The Name of This Land is Hell

Mexico in Literature

by Rodger Jacobs

22 October 2009

Art (partial) by
Sylvia Ji found on 

Don Quixote and Macario

Mural (partial) found on

Mural (partial) found on

Don Quixote and Macario

The Mexican, Octavio Paz once observed, frequents death “and jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast loves

In the Mexican culture there is a strange intersection between Catholic faith, with its burning incense and mysticism and morbid fascination with the passion play of Jesus Christ, and native folklore that is as ancient as the sun-blasted landscape itself. The nexus of folklore and death may go a long way toward explaining the acceptance of mass murder in Mexican society.

The Mexican, Octavio Paz once observed, frequents death “and jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast loves. Of course, in his attitude there is as much fear as there is in one of the others (non-Mexicans); at least he does not hide it; he confronts it face to face, with patience, disdain, or irony.”


cover art

Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes

(Harper Perennial (reprint))
US: Apr 2005

Review [21.Jan.2004]

Two important keys to “understanding and describing Mexicans”, T.C. explained to me, “are the Knight of the Sorrowful Face and his sidekick,” namely Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

“Don Quixote and his wise but pathetic alter ego are to be found throughout Mexico in paintings, sculpture, and other art,” T.C. says. “The two are held up as examples of life’s heroic, but in the end, futile battles against injustice and evil. But it isn’t the results that matter so much as the heart and effort put into the quest; death awaits everyone, after all, and it’s the anima (spirit) that defines the life of an individual.”

Don Quixote is regarded today as one of the greatest novels of all time, ironic since Cervantes only intended it to be a profitable parody of the romantic novels of chivalry that were all the rage in 17th-Century Europe. The fantastic adventures of the deluded, self-proclaimed errant knight portray the conflict between noble idealism and brute, unfeeling practicality. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza stand as representative icons for the sense of fatalism in the Mexican people: Yes, go ahead and wage war against windmills, if you must, but know that in the end a cold, dark grave awaits you.

But does fatalism lead to, say, apathy in the face of an epidemic of mass murder in Mexico’s border towns or is fatalism the only sane attitude in an insane society, as Cervantes implies in Don Quixote

T.C. points to another literary work, the old Mexican folk tale Macario as presented by the mysterious B. Traven (clearly the inspiration for the reclusive writer Archimboldi in 2666) to offer “a source as insightful as any other I can think of in examining the Mexican psyche and cosmology.”

Traven’s life before settling in Mexico in the ‘20s has been awash in speculation for decades (some scholars believe he was the illegitimate son of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II). Details of the author’s life in Mexico until his death in 1969 are equally sketchy but it was there that Traven created his invaluable body of work, including the novels The Death Ship (1926) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927); both novels were first published in Berlin, fueling speculation that Traven, like Bolano’s Archimboldi, was a German National by birth.

B. Traven’s most important work, however, was “a series of novels that trace the lives of the impoverished Indians in southern Mexico just before the Mexican Revolution” (Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature).

As T.C. tells it, Macario “probably originated in Spain before it was made popular to the world by B. Traven” in one of his anthropological novels of southern Mexico. The tale goes like this:

Macario, a very poor peasant on the verge of starvation, dreams of having a turkey that he can roast and eat all by himself; through good fortune, he ends up with a turkey that he plans to cook while tending to his goat and sheep in the mountains.

While preparing the bird, Macario is visited by three apparitions.

The first apparition is Jesus Christ, who asks Macario to share his meal and be blessed by God. Macario refuses on the grounds that Jesus has never helped him or his family with their poverty and hunger, while the wealthy never went without.

The Devil appears next and promises Macario wealth and prosperity if he shares the delicious turkey with Satan. Macario turns him down flat, citing the Devil’s never-ending hunger for the souls of the poor and for the misery he brings down on the sinful.

Just as Macario is finally about to enjoy his feast, he is visited by the Grim Reaper, who also requests the opportunity to dine with the peasant. After a short deliberation, Macario agrees to share his meal of turkey with the rationale that even though Death may be miserable and painful, Death visits all without discrimination: rich and poor, powerful and powerless.

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