The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America
By Carrie Gibson
539 pp. Atlantic Monthly Press 2019
One hundred years before the arrival of the Pilgrims, the Mexicans were already here. With typical dark humor, Alfredo Bryce Echenique used to say that when God ordered Fiat lux, Hispanics were already late with the bill for Bell. Carlos Fuentes was 10 years old when his father, a Mexican diplomat in Washington DC, took him to see a film that included the secession of Texas from Mexico. The boy stood up in the dark and cried, “Viva Mexico!” It was a sense of duty he carried all his life. García Márquez journeyed to the South, following in Faulkner’s steps. Perhaps he saw at the cinema a silent short about a man in front of the firing squad watching his whole life rolling back as a calendar in reverse. In his own Faulknerean accounts of too many years of solitude he adds that the Americans, with the excuse of eradicating yellow fever, stayed in the Caribbean far too long. Fuentes was once forbidden to disembark from a ship in Puerto Rico, and García Márquez was asked to strip naked at customs.
El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America is the book that Americans, Anglo and Hispanic, should read as an education on their own American place or role. Crossing the borders has become a formal rite de passagetowards identity, a dramatic task in Spanish because we have eight names for the Wall, English only four. Thus, Latin Americans are experts in dealing with walls, fences, and barriers. The history of miss-readings has created a phantom of the Law of the Land that goes around as Mexican, Hispanic American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Caribbean, and Latin American. Not to mention Latino, Mestizo, Mulato, Asians, Native, Anglo Americans, and every other wall of misrepresentation. This formidable display of categorization, conflicts, and crossroads has produced the most complex, intricate cultural system of representing ethnic territories, racial mappings, and exclusionary perceptions. To split the atom has proved to be easier than to split a prejudice. The civil society reinforced what is not-inclusive: skin color, religion, and language. This formidable racialization demonstrated an identity forged, across the border, from the color of the others, languages of origin, religions, and bone size. An historian from Cambridge, Carrie Gibson carries on the formidable task of accounting for the relevant and telling cases of our modern process of national formation and regional negotiations. This is a serious book of history but also an engaging project of reading the future in the past. That is, we still are working in the American grain.
As a forgotten epic, one can read this story as a most reliable travel guide. It is a long ride along the map of an elusive but powerful history that, even if new to most of us, is a familiar tale of many nations moving beyond the walls into a territory of common goals. In most of the cities there was someone writing and protesting, forging from modest presses a regional demand of a possible public space, the voice of a civilization of the law against intolerance and violence. To those forgotten heroes of the press, journalist and chroniclers, travelers and booksellers, the reader owns his reading. Of course, some cases are more tragic than others, as is the painful history of Puerto Rico, were the Tainos, the pacific society that Columbus encountered, had an easy laugh and were curious as children. We now know, thanks to the Spanish historian Consuelo Varela, that Columbus stopped their baptism as Christians in order to sell them as slaves; he even managed to get a percentage from the first bordello in the Americas. The Tainos, of course, disappeared, but the Caribbean decided otherwise. They didn’t appreciate Columbus’ marbles, and would have returned to Mr. Trump paper towels he throws to the victims of the last hurricane. History repeats itself, now as shame.
What is fascinating about this book is that its encyclopedic project is not a rewriting of history but a telling of readings. Almost each historical event is retold within the sequence of facts, memory, recording, evaluation, and discussion. That is, history leaves the mourning authority of archives and takes its place in a long conversation that settles down a modicum of evidence as common truth. The notion that truth could be reached through dialogue presupposes a long pilgrimage, a travel through violence, discrimination, racism, the locus of the Inferno created by occupation, exploitation and low salaries. The narrative becomes not a tribunal but the locus of a dialogue that plays a classic role, that of offering hospice to language and shelter to the lost of meaning imposed by violence. Mexico lost half its territory and many lives, but the voices of Thoreau and Lincoln were of alarm and hope. The model of replacing a tribunal with a conversation, was propose by Montaigne when, lacking friends, lamented that Plato was not here to talk about the wonders of the New World and their inhabitants, whom ignored the distinction between mine and yours.
The author lets the facts speak. But one would like to keep reading the saga of memory, that is, the literary version of the epic and the labors of fiction. Domingo F. Sarmiento came to the US to learn from American progress, and as president of Argentina to replicate those monuments of civilization: schools, railroads, immigration…Each of them fell short of the expectations. José Martí loved New York, but found that people was made of “yeast of tigers.” García Márquez retells the American arrival to the South in Macondo—they discover the banana, move the river, bring modern tools, but all ends in a massacre. Fuentes retells the story of an old writer who moves to Mexico: “A Gringo in Mexico, that is euthanasia.” Bolaño recounts the number of women killed around the maquiladoras. The border but also the migration, and not only narcotics but also life in-between elaborates a new mixture of Tarantino and Rulfo in Yuri Herrera’s fiction. The displacement of women in the novels of Carmen Boullosa and Cristina Rivera Garza as well as the chronicles of Heribeto Yépez on dying-daily in Tijuana explore the new discourses of sorrow. The North is also a growing space of re-reading. The Mexican American senior novelist, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, used to say that he, as a kid from El Valle, started reading fiction translated into Spanish. He thought that all writers were Mexicans, despite some strange names— Dumas, Chejov, Dos Passos. It seems that el Norte is not only a Cemetery. It is also a national Library. J.O. The New York Times Book Review. March 10, 2019.