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“To see ourselves as other see us”

21 February 2007

This sounds like it’s a hoot…

 “There’s no abundance of travel books in our national letters,” notes Emmanuel Carballo, the dean of Mexican literary critics, in his prologue to “¿Qué país es éste?” (“What Country is This?”)

That curious fact couldn’t have helped Carballo’s task of selecting commentary by Mexican writers about the United States..

…. More than one excerpted author from the 19th century, for example, dwells on the public slave auctions they witnessed. And lest modern readers smugly assign such atrocities to the distant past, a contemporary visitor may be similarly shocked at the frequent public executions carried out on U.S. soil — a practice considered barbaric in most of the world but pursued with gusto in the United States by politicians and the public alike. In less disturbing matters, visitors still tend to notice things that natives don’t. Writes Lorenzo de Zavala (1788-1836), the earliest author to appear in the book, “As for the North Americans’ habit of frequent spitting, we shouldn’t conclude that it is a repugnant defect in polite society, given the general custom of chewing tobacco.”

One tourist cliché that all of the contributors avoid is disdain for other tourists. The Mexicans that the writers see, however, are usually Mexicans per se but U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. Ibargüengoitia notes that the very idea of “Mexican” is different for some on the U.S. side. “When North Americans talk about Mexicans, they are talking about race,” he writes shortly before his tragic death in an airplane crash in 1983. “When we do it, we are talking about nationality.”

Then, as though to illustrate the dual nature of the confusion, he relates an anecdote of a Mexican visitor in the U.S. who is irate because a fellow “Mexican” he runs across doesn’t understand a word of his Spanish.

In most cases, there is at least an undercurrent — and sometimes a rushing surface river — of admiration and even affection for the United States and its people. The essayist Carlos Monsiváis, writing in the 1970s, sums up the ambivalence: “Outside its political system, its racial conduct, its pretense of being the world’s leader and its presence in Vietnam, everything else about the United States turns out to be infinitely admirable.”

Kelly Arthur Garret, in Monday’s Mexico City Herald.

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