Resources for Researchers: “Nepantla” and “Zozobra” (From Emilio Uranga’s Ontological Project)


The concept of “lo mexicano,” so much used and abused, chastised and misunderstood, is at the end of the day an attempt to name, to capture, by any means necessary, what is fundamentally uncapturable—namely, an essence that does not give itself. Critics are quick to point out that “lo mexicano” mistakenly, and some would say criminally, essentializes Mexican identity. What we must remember, however, is that this term is frustratingly used, especially by Uranga and Zea, to name a manner of being, an ontological nexus, that is fundamentally fleeting and accidental. It refers to an identity that is always fleeing from itself, hesitant, indecisive, contingent, and incapable of that essential synthesis on the basis of which other peoples from other cultures have steadfastly affirmed their humanity, their belonging. In accordance with the 16th century Dominican friar Diego Durán’s observation that the Mexican character is a product of “two laws,” viz., the indigenous and the Christian, Uranga refers to the being of the Mexican as perpetually “oscillating and pendular” (Análisis, 93). Reaching further back to the conceptual arsenal of pre-Hispanic culture, Uranga captures the oscillating and pendular movement of Mexican being with the náhuatl concept of “nepantla.” Nepantla designates a being “in between, in the middle, in the center” (93). The middle, the in between, or the center is the point to which Mexican being returns as it swings to and fro the different laws that frame its possibilities. In this sense, Mexican identity is dynamic rather than static, a constant migration from extremes to center and from center to peripheries, never settled in “one at the expense of the other” (93). “Lo mexicano” aims to contain nepantla as its intuition, failing miserably, as nepantla also designates the un-groundedness of Mexican being, leading Uranga to say that nepantla is “the cardinal category of our ontology” (93). Which is why Paz will say that the Mexican is a being in perpetual disquiet and fleeing, always oscillating between communion and solitude (1951).



But if nepantla is a fundamental ontological category in the philosophy of “lo mexicano,” then zozobra designates its existential correlate. As the name for a modality of a being rooted in rootlessness, whose urgrund in the no-where between this and that history, this and that culture, or this and that identity, nepantla does not capture the sense, or feeling, of this rootlessness or loss of belonging. Appealing to López Velarde, Uranga calls this sense of loss zozobra. Zozobra names the anxiety of not knowing where one stands at any one time. Uranga defines it as follows: “a not knowing on which [extreme] to depend on, or what is the same, a dependence on the two extremes [of our identity]…a grasping at both ends of the chain” (94). Zozobra is thus an anxious hesitation and indecision before the demands of precarious, pendular, existence.

As the existential correlate to nepantla, zozobra ultimately provokes a rational decision, namely, the decision to cover over the abyss with a stable, essentialized or essentializable, identity, history, or culture. The anxiety of breakdown, which is zozobra, motivates a desire for universality and eternity. Thus, the attraction of European or Indigenous identities, which represents the two options for the Mexican, is that these are static, defined, and unambiguous, giving one the illusion of permanence, of ground and stability. From this desire for permanence and origin emerge those ideologies that aim to essentialize identity, painting a caricature of the Mexican, for example, or of lo mexicano, as homogenous in his identity and resolute in his resolve. But this homogenous image hides a “mode of being that incessantly oscillates between two possibilities, between two affects, without knowing on which of these to depend, on which of these to cling to for justification” (105). This is zozobra, and Uranga points to it as the un-grounded urgrund that defines Mexican identity. That is, zozobra is not “a fixed and solid ground” [punto fijo y roqueño], but is rather like “moving sand on which nothing firm can stand” (105).

I hope this confuses someone into something…


One response to “Resources for Researchers: “Nepantla” and “Zozobra” (From Emilio Uranga’s Ontological Project)

  1. Fascinating, Robert. I can’t wait to read more. The interplay of these two concepts, zozobra and nepantla, is ripe for further exploration. Any idea of the etymology of “zozobra”?

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