The Cultural Layers of Mexico by Robert Richter

I remember the first time I ever crossed the border into Mexico, forty-two years ago now.  When friends and relatives found out I was going, and hitchhiking and riding trains to boot, they would ask, “Is it safe?”

Is it safe?  Is it safe?  That’s all I’d get.  Banditos, you know and ambushers and killers.  Won’t you be killed?
And who would ever know?  In those days, when you crossed the border, you literally disappeared off the map.  Telephones existed in major cities where shabby offices hid booths with paper-thin walls, the erratic static navigated by an operator trying to connect you to a larger world she’d never spoken to before.  In emergencies, you might find a place to call; the phone might even work. But who would you call, and for what?  Stranded, you found what transport you could and took your chances. Sick or injured?  Limejuice and prayer were the recommended remedies.  Whatever your situation, you were on your own when you traveled, relying on companions—if you had them—or the local people around you.

I first traveled alone in Mexico during the cultural turmoil of the Vietnam Era, and I quickly began to realize that the official American version of what Mexico is like as a nation and a people was just as distorted as the official version of that disastrous Asian war.  I was safe there, given shelter, taught lessons, helped on my way.  Now, forty-two years of world progress later, when I tell friends and relatives that I’m crossing the border into Mexico again, they ask, “Is it safe?  Is it safe?  The Drug War, you know.  You could be killed.”  Unfortunately, over these four decades, American conceptions of Mexico’s government, culture, and history, including the so-called Drug War at present, remain a politicized distortion in American schools, the American media, and the American psyche, no matter how good communication systems are in contemporary times.

I return to Mexico each year, in part, to remind myself that day-to-day humanity in my own local community and way of life is the same human nature to be found in rural and small town Mexico:  love of family, devotion to a higher power, communal interaction for the betterment and pleasure of all.  In short, decent human beings, working out their lots in life, exist everywhere in the cultural milieu they were born into.  I also keep returning to the Pacific coast of Mexico in search of the day-to-day village life that brought me to that understanding and because, well, I just like the life style there.  It reminds me of earlier times when my own American culture was more free spirited, less cynical, more informal in business, and less restrictive in personal freedoms.  But mostly, I return to Mexico because the history and culture fascinate me with their blend of Spanish colonial and indigenous character.  There is still magic in Mexico, space where different realities exist side by side, and places where the passage of time means nothing.

During my forty years of travel and sojourns in western Mexico, standards of living, communications, and cultural attitudes have changed, of course.  Improved, some would say, but that’s a value-loaded word. Change, yes.  Modernization, yes. Improvement is a word loaded with cultural prejudice. Regrettably, those older ways of life in sleepy fishermen’s villages, tucked away in tropic coves and lost in history and time, are now being destroyed in the contemporary hurricane of the corporate tourist industry.

Because I am also a historian and a writer with a scholarly as well as personal relationship to Mexico past and present, the country’s history and character imbue my work, whether I write fiction or historical narrative, and that work is always composed of personal story telling and sound historical investigation, intended to inform and entertain readers about some real and fascinating aspect of Mexico’s rich culture. An example subject would be the Huichol and Cora Indians who live in the high sierras of northwestern Mexico where the states of Durango, Jalisco, and Nayarit meet.  So isolated and independent, their ancestors were never conquered by the Spanish colonists.  Their animistic religious lives, devoted to the worship of the deer, the corn plant, and the peyote cactus, have never been dominated by Christianity.  Their language is unwritten, its orthographies created by modern anthropologists who have studied their culture.  And Huichol art has come to be known worldwide for its uniqueness in form, style, and subject.  Merely google “Huichol Art,” to verify this point.

The Huichol culture has come under stress of onslaught by modern times.  Alcoholism and capitalism work like water seeping into the cracks of a granite mountain to freeze and thaw, expand and contract, until this particular cultural mountain erodes way to boulders, then to gravel, then sand.  But capitalism also helps keep the Huichol culture alive in some of its purer forms, too.  Those who recognize the artistry in Huichol craft and buy their art sustain a contemporary economic base for an ancient culture, allowing a people to adhere to their cultural values at a level of their choosing.  In communities in the highest sierras, some Huichols still follow the shaman in the old ways, never mixing with the outside forces. In flea markets and tourist resorts, some merely dress in native costume and sell their culture’s heritage.  As the saying goes, it’s complicated.  Two (and more) realities occupy the same human space.
I have tried to present this complication of different cultural realities occupying the same space in a mystery novel called, Something Like A Dream.  Set in 1982, at an early stage of corruption by infiltrating contemporary culture, the story is meant to introduce readers to the Huichol people, their cultural and religious life centered on peyote visions and a spiritual relationship to their environment.  While I set a contemporary mystery about a wife’s search for her lost anthropologist husband against this indigenous cultural background, the story is really about the nature of Huichol life, and I include a list of anthropological references and a glossary of many Huichol terms.  The protagonist of the mystery is an outcast American expat who becomes obsessed with the beautiful wife as he helps her search for her famous husband in the sierra heart of Huichol territory.  On this strange pilgrimage he will find a whole new perspective on reality and dream, and on deceit, self-deception, and human spirituality, in a miraculous healing ceremony that will change his life forever or simply end it.  You are invited to share the search and this look at ancient Huichol life in modern Mexico.  You may find that Mexico has much more to offer than its contemporary image portrays.

Something Like A Dream

Expatriate beach bum Cotton Waters is known to his cantina buddies as "Algo," meaning Something  in Spanish.  An illegal alien and ex-political activist with old and unresolved legal problems in the U.S., Algo scrounges a lazy fishing village lifestyle and a little beer money out of the Puerto Vallarta tourist trade as a private hustler of a Mexican Riviera lost-and-found--helping some people get lost and finding others--if the price is right or the client's cause worth the time and interest.

In the summer of '82 the worthy cause is Corina Springfield, possibly the most beautiful woman Cotton Waters has ever seen, even in a town like Vallarta, searching for her husband, heir to the Springfield Foundation, missing and presumed dead for over three years.  When Corina shows Algo evidence that her husband may be living among the Huichols, one of Mexico's most mysterious indigenous peoples; and when it's evidence she's held for over a year without bothering to investigate until now, Vallarta's Something" isn't sure he can find her husband, but he knows he wants to try. 

On a search for a lost hero-husband living as a shaman in a tribe of peyote worshipers, Cotton Waters leads Corina Springfield into the center of tribal dissension deep in the sierra heart of Huichol territory.  On this strange pilgrimage Waters will find a whole new perspective on reality and dream, on deceit and self-deception, and  experience a healing ceremony that will change his life forever or simply end it.

Bio:  Robert Richter

From Nebraska homesteader stock, I grew up in Colorado and was a member of the first MA creative writing program at Colorado State University in 1973.  But in 1975, I left that to the dogs and returned to the remnants of the family farm and was a fourth generation dryland wheat farmer for twenty years.  During those years I also published my first book of poetry (Windfall Journal, Jelm Mountain Press, 1980), my first regional history (Plainscape, 1987), and my first novel, a literary mystery set in Mexico (Something In Vallarta, Permanent Press, 1991).

Since giving up my own farming, I’ve done itinerate farm labor, substitute teaching, and conducted escorted excursions in Latin America, while continuing to write cultural essays, history, fiction, and poetry.  I still live in southwestern Nebraska, but also have a relationship with west coast Mexico that goes back forty years.  Experience in both those cultural geographies continues to infuse my work.  In 2000, a biography on a Mexican politician, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and the Roots of Mexico’s New Democracy, and a novel, Homefield: Sonata in Rural Voice, appeared. I won the Nebraska Arts Council’s Literary Achievement Award that same year.
At age 57, I returned to academic studies at the University of Nebraska, receiving an MA in Latin American History in 2006.  In 2007, I was a Fulbright Research Fellow in Buenos Aries, studying and writing about Argentina’s frontier history.  I am currently at work on a historical novel based on my time there.  A new book of poetry was published in 2009, Days In San Blas.  A history, Search for the Camino Real: a history of San Blas and the road to get there, appeared in 2011.

Marilyn aka F.M. Meredith


Thank you so much for visiting with me today, Robert.
Nancy LiPetri said…
I am 77% of the way through Something Like A Dream on my kindle and enjoying the trip! Liked the way you pulled us into a hallucination right along with the character, Robert.
Unknown said…
I only now noticed the comments made to my blog. Thanks, Marilyn for having me on your site. And Nancy, thanks for checking the book out.

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