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  • In the Land of Lost WordsModes of seeing
  • Ilan Stavans

Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensation.

—Clement Greenberg

Perdón,” I say. “Perdóneme. . . .”

Night has fallen. Murmurs of nervous expectation invade the air. In spite of the heavy rain, the theater, as anticipated, is filled to capacity. A syncopated dance of umbrellas concentrates around the entrance door. People in elegant suits run to escape getting soaked. Taxis stop half a block away. Vendors scream to make their merchandise known.

A poor Indian woman—bronzed face, dressed in embroidered regalia à la Frida Kahlo—sits on the floor, right under the huge marquee, which protects the hordes from the rain. Her skin is dark and wrinkled, her hair long and disheveled. She is breast-feeding her newborn. At her right side a teenage girl, her torso and inflated belly uncovered, is sound asleep, oblivious to the vociferous noise that surrounds her. Defying all logic, the woman has an extended polychromatic poncho on top of the humid floor. Its edges are wet. People’s shoes scuff dirt at it. Why doesn’t she move to a dry spot?

On the poncho she has arranged a colorful display of rag dolls, souvenirs, and local candy-sweet-and-spicy chamoy, Chiclets, mango and guava lollipops, peanuts. The dolls are pure Mayan folklore, and, in a way, so is the woman herself, dressed up as if some theater producer had paid her to be a landmark, to remind people that Mexico’s modernity is still unfinished business, that although the government lavishly promotes the idea that the nation has joined the feast of Western civilization, the truth is otherwise: a large portion of its population still cannot spell the word yo. I look at her, my umbrella in hand; then someone pushes me from behind, and I stumble and mess up even more of her colorful display.

“Perdón,” I say again, moving the umbrella to the side, then folding it.

Too big a crowd, not enough space. She looks at me in anger. Her baby has begun to cry.

I apologize again and again. Why so many times? Are my apologies a way to relieve my class guilt? In truth, I never know how to behave in these awkward situations. Is that why I left Mexico? I ask myself. No, the reasons are far more complex. Or are they?

I try to place the candies and dolls back in some kind of order. The woman utters a certain sound, but the hullabaloo around us keeps me from understanding her. [End Page 14]

“Ine hup-ka . . .”

I smile apologetically.

“Ine hup-ka . . . ,” she repeats.

A Mayan dialect, I tell myself. The baby is in need of comfort, but she won’t let me go. “¿Una lumuznita?” Do I have a few pesos to spare? Ah, she finally switches to Spanish to make herself understood. But she mispronounces the Spanish word for alms: limosna. Is she aware of it? Stupid me, I should have known what she was after. I take out ten pesos.

“Unos garapiñados, por favor,” I say. She knows what I mean: a bag of caramelized peanuts. Complaisant, she folds the money and stores it near her breast. Keep the change, I tell her, although she isn’t about to give me any. Ten pesos for a tiny bag of garapiñados is a fortune, but I’m satisfied. At least I will be spared more guilt.

I put the munchies in my jacket pocket and look up. The rain is still falling, albeit lightly. The marquee reads, “Teatro Silvia Pinal: Cantando bajo la lluvia.” My father’s name is in gigantic, handsome letters, brightly illuminated, right in the public’s eyes. His pride, I know, is immeasurable. This, after all, is Mexico’s most expensive and expansive imitation of the Broadway musical, a lavish translation of Singin’ in the Rain, but for the misbegotten. Raindrops out in the world and onstage—an eerie parallel. The Indian woman is [End Page 16] now pulling my pants. “Mister,” she says, “mire por favor, Mister!” Oh, I’m very sorry; I am again stepping on her poncho. I make yet another gesture...

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pp. 14-26
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2001
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