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Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion
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By C.M. Mayo
Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion

SINCE its independence from Spain, Mexico has been, variously, empire, republic, and dictatorship, its once far-flung boundaries brutally cut back by the United States and the secession of what is now Central America. Thus modern-day Mexico's curious shape: a thick, curling torso (the mainland) with one dangling, withered arm (Baja California) and the other a muscle curled into a fist (Yucatán). Historian Timothy E. Anna writes, "Mexico was, and still is today, a country defined by its regions." Could any be more different than Baja California's searing deserts and Yucatán's lush jungles? (Or, for that matter, Yucatán and anyplace else?)

"Mexico" means the land of the Mexica, that tribe of destiny better known as the Aztecs. At the time of the Conquest in the early sixteenth century, the Mexica were the dominant, though certainly not the only indigenous people within the territory that is today the Republic of Mexico. Later, during colonial times, people took to identifying themselves by their province or region— New Spain, New Galicia or California, for example — or by their ethnic group. There were— as there are today — creoles (those of purely Spanish ancestry), as well as Tarascans living on the mirror-like lakes of Michoacán, Tzotzils in Chiapas, and Triquis in the highlands of Oaxaca, to give only a few of innumerable examples. The national myth, propagated by the state in the wake of the early twentieth-century revolution, is that to be Mexican is to belong to la raza cósmica, the Cosmic Race of the mestizo, born of the Spanish father and Indian mother. True, the overwhelming majority of modern Mexicans are mestizos; however, this overlooks not only Mexico's many indigenous peoples but the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans descended from Africans, Basques, Chinese, Lebanese, Jews, Germans, French, Italians, Irish, English, and others.

That said, Mexican literature— a vast banquet— is one of the greatest achievements of the Americas. And yet we who read in English go hungry, for so astonishingly little of it has been translated. This is more astonishing still when one considers that the United States shares with Mexico a two thousand-mile-long border.

We have, however, been able to taste some of the most enticing flavors. Mexican literature begins with the poems, myths, chronicles and prophecies of its indigenous peoples. In English we have, for example, Miguel León-Portilla and Earl Shorris's sweeping anthology In the Language of Kings, which includes the Nahua chronicle "The Fall of Tenochtitlan" (the Aztec capital); the haunting poems of Nezahualcoyotl; and the sixteenth-century Popol Vuh, sometimes called the Mayan Bible. We also have English translations of Spanish works about the Conquest, most notably, Bernal Díaz del Castillo's sublime and epic memoir The True History of the Conquest of New Spain. From the colonial period we have the searing "intellectual biography" of the nun and literary prodigy Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz translated by Margaret Sayers Peden under the title A Woman of Genius. Of the work of twentieth-century writers, we have more translations, including the fiction of Juan Rulfo and Carlos Fuentes and the poetry and prose of Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz. I would be remiss not to also mention Laura Esquivel's charming Like Water for Chocolate, a best-seller in English and Spanish, which was made into a popular movie. On the down side and in spite of a number of books of Mexican literature in translation and shorter works in magazines such as The Paris Review, Tameme, Terra Incognita, and Two Lines, most of the vast array of Mexican literature remains untranslated. All the more reason, dear reader, why the book you now hold in your hands is a rare treat, for it also offers a taste of the sharply different and pungent flavors of Mexico's regions.

My main criteria for selection were literary quality and a specific sense of place and/or regional culture. I focused on contemporary writing, which I defined as short stories, novel excerpts and creative nonfiction published after 1973— though I made an exception to this last guideline for Rosario Castellanos, a native of Chiapas and one of Mexico's greatest writers. Despite a rich tradition of writing in English about Mexico, I stayed away from English-language writing, with two exceptions: an excerpt from my own memoir, Miraculous Air, which recounts an interview (translated from the Spanish) with a rancher who had worked on Baja California's Transpeninsular Highway, and "Big Caca's Revenge" by Daniel Reveles, set in the border city of Tecate. In sum, my definition of "contemporary literary Mexican writing" is, to a degree, an arbitrary slice that is mushy about the edges, as are all definitions of convenience.

Overall, I aimed to achieve a diversity not only of places, but also of styles and sensibilities— no small task, for "literary" writing in Mexico is dominated by a Mexico City elite. Culturally, demographically, economically, intellectually, and politically, Mexico City has no equivalent in the United States. You might think of it as Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Boston, and New York City rolled into one. Most anthologies of Mexican literary writing tend toward a Mexico City-dominated "who's who" — as does this one, if to a much lesser degree, for, indisputably, much of the best writing is being produced in the capital.

I did as most anthologists do: I read, I read some more, I asked advice, I read— a seemingly endless cycle that yielded treasures, among them, Pedro Ángel Palou's "Huaquechula," set in the state of Puebla, and Mónica Lavín's "Day and Night," set in the village of Acapatzingo in the state of Morelos. In addition, however, I made a "Call for Submissions" which I emailed to hundreds of writers, translators, and professors. Many forwarded it— I know it ended up on several web sites, including that of the American Literary Translators Association. I also snail-mailed flyers translation and Spanish departments in universities throughout the United States, Mexico, Canada, the U.K. and even to a few in Australia. What arrived in my mail box was — as I had hoped — a big, juicy stack of envelopes. Araceli Ardón, a writer from Querétaro, sent her not-yet-published "It is Nothing of Mine". From Geoff Hargreaves I received his translations of the brilliant and devastating "The Green Bottle" by Monterrey's Ricardo Elizondo Elizondo— another writer new to me. Translator Harry Morales sent Alberto Ruy Sánchez's memoir, "Vigil in Tehuantepec" and Ilán Stavan's "Twins," about two small-town Lebanese brothers. From Philip Garrison I received his translation of Michoacán writer Raúl Mejía's (very spicy) "Banquets." From Provo, Utah came Daryl R. Hague's translation of the eerie "Tarantula" by State of Veracruz-native Raymundo Hernández-Gil, a writer whose work had only been published in Spanish in a Brigham Young University student magazine— a venue far below the radar of Mexico City's literati, indeed.

Throughout Mexico there are so very many writers whose work has yet to be translated, or, though translated, deserves a far wider readership in English. Given the scope and extent of this anthology, a number of pieces did not fit for one reasons other than their quality. (What to do with something set in Paris? Arizona? Outer space?) I aimed for a certain balance— no banquet should be all savory, nor all sweet.

As they say in Mexico, buen provecho! (bon appétit!)

C.M. Mayo

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