Years of the Dead

The Elusive, Chaotic Mexico

Years of the Dead

The Years With Laura Díaz

by Carlos Fuentes
translated by Alfred MacAdam
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 544 pp., $26

Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City

by Mike Davis
Verso Books, 128 pp., $19

Streets, Bedrooms, & Patios: The Ordinariness of Diversity in Oaxaca

by Michael James Higgins and Tanya L. Coen
University of Texas Press, 336 pp., $22.95 (paper)


edited by Teresa del Conde
Bulfinch Press, 252 pp., $80

The Mexico that exists today is a country that nobody fought for. It is not the industrial utopia that Diego Rivera stubbornly painted, not the fair-market democracy for which the Tlatelolco students were killed in the streets, not even the quick-buck sweatshop of Carlos Salinas' neoliberal plans. If current books approaching the subject of Mexico's history and art are to be believed, the country today most closely resembles in shape and in tone the art form that has come to define it: the mural. Like the expansive and seemingly boundless paintings that serve as the skin of the country's structures, Mexico and its history are vivid, chaotic, violent, and unchanging. A wall full of faces, at once living and dead.

"It isn't the past that dies with each of us," Carlos Fuentes writes in his new novel The Years With Laura Díaz. "The future dies as well."

Indeed, so many futures, so many imagined Mexicos have died with each generation in the past century that the country as it exists now seems an impossible descendant of the largely agrarian land that first wrested itself free from Spanish colonial rule. With the grand scope of his novel, though, Fuentes re-creates the Mexican 20th century with both visceral passion and a clear analytical mind to give the reader a historical sense of how the nation grew and what it might have been instead. Laura Díaz experiences the turbulent history of the country at such close range that she becomes the very embodiment of it. Like the founding myths of both the seamy La Malinche and the Virgin of Guadalupe, the novel is a tale of a woman defining herself in terms of desire, sexuality, and history to become pure in symbol and in icon.

In the acknowledgments at the back of his book, Fuentes makes a wise statement: "The best novelists in the world are our grandmothers." His own grandmother even gave him many of the ideas for this novel, he claims, in her dramatic accounts of her youth. Much of the novel's style reads that way, with some nostalgia, as if this is a familiar narrative the reader may have heard somewhere before. The story of Laura Díaz begins with Philip Kelsen, a German immigrant who leaves his land to run a plantation in Mexico. Despite the fact that Kelsen has changed his name to Felipe and decided to assimilate fully into Mexican culture, he calls back to Germany for a mail-order bride, the strong-willed Cosima Reiter. On the coach ride from the coast to the plantation, Reiter is accosted by road bandits, chief among them a famous seducer called the Hunk of Papantla. In an odd exchange of desire, the Hunk slices off Cosima's fingers and keeps her wedding ring. "Will you be requiring anything else?" she asks.

Years of the Dead

The Kelsen couple eventually bear three daughters: Hilda the pianist, Virginia the poet, and Leticia the domestic. They live in the house, asking questions about Germany, dreaming of what opportunities they may have had in Europe, and annoyingly breaking out into French and German exclamations: "Assez de chinoiseries, ma chère." Leticia eventually marries and gives birth to Laura Díaz. The young girl grows to fall deeply in love with her stepbrother Santiago Díaz, who is murdered for his involvement with the swelling revolutionary movement. The loss of Santiago sets her on an emotional and political search -- a lifelong one -- to find love in a courageous and honest man. On the way, she marries and bears children, she works for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, has an affair with a Spanish republican, gets involved with the Hollywood exiles suspected of Communist activities, begins a successful photography career, and watches events like the Tlatelolco Massacre firsthand.

Fuentes is at his strongest when he uses the voices of his characters to flesh out what he believes history has determined to be singularly and undeniably Mexican. When the aesthete and revolutionary Orlando Ximenez talks to Laura one night, he says, "The difference between us and Proust is that he finds old age and the passage of time in an elegant salon in French high society, while you and I, proudly Mexican, find them in a funeral parlor." Yes, Fuentes seems to ask his own character, but why a funeral parlor? For reasons having to do, perhaps, with the Catholic church's uneasing grip on the imaginations and psyches of the Mexican nation? "In Spain and Spanish America even atheists are Catholics," one of Laura's lovers says. Why? For the self-sacrifice so many Mexicans performed in the name of revolution (inspiring, as Leon Trotsky would later claim, the far more notorious Bolshevik revolution of 1917)? Or for the countless deaths during the wars between cultures that allowed the Mexican race to even exist? Does the Mexican look to the funeral parlor, Fuentes might ask, because he searches here for the head of an Aztec, and there for the hands of a Muslim and Jew?

The author explicitly marvels at this exact issue as his character Jose Maura ponders the Virgin of Guadalupe, the most potent symbol of Mexico: "She's a Christian and an Indian Virgin, but she's also the Virgin of Israel, the Jewish mother of the long-awaited Messiah. On top of that, she has an Arabic name, Guadalupe, river of wolves. How many cultures for the price of a single image!"

Laura Díaz asks herself, too, how much can be sacrificed for the price of one image. Long after her son dies, she observes a painting he made in his youth. In it, an Adam and Eve drawn in the style of Egon Schiele are ascending: "Thanks to sex, rebellion, and love, Adam and Eve were the protagonists of the Ascent of Humanity, not its fall. The evil of the world was believing that the first man and the first woman fell and condemned us to a heritage of vice."

That crucial phrase, "a heritage of vice," sounds thunder in the ear of the Mexican reader. The implied sense of liberation and optimism in the ascent of the unclothed lovers is extraordinary for the race that imagines itself born of unspeakable lust and betrayal in the shared, secret bed of the Aztec La Malinche and the Spaniard Hernán Cortes. Ultimately, it may take a compilation of cultures or the breath of Laura's son to arrive at the one image that becomes a pure symbol. But whether that symbol is the Virgin, the rising Adam and Eve, or Laura Díaz herself, it hints at what is shared ideologically and spiritually between the vastly different Mexico of then with the Mexico of now.

Fuentes ends his novel in Los Angeles. He seems all too aware of the fact that in less than a century, Mexico has gone from being a magnet -- a place for intellectuals, artists, and exiles -- to being the source of mass exodus. The Mexico of now, therefore, is not held only within the borders of Mexico itself. It has spread northward, re-entered its old space, in a sense. For so many of the Mexicans, displaced but still infatuated with the idea of spirit and ghost, the nation itself is a ghost in the back of the head.

Years of the Dead

Fascinated by so many of these new Mexicans living and working in the United States, social researcher Mike Davis discovers astonishing trends that reveal what it means to be Latino and Mexican at the end of the 20th century. His Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City is not limited to research on Mexicans, nor is it focused on lives outside the United States. But the important claim here seems to be that with the passage of time, the lands north of the Rio Grande are becoming just as much a part of Mexico as they are any other country: "The Anglo conquest of California in the late 1840s has proven to be a very transient fact indeed."

Backing up his argument are some astonishing facts. In terms of population, the United States is the fifth largest "Latin American" country. Within the next 50 years, it will rise to third place, behind only Brazil and Mexico. Even more amazing, the U.S. will soon replace Spain as the world's second-largest Spanish-language-origin nation. It is impossible to predict how these changes will affect the populations of Mexico and the U.S., but Davis exhibits moments of optimism in his text. "To be Latino in the United States," he writes, "is rather to participate in a unique process of cultural syncretism that may become a transformative template for the whole society." Fuentes' question -- How many cultures for the sake of one image? -- comes back again and again.

Still, the author is level-headed in his description of the changes occurring in the Americas. True, José is now the most common name for baby boys in California and Texas, but it is also true that "Latinos are without a doubt the most profound challenge to the American melting pot myth." More than anything else, Davis' text raises questions that are approached by differing methods in each of the books about Mexico's history and its art. Where is the "capital" of Mexico, for instance? Might it actually be in Los Angeles, Washington, Chiapas? Also, what are the borders of nations and of cultures in this age of increasing de facto government by multinational corporations?

To get at these answers, the Mexico that remains within its own borders requires more exploration. Streets, Bedrooms, & Patios, by Michael James Higgins and Tanya Coen, is a useful and moving study of the lives of people in the city of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. The city of Oaxaca, with its mix of visible ties to pre-Columbian and colonial times and new economy class structure, is useful as a representative for the country as a whole. Using methods of ethnography, narrative, and basic scrapbook formation, the two academics have turned their 30-year stay in Oaxaca into a case study for the opinions and world-views of Mexico at large. Fully aware that Mexico has experienced enormous social and economic change, they take care to chronicle the lives of underrepresented groups in Mexican history -- male transvestite prostitutes, for instance, and widows, and the poor.

"We hope to gain insights into how to use the context of everyday life as a site for resistance to the oppressive realities existing in consumer capitalism," they write.

To this end, they tell the story of Cristina, a drag queen beaten to death by the Oaxacan police. The police later claimed, of all things, that Cristina had died not of a beating but of AIDS. Outraged, her friends paid for an autopsy, proved that she was beaten, and formed a sort of labor union for the transvestite prostitutes of Oaxaca.

Years of the Dead

Among their competition on the streets is a group of women known as "the knitting prostitutes." Because they are women and because they are older, they tend to earn less money than their transvestite counterparts. When work is slow, they lean up against walls on the street and work on their knitting projects until the next trick comes along. Higgins and Coen, thankfully, interview their subjects and relate their stories with no exaggerated sense of awe, no pleas for empathy, and certainly no condescension. What emerges from these portraits is a complex worldview that is at once tragic, independent, and poetic: "I have only seen the ocean once, for two hours, after visiting the shrine of the Virgen de Juquila," an older lady tells the ethnographers.

The reader suspects that that fleeting image of the ocean bears as much weight for the woman as the painting of Adam and Eve in Fuentes' novel does for Laura. That unceasing notion that a single image, one that comes from centuries of blood and processes of birth, one that cements the meaning of a lifetime or a culture -- that particular notion is what unites history to art. "Art does not reflect reality; it establishes it," Fuentes writes, and what is history if not at some level an established reality?

Among the most important Mexican artists of the last century who realized that crucial notion was the Oaxacan painter Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991). The works collected in Tamayo display a blend of somber beauty, intelligence, and awareness of historical and artistic forces that surrounded and predated them. The artist is widely credited for contributing a sense of depth to the landscape of 20th-century Mexican art by bringing European influence to an often nationalistic and indigenous-driven aesthetic. The Kelsen daughters would have, no doubt, appreciated him.

"Tamayo's colors are sovereign provinces, in which light has acquired the right to its own citizenship," Fernando del Paso writes in Tamayo. Sovereign provinces! That amazing claim, if it's to be trusted, raises the achievement of Tamayo's art -- not only does it establish reality and provide identity to the Mexican culture, but it actually provides the semblance of cultural structure to the basis of life itself, light.

On a more visible level, though, the paintings by Tamayo also affix the standard myths and superstitions of the Mexican people onto physical Mexican bodies. The people of his country seem to inhabit the psychological world that they have created. In his painting Venus in Her Chamber (1956), for instance, an almost mechanical, stark white figure stands in a bone-colored room with her hand between her legs. The image, whose subject is borrowed from Roman mythology, appears more like a ghost on the Day of the Dead than anything else. And if such a comparison comes perhaps too easily, she also clearly embodies Mexican notions of sex and solitude, expressed and exalted by poets like Xavier Villaurrutia: "La muerte toma siempre la forma de la alcoba que nos contiene." (Death always takes the form of the bedroom which contains us.)

In a painting, too, like his Portrait of Olga (1982), in which a woman shields her body as her eyes avert the viewer, Tamayo seems to have heard the voices of Oaxacans speaking to Higgins and Coen decades before they parted their lips. "I never missed having sex," an older lady named Maria Elena says. "Yes, the body asks for this or that, but the motherfucking body is not as important as one's obligations to one's children."

But for all their apparent relation to the souls and sex of Mexico, Tamayo's paintings are more important for their relation to a Mexico that no longer exists. The long and brutal century ended for Mexico on July 2, 2000, when a businessman and governor named Vicente Fox became the country's first opposition-party candidate elected to the presidency. "The first step in any Latino urban agenda must be to remove La Migra [Immigration and Naturalization Services] from the front yard," Davis writes. Fox agrees. But whether or not the new president will succeed in ensuring that the economic and social structures in the new Mexican century actually benefit the Mexicans, the old century, like so many ideals of Mexico before, is dead. Like a body alone in a frame by Tamayo, like the prostitute killed by the cops in the street, like the son of Laura Díaz who painted Adam and Eve, it passes and leaves, in Fuentes' words, "a silent lament floating in air." end story

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The Years With Laura Díaz, Carlos Fuentes, Alfred MacAdam, Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City, Mike Davis, Streets, Bedrooms, & Patios: The Ordinariness of Diversity in Oaxaca, Tanya L. Coen, Michael James Higgins, Tamayo, Teresa del

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