Questions about Mexicanidad: A Response to Hurtado

As promised, our blog is going to host a virtual reading group to discuss articles about or related to 20th century Mexican philosophy. For each article, we will provide a brief (and inevitably inadequate) introduction to the paper and then ask one or two of our colleagues to offer comments or a response. We will post the introduction and comments together and then invite our readers to read along and comment below. We begin our series with Guillermo Hurtado‘s “Dos mitos de la mexicanidad,” followed by a brief response by Kim Diaz (University of Texas at El Paso). (The featured image is of our two interlocutors singing Mexican ballads in Williamsburg, Virginia – of all places!)

Frist, Our All-Too-Brief Introduction

After offering a panorama of the antecedents of this movement, including a brief resume of the work of José Gaos, Samuel Ramos, and Octavio Paz, Hurtado offers a close examination of the work of Leopoldo Zea and Emilio Uranga in order to offer two of his own original criticisms.

Traditionally, philosophers in Mexico have dismissed the movement on the grounds (1) that Mexican identity is not a topic of philosophy per se, since philosophy is concerned with universal questions, and (2) that in any case, there is no such thing as the essence of being Mexican, i.e. a set of characteristics that applies to all and only Mexicans. And while Hurtado seems to be (roughly) in agreement with these criticisms–though he argues that they require more support than is usually given for them–he claims that there are two other problems with la filosofía de lo mexicano, which he presents on both philosophical and moral/political grounds. The first criticism, which he offers against the work of Zea, is that the philosophers of this movement have mistakenly endorsed the myth that the Mexican Revolution (which began in 1910) brought the true essence of Mexican identity to the surface. The problem with this thesis, Hurtado argues, aside from being false, is that it has (even if only indirectly) lent credibility to the official ideology of Mexican politics which was made concrete in the form PRI (el Partido Revolucionaria Insitucional, which dominated the political landscape in Mexico for seven decades and wasn’t overturned until 2000). The second criticism, leveled against Uranga, is two-fold. First, Hurtado claims that the filósofos de lo mexicano uncritically endorse the myth that the essence of Mexican identity corresponds to Mexican culture in the altiplano, the geographical center of Mexico where the conquistadores founded Mexico City on top of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital prior to 1521. So, besides dismissing the idea that there is a single Mexican identity, as others have done, Hurtado complicates the criticism by pointing out that the problem is not just that philosophers have assumed that there is such an identity, but that they have identified it with a very specific subculture of Mexico. Hurtado says, “To suppose that there is one Mexican culture that is more than the sum of the various regional cultures is a myth that, while it might some utility in public offices or in university classrooms, it is not based in concrete reality” (285, my choppy translation). Second, he claims that there is a certain inconsistency in the philosophy of Uranga (and almost all of the philosophers of Mexican identity)–namely, that while he tries to valorize the Mexican vis-a-vis the foreigner, he does so by identifying what the Mexican lacks. So, for Uranga–not entirely unlike it was for Samuel Ramos and Octavio Paz–Mexican is more human than the non-Mexican (the value of being Mexican) because the Mexican is essentially “accidental” (flawed, dependent, afflicted, anxious, half-hearted, mournful). That is, for Uranga, following Heidegger, the essence of being human is to be accidental, and while this is true of all humans, it’s lived by Mexicans more authentically than by other cultures (such as in England and the US, which pride themselves on being “substantial,” self-sufficient, optimistic, efficient, powerful, modern, etc.).

Second, Diaz’s Comments

For anyone who wants to learn more about Mexican Philosophy, Guillermo Hurtado’s article “Dos Mitos de la Mexicanidad” is a really great place to begin. You will get a thorough history of Mexican Philosophy in the 20th century as well as the issues that Mexican philosophers have been concerned about. Hurtado also provides an excellent and helpful bibliography.

Hurtado argues that some of the common mistakes that Mexican philosophers have made are (a) to claim that there is no such thing as a philosophical problem that pertains exclusively to Mexicanidad or lo Mexicano, and (b) some Mexican philosophers have assumed there is a type of Mexican essence, a fixed group of characteristics possessed by each and every Mexican, and without which a person would not be Mexican.

Hurtado tell us that both of these alternatives have been dismissed. What is interesting, however, is that they have been dismissed but without any careful analysis of why philosophy cannot concern itself with issues such as Mexicanidad, or why there is no such thing as a Mexican essence.

Besides these problems, Hurtado writes that his main concern in “Dos Mitos de la Mexicanidad” has to do with two mistakes students of Mexican Philosophy have often made. According to Hurtado, these mistakes are reproachable not only on philosophical grounds, but more importantly, on moral and political grounds.

Hurtado distinguishes two different approaches that have been generally taken by philosophers of lo Mexicano. The first, he calls the particularist approach, which is characterized by the attempt to understand the essence of Mexicans in their context. Hurtado calls the second approach universalist because this approach aimed to reveal human nature by means of studying that which is Mexican. Hurtado writes that it is a good idea to continue reading and studying particularist philosophers like Jorge Portilla. However, Hurtado focuses on pointing out some of the problems with the universalist approach. In order to do this, he focuses on the theses held by Leopoldo Zea and Emilio Uranga.

The first mistake/myth is the thesis defended by Leopoldo Zea that what is true in Mexicans was made evident during the Mexican Revolution. In other words, that the Mexican Revolution brought to the surface the real Mexican in Mexican people. Hurtado points out that the political problem with Zea’s claim is that his idea was used by the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) to maintain itself in power for roughly 75 years. The second myth that Hurtado points to was made by the Mexican philosopher Emilio Uranga, namely, the idea that the Mexican is the most human of all human beings.

Rather than summarizing the rest of “Dos Mitos” (as Robert Sanchez has already done this), I will proceed to comment on it.

First, Leopoldo Zea.

It is true that Zea was perhaps too enthusiastic and optimistic, and thus he did not foresee how his claim that the Mexican Revolution brought out the real Mexican in Mexicans could be in the long run used by others to obtain and abuse power. This is not the only problem with Zea’s thesis, however. Amy Oliver has pointed out that Zea believed the Mexican revolution had served the purpose of uniting all Mexicans. According to Oliver, for Zea, the Zapatista movement of el Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, was a misguided and unnecessary political movement that undermined the Mexican cohesiveness that the Mexican revolution had brought about. From his perspective, Zea believed that all Mexican people, including the Indigenous peoples, had united and had become Mexicans in the war against the betrayal and dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz.

Of course this was not the case, the Zapatistas finally stood up to centuries of oppression and exclusion by mestizos. Indigenous peoples throughout the American continent, from Peru, Chile, Brasil, Mexico to North America were never asked if they wanted to become part of the modern nation states when the American colonies gained their respective battles of independence. The Mexican nation state with its language, laws, and institutions was simply imposed upon them.

Zea’s faith in the ideals of the Mexican Revolution blinded him to the fact that not all people in Mexico see themselves as Mexican. Zea was also unaware that the Mexican Revolution did not in fact help everyone who made up el pueblo or la gente. This is because ironically some people saw themselves as being more Mexican than others and thus more deserving of the benefits of being Mexican.

Second, Emilio Uranga

Hurtado tells us that Uranga’s main mistake was believing that there is a Mexican essence that could somehow be encapsulated and described. Uranga also failed by believing that by understanding what it means to be Mexican, other people, particularly those who lived post WWII who lived with the constant threat of nuclear wars and experienced a heightened sense of uncertainty, could understand what it means to be human. Uranga believed that Mexicans had a leg up on the rest of the world because we have always known what it means to live with anxiety and uncertainty (what he calls “accidentality”). This is simply the Mexican experience.

With the thesis that there is a Mexican essence, Uranga goes on to call for a type of Mexican purification. For Uranga, this meant to do away with everything our colonizers had bequeathed us, including the psychological need to compare ourselves to European cultures. Hurtado goes on to write why Uranga’s thesis was obviously problematic, and how years later, Luis Villoro reconsidered Uranga’s thesis. Villoro, Hurtado writes, does not accept Uranga’s essentialist thesis, which is good; however, Villoro still believed that we could somehow distinguish between authentic Mexican identity and inauthentic Mexican identity. Hurtado closes his “Dos Mitos de la Mexicanidad” by stating that it is best for us to move away from Uranga’s project and that it is time for us to begin thinking about Mexican identity in new ways.

Third, Mexicanidad

While we have been asking ourselves what it may mean to be Mexican, as well as the correct approach and the problems entailed in asking this question, decisions are being made by everyday people on who is Mexican and who is not Mexican. Unlike philosophers, these people seem to know clearly what constitutes being Mexican. Mexicans violently gang up on Guatemalans and Central Americans who attempt to cross the southern Mexican border because they are not Mexican. In the northern Mexican border, Border Patrol agents whose loyalty is to serve and protect North American interests, and whose last names happen to be Lopez, Gonzalez, and Perez, whose skin is brown and who speak English with a Mexican accent, detain, search and decide who is and who is not Mexican. Based on what? On some standard of Mexicanidad of which they are clear. Having papeles is not enough. If one is brown, one is always held suspect of having a false visa or passport. Having brown skin is enough to be deemed a criminal, because one is Mexican. Period.

Then there are Chicanos, who by some standards are not real Mexicans. How could they be Mexicans if they don’t even speak Spanish? Or if they do, they speak Spanglish with their “Pocho” accents. They are not real Mexicans, they are Mexican-Americans, or something along those lines, but not “real” Mexicans. And yet Chicanos feel their Mexicanidad with just as much depth as any other Mexican, perhaps even more so because living in the U.S. no one lets us forget that we are Mexican.

Hurtado mentions at the beginning of “Dos Mitos” that maybe it is not a good idea to bring up old problems that have already been forgotten only to point out why they are problems and then possibly forget them again. I disagree—our Mexicanidad is not an old problem. I think it is helpful for us to consider on one hand where we’ve gone wrong, and on the other, what has brought us closer to understanding each other.

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One response to “Questions about Mexicanidad: A Response to Hurtado

  1. It seems to me that Diaz is offering some important (if subtle) criticisms of Hurtado’s reading of the philosophy of lo mexicano. In each of her three points, she suggests that the problem with the philosophy of lo mexicano is perhaps that it wasn’t problematic enough – that it didn’t trouble Mexican philosophers enough or in the right way. By focusing on a particular aspect of the problem of Mexican identity – when did it begin (Zea), what’s the ontological nature of the essence of being Mexican (Uranga), whether it’s time to lay the question to rest by diagnosing past attempts to define Mexican identity (Hurtado) – they overlook equally troubling aspects of the problem: that the problem of Mexican identity DOES still trouble us and affect our lives in real ways (response to Hurtado); that although there may not be a single Mexican essence, we might still ask whether it’s possible to be authentically Mexican (Uranga); and that the question of Mexican identity needs to address the situation of indigenous peoples in Mexico (Zea).

    It also seems to me, however, that Hurtado would agree with all of these criticisms. For instance, one of his own criticisms is that philosophers of Mexican identity don’t fully appreciate the diversity of ethnic (and we can add racial) identities within Mexico. And I know he fully acknowledges the social reality of Mexican identity on the ground (i.e. how it is used for inclusion and exclusion).

    So, if I had to sum up what I like about Kim’s response in a line, it would be that she points out how, even if only indirectly, Hurtado is himself demonstrating that the problem of lo mexicano is not dead, and that if we “Mexican-American” philosophers are allowed to think of ourselves as both Mexican (in some sense) and as philosophers, then neither is it dead for Mexican philosophers.

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