About Indians and cowboys: Mexico in On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Text by Kelly Martínez
Illustration by Abril Castillo
To José Orozco, the Chicano, friend, border that fades…
I like to think—Hemingway also did, I believe—when Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the façade of American culture and literature was changed forever. His novels, stories that gathered various local dialects and were deeply influenced by journalism, offered a candid portrait of the American southern reality in the late nineteenth century, opened the way to the American literary tradition of saying things straight forward without ornaments, and at the same time with all possible grace. That change was certainly part of something bigger: a social and cultural transformation that would feed the arts and be fed by them; for the entire North American imaginary was being transformed. Without wishing to give a sociological reading to the current path of literature, but rather trying to understand the dialogue between text and context, it’s important to remember that, although it was the first country in the American continent to become independent, the spirit of Colonial ideology remained present; therefore, there was a need to form a new identity.
At the time American literature was still subject to the Victorian canons of “good writing,” which not only had to do with the formal aspect of writing, but also with the creation of content ruled by rigid moral codes. However, this desire for purity and rigidity started to be threatened by literature. First of all, because the use of English started to be more and more colloquial, because the narrative and poetic structures would leave behind the realm of English aesthetics; second, because everything that the official culture relegated to the marginalized periphery—it offended the “pure American” souls—started gaining more and more prominence as a literary theme. Is not surprising to discover that this literary liberation, and, for example, the abolition of slavery were paired at the time. Mark Twain’s Jim, the little slave, could be more than a random occurrence; it became a political gesture from the author.
With Jim, modern literature was officially inaugurated in the United States. The sugarcoated and artificial image that writers were selling about the life in this country began to give way to the great “American cultural polyphony.” And if we add the First World War (1914) and the Great Depression (1929), we’d be able to understand that the fracture became fissures that started leaking what was previously denied: the suppressed, the hidden and the marginalized. It ranged from these sympathetic Hispanic characters in Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat (1935) and the peasants of The Grapes of Wrath (1939) to the dizzying and drunken parties hosted by Gatsby; they weren’t condescending gestures looking from above to the marginalized, but a balancing of the scale and a way of bringing the two ends of the shore together. Such approaches have been since the Renaissance a way to challenge power, something that took characters like Rabelais to write Gargantua and Pantagruel.
But if there was novel, from the first or the second post-war period, in which looking at the other was really shocking for American “decency,” it was On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Maybe because he was an other himself, a Franco-Canadian migrant; or because Beats believed that speaking with the muse was like talking to friends. The pages of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty’s journey—far and wide the national territory—are full of characters that do not take a secondary part like Tom Sawyer’s Jim, but have a constant and crucial presence. Those long roads they go through functioned as narrative tool to discuss the territorial vastness of the and human geography, such roads dare to go beyond themselves and end up on a trip to Mexico: the final journey, the visited land before Ithaca becomes a possible place.
It is a well known fact that the relationship between the US and Mexico has been, for centuries, very complex. From the usurpation of Mexican territory during the colonial shady deals to the hard journey that “wetbacks” have to endure to cross the border. The tension between the two largest neighboring countries in North America persists: two very different cultures, that somehow have continued to keep in touch, sometimes in a horrendous ways. It is no secret, that of the many Spanish-speaking communities in the United States, the Mexican is the largest, and has been essential in the construction of the country, despite the harsh living conditions and the xenophobia, it has become a wonderful and unavoidable presence.
Sal and Dean’s trip to Mexico is, in the first place, a trip to exotic lands. It is important to always remember that, despite the literary liberation, On the Road is a novel written in romantic key and the romantics loved the exotic. And is also a way to vindicate the other, a gaze that tries to dignify. Those who have wanted to see in the penultimate chapter, nothing more than an exoticizing gaze, seem to forget the time it was written in, its great significance and shocking character within the context of American mainstream in the early fifties. It was no longer about that other (that “impurity”) attaining a voice in literature, but about the two main characters abandoning their country to plunge in heart and head in the territory of such others (a journey that others, especially the photographer Edward Weston, had taken). Submerge, to put it in Artaud’s terms, in the land of the Tarahumaras; literally, the border has been crossed. The limit was trespassed.
We arrived at Sabinas-Hidalgo, across the desert, at about seven o’clock in the morning. We slowed down completely to see this. We woke up Stan in the back seat. We sat up straight to dig. The main street was muddy and full of holes. On each side were dirty broken-down adobe fronts. Burros walked in the street with packs. Barefoot women watched us from dark doorways. The street was completely crowded with people on foot beginning a new day in the Mexican countryside. Old men with handlebar mustaches stared at us. The sight of three bearded, bedraggled American youths instead of the usual well-dressed tourists was of unusual interest to them. 1
For Sal and Dean Mexico is a possibility of discovery and surprise. Not only because entering another land always is, but also because travel is in itself a place of revelation: to abandon the known is to realize our true dimensions towards reality. It is discovery and surprise because their prejudices about Mexico were also tested; at the end of the day that’s what travel is all about. Travel comes from tripalium, a Roman instrument of torture: the journey involves a condition, a test for the being; something that Homer warned us about from his blindness so similar to the mysterious smile of the gods. And then there’s the [Spanish] word viajar, which comes from viatge which, in turn, comes from viaticum: what feeds us along the way; thus, if the experience does not nourish us, we probably have not really traveled.
In language there’s also another important implicit concept when talking of travel: partir [a Spanish word for “to leave”], from the word pars, which is also a root-word for parto [“birth” in Spanish too]. Thus, the trip is a form of rebirth, and Sal and Dean’s adventure is precisely that: a rebirth, an encounter and a reunion within the unknown, and into open air. Finding is a discovering, is decomposing and recomposing the imaginary, which is precisely what happens on the trip to Mexico: an understanding of reality from a place hitherto inconceivable.
Sal, I am digging the interiors of these homes as we pass them—these gone doorways and you look inside and see beds of straw and little brown kids sleeping and stirring to wake, their thoughts congealing from the empty mind of sleep, their selves rising, and the mothers cooking up breakfast in iron pots and dig them shutters they have for windows and the old men, the old men are so cool and grand and not bothered by anything. There’s no suspicion here, nothing like that. Everybody’s cool, everybody looks at you with such straight brown eyes and they don’t say anything, just look, and in that look all of the human qualities are soft and subdued and still there. Dig all the foolish stories you read about Mexico and the sleeping gringo and all that crap—and crap about greasers and so on—and all it is, people here are straight and kind and don’t put down any bull. 2
Although Kerouac’s perspective may seem naive today, or even from the ranks of Cultural Studies, we could say that it has an Eurocentric vision (and all that pile of labels—from the field of postmodernism—that may discredit and not be useful for analysis) is always important to return to the context in which the events occurred: a “crime” cannot be solved from a contemplative distance. During the mid fifties in the United States, writing On the Road was a risk; not only because a whole system of official values was being questioned, but also because that questioning was punishable if we’re aware that, at the time the novel came to the fore the witch hunt unleashed by McCarthyism was in full swing. To speak ill of the “cowboys” and well of the “Indians” could very well include you in the lines of “communist sympathizer” and that meant much more than just a label. It meant being anti-American, being against the nation, an enemy, and literally being tried for it.
It is not about making the writer a hero and the novel the most splendid treaty ever written about Mexico, but it is a gesture of human and humanistic value, because it meant to show a group of readers that the alleged image of their neighbor had nothing to do with reality, and this was done out of respect, not from condescendence. For the American consciousness that was a turnaround, and the condescendence, if any, was not for the Mexicans, but for the people themselves and for oneself: jeopardizing one’s own idiocy. The trip to Mexico was much more than a revaluation of the other or a pornographic fantasy of hashish in the sky 3 where there’s mambo and prostitutes and marijuana and fun, as it happens in the well-known brothel scene in a Mexican village (which has a deeper meaning than the mere scandal it produced at the time, or that it represents now in politically correct terms, it is an erotic scene and an act of irreverence.) The journey was as well the possibility of approaching an area where the Beat ideal of a non-mechanized life seemed to be possible. This was also inherited by the generation of Kerouac and Ginsberg form the romantic conscience of machine vs. man, civilization vs. nature; and is not entirely incomprehensible or reprehensible if we think that, after all, it was the generation after World War II, children of the horror of an atomic bomb.
Mexico was then—not just for Sal and Dean, but to Kerouac and Neal Cassady, since the novel is autobiographical—the possibility of approaching a place where, somehow, the relationship between the earth and the man was still close. Of course, those of us who live in Latin America understand that that relationship also implies a number of problems, not on itself but on the social and political network of our countries. And that the poverty of our rural areas is not necessarily ideal, but somehow it also involves a certain knowledge or understanding of reality that seems to have been lost with industrialization. Hence, the encounter between man and the earth; and form the meeting of Salt/Kerouac with all of it, comes what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful fragments of the novel:
Not like driving across Carolina, or Texas, or Arizona, or Illinois; but like driving across the world and into the places where we would finally learn ourselves among the Fellahin Indians of the world, the essential strain of the basic primitive, wailing humanity that stretches in a belt around the equatorial belly of the world from Malaya (the long fingernail of China) to India the great subcontinent to Arabia to Morocco to the selfsame deserts and jungles of Mexico and over the waves to Polynesia to mystic Siam of the Yellow Robe and on around, on around, so that you hear the same mournful wail by the rotted walls of Cadiz, Spain, that you hear 12,000 miles around in the depths of Benares the Capital of the World. These people were unmistakably Indians and were not at all like the Pedros and Panchos of silly civilized American lore—they had high cheekbones, and slanted f eyes, and soft ways; they were not fools, they were not clowns; they were great, grave Indians and they were the source of mankind and the fathers of it. The waves are Chinese, but the earth is an Indian thing. As essential as rocks in the desert are they in the desert of “history.” And they knew this when we passed, ostensibly self—important moneybag Americans on a lark in their land; they knew who was the father and who was the son of antique life on earth, and made no comment. For when destruction comes to the world of “history” and the Apocalypse of the Fellahin returns once more as so many times before, people will still stare with the same eyes from the caves of Mexico as well as from the caves of Bali, where it all began and where Adam was suckled and taught to know. These were my growing thoughts as I drove the car into the hot, sunbaked town of Gregoria.4
Thus, the quadrature of the story is disengaged: the “American” imaginary (that bad habit of appropriating the whole continent) the “Indian” has much to teach the “cowboy” and is no longer the bad guy of the film, although we know that in this vindication task much remains to be done, poetic justice comes to fill in the gaps that could not be filled by the political justice. And so the penultimate chapter of On the Road is a form of symbolic return of the stolen land, it’s a blurred border.