The Curious Case of Maria Elvira Bermúdez

There were some previous discussions in this blog about the role of women philosophers in the period of philosophical history that we’ve been focusing on these past couple of years. It is undeniable that women were clearly present in that history (Maria Zambrano and Rosario Castellanos stand out), but, still, we don’t really talk about them. One reason why I don’t labor too much on this issue has to do with the very real fact that I’m still trying to make sense of the first texts I discovered on my journey into Mexican philosophy, primarily, Portilla’s and Uranga’s.

I first got sucked into this task in 2007 at the library of the Instituto de Investigaciones Filosoficas at UNAM. There, I found those famous debates between los Hiperiónes and their antagonists played out in the pages of several Mexico City dailies and literary supplements of 1948, 49, 50…56. When I returned to the states I rummaged through my finds to discover that of all the back-and-forths I had recorded in my notebook, none involved women. I began to question my implicit bias; my prejudices; my blindness. As an act of correction, I decided to do a more extensive search with the help of some of my Mexican colleagues. Because my interest lay in la filosofia de lo mexicano, I limited my search to women who took part in this debate. I found one: Maria Elvira Bermúdez.

Now, Bermúdez is a very curious case!

Under the editorship of Leopoldo Zea, the Mexican editorial Antigua Libreria Robredo began publishing a series called “México y lo mexicano.” Within the first 19 volumes of this series we find Alfonos Reyes’ La X en la frente (the first volume in the series), Uranga’s Análisis del ser del mexicano (the fourth volume), Leopoldo Zea’s El Occidente y la consciencia de México (the 14th volume), Ramón Xirau’s Tres poetas de la soledad (the 19th volume), and, Bermúdez’s La vida familiar del mexicano (the 20th volume in the series). While many more volumes of the series are planned by 1955, only two, La épica popular by the Mexican-American historian (that’s right!), and first woman inducted into the Mexican Academy of History, Clementina Díaz de Ovando and México al pendiente by the Argentinean social philosopher Angelica Mendoza, will be written by women. There’s no record, that I can find (if you can, please send it my way) of Mendoza’s or de Ovando’s promised books, so my assumption is that they were planned but never written. Regardless, out of 43 volumes in the series “México y lo mexicano,” only 3 were entrusted to women, and only 1 seems to have seen the light of day.

Many many questions arise, but mine is this: why Bermúdez? I’ve spoken to historians of philosophy all over Mexico who specialize on the role of women philosophers but cannot place her anywhere in the Mexican philosophical landscape of the 20th century, have not heard of her book, or, worse, have not heard of her at all. What makes her so elusive is that while she had a definitive footprint in the Mexican intellectual landscape, it was not in philosophy. She was a well-known and successful fiction writer in her time, known for her detective novels, which were considered feminist on account that her detectives were women.

But La vida familiar del mexicano, which is the book that appears in the series “México y lo mexicano,” is not fiction; it is a book informed by sociology, Marxist criticism, and an underlying disdain of the project of “lo mexicano.” The critique that we find in this short book will appear again in the work of José Revueltas a few years later and Roger Bartra decades after; but it is already here, in full force, in this short and unknown work of Marxist feminism. With chapter titles such as “The value of the investigation into lo mexicano,” “Machismo y hembrismo,” “Social transcendence of machismo,” “Opinions regarding the differences between the sexes,” its anonymity surprises me.

I’ll get to a more detailed analysis of what is contained in La vida familiar in the near future, but for now, I leave you with this short passage from the text:

The Mexican is an unreal entity…that some philosophers, perhaps because of an exhibitionist tendency, or with the intention of giving Mexico some type of exotic philosophy, try to characterize with a tangible reality…This is an absurd gesture, since in reality every Mexican is different from his neighbor…[thus] those investigations into Mexicanness are false and useless and can only result in the demeaning of our countrymen. (1955, 14)

I don’t agree with this sentiment on various levels, but it clearly demands and deserves a response. While I don’t think it ever got one directly, I can imagine this kind of criticism being the reason why some of those early proponents of la filosofía de lo mexicano turned on their younger selves—Villoro and Uranga, for instance. Needless to say, this is a curious case and more work needs to go into it.

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