“Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” Porfirio Diaz
Anybody who knows Mexico has heard of this perhaps apocryphal quote. It is said that every Mexican, when they wake up in the morning have one thought on their minds; the gringos took our land. Manifest Destiny we called it, from sea to shining sea. It is part of history now; and our turbulent history with our neighbor from the south has never quite steadied.
I am from Arizona, part of the territory that Mexico lost over the course of the years. You can feel the Spanish influence everywhere, the ‘Pearl of the Desert’ shining white, just south of Tucson; the names of the roads and the mountains. The food. If America is a melting pot, Arizona has been marinated in the smells and tastes of Mexico; tabasco and jalapenos, tequila and Corona. We forget that long before the English arrived, the Spanish were already building churches and missions. Now my desert it is part of America’s story, as am I. And though I have wandered near and far, though I have suffered on foreign soil and sought opportunity far away my blood always burns with desert heat, my imagination is seized by the crisp mornings churning with unlikely life, and my yearning is always only for the brilliant explosion of quiet evenings caressed by the warm desert winds.
Carlos Fuentes captures all this well; I found myself smelling my desert through someone else’s nose, experiencing the heat and the cactus which we all know unites us from the southwest north and south of the border as we share together the immensity of the Sonoran Desert. He captures the mistrust between the two cultures; the struggle for opportunity and property and belonging in this harshest of places. He is not kind to the ‘gringos’, but then again I did not expect him to be. He is not particularly kind to Mexico either; he is a revolutionary at heart, most people I’ve met from Latin America have mis-conceived notions of ‘social justice’ running through their veins, product of the tremendous injustices of a society that has never moved very much beyond the feudalism of old – and Fuentes captures this frustration from the perspective of Tomas Arroyo, a general in Pancho Villa’s army – and does so brilliantly.
The story involves an odd competition between General Arroyo and an old gringo Civil War veteran soldier who had come to Mexico hoping to die, and to die by Villa’s hand; a wizened sufferer who could not imagine passing away in bed – seeing little honor in that. They lock horns over an American woman, Harriet Winslow; which for the old man is paternal and for the Mexican general is about possession, but also about inferiority and inadequacy.
I have two criticisms of the story. First is my impression that sometimes Fuentes goes over the top – as do many Latin American authors, from Vargas Llosa to Garcia Marquez and on – too graphic a prose sometimes takes away from the beauty of a well-crafted story. The second is about the ending. All good writers know the importance of delivering a “knockout” at the end of the novel. To leave the story ringing in the consciousness of the reader. “The Old Gringo” instead fizzled out in a nonsensical monologue by Harriet Winslow which was hard to follow; it almost felt like Fuentes got tired and bored with himself and his story. Whatever it was, it didn’t work.
Nevertheless, for those who want an insight into the complicated US/Mexico relationship from a master, and a beautiful story to boot, “The Old Gringo” is a good place to start.