Mexican Literature and Ecocriticism. An introduction: From López Portillo y Rojas to Rodríguez Barrón
By Luis Felipe Gómez Lomelí
Mafalda, one of the greatest characters of the Argentinian illustrator, Quino, stated that in Latin America urgent affairs never leave us time for important matters. In 1952, air pollution caused the death of thousands of people in London and we coined a new word that rapidly dispersed through the entire planet: “smog”. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. In 1972, the Roma Club published The Limits of Growth highlighting the fact that endless economic growth is materially impossible. In 1979, Televisa broadcasted Odisea Burbujas, one of the first and most successful children environmental education shows in the whole world. In 1981, the UN, finally, took a step in recognizing the world’s environmental catastrophe with the Brundtland Report –and a XIXth century´s term began to fashion again, “sustainable development”. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was signed. Meanwhile, the health of millions of people in Mexico City, Rio, Bogotá, Santiago, etcetera, was affected by human-made pollution in air, water, and soil, the tropical rainforest coverage in Latin America was reduced in more than a half in this span of 50 years, and we now know that we are facing a challenge in a geological scale: Climate Change.
But interestingly, the academic work of Latino-Americanist and, particularly, Mexicanists about these topics has been scarce –as anyone can corroborate doing a quick search in Google Scholar or in your library’s catalog. There are two possible options for the analysis of this phenomenon: One may look at the subjects of study, the scholars, and the other may question their object of study.
To point an absence is shadow boxing. So, I will devote most of this paper to what is not an absence. Particularly, I will briefly introduce the specific case of Mexican literature, from the XIXth century to nowadays, in order to show how this object of study may sufficiently serve to further develop the rich field of ecocriticism –as Mexican literature portrays different nature-society relations, environmental issues, and ideologies that dialogue both with local and external traditions and/or techno-scientific agendas. Then, I will underline the points of intersection between environmentalists and Latino-Americanists. This is, the common topics of debate and intellectual production in both areas in order to signal some other research possibilities. Finally, I will ought to conclude recalling what Jean Paul Deléage said some thirty years ago: “Ecology is the most humane of the natural sciences” (7).
A short voyage through Mexican environmentalist novels: from López Portillo y Rojas to Daniel Rodríguez Barrón
La parcela, wrote by José López Portillo y Rojas in 1898, has been considered by some reviewers, such as Christopher Domínguez Michael, as the first modern Mexican novel. It depicts the late XIXth century dream of industrializing rural areas as the main path to achieve progress and social prosperity: building railroads, telegraph networks, sugar mills, and implementing positivist management to increase crops production.
In this sense, La parcela is part of the general techno-scientific narrative that prevailed until almost the end of the XXth century. A narrative that can be summarized in one of the slogans of the author’s grandson, José López Portillo y Pacheco, who was the President of Mexico a hundred years later, from 1976 to 1982: “Que sólo los caminos queden sin sembrar”, “let only the roads be kept unsown”.
We can find many examples of this discourse on both sides of the Atlantic, or the Pacific. But, while late XIXth century Spanish writers, such as Benito Pérez Galdós or Emilia Pardo Bazán, wrote about the urgent need of a capitalist engineered transformation of the rural landscape that was seen as a wasteland (in Doña Perfecta) or was seen as a prominent example of a ruined, uncivilized, and dangerous place (the “un país de lobos”, “a wolve’s country” repeated motto in Los Pazos de Ulloa), the main conflict in La parcela is about the ownership of a hill, el Monte de los Pericos, the Hill of the Parrots that, under such a capitalist standpoint, was certainly a wasteland. Only, its owner liked it that way. Because of the parrots. And the owner knew that if he chopped all the trees, the parrots would leave. So, he implemented a strict policy of forestry management just for that hill.
In this sense, López Portillo y Rojas discourse moves beyond the general positivist narrative of the XIXth century to include and problematize both the perspectives of John Muir’s pristine ecologist movement of natural reservoirs and Gifford Pinchot’s sustainable development forestry from a Latin-American context and tradition. The first modern Mexican natural reservoir expropriation of 1867 coincides with similar proclamations in France, the United States, and the rest of the forerunner countries. The Mexican sustainable development forestry program also begun in parallel with these countries, but it was interrupted during the Revolution and recovered later by Miguel Ángel de Quevedo. Finally, López Portillo y Rojas also wrote extensively against bullfighting, so he can be seen as a pioneer in modern animal rights advocacy.
In 1948, Rafael Bernal published El fin de la esperanza. The plot portrays the Sanitary Rifle policy, designed in the United States and implemented by Mexican officials and U.S. on-field advisors, which was aimed to eradicate an alleged cattle epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease. The policy consisted in shooting down all the cattle of the entire nation, ill or not, and paying a sum of money to their owners. In practice, Mexican officials advised large landlords to buy all the cows and horses, etcetera, from small farmers at a low price before the shooting, and to share the gains. But the novel is not only about the Mexican government traditional corrupt practices, it is mainly about what Alberto Flores Galindo coined in the 1980s “the environmentalism of the poor”, or what it is studied by the field of ethnoecology –how do nature-society relations are shaped according traditional knowledges in a context of subsistence economy, and how the disruption of these relations may lead to social unrest and violence.
In the novel setting, the so-called “traditional knowledges” are far from pristine or immemorial, since cattle didn’t exist in the Americas prior to the XVIth century, but they respond to a mestizo or hybridized construct done by a subalternized sector of the Mexican society. The violence in the plot arise in the form of a religious inspired rebellion, La Guerra Cristera, where religion is the sole metaphysical “thing” to grab on when all the material possessions have been lost.
Twenty-two years later Agustín Yáñez published La tierra pródiga. The novel is about an upcoming ecocide that will take place in Jalisco’s costal rainforest in the name of progress and tourism. An ecocide that has no need of gringos because we can do it all by ourselves, with our Third World technology and will-power. Besides this self-critical perspective, the novel is also a plea for respect to nature as-it-is in defense against the ideology that seeks to put a monetarized price on every living and non-living entity.
Finally, Daniel Rodríguez Barrón’s La soledad de los animales was published in 2014, and it is the first anarchic eco-terrorist novel that has appeared in the Mexican literary circles. The story begins near the end, with a massacre of caged animals in the Mexico City’s Airport customs depot carried by a middle-age man and a young teenager. After shooting the last animal, the man says “We’re done”; but the youngster replies “No, you’re missing one”. This is the last eco-terrorist action in the novel, preceded by paint-throwing attacks to charcuteries, the liberation intent of hundreds of dogs from a pharmaceutical facility where are retained for animal testing, among others. Barrón also recreates a genealogy intertwining anarchist and environmentalist movements in Mexico, beginning with Rhodakanaty’s commune of the XIXth century and ending with contemporary full straight vegetarianism.
But above all this, La soledad de los animales raises two critical questions for today’s environmentalism: the first one regarding speciesism –or how we humans decide which species deserve to live and which don’t— and the second regarding the main critique of social environmentalists to pristine preservationism –Is it more important to preserve some animal or plant species than to correct the economic inequalities that hold millions of people in poverty?
In this brief recount I have intentionally left out the books that allude indigenous environmentalism, because most of the few works we have in the field are approaches from this angle. There are also studies about the jungle as a space of human exploitation, about rivers, and Raymond L. Williams’ particular approach to ecocriticism, among others.
But the lack of analyses is still surprising. On one hand, because of the scale of the planetary change we are witnessing –a geological scale, the Anthropocene, in Crutzen’s terms. And on the other hand, because in the Latin-Americanist field we have been working with theories and perspectives that, beyond the techo-scientific credo, correlate with other environmentalist views and may give some possible solutions.
Allow me to recall a few: 1) we have been stating that knowledge is a social construction, and certainly it is this “social dimension of science” what has been pointed out by environmentalists since, at least, the 1960s; 2) we have been discussing about gender and, for example, the ecofeminists have been underlining the gendered disproportional environmental impact of ecological degradation since, at least, the 1970s; 3) we have been waving the importance of interdisciplinary work in cultural studies, and surely it is interdisciplinary work what it is needed to understand environmental problems, 4) we have been debating about the subaltern and our role and duties as intellectuals, and undoubtedly environmental inequalities are a powerful source of subalternization, as it has been exposed by indigenous environmentalists, environmental racism movements, and environmental justice activists; 5) in the Latin-Americanist field we have been working with trauma theory, and certainly ecological devastation is a traumatic event. Finally, we have been discussing about postcolonialism, and unquestionably environmental issues are framed by colonial and neocolonial practices, as it has been shown by political ecology theorists, environmental economists, and environmentalism of the poor advocates since, again, some 50 years ago.
Thus, if the concerns of the diverse environmentalist movements are so intertwined with our agenda in the Latino-Americanist and Mexicanist academia, why is it that our contribution to the multidisciplinary debate is so uncommon? Let us fulfill, as humanists, Jean-Paul Deléage’s motto and contribute to make ecology “the most humane of the natural sciences”.