Why artists choose Mexico as a setting

Mexico DF 204

Mexico has always attracted a wide roster of foreign artists and intellectuals. Among those who pursued their creative vision in the country are U.S. writers Katherine Anne Porter and William Burroughs, British novelist Graham Greene, Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and his countryman, filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.

Even more have seen Mexico as an appropriate setting for their work. Orson Welles, Cormac McCarthy and Roberto Bolaño are among the many that have drawn inspiration from the culture and history of this mysterious, varied land.

As a setting, Mexico has a lot going for it. Often it is simply a good place for characters to escape to, the fictional flight reflecting the reality that Mexico really is a popular destination for U.S. fugitives. James Ellroy, Don Winslow and DBC Pierre are top of a long list of writers who write about an escape to the border.

Mexico is often portrayed here as a wild and dangerous land, liberated from the oppressive conventions of Anglo society and law. In fact, according to psychologist Geert Hofstede’s “Uncertainty Avoidance Index,” Mexico is a traditional, conservative society where behavior is codified to a similar degree as in South Korea.

In foreign literature and film however, it is transformed into a deregulated, unpredictable space.

The border in particular, is shown to be a savage landscape where no one is to be trusted. Frontier towns hold a special fascination. If all art is about conflict and contrast, there’s nothing more artistic than a border. The cultural, economic and linguistic divisions lend themselves to the imagination and are a great catalyst for action.

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The extremes of the border match the experience of the protagonist, showing how far they have come on their road from safety. “If the world was flat, you just know the edge would look like this,” says the teenage narrator of the novel “Vernon God Little.”

Part of the draw of the border is its violence, the perception that it is a place where death is always near. Mexico in general is often imagined as a country where death is central, and is celebrated rather than denied.

This is partly because of the Day of the Dead, the national holiday where graveside offerings are made and candy skulls are eaten by children. It is also because daily Mexican life abounds in images of death. Churches house spectacularly bloody crucifixes, jokes use death as a theme and newspaper coverage of murders is typically highly graphic.

In fact, a number of famous visitors did meet a bizarre and grisly demise in Mexico. Trotsky had an affair with Frida Kahlo and was expelled from the home she shared with muralist husband Diego Rivera. He ended up in a nearby house with less suitable security arrangements, a fact that contributed to his being murdered by a pick axe wielding assassin. Joan Vollmer, the wife of William Burroughs, was shot dead by her husband in a drunken game of William Tell. Neal Cassady, the inspiration for the hero of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” froze to death while walking along the railway tracks at night.

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Nevertheless, none of the above died because Mexico really is a dangerous dystopia, but because of their own risky and impulsive behavior. It may well be that Mexico can inspire great recklessness as well as great art, probably for similar reasons.

Mexico’s death traditions have roots in both Aztec ritual and Spanish Catholicism. The encounter of these two cultures still lingers over Mexican life, and most foreign artists are aware of this. Mexico, says Malcom Lowry, is “the meeting place, according to some, of mankind itself.”

Sergei Eisenstien was fascinated by this coexistence of cultures. The millionaires of the capital are only an afternoon’s drive from people whose way of life is closer to their pre-Columbian ancestors. In his work on the script of “Que Viva Mexico!” he was inspired, he said, by the “montage of culture” itself, “where movement through space, from one province to another, is also a voyage through centuries of time.”

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The Mexico of the imagination is a place of eternal contradiction. Uncle Sam meets Saint Death, the foreign-born exclude locals, and the biggest threats seem to come from within; from insurgents and criminals and those sworn to protect. It is a chaotic space that fires the imagination. The Australian writer DBC Pierre is one of many who credit the country with setting him on an artistic path:

“Mexico, with its contrasts, its crushing poverty and sparkling wealth, its institutionalized corruption and cultural wisdom, its love of life and its embracing of death, undoubtedly set me on a path toward the deep end, philosophically and emotionally speaking.”

Twitter: @Stephentwoodman

Three of the best fictional Mexicos:

Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano”

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A modernist masterpiece following a day in the life of the alcoholic former British consul and his estranged wife Yvonne. The novel is loaded with symbolism and is worthy of multiple reads. It’s also full of observations on the humour and strangeness of daily Mexican life: “How, unless you drink as I do, could you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken?” asks the former Consul. The dark, dense narrative is designed to reflect the drunkenness of its central character. “Far above him a few white clouds were racing windily after a pale gibbous moon. Drink all morning, they said to him, drink all day. This is life!”

Roberto Bolaño – 2666      

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The Chilean’s postmodernist epic “2666” was the final novel he wrote before he died from a liver disease caused by youthful heroin abuse. It is set in the sprawling border town of Santa Teresa, a fictional reworking of Ciudad Juarez inhabited by “people staring nightmare in the face.” It follows the lives of dozens of characters, all affected by a mysterious and horrifying wave of mass murder that sees as many as 400 young women killed. It hints at possible reasons for the killings; from the global capitalism that brought the women and the factories to town, to the drugs that seem to be involved in every aspect of city life. “Everything in this town is about drugs,” one character says. A roaming black SUV reappears throughout the story, representing the unstoppable force of evil that haunts the city. A gripping and chilling novel, seen by Stephen King as a mural of a “society that appears to be eating itself alive.”

DBC Pierre – Vernon God Little

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DBC Pierre’s Booker prize-winning debut is written in a distinctive and witty first person voice that draws the reader into the narrator’s Texan world. A Columbine-style shooting has left 16 dead, and the narrator Vernon, the killer’s best friend, is suspected of involvement. Seeking to escape the police and media, Vernon flees to Mexico. “Reynosa is the town on the Mexican side of the bridge. It’s big, it’s messy, and there’s a whiff of clowns and zebras in the wings, like any surprise could happen, even though it’s the dead of night back home.” Legendary director Werner Herzog is making a film adaptation of the novel.

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One Response to Why artists choose Mexico as a setting

  1. Jeff O'Brien says:

    Terrific article. And don’t forget filmmakers such as John Huston and Sam Peckinpah.
    Huston in particular loved and understood Mexico. The novelist B. Traven also was deeply inspired by Mexico.

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