|May 15, 2017
In his essay collection Corriente alterna Octavio Paz states that: “Juan Rulfo is the only Mexican novelist to have given us an image—not a description—of our landscape”. But, is it true that Rulfo set out to provide us with an image of the Mexican landscape? Probably not. With reference to his first novel, Pedro Páramo, he states:
Nor was it my intention to impose any aspects of lo mexicano (“that which is Mexican”), because lo mexicano doesn’t represent any characteristics at all. Lo mexicano is many Mexicos. There is no particular thing that allows us to say: That’s Mexico. No, it’s not Mexico. No particular thing is Mexico. It’s part of Mexico. It’s one of Many Mexicos.
So, for Rulfo, providing us with a homogenous image of the Mexican landscape, as Paz claims, would be an impossibility. Borrowing the phrase popularised by Lesley Byrd Simpson in his Many Mexicos, Rulfo highlights the diversity of Mexican culture arriving at a vision of ‘Mexico’ as an arbitrary construct that cannot be unified by notions of patriotism, language or religion. Instead of a melting pot (crisol) in which the molten cultures of Spanish and Indigenous Mexico intermingle to form some kind of new, stronger and, crucially, ‘Mexican’ metal, Rulfo, in his short essay ‘Mexico & Mexicans’ sees lo mexicano as more of a disjointed mosaic of unrelated fragments defined by arbitrary borders:
“Mexican” is a civil definition. It includes those who possess, thanks to their only language, Spanish, all the cultural riches of the world, as well as the campesino who abandons a countryside ravaged by corruption and erosion, landowners and drought, in search of a job that he will not find in the big cities: Mexico, Guadalajara and Monterrey.
Of course, this point of view is a clear reaction to the theories of unity and strength through mestizaje set forth by Mexican intellectuals from the beginning of the century, a theory that marginalised indigenous citizens. Samuel Ramos, in fact, refers to the ‘indio’ as the Mexican “hinterland” in his Profile of Man & Culture in Mexico. Sixteen years after Ramos’s analysis appeared, Octavio Paz, in his controversial El laberinto de la soledad (1950), seemed to want to poeticize the ‘indio’ out of existence:
The Indian blends into the landscape until he is an indistinguishable part of the white wall against which he leans at twilight, of the dark earth on which he stretches out to rest at midday, of the silence that surrounds him. He disguises his human singularity to such an extent that he finally annihilates it and turns into a stone, a tree, a wall, silence, and space.
Throughout his essay, Paz’s emphasis on the Mexican’s denial of the duality of his roots implies mestizaje as antidotal to his sense of orphanhood. Rulfo, on the other hand sees mestizaje as a tool of creole domination:
Today we know that mestizaje was a creole strategy aimed at unifying the disperse, affirming control, filling the power vacuum left by the Spaniards. Mexico, in 1984, is populated by a minority that sees itself as creole, more Americanised than Europeanised, and by a large, mostly indigenous majority that, four hundred years later, still suffers the defeat of 1521. They’re no longer to be found in the forests and remote mountains: we find them at all hours in the streets of the cities.
Rulfo questions notions of patriotism and identity and is clearly sceptical about the notion of mestizaje as a solution to the problems facing the nation. For Rulfo “a real community can only be constructed based on respecting differences but, most importantly, based on justice: an end to hunger, oppression and the disdain which Mexican majorities have suffered for four centuries”. In other words, the key to solving the major problems facing Mexico is not to be found in theories of national identity but, simply, in the eradication of corruption. One hundred years after his birth these words seem as valid now as ever.