Mexican Existentialism on the Fourth of July

[This post is by guestblogger, Aryn, a self-described Philosolawyer Poet. She recently received her JD and will soon complete a joint PhD in Philosophy, specializing in philosophy of biology, human cultural evolution and metaethics.]

Mexican-American holding a US flag and young latina girl on her shoulders holding a Mexican flag.

Most existentialism starts with a crisis—a moment of alienation for the individual from the self—a disconnect, a feeling of foreignness. In French existentialism, that alienation is metaphysical: it comes from knowing you are going to die. In Mexican existentialism, this moment is tied to a recognition of history: it comes from seeing your body as the product of a very ugly past. *

I remember my own crisis—standing in the mirror as a young woman of 23 or 24, reading the history written in the planes of my face. My grandmother’s gigantic eyes stared back at me—I’d seen pictures of North Africans, and the resemblance is uncanny—I was even stopped at an Italian airport because they thought I was Moroccan—I figured those eyes had to have come from the Moorish occupation of Spain a millennium past. Those eyes sat above the high, sharp Hernandez cheekbones, the chiseled legacy of our indigenous past. Across my face, I saw the conquest of nations, and the rape and agony of women.

But unlike French existentialism, Mexican existentialism carries with it the possibility of a reconciliation—a solution to the crisis. How I got to mine will require a short detour.

In Mexico, Columbus Day is called Día de la Raza—the Day of the Race or People. It commemorates the day that the Mexican people were created. Was the Gran Encuentro that began back in the fifteenth century a good thing? Well, it was full of violence, rape, conquest—entire empires and cultures were destroyed, much of their achievement and wisdom lost to the dust of history.

I’ve heard people describe Mexicans, and Latinos in general as indigenous people who need to be decolonized. I don’t know much about the notion of decolonization, but I think that image, at least prima facie, misses much of the picture, and I think our own culture recognizes that. We celebrate our mestizaje—our mixedness. It’s what makes us who we are. Was there ugliness in our inception? Of course! We’re not that naïve. There was rape and forced marriage, attempted genocide and all kinds of bad things. But we emerged. And we are beautiful.

Mexican culture is a mixture of two cultures—we are not Europeans nor are we Aztecs. We are neither, and we are both. We are a new thing, emergent, created in ugliness, but beautiful in our realization. To take away all that we gained from Spain would not only destroy us—it would literally unmake us—decreate us.

Now, am I saying Mexican culture is perfect, and that nothing that comes as a legacy of that era is worth throwing out? No, don’t be stupid.

Seriously. Don’t be stupid.

That would be a ridiculous position. Don’t attribute it to me. It makes you look naïve and like you got your critical reasoning skills from squirrels. Of course we need to get rid of, for instance, the vestiges of peonage that still stalk the nation. Of course the imperial past is a problem for Mexico and much of Latin America.

But to say that we need to lose everything from Spain because of how we got it is equally naïve, incredibly foolish, and in the end, short sighted. Imagine Mexico without the guitar! Ridiculous.

Back to me. I think I really started to understand Mexican Existentialism—to really apply it to my life, when I found out that a personal hero of mine had cheated on his wife. This was a man who was a mentor to me, larger than life, and someone I looked up to. (For the sake of his family, I’m keeping his identity and accomplishments private.) I knew his wife, too, and loved her dearly. The whole revelation came as a great betrayal, and provoked a bit of a crisis of faith. I wanted to emulate the good he had done in my own life—what was I to think now?

But I came to see that although he had done something horrible, something that I saw as unforgivable, it did not negate the good he had done. I realized that he was still my hero, and would always be my hero. I didn’t overlook the fact that he was an adulterer. He was. But he was also a good man. He just wasn’t the larger than life presence I had seen before—he was a hero who had done some bad things—he was a human being who deserved both my gratitude and my condemnation. He could deserve both. I could experience him as an integrated whole—my hero was a whole human being.

Things can be ugly and beautiful at the same time.

I see a great tendency among Americans to be completely unable to process this—to see things this way. I see it among both liberals and conservatives. Something is wrong with the country therefore everything is wrong with the country. Nothing good can come out of it. Or, there are good things about this country therefore criticizing it is somehow sinful and wrong. It is as though there is no middle ground—no way to see that which is ugly along with that which is beautiful, both in the past and in the present.

And on the Fourth of July, there is often either abject, uncritical worship or abject, dejected cynicism.

I’m not saying this is everyone—but I’m saying it’s a tendency.

The USA, like Mexico, has an ugly past. Genocide, slavery, the abuse of immigrants, the list goes on and on. But some of those same forces created amazing, heartrendingly beautiful things—the blues, for instance, sad to say it, but without Jim Crow, we would not have that amazing form of music.

Am I saying that Jim Crow was good? No.

Again, don’t be stupid. I wouldn’t say that.

What I’m saying is that ugly things can create things worth celebrating. There is a great deal worth celebrating on the Fourth of July.

Here’s an extremely truncated list of a few American things I love: dissent, pad thai (Mexican’s invented it working at a Thai restaurant in the Village), Trademark law based on disparagement, New York City, jazz, swing, rock and roll, freedom of speech, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, the Ramones, the Fourteenth Amendment, Wong Kim Ark, birthright citizenship, Stanford University, fish tacos, California, my father, my mother, both sets of grandparents—the Idaho farmers, and the pair born in Mexico, naturalized US citizens.

I’m sure you could come up with a list of your own.

Do it. You get to define America. Don’t let someone else define it for you.

My main point is this: you can celebrate the Fourth of July even though there are black churches burning, even though there are abuses against immigrants being perpetrated in the detention camps, even though forty percent of all homeless youth are LGBT. . . The list goes on and on—there’s so much work to do.

The Fourth of July can be a time to celebrate what is beautiful and what we have overcome. Slavery was abolished. Jim Crow and segregation were abolished. Women can vote. We have some pretty great sexual harassment laws. Fire trucks actually go to Chinatown these days, last I checked. And, the Fourth of July can be a time to celebrate our commitment to keep fighting injustice.

The fight against injustice is American—it is as old as the nation itself. Older. The Fourth can be a day to celebrate a document that proclaims the eventual destruction of the power structures it also served:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all… are created equal…”

It’s an ideal. We’re not there yet. Not even close. But that’s not the point.

So today I celebrate America’s beauty among her many, many flaws. I don’t hate my country: I love it—but patriotism isn’t about unquestioning, unflagging loyalty. No love is truly blind.

I know the way I think is partly tied to my Mexican roots—the way I love America is undoubtedly influenced by my Mexican heritage. But to me that makes sense. Part of my identity as an American comes from my Mexican grandparents—immigration is American, and moreover, diversity is American—after all, isn’t that our motto? E pluribus unum? Out of many, one? I, then, am one of the many.

Sounds like mestizaje to me.


 

* I’m not writing about Mexican existentialism as a scholar, but as an adherent. In many ways, existentialism was philosophy’s last great gasp at trying to actually give people a coherent system to live by—the last movement that in some way matched up with what lay people think of when they hear the word. So, if I characterize it in a way that would offend scholars, I’m sorry—but it’s more of an article of faith for me than material for a scholarly article.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with existentialism, don’t worry too much about it. Most of what you need to know is in this post. But if you want to know more, check the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Wikipedia. Existentialism is a movement that starts with Kierkegaard and moves down to the present. It is tough to pin down, but I’ll try: It treats the human individual as the starting point for philosophy, focusing on our responsibility for defining and creating ourselves and our world, and extolling the virtue of living authentically. Mexican Existentialism burned bright for a short period in the 1950s, but it hasn’t been studied much either in Mexico or the Anglophonic world. It may be harder to track down.

Again—this isn’t a work of philosophy—so I’m not going for perfect accuracy.

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