Chicago, Illinois, USA
|“La Trinchera” (The Trench). Mural by the Mexican muralist
José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) in the former San Ildefonso College
of Mexico City, now a Museum and cultural center. Author’s collection.
I have often wondered what obscure forces impel Mexicans to relish the unbearably acrid hot peppers used as condiment in their food. A dual psychological inheritance comes to mind. First, the dark impetus of sacrifices to the bloody Aztec monolith; second, the no less ominous attitude of Spanish mystics, who saw the body as a contemptible burden that impedes the spirit to soar and must be subjugated with austerities, penance, privation, and mortification. Only the conjunction of these two body-loathing propensities may explain the subversion of the pleasurable experience of eating, and its transformation into a painful sacrifice. This, of course, applies only to the uninitiated. Those of us who were born and raised in the ancestral land of the obsidian-knife sacrificers and the gaunt, sackcloth-and-ashes Castilian anchorites, are supposed to undergo a period of training that renders the oral mucosa insensitive to the fiercest attacks of capsaicin-rich seeds. This has been part of the culture for centuries.
To the chagrin of my father, I deviated from this venerable tradition, for I simply could not stand the training. As a child I was given a small plate filled with hot sauce by my authoritarian father. The gesture and the adjoined supercilious gaze were a mute but unmistakable command to spread a good portion of the devilish concoction on my food. My timidity, and the meagerness of my serving, gave him umbrage. But my tearful reaction when, having tasted a thin film of the sauce, I felt as if I had a live coal inside my mouth, was too much for him. He vented his annoyance with an irritated “What’s the matter with him? Is he not a Mexican?”
The utterance was indirect: although meant to indict me, it was at the same time an appeal to a higher authority, namely that of my mother. Hers was the last word in everything that concerned my upbringing. To her unyielding protection I owe, among countless other benefactions, the preservation of an intact oral mucosa. For those caustic seasonings, apt to melt cast iron, no doubt would have bored holes through a boyish tongue.
On the other hand, gastronomical harshness was only part of my father’s apprehension of the world and his grim philosophy of life. It was his lot to have lived through a period of collective savagery euphemistically called “the Revolution.” He took part in combat, on the losing side. That was a time when rashness and audacity profited a man more than industry and moderation; when fortunes were made and unmade in a moment, according to the shifting winds of political passions; when the legitimate powers were toppled by bold men who came professing equality for all, only to usurp the very same authority which they slandered. Timeless values were abrogated, only the present counted, and the only certainty was the imminence of death. From all this my father distilled a rude male version of stoicism. Be strong. Never flinch. Effeminacy equals weakness. And his inflexible motto: “Men don’t cry.”
When the troubles were over, he found himself out of phase with the world. Lacking the skills to prosper in the new era, he expected his past sufferings to earn him fresh rights. Alas, he was confronted by men whom he inwardly despised, but who mocked his pride and derided his intrepidity while asserting their authority over him. Vauvenargues proclaimed that “peace makes the people happy, but the men weak.”1 This is how he felt. Embittered upon realizing his war prowess was ignored by the new government, he should have heeded the great bard’s warning:
“The painful warrior famoused for fight
After a thousand victories once foiled
Is from the book of honor razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled.”2
Instead, he tried to smother his rancor and disappointment in alcohol. What bullets could not do, the spirituous fumes easily accomplished: his internal organs were irreparably destroyed. I once saw him unconscious, emaciated, jaundiced, and unkempt, looking nothing so much like the wounded revolutionist in Orozco’s mural “The Trench” (Fig.1). Lying exanimate, consumed, arms outstretched, the man’s image in the mural evokes crucifixion more strongly than gunshot trauma.
When he saw his death approach, he asked, in plaintive tones, to be taken to his mother’s home, deep in the province. Uncharitable critics said that he faltered: where had all his bluster gone? Such is the invidiousness and malice of the world toward those who at the last minute recant the opinions or principles they formerly professed. As if finding oneself in an inexpressible predicament – the most vulnerable situation possible for any human being – was not sufficient cause for seeing things differently.
I could never absorb my father’s stoic “machismo,” today obsolete and perhaps risible. But the raw spectacle of his life made me reflect that a way to lessen suffering is to distance ourselves from life’s fray and tumult. Oriental philosophies attempt to teach us this. If the pain is too great here and now, learn to regard it “as if” you were thousands of miles above it, in a timeless vantage point. St. Paul’s thought must have followed this drift when he advised those who have wives “to live as if they had none.”3 Not that he wanted them to put away their spouses, but to live as if nothing was their own. For nothing in this world is really ours, in real or permanent possession.
To live “as if” we were not really living… easier said than done! But if this “holy indifference of the world” is unattainable, the outward expression of sentiments can be faked. This I discovered while attending my father’s funeral wake when I was ten years old.
Women wrapped in black rebozos (shawls) sat around the open coffin, which rested on a high support. My small stature did not allow me to look inside. As was customary, there was a table with coffee and victuals to sustain the women in their incessant recitation of rosaries and litanies. “The duty of women is to cry for the dead. That of men is to remember them.”4 This insensitive saying of Tacitus accorded well with the scene. Someone lifted me by the waist, that I should “see my father for the last time.” The sight was neither necessary nor consoling or edifying: a broken man, exhausted and devastated by the combined assaults of utter despair and liver cirrhosis. I would rather not have seen him thus.
All eyes were fixed on me. I was confused, embarrassed, and discomposed. An intimate disheartenment, a strange mixture of repulsion and enervation invaded me. At the same time, all the women kept looking at me. The officious man who had lifted me without asking for my permission deposed me again on the floor. Then I experienced something like a vacuum, a never-to-be-filled hole in my existence. A sort of inchoate sob was taking shape deep inside me.
Not quite knowing what I was doing, I approached the table with the food on it, took the wooden spoon dipped in hot sauce, and immersed it fully into my mouth.
The face flushing, the gestural contortions, and the abundant lacrimation that followed were attributed to my childish imprudence. “The poor darling! He did not know that was the hot sauce!” commented the women who came to relieve my distress with sugary beverages and towels. Meanwhile, in my heart of hearts, I felt proud. I had fooled everyone into thinking that physiology and capsaicin, not forlornness and a son’s sorrow, were the true cause of my tears. Had my father seen me, he certainly would have approved. Men don’t cry.
- Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues: Réflexions sur divers sujets. In: Œuvres Complètes. Vol. 1. Paris, Brière, 1827
- William Shakespeare: Sonnet XXV. May be consulted online: http://www.shakespeares-sonnets.com/sonnet/25
- St. Paul: 1 Corinthians 7: 29.
- Quoted by Henry de Monthérland in: Mors et Vita. In Essais de Monthérland. Paris. Gallimard. Collection Pléiade. 1963, p.510.
F. GONZALEZ-CRUSSI was the Head of Laboratories at the former Children’s Memorial Hospital of Chicago (now renamed Anne & Robert Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago) until his retirement in 2001. Born and raised in Mexico, he has authored 20 books of essays, in two languages (English or Spanish). His latest book in English, Carrying the Heart (Kaplan, 2009) won the 2014 Merck Literary Prize in Rome, Italy, for combining medicine and the humanities.