Mexico: Identity as Shown by Octavio Paz

Getting to Mexico


One lovely weekend in October, my brother hosted his wedding. It was a fantastic time – lively, convivial, celebratory. It was designed to be essentially a party, and on that front they succeeded. Afterwards, I took a journey with the newlyweds to New York City. From there, they would head out from JFK on their honeymoon, while I would spend the weekend in the Big Apple with some friends and head home to Massachusetts.

When I got back to the quaint village of Springfield, Mass, I found myself drained from the weekend and ready to relax for a few days. That night I set my book on the nightstand (Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential), flicked off the lights and set my phone down. Just as I went to flip on my cell’s Do Not Disturb Mode, a WhatsApp message disturbed me.

Clemente, a college friend from Mexico City, apparently had better ideas than letting me recover from the wedding. In four days’ time, he had booked a flight to our southern neighbor’s capital and lo and behold I was invited. Oh dear….

So I frantically looked up flights from New York, bus tickets back to the city yet again, books to read regarding Mexico and most importantly, what on Earth to do there. Clemente asked if I knew anyone else who’d like to go.

Do I know anyone crazy enough to book an international flight in three days with no heads-up? Nope.

So there I was gathering up my belongings again and getting ready for a very much impromptu trip to Mexico. Much of what I know about the country was through friends in college, experience through soccer and some reading from publications like The Economist.

So I headed to my local library and started catching up on two reads. The first was Octavio Paz’s Labrynth of Solitude, an in-depth journey into the nature of the Mexican identity both without extraneous elements and directly vis-à-vis its Latin- and North American neighbors. It’s a fascinating read.

The second was titled The Mexico City Reader, a collection of so-called cronicas, a genre of Spanish language writing that doesn’t have a full analog in English. A cronica is part travel writing, part narrative, part social commentary. It shouldn’t be lost on the reader that this was a heavy influence in the naming of this very blog.

On the trip to Mexico City I was pleasantly surprised. I had wanted to visit Latin America for, oh, so long, and finally getting to go to a hub of the region was intensely satisfying. There wasn’t too much of the trip I didn’t find incredible, and I can’t wait to go back to explore different regions of Mexico (Puebla, the desert, the Yucatan Peninsula for instance), as well as Latin America as a whole.

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What it really means to be Mexican!

Questions Beforehand

When I travel to a new place, I usually have some central questions I want to ask and some key goals I want to achieve. When I first went to China, I wanted to do three very simple things: to talk to an old person, order food in Chinese and buy a train ticket. Those were meaty challenges Day One, but after living in China for two years, those three activities were basically a 5 minute span on any given Friday afternoon. Expectations change and normalcy levels out.
When I went to Mexico, my central questions were this: What is the Mexican identity? What does it mean to be Mexican?

I didn’t expect an easy answer, or really any answer at all to be honest. There shouldn’t be a succinct answer for any given identity. For instance, if a Chilango (Mexico City resident) gives an answer as to what it means to wear the red-white-green tricolor, a resident of the Quintana Roo living on communal land with more Amerindian blood might have a different concept.

The idea of identity in any given country is an ever-evolving concept, but I wanted to wrap my head around it. In my view, identity and social studies starts with history. It’s hard to understand a people without history, so I begin in the past.

Can’t separate Pre-Hispanic identity from a contemporary one.

When I first got to Mexico I kept asking Clemente about Aztec culture, Spanish culture and Mexican culture. And he continually responded that the first two are fully integrated into the third. You can’t separate these identities. The Mexican identity precisely is because of Aztec and Spanish culture – in addition to the multitude of other Native American groups and descendants of African slaves.
Aztec is Aztec. Spanish is Spanish. West African is West African. Mexican is Mexican. They are separate, yet intertwined. But a Mexican as we know it today, is neither a mere sum nor a simple synthesis of these components, but a different label altogether: Mexican.

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This is as much Amerindian as it is Spanish these days. It’s simply: Mexican.

I feel this understanding of the Mexican identity is an unbelievably important starting point for beginning to understand the country, as I am. In order to understand India, it is imperative to throw away any preconceived notions, and let the idea of “India” exist only as a 70-year-old democratic experiment and anything before that as independent of this modern India. The Mughals were the Mughals. The British Raj was the British Raj. And Jawaharlal Nehru’s India is just that.

Allowing for continuity between past polity’s and today’s modern nation-state sometimes conflates that with the continuity of culture. Culture from centuries past may still exist, but the politics and sense of identity behind it is very different. The Byzantine Empire is a good example, whose very name is anachronistic as that people considered themselves Roman. Byzantium eventually folded into the Ottoman Empire, and while some culture flowed, the polities are very different and need to be separated out.

Sometimes it works. It’s safe to say that much of French-ness has been retained even through two empires, a Nazi puppet state, five republics, a hell storm of a revolution and all that preceded.  Even this though is an intensely controversial idea. We sometimes grant a continuity of culture through various polities, though that isn’t ideal. (Think what it means to be “French” today through many different perspectives.)

Pre-Hispanic Spain reveals itself all the time in modern Mexico, and does so as uniquely Mexican. It is most apparent in the food, as that’s obviously something you must consume every day. The tortillas are an ingenious invention, something the Aztecs created with just the tools they had. Certain peppers, chocolates, etc. are all pre-Hispanic, yet nowadays are Mexican.

A dish that includes Aztec, Spanish and West African influences isn’t defined by the individual components is it? No, it’s distinctly Mexican. And so goes the identity. Taco Bell is a uniquely American bastardization and resembles nothing of its Mexican roots. Anyone who conflates Taco Bell with its ostensible origins is drunk, high, or drunk and high.

Octavio Paz, a reasonably talent Noble prize winner in 1990, asserts that Mexico’s identity is denial of the past. He argues that at one point in Mexican history, there was heavy opposition to the Spanish and Indian origins, and as a conservative faction of Mexicans to bring in the Frenchmen, Maxmillian as emperor, they sought to rid one identity and gain a new one.

And even as statues of Frenchmen and French-language signs dot the Mexican City landscape, it’s fairly easy to argue that while French made up a segment of Mexican history, Mexicans are not French. It won’t be the boldest assertion I ever posit. Mexicans are not French.

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A French metro station does not make a city French

Denial of the Spanish and Aztec legacies is interesting, as well, because they make up such an integral part of the linguistic and culinary identity. But they are inspirations and not the identity in part nor totality.

Octavio Paz argues quite fiercely that only in denying the past can the Mexican identity be forged. While there is also a perpetual “return to the Golden Age,” as many cultures have, it’s the denial of the past and concept of future that forges identity.

In any case, I don’t there will be an answer anytime soon to “What does it mean to be Mexican?”

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Let me know in the comments below if you agree or not. Identity is a complicated, intertwined issue and there’s never a right answer.

Like what you’re reading on Mexico? Check out some other related articles in: The Mexico Chronicles!

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