American Encounters: Greater Mexico, the United States and the Erotics of Culture

American Encounters: Greater Mexico, the United States and the Erotics of Culture

by Jose Eduardo Limon


$24.30 $27.00 Save 10% Current price is $24.3, Original price is $27. You Save 10%.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807002360
Publisher: Beacon
Publication date: 11/30/1998
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.31(w) x 9.32(h) x 0.97(d)
Lexile: 1740L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


One might not be surprised to learn that the people of Mexican origin who dominate the southern area of Texas demographically have a particular fondness for roasted or grilled beef and goat; after all, they can trace their origins and even part of their more recent history to livestock ranching. One might be puzzled, however, to learn of their general historical aversion to pork, except perhaps when very well cooked in the ritualized form of tamales during the Christmas season. The origins of this attitude are not clear, but following Américo Paredes, the most distinguished scholar of this culture, I take note of this relatively minor matter of meats to begin to chart some other, larger particulars of the relationship between these people--my people and the people of Greater Mexico as a whole--and the United States.

    Mexican residents of the area noted pork consumption as one of the alien practices of the first English-speaking people they came into contact with, around 1826. Not only were the latter called gringos, but, as Paredes tell us, "the American taste for ham played a big part in border folklore," so that a more elaborated slur could be gringos jamoneros (ham-eating gringos), from jamón, the Spanish word for ham. But what Paredes might have further specified is that this "American" taste for ham was probably also a specifically Southern taste, in keeping with the regional origin of most of the Americans who came into Texas in the early nineteenth century and thereafter. This "Southern connection" is the principal concern of this chapter.

    Mexico came into being as an independent republic in 1821, following a long, if intermittent, war of rebellion against Spain, a rebellion inspired in part by the creation of the United States some decades earlier. But no sooner did Mexico become independent than it faced another long political crisis, and ironically (the history of Mexico is replete with irony) the new crisis was occasioned by the presence and expansion of the very nation that had inspired that independence. Taking advantage of the creation of the Republic of Texas, which had seceded from Mexico in the 1830s, the United States, through imperial warfare, ultimately acquired the northern frontier areas of Mexico in 1848.

    This massive acquisition of territory had several now well-known effects that are worth rehearsing briefly here. From a U.S. point of view, the "opening of the West" and its "settlement" were, of course, made possible. From a Mexican point of view, the imposition of U.S. sovereignty had wholly dislocating, destabilizing effects. The forcible partition of Mexican territory left thousands of Mexicans as nominal citizens of the United States, "citizens" whose full rights in civil society would be a long time coming. More significantly yet, the American (Southern) victory generated political and economic turmoil within the new nation of Mexico--a turmoil whose effects continue to the present day. It is only too clear that the genesis and shaping of what I am calling Greater Mexico cannot be understood without continuing reference to the United States as a whole, but, I will argue, the American South played a special role in this formation and did so in a paradoxical manner. What follows is an exploration of the cultural and historical complexities of the Greater Mexican-Southern relationship.

    If one venerable scholar, Américo Paredes, offered us entry into a definition and exploration of Greater Mexico, another, of and from the Southern United States, offers us an entry point for an assessment of his own regional culture and society as well as a charter for a cultural comparison of the two regions. Some years ago, historian C. Vann Woodward called for a new, comparative examination of the South, one which could go beyond the predictable and increasingly stale North-South duality:

Comparison ... offers [the] possibility of redefining traditional problems, revealing what needs explanation, shaping fresh periodization, discovering unsuspected relationships, proving what seemed ordinary to be rare or unique and what was assumed to be exceptional to be common.

    In this spirit I propose to examine a set of "unsuspected relationships" between the U.S. South and Greater Mexico. My argument is twofold. First, we will see that the U.S. South bore more direct responsibility for the formation of Greater Mexico than is usually noted when we speak of, for example, "the United States-Mexico War." Second, and more importantly, the relationship between the two is somewhat paradoxical because Greater Mexico and the South have had much in common historically.

The South and the Making of Greater Mexico

One might say that the American South served as midwife--and not a gentle one--at the birth of Greater Mexico. Although the actual birth must be dated 1848, as already noted, this Southern involvement began in 1826, in what is now Texas, climaxed in 1847, and ultimately shaped the social character not only of Greater Mexico but also of the modern American South. And we may see two comparable societies even before Mexican independence, when Mexico, including its northern provinces, still belonged to Spain. Never a large population, the Spanish-mestizo peoples of these northern provinces had also begun to settle as early as 1598 in what is now northern New Mexico, and later in coastal California, southern Arizona, and southern Texas. In the discussion that follows I will focus on southern Texas in particular, because it represents the most connected and comparable regional articulation of this relationship, although I will not ignore the other areas just mentioned nor Mexico itself.

    Spanish south Texas was founded in the early to mid-eighteenth century, even as Georgia, the last of the American English colonies, was being established. It might be said that these two settlements represent the last major expansions respectively of their mother countries, Spain and England, in the Western Hemisphere. (In the case of the Spanish, the settlement of Texas was in part motivated by the territorial ambitions of yet a third European colonial power, the French, whose presence in Louisiana was viewed by the Spanish as a threat to their own colonies.) Through land grants, the Spanish established a string of ranching and mission settlements which extended from what is now northeastern Mexico into the south Texas area, including San Antonio in 1718. The entire colony, north and south of the Rio Grande, was called the province of New Santander, after its regional namesake in Spain. It initially consisted of a few thousand people, a base which increased over time through natural population growth and continuing immigration from within that part of New Spain, the future Mexico. Historians, historical novelists, and folklorists tell us of great and small ranches and haciendas in New Santander, engaged principally in raising large numbers of livestock, including longhorn cattle. These also existed in other Spanish-held regions such as California, although there crop agriculture was also a major activity.

    In all cases, following established Spanish practice in New Spain, large-scale economic activity depended on the extermination of local Indian societies, or, whenever possible, on their appropriation as what amounted to racially defined and restricted quasi-slave labor under conditions not unlike those of African-Americans in the U.S. South, with its increasing focus on the plantation system. Like that of the South, this system of exploitation was manifold and included sexual exploitation, in this case of Indian and mestiza peon women by the ruling-class Spanish men under the droit de seigneur. What James Peacock says about the South might well be said about Greater Mexican society on the eve of 1848: "Archaic Southern society is hierarchical. The model is historically the plantation, organized like a feudal manor with a multiplex relationship between master and slave." But even as we take note of the parallels between African-American slaves and mestizo-Indian peons, we should also be reminded that in the U.S. South "only the fortunate few lived in white-columned, antebellum mansions surround by cotton fields worked by 'happy and devoted darkies.' The majority of whites lived in cabins, worked the land themselves," as did many Spanish-Mexicans in their own regions.

    Of course, it was white Southerners in the company of their black slaves who were the first Americans to appear en masse in Texas after 1821. The government of newly independent Mexico could not persuade Mexicans to settle the central and eastern parts of Texas and so had permitted controlled American immigration into these areas, partly as a way of forestalling a massive, unregulated, and ultimately unstoppable movement of land squatters from the United States. This new American population, largely Southerners, soon came into conflict with the central Mexican government, which led to war between them, the famous siege of the Alamo, and the independence of the Republic of Texas in 1836. The chief issue was the taxation of Texas property by the central government. But the issue of slavery also loomed large, particularly the role of Mexico, including the south Texas area, as a safe haven for runaway slaves from central and east Texas and beyond.

    Generally, the Mexican population living in south Texas watched the movement for independence from a neutral distance, although some of their number joined the Anglo-Texan cause. The Mexican government continued to claim the southern area of the state, even though it had been effectively expelled from Texas after the Battle of San Jacinto (1836), a claim no doubt implicitly based on the historical and predominant presence of Mexicans in that region. The new Republic of Texas counterclaimed that its territory encompassed all of this area, down to the Rio Grande. Soon a fourth actor joined the dispute, as forces in the United States campaigned for the annexation of Texas and in full support of the Texas claim against Mexico. But here, once gain, one has to qualify the entity "United States" to take more specific interests into account.

    Historians have pointed to a variety of interests driving the Texas independence movement, the annexation of Texas, the ensuing Mexican War, and the eventual absorption of Mexico's northern frontier by the United States. Among these, the demands of the Southern political economy were certainly central. According to Clement Eaton, "The South was eager for the annexation of this region because it offered a field for the expansion of the cotton kingdom and slavery." Such an expansion "was motivated also by the high birth rate in the South, for the large families of strapping boys had to make elbow room for themselves" even as "the opening of new cotton lands would give vitality to Southern slavery by increasing the demand for additional slaves, thus enhancing the value of slave property in the South." Moreover, perhaps as many as "five slave states could be carved out of this imperial domain and thus [this territory] offered a reserve of future slave states to keep the balance of power in the Senate."

    As the annexation process unfolded, the president of the United States, James K. Polk, a Southerner, ordered a fellow Southerner, general Zachary Taylor, to march his army to the edge of south Texas, in what was ostensibly a show of support for the Texas claim but also in support of the eventual annexation of the territory. As the annexation itself grew closer, Polk ordered Taylor to march south from his encampment near Corpus Christi into the disputed territory of the south Texas border country. The Mexican army, which had taken up a position on the south side of the river, moved across when they became aware of Taylor's advance. The battle was soon joined--actually, it was a series of battles--and the Mexicans were defeated and fell back, eventually losing even Mexico City to the advancing U.S. forces, who had also landed troops at Vera Cruz, on the Gulf of Mexico.

    In this after-battle report, it remains to be said that the most effective resistance encountered by U.S. forces came from Mexican guerrilla fighters from the south Texas area, who continued to harass Taylor all the way to Mexico City, fighting in defense of an entity called "Mexico" but also in defense of their own homeland in the border country. To deal with this threat, the U.S. Army enlisted the Texas Rangers, a kind of local irregular constabulary, to fight Mexican guerrillas in the south Texas bush. Their great contribution to this first U.S. imperial adventure consisted mostly of killing innocent civilians. The Texas Rangers and the army they supported were "Americans," but in a category that meant a great deal more then--they were Southerners. Again, Clement Eaton puts the matter succinctly: "The Mexican War was an adventure in imperialism of the South in partnership with the restless inhabitants of the West. It was provoked by a Southern President and fought largely by Southern generals and Southern volunteers."

    This Southern exercise in imperialism on behalf of its own sectional interests had at least four major effects for Greater Mexico. As already noted above, it created a major American ethnic group, as those Mexican citizens living north of the new border in Texas and in other parts of what was now "the West"--those who wished to say on their ancestral lands--became at least nominally U.S. citizens, following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war between Mexico and the United States. Perhaps more importantly in terms of recontextualizing this overall relationship, the U.S. invasion of Mexico destabilized Mexico in a critical way, a situation from which it has never been able to recover fully. Mexico's destabilization and the economic expansion of the newly acquired U.S. border territories led to two other, related outcomes: the continuous economic dependency of Mexico on the United States coupled with the equally continuous phenomenon of Mexican immigration to the United States. Here we have both paradox and irony, namely that the South--with its own sense of itself as a culturally distinct and beleaguered weaker region relative to the Yankee North--should be party to an imposition of U.S. federal authority on a culturally and structurally similar Greater Mexico. The mid-nineteenth century brings yet another paradox.

    If Greater Mexico suffered as a result of Southern-driven imperialism, it must also be said that the white South reaped the consequences of the social violence it had sown in pursuit of the expansion of its slavery- and cotton-based political economy. "One of the most important consequences of the Mexican War," says Eaton, "was that it precipitated a great sectional struggle between the North and the South over the status of slavery in this territory, a controversy that eventually led to the Civil War." Thus the Southern-driven intervention in Greater Mexico led irrevocably to the white South's greatest tragedy. Ironically, the last battle of the Civil War was fought in southern Texas, at Palmito Ranch, more than a month after Appomattox (news of the war's end had not reached the combatants), with the participation of local south Texas Mexican soldiers, most of whom were now fighting on the side of the Confederacy--oddly enough--although there were also some who fought on the Union side. Other Texas Mexicans had joined the Confederate Army and fought far away from home, in the old South itself, including members of the Sixth Texas Infantry, which saw action at Chattanooga and Chickamauga. Even as the American Civil War came to an end, there was also war in Mexico as the Mexicans began to expell the French who had occupied Mexico in 1861. But Mexico's successful resistance to the French may have had its impact on the outcome of the American Civil War. Had the French successfully occupied Mexico, it is likely they might have recognized the Confederacy and provided an exit point for the Southern cotton trade with the world, a desperately needed lucrative trade for the South impeded by the Northern naval blockade. The war against the French, however, though victorious, further destabilized Mexico. We must now imagine two peoples sharing defeat, disruption, and demoralization.

Modernization and Its Discontents

The first "Anglos" to enter Texas in the 1820s were predominantly Southerners, and Southerners continued to come to Texas and other regions of the West after the Civil War, as they sought land and better opportunities than the war-ravaged South could then offer. Within this group, Southern entrepreneurs fomented and dominated the economic development of Texas and the West as a whole, especially in California, although the Southerners in general were more likely to settle in Texas and the Territory of New Mexico. This economic development, however, went hand in hand with the social and political subordination and racial estrangement of the small remaining Mexican populations in Texas and other parts of the West, in particular, the loss of their landholdings as a result of racist economic pressures from the new arrivals (often financed by Northern and British capital) and the economic exploitation of Mexican-Americans and others as cheap labor in a rapidly modernizing political economy.

    In discussing the years 1876 to 1910, we also need to consider the impact of this expanding capitalist political economy on Mexico itself, as U.S. business interests, aided and abetted by a small Mexican ruling oligarchy led by the dictator Porfirio Diaz, were instrumental in producing mass poverty across that country even as these U.S. investors and their upper-class Mexican partners derived great financial benefit from the exploitation of the Mexican masses. This state of affairs inevitably led to the immigration of Mexican nationals to U.S. territory both before and after the Mexican Revolution, adding thousands of socially marginalized people to an exploitable, race-defined labor pool for the further development of the economy of the southwestern United States. In Texas, a racially stratified economy now increasingly keyed on cotton, but this same overall expanding, northern-based political economy also had an impact on the U.S. South.

    As C. Vann Woodward and others have noted, the post-Civil War period brought social contradictions to the South that extended beyond the immediate devastation of the war itself. The war had obviously settled the great issue of slavery, and Reconstruction offered a brief period of limited social mobility for African-Americans. With the decline of the great plantations, the South was for a time more characterized by a small-farm economy, which likely included opportunities for both non-elite whites and a measure of freed blacks. But this emerging local economy--black and white--soon fell prey to the crop-lien system, which sapped the resources of the small farmers and forced them into economic servitude.

    This new economic system was an extension of and benefited a new, aggressive Northern finance capitalism that had its local counterparts and middlemen among those Southern business sectors favoring a "New South"--that is, a new capitalistic economic South with themselves, especially the cotton-mill owners anxious to resume profitable exports to the expanding population in the North, as the new elite in control. This group's economic dominance was reinforced through their control of the local Democratic Party apparatus. From the point of view of a class analysis, it is crucial to note that this economic expansion and these political alignments did not serve the interests of less well off, less powerful whites in the South, and it should go without saying that they did nothing for African-Americans, who were, of course, also the victims of an expanding Jim Crow system that had the additional "benefit" of dividing the total subaltern class along racial lines.

    It is worth quoting C. Vann Woodward again on this matter:

The new Southern captains of the cotton-mill industry were found to be predominantly hard-nosed and bent on large profits and distressingly indifferent to the well-being of their white labor force, largely women and children. Much the same genus presided over the new fortunes in mining, lumber, heavy industry, tobacco, and railroads.

Ideological propagandists for this new social order spoke of a reconciliation "between estranged races, classes, and sections, a miraculous melding of Old and New ideals," but for Woodward, it was a "reconciliation" replete with irony:

The reconciliation of the farmer meant subordination to the status of tenant or sharecropper and the degradation of poverty. The reconciliation of the black freedmen meant their submission to the demand of white supremacy.... The reconciliation of labor meant the lowest wages and the most degraded standards in the country. The reconciliation of the sections meant local control for the Southern elite and the South's political subordination in many federal matters to the Northeast. Investment, development, and modernization by Northern capital, more fruits of reconciliation, meant a colonial status for the Southern economy.... Distribution of the better things of life--health, education and the standard of living--in the colonial economy reflected not only these gross disparities between the South and other regions but also appalling inequities within the region itself.

    The subaltern sectors of both Greater Mexico and the U.S. South experienced the worst effects of Northern capitalist domination, a domination always deeply inflected with racism. But these sectors also responded to this domination, as did intellectuals and artists from both of these regions, and all of these did so in comparable ways.

"When Southern Labor Stirred"

At this point in our historical review, we need to recall the high levels of labor union activism among Southern and Greater Mexican proletarians in the years between the end of the American Civil War and the beginning of the Second World War. It is a recollection of special importance given another kind of Northern hegemony, the conventional historiographical and popular association of such activism with the industrial North. Speaking of the U.S. South, Woodward again reminds us:

The [white] cotton mill workers, like the workers in other industries, had been the mostly widely advertised industrial asset of the developing South for fifty years. The New South boosters of the eighties had billed the region's inexhaustible and underemployed labor supply as the most tractable, easily pleased, contented, industrious, and readily available in the whole country.

"Just before the onset of depression [the Great Depression]," Woodward continues,

the fabled ... docility suddenly ended with an outburst of strikes, several involving violence. The Golden Crescent was a tinderbox of grievances needing only a spark. The workday was ten to eleven hours long, wages of ten dollars a week were common, living conditions in mill towns were degrading beyond belief, and state labor laws were a century behind the British factory acts. In 1929 a storm of turbulence swept the cotton mills. Strikes were often unorganized and mutinous. Communist-led unions moved into Gastonia, North Carolina, and were met by state militia and mob violence. The labor movement was brutally crushed and the unions left a shambles.

Compare Woodward's assessment to that of Emilio Zamora, his younger fellow historian, as the latter tells us of the Greater Mexican working-class experience at this same time:

Industrialization was the single most important development that shaped the condition of the Mexican community and that precipitated its political and cultural responses during the early 1900s. The community was undergoing a critical period of development characterized by discrimination, inequality, and extreme hardship, as well as by racial conflict and internal divisions. Mexicans responded in a variety of ways. These responses manifested a working-class ethic of mutuality and nationalist and working-class demands that ranged from improvements in immediate conditions to the radical transformation of society in the United States and Mexico.

    Such a recollection of labor activism keyed on the South and Greater Mexico should also serve to remind us of a moment when such proletarians crossed racial lines in their common interest as working people. George Tindall, another eminent historian of the South, speaks to this common interest:

In the southern experience recognition of a community of interest between whites and Negroes has been manifested by individuals and groups other than those with pretensions to gentility. During any period in southern history since the Civil War some instances of interracial action may be found in the labor movement, among craftsmen, longshoremen, miners, factory workers, and others. In the agrarian revolt of the eighties and nineties the "wool hat boys" found themselves allied with Negro farmers in the struggle against their common economic grievances, and during the 1930s an indigenous organization of tenant farmers and agricultural laborers existed without racial barriers.

Such interracial solidarity was matched by Mexicans and some Anglo workers in Texas. As "Mexican workers' organizations sought to build alliances with labor throughout Texas," Zamora reports, and while often facing "indifference, exclusion, and discrimination by Anglo labor ... the more leftist-oriented groups ... issued the strongest appeals for an international workers' struggle that disregarded ethnic differences." Yet it is also clear that in the end such interracial efforts were doomed to failure because the white leadership and rank and file of such organizations could not overcome their cultural heritage of racism toward African-Americans and Mexicans.

    The subaltern sectors of both Greater Mexico and the American South thus experienced the worst effects of Northern capitalist domination, a domination always deeply inflected with and complicated by racism and expressed in symbolic language and imagery that involved the eroticization of self, society, and culture.

    This intense shared concern with race, sexuality, and an eroticized past is no small or coincidental matter. In a stimulating study of U.S.-Latin American stereotypes and cultural "othering," the historian Fredrik Pike reminds us of the way the mainstream United States--that is, the North--simultaneously "constructed" both Latin America and the American South as libidinous, eroticized zones. "Americans tended to place the libidinous Other either in the West," where the primary referent was to Mexicans, or in the South, which "was home not only to the mythically lustful black but to sexually uninhibited white upper class males as well as profligate white trash." Such sexual stereotyping served to affirm the allegedly more cerebral and rational Northern way of life as superior even as it justified the interregional economic exploitation that we have noted.

    As can happen with stereotyping, however, there is a paradoxical way in which artists and intellectuals, but also the ordinary citizens, of the sectors in question can actually partake of the stereotype in such a way as to provide distinctive and ratifying cultural affirmation and presence over against those who would wield it in wholly negating ways. Thus, appropriating the "Northerner's" construction of the South or Greater Mexico as libidinous or sexually debauched, artists and intellectuals from these regions projected a profoundly eroticized and affirming vision of their cultures as more bodily intense, inherently "artistic," and sensuously spiritual. And it is also possible for such regions to participate in such mutual constructions of each other.

Imagined Communities

While labor in the South struggled against the baleful effects of capitalist modernization, another kind of struggle against the same modernization was also taking shape in that region, this one conceived in broader cultural terms keyed on a visionary sense of Southern culture and carried out by a cadre of intellectuals who called themselves initially the Fugitive Poets and later the Southern Agrarians. As Tindall puts it, the "Fugitive Poets percolated a revolt, while the mill villages of the Piedmont fermented an entirely different kind of rebellion. Both boiled over almost simultaneously with the Great Depression and provoked a painful reappraisal of New South industrialism and all its corollaries." Sited at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, this cultural movement began in 1926, when, according to Alexander Karanikas, the poets Allan Tate and John Crowe Ransom "exchanged simultaneous letters--in a kind of meeting of minds from afar--which expressed a will to action." For Tate, it was a will to action to "do something about Southern history and Southern culture." This "something," of course, was a revitalization and restoration of a perceived great ante-bellum Southern past, best articulated in a symposium organized by these Southern intellectuals and in a resulting book with the telling title I'll Take My Stand, which appeared in 1930.

    By and large, the writings of the Southern Agrarians consisted of attacks on Northern culture, and, by implication, on much of what could be called modernity and modernism, including industrialization, science, the secularization of religion, and a great deal of contemporary literature and art--with some notable exceptions. In somewhat more positive terms, the Agrarians looked to selected cultural elements of both the ante-bellum and the contemporary South as building blocks for the formation of an alternative society and culture cast in an eroticized idiom of historical romance, artfulness, and a sensualized sense of the Southern way of life. This was to be a society based on a Jeffersonian concept of the self-subsistent yeoman farmer working his limited acreage free from evil "Northern" economic forces such as market supply and demand, foreign competition, and parity pricing. In broader cultural terms, the Agrarians envisioned a new Southern society of well-ordered, hierarchical social relations and genteel manners, and devoted to literature as the central and ennobling pursuit of gentlemen. This literature was to draw from Southern culture for its imagistic and thematic content while speaking to the human condition and taking a critical account of modernity. As Fredrik Pike notes, this was also the period of FDR's "Good Neighbor Policy" in which there was a lessening of overt U.S. interference in Latin America particularly in Mexico. Continuing the paradoxical relationship that I am trying to illuminate here, traditional Southern elites such as the Agrarians welcomed the "Good Neighbor" policy from a President whom they identified as a fellow agrarian, and who spent a considerable amount of time in the South in Warm Springs, Georgia. For them Roosevelt's new policy toward Latin America signalled a parallel lessening of northern interference in the Southern way of life.

    The Agrarian movement largely failed in its attempts to influence culture and politics. A reactive and idealist program could not persuade a South more than willing to embrace economic modernity, which is to say, advanced capitalism. Such artistic and critical success as it had may be found in a body of more than respectable literature, the exemplar probably being Allan Tate's poem "Ode to the Confederate Dead." In addition, although an imagistic concern with the South slowly gave way to the New Criticism, with its preeminent concern with poetic form, one can perhaps detect in this concern for the autonomy of the well-bounded poem the lingering projection of an orderly, well-bounded, self-subsistent universe such as the Southern Agrarians imagined the South to be. As Richard H. King notes, "The New Critics' distaste for modern society and their desire to isolate the world of literature from it mirrored and extended the Agrarian rejection of the modern South and its yearning for an earlier, imaginary version of the ante-bellum South."

    The Agrarians, notably Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, had also identified another kind of Southern literature, one which they were bound to respect even though it was not exactly what they had envisioned to speak of and to their imagined Southern community. But Faulkner simply could not be ignored, even as his novelistic vision parted company with the Agrarians in fundamental ways. In contrast to the Agrarian vision of cultural restoration, King points to "Faulkner's melancholy stance and the lack of a vision of vitality and plenitude," and to the way Faulkner "desires less the re-creation of the lost world than its evocation and stresses the vanity of attempts to revive it."

    In summary, in the 1920s and 1930s, Southern literary intellectuals reacted to a "Northern" capitalist modernity in at least these two ways--one a search for a pure and primal imagined community, the other a "dark, Faulknerian" modernist and fundamental meditation on the fate of the South and its repressions following the collapse of this imagined community after the Civil War.

    We can point to similar, parallel efforts within Greater Mexico during this same period. A massive civil war had also devastated and destabilized Greater Mexico, a revolution mounted against an oppressive regime and also against the political, economic, and cultural presence of a modernizing capitalist United States that had supported that regime and continued to try to influence the course of the Mexican Revolution and Mexican society in ways that served its own interests. Like the Southern Agrarians, some Mexican artists turned to an imagined past, which for them included pre-Columbian Indian cultures, in search of a foundation for the forging of a new cultural identity: "Embracing the philosophy of indigenismo, Mexico's revolutionary elites asserted their commitment to the moral and economic elevation of the Indian, who they claimed was central to the national experience."

    Helen Delpar observes, "The cultural nationalism encouraged by the Mexican Revolution emphasized the importance of indigenous themes and forms in music, literature, and art and accordingly exalted the Indians both as a subject of art and as a major creative force in their own right." The most literally visible outcome of this artistic effort was, of course, the great murals painted in both Mexico and the United States by the three giants of twentieth-century Mexican art: Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Siquieros. These artists, particularly Diego Rivera, also employed proletarian, anticapitalist themes in their work, reflecting their affiliations with a socialist-left tradition as well as with indigenismo. Indigenismo had its artistic proponents, but archaeologists substantially assisted the effort with their intensified recovery of the archaeological remains of pre-Columbian cultures even as cultural anthropologists and folklorists brought contemporary indigenous creativity to the admiring attention--and consumption--of the world.

    But there is yet another artistic dimension in which Mexico's dialogue with its past parallels a similar dialogue in the American South. Richard King also has this to say about William Faulkner's modernist appraisal of his own region:

Behind this ambiguous and complex exploration of the family and the region's past was Faulkner's assumption, expressed most clearly in Flags in the Dust and then in Absalom, Absalom!, that reality was transformed by the action of memory into high tragedy--and farce. Faulkner's novels are less historical novels than novels about the workings of memory and the varieties of historical consciousness.

Substitute in this quote Juan Rulfo and Carlos Fuentes, two of Greater Mexico's great novelists, for Faulkner, and two of their respective major works--Pedro Paramo and La Muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz)--for Faulkner's works, and you have an exact assessment of these two Mexican writers and these particular novels relative to Mexico, its past, and its failed revolution. Rulfo tells us of the character Pedro Paramo, who bears a resemblance to Colonel Bayard Sartoris and to Jason Compson of Faulkner's fiction. He is an allegedly "revolutionary" cacique who now presides over a Mexican world characterized by a "disintegration of the universe, loss of an integral self, and the hopelessness of redemption." With Fuentes, Faulkner's influence should not be too surprising, for he read and admired Faulkner. "The structure and narrators of the fiction of Faulkner ... are evident in Fuentes' modernist exploration of the memories of the old, corrupted revolutionary, Artemio Cruz," writes Raymond L. Williams. And, in Aura, an earlier novel by Fuentes, John Brushwood finds echoes of Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" in its "persistence of a worn-out past: musty old houses, antique furniture, and elderly people that are semi-ghosts."

    In these and other examples of his fiction, Fuentes launches a modernist critique of U.S.-fomented capitalist modernity, and of Mexico "as having deceived herself by accepting values that will not allow her to realize her potential. Foremost among the false values ... is the accumulation of wealth and power." In similar fashion, Faulkner records for us "the processes of loss and agonizing recovery in post-Civil War Southern history, including the long-continuing impact of regional, national, and international economic depressions of the 1920s and 1930s." Furthermore, for Williams, Fuentes' novelistic exploration "coincides" with the modernist, brooding, essayistic meditations of Octavio Paz on a conflicted Mexican identity and its historical constitution in an indigenous/Spanish family romance, an identity formation that Paz consistently juxtaposes to the United States. Paz's famous work The Labyrinth of Solitude (1951), on the other hand, is a book that recalls W.J. Cash's The Mind of the South and its similarly Freudian-driven commentary, particularly on white/ black relations, a discussion which "revealed the way in which race and sex, psychology and social structure were so closely linked in the South." The Mind of the South, in turn, is also a book that can be read "as a gloss on much of Faulkner's work."

    These brooding meditations of historical consciousness are symptomatic of the encounters of these two regions with a Northern capitalist culture, and another kind of novel also appeared in both regions at almost the same historical moment. This is the bildungsroman describing a young man in historical motion from his eroticized native soil and culture as he comes to conflicted terms with the outside, "Northern" world--a novel of loss, exile, identity, and remembrance, and sometimes of return. In the South its chief exponent is, of course, the North Carolinian Thomas Wolf. Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River appeared in 1929 and 1935 respectively, and You Can't Go Home Again, perhaps even more representative of this genre, was published in 1940. At the exact same moment, in the northern periphery of Greater Mexico (which is to say, south Texas), the twenty-one-year-old Américo Paredes was finishing his own contribution to the genre, George Washington Gómez, a book that Ramón Saldivar also compares to Faulkner's work. Paredes had no Maxwell Perkins or Edward Aswell to assist him and only recently has this important novel appeared in print; nonetheless, it is clearly a document of its time (as well as ours), an account of the dilemmas inherent in the search for identity in the face of modernity, as seen through the life of a young man in the context of Greater Mexico. Some ten years later, from an African-American perspective, Ralph Ellison would add his "invisible (young) man" from the South to this group and genre.

    These male-authored works are novels about diaspora and dissolution rather than community and cohesion. While all of these young men were meditating on historical consciousness and loss in the South and Greater Mexico, another kind of story was being told about these sites in the comparable works of Rosario Castellanos of Mexico and Eudora Welty of Mississippi. In Balun-Canún and Delta Wedding, these two female authors imagine what Raymond Williams would call closely textured "knowable communities" within indigenous Mexico (in Tzotzil, Chiapas) and rural Mississippi respectively, communities constructed largely by women facing the certainty, however, as one critic of Welty's Delta Wedding puts it, that "the wide world will come in, there will be disorder and change."

Immigration, Pilgrimage, Migration, and Exile

By the late 1930s, most of the Agrarians had not only abandoned much of their manifest concern with the South but had also literally left their indifferent and unwelcoming home region to become professors and men of letters in the educational bastions of the North--in Ohio, New York, even at Yale University. In these northern climes they would devote themselves to "pure" literature and the New Criticism, with only an occasional backward glance to the places where they had culturally struggled and lost. Greater Mexico matched this irony with several of its own.

    During this same period, the proponents of indigenismo soon discovered that post-Revolutionary Mexico, now ruled by a new, pragmatic political and economic elite, was, like the New South, only too willing to embrace capitalist modernity and "development" as represented and promoted by the United States. With an only momentary hesitation in the 1930s (discussed in more detail in Chapter 3), the Mexican state set out on this path while at the same time continuing the hierarchical rule of the past, albeit draped in the rhetoric of "institutionalized Revolution." Under these conditions, indigenismo became less attractive to the new ruling elite, and Indians were relegated once again to their traditional place at the lowest level in hierarchy culturally as well as economically. After the devastation of the Revolution, economic conditions in Mexico were precarious and thus less than favorable for the continued flourishing of indigenist arts, yet these arts continued to flourish, albeit in the unlikeliest of places--in the great cities of the United States.

    There they were brought to the attention of wealthy sponsors by American artists and intellectuals who had made political and artistic pilgrimages to Mexico during and after the Revolution in hopes of witnessing a new society in the making, a society whose revolutionary politics and arts would provide an alternative to U.S. capitalist modernity. This quest for fulfillment soon spread to the United States as it entered a period characterized by, in Helen Delpar's phrase, "the enormous vogue of things Mexican." Mexican folk art began to enjoy large audiences, with exhibits in major American museums, and the great Mexican muralists--Rivera, Siquieros, and Orozco--were invited to paint frescoes on the walls of American institutional sites such as universities and even within such edifices of capitalism as Rockefeller Center in New York. Given their advocacy of the proletarian sector and their artistic attack on capitalism, these murals aroused controversy, particularly the Rivera mural at Rockefeller Center, but on the whole one may say that, ironically enough, Mexican indigenist/proletarian arts received a second stimulating life at some considerable distance from their Mexican birthplace, this time in the psychological and cultural interests of a nation in need of an antidote to its own modernity.

    Historical consciousness of several kinds informs these cultural productions from Greater Mexico and the South, but they are also symptomatic of an evolving world culture of modernism. It is a decidedly non-modernist work, however, a historical romance bridging both regions, that offers a synoptic review of many of the issues at hand.

Caballero and the Racial Politics of Marriage

Jovita Gonzalez, a major Greater Mexican literary intellectual, wrote Caballero during the 1930s and '40s, apparently in collaboration with a woman named Eve Raleigh. Set in the years 1846-48 in southern Texas, it fictively recalls for us one of the historical periods described in the first part of this essay. At the novel's opening we find ourselves at the Spanish-Mexican hacienda of Don Santiago de Mendoza y Soria, a large enterprise whose founding dates back to 1749. Don Santiago is the harsh master of a labor force of mestizos and Indian peons, and the patriarch of a large extended family. The latter includes Doña María Petronilla, his meek wife; his not-so-meek sister-in-law, Doña Dolores; two young grown sons, the virile, handsome, sexually promiscuous Alvaro, and Luis, a gentle artist-aspirant whom his father thinks effeminate and worthless; and, finally, two young but marriageable daughters--the dark-featured, sexually self-effacing María de los Angeles (Angela to her family), who aspires to be a nun and help the poor, and the younger fair-skinned, blond, green-eyed "beautiful" and "gentle" Susanita, whom all the young men court. Susanita is her father's favorite, wholly obedient and devoted to him.

    At this point in history, southern Texas is still officially northern Mexico, but the conversations on this and other neighboring haciendas and ranches are of nothing else but unfolding political developments--the recent independence of Texas, the Southern-led movement for its annexation by the United States, and the threat of war, for families like the Mendoza y Soria are in the path of the advancing American army. Don Santiago and his fierce son, Alvaro, urge resistance to all things American, but soon the American army sweeps through the region and across the Rio Grande, leaving behind an army of occupation in a now relatively pacified south Texas. Local Mexican cultural life goes on somewhat as before, although everyone feels the presence of the Americans. Mexicans from the ranches and haciendas gather for parties and seasonal balls in the town of Matamoros and dutifully attend Sunday mass. On one Sunday morning the fair Susanita catches the eye of Robert Warrener, an officer with the U.S. army of occupation but also a gentleman from a Virginia plantation family. An ardent courtship follows, carried on covertly lest Don Santiago discover them and disown his daughter. María de los Angeles has also caught the eye of an American, a rough-hewn entrepreneur from Louisiana named Red McClaine, who accompanies the army of occupation with the aim of making money from the new situation in Texas. This couple also carries on a courtship, although theirs is more pragmatic and measured in its tone. Adding to Don Santiago's troubles is a homoerotic relationship that develops between Luis and another American officer, Captain Devlin.

    As the novel draws to a close, Don Santiago is witness to a world collapsing around him as his cherished Mexican hacienda culture gives way to a new American-imposed way of life. The effeminate and artistic Luis leaves south Texas in the company of Captain Devlin to study art in Baltimore, betrayal enough. But at the heart of this material and moral collapse is Don Santiago's discovery that his daughters have consorted with his enemies. He dies of a broken heart even as Susanita happily marries Warrener, who is soon to become a prosperous landowner in Texas (as well as Virginia), while she will continue the cultural, if not the material life of the hacienda. Red McClaine takes Angela as his wife and also, significantly, his helpmate in building business and political connections in San Antonio even as she devotes her life to helping the city's Mexican poor.

    Gonzalez and Raleigh's romantic and historical tale of the South and Greater Mexico projects a symbolic resolution relative to Texas but in principle also pertinent to the rest of Greater Mexico and its dealings with the United States and in particular with the South. For although, as I have argued, the South was directly responsible in the most material way for the events which overtook Greater Mexico, the novel clearly suggests that these two regions had much in common. It also implies that a marriage of particular and eroticized aspects of Southern and Greater Mexican cultures would produce an ideal, bicultural Southwest of the future. Although completed perhaps a decade later, Caballero resembles Southern Agrarian writings in projecting an ideal past and possible future for a conquered people, and directly links these imagined and eroticized idealizations of the Greater Mexican and Southern cultural heritages.

    Gonzalez and Raleigh's Caballero closes as Texas enters the Union in 1848, and the authors never wrote a full sequel. Had they done so, however, such a work would have told us perhaps of the coming of the Civil War, of Texas joining the Confederacy and Warrener and McClaine returning to the South, this time themselves to fight against an army of the Northern United States, perhaps at Chickamauga, perhaps with the now Spanish-fluent Warrener in command of the Sixth Texas Infantry with its component of Mexican boys from south Texas. (We can only imagine the shot-filled air at Chickamauga carrying the cries of "Avancen!" "Fuego!"--Advance! Fire!) Such a sequel might also tell us of their return to a relatively unscathed Texas, ready to resume their roles as members of the elite. They would become wealthy in their ranching and business careers as Texas, like the rest of the former Confederate states, rejoined the modernizing, capitalist political economy of the Union, Texas taking its place in that economy by supplying first beef and later cotton, citrus, and oil to a rapidly industrializing country.

    But such a novel might also tell us of other men, whites and blacks leaving the devastated South in the later part of the nineteenth century to become first cowboys in a cattle culture built upon a history of Mexican ranching and later laborers in the cotton fields. And this imaginary novel might also tell us that the projected equal "marriage of cultures" of Caballero turned out to be a false hope, for over the rest of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth this new Texas and Southwestern wealth was founded on racial and class exploitation not only of Mexicans but also of a large segment of the white and certainly the black populations moving into this area. In this imagined work, had it been written, we might also learn of the continuing movement of impoverished Mexicans from Mexico into the Southwest, as the oppression of the Porfirio Diaz regime and the devastation of the Revolution forced a northward trek for thousands of people in search of a better economic life. For the most part, following the logic of cultural regional proximity, most of these Mexicans emigrated to those regions that had formerly belonged to Mexico--California, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and southern New Mexico. There they would swell the numbers of those relatively few descendants of the Mexicans that had chosen to remain in the United States after the partition of 1848. Even as the arts of their ancestral homeland were enjoying "the enormous vogue of things Mexican," the ordinary citizens of Greater Mexico were hardly its beneficiaries. Mexicans--native and immigrant--endured economic exploitation and racial discrimination in many parts of the country, but especially in Texas and California, conditions akin to those faced by African-Americans in the South. Others, however, made their way to the great Northern industrial regions of the United States, where they joined poor white and black Southerners in search of opportunity, particularly in the Great Lakes area adjoining the upper South. (Black Southerners were also fleeing the open racism of the South, of course, and it should be noted that white and black Southerners also made their way west, particularly to California, as did the Texas sharecropping family of Willie Brown, the current mayor of San Francisco.)

Modernity and Popular Culture

If the Southern Agrarians and the Mexican artistic intelligentsia had their moments of expressive response to capitalist modernity, it might be said that the more marginalized groups from their respective regions also offered a parallel response through their popular and folkloric cultures during this period. Some of the most expressively interesting and socially engaged scholarly work in this vein was done by intellectuals native or near-native to their respective groups. In the manner of Johann Herder and the German romanticization of national folklore, no doubt these more self-conscious folklorists were trying to affirm the worth and authenticity of their cultural origins.

    The aforementioned novelist Jovita Gonzalez also did considerable work on the folklore of border Mexicans, often rendering it into fictional form. Gonzalez trained under a distinguished white male mentor--J. Frank Dobie at the University of Texas--and her career parallels that of Zora Neale Hurston, who, of course, trained as an anthropological folklorist at Columbia with Franz Boas and returned to the South to produce similar folkloristic fiction on African-Americans. Other native folklorists of Greater Mexico also collected the folkloric culture of this community in more scholarly form, a lineage that could be said to begin with the work of Aurelio Espinosa in New Mexico at the turn of the century and continuing with Arthur Campa and extending into the present moment.

    Within this lineage, the work of Américo Paredes as folklorist, beginning as early as 1942, certainly stands out for its quantity, quality, and explicit commitment to a politics of resistance and affirmation on behalf of the Greater Mexican community. It is a body of work whose high point came with the publication of his classic "With His Pistol in His Hand": A Border Ballad and Its Hero. This is a study of the life and legend of a turn-of-the-century local masculinized and eroticized Texas-Mexican hero who resisted Anglo domination, but it is also an exploration of an entire resistive song tradition, the corrido of Greater Mexico. We shall return to the corrido in Chapter 4, where we will also encounter a folk song tradition that white male Southerners carried into the West and its relationship to the cowboy song tradition collected by native folklorists such as J. Frank Dobie and John and Alan Lomax.

    The later decades of the twentieth century saw the continuation of these expressive traditions and the emergence of yet others. Among the white Southern and Texas proletarians, country-western music began its evolution to the present moment, an evolution whose early phase historian Tim Patterson has interpreted as an expressive response to capitalist modernization. In his view, these early songs offer a delineation and critique of the social and economic alienation of this white sector, leading Patterson to speak of these musicians as Gramscian "organic intellectuals." This perspective is also borrowed by ethnomusicologist Manuel Peña to interpret the political significance of another musical form, the polka-based conjunto music that has become such an expressive mainstay of the Greater Mexican working class in this century.

    As with country-western music, the song repertoire of this tradition deals predominantly with the theme of male-female sexuality, love, and betrayal, as do the lyrics of yet another great musical tradition--the African-American Southern and east Texas blues. To these we may add the ranchera or "Mexican country-western" song.

    Patterson is quite critical about the turn to these themes in later country-western song, which for him "commodifies" this tradition and makes it more acceptable for mass-media diffusion. In comparison, Peña says almost nothing about the lyrical content of Greater Mexican polkas. But in this plaintive, eroticized expression of personal loss and betrayal by lovers and spouses, can we not also hear a displaced expression of another, wider sense of loss and betrayal--one which through the language of sexuality and lost love speaks of the social and economic conditions of life for all three of these populations? Is it accidental that this entire range of eroticized expressive culture and its collection by native scholars and writers emerged from the peripheries of the U.S. political economy during this time?

    Yet it is surprising how the most recent disciplinary histories of folklore scholarship wholly ignore the full political/economic and racial context for this Southern and Greater Mexican folkloristic activity. In this fuller context, the recovery of folklore may be seen as going beyond simple group affirmation to embody an immanent critique of capitalist modernity, racism, and gender relations. But, once again, both in content and as sensuous, "primitive," and "authentic" in form, these respective group folklores and expressive cultures often further affirmed the eroticization of these regions and peoples, albeit from an affirmative stance.

South by Southwest

The old U.S. South helped give birth to Greater Mexico, but so did Greater Mexico influence the shaping of the modern South, through their initial political, economic, and military connections. A series of comparative connections followed--in the domains of political economy, labor and migration, the arts, literature, and folkloric culture--and we've begun to trace them here. In these domains, I have argued, we can see a comparable set of responses to the expanding hegemony of a "Northern" and capitalist modernity, responses often couched in ambivalence, paradox, and contradiction. Particularly in the domains of literature, the arts, and folklore, such responses seem to flow partly from an affirmative inversion of a Northern perception or "construction" of Greater Mexico and the South as eroticized zones of culture. What James Peacock says of the South might well be said of Greater Mexico: "The Southerner is inclined to cite images instead of analyze relationships. The images are either literary, which derive from the sensuous reality of particular places, or historical, subsuming Southern institutions under archaic models."

    I have also attempted to place these cultural experiences, contradictions, and affirmations within the more mundane and instrumental context of political economy, so as to demystify any essentialist and stereotypic reading of culture and thus better gauge their range and depth as responses to the crisis of capitalist modernity. The erotic, the sexual, and the sensual, I submit here and in what follows, are important considerations in charting the movement and the critical limits of modernity. In the next two chapters, I turn to two more specific articulations of these complex relationships.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews