«Near the end of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Sal Paradise and his friends plan a new kind of trip, one that is “no longer east-west, but magic ...»
Hipsters and jipitecas: Literary
Countercultures on Both Sides
of the Border
Near the end of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Sal Paradise and
his friends plan a new kind of trip, one that is “no longer east-west,
but magic south” (265). Plotting their route on a map leads to hights
of fancy as they imagine “hying down the curve of the world into
other tropics and other worlds” (265–66). With this episode Kerouac
locates his protagonists in a tradition of North American radicals who have looked south of the border for aesthetic and political inspiration. Conceiving Mexico as a place of revolutionary history and colorful landscapes, dissidents from John Reed to William Burroughs sought alternatives to the perceived constraints of their own national culture.1 But On the Road also inaugurates a newer form of travel narrative about driving across the nation’s expanding network of interstate highways and, ultimately, its southern frontier.
Retracing the steps of Kerouac’s journey, the mobile counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s would help to make Mexico a favorite travel destination. So too did things Mexican—huaraches, woven blankets and ponchos, silver jewelry, terra cotta pottery, Carlos Castañeda’s best-selling parables of Don Juan, the Yaqui shaman— become an integral part of countercultural iconography in the US.
Although US visitors tended to see Mexico as a land of untainted, primitive charm, they unwittingly contributed to the emergence of Mexico’s own modern, cosmopolitan counterculture. Not only were tourists transformed by the experience of travel, but Mexico itself was profoundly changed by the growing tide of Anglo-American tourism that began during World War II and increased in the decades that followed.2 Intensiged contact with the US occasioned a crisis in Mexico’s sense of its own modernity. Under the regime of President Diaz Ordaz, the Mexican government enticed foreign investors with promises of modern efciency and gnancial security. Political stability, an expanding middle class, and improving infrastructure created new consumer markets as well as an attractive climate for conducting DOI: 10.1093/alh/ajh003 American Literary History 16(1), © Oxford University Press 2004; all rights reserved.
American Literary History 59 business. At the same time, the tourist industry promoted a very diierent Mexico of colorful folkways and rural settings.3 Regional diierences were erased within state-sanctioned constructions of “national tradition” that catered to the northern vacationer’s desire for the indigenous and the primitive. Such invented traditions had little resonance with Mexican teenagers, who gravitated toward a modernity introduced from abroad. By the late 1960s the atmosphere of youthful By reading narratives of the US counterrebellion fomenting in the US and Europe inspired La Onda, a label culture’s Mexican that refers to both a literary cohort and the Mexican counterculture that adventuring... against hourished between 1966 and 1972 from which its name is derived. those of La Onda’s most Their enthusiasm for Anglo-American popular culture gave rise to prominent writers... this Spanish-language Elvises, James Dean style rebeldes sin causa, and essay presents a story of jipitecas (a hybrid of the gringo hippie and the Mexican Azteca). reciprocal, if uneven, encounter.
Fusing Anglo- and Latin-American inhuences, La Onda was a crucible where transnational popular culture met uneasily with the politics and aesthetics of Mexican nationalism.
This alternative history of countercultural travel is an illuminating companion piece to the work of Kerouac’s successors. By reading narratives of the US counterculture’s Mexican adventuring—Kerouac’s On the Road, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and Oscar Zeta Acosta’s Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo—against those of La Onda’s most prominent writers—José Agustín and Parménides García Saldaña, this essay presents a story of reciprocal, if uneven, encounter.4 Until now, each group has been interpreted largely within the parameters of its own national culture. Scholars have described the road narrative as the paradigmatically “American” genre of the post– World War II era while rarely noting how often those narratives traverse national boundaries.5 Likewise, La Onda is studied almost exclusively by Mexican literary critics, who tend to concentrate on its rebellion against national culture rather than its provocative fusion of local geographies with cosmopolitan literary vocabularies.6 Only when we read the two literary cohorts together can we see how they were shaped by a changing climate of Pan-American relations that had profound eiects on both sides of the border.
Kerouac, Wolfe, and Acosta look quite diierent within a continental, rather than a national, frame of reference. Their concern with freedom of mobility, individual expression, and open land might be read as classically American literary tropes, but in these autobiographical texts such activities also involve actual incursions onto foreign soil.
While passage into Mexico could appear to be one more version of lighting out for the territory, these travelers escape into another national space governed by laws and conventions of its own. Instead of uninhibited freedom, their arrival on the other side of the border requires them to negotiate language barriers, the dynamics of citizenship, and cultural diierence. Instead of a conhict between wilderness 60 Hipsters and jipitecas and civilization, they gnd competing versions of modernity. The literary works that result from such turbulent confrontations portray the juncture where national myths collide with foreign policy changes and the transnational circulation of culture.
Whereas Kerouac, Wolfe, and Acosta seek alternatives to modernity in a primitive Mexico, the Onderos resist stereotypes of national underdevelopment by fashioning themselves as cosmopolitan sophisticates. Breaking with the heroic, revolutionary nationalism promoted by the PRI, Mexico’s ofcial ruling party, middle-class teenagers aligned themselves with an international counterculture. Shared tastes in music, entertainment, and fashion allowed Mexicans to identify with young people around the globe. With the passion of fans, the Onderos take every opportunity to incorporate North American popular culture into their gction, leading to the accusation that they are the “grst generation of gringos born in Mexico” (Steele 134). Yet, read in tandem with authors from the US, their work bespeaks the creative modigcation of familiar countercultural themes—self-realization through travel, the search for exotic Others, experimentation with language and subjectivity—as they enter a Latin-American context.
A comparative reading of countercultures north and south of the border thus yields a better sense of how literature circulating outside of national boundaries acquires unexpected meanings when taken up by new communities of readers and writers. This particular pairing deepens our understanding of the international reverberations of 1960s countercultural expression. Because countercultures are formed in resistance to the mainstream, they tend to look outward for alternatives to their local or national settings, to respond to a tumultuous present with nostalgia for the past or hope for a utopian future.7 Their attention to the dynamics of inside and outside, self and Other, and the foreign and the domestic makes them a promising testing ground for an American studies seeking to supplant national categories with either more local or transnational perspectives. At the same time, it is important not to overstate a reciprocity between two groups marked by signigcant disparities in power and resources that have everything to do with national context. As the US-Mexico border has become at once more hexible and more impassable in the half-century since Sal Paradise crossed it, recognizing the extent and limits of cultural trafc has never been more important.
as a product of the particular geographies of North Beach and Greenwich Village, the Beats are more than a local phenomenon. They are among the most popular writers in translation and have been read by audiences around the world.8 Ann Douglas recalls how Kerouac made readers of her generation aware of a world that extended beyond national borders: “[B]ack in 1959, On the Road told me and my friends, all young women from the upper-middle classes reared in privileged, densely settled, even stratiged regions of the United States, that we were part of a continent rather than a country, a kind of fabulous terra incognita not fully detailed on any map, shading on one side into a colder, mysterious northern land and on the other into a more tropical and seductive climate” (“Telepathic” 10). As much a landscape of the imagination as a literal geography, Kerouac’s America is more continental than national in scope, extending from the French Canada of his childhood to the Mexico that is the subject of this essay.
Retreating to Mexico, the Beats followed previous generations of radicals inspired by its revolutionary tradition. But their presence was also a sign of changing diplomatic relations between the US and Mexico in the years following World War II. Having served the US as an important wartime ally, Mexico became the focus of invigorated campaigns for an ongoing Pan-American partnership. The US government sought to bolster economic ties with its southern neighbor by actively promoting Mexico as an investment opportunity and tourist destination. Such eiorts were particularly germane to the Southwest, where the buildup of US military bases generated increasing trafc of American service personnel into Mexican border cities.9 For its part, under the auspices of the Programa Nacional Fronterizo, the Mexican regime played up more attractive national stereotypes, beautiged border cities, and constructed highways, resorts, and other amenities for business and pleasure travelers. The success of these developments was a mixed blessing: to the dismay of the Mexican government, along with more mainstream visitors came the Beats, hippies, and other countercultural radicals who had little to contribute to local economies and were a potentially unsavory inhuence on Mexican youth. A countercultural publication such as Carl Franz’s The People’s Guide to Mexico, which instructs nontraditional travelers in how to evade interrogation, arrest, or other “hassles” by government ofcials, is evidence that no love was lost between hippies and Mexican authorities. But beneath the necessary antagonism, a certain structural reciprocity is at work: police harassment reinforces the travelers’ romantic aspiration to outlaw status while congrming Mexico’s arrival as a modern state with the full capacity to enforce its laws. In Kerouac, Wolfe, and Acosta, scenes of potential arrest are especially meaningful as fugitive fantasies borrowed from an earlier era come up against the modern arm of the law.
62 Hipsters and jipitecas The journeying into Mexico that liberated the Beats from the obligations of family, community, and nation was also part of their ongoing search for alternative lifestyles. Desiring contact with the Other—believed to be more spontaneous, free, and inventive—they found inspiration among marginalized people such as addicts, migrant laborers, vagrants, and nonwhite communities.10 Sal’s many encounters with people of color in On the Road anticipate the drives that will eventually propel him across the border in search of an immediacy and soulfulness lacking in his own life. In Denver he walks through “the colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had oiered was not enough ecstasy for me” (179–80). But his fantasies have less to do with blackness per se than with a series of ingnitely interchangeable racial substitutions: “I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a ‘white man’ disillusioned” (180). Sal’s desire to be of another race is nothing so much as a wish to escape his own whiteness, a self-rending longing to be anything other than what he is.
In On the Road the exhaustion of whiteness is countered by the lure of contact with the Other, enticing Sal, Dean, and Stan to diverge from their more familiar east-west trajectory to make the frenzied, sleepless journey “magic south.” Given the wild hights of fantasy that precipitate it, the border crossing is a potential site of conhict between imagined freedoms and political realities, but passage into Mexico could not be easier. After being “warned not to drink tapwater now we were over the border,” the young men are subject to the most cursory inspection: “The Mexicans looked at our baggage in a desultory way. They weren’t like ofcials at all. They were lazy and tender” (274). The border patrol agents are the grst of many Mexican ofcials Sal will compare favorably with more punitive counterparts in the US. The ease of their entry, despite their bedraggled appearance, is evidence that in the 1950s this kind of traveler is still a relative novelty.
What matters is possession of a US passport, which grants the privilege of eiortless movement back and forth across the border.
Built into Kerouac’s account is a certain awareness that his characters’ impressions of Mexico are so deeply informed by desire that they have very little to do with the scenes before their eyes. “To our amazement,” Sal enthuses, “it looked exactly like Mexico. It was three in the morning, and fellows in straw hats and white pants were lounging by the dozen against battered pocky storefronts” (274).
What is most striking about these fantasies is their regressive quality.