Rubén Gallo is a writer, the author of Freud in Mexico: Into the Wilds of Psychoanalysis (MIT Press, 2010), and a professor at Princeton University. In this podcast, he explores the meaning in death in Mexico, from the well-known images of joyful skeletons painted by artists like Diego Rivera, to the more somber political and social manifestations of deadly impulses in contemporary society, including drug-related violence.
I am Rubén Gallo, a writer and academic, and today I would like to share with you some reflections on the culture of death in Mexico. Without a doubt you have read and heard about the special place death has in Mexican culture. You might have seen photographs or paintings of the Day of the Dead, when families visit their deceased relatives in the cemetery to bring them food, thus transform mourning into a festive occasion. And you are probably familiar with the many joyful depictions of skeletons, skulls, and other symbols of death, in the paintings of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and other Mexican artists. In popular music, such as ranchero songs from the north, singers cheerfully announce that they are not afraid of death, and if they die, it should happen while they are drinking and dancing.
But, as I would like to suggest today, beneath this appearance of a unique and joyful approach to death, there lies a darker reality, one that is closer in spirit to traditional accounts of death. Octavio Paz, one of Mexico’s greatest poets, made a similar argument in his essay The Labyrinth of Solitude, published in 1950. Paz argued that many of the images associated with Mexico —the celebration of life, the passion for fiestas with music and dance, the raucous drinking —conceal a more complex psychology. Mexicans, he argued, are melancholic beings, and these outwards explosions of joy are attempts to cover-up an unresolved mourning emerging froma series of historical traumas that hark back to the conquest of Mexico and to the violent encounter that ended with the destruction of the Aztec civilization.
Paz, who was a passionate reader of Freud in his youth, believed that these unresolved historical traumas resulted in a repetition compulsion that can be observed in many of the most famous Mexican rituals: bright celebrations full of music, song, and dance can easily degenerate into fistfights leaving revelers dead; and, in one of his most poetic images, Paz draws attention to how at every fiesta, there comes a point when the life of the party, he who has been drinking and eating and singing, inevitably plunges into an explicable melancholia, an irrational feeling of solitude. The singing gives way to a taciturn state for which the Spanish language has a beautiful word: ensimismamiento, becoming trapped in oneself.
Paz believed that the nation’s unresolved traumas led to a repetition of scenes of violence, which can be seen at various points in Mexican history. After the 1968 student massacre, a dark day in which the Mexican president, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, ordered the army to shoot on peaceful student demonstration, and left dozens of young men and women dead, Paz read this event — which was one of the bloodiest in the twentieth century — as a repetition of something that had occurred before. He noted that the massacre took place steps from an Aztec pyramid, one of the few remaining structures of a city that was once called Tlatelolco and which is now part of Mexico City. This was not a coincidence: the Aztecs used pyramids as temples for human sacrifices and, five hundred years after the conquest, the student massacre was another form of sacrifice.
México: Olimpiada de 1968
A Dore y Adja Junkers
(quizá valga la pena
escribirlo sobre la limpieza
de esta hoja)
no es límpida:
es una rabia
(amarilla y negra
acumulación de bilis en español)
extendida sobre la página.
La vergüenza es ira
vuelta contra uno mismo:
una nación entera se avergüenza
es león que se agazapa
municipales lavan la sangre
en la Plaza de los Sacrificios).
antes de haber dicho algo
que valga la pena,
And now in English:
Mexico City: The 1968 Olympiad
for Dore and Adja Yunkers
-- Translated by Eliot Weinberger
(perhaps it’s worth
writing across the purity
of this page)
is not lucid
it is fury
(yellow and black
mass of bile in Spanish)
spreading over the page.
Guilt is anger
turned against itself:
an entire nation is ashamed
it is a lion poised
(The municipal employees
wash the blood
from the Plaza of the Sacrificed.)
before anything worth
it was said:
Paz noted that sacrifices — with their share of sadism and destruction — continued to be repeated, though in different form and with different purposes, at the foot of the pyramid, which remained an important archetype in Mexican culture. Most importantly, Paz read this persistence of political violence as the underside of the famously joyful Mexican attitude towards death: a culture that does not respect death is a culture that cannot respect life, and the underside of the insouciance with which Mexicans treat death is the ease with which human lives can be cut short.
Octavio Paz died in 1998, and he did not live to see the drastic changes undergone by Mexico in the past twenty years, which have been both positive and negative. On the positive side, Mexico has moved away from poverty and has become the world’s fifteenth economy — an impressive jump that can be compared to India’s progress in the same period. On the negative side, economic prosperity has not done away with the country’s endemic problems — corruption, social disparities, the marginalization of Indigenous minorities —, and has actually intensified some of them. In the past twenty years, Mexico has witnessed an unprecedented wave of violence linked to drug trafficking: over 275,000 people have been murdered since 2006, and thousands more have disappeared, including many students and young people. Traffickers engage in a sadism that makes the pages of Dante’s inferno read like a fairy tale: torturing victims, amputating fingers and ears, murdering them in the most gruesome scenarios and filming the entire ordeal before uploading it to social media, where the images are seen and circulated by tens of thousands of willing spectators, in a phenomenon that has been described as “violence porn.”
Drug-related violence has become part and parcel of everyday life in Mexico, and the gruesome images can be found in the press and even on reputable television news programs. Recent literature, including the novels of writers like Elmer Mendoza, Yuri Herrera, and Heriberto Yépez, provide a chilling account of this generalized sadism, while sociologist and political scientists struggle to find a cause and an explanation: is it related to the 1994 signing of the free-trade agreement with the United States and Canada? Did it stem from the 2000 transition to democracy? Is technology to blame?
I would opt for a different explanation, one that recalls Octavio Paz’s ideas about Mexican culture. The recent explosion of violence has coincided with a precipitous rise of drug use in the country. During the 1980s, Mexico was simply a transit point for drugs traveling from Colombia and South America to the United States, a situation that changed in recent years with the development of a local market for cocaine. Cocaine has now become an integral part of the raucous fiestas analyzed by Octavio Paz, which are now louder and more dangerous affairs. And if in the past a celebration could suddenly explode into a fistfight, the threat of violence has now been amplified by automatic weapons and military-grade ammunition, combined with the possibility of filming and distributing the images on social media.
Octavio Paz was right: a repetition compulsion structures Mexican history, and we can draw a line connecting the many episodes of violence in the last five hundred years, starting with Aztec sacrifices, continuing with the Conquistadors’s destructive drives and with the million people killed in the Mexican Revolution, and arriving at the current drug-fueled violence. And all of these episodes can be read as the flipside of Mexico’s famous attitude towards death.
Many people abroad are familiar with the graphic depictions of death by artists such as José Guadalupe Posada, who made hundreds of woodcuts and engravings featuring elegantly-clad skeletons and other curious images of death. But audiences abroad would be less familiar with the work of Teresa Margolles, a visual artist who has spent the last thirty years making installations and performances about the presence of death in Mexico. One of her pieces from 2009 is called Cards for Cutting Cocaine: it consists of small, plastic-covered photos of victims of drug-related violence, close-ups of bludgeoned faces and disfigured heads. By suggesting that these images could be used for “cutting cocaine,” Margolles links the recreational use of drugs —called “partying” in slang —, to the sadism present in the drug trade. Once again, death emerges as the reverse of the boisterous fiesta.
This dialectic between life and death, joy and sadism, can also be seen in other geographies. I am thinking for instance of social media: on the one hand, users tend to use apps to disseminate an image of a perfect life, posting photographs full of smiles, taken in striking beautiful settings, accompanied by what appear to be adoring friends and perfect partners. On the other hand, we know that social media have unleashed an unprecedented amount of aggression, of which there are countless examples ranging from teenage bullying to adult smear campaigns. Here, too we see sadism as the unacknowledged underside of festive celebrations.
The culture of death has been a constant in Mexican history over the past five hundred years, but in the last decades it seems to have reached a breaking point, with hundreds of thousands of drug-related deaths and an unprecedented sadism, celebrated involuntarily by those who share and re-post videos of tortures and executions. Where will this destructive drives lead Mexico? As Sigmund Freud was fond of saying, quoting a Spanish expression whenever he stumbled upon a thorny question that seemed unresolvable, quién sabe.