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Arts A border made of words

Two new books reveal the suspicion, wonder, and hope with which Mexicans and Americans have viewed one another

Mexico Other Wise:
Modern Mexico in the Eyes of Foreign Observers

Edited and translated
by Jürgen Buchenau
University of New Mexico Press
$22.95, 285 pages
ISBN: 0826323138

Journey to the United States of North America
Lorenzo de Zavala
Arte Público Press
$16.95, 392 pages
ISBN: 1558854533
Writing, even - or especially - that which is labeled journalistic, academic, or objective, reflects the author's values and biases, such as social position, class status, cultural background, and gender. In the case of the 25 essays collected in Mexico Other Wise: Modern Mexico in the Eyes of Foreign Observers, as editor Jürgen Buchenau keenly points out, the essayists and letter-writers reveal as much about themselves as they do about the country they observe. Not only did foreigners "describe" what they saw, they also "helped invent the categories in which that reality was depicted," often for the benefit of future tourism or further investment. Buchenau asks that we keep this in mind as we read the essays in this collection.

Mexico Other Wise follows Mexico's history with selections grouped around four major periods: Mexico's independence and formative years (1800-1867), the modern era (1867-1910), the Mexican Revolution (1910-1940) and the country's transformation after World War II (1945-present). Beginning with excerpts from Alexander von Humboldt's "Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain," the collection engages itself and the reader in a dialogue about how Mexico has been portrayed. The earliest accounts wear their racial superiority and romanticism proudly; the later texts, not so boldly. "Intellectual creation is not the distinguishing feature of their race," wrote Carl Christian Sarturius, a German plantation owner who spent the remainder of his life in Mexico, in 1858. "They have little imagination, but diligence and perseverance." In contrast, a series of letters to Mexican President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz praises his brutal suppression of student protestors - the 1968 Massacre at Tlatelolco - and applauds the country's hospitality: "During our visit to Mexico, we had the best of treatment; the best meat we had ever eaten; the bread was fresh and crispy at all times; and we were AMAZED at the wide streets, the cleanliness, and the hospitality. MEXICO SÍ - CASTRO NO!!!"

Yet, in many instances, the record also reflects compassion, sympathy, understanding, and advocacy. This comes across most clearly in the book's final selections, including a socially conscious oral history, an account of the Juárez murders and their link to globalization, and offers hope, if not the expectation, that future accounts of Mexico, whether by Anglos, Europeans, or Chicanos, will possess the same sensitivity and critical awareness.

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As a companion volume, in spirit more than style, Lorenzo de Zavala's Journey to the United States of North America records the musings and memoirs of a Mexican elite as he traveled through the still-nascent United States. Written in 1830, during his exile from Mexico, de Zavala's account precedes Alexis de Tocqueville's better-known Democracy in America, and, like de Tocqueville, de Zavala finds this "unusual" nation's grand experiment in freedom and its harsh reliance on slavery a fascinating study in contrasts. (By this point, Mexico, unlike the United States, had abolished slavery.)

De Zavala's writing mirrors contemporary Chicano literature in its search for definition and identity. He praises American democracy and the liberal state, yet, well aware of the contradictory impulses in his analysis, recognizes that as the United States grew and expanded into a world power so did its imperialist impulses. His optimism and faith in the democratic state later led him to support the forming of the Republic of Texas, in hopes that it would blend the best of both worlds. For his efforts he would eventually serve as governor and, later, vice president to the Republic. Yet, under the banner of Manifest Destiny and the clarion call for expansion "from sea to shining sea," the United States would go to war with Mexico and, by 1848, touch the Pacific Ocean. Democracy, for some more than others, secured itself upon territorial expansion and racial domination. De Zavala would not live long enough to see this take place, but perhaps he imagined how, two centuries after he lived, the former republic he once governed would continue to subjugate and dominate the descendents of his people. "The American system," he closes his memoir, "will obtain a complete though bloody victory."

By Alejandro Pérez


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