On the Brown Atlantis and Mexican Intellectuals

On the Brown Atlantis and Mexican Intellectuals

De la Atlántida morena y los intelectuales mexicanos

Mauricio Tenorio Trillo

In 1940 Mexico was already a very different nation than in 1910, but its image remained crystallized, to such an extent that it has changed very little since then. The amalgamated image of those post-revolutionary moments for the worldwide cultural market was so successful, that it has been very difficult to get out of. By the 1940s, there was a Mexico synonymous with Acapulco and the modern tourist industry, and a Mexico synonymous with great investments in infrastructure and industrialization in the capital or Monterrey, but these postcards would never defeat the most powerful stamp of Mexico: fiestas, sombreros, violence and death to the tune of the marigold flower. It is an image linked to a cosmopolitan syntax of revolutions, avantgardes, racial prejudice, and social and religious concerns. And whoever wants to sell Mexico to the world has to refer back to what that image means; anything else is unintelligible, it isn’t Mexico, it doesn’t exist because there is interest only in hearing references to what Mexico is to the world.

It is understandable, therefore, that the foreign intellectual visions of Mexico (and a few Mexican ones) have forever disdained as Frenchified, Europeanizing, Westernist, aristocratic, bourgeois and unrealistic any Mexican perspective that doesn’t share what the world understands Mexico to be. The progressive journalists of the first decade of the 20th century; or the socialist intellectuals from the United States who were in Mexico City from 1919 to 1938; or even today, several cultural and academic U.S. and British critics who study Mexico; all have the same complaint: a portion of the Mexican intelligentsia is more interested in Nietzsche, Bergson, Quevedo or Borges than in their own country (meaning fiesta, siesta, sombrero). In July 1931, Hart Crane wrote to Waldo Frank: Mexico is magical, all that’s worthwhile is the indigenous, not “the average mestizo”; neither León Felipe nor Genaro Estrada are worth a song because they’re not interested “one iota on expressing anything indigenous; rather they are busy aping (as though could be done in Spanish), Paul Valery, Eliot.” The New Yorker Waldo Frank felt the same way during the 1920s, as did Catalonian Pere Calders in the forties, or even today the well-known Mexican-U.S. critic Ilan Stavans, who divides Mexican culture into a “Westernized” portion and a proletariat portion—which, one must conclude, is not Westernized. From the jail of your image, Mexican, read no Proust, say no more than fiesta, siesta, sombrero. According to these recent academic visions, some Marxist leaders of indigenist movements appear as the true Mexican culture that has always been there, ready to rise to the surface of Westernized falsehood; and if Western, urbane and cosmopolitan characters do appear in their studies — let’s say Agustín Lara or Cantinflas—they spin them as “organic intellectuals” of the non-Western: in some fashion, the true Mexico.

Mexico within the Spanish-speaking world was another matter. Zorrilla in the mid-19th century, or Valle Inclán towards the end of the same century, promoted in Castilian an image of Mexico even more stereotyped than the one sold by Englishspeaking travelers and writers. In 1920, Katherine Anne Porter, she who contributed so much to that brown Atlantis, strongly criticized a book by Blasco Ibáñez about Mexico (El militarismo mejicano): “See how I understand these people, you may imagine Ibáñez saying, ‘note the ease with which I tripped them up, and obtained their secrets. Really, dear friends, I was as amusing as a weasel in a Rat hole!‘” She accused him of racial discrimination, this Spanish intellectual who had limited himself to sitting for a few weeks in a café on Bucareli and had then written a “hateful autobiography of Ibáñez.” In truth, the Spanish-speaking world hadn’t consumed anything as Mexico other than what was for sale. Blasco Ibáñez said the same thing as Miss Katherine Anne by far. Of course, there are notable exceptions: the travels of Franco-Argentinean Paul Groussac in the first decade of the twentieth century, the Pan-American odyssey of the very Brazilian Erico Veríssimo during the 1930s, the lucid urban commentary of Juan Rejano in Mexican exile or the Yiddish poems and prose of Isaac Berliner, Jacobo Glantz, M. Glikowski, and Zabludobsky.

As for the rest, up until 1920 only Amado Nervo and perhaps Gutiérrez Nájera were products for consumption in all variants of Spanish. It is ironic, but by 1940 the dominion of Mexico over its image was imperial throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Moreover, by 1950, Mexico had monopolized the meaning of broader concepts and territories: that which is Latin, Hispanic, Brown, hybrid… Thus, even today the fans of Chelsea stride down the Ramblas of Barcelona wearing Mexican sombreros, and the Zorro is a Mexican character combining Moors, Spaniards and Indians. On one hand, Mexico in the 1940s sold charros, haciendas and bucolic life while on the other, profoundly urban products, Mexican amalgams made Mexico something closer to a cultural empire through radio and cinema: boleros, ficheras, Cantinflas, danzones and tangos projected through “the voice of Latin America, from Mexico.” An image, by the way, that didn’t or hasn’t received hardly any translation into the English-speaking world. Nor would there be any reason to do so.

Intellectuals as vital to the promotion of Mexico as Frank Tannenbaum, Stuart Chase, Bertram Wolfe or André Breton, only quite accidentally noticed this culturally imperial Mexico of the slums. That isn’t to say that they didn’t collect and translate corridos, or come and go from Tepoztlán to discover in Mexico City, no matter what the year, a brown Atlantis populated above all by indigenous people. Very recently during a congress in London, a renowned historian of “Latin American” art interpreted the famous painting by Juan O’Gorman representing Mexico City under construction: cranes, skyscrapers, concrete, and at the forefront a worker in blue overalls, a mixing spatula in his hand. The historian’s commentary focused on the contrast between the white hands—O’Gorman’s—that appear in the oil painting and “the Indian” dressed in overalls. Then I asked: “why an Indian, if he’s dressed in overalls, that is to say, he’s wearing the unmistakable symbol of the universal urban proletariat?” The answer was cutting: “He is brown.” Still I rejoinder: “So am I.” “Not enough,” the renowned historian counterattacked. Beaten by the guardians of the brown Atlantis, I held my tongue.

I venture a definition of the brown Atlantis, one for household use, nothing profoundly theoretical. This is a place, yes, but an imaginary one; therefore an “Atlantis.” A place whose essential reality is not topographic, but centered precisely on the fact of being simultaneously a solid presumption and an unstoppable search. Atlantis because it is an imaginary place presumed to exist and at the same time procured again and again, and therefore a mental exercise necessarily linked to three things that make the Atlantis both noun and verb: escape (escaping), authenticity (authenticating) and discovery (discovering). Therefore, Mexico, like the Atlantis of several generations of travelers, activists, writers and artists of the world, is frequently revealed as the escape of a lost community from home, from industrialism, from the persecution of pacifists and socialists, from the decadence of Western civilization. A constant escaping from, for example, New York to Paris or Taos or from there to Mexico City is also revealed, and from there to Tepoztlán or Tehuantepec, because in order to exist, the Atlantis demands escaping in search of authenticity vis-à- vis the falseness from which it comes. But authenticating the Atlantis was to live it and make it; therefore each new inhabitant believed in possessing it, assumed having discovered it and that the one of the others was false. A collective discovery, but at the same time a constant discovering filled with squabbles and conflicting visions. An Atlantis, then, always in the making and therefore a place, but physically ethereal because it begins in New York or Taos or in Mexico City and doesn’t actually end. However, the many escapes, authenticities and discoveries implied by the Atlantis are held together by something in innumerable books and commentaries even today. Two certainties, I believe, brought together between 1880 and 1940 and still retained: race and revolution. Therein the brownness and lasting nature of the Mexican Atlantis: because it is composed of sizeable modern certainties.

Race makes the Atlantis brown, that is to say, something that can be clearly located in the geography—Mexico, the nationstate, whose racial composition makes it more conceivable, inside and out, than a satellite image of the national territory. For the worldwide cultural market, to enter Mexico is to enter a racial dimension in which purities and hybridity, differences and longings, escapes and discoveries are possible. And also in Mexico, the nation had been a racial conjecture, among the mestizophilic Porfirians or the indigenist postrevolutionary intellectuals, who were equally mestizophilic. The territory of the brown Atlantis must be measured, therefore, not in acres but in racial differences, dreams and obsessions.

But race also makes the Atlantis a ductile territory in terms of space and time. The certainty is that this racial difference exists, as do all its historic and moral connotations. Yet from 1920 to 1940, for example—and, I would argue, even until today— Mexican and U.S. intellectuals and activists were shored up with this certainty in Mexico City, within its streets, buildings and cosmopolitanism, its comfort, bohemia and wealth, and from there they launched the idea of Mexico as a brown Atlantis; but said notion ignores or rather, rejects Mexico City. Racial certainty makes it possible to make of the city the most important venue that the brown Atlantis has ever had. And yet it does not include the city, because the Atlantis dictates race and the true Atlantis, the one that provides authenticity, discovery, is a field, a cornfield, it’s everything that Mexico City or New York is not. That is why the brown Atlantis was Frances Toor on Abraham González street of Mexico City, because from there he would make Mexican Folkways, the magazine that spoke of what the city was not, or at least in order to find it in the city, there were many things that had to be ignored. They found corridos in Milpa Alta, but they never reproduced the sounds or blasphemies on the streets of the Bolsa and Lagunilla Colonies. Or it was Stuart Chase in Mexico City, but it was Tepoztlán. Or it was Gamio in Mexico City or New York, but it was Teotihuacan. Or it was Hart Crane getting drunk in Mexico City, searching for lovers among the servants who were young and brown—and if they were, they were indigenous to him—of Mexico City or Mixcoac in order to later flee to Taxco or Tepoztlán in search of the brown Atlantis. Or it was D. H. Lawrence, going from Taos to Mexico City, then hating it and taking refuge in Chapala. Or it was Elsie C. Parsons finding the brown Atlantis in Taos, but upon seeing that the Indians from those parts were already too Westernized, she continued her search southwards until reaching Mitla. Or it was John Collier who, after having found the Red Atlantis in Taos in the 1920s, encountered the brown Atlantis in Mexico City in the 1940s with the help of Gamio. Mexico, therefore, is not a place, it is the brown Atlantis: a mental exercise that the certainty of race allows and demands.

Revolution was the ingredient mixed with race in 1910, an era of revolutions. The amalgam was extremely powerful and effective. It’s lasted until today. Modernist dreams of disenchantment and aesthetic avant-gardes were joined with socialist, anarchist, anarchosyndicalist, and populist critiques and utopias. Ergo, the brown Atlantis whose referents have been more or less stable for nearly a century: it is, it has to be, rural or composed of communities and small towns, preferably indigenous or anchored in one vision of racial atavism or another; it is cosmopolitan as few things are, if not it would not be an Atlantis, and yet it is militantly nativist; is isn’t nor has it ever been indigenous—the city of God was more indigenous, founded by each parish and brotherhood in countless towns and cities all along the continent— but it is indigenist, is it visible in the disdain for the urban setting and the slum, it requires a certain degree of violence, it is by definition friendly to blending, but in its heart it loves purity and permanence.

Who resides in the brown Atlantis? Actually, in daily life no one does, either in 1880 or in 2000. But a glimpse of the brown Atlantis appears every time one wants to discern an abstraction like “Mexico.” Because this illusion of the brown Atlantis was an amalgam of ideas and realities so essential to modernity that it is impossible to think of Mexico, inside or out, without incurring in the clichés demanded by the brown Atlantis. In order to prove how this Atlantis survives among us, I tend to require a mental exercise of my students in the United States. Let us imagine, I tell them, we are on a street of Mexico City, Monterrey or Zacatecas today, and let us consider the buildings, the people, the street, the cars, the labors being undertaken, the tones of their voices, their sarcasm and malice. Let us try to leave our minds blank and not assign an ethnic or racial value to what we see. Let us forget fiesta, siesta, sombrero and Frida Kahlo. And then, I ask, what would become of Mexico? A silence follows. The same exercise applied with my students in Mexico triggers a momentary silence followed by things like “Juan Gabriel,” “the PRI,” “your whore of a mother,” “yours,” all Mexicos outside the brown Atlantis that do exist.



During the second half of the twentieth century, there were three Mexican intellectuals who sold the most worldwide: Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, and somehow, Jorge Castañeda. For the first time, it was rumored that two Mexicans (Paz and Fuentes) could receive a Nobel Prize. Paz was the flower that the maguey of Mexican intelligence took so long to give, apparently just before dying… the maguey, I mean to say, which has a tendency to die once it has blossomed.

Doubtless Paz became something more than a supplier of the international demand for “Mexico” merchandise. But I believe that what Paz threw into the international market was, and is, a very private reading of the collection of essays written in the decade of the 1940s: The Labyrinth of Solitude. And that reading, we must recognize, comes close to being a cliché: fiesta, Malinche, chingada, identity angst, death, Latino ethos, indigenous ethos… That is to say, perhaps I’m wrong but Paz, willingly or not, supplied the international client with what he’d asked for. I’m one of those who believe that Paz has been poorly read and used, at least in U.S. universities and media. Mexico was and is defined, without Paz but also thanks to Paz, as atavistically tied to a colonial or indigenous tradition, not as Western, communitarian, Catholic, hybrid, mestizo. Don’t misinterpret me, all of these terms are commonplace: they possess an undeniable empirical base. Yet if Mexico were defined with concepts such as cosmopolitan, industrial, Orientalized, avant-garde, individualist, xenophobic, entrepreneurial, wealthy, Western… this would also be an empirical argument. In terms of cultural consumption, what is sold is consumed, what is sold is what is ordered, not necessarily a reality. Lysander Kemp, therefore, was a true “cultural broker” between the United States and Mexico upon translating Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo, and Carlos Fuentes into English. When he produced the first translation of The Labyrinth in 1961, the examples of chingada, mestizaje, and the anguish of identity became clichés of Mexicanness. And of course, such notions were subject matter addressed by Paz. The other issue, perhaps the most important of all, was a solitude that, in the words of Paz, made Mexicans “contemporaries of all men for the first time.” But such a tremendous conclusion has not yet begun to form part of the stereotype of Mexico that is consumed in English, despite decades of praise and criticism of Paz.

Octavio Paz was a creator of stereotypes. He was also a universal poet, a Mexican Orientalist enamored of India, and the resident of human solitude. The exoticist search for authenticity was and is so powerful in terms of the international demand for the idea of Mexico that Paz is known essentially as the theorist, not the essayist, of pachucos, Malinches and chingadas.

I believe The Labyrinth should undergo another reading in English, one that begins from back to front, of the final essay, that of universal solitude, and from there to the specific essays filled with things that are anachronistic today. A reading that would highlight two specific aspects: that a great poet found solitude to be a human category capable of surpassing the identitary requirements of modernity. And one of the best essayists of the 20th century making use of his trade—his home and his sword—, i.e., using the essay in order to successfully discover truths of the moment while trying, nonetheless, to escape from the time in which he writes. Regardless, the fact remains that Paz is above all read as the first Paz was read, inclusively when one attempts to praise him.

Parting from this point of entry, and thanks to the labor of stupendous translators like Kemp or Eliot Weinberger—especially where poetry is concerned—Paz managed to fully enter a planetary intellectual elite into which other Mexicans have gained access after him. Paz got there first because of the demand for that which is Mexican, and yet he remained and was consolidated not because he was a Mexican, but because he was Paz. Part of his poetry and his essays in The Bow and the Lyre have made him a frequent citation in English, together with a few others in the Spanish language—Cervantes, Ortega, Neruda, and Borges. Pessoa, a poe —one of the best in any Western language during the twentieth century—who chose Portuguese as his poetic home (or was it the other way around?) was marked by his linguistic choice. He could have been a poet in English, but he opted for Portuguese. He knew that he had thus condemned himself to marginalization. Today, Nobel Prize winner José Saramago sells more in this language, with its enviable poetic tradition. There isn’t room for anyone else on the worldwide market. Spanish was and is a more spoken and economically more powerful language than Portuguese, but given that on the international market the Spanish language has undergone an exotification of sorts, it shouldn’t be surprising that, for example, upon receiving the Alfonso Reyes Prize, a polyglot like Harold Bloom should lament never having read any novels by Octavio Paz. A forgivable slip, because an inhabitant of planetary intelligence isn’t obliged to know a Spanish language that, from the ninetieth century, particularly due to inexorable link with the so-called “Latin America,” became a non-Western language of sorts. Spanish, the language most studied in the United States, the one that has introduced into English accepted terms such as guerrilla, fiesta, sombrero, siesta or caudillo, is a language made to speak of those things, not to read “Westernized” classics like Quevedo, Góngora, or the best of Paz or Borges.

Truth be told, the innumerable contacts of Paz gradually promoted him throughout the world without any need for what others began to use in the decade of the 1970s: a literary agent. Paz was also promoted, first as a State employee, and then as national heritage. Afterwards he came into contact with a grand purveyor of cultural products, Televisa, and that brought him even greater visibility. Curiously, in those years such an alliance was considered to be a betrayal of the model of the Mexican intellectual, but after his death, it turns out that no self-respecting Mexican intellectual doesn’t have a literary agent or a relationship with some editorial group, television or radio broadcasting company, not to mention certain auspices of the State. Even in this, Paz was a pioneer.



After Paz’s death (April, 1988) things have changed a lot in Mexico. Carlos Fuentes, beyond a doubt, continues to encom- pass the closest thing to a global image of Mexico. Jorge Castañeda, until before he left the intellectual closet and confessed what he’d always been: an ideologue, a politician, was doubtless a Mexican voice that was very much listened to. Both of them, Fuentes and Castañeda, know the demand side very well, much better than Paz. They know the U.S. market, they know the exact shade of meaning that allows them to enter the arena of ideas and images, they know how many feathers and sombreros, how much Latin Americanism, how many “progressive” ideas must be included in order to gain access to the market without seeming as unpresentable or stereotypical as a Pat Buchanan or a Michael Moore. They both know the language and the country (the United States) very well. They both frequently knock on the door of the brown Atlantis, that jail of the Mexican image: violence, revolutions, Che Guevaras, feathers, sombreros, death… I have been able to see them in action in the United States at different forums, and their management of their public “I am Mexico” image is memorable. Fuentes, in perfect English, spoke of the Alhambra and of the Mexico of passions, to finish by saying, in intentionally accented English, “but I make love in Espanish.” And Castañeda, in one of his book tours towards the end the decade of the 1980s, managed something I’d never seen before in an academic lecture: once outside, just like that, at the door of a university classroom, among chalkboards, desks, and the coming and going of students, he set up a stand and started hawking his own books in English. Brief anecdotes that say nothing about the quality of both writers’ work but something about their knowledge of the market.

In all fairness, it must be said: I was very young when I heard Paz give a conference at a prestigious U.S. university. His lack of knowledge of political and academic fashion in the United States was highly visible, his poor English made the didactic nature of his oral expression even more monotonous. It was, for me, encouraging to know that conferences could be given in English with such a poor accent and diction, and in my even worse English— I would doubtless be considered by Casteñada one of those who don’t speak English—I asked him something. I don’t remember exactly what, something about the “San Idelfonso Nocturne” that engrossed me at the time. I recall that towards the end he approached me, perhaps in a gesture of the solidarity of linguistic marginalization, and he asked me who I was, what I did, and about the Mexican students at that university. He wasn’t aware of the fact that students from the department of Spanish and Portuguese had organized a boycott of his talk. I was tongue-tied and went on about something or other. He just smiled at my commentary regarding their lack of humility… He said he’d like to have a coffee, but the professors who’d brought him had set up lunches with the writers in residence, that they were paying the bills so they were in charge. A few months later, a memorandum reached my hands specifying how much had been paid to different speakers at that university. I don’t recall the exact figures, but I do know that the cheapest of the three—Fuentes, Castañeda and Paz—had been the last. This was, of course, before the Nobel Prize. I don’t wish to be misinterpreted, I believe it is correct that work be compensated, and well paid, the interesting thing is how one arrives at a good price.

Things like this do not cast aspersions on the quality of the work of intellectuals like Paz, Fuentes or Castañeda. What I wish to highlight is that in order to fill the “Mexico” niche in the world demand for such a thing, they provide just what the customer wants to hear. Demographic, cultural, political or economic changes do not affect the product. It is affected only by changes on an equal scale in the United States. And if in U.S. political and academic culture identity, race, sex and the media become an issue, then the demand for the idea of “Mexico,” without freeing that notion from its jail, is adjusted to the sour notes of what is required. In this manner, variations on the same themes come into play, not as much Rivera but more Frida Kahlo, not as much emphasis on mestizos but more on indigenous struggle, a return to the raza, not so much revolutionary violence but more from drug lords or identitary guerrillas. New “Mexican” voices enter to sell Mexico merchandise in English. For example, over the past few years the highest visibility of the Mexican in the English-speaking world has been attained by two or three biographies of Frida Kahlo, an exhibit of the work of said painter, Like Water for Chocolate, the “Aztec” show… Not bad, but clearly we are still within the confines of the brown Atlantis.

The Mexico niche in the world market is small and assumes a zero-sum: one person’s gain is another’s loss. It shouldn’t be surprising that the duels between titans in planetary Mexican intelligentsia— to give an example, Enique Krauze vs. Fuentes—, expressed in English, have also acted as a “get outta my way or else,” to I’m the One Selling Mexico.

In the world of universities, where Mexico also has its place, what is understood by Mexico approaches this public product greatly, but it has its flat notes, and what we might call academic bestsellers exist. Curiously enough, they always go close to the cage I’ve been describing. Thus the most read books about Mexico in the classrooms of U.S. universities are translations of Paz and Fuentes, of course; García Canclini, Elena Poniatowska or that Mexican critic little known in Mexico, Ilan Stavans, who must now add to the anguish of being Mexican that of being a Latino and a Jew, which sells; Krauze, with excellent translations and corrections from the New York publishing house Knopf, has been parting waves with his biographies of power—in English, a much more measured and groomed book than in Spanish—. Monsiváis hasn’t been able to fully enter because his prose in English loses a lot due to the density of untranslatable references to Mexican erudition and slums. At any rate, this has little to do with what is massively consumed as Mexico, which hasn’t varied much from what was understood to be Mexico in 1920. Just feel the vibrations from the handcraft market in the Ciudadela, and you’ll get the picture. Not much else.