Before I lost a non-negligible amount of money buying a structurally unsound canal boat while in a deep suicidal depression1, I’d planned to go Mexico.
I intended to stay for a couple of months and either hire (or backhandedly buy) a shitty car and drive around, “seeing it all”. I wanted to do proper white boy finding myself: I wanted peyote and regrettable sex on beaches, I wanted to get into cocaine-fuelled fist fights, I wanted to drink that liquor made of fermented snakes and I wanted to see the house in Cuernavaca where Malcolm Lowry lived the majority of Under the Volcano. I wanted to eat, drink, snort, swallow, fuck and vomit my way around the country, ideally ending up dead in a ravine like fictional icon Geoffrey Firmin.
I didn’t go to Mexico, instead I ended up losing too much money to not be pissed off about but not too much to ruin my life. I would love to be arrogant enough to state that not getting to go to Mexico and having some irritating debts that will take a couple of years to clear (less if I grow up and get a proper job) has “ruined my life”, but obviously it hasn’t. I’ve got a book published, I’ve done a #brexodus, I’ve maintained positively yoked to my dog and I’ve managed a similarly successful (so far) mid-term romance. And I’ve been professionally photographed nude, been paid for writing work by a national newspaper and been longlisted for an award without applying for it myself. Loadsa things, basically. Loadsa good things. But I still haven’t been to Mexico.
My engagement with Mexican culture is shamefully stereotypical. Yes, I’ve seen and loved Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama También and I like the work of Frida Kahlo2, but beyond that my thoughts on the country are based on food, booze, and the writing of other white male tourists.
Malcolm Lowry wrote several texts set in Mexico, including his magnum opus, Under the Volcano, and the most successful of his posthumous novels, Dark Is The Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid. As well as Lowry, I’ve read and enjoyed the Mexican-set novels of Graham Greene, most notably the truly sublime and underrated The Power and the Glory, and I’ve read DH Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico too. As well as reading all these white Brits writing Mexico, I’ve also seen several crime and scandal-heavy American TV shows and films featuring Mexico as a setting and “Mexicans” as a character. In Breaking Bad as much as in 22 Jump Street, in Narcos as much as [insert second left-field Hollywood example], Mexico has been used as international shorthand for “fucked up place”. At different times it has been more or less fucked up (and fucked up for different reasons and in different ways) but the reputation has persisted.
People view the former inhabitants of the land known as Mexico as victims of Spanish colonialism. Now, they are victims of American colonialism and the USA’s hypocritical relationship with narcotics. The inhabitants have been victims of fascists, they have been victims of cartels, they have been victims of the drug trade and they have been victims of corruption. Mexico is a passive land of danger, in these examples, it is a “risky” place to be, even if you are Mexico.
Mexico is characterised as a child, a teenager, a rebel, the unwanted offspring of a very toxic and drug-fuelled relationship between the biggest historic shits of Spain and the biggest contemporary shits of the USA, egged on in fascinated awe by the biggest shits of South America and all the biggest – but least jealous – shits of Europe.
Mexico has a reputation as a hinterland, a liminal space beyond the literal limits of the America border. A place where people disappear, a place where intoxicants and sexuality and corrupting Paganism are rampant. Ruins of ancient civilisations stand near factories pumping out internationally-known booze like Corona and Jose Cuervo; Frida Kahlo – arguably the world’s most famous female visual artist – and some of Hollywood’s most lauded modern directors started there too. Mass media has had an obsession with Mexico, ever since travel became easier/more democratised within Europe, and while Asian languages remained difficult to learn.
Mexico is, to white Westerners, a known unknown. Many of us eat Mexican [inspired] food every week, drink tequila at every party, and our thrillers and crime dramas exoticise themselves using a swig of Mexican colour. Pixar has used the Day of the Dead as a backdrop (Coco), so too has the James Bond franchise (Spectre), and also, most notably in the context of this literary lifestyle blog, has Malcolm Lowry (in Under the Volcano).3
One of Lowry’s incomplete manuscripts – and one I have not read – is titled La Mordida, and is about a bureaucratic nightmare he ended up in when returning to Mexico after years out of it. La mordida translates as “the bite”, but what it actually means is the bribe – the series of small but unpleasant transactions required to get through the corrupt bureaucrats of 1940s Mexico. The culture of “la mordida” had not abated by the end of the 20th century, as Victoria Gonzalez Peña’s important essay So Far From God makes clear. Peña is part Mexican, so although she has grown up (and lived and worked) in the USA, she has an important and fraught relationship with this not-quite homeland.
So Far From God opens with a flashback to childhood summers spent in Mexico with Peña’s academic godparents, who would regularly have to accept the perils of la mordida as they drove through the country with their foreign licence plates. It was a normal part of the journey, and one that became unremarkable, despite the fear that settled each time. An unpleasant necessity, perhaps, like having to scoop poo off the ground in exchange for getting to have a dog: in itself, it’s nasty, but the end justifies the means. Peña writes about the beauty of Mexican landscapes, of the differing fauna, and the delicious food and the friendly people and the weighty sense of community that she encountered when visiting Mexico as a child and then, in the early 2000s, visiting it with her own offspring.
Had much changed in this interim, she posits? Yes and no – not necessarily on the surface, but underneath it had. The drug trade had become ubiquitous, tolerated by avaricious public servants and governors happy to exchange a blind eye and an envelope of cash for not having carnage on the streets. America’s unquenchable lust for intoxication meant that trying to halt the ingress of guns and money from the North and the stream of drugs to replace them was absolutely fucking pointless, and the best that the Mexican administration felt they could do was to let it happen, making sure they copped a bit of plata themselves on the way.
As the money ever escalated, this began to change. Certain smuggling routes and thus certain markets became more profitable, the gains to be made from the trade exponentially grew. Violence ensued, and violence begets violence, and soon the Mexican state changed its policy to a George Bush-backed “War on Drugs” and everything went to shit.
As Peña writes with emotive detail and personal engagement, Mexico has suffered and continues to suffer because nothing has been done to stifle the demand for narcotics in the USA, so obviously the supply is going to appear. The more dangerous and risky it is to supply drugs to America, the more risky and dangerous the people who do it will be – the huge potential profits incentivise the worst people to do terrible things to get control of the product and the cash. Supply will arise to meet demand, whatever the product, however hard it is to achieve. Why haven’t we cured cancer? Because there’s more money in cancer treatments. Why haven’t the USA legalised and regulated meth, cocaine, heroin etc, because while the demand is there, traffickers will always fill the void, and – alas – the demand is not going away.
Peña’s essay, published in a beautiful edition by Semiotext(e), is about the tragedy of this turn of events, about how the portrayal of Mexico as a nation both corrupt and forever the victim is contradictory. Are Mexicans dangerous or are Mexicans in danger? A country and its people can be many things, but they cannot be everything all at once. Peña writes about the shock of seeing gorgeous plazas she strolled through with her child becoming scenes of cartel massacres, she writes about being forced to confront the gory actuality of violence in the work of uncompromising Mexican creatives, she writes about what has been lost and why it has been lost with a direct personal connection and thus justification for her choice of topic.
So Far From God is an inside-outsider perspective on contemporary Mexican violence and political corruption. It is emotionally charged without being overwrought, it is personal without losing sight of the political, it is shocking without losing humanity… this is an important and highly recommended text.
But, is my “enjoyment” of this – and thus my continued interest in spending time in Mexico – an act of cultural colonialism? Or, instead, in these final few decades before human-caused climate change starts to destroy our own sick societies, should I be taking advantage of the temporary ease of travel before every border slams shut when rising sea levels displace a billion people in South East Asia?
The world is doomed, but is a wish to explore it part of that same human need that has caused its destruction? We are hungry for experience, we are hungry for warmth, we are hungry for food and sex and booze and money. We’re a thick, greedy, short-sighted species. Is it kindest and wisest just to tend our gardens, play our own lutes, as everything burns? Or should we travel, those of us who can, just because it’s an option?
Maybe, yeah. Who knows? In a situation where nothing matters, I for one don’t want to be be the bore who does nothing.
So Far From God is highly recommended.
1. “At least I didn’t spend it all on ecstasy!” I used to joke in the immediate aftermath when the scale of my loss had become apparent (thankfully 50% less than my most dire predictions), but as time goes on and I find myself doing less and less that could be considered self-destructive (I’ve even started exercising, despite having zero financial ability to live to retirement age #risky) I find myself wishing I had gone on a bender that cost me as much as that panicked, stupid decision. “At least I have my health,” I can at least say. But why would I want “health” when I could have spunked thousands on a mad raving bender..? ↩
2. There is a framed Frida Kahlo print in my room now. I found it in the flat of my paternal grandfather when he died last year. It was the only art image there, somewhat weirdly, cut out of a magazine and put in a frame. ↩
3. There is a perfectly serviceable film of Under the Volcano, directed by John Huston and released in 1984. It’s fine. ↩
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