative backwater territory still living in the shadow of its past of silver mines and water sparkling from natural springs. Of rich landlords and barefoot Indians scratching a living from barren earth. Of conservatives and imperialists who want Mexico to remain static and of poor illiterate half-castes and Indios who have no concept of changing times.
For logistical reasons Milena and I, unfortunately, changed our original plan to live in the nearby beautiful and placid state capital of Guanajuato and opted for tourism-oriented San Miguel de Allende, today a town of 60,000 people, a sort of Mexican Santa Fe. It was intended to be a short-term stay in order to get a feel for the country and learn Spanish better before moving southwards to Chiapas. Meanwhile North American residents in San Miguel had changed its former sleepy atmosphere: over two thousand Gringos live there year round and many more winter there. Their presence in turn attracts also rich Mexicans. San Miguel’s attractions are its year round temperate climate of warm winters and cool summers, its colonial architecture, and its quaint stores and art galleries. Since a majority of the Gringos are retirees, many live there because of the low cost of living and cheap household help. People, who are just ordinary in Des Moines where they barely get by on their pensions, in Mexico feel rich and extraordinary; many like to believe that in Mexico they are living on the outer edge of existence. If for most people San Miguel is not a place for action, it is the locale for dreams of heroism and momentous deeds and imaginary achievements, which make people drunker and crazier than they once were, somewhere else. Therefore there is little serenity in San Miguel de Allende. Its peoples are never content. Neither rich Gringos who find no fulfillment once their new houses in the hills or in the historic center are finished, nor retirees who want the houses of the rich, nor middle class Mexicans who, in their love-hate relationship with the Gringos, imitate their tormentors.
The only apparently normal ones are the poor Mexicans who serve the rich. Not only do the poor Mexicans live their lives against the background of the rich, amused and influenced by their follies, but each class depends on the other: Gringos and rich Mexicans simultaneously depend on the cheap labor and are the source of the livelihood of the poor. Though these peoples share the same sun and thin air and the winds and the rains and the pollution and the dust and the noise, in reality they are as different from one another as are the planets glittering above them.
For whatever real reasons people come here—foreigners or Mexicans—they also change. People become a little wacky. Their new life is a release from old constraints. They dress differently, and drink more. For many their new personality remains however a role. It is the altitude, or the mountains, or the summer rains, or the winds. However that may be, the atmosphere carries a strain of insanity that causes suppressed characteristics to emerge. And the folly attracts like-minded persons from elsewhere; even the poor Mexicans become somewhat infected. People no longer seem mainstream. Somewhere they went astray. Their lives seem unreal. As if maimed by events at some turning point in previous lives, they are displaced, isolated on the edge of society, exiles by choice or circumstance. It is a town out of time, a people out of joint.
In San Miguel the blue sky is high and near at the same time. Gas fumes hang in the air. Heavy trucks mix promiscuously with Suvs. Yellow and red domes of villas hang from the hillsides. There are small shops on each corner. Along narrow cobbled streets entire families sit in the doorways. As you approach the lower town, elegant shopping patios give way to street vendors and darker skin colors prevail. In the lower town you often hear the beating of drums. Sundays, on a sprawling plaza dominated by a white church with twin bell towers, half naked Concheros wearing high, multicolored plumes dance in front of the church.
We began a new life in our big flat located in a labyrinth of apartments and houses at the top of the hill overlooking the town. We never got involved in the social life of the big American community. Our new friends were among Mexicans. Dictated by social realities, the Mexicans we knew were however not people of the lower town, the real Mexican San Miguel. It was a question of class. Hard to overcome. Friends of friends led us into an intermediate social class, a kind of “upper class” Mexican-international set, which however does not mean only white-skinned and rich. We learned that Mexico is a class society.
From my notes about people we knew and daily life, and after a certain gestation, I fabricated ten short stories, several of which are included in my collection Icy Current, Compulsive Course (Wind River Press) including “Dogman,” about the disappearance of San Miguel’s dogs, and “Off We Go Again,” about an exile from the Brooklyn mafia who made a theatrical career in San Miguel’s Peralta Theater based on his rendition of Vladimir in Waiting For Godot. Since Milena and I are not tourists who have to see everything, we made few trips: a few times we bused to Mexico City to visit friends in Coyoacán and a publisher who however one day absconded from Mexico. Once I went to the capital for a political rally of the leftwing Partido Revolucionario Democratico where I met Obrador who in the 2006 presidential elections lost by a narrow and probably fraudulent vote count. And we drove to Guadalajara to visit Mexican friends who had once lived in Rome, whom we sometimes met halfway for lunches in the Mexican shoe capital of León.
A frequent subject of conversation and contemplation for me was the identity of the Mexican. Who is he? Is he an anachronism in the world of North America? Living among peoples whose physicality reflects their direct lineage from ancient peoples, it seemed natural to compare. As a journalist in Italy I had investigated the Etruscans, a civilization born at the same time the Olmec civilization emerged in Mexico. While in Mesoamerica the jaguar gods were being born and the Olmecs sculpted and laid the foundations for future Mexicans, the Etruscans erected and decorated their tombs north of Rome and the child Tagete revealed to them the secrets of time and of God’s creation. While “priests” ascended to power among the Olmecs, in Etruria ‘doctors’ predicted the cloudy future by reading the entrails of animals sacrificed to their gods; while ceremonialism and mysticism and human sacrifice guided Olmec society, the Etruscans lived their lives based on ineluctable destiny; while Olmec artists sculpted and frescoed temples in swampy areas of Veracruz and Tabasco, Etruscans did the same in their tombs in Tarquinia and Veio. Olmecs lie at the foundation of Mexico’s indigenous society; Etruscans became Roman kings and today’s Tuscans, at the heart of Italy, its language, its culture. More romantically than scientifically I have speculated that Olmecs and Etruscans both originated from the same place in Asia at the top of the world, from where the future Etruscans migrated west and the future Mexicans east and then south. It is quite possible they met at some later time. It is possible that ships of Etruscan arms merchants reached the shores of Mexico, two thousand years before Cristòforo Colombo, maybe unconsciously looking for their lost brothers. Photographs of Etruscan sculptures of men with fat bodies, snub noses, slanting eyes, thick lips and jutting chins, resemble Olmec work.
The religions of the two peoples—or were they distinct peoples?—were similar even though one was quasi-monotheistic and the other polytheistic. Besides Judaism, the Etruscan religion was the only revealed religion in the Mediterranean world, revealed through the mouth of the child, Tagete, whose likeness was uncovered by a peasant digging in the fields. The child revealed to Etruscan kings the secrets of the origins of the universe: Tagete assigned the world twelve thousand years of time—in the first six thousand he created sky and earth, seas and rivers, sun, moon and stars, birds and animals, and finally in the sixth millennium, man. He assigned six thousand years to mankind, after which the time of man would end. Mesoamericans at the same time constructed their religions around the suns. Each sun was a new world. We live in the fifth and last sun, and struggle to maintain our world.
Mexico is different … and strange. People on this plateau have always been different. After the Olmecs, the Aztecs emphasized their otherness in their language and dress, and in their strange culture. They wanted to be different. They were a Spartan people who considered others inferior, stupid and comical. You cannot live in Mexico long without considering the culture of the Aztecs that is best known for human sacrifice. Only human blood could repay man’s debt to the earth deities, the debt incurred while living and partaking of earth’s offering to man. Dying was paying off the debt. Blood was the payment. Not that human sacrifice was the monopoly of the Aztecs; it belonged to their world and was practiced by the line of peoples preceding them in Mesoamerica, as well as by the lesser peoples surrounding them. [As well as Europeans and people in the Middle East, etc.] What made them unique was the numbers, historians claim, the multitudes of victims slaughtered to the glory of their gods. The killing rites served to lend a kind of dignity and solemnity to cruelty and suffering. Christians too have exacted human sacrifice in different ways—in war as on the pyres of the Inquisition—all in the name of what? Of their monotheistic God? Or as someone said, in the name of sorrow. The case of the Aztecs is more complex. Theirs seems to have been a religion based on cruelty and suffering. Since to value suffering is as strange as they themselves were strange, one is tempted to believe that the hundreds of thousands, perhaps, over time, millions of victims, were above all intended to underline the Aztec differentness and strangeness.
Instead, after extensive reading of the studies of Aztec scholars, I have concluded that it was then as ever a question of power. The killings had to be numerous because they were the statement of the power of their gods and of the rulers’ capacity to represent them. In their competitive world among similar peoples of Mesoamerica their strangeness and the parade of victims across the killing stones atop their pyramids was, I believe, not only to make manifest their power but to also instill its acceptance in their competitor nations. Aztec style is still reflected in U.S. military-economic power today. The same principle applies.
Mexico is Western … and it is not. In Mexico City you see Western civilization. You see the West in San Miguel too. But in the dances of the Concheros on the church plaza you see reflections of the other Mexico. Though few Indios remain who do not speak Spanish—only in remote areas like Nayarit in the West or Chiapas in the South—Mexico is nonetheless more Spanish than countries like Argentina or Chile with all their European immigrants who avoided Mexico. For the same reasons Mexico is also more Indio. Mexico is the other side of the moon from Argentina. It is a country between two civilizations—between Western and indigenous civilizations—and between two pasts—one Spanish and the other pre-Hispanic.
A Cora mystic in a San Miguel cellar told me to remember that Mesoamerica has seen two millennia of civilizations that are not Western. For example, there are the great pyramids and remains from the year 200 of Teotihuacan, the first great city of the Americas. In every Mexican those pasts are present. Such complex pasts make contemporary Mexicans different, even the ones you see working on New York skyscrapers. Mesoamerican civilizations believed that just as worlds can re-flower, man too can re-flower. Death and life are close. Mexicans know what death is. Nowhere else can you touch it like here. Death is the mortal body abandoned by the soul. But death is not eternal. Mexicans overcome death. Death is not a prison. Few people anywhere really believe they will die but fear it anyway. Though each of us believes that we are in a way immortal and do not die easily, we die in fear.
In Old Mexico, the past is also the future. And the future is the past. Progress is nothing but a return to the past. The Zapatistas in the south are fighting for restoration of their lands; Chiapas is a frontier, a frontier between modern social ideas arriving from Nicaragua and Mexicans engaged in the old battle for land and autonomy. For Mexicans, the Golden Age is in the remote past before Yankee capitalists tried to buy their lands. Utopia means a return to their origins and to original time of ancient civilizations.
Our friend Claudia, Milena’s Spanish teacher at the local university, was good-looking, outspoken, and white; she smoked in public, dressed flamboyantly, had lovers, traveled to Europe and spoke several languages. A constant subject of conversation with her was Mexico’s class differences. She insisted that it was much more than skin color. “Indios too reach high places in society,” she emphasized. “Yet we’re different. Now watch this,” she once said to us on campus, indicating a fat mestizo girl walking toward us with an armful of books. “See how she’s staring at us now. Yet it’s enough that you dress international style or wear a different kind of necklace and they’re intimidated.”
The olive-skinned girl looked Sicilian to me. Mexican mestizos recall southern Italians living in the north, alternately submissive and aggressive. As Claudia predicted, the girl in fact lowered her eyes when she passed. Claudia blamed it on their humility. We shouldn’t be deceived, she said. It was not a matter of color because Claudia herself was just as dark as the mestiza, “It’s social class! You can see it in their eyes and in the way they move. It’s class, not race, and it will never change.”
When I objected that they fought a revolution to eliminate classes, she explained that the Mexican Revolution was not a class revolution. It was about land. The Indios and the mestizos wanted land. They fought the revolution. Yet, Claudia also told us that she avoided the sun so as not to become darker, thus belying her claims that class distinction was not a matter of skin color too.
Once we organized a party at which Claudia was present together with a gay couple, one of whom, Isaac, is a big strong, vivacious dark-skinned Chichimec, the kind who can say or do anything and get by with it. Isaac delighted in baiting Claudia. Looking at her in his haughty manner, fingering his necklaces and smiling mischievously, he said that since European immigration to Mexico was never enough to equal the indigenous part of the population, the result was a high proportion of Indios … “and so … and so … everybody has always fucked everybody, any color, any sex, and today your nice brown skin and my beautiful brown skin are the natural result.”
Isaac’s companion was as white as I, reserved, conservative, cultured, and part of Claudia’s world. His color constituted his belonging.
With his index finger fixed in the corner of his mouth, Isaac looked at his companion reflectively, smiled slyly and said to the others:
“He’s the worst example of Mexicanness. He detests rich upper-class people like you, Claudia, the world he abandoned for me, but he can’t live with poor Indios either. So he’s not at home anywhere. He’s an alien in his own country. But look at me”—Isaac whirled around, his head high, eyes half closed, a beatified look barely concealed by a half smile that said he was at peace with the world—“I’m a real Mexican and I’m at home everywhere.
“The truth is,” he said to Claudia, “if Indios dress in western clothes you can’t tell them apart from mestizos … or from you. If they don’t even fuck according to the sex of their partners, they most certainly don’t fuck according to the color of their skin.”
Despite sympathy for Claudia, a creation of her bourgeois upbringing in plush Las Lomas of Mexico City from which she sincerely wanted to escape, any European would delight in the scene. My idea of Mexico came to lay in the contrasts among the three Mexicans—Claudia, Isaac and Ricardo.
After all, Mexicans expelled the Spanish so they could become Mexicans. If they are not quite a nation, they are at least a people.
Life in Rome had seemed linear, one thing leading logically to the next, unfolding as if according to some plan for me. No longer. I thought if I were a fatalist I could blame the world’s upside-down life on the Mexican gods, huddled up there together, now and then waving their magic wands and observing the spectacle of the humanity they created and recreated, each new version worse than the preceding one. How can we even speak positively of evolution? Immoral gods must have inspired our scientists who invented the uplifting name of evolution. Legends about erratic Texcatlipoca seemed no less credible—the sadistic god who first provides the newborn person an individual fate, then sits back and laughs as he watches his creation strut and stagger through his terrestrial pilgrimage. Perhaps one of the gods, I began thinking, can explain why more and more people on our planet live worse and worse, while other people have never been richer. Politicians never admit that many people are acquiring lots of money for no work and too many are getting very little money for a life of work. I imagined a resurrected Tezcatlipoca roaring with laughter at politicians strutting about and spouting market-resolves-all slogans, that progress necessitates a certain amount of suffering but that relatively fewer people in the world are suffering today. And that each person must lift himself by his bootstraps, or disappear.
Like our landlady’s gardener, Miguel, effacing himself like a slave after being chewed out by the good Christian lady, his lips curled in a tremulous false smile, sulking in the corner of the garden and watering the same spot for half an hour. Miguel said, “Sabe Señor, la vida no es un jardín de flores.” He was as indifferent to the colibri in the garden as he was to a delicate patio chair damaged by his wheelbarrow. Brutishly he seemed to lack the sensibilities with which we credit Latin peoples. Because of the callousness of many of the very poor, he accepted the ugly with the beautiful as part of life and perhaps because of a still inchoate internal revolt that periodically awakened in him a destructive instinct. Rebellion was written in Miguel’s face. Rebellion against something indefinite but evil. If not against the system, then against his past, against his present, against what he had always been. He wanted to yell obscenities as he did at the fiesta. He wanted to break things, steal the landlady’s things and hurt her. He was not sure what precisely he wanted to do. His own ignorance confused him. I saw that look often. It was in the dark ironic faces of celebrating construction workers, drunk as lords on the Day of the Revolution. It was in the faces of street vendors when foreigners haggled for hours over two pesos. Miguel rejected the concept of self-possession. He rejected self-mastery and ordered life. His was the eternal struggle in this part of the world—the battle between the rich white minority and the multi-colored masses of have-nots.
He couldn’t change things. He accepted that. But like any peasant at the fiesta, Miguel wanted chaos.
Mexico is also chaos. Political chaos. Not chaos sent by the gods but constructed by men, the Mexican capitalists in collaboration with America. The social chaos and the insecurity engendered by corruption.
The topics of conversation with Maria Dolores and a group of liberals in Mexico City were, first, criminality, and second, security. Like the taxis: I loved the handy Volkswagen taxis with the front passenger seat removed cruising around the huge city and driven by talkative geniuses. Pero, no! Nunca! I was warned that those uncontrolled little cars were the most nefarious criminal traps in old Tenochtichlan: in cahoots with criminal bands they zip around a corner and stop in a secluded spot for you to be robbed, or worse, by their waiting cronies. Ah, the freedom of innocence!
In San Miguel, on another level, we spoke of the dreaded Federales: How, when and how much to bribe them so they do not confiscate your car, perhaps forever. Night driving is most definitely out. Bandits, you wonder? Or stray cattle on dark roads? Or sudden speed bumps? Or shoulderless narrow roads? Well, yes, those things too. But chiefly because of the Federales out there in the total darkness of the highlands waiting in ambush.
Sometimes, you think you have things figured out. You want to change or you don’t want to change, you believe or you don’t believe, you’re content or you’re a revolutionary, you’re bound to your place in the world or you launch yourself into space, you take out insurance and then stand on the precipice, you study and learn that you know nothing, you learn languages and are told that words express little.
So what are you to do?
I read Mexican writers in the San Miguel library who advise us to concentrate our energies on reaching to the beyond, to what is called in Spanish the más allá. Beyond what words can express, beyond convention and expression and thought. The más allá is kind of nothingness. Maybe a shadow. It dangles before us, a temptress, forever just out of our reach. We have no words for it but we know it can make us free. It makes us want to overcome our human limitations. Yet the intangible nothingness we try to grasp is the ultimate intoxication of our life of dream.
That is Mesoamerican thinking.
One asks what then is there, in that nothingness?
The Mexican answer is: Most certainly God. What else is He but the ultimate, inexpressible nothingness?
Mexico makes you think such thoughts. Man’s relationship with the divinity is complex; it has been since the beginning. Noah and Moses talked directly with their creator God and relayed to the people His words, messages and admonitions and His complaints and whining and lack of patience with His creatures.
The Greeks and other ancient peoples created simulacrum gods to intercede for them. The Romans kept gods all over their houses and turned to them indiscriminately, first to one, then to another. As the Egyptians covered mummies with masks that transformed pharaohs into gods and the Greeks covered their heroes with masks that were fundamental in their theater, also for the ancient peoples of Mexico the mask was a mystical device, not only for protection and salvation; the mask identified their soul with powerful gods. The mask preceeds even religion. Masks make gods. Masks too are sacred since they incarnate guardian spirits. But underneath the masks are both gods and men. Olmec and Aztec masks were in fact intermediaries between gods and man.
Mortal men, divine spirits. The great mystery is, which is true reality? If we accept that we are also Spirit, we still cannot forget the physical container. So the question remains the same as in the beginning, what is man? The peoples of Mesoamerica always confused men and gods. Like Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent god, who was both king and deity. Like Jesus. Defeated by other gods or perhaps by other men, Quetzalcoatl sailed away, but promising to return. Ancient Mexicans also had their messiahs.
In San Miguel I again became fascinated by winds. After an interview years earlier with Dutch film director Joris Yvens and his film about Mongolian winds and then an article I did on the many winds of Italy’s Lake Garda, winds have become for me a basic element. The winds of the Mexican highland region called the Bajío are enigmatic, transforming palms and bougainvillea on rooftop terraces into silent dervishes. The mystical winds cast a hush over the noisy town, carrying with them the silence of the deserts.
Where do they come from? Where do they go, the crazy winds raging around the plateau among the ranges of the Sierra Madre? The greatest wind of all comes from the barren northern deserts, a spill off from Gulf storms. Maybe the wind originates in Canada, blows down the plains of the United States and northern Mexico, gathering force for the climb up to the highlands. It is forever a mystery. The wind is just there, as intangible as the air in your hand. It arrives from nothing, and returns into nothingness. You hear it. You feel it on your body. It surrounds you and penetrates you. But you cannot grasp it. It is empty. You can take shelter from it but the wind is still there, ubiquitous, victorious, eternal. Many people therefore believe it is divine.
The Bajío wind is not gentle and soothing like the west winds that cool Rome in August. The Bajío wind is violent and aggressive, irregular and unpredictable, as if generated by a gigantic machine operated by an unseen hand, as capricious and malevolent as the wind god Ehecatl himself. The whole time in Mexico it reminded me precisely of the mysterious Mongolian winds of Yvens’ last documentary, Une Histoire du Vent, presented at the Venice film festival—shortly before his death in Paris in 1989—when I had the good fortune to spend an evening with him. Yvens lived all over the world, dedicated his life to the elements: earth, water and wind. He made a film together with his friend Ernest Hemingway, Terre d’Espagne; his metaphysical film, Pluie, analyzed the visual effect of the rain falling on Amsterdam; and again on water, he made La Seine ha rencontré Paris. More down to earth he favored wars of liberation around the world, taking the side of Vietnamese and Laotians against American aviation, and in China in favor of the Cultural Revolution.
Lake Garda winds lack not only the mystery of Mexico’s winds and of Yvens’ Mongolian winds, they lack also the content. The playful Mexican god Ehecatl unleashes his magic winds carrying Tlaloc’s savage rains lashing the highlands of the Bajío, unchains his lightening to electrify the high skies and fires cannonades of thunder to crash and rumble among the mountains. The winds and the rains thus join to create a seductive and enticing moment. The abrupt change from brilliant sunshine to the violent blackness of the storms arrives like a swift judgment. You stand on a terrace and wait for the lightening across the skies before the thunder crashes just beyond a church spire. Tlaloc’s rain is unpredictable and threatening. Water flows horizontally across terraces and under doors and trickles across tile floors. Wind and rain! Rain and wind! Ancient Mexicans also believed that only in the Rain God’s paradise were rains regular. For rain too is a god, bigger than man. It is a religion: for some reason the rain of the Mexican highlands’ seems less wet than in Europe; Tlaloc’s rain dries immediately.
At two thousand meters, human ears crack and pop as you witness the battle among the elements, caught up in an epic struggle. You are a mere human being, tiny, tiny, yet, in Mesoamerica you can witness the war between the cold air of the highlands and the humidity of the lowlands. Highlanders watch the wind and the rain rage around them but they understand little of what is happening; the intensity is simultaneously miraculous and exciting and terrible and frightening, the beginning and the end of all things. The hot sun, mad volcanoes, deluges of rain and the crazy winds make Mexico an unstable land. You stand on the edge of an abyss … between two worlds. Two persons, two worlds. The image must be significant.
Just as the question of time guided ancient Mexicans, it guides Mexico today. Our life, our existence in the here and now, is a question of time. Are we here, or are we dreaming we are here? Are we only illusion? For the enigmatic Huichols in western Mexico making their identical beads, over and over, always the same, only two times exist—original time and the present. For them the present is merely consciousness of the former time. Their eternal present nullifies both history and the real present. Isolated in their mountains, engulfed by solitude, encircled by invaders, condemned to misery, they spend their lives in search of their original time—the time of a perfect eternity. As for Dostoevsky, for them existence is both illusory and eternal. A hallucinatory dream, it is so real that it transcends reality. A vision awake can be so real that it seems like a dream. That is why it is so elusive, the reason it fades into darkness. For some mystics darkness means the death before life. Darkness is necessary for light. And light is life. Our dreams are in light. Light within the light. Yet the frontier between light and dark is a fine one. Is the dark an empty void or simply the absence of light? Or is dark merely the perception in our minds that there is no light, thus creating the sensation of darkness? In that sense, darkness is only illusion. Light and darkness are not opposites, but complementary, as inextricably linked as death and life.
In the same way that light and darkness meet, for some peoples man is something between earth and God, a meeting point, half human, half divine. Therefore, the similarity between religions and art styles the world over. Like a reflection in a dark mirror, we can only see vaguely earth, man, and a minimal part of our solar system. We know little of these things. To me the earth seems bigger than ever before. So what can we know of God? In that respect, I just pose Hegel’s doubt: What if man were morally superior to uncaring gods?
Or what about this: without the world, God is not God.
In the San Miguel library I encountered in a poem translated from Nahuatl “We exist only in Your book while we are here on this earth” the confirmation of the omnipresence of the Mexican god, Tezcatlipoca, the terrible eagle god of ancient Mexicans, still alive for some modern Mexicans and to some extent present in their Catholicism. God of the gods, the unpredictable god of human destiny, Tezcatlipoca continually erupts in the lives of his creations. In his obsidian mirror he sees dreamlike images of the deeds of men on earth and obscure visions of future events. Like Yahweh, capricious Tezcatlipoca praises men one moment and punishes them the next; he makes life on earth a dream, and then from another dream creates another life, just as Borges does in tale after tale, as in his Las Ruinas Circulares. In the mad god’s vision we’re fleeting and insignificant, creations of His mind.
That is Mexican thinking.
The mysticism of Mexican peoples like Huichols and Coras is their search and their refuge. It is the place they can dream mad dreams and live a life of magic. These are areas where man is forever a stranger, forever free, as in a dream where you do anything you like, for as long as you like, you are ageless, time is free, time flies forwards and backwards, eternity is vivid, visible, formless, shapeless, silent. The conquest five centuries ago changed little for these peoples. Like Christianity in dark Africa, their religion is a mixture of Catholicism and old beliefs. Their gods are represented today by the saints, but in reality their true gods are the same old trinity of the sacred deer-maize-peyote. As often noted, behind every altar of Mexican churches is hidden an idol; see that and you see Mexican art.
The attempt to penetrate such mystical freedom can be a terrible thing. Just as the mystic tries to see himself, you too come to see yourself poised to topple over the brink, tumbling, head over heels, crashing against jagged rocks, bouncing off the steep walls, down, downwards, like an avalanche. One word could push you over. You don’t know which word. You only fear the word exists. That elusive word is out there somewhere, and you know it can change your life. Is the word chaos? Or the nothingness, from which everything emerges? Or perhaps it is silence, the metaphor for God.
It seems to me that the whole history of Mexico is a testimony of man’s desire for a god. For ten thousand years men here on this plateau have created their gods—from the sun, from fire, from light, from sound. Gods, gods, and more gods. Ancient Mexicans saw Him in their maize, in the deer, in mushrooms and peyote. I thought of the Cora mystic as a shaman because of the aura of divinity he exuded and the ambiguity of his nature and sexuality. When I met the mystic in the cellar of his mask store he told me that it was the “necessity” (he said) of gods that has made Mexicans both universal and otherworldly. “Our vision has placed us outside time. All our sacrifices have been to rise up to God. Now, I think, it’s His turn to come down to us and love us and help us. To come down and give us a hand and change things. If Solomon was right that man is just a little lower than the angels, He wouldn’t have to move very far at all to change everything.”
One friend in San Miguel was Paul, married to a Mexican. He hated the constant fiestas, holy days, the Great Revolution parade, the Day of the Dead. Above all, he hated the climate. When I once commented that the good climate was the reason Gringos spent the winters here, he said sardonically that the real reason Americans come here is for cheap servants and to escape their placid lives in the States. “There have to be lots of compensations for the contaminated water, the chronic bronchitis, the amoebas, the dust and this shitty climate.” His wife Renata was white, upper class, rich, educated, with nothing in common with the Indios or dirt vendors or working class mestizos. She said she felt like a foreigner in her own country. But the web of poverty that hangs over the lower town saddened Paul. When he was pissed at Renata, he would say he could identify more with the poor classes than with rich white Mexicans, for they were the real strangers in their own country. “Those are the real people out there,” he would say, waving his hand vaguely toward the gate and beyond. He meant the people down in the San Juan de Dios quarter and those in the never completed houses and the shanties on the hill on the road toward Atotonilco and Dolores Hidalgo, which a sign identified as “Olympus” and under which some Chichimec satirist had written with black paint in sprawling letters: “home of the gods.”
San Miguel Gringos are not expatriates even if they like to cast themselves in that category. Most of them run back home at every opportunity—Christmas, their daughters’ birthdays, summer vacations. In San Miguel they are actively engaged in filling up their days on park benches talking about the States and how they enjoy their fascinating and risky life in a borderline country. In reality they miss “back home.” Gringo residents of this art town, many of whom never frequent theaters or art exhibits or chamber music concerts at home, are particularly reverent in the face of any manifestation of art and creativity. Once they arrive in San Miguel they morph mysteriously into artists and connoisseurs of the arts, for the theatrical productions and concerts at the Peralta Theater and art exhibits at the Instituto Allende.
We had a maid in San Miguel. Elena was young, had light skin, was quite good-looking and was an unmarried mother. Her six-year old son came to work with her each day and spent considerable time with Milena or me. Rafael had never seen his father, nor his grandfathers nor grandmothers. He only had his mother. He was a cute and loveable little boy, with dark mestizo skin. I often wondered how he felt about the class divisions and I wrote a short story of the world seen through his eyes. I imagined he was terrified of becoming an Indio because they were so poor and miserable since they only ate tortillas and beans. They were not darker than he. Some were nearly as light as his mother. They looked like other Mexicans. What would it mean to turn into an Indio, he wondered? It was not clear to him why he might turn into an Indian if he didn’t eat as his mother warned. Nor did Rafael understand why Gringos were rich and Indios the poorest people in the world? Quién sabe porqué?” I couldn’t tell him why. Nor could his mother tell him why.
Our friend Claudia’s boyfriend, Juan Francisco, was a very well-known painter. He had frequented the German School in Mexico City, was spoiled and irascible and always criticizing Claudia: “You’re thirty years old, verdad? But you’re still the spoiled rich girl from Las Lomas, still dependent on your father. When are you going to grow up? You don’t even know why you’re here with me. Tell me, if you know. Why are you here? But just don’t mention the word love, please. So why? You know what the truth is? You don’t want to grow up. You know what you should do, niña bien? You should go back home and live your life with Papá and the rest of your class.”
Claudia squirmed at his words raining down on her. Especially that ‘rest of your class’ got to her. Her promiscuity was in pure innocence. Naively, she believed that normal life outside Las Lomas was like that. That was not to say that she felt like the emancipated woman. Her life was simplicity itself. Claudia just had no conception of moral restrictions. Her amorality was a reflection of her entire class. Actually they were Juan Francisco’s origins too, but he shouted to Ehecatl’s winds that he had rejected that ‘disgusting class.’ Above all, Claudia hated his epithet, niña bien, the spoiled rich girl.
“You can have your own apartment and vacation in La Jolla,” he shouted, “but you’ll always be Papá’s little girl, a product of Las Lomas, Mexico City. Away from there, you’re lost. You think you’re immune to the problems that face everyone else but no, dearest little girl, you don’t know what the real world is about.
Juan Francisco was in diagnosis and suspected that his mother spoke behind his back with his psychiatrist about his lack of progress. What did they want to cure him of anyway? he wondered. Of being a Mexican? They’d taught him how to live with his symptoms but he continued to coddle his hypochondria, his claustrophobia, his paranoia, his occasional agoraphobia. He joked that he had so many manias that he was half Greek. As if being Mexican were either normal or abnormal! They were right. As he soared, omniscient, omnipotent, he had beat his former wife, hit Claudia, screamed at his mother, destroyed his paintings, terrorized his friends. Manic-depressive! So hopeless. So final. Like having short fingers or big feet, he said. The only proof they had was his symptoms, and he wasn’t about to surrender them. Besides, he was on good terms with death, like all Mexicans. He claimed he didn’t care any more about death than about pre-birth. “It’s all darkness. I only know that I exist now. But I don’t know who I am. Sometimes during the night I don’t even know where I am. So I just hang onto Claudia’s tits for my life. And during the day I stagger and stumble around. Roots seem so old-fashioned anyway. I’m ashamed of being Mexican. But if I’m not Mexican then what am I?”
San Miguel was for him both haven and exile.
Juan Francisco consciously painted his solitude. He came to believe that his solitude, fearsome and loathsome as it was, was not only his weapon and his defense against the world. It was his art. “That’s why we Mexicans are the world’s best painters,” he boasted. “Our solitude!”
Solitude. Mexican solitude. This is an important concept for thinking about Mexico and Mexicans. As in an instantaneous snapshot, I see myself, or the echo of myself, on a solitary trip to Mexico City. I have just come out my hotel and crossed the Reforma near the Angel Monument. I wander into the Zona Rosa. I again walked through the entertainment district, asking myself why it is in life that one could not withdraw painlessly and enter a new life? And if you succeed, have you really left everything behind? Or is there always a residue? Sometimes, in moments of solitude, there seems to be no escape, and life appears to be a cul de sac.
There is a lot of loneliness in everyone’s life. Loneliness is associated with sadness but also with melancholy, which is not exactly the same thing. Loneliness and solitude are not the same thing either but they are closely related and go hand in hand, perhaps one inside the other. Maybe loneliness is a desire for solitude. Loneliness is very familiar to most of us. It is a feeling, an emotion too. It is the sense of alienation many of us feel in a crowd, at a party, in a classroom, when we are consciously distant from what is happening around us. Lonesomeness is not only intensive loneliness, but also the awareness of your state and wishing it were not so. Solitude is when you really are alone, though it is not necessarily disagreeable. You can choose solitude without feeling lonely. Solitude by choice is positive, a rock and a sign of strength. Loneliness is usually an undesired sense of dependency to be overcome and causes despondency but also the flightiness of creativity.
Artists like Juan Francisco often portray lonely figures. Human, but lonely … or abandoned. I find the essence of the art of my Russian painter friend Anatoly Krynsky in the lonely images of prancing centaurs depicted on a cabinet door in his kitchen. The same as in his clowns and kings, so sad, so alone. Like the little stone figures in his etchings, alone and abandoned. Once united with their creator in the Eden of the artist’s fantasy, now separated, lonely and longing for reunion, perhaps like men vis-a-vis God.
Dürer’s winged genius sits in a reflective pose surrounded by his tools—a compass, scales, an hourglass and a magic square of numbers. The desperate artist languishes under the observation of a dog, a cherub and a bat holding the inscription “Melencolia I.” I sense that the meaning of Dürer’s work concerns the relationship between melancholy (and loneliness and solitude) and creativity. My conclusion is that melancholy (and thus also loneliness and a striving for rejoining) is essential to creativity. What greater melancholy than that in the couple in Picasso’s “The Frugal Meal”—the haggard man with an arm draped around the bony shoulders of his woman companion, each looking in opposite directions, each alone in their common solitude. Hopeless yet assailed by nostalgia—Picasso’s loneliness and nostalgia for another existence. A nostalgia that leads the artist back to his natural loneliness—for one thing he knows: he knows where creativity resides. From Goya’s deafness, from Dürer’s meditation, from Picasso’s nostalgia emerges my formula: solitude>loneliness>melancholy>
But also the converse is suggested: sociability>enjoyment>exhilaration>fashion>imitation>non-creativity.
On our hill in San Miguel Allende I came to consider the cactus the symbol of solitude, and thus the symbol of Mexico. A row of cacti in Mexico looks back at you so uncompromisingly, so smugly and yet so alone in the world. The cacti however are quite different close at hand. What from the road might seem to be a mass of green thickets, from up close is independent life itself—throbbing, thriving, and surviving, both receiving the sun of life and giving life—but each alone, as if by choice. They don’t need anything or anyone. I have read that some forms of cactus under certain controlled conditions could survive on the moon. Alone. In lunar solitude. It has to do with oxygen. They don’t need much of it. The magueys. The agave. The noble plant. They provide needles for sewing, fiber for paper, clothing, baskets, medicine, roof thatching, fertilizer, fructose, and above all pulque, mezcal and tequila. You could construct a new human existence with the cactus. The wild plants, in their self-sufficient solitude, seem more real than human life. The cactus could be a way of life. Alone on a desolate cactus plain. Alone with a homeless soul that like Juan Francisco hangs onto Claudia’s tits for salvation—the crying, searching, falling, emerging, swearing soul, in search of self-sufficient solitude.
You need earthliness and the great act of individuality to reaffirm your human link, rejecting loneliness and cherishing solitude. First, romanticism and individuality, then rejoining. In that order. Yet you have to detest contrived individuality and flamboyance for flamboyance’s sake. You have to hate the strutting. Sometimes you would like to be a show-off, scandalous, quarrelsome, vehement, implausible, nonsensical, exuberant and bold, all in order to reform, so that your rebellion and diversity and your solitude would be more meaningful.
But in Mexico I came to compare my differentness with that of the cactus. Or with the Aztec. It lies deep in me. Only I know it.
In Mexico I also became aware that I was fortunate in that I was not numbered among countless, in-tune-with-themselves, normal people. For me, the fixed, attuned, comfortable people are the real foreigners. They are the lonely ones. I can’t help but feel disdain and pity for the “normal” ones. You have to coddle your desperation. Your solitude. Some people who start out in normality, attuned to life, somewhere along the way let down their safeguards and let go their sanity and allow their real selves, their mad, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, wild and tumultuous solitary selves to surface. And are devoid of one iota of envy for ordered, sane, directed lives.
Secretly I had thought of our move to San Miguel as a move toward the sanity of disorder, another attempt to start life anew. Once I had felt compelled to get a grip on things. To get a handle on life, the ordered condition that I also sometimes imagined probably didn’t exist anyway. But what would it be if it did? A generalized awareness? A consciousness of everything? That, I came to realize, would be more terrible-wonderful than my out-of-tuneness, my waywardness, my solitude. Now, surrounded by Aztecs and pyramids and the New in the Old, bathed by powerful Bajìo winds sweeping down the plateau at two thousands meters, compulsions for order slipped away from me.
My old world had surely ended.
For greater pressing reasons we left Mexico anyway. Yet I had had time to perceive a premonition of new miracles in the air. The portents were there.
While I was writing this in the village of Montagna in Alpine Italy my friends, to tease me, often played a disk of the Pink Martini with the slow, plaintive, melancholy rendition, with loud and languid trumpets and a tinkling piano in the background—for the solitary Mexican effect you have to pronounce each word singly, with a pause between each phrase—of Que serà … serà that in a way bedevils my attempts to disdain destiny and somehow sums up my arrival and departure from Old Mexico:
Que serà … serà
Whatever will be … will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que serà … serà.
(The above was recorded in Montagna di Valtellina in August of 2006.
Gaither Stewart is based in Rome, but he’s currently planning a long stay in Buenos Aires sometime in 2010.