- An Anarcho-Syndicalist Perspective on the Mexican Revolution:B. Traven's Land of Eternal Spring
Land des Frühlings, or "Land of Eternal Spring" is a travel account by author B. Traven published in Germany in 1928. Traven's travelogue details his journey through Chiapas and describes his encounters with and observations of Indians in this southeastern Mexican state. While he originally joined an expedition on orders of the Mexican Secretariat of Agriculture, he soon set off on his own together with his indigenous servant, Felipe, through Chiapas to San Cristóbal de las Casas and on to Chamula. Traven writes the travelogue with anthropological, ethnographic and political questions as well as ideological convictions in mind. While he does describe adventures and personal encounters, he devotes many pages to supposedly scientific observation and discussion of the observed people, culture and customs. In addition, he provides 130 photos to supplement and support his observations and interpretations. This essay provides a critical appraisal of Land des Frühlings as an anarcho-syndicalist, yet overly positive assessment of the Mexican Revolution.
First, a word about travel accounts. Many critics have lambasted foreign travel accounts for their ethnocentrism and bias, or, in the words of the literary scholar, Mary Louise Pratt, for the "imperial eyes" used to gaze upon Latin American culture (Pratt). The late cultural critic, Edward Said, charged foreign observers, specifically from European colonial powers, with inventing the Middle East as the "Orient"—as a single, undifferentiated "other." As Said asserted, "Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient" (Said 3). Aside from the racist and sexist comments found in much foreign travel writing, foreign observers thus helped create the language and categories used to describe the reality of the "other," whether the Middle East or Latin America.
Nonetheless, foreign travel accounts—read carefully—provide fascinating insights into Latin American cultural and political practices. As historian William Beezley has put it, foreign observers "did not take for granted Mexico's everyday activities, food, clothing, work habits, family arrangements, and housing." (Beezley 7). What was routine and mundane [End Page 46] to Mexicans appeared noteworthy to foreign travel writers, who devoted many pages to describing Mexican cultural practices, including some that have since disappeared. Our understanding of nineteenth century Mexico, in particular, would be far less rich without travelogues such as Fanny Calderón de la Barca's Life in Mexico (Calderón de la Barca).
While critics have described Land des Frühlings as a "hodgepodge of speculation, parading as scientific theories, gossip, anecdotes and accounts of the author's personal bravery and courage" they neglect to recognize that this, Traven's only work of non-fiction, is a "unique historical document" (Zogbaum 37). The text serves almost as a primary source allowing a glimpse of Chiapas and indigenous life in post-revolutionary Mexico. It also showcases Traven's understanding or rather, misunderstanding of contemporary Mexican politics and indigenista ideology. Traven's own claim about the uniqueness of his work relied on the idea that he was using the "viewpoint of the modern proletariat" (Zogbaum 38). Traven's unmistakably anarcho-syndicalist point of view also shines a light on such interpretations of the reality of the subjugated in the late 1920s rural Mexico.
At the same time, this travel account, gives insights into the famous and mysterious author B. Traven's identity. Between 1926 and 1960, B. Traven published his travelogue, two collections of stories as well as twelve novels. Although he lived in Mexico, all of his writings appeared in the German language and were published by the Büchergilde Gutenberg press in Germany. The manuscripts arrived from a rural Mexican P.O. box without any further identifying information. Therefore, the identity of B. Traven remained a mystery for many years. His novels, often called "proletarian adventure narratives" (Zogbaum ix), among them "The Death Ship," and "The Cotton Pickers" dealt with...