- Writing Mexico: Travel and Intercultural Encounter in Contemporary American Literature
Early twentieth-century fascination with non-Western cultures and primitive art, well documented in the moderns’ turn to Africa and Oceania,1 also led Anglo-American writers to produce works inflected by their experiences of traveling in Mexico. Mexico, in the writings of Graham Greene, D. H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, and Malcolm Lowry, became the site of the bourgeois subject’s escape from Western civilization and its neoromantic quest for restoration. Williams’s poem “The Desert Music,” for example, traces the speaker’s search for rejuvenation south of the border, while his essay “Destruction of Tenochtitlan” idealizes the ancient Aztec capital and its inhabitants. Lawrence’s novel The Plumed Serpent (1926) features Irish protagonist Kate’s encounters with the mysteries of Mexico and stages the return of the God Quetzalcoatl, while his short story “The Woman Who Ran Away” depicts a woman’s first-hand experience with human sacrifice at the hands of the descendants of the Aztecs. In his travels, Crane sought to discover a primitive Mexico and to write a poetic drama of Cortés and Moctezuma. Critics such as Douglas Veitch, Ronald G. Walker, and Benjamin Keen have linked these writers’ use of primitivist tropes to their lament of the bankruptcy of Western civilization and their quest for cultural renewal.2 In Keen’s view, Lawrence’s novel presents the height of “artistic recoil against modern industrial society and its alienations” (Keen 553). In the process, [End Page 95] the above-named authors engaged in what I would call, in analogy to Said’s Orientalism, Mexicanism, the representation of Euro-American perceptions of Mexico.3 Suggesting primitivist characteristics, Mexicanism is tied to colonial attitudes towards race; it entails a critique of modernity and a search for the supposed innocence, simplicity, and authenticity before the Conquest. It frequently manifests itself in a fascination with the contemporary Indian population and is a product of what ethnographer Renato Rosaldo has called imperialist nostalgia, a paradoxical phenomenon, according to which the colonizer longs for cultures colonization itself has destroyed.
In this project, I turn my attention to contemporary writers Jack Kerouac, Oscar Zeta Acosta, Ana Castillo, and Montserrat Fontes, who all employ tropes of journeying in Mexico. As American writers continue to cross the southern border, they inevitably engage their protagonists in ethnography, the encounter with and representation of others, in this case, an Other that has been marginalized and colonized in the West. What, then, are the continuities and discontinuities between theirs and modernist writing about Mexico? How do contemporary authors of Mexican descent portray this journey? This study attempts to answer these questions by examining literary works from the 1950s to the 1980s that deal with intercultural encounters on journeys to Mexico. I suggest that while Kerouac’s famous 1954 novel On the Road builds on modernist traditions of Mexicanism, it strangely coincides not only with Mexican definitions of national identity (mexicanidad) but also with nationalist sentiments as expressed in Mexican-American works such as José Antonio Villarreal’s novel Pocho (1959) and early Chicano writing. Linking Euro-American theories of primitivism with Mexican reflections on mexicanidad and Chicano nationalism highlights, I argue, a common project of critiquing modernity where Mexico functions as the antithesis to the U.S. But a juxtaposition of these discourses also demonstrates that the Mexican and Chicano nationalist projects are essentially postcolonial moves, while Euro-American Mexicanism is deeply embedded in colonialist structures. Acosta’s early Chicano memoir, Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972), and Castillo’s epistolary novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters (1986), deploy the traditional rhetoric of Mexico only to highlight its implication in colonial and neocolonial structures. They perform a crucial shift from a colonial and nationalist to a postcolonial imaginary. In her historical novel Dreams of the Centaur (1996), Fontes foregoes the rhetoric altogether. Throughout her reassessment of the country and its people, she creates not a monolithic nation and subject but stresses the diversity of regions and their inhabitants, offering a more complex view of Mexico that takes into account the country’s regionalisms and Mexican subjects’ dynamic and multiple identities.