American Literary History 16.1 (2004) 58-84
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Hipsters and jipitecas:
Literary Countercultures on Both Sides of the Border
Near the end of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Sal Paradise and his friends plan a new kind of trip, one that is "no longer east-west, but magic south" (265). Plotting their route on a map leads to flights of fancy as they imagine "flying down the curve of the world into other tropics and other worlds" (265-66). With this episode Kerouac locates his protagonists in a tradition of North American radicals who have looked south of the border for aesthetic and political inspiration. Conceiving Mexico as a place of revolutionary history and colorful landscapes, dissidents from John Reed to William Burroughs sought alternatives to the perceived constraints of their own national culture. 1 But On the Road also inaugurates a newer form of travel narrative about driving across the nation's expanding network of interstate highways and, ultimately, its southern frontier. Retracing the steps of Kerouac's journey, the mobile counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s would help to make Mexico a favorite travel destination. So too did things Mexican—huaraches, woven blankets and ponchos, silver jewelry, terra cotta pottery, Carlos Castañeda's best-selling parables of Don Juan, the Yaqui shaman— become an integral part of countercultural iconography in the US.
Although US visitors tended to see Mexico as a land of untainted, primitive charm, they unwittingly contributed to the emergence of Mexico's own modern, cosmopolitan counterculture. Not only were tourists transformed by the experience of travel, but Mexico itself was profoundly changed by the growing tide of Anglo-American tourism that began during World War II and increased in the decades that followed. 2 Intensified contact with the US occasioned a crisis in Mexico's sense of its own modernity. Under the regime of President Diaz Ordaz, the Mexican government enticed foreign investors with promises of modern efficiency and financial security. Political stability, an expanding middle class, and improving infrastructure created new consumer markets as well as an attractive climate for conducting [End Page 58] business. At the same time, the tourist industry promoted a very different Mexico of colorful folkways and rural settings. 3 Regional differences were erased within state-sanctioned constructions of "national tradition" that catered to the northern vacationer's desire for the indigenous and the primitive. Such invented traditions had little resonance with Mexican teenagers, who gravitated toward a modernity introduced from abroad. By the late 1960s the atmosphere of youthful rebellion fomenting in the US and Europe inspired La Onda, a label that refers to both a literary cohort and the Mexican counterculture that flourished between 1966 and 1972 from which its name is derived. Their enthusiasm for Anglo-American popular culture gave rise to Spanish-language Elvises, James Dean style rebeldes sin causa, and jipitecas (a hybrid of the gringo hippie and the Mexican Azteca). Fusing Anglo- and Latin-American influences, La Onda was a crucible where transnational popular culture met uneasily with the politics and aesthetics of Mexican nationalism.
This alternative history of countercultural travel is an illuminating companion piece to the work of Kerouac's successors. By reading narratives of the US counterculture's Mexican adventuring—Kerouac's On the Road, Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and Oscar Zeta Acosta's Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo—against those of La Onda's most prominent writers—José Agustín and Parménides García Saldaña, this essay presents a story of reciprocal, if uneven, encounter. 4 Until now, each group has been interpreted largely within the parameters of its own national culture. Scholars have described the road narrative as the paradigmatically "American" genre of the post- World War II era while rarely noting how often those narratives traverse national boundaries. 5 Likewise, La Onda is studied almost exclusively by Mexican literary critics, who tend to concentrate on its rebellion against national culture rather than its provocative fusion of local geographies with cosmopolitan literary vocabularies. 6 Only when...