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Insights: Culture

A Lesson of Mexico In the wake of September 11, the author encounters an enduring Mexican trait that might serve America well
Pete Hamill
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Spacey, Jan/Feb 02

(continued from page 1)

The United States has always had a genius for the absorption of "foreign" ideas and attitudes. Now, as we share the injured country with millions of Mexicans and other Spanish-speaking people, we would be fools to turn aside the lessons they can teach. About death. About life. About the whole enchilada.

Americans (when I first arrived in Mexico) seemed to think they would be young forever. Mexicans knew that death was around the corner or waiting in ambush over the hill. And so they went out each day (or so it seemed) as if accepting that it could be their last. Even today, they laugh at the gringos who grind their bodies into stringy gristle in gymnasiums, or snarl self-righteously at customers in restaurants who finish a meal with brandy and cigars. If you might die tomorrow, my Mexican friends taught me, why defer the pleasure of the day?

After September 11, as the knocked-down city of New York got up off the floor, that fatalism seemed the only intelligent way to keep on living. The fanatics who turned airliners into guided missiles had made one big point: no American city is now invulnerable. In that sense, our part of the world was changed forever. American life is now as fragile as it is in most other places on the earth. We shall live the rest of our lives knowing that death can come out of a clear, lovely sky, or out of an aerosol can, or arrive on your desk in the morning mail.

To which the stoic answers: yes, and we still must live. That is, like foot soldiers or firemen, we must live every day as if it's our last. In Mexico, I first encountered the attitude that was missing from the optimistic innocence of living in the United States: a tragic sense of life. Such a sense doesn't force us into a closed somber cone of depression and futility; it urges the opposite. The tragic sense opens a human being to the exuberant joys of the present. To laughter, carnality, the comical varieties of love, to music and art, to the small human glories of the day. It can urge one human being to read all of Dickens, and another to visit each of the capital cities of the earth. It can drive one person to marry a woman he loves, and another to seek a divorce. Today you might die, hombre, so hug your daughter or your wife, telephone a friend, read a poem. In my experience, all Latin cultures share that tragic sense of life.

Now, after September 11, that sense is part of American life, too. For a long time, we thought that sudden death was rare, caused by accident, or in random, isolated criminal acts. Sudden death in large numbers only happened to young Americans on distant battlefields. Now, like the Mexicans, we, too, know better. Sudden death can come while you are unwrapping a cheese Danish at your desk on the 84th floor of a gleaming skyscraper. Sudden death can come at the hands of fanatical strangers. But such knowledge teaches us a large lesson: acknowledging that every life must end in death is essential to living complete, full, rich lives. The stoic learns to shrug, enjoy the day, and laugh. In this life business, death is part of the deal. As my friend Malachy McCourt says, "I come from a long line of dead people."

When I arrived in Mexico City with my wife, a Mexican friend was waiting to drive us to our house. On the way, we talked about the horrors of September 11, and the war then unfolding in Afghanistan, and then, after a while, we talked about his family, and his son who had gone off to work in Chicago, and Mexican prizefighters, and the baseball playoffs, and the glorious weather after the end of the rainy season.

When I woke in the morning, I could hear mariachi music drifting from a distant radio, while bells tolled from the cathedral. In the garden, bougainvillea streamed on a stone wall. Through a window, I could see stout, blocky women with cinnamon skin hurrying to their jobs. I went to the corner to buy La Jornada and Reforma, and the newsdealer said, "Como estas, señor?" Good, I said. It was terrible, he said, the thing that happened in New York. We were all worried, he said. We knew you were there, he said. Yes, I said, it was terrible. "Y su familia?" he said. My family is fine, I said; and yours?

Then, engulfed in healing vowels, I passed the school where eruptions of laughter rose from the children inside the walls. I went to a morning table, to read the newspapers, to smoke a cigarette, to kiss my wife's cheek and talk about the glory of the coming day, to gaze at luscious mangoes on a plate.


Pete Hamill is an author and columnist for the New York Daily News.

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