Uranga, Death, and Being Mexican

When I’m in Mexico, I am not Mexican. When I’m in LA with Korean, Black, and other ethnically diverse friends, I’m “the Mexican.” And when I am in Williamsburg or other parts of the country with few Mexicans or a diversity of Hispanics, I am Latino/a. But if it were completely up to me, I am a Mexican-American from Los Angeles. And for those who know, that is a unique identity unto itself.

Questions of identity are important in a project like this since there is bound to be some suspicion or self-doubt about the right to make Mexican philosophy available in the US. To some degree, it’s not unlike finding out that your favorite Mexican or Ethiopian food is being cooked in the back by some tall, clean-cut white guy who read a few recipes and buys all of his ingredients at Whole Foods. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, especially if the food is good, but it does make you wonder about the authenticity of what you’re being served.

However, as I think about the translation of Emilio Uranga’s very short “La idea mexicana de la muerte” (“The Mexican Idea of Death”), I am reminded loud and clear of the “Mexican” in Mexican-American. The Mexican, Uranga says, is constantly gambling with his life. [“El mexicano se juega continuamente la vida.]* For the Mexican, life is not a matter of winning but a question of losing, as when one says that in war, there are no winners, just those who lose less. [“El juego no es una aventura de ganancia, sino de pérdida. No jugamos para ganar sino más bien para ver si perdermos o no perdemos.”] And for this reason, an institutionalized sense of security that aims to convince us that death is at a distance–think of planners, routines and diets, data on life expectancy, technology, a scientific explanation of why someone else died (“Well, he smoked and drank too much and since you drink in moderation…you’re safe”)–only serves to deny a life bent on destruction the capacity to live. [“La seguridad instituida restaría a la vida que se voca a la destrucción, muchas ocasiones, oportunidades, de aniquilarse.”] A Mexican life, in other words, is impeded by precaution.

In short, Uranga argues that the Mexican conception of death is the opposite of that of the North American.** If the North American fights to insure his life or to fulfill his right to life or to “complete life,” or if he regrets that someone dies “too soon,” for the Mexican, life is always and essentially “cut short.” Mexicans say, “Estamos al filo de la muerte” [“We are on the brink of death”] to express that there is no such thing as “living on borrowed time”; life is not something one possesses. In fact, it is better not to say that a Mexican life is “cut short” at all because it is not meant to be fulfilled; an early death is not an injustice because a long life is an accident. The Mexican does not leave death for tomorrow, because even if he could, it would be cut short then. [“La muerte es lo único que el mexicano no deja para ‘mañana’ porque sabe que aún mañana la vida seguirá conservando su radical sentido de posible tronchamiento.”]

By contrast, the North American thinks of life as a short amount of time to achieve a lot. The North American is always, in other words, racing against the clock, trying to finish in time, to live an accomplished or “complete life.” [“Pero si la muerte es cierta e ineludible y además próximo entonces la vida debe realizer el máximo esfuerzo por cumplir su misión en el menor tiempo posible.”] For the North American, the fear of death is the fear of dying before you have the chance to exhaust life’s experiences. [El temor a la muerte express el miedo de morir antes de haver agotado las experiencias de la vida.”] Hence, the proverbial “bucket list.”

Ultimately it is a difference between a sense of entitlement to life and a chance to live a complete life, on the one hand, and a profound sense of the fundamental accidentality of life in which the idea of an “unfinished life” simply doesn’t make sense because it has no contrast. These are two radically different conceptions of death and life which pervade North American and Mexican culture, respectively.

There are a number of attempts to distinguish the North American from the Mexican or Latin American–I’m thinking of Alfonso Reyes’s “Thoughts on the American Mind,” Vasconcelos’s The Cosmic Race, portions of Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude, or even Romanell’s “A Character Sketch of Two Americas,” to name a few–but Uranga’s piece strikes the deepest chord for me, and I imagine that a certain reader might not be able to hear Uranga at all. In any case, it is a rich, pregnant, poetic essay, and I think it should definitely be included in the anthology.

*The paraphrases below are not meant to be direct translations. We’ll leave that for later.

**I really don’t like the phrase “North American,” in part because it’s clumsy and in part because it’s inaccurate (we always mean people from the US and never from Canada or from the north of Mexico). But for political reasons, I dislike the term “American” to refer to people from the US even more, and so since Uranga uses norteamericano, I stuck with the former. However, in the anthology, I suggest we introduce estadounidense (“person from the US”) as a new English word. Why not, other than that it will take some getting used to? After all, we are willing to include raison d’être and other, much harder to pronounce foreign words in the English lexicon.  

2 responses to “Uranga, Death, and Being Mexican

  1. Regarding the sense that life is fundamentally accidental as opposed the sense that life is meant to be fulfilled, I think a parallel can be drawn between Mexican and East Asian cultures. Koreans as well as Chinese and Japanese make a huge deal about a person’s 60th birthday (Hwangab) regardless of the kind of life he’s lived or his accomplishments. Though part of the significance of Hwangab derives from the fact that the traditional lunar calendar is based on a 60-year cycle, Hwangab is above all a celebration of the person’s having lived to an advanced age (though with modern medicine the average life expectancy is much higher). Certainly, the Western conception of life and death is tied up with religious ideas about heaven or the afterlife, metaphysical ideas about human nature, etc. Nonetheless, all of this points to something about the construction and the living out of one’s identity.

  2. “Estadounidense” might work, but it is a mouthful! Perhaps “US American” might work as well… But I suspect that Uranga really means “white folks from the US,” right? I doubt he means to include African Americans, not to mention estadounidenses of Asian descent or Hispanic descent and so on — since each subculture likely has distinctive attitudes toward death…

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