Edward Said and Defining Mexico

The Mexican is lazy, is hardworking, is prone to violence, is hospitable. He is dirty, clean, like to other hispanics, unlike other latinos, shares racial strengths with the indians, has inherited cultural decadence from the Spanish. He lives in an old country with old values, he finds it hard to adapt to new ways of life, he is itinerant, moving to new locales to leech off other peoples. “The Mexican” and “Mexicans” are a lot of bullshit.

When I sit down and slam out a blog, beer in hand, I take on a responsibility. All Peace Corps volunteers and all the expats like us do the same. When we write about our host countries and peoples, we define them, to ourselves and to our audience.

There’s a book about it.

This book

This book

Said describes the way that “Orientalists,” scholars of the nearer and farther Easts, created a body of ideas, papers, art, and literature, that took on more reality than the physical East. When making policy or business decisions, Westerners responded to this constructed pseudo-Orient rather than the real. I’m simplifying. A lot. But I’ll use Mexico as an example of the same.

The parts of this country that I have seen—massive pine woods, cloud-forests, alpine streamlets and freezing waterfalls, the chic-as-fuck city of Querétaro and its eco-cafes and burgeoning urban-hippy scene—none of it has anything to do with the impression I had of Mexico before shipping out.

If you think of all these things when I say Mexico, you're Mexican and/or a liar

If you think of all these things when I say Mexico, you’re Mexican and/or a liar

Where did my previous impression of Mexico come from? From the great American collective unconscious. Flashes of Speedy Gonzales combine with lectures on the Mexican Revolution and vague images from a trip to the Alamo. Cormac McCarthy novels blend into the Man with No Name and The Magnificent Seven. It’s a powerful mental image of white linens and sombreros, now overlaid with narcos and beheadings.

Largely

We think of this

Almost none of that conception has anything to do with the “Real Mexico,” just like the way the rest of the world literally thinks we only eat hamburgers and hot dogs in the States has the tiniest bit of truth (we eat hamburgers sometimes) while missing everything else about us. “Mexicans eat tacos right?” “Well yea, but they’re different than ours and that’s not the point.”

The image, the pseudo-Mexico of The Three Amigos and shitty restaurants, it is the Mexico that we respond to, as voters, vacationers, businesspeople, and politicians. You have to go somewhere to start to know it. I don’t know Mexico. I don’t even know Querétaro, or Jalpan. But I’m a sight further along than I was beforehand, enough to know that what I thought I knew, I didn’t. What you have to realize is that the false American idea of Mexico is all the Mexico there is for the majority of Americans.

Perfect, right

Yes

So there’s the real Orient (for us, Mexico) versus the constructed one. Said’s Orientalists acquire the power to define the Orient and create the manufactured pseudo-Orient for popular assumption by occupying a privileged position, both towards their subject matter (“the Arab,” “the Oriental”) and towards their audience (the “West”). The Orientalist first entered into that privilege through language. If you have to know Turkish, Persian, Urdu, Pashto, and Arabic to properly “know” and “weigh” and “compare” the peoples of the East, the average Westerner is forced to rely on whatever the Orientalist says (since he can’t talk with the Arab, Turk, Afghan, or Hindustani in question). The “Orientals” themselves would need all those languages plus English plus access to the Western press to refute the Orientalists. Definitions tend to flow from economically and culturally dominant civilizations outwards. Though with the way the world hates the US today, it seems like if enough people bandwagon on a definition the many can take on the few.

To the world, this is all of us

To the world, this is all of us

The second foundation of the Orientalists’ privilege was education. Orientalists were (are) steeped in the intellectual traditions of their field. Any blithe, offhand statement about the “the Indian” and his inability to self-govern, about “the Arab” and his tendency toward authoritarianism came with centuries of Western literature riding behind. Authority came not from competence or truth but by association.

The third pillar for the Orientalists was experience. They traveled to the East (or said they had, and relied on the works of those who did) and their accounts rested on that basis. If Flaubert had traveled the world, seen the Orient from the subcontinent to Asia Minor to North Africa, then everything he wrote about Arabic dishonesty and sensuality in Salammbô had to be true and not just some horseshit he cooked up after sleeping with an underage prostitute. Experience is only a claim to authority;  I don’t know Mexico after six months and I won’t after ten times as long, and nothing about me being here keeps me from making shit up—instead it makes me more believable, whatever I write.

Peace Corps volunteers occupy the same privileged position in general, and my confederates here do it in spades. We know at least Spanish and English, which puts us ahead of most people here and at home. We’re all college graduates, some with postgrad degrees, and we’ve got the reputation of the American university system backing us up. We have traveled around Mexico and more of the world, and all of these things give our testimony weight, whether we want it or not.

We, to the people that read us, Skype with us, get our letters, who will talk with us when we get back, we define Mexico. We are altering, rewriting, confirming the image of Mexico that they’re carrying around. The idea of the Peace Corps’ Third Goal is that if enough of us do it together, the Peace Corps definition of Mexico will challenge or win out over the Taco Bell one. That’s a great idea, if it pans out. The Corps has rules about it, and strong ‘advice.’ Do not publicize negative commentary about the Host Country. Be very careful writing home about the Host Country. That’s okay, because I’d say that a too-good but more-accurate pseudo-Mexico is better than what we’ve got. But there are two problems.

First, honesty—even if it’s not positive—is important. If there had been enough Returned Volunteers (and a Mexico program) honestly pursuing Third Goal in the 1990s, they might have been able to stave off NAFTA, since at the time only the richest Mexicans were really poised to benefit from (or not get totally shit by)  the agreement. Second, the Peace Corps can’t police all of our communications, and the relative security of email versus postcards and other paper mail means that we’re often as candid as we want to be, with each other and with the folks back home.

Why is candidness a problem? Because Peace Corps volunteers will be bigots. We will be racists, and we will share our racism with each other, always, and with non-volunteers, sometimes. When you move to a new place, even if you’re a good traveler and don’t get culture shock, everything negative tends to get chalked up to the people. Example: Mexico has huge problems with corruption. Depending on your point of view, they’re worse/better, more/less obvious than ours. They enjoy what appears to be a slower tempo of life than we do. Their favorite phrase around here is “ni modo“—something between “oh well,” “nothing to be done”—an expression of amicable defeat, acknowledgement of powerlessness before events. Within the culture, these are three facts without any particular connection. To the amateur anthropologist that is every traveler, they point together to some cultural apathy. The Orientalist formation (that Western travelers have a habit of coming to in any country run differently than theirs) would be that “the Mexican” is only capable of this kind of dirty politics, that s0me part of his basic cultural constitution makes him unfit for a way of life like “ours.” It’s the kind of white man’s burden argument that said that Indians and Arabs were incapable of self-government. If we really want to explore why a country is like it is, we’ve got to look at its history, not at a list of superficial observations about its people.

The problem is that it’s so easy and so natural to do it. Alex Guyton knows that I said some uncomplimentary things about the Spanish as a people when I studied abroad in Castilla-León. I didn’t stick by any of it once I’d gotten the hang of the siesta and the pace of life. Alex knew I wasn’t all serious and she’s too smart to take my word on anything, but if I had vented to someone less savvy, their image of Spain would be wrapped up in my limited, frustrated conceptions of the time. Brian Baum knows what I mean.

I mean look at this thing

I mean look at this thing

It is so easy and it will always be so easy because here, I’m always the American in a sea of locals. I am an individual, they are a mass. I respond to cultural signifiers that have nothing to do with them. Whether I want or not, my view of what’s good smelling or good-looking or moral or worthwhile is tainted by my upbringing, by Hollywood, by Goosebumps, by the entire American zeitgeist. My travels pile on—with selective editing I can say “not as dignified as Spaniards, not as cool as Germans, not as bohemian as Czechs,” while ignoring everything bad about other peoples and everything good about Mexicans.

Example: the time thing. In the white Western world we count punctuality as a virtue. Down past charity and justice, if we made the list of “good person things” long enough, we’d get to “being on time.” Punctuality doesn’t have the same moral standing here. It’s something you are, sometimes, when it’s appropriate, like being well-dressed or in boots versus tennis shoes. This valuation of punctuality has traction in Spain and across the Hispanic world. In the subcontinent too. If we look at it like Americans, as if punctuality were a moral absolute, then the Mexican attitude towards time is lazy, slovenly, sinful. But really, Mexicans are fashionably late to stuff. For the same reason that no-one shows up at 7:01 to a 7:00 party in the States, Mexicans leave a little wiggle room. Time for the running-late to save face, a few extra minutes for the hosts, time to not be the awkward first. If it’s something where being on time is important, like Mass, people show up (or at least they show up as much as we’d expect in the States). You have to break yourself of what are almost never indelible moral lines to try to see what’s actually going.

Here it’s even more unfair since many Mexicans respond to the same metrics that we do. The novelas, the movies, that air on Televisa and TV Azteca and Univisión, all of them glorify white skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair in what is a deeply and beautifully indigenous country. I’m enjoying the fact that because I’m tall and light and white that I’m usually automatically the best looking person in the room, but how fucked up is that. If the question is always “how like the US ideal are you?” it will always be a losing battle.

Without some control, some self-censorship, talks with the folks and especially with other volunteers become an opportunity to harden our attitudes, to reinforce our prejudices, and to form new ones. If people have poor table manners in my house and in another volunteers’, an unconsidered discussion will pretty quickly end with us branding the whole people as messy eaters in what at the time seems like a joke but which, when reported back to our audience subtly or explicitly, becomes factual in our created pseudo-Mexico.

There is not much to say at the end except that we’ve got to have some care with ourselves and with each other, some awareness that to many people, we are all the Mexico they’ll ever know. And to tell you to be skeptical of us and anyone who tries to describe a people to you. Or at least to tell you and anybody who reads this to not listen to me or anyone too closely but to come and see it for yourself.

5 thoughts on “Edward Said and Defining Mexico

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