For the Joy of Reading: Mexico in Words

There is one central fact in the history of Mexico.   In 1519, Hernan Cortes invaded, destroying in the process the Aztec Empire of Moctezuma II and Guatemoczin in less than five years.   He began a Conquistador tradition of pillage and destruction, with bloodshed on a scale that made the sacrifices to Huilzuilapotchtli, the Aztec god of war, look amateurish.   In some ways that is all that you need to know, because it set the tone of Mexican history for the next five hundred years.

The Spanish Conquest fundamentally altered the nature of Mexico.   It introduced the language that is now dominant and which is the literary language used by all the writers in this book.   [Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs has survived, but it is not the language of literature.   Such are the results of European imperialism.]   It introduced the Catholicism that makes Mexico a very different country from its northern neighbour.   I do not know if it was the Spanish who reduced the peons to a status tantamount to serfdom, but it was certainly they who introduced the concept of purity of blood (limpieza de sangre) to stratify Mexican society from the nobility (of Spanish descent), through the mestizos (of mixed Spanish and native descent) to the peasants (no Spanish ancestors at all).   And it is this stratification that has defined Mexican society from the War of Independence on.

When the nobility found that their power was being threatened by Benito Juarez, a native Mexican elected as President, they called in the French who imposed an Austrian Archduke as the Emperor Maximilian.   Juarez led a popular uprising of mestizos and native Mexicans that ended in the defeat of the French, and the execution of Maximilian.   The USA may have declared its hegemony over Latin America through the Monroe Doctrine, but it was in no position to enforce it in the 1860s.   In many ways this was a classic Marxist scenario, except that Marx had not written Capital, and it had not been translated into Spanish.   It was more that ideas from the New World were being fed into the political understanding of the Old.   It was not, however, long before the USA was exercising that hegemony.   As one of Juarez’ successors, Porfirio Diaz, put it “Oh my country, my poor, poor country, so far from God, so near the United States”.   Diaz was the President overthrown by the Mexican Revolution of Francisco Madero, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, which gave birth to modern day Mexico.

People of my generation gleaned what knowledge they have of Mexico from Hollywood films, like “The Magnificent Seven”, and the occasional novel, such as “The Power and the Glory” which were not usually written by Mexicans.   That is what makes this book so refreshing.   It is by Mexicans about Mexico.   We, as readers, owe a debt to Nick Barley, the Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, for having both the vision and the courage to approach Gabriel Orozco, asking him, as Orozco says “out of the blue to select writers and be in conversation with them in Edinburgh”.   A truly remarkable book has emerged.

Mexico is a dangerous place to be a writer.   This is made clear in the essay by Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez.   He tells us in grim detail about the number of deaths that have occurred, and of the violence and threats that he has endured as an investigative journalist.  He tells us of the war on drugs,and the uselessness of that war, when the criminals are so well-organised and the politicians are so complicit.   He tells us of the fear of death, the threat of torture, and the overwhelming presence of violence.   This is not the kind of society in which we live.   The question is simple: does our prosperity impose this kind of violence on others?

Eduardo Antonio Parra and Juan Villoro tell us of the lure of the USA, of its siren song and of the indignities suffered both to get there and when there.   Parra writes of the impossibility of the journey, both in terms of the physical barriers, and also of the barriers between cultures that make it impossible for someone to truly arrive.  Villoro writes of the facts of actually being in a foreign country, of being part of it, but not of it, and yet no longer being fully a part of your own culture.

Paolo Soler Frost takes this further, with his meditation on the “Dune” books of Frank Herbert, gently reminding us that when Duncan Idaho uses the word “axolotl” he is referring to something deep in the pre-Columbian past of Mexico, and the lake on which Tenochtitlan, the capital of Aztec Mexico, was built.   And so he links us to the poets, Monica de la Torre, Julian Herbert and Gabriela Jauregui, who’s soaring use of language is a joy to read.

This book is only 93 pages.   It does not take long to read.   Except that you will want to read it again and again, because it is extraordinary.


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