Sun, 30 July 2017
This is part 2 in a 2-part series on Labyrinth of Solitude.
In this episode I’m going to perform a quick medical diagnosis of one of the best books written about Mexico. And also one of the most self-indulgent and cringeworthy books ever written. First we’re gonna talk about teenagers, then we’re gonna talk about Coca-Cola, and then we’re gonna talk about the major, glaring flaw with this book, because huge parts of Octavio Paz’s masterpiece are completely unreadable, while other parts are completely perfect.
This is not an attempt to summarize the book. If you’ve ever read it, you probably understand how difficult a task that would be. If you haven’t read it, it’s an impossible task.
So rather than condensing it, I’ll instead point out some of the parts that were most interesting to me.
The Pachuco and Other Extremes
Paz writes that many of the thoughts that inspired him to write Labyrinth of Solitude came to him when he was in the United States. He wanted to understand American culture, but he kept seeing himself reflected in his questions about American customs.
He writes about a chicano subculture called Pachucos. They got their style of dress from a character called Tin Tan, played by the actor German Valdes, in the early 1950s. The guy was somewhere between The Fonz from Happy Days, Charlie Chaplin, and Robert De Niro’s take on The Godfather, as opposed to Marlon Brando. Octavio Paz says the Pachuco style came as a response to being Mexican in racist-Post War America. Pachucos were adolescents who didn’t want to go back to being Mexican, but also didn’t want to try to pass as white.
And in my own estimation the Pachuco falls into the trap every adolescent falls into: Trying to prove his/her distinctness and individuality by totally conforming to the rigid rules of whatever subculture or counterculture they gravitate towards.
Paz writes that the adolescent cannot forge himself, because when a person finally forges themselves, they are no longer an adolescent.
According to Paz, the Pachuco is the product of two irreconcilable worlds: Mexico and the United States. In my opinion the adolescent mind is tortured by that supposed dichotomy and therefore lashes out. The adolescent wants to fit in somewhere, because an adolescent is still a child and still wants someone to protect him. By taking on the outward appearance of a particular subculture, the adolescent hopes that subculture will protect him from the hardships of the world.
This is possibly why pop stars like Selena as well as academics find themselves struggling incessantly with biculturality. Selena was 23 when she died. That’s only slightly older than a college graduate. And anyone who spends their entire life in a college will probably not mature very much beyond that point. So we find people like Gloria Anzaldua who are much older than people like Selena but who still write about how tortured they are by being between two cultures.
The adolescent mind of a pop star in their early 20s and the adolescent mind of a career academic need to go through a long process before forging themselves into adulthood.
I’m reading another book about Mexico…which, duh, obviously. But I came across something by another writer that completely validates Octavio Paz’s explanation of mexicanness. It’s about Coca-Cola.
If you want to be politically fashionable in Western liberal democracies in 2017, you can never even imply that a gigantic multinational corporation could ever be right about anything in any way. Ever.
Well, since I turned 30 I’ve stopped caring about the contemporary political orthodoxy. So screw it.
Coca-Cola is right about something.
They wanted to boost sales of Diet Coke in Mexico, so they did a study. When a huge corporation has billions of dollars on the line, their studies aren’t arbitrary and they don’t play BS word games.
For some background here, in case you didn’t know, Coke is an absolute beast in Mexico. I’ve only met one person who didn’t like Coke here. No, I hvaen’t asked every single person I’ve ever met whether they like Coke. Anyway, Coke is huge in Mexico. There is not a single village that doesn’t have a store where you can buy Coke.
Okay, maybe there’s one. But you can even buy Coca-Cola from Zapatistas. Subcomandante Marcos probably has some Coke in his fridge.
Mexico is usually among the world’s top consumers of soft drinks, depending on the survey and the year.
Diet Coke was about 30% of all Coca-Cola products sold in the United States, but it was only 2% in Mexico. So Coke wanted to know why.
There are two important findings from their study.
One, Mexican men think Diet Coke is for girls, and they don’t want to be seen in public drinking it.
And that’s true. Diet Coke is for girls. Girls who like the taste of a dentist office. And guys who like the taste of a dentist office.
Now here’s the part where I have to again recognize the total brilliance of Octavio Paz. I’m getting this Coke story from Andres Oppenheimer, but Coke is totally validating Paz from a hardcore capitalist perspective. Here it goes:
The second finding is that Mexicans are quote unquote compensators. Compensators are a small category in the United States, but much bigger in Mexico.
A compensator will overeat and then repent the next day, and try to undo the damage, but revert to the old behavior shortly thereafter.
By the way, that’s what makes Mexican parties so great.
In the U.S. most people will either drink Coke OR Diet Coke almost exclusively. In Mexico Coca-Cola found that people will drink tons of Coke one day and just generally go overboard in every way, and the next day they’ll try to make up for it by drinking Diet Coke.
It reminds me of when I worked in a Mexican restaurant. In this example it was actually an American who would order the biggest, greasiest thing we had…and actually this happened all the time. I worked at three fast food joints and a couple restaurants, and it happened in all those places. People would get the unhealthiest thing on the menu and then “GIVE ME A DIET COKE.” I guess the only difference here is the on-the-spot repentance or compensation. Or maybe they drink it for the taste… I’m not sure which is worse.
Moving away from mass market sugar water…
Paz writes that Mexicans like to work slowly and carefully, paying attention to all the small details, and that Mexicans have an innate good taste that is an ancient heritage.
There are certainly a lot of great products made by serious artisans who are dedicated to their craft, but there’s an even greater amount of crap. That’s normal. That’s the same in any country.
There’s a huge amount of slowly and lovingly crafted stuff in Mexico. The craft beer scene is still emerging and it still belongs to people who love beer. Mexico’s big beer conglomerates haven’t caught on to the profit they could make yet, and especially in Oaxaca where I live, there are only a few brands and a few micro or nano-breweries. They use Mexican ingredients, too. There’s beer infused with mezcal, Jamaica, tejate, and I’m sure a dedicated beer connosiuer could find American or European companies making those flavors, there’s some really cool stuff happening with Mexican beer.
Then there are the mezcal and tequila artisans. Some of them stick rigidly to tradition and some of them experiment. Both avenues are wonderful. Since mezcal is getting its extended 15 minutes of fame, you can find upscale mezcal bars as well as the seedier joints, and if you know what to look for you can get great stuff in both kinds of places.
There’s not a huge variety of Mexican cheese, at least not that I’ve found, but it’s all great pretty much anywhere you find it.
I’m not gonna bother getting into what is and is not artisanry, but by any definition there is great artisanry as well as complete crap.
As I mentioned before, Vast portions of Labyrinth of Solitude are completely unreadable, and I blame that on Octavio Paz’s career as a poet. He thinks so deeply about some things that his thoughts lose all meaning. And again it’s the echo chamber that academics fall into. And then not only is he writing things that mean nothing, but he puts them into overly poetic nonsense prose. Take this passage for instance:
“Man is alone everywhere, but the solitude of the Mexican, under the great stone night of the high plateau that is still inhabited by insatiable gods, is very different from that of the North American, who wanders in an abstract world of machines, fellow citizens, and moral precepts. In the Valley of Mexico man feels himself suspended between heaven and earth, and he oscillates between contrary powers and forces, and petrified eyes and devouring mouths. Reality – that is the world that surrounds us – exists by itself here, has a life of its own and was not invented by man as it was in the United States. The Mexican feels himself to have been torn from the womb of this reality, which is both creative and destructive, both Mother and Tomb. He has forgotten the word that ties him to all those forces through which life manifests itself. Therefore he shouts or keeps silent, stabs or prays, or falls asleep for 100 years.”
If that passage made any sense, or if Paz was actually trying to say something real, then there would be too much wrong with it to even know where to begin. But ultimately they’re just pretty words that mean nothing, because the author is a poet who has spent too much time being terrified at his own solitude and now often forgets that he’s writing a thing that’s going to be read by other people who are also alone and therefore not inside of Octavio Paz’s mind, which would be the reason to publish something, so that you can explain your oh-so-poetic solitude to someone else who’s also alone in a cold/harsh/painful/oppressive world that only poetry can sweeten or illuminate.
There simply aren’t enough drugs on Earth to make that paragraph comprehensible. It’s sort of like reading dense theological justifications of things like transubstantiation or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Also, most of his writing has some really haunting similarities to critical theory, which is the academic language of Marxism. And since Paz was a Marxist at this particular point in his life, it makes sense that his writing contains those scary, mechanical, dehumanizing thoughts and fixations that most Marxist writing has.
But I do agree with his assertion that the differences between Mexico and the U.S. are not merely economic. In other words, if everyone in Mexico and the U.S. had the same income and the same access to the same products and services, the two countries would still be very different.
The major flaw with Labyrinth of Solitude is Paz’s career as a poet. The word lacerate appears on almost every page. Mexican traditions are constantly compared to a firecracker exploding in the air and disappearing, or a bullet fired into the air.
The only thing Paz likes more than the word lacerate are commas. In many, many sentences, nearly every single word will have a comma after it. Here’s an example: “Spanish Catholicism has always expressed the same will; [semicolon] hence, [comma] perhaps, [comma] its belligerent, [comma] authoritarian, [comma] inquisitorial tone.” Maybe that’s just a problem with the translation, but I doubt it. That’s what happens when writers try too hard to sound like what they imagine writers sound like, trying to impress other writers who also try too hard to sound like writers. And I think that’s why poetry never gets taken as seriously as poets want, because they make no effort to write something that non-poets can understand or would ever care about.
Thank you for listening to my absurd opinions on one of Mexico’s greatest literary treasures. I promise I will be back in one week to continue defiling this sacred cultural artefact.
Sun, 23 July 2017
This is part 1 in a 2-part series on The Labyrinth of Solitude.
The differences between the U.S. and Mexico go back long before Europe discovered North America. In what is now Mexico, there were massive and complex civilizations. Farther north there were mostly nomadic tribes. The Aztecs and Maya were economically richer than, say, the Apache and the Cherokee. Spain and England were also different, though not as different as the Aztecs and the Cherokees. The south, Mexico, had different natural resources than the north did.
I’ll talk more about the divergent paths that the U.S. and Mexico took in a future episode, but for this one we’re again talking about Labyrinth of Solitude. The author, Octavio Paz, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990, and I’d be surprised if anybody who’s ever taken a Spanish class hasn’t at least heard his name.
Paz says there’s one fundamental difference that helps to explain the modern differences between Mexico and the U.S. “In England the Reformation triumphed, whereas Spain was the champion of the Counter-Reformation.
Spain had been under Islamic oppression since roughly the year 700 until 1492, when Arab domination of the Iberian Peninsula ended. But after 700 years of something, a culture can’t really help but internalize some aspects of it. And so conversion by the sword as well as crusades and holy wars and inquisitions had become a fact of Spanish life and it became part of Spain’s brand of Catholicism, which Spain then exported to Mexico.
Paz writes that conquest and evangelization are as fundamental to Spain and to Catholicism as they are to Islam. For them, conquest meant occupying foreign lands, subjugating the people, and forcing them to convert. The conversion then legitimized the conquest.
English colonization was different in that evangelization was not quite as important.
Mexico was conquered by people who were orthodox, inflexible, dogmatic, and authoritarian about their faith, and extremely violent. The United States was conquered by people who were also very religious, but who were largely dissidents and who felt that religion should be read and understood by everyone, not just by a priestly class. Broadly speaking, the American vision was one of Protestant Reformism, while the Mexican vision was one of Catholic Orthodoxy.
Mexico’s Catholic orthodoxy was defensive rather than critical, it resisted modernity. It prevented examination and criticism.
Paz writes that these two styles of religious thought are irreconcilable, the rigidly dogmatic and the interpretive. And that irreconcilable difference played out in the structure of the religions.
The hierarchy of the Catholic church is complex, and the mass itself focuses mostly on ritual and sacrament. In the Protestant tradition, scripture is freely discussed and examined and questioned, hierarchy between the clergy and the believers is less, and the focus of mass is more on delivering an ethical message than ritual.
This difference comes from the Reformation, which was a criticism of European religion. The Reformation led to the Enlightenment. Spain closed itself off from the Reformation, and the Enlightenment never happened in Spain.
That’s going a bit too far maybe, but when anyone thinks of the Enlightenment, no Spanish names come to mind, whereas several French and English names are immediately recognizable. John Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu. Immanuel Kant was German.
For Octavio Paz, Mexico’s vision of progress comes from looking to the past, whereas America’s vision of progress comes from looking toward the future. The founding of the United States was done with a promise of a better future.
One major difference is that in Mexico there are still millions of indigenous people. In America there are few, and even then, most native people are corralled into reservations and forgotten. America was founded as a land without a past.
In Mexico, the past is still at war with itself. Cortes and Moctezuma are still alive. Emiliano Zapata’s great desire was a return to the past, a return to pre-Hispanic communal ownership of land.
Paz writes that clear-thinking Mexicans have been wondering about modernization since the 18th century. “In the 19th century it was believed that to adopt the new democratic and liberal principles was enough. Today after almost two centuries of setbacks, we have realized that countries change very slowly, and that if such changes are to be fruitful they must be in harmony with the past and the traditions of each nation. And so Mexico has to find its own road to modernity. Our past must not be an obstacle, but a starting point.”
I want to take a moment to point out that I’ve had this thought independently of Octavio Paz. Therefore I am extremely smart and impressive.
But seriously, the major discovery that I’ve had while living in Mexico is that the singer Selena was wrong, and Gloria Anzaldua was wrong, and every other whiny post-modernist was wrong in the assumption that it’s oh-so hard being bicultural.
In reality it’s a superpower. (And by the way, what the whiners fail to realize is that if they were monocultural, there would still be parts of their culture that alienated them, because no culture will ever fit anyone perfectly. Nobody in France is perfectly in tune with all aspects of French culture.)
I say that being bicultural is a superpower because you get to see the good parts and the bad parts of both cultures, and you get to see them from both an insider perspective and an outsider perspective. You can see each culture more clearly, and then you can decide for yourself which of those good and bad parts you want to keep and which ones you want to get rid of.
In Mexico, I am not normal. I am a foreigner. I haven’t been to the U.S. in about four years, and I’m sure when I go back I won’t be normal there either. I’ve discarded things I don’t like about the U.S. and I’ve discarded things I don’t like about Mexico, and I’ve combined the stuff I like about each country.
And when nobody considers you normal, when nobody expects you to be normal, you realize that it doesn’t matter whether you’re normal or not. All that matters is that you live the way you think you should live and that you strive to improve constantly.
And so my message about Mexico’s path forward is close to what Octavio Paz seems to be laying out. I don’t think Mexicans need to be like me, bicultural out of choice, but millions of Mexicans live in the U.S anyway. And besides, Mexicanness is a combination of Spanish and indigenous culture, and there are dozens of indigenous cultures in Mexico. For people living in Mexico, the biggest cultural force besides Mexican culture is American culture. And nearly every family has relatives who’ve been to the U.S. or who are living there right now. All that’s required is to awaken this dormant superpower and use it. Just take inspiration from the good parts of Spanish culture, American culture, and Mexico’s indigenous cultures, and then get rid of the crappy parts.
Not everyone is going to agree on what the good and bad parts are. That’s up to each person to decide for themselves. But in my own humble opinion, Mexico has been going about it blindly for 500 years. But Mexico isn’t alone in this; every culture moves unconsciously.
Octavio Paz writes that Mexico needs to reconcile itself with its past in order to move forward. He may not be explicitly proposing this, but in my opinion the only real practicable way to carry that out is through education. Most people don’t want education. I do, which is why I do this podcast. You do, which is why you’re listening to this podcast. But most people don’t want education, because it’s just easier to not learn. And even when we do want to learn, most teaching methods are outdated and low quality. When you think of public schools in the U.S. or Mexico, quality is probably not the first word that pops in your head.
If you think of a business school, are they teaching you how to operate in 2017? Or 1988? Yeah, 1988.
Paz then writes about how the nations that inspired Mexico’s 19th century liberals, (meaning France, the US, and England,) are no longer inspirational like they were centuries before. He wrote this particular essay in 1979, but I think his point is still valid today.
The thinkers who inspired Mexico’s liberals were people writing about freedom, writing about escaping tyranny. And they were writing about the future. They were engaging in a transformation of their cultures.
But then in the 20th century the United States went from inspiring freedom to being yet another colonizing empire. I’m oversimplifying it way too much and I have very little patience for the Noam Chomsky style of everything-bad-is-America’s-fault, but no one can deny that the U.S. has done things to make lots of people in lots of coutnries less free than they would have been had the U.S. not interfered. The country that inspired tons of independence movements later became a cynical geopolitical manipulator seeking nothing but power.
However, I also think Paz is exaggerating a bit, or at least he’s too close chronologically to see what had just happened in 1979.
In the 60s and 70s America and England went from producing inspiring intellectuals to inspiring cultural figures. Some of the greatest art in all of human history came out of the 60s and 70s. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Dylan are all such unbelievably great artists that eventually everyone on Earth has to recognize their greatness. Even those of us who wanted to rebel against our parents by pretending we didn’t like those bands…eventually had to admit that we were wrong.
And that’s just music. We don’t need to get into this whole conversation, but I think I’ve made my point that the inspiration went from intellectual to artistic.
Octavio Paz is searching for a source of inspiration for Mexicans on how to move forward as a country.
But I think he’s missing the point of classical Liberalism, which is about the sovereignty of the individual. And I think the message of the Liberals is more important today than ever. The 20th century was the great science experiment of liberalism versus collectivism, and we’ve seen the horrors that collectivism always produces.
And now in 2017 as collectivists are trying to take over Western civilization, yet again, we must draw inspiration from the classical Liberals and remind people that the only real minority is the individual and that freedom must be defended fiercely against any force that seeks to limit it.
The people who inspired Mexico’s 19th century liberals are still relevant, and they can still serve as a source of inspiration for Mexicans today, and for people of any country.
Paz points out that Mexico’s position is much better than many other countries. That was true in 1979 and it’s true today. Paz mentions Latin America’s military dictatorships, most of which were propped up by the U.S. The U.S. propped up those dictatorships in order to keep collectivism from spreading like cancer, but military dictatorships and communist purges are both terrible options.
And life in some Asian and African countries post-independence was sometimes worse than it was during colonialism.
Then at the end of his essay he gets into some things that aren’t really relevant to anybody. He was writing before the fall of the Soviet Union. His assessment of history is great. His analysis of his present was less impressive.
Mon, 3 July 2017
Cuauhtemoc was the last Aztec emperor. I’ve captured one sliver of his life in my series Fall of Tenochtitlan, but obviously he was around before and after the Spanish invaded and destroyed his city. By the way, I’m not making any moral judgements about the Spanish or the Aztecs when I say invaded and destroyed. Invasion and destruction are pretty common themes in history.
Historians don’t know exactly when and where he was born, exactly who his parents were, and they don’t know where he was buried. One town in the state of Guerrero claims to have his bones, but others say it’s not him. He was born sometime around 1500 to a noble family. He was named emperor in 1521, and he was hanged by the Spanish in 1525.
He had a wife and at least one child.
If there were any official documents about him, they were lost or destroyed during the destruction of Tenochtitlan.
After the emperor Cuitlahuac died of smallpox, Cuauhtemoc was named emperor and put in charge of the city’s defense.
When he finally accepted that he couldn’t save the city, he and some advisers tried to flee and find a better place to continue the war. He was captured and brought to Cortes. He asked to be sacrificed, because that was the expectation of any captured soldier. Before the Spanish arrived, the typical battle strategy was to capture as many people as possible rather than killing them. Live prisoners could be sacrificed to the gods. After death, the soldier would ascend to the heavens and accompany the setting sun.
The Spanish soldiers hadn’t been paid yet, and Cuauhtemoc said there was no more gold left. It’s likely that Cortes had kept most of it for himself, and when he did offer his men a bit of gold, the amount was so tiny that they all refused to take it.
There had been a few mutinies and conspiracies before the battles of Tenochtitlan, and now that Cortes wasn’t paying up, his men were getting unruly again. But Cortes had to keep them active, and so he sent them to explore and colonize other parts of Mexico and Central America.
In 1524 one of Cortes’ men, Cristobal de Olid, who had been sent to conquer Honduras, rebelled against Cortes. So Cortes went to put down the rebellion. He needed to take Cuauhtemoc with him because if he had left him behind, the emperor could have started up his own rebellion.
Along the way many of them died of hunger, and others were bitten by venomous snakes.
Eventually they got to a Mayan village in the state of Campeche. Today it’s an archeological site called El Tigre. They were received by the son of the chief. There were about 100 of them still alive. At some point during the stay in that village, Cuauhtemoc was executed.
The motives aren’t completely clear. It’s possible that he was organizing a rebellion, but it’s also possible that Cortes just wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to isolate the emperor from his people and then just get rid of him.
What happened with his body after that is an open question. The tradition for rulers of Tenochtitlan was cremation. It’s possible that his ashes were placed in an urn that his captains and advisers decided to leave in an important building at El Tigre. Or maybe he was buried in a Mayan crypt, which has since been forgotten.
But the sources I’m using are pretty certain about what did not happen to his remains.
An old church in the town Ixcateopan in the state of Guerrero, which has since been converted to a museum, claims to be Cuauhtemoc’s final resting place.
There is a skeleton under glass surrounded by paintings of the emperor. At one of the main entrances to the town there is a statue of him standing next to an eagle with a snake in its mouth perched on a cactus.
The eagle on the cactus represents Tenochtitlan’s foundational myth.
The people of the town don’t much care for the scientific studies showing that the bones are indeed not Cuauhtemoc. The town is, according to the town itself, the place where he was born and where he now rests.
September 26, 1949 is an important date for the town. That was the day that archeaologist Eulalia Guzman publicly declared that she had found the grave of the last Aztec emperor.
(Quick side note, the term emperor is not totally accurate. The word the Aztecs used was tlatoani, which was something more like Speaker. I’ll talk a bit more about that term in a future episode. But for now, emperor works.)
Eulalia Guzman had heard rumors that he was buried there, and she said a local family had documents that pointed to the exact burial location. She organized an excavation at the church and found some bones as well as some objects that appeared to back up the claims of authenticity. There was a spearhead and a plate bearing the inscription “1525-1529. King Coatemo.”
A scientific committee showed up in the same year, 1949, to analyze the findings. Then another study happened in 1950, and a third in 1970. The controversy kept going until a fourth study in 1976 looked at the bones, the spearhead and plate, the grave, and the documents describing where to find the grave. The definitive statement came out: There was no scientific basis to claim that the remains belonged to Cuauhtemoc.
The documents were forgeries, the grave had been recently dug, and the oral histories claiming he was from the town were also false.
Nonetheless, a tradition began in 1949 and has been going on ever since. People leave flowers and offerings at the grave, and dancers in costumes fill the streets. Some people go so far as to call the town the birthplace of Mexicanness.
Some people claim Cuauhtemoc was born on February 23, in that town. The first dancers start arriving the night of February 21st. The following people head to the museum with their offerings. Then there’s more dancing.
The celebration attracts locals, travelers, families, and even representatives of indigenous groups from all over Latin America. The party goes on all night and into the morning of the 23rd.
It’s a small town, and it’s usually calm and quiet. But the festivities completely transform the atmosphere.
It’s a pretty normal festival by Mexican standards, but there is one really unfortunate bit, which is that kids are taught a false version of history where Cuauhtemoc was actually born in their town on February 23 and then his remains were buried there as well. It’s just another reminder that we can’t try to force history to conform to our own personal fantasies. Sure, it would be cool if those bones actually belonged to the last Aztec emperor. But it’s just not true, at least according to the small amount of evidence I’ve found.
But facts don’t move people. Only stories do. And the people of Ixcateopan have found a story they like better than the truth. You are free to use that information as you see fit.
Daniel Diaz. “El dia que asesinaron a Cuauhtemoc.” Relatos e Historias en Mexico #95
Rosalba Quintana Bustamante. “Aqui yacen los restos de Cuauhtemoc.” Relatos e Historias en Mexico #95