Mexico: The Essential Neighbor

Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes is the richest portrayal of contemporary Mexico available to Americans, and an urgent one.

In the Mexican city of San Luis Río Colorado, which sits right across the border from Yuma, Arizona, renowned travel writer Paul Theroux finds “a sprawling one-story town, sun-faded but solidly built, with a park, a cathedral, a Plaza Benito Juárez, and a state university,” along with the small businesses that characterize interborder trade: doctors, pharmacies, clothing, etcetera. But as Theroux leaves the picturesque side of the town, he notes: “At the east end of town was the industrial park, near enough to the fence to hear the radios crackling in Border Patrol vehicles and see the metal barbecues in the backyards of bungalows in Arizona’s Las Villas subdivision.”

Workers in this park, which features factories for Daewoo and Bose, among other companies, are described by Theroux in a way that addresses Americans. “The next time you clap on your expensive Bose headphones,” he writes, “you had to consider that they were put together a hundred yards from Arizona by someone living in a hut in the Sonoran Desert, and longing (because the US was easily visible) for something better.”

This passage, in my view, best exemplifies Theroux’s travel writing brilliance: a learned perspective always aware of what it knows and ignores, from someone who both listens to and quarrels with people and places. In writing about San Luis Río Colorado—and throughout his new book, On the Plain of Snakes—Theroux takes the picturesque image of the town center, which would be the focus for a tourist or a casual visitor, and gradually expands it both geographically and sensorially, so we end up seeing the full complexity of the picture.

Theroux’s writing smartly conveys the coexistence of the American way of life with the Mexican labor and industrialization that make it possible. He also presents, in masterful strokes, the violent division between these two spaces, starkly asserted by Border Patrol’s radios and cars and the physical barriers that constitute the never-ending wall at the center of binational politics.

On the Plain of Snakes is, in my opinion, the richest portrayal of contemporary Mexico available to Americans, and an urgent one: it’s a picture of the complex country and people upon which many of the privileges of the United States are built. Mexico is a faithful friend, the source of the largest population of immigrants in the United States, and a trade and cultural partner. Yet Americans are often unable or unwilling to understand their southern neighbor in all of its complexity. On the Plain of Snakes can be read as an attempt to address the lack of quality renderings of contemporary Mexico in English-language literature and media.

As a Mexican-born professor of literature, I find American writing on Mexico fascinating and baffling. I first encountered this tradition at the University of the Americas Puebla, where an expat, Edward Simmen, taught a class on the matter, based on his book Gringos in Mexico.1 I eventually learned that Simmen’s selection of texts—from William Cullen Bryant’s 1872 “A Visit to Mexico” to Carolyn Osborn’s 1983 “Letter to a Friend Faraway”—was a mere sample of a major corpus.

Anglophone writing on Mexico dates back to Thomas Gage’s The English-American, a 1648 account of a Dominican missionary in the New World, and includes works by famous American and British writers drawn or repulsed by the Mexican Revolution, from D. H. Lawrence and Katherine Anne Porter to Graham Greene and Jack Kerouac.

And yet, predictably, very few of these writers, in my view, get Mexico right. They often see Mexico with a patronizing gaze, portray the country as a premodern society, or contribute to stereotypical understandings of Mexico, which—implicitly or explicitly—serve to emphasize the purported civilizational superiority of their own culture.

It seems that Theroux and I agree on the failings of past American writing on Mexico. In fact, he begins On the Plain of Snakes by revisiting this canon, showing how, for these writers who came before him, “Mexico invariably represents … the exotic, the colorful, the primitive, the unknowable.”

Rejecting this lineage, Theroux notes how often these writings were “bad-tempered” and “joyless,” as he characterizes Greene’s The Lawless Roads; or full of “hatred or contempt for Mexico,” as he describes Evelyn Waugh’s Robbery Under Law.2 He even notes that Mexican writers are equally problematic in representing their own country: “No one is more antagonistic toward Mexico than the Mexicans themselves.”

Theroux’s task is to overcome the legacies of these representations: “I have not found a traveler or commentator, foreign or Mexican, who has been able to sum up Mexico, and maybe such an ambition is a futile and dated enterprise.” This statement—as well as the careful reading that Theroux does of both Anglo writers and their Mexican counterparts—was, for me, only the first sign that I was reading a brilliant and exciting book about my country.

This book is a picture of the complex country and people upon which many of the privileges of the United States are built.

To those acquainted with Theroux’s long and distinguished trajectory as the foremost travel writer of our time, this praise is not surprising. He is the author of many fiction and nonfiction works that cover the planet’s entire cartography. Yet, the country next door has never, until now, played an important role in his travels.3

Still, Theroux’s recent books are informed by a political sense of immediacy distinct from the spirit of adventure and cultural distance of most of his works. His 2015 book Deep South is based on his trips through the poorest sections of the American South (such as the Mississippi Delta and the Ozarks), and provides a shocking and timely account of alienation and cultural richness in those overlooked regions.4

Unsurprisingly, On the Plain of Snakes was triggered, in part, by the anti-Mexican sentiment that has risen since President Trump announced his candidacy. This attitude results in part from the sense of superiority that Americans have toward Mexico, as well as the astonishing ignorance about Mexicans displayed by even educated Americans.

On the Plain of Snakes is one of a few recent books in English that seek to attack the stereotypes and voids in Americans’ knowledge of Mexico. Among these books, I would recommend the well-informed Mexico City chronicles by David Lida and Francisco Goldman, as well as Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s account of her travels in Mexico as a Mexican American.5

Yet Theroux’s book is fascinatingly different. He is not a savant like Lida or Goldman, both of whom have lived in Mexico City. Nor does he hail from a border region or a Latina family like Griest, who is a Tejana from Corpus Christi. Instead, he narrates from the perspective of a “Gringo,” yet one who considers it important to understand Mexico beyond the limited information available in the US.

Indeed, just as he distances himself from the history of literary writing about Mexico, Theroux also challenges the accounts that reduce Mexico to its issues with violence and crime. And he resists the warnings against going to the country from those dwelling on the American side of the border. In fact, one of the most telling images that recurs throughout the book is that of the US Border Patrol officers who work a few steps from Mexico—and deal with Mexican people as part of their job—yet who have never actually set foot in the country.


Reading with Strangers

By Marcy Schwartz

On the Plain of Snakes is divided into four main sections and a postface. The first section narrates a trip along the border from Tijuana to the Gulf of Mexico, driving on US highways and crossing into Mexico through various international checkpoints, including some of the lesser-known ones. The second section chronicles Theroux’s drive from the McAllen-Reynosa border point to Mexico City. The third focuses on Oaxaca, including a trip through the Mixtec highlands. The fourth section relates Theroux’s travel from Oaxaca to Chiapas, where he meets the Zapatista Army and Subcomandante Marcos.

The book’s richness arises from its various layered elements, which Theroux intertwines with intelligence and skill. He is a seasoned observer of the realities around him, which allows his prose to traverse across and beyond stereotypes and arrive at a description of his on-the-ground experiences.

The most perceptive points of the book, in my view, have to do with his understanding of the contradictory effects that NAFTA and United States politics have had in Mexico, particularly due to the rise of anti-immigration attitudes and policies from the Clinton years to the present. This can be best seen in Theroux’s various accounts of border towns like San Luis Río Colorado and Yuma. These communities develop together through deep reliance on each other, but the enforcement of draconian immigration policies—as well as the pressures that the United States applies to Mexico’s economy, labor, and political practices—create artificial and deeply violent divides among them.

Theroux understands well the degree to which NAFTA constructed the prosperity of middle and upper classes in both nations on the back of immiserated Mexican workers stuck in border factories, in part because of border enforcement. He shows, in city after city, the way in which Mexican neoliberal development is built on an unjust hypermodernization that coexists with the country’s complex history. In Saltillo, he writes, the city “called the Detroit of Mexico for its automobile production” also boasts “two good museums and a sculpted, busily baroque eighteenth-century cathedral and plazas of venerable municipal building.”

Theroux speaks with a worker who was deported from the US after 10 years in Texas factories; he subsequently came to Saltillo’s industries, thanks to his experience: “The pay is about a quarter of what I make in Texas—and we have educated people here. There’s sixteen universities in Saltillo and lots of colleges.” The worker concludes his reflections by telling Theroux “how NAFTA might be renegotiated to the detriment of Mexico, how stringent immigration policies meant his going to the States again was out of the question.”

The combination of Theroux’s expert traveler gaze and his interviewing talents allows readers to see the material and existential effects of the US-Mexico relationship, both at the level of communities and towns and in the lives of individuals.

Theroux is a seasoned observer of the realities around him, which allows his prose to traverse across and beyond stereotypes.

Theroux, unlike many Anglo travelers of the past, makes a remarkable effort to dialogue with Mexican literature and to build a critique of its representational politics. I was shocked to find a reference to the Potosino poet Manuel José Othón, whose poems engage with the landscape of central Mexico in the late 19th century. Theroux writes: “A tortured note of desperate fatalism runs through his poetry, as in remote landscapes he celebrates the savagery, the howling wilderness.”

I never expected a foreign writer to cite a poet that is now unknown outside Mexico. This type of reference in itself shows the care with which Theroux revises his writing after his travels. According to Theroux, he found out about Othón when he visited the poet’s house in San Luis Potosí and learned about his life as a judge and poet.

Upon returning to the US, Theroux found Othón’s poems in the UNESCO-funded anthology of Mexican poetry edited by Octavio Paz and translated by no less than Samuel Beckett, before Waiting for Godot turned him into a major literary figure.6 Theroux follows with the story of this anthology, which shows, implicitly, how difficult and random it is for Mexican literature to show up in English. By reading Othón and by conveying the events that led to Beckett’s translation, Theroux not only demonstrates the importance of his sustained research on Mexico, but also how difficult that research is, considering the random nature of the sources available to an English-language reader.

Many well-known Mexican writers appear in the pages of On the Plain of Snakes. Theroux reads Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends with both admiration and skepticism: “The book achieves great power, and some of its muddle, because Luiselli herself is living a migration story of her own.”7 Juan Villoro, a well-known author and public intellectual, is a frequent interlocutor.

As Theroux reaches Mexico City, he tells us about his workshop with young Mexican writers, all of them new to him but familiar to a Mexican reader: Guadalupe Nettel, Héctor Orestes Aguilar, Yael Weiss, and Diego Olavarría, among others. For those of us who know these writers, the anecdotes are amusing, but I think that the passage also shows a glimpse of a Mexican literature that has yet to appear in its full complexity in English translation.

Near the end of the book, Theroux spends many pages on a tough critical reading of Mexico’s canonical literature, noting that the centrality of the city and of cosmopolitan endeavors creates a void in the narration of the country’s hinterland: “The regional novelist or short story writer—Mexican versions of the rusticated Chekhov, the Wessex-dwelling Thomas Hardy, the gentleman farmer William Faulkner—hardly exists in Mexico.”  I agree with this assessment. Theroux correctly notes that Mexican literature often fails to do justice to the richness of many of the country’s territories.

In a key passage, Theroux complains that “the Mexico I was seeing was underrepresented in Mexican fiction.” This is why one of the most powerful moments of the book ensues from his trip to the interior of Oaxaca, a region deeply defined by Zapotec and Mixtec culture and by the ravages of being left behind by modernity.

Oaxaca is the Mexican state with the highest concentration of indigenous people; it occupies a key place in politics and culture. It is the epicenter of left-wing teacher unions fighting government educational reforms and the site of significant mobilization of popular groups. Oaxacan culture is revered in many ways: the state is considered to be a gastronomic mecca—a land in which each subregion has its own gastronomy and in which mezcal, a newly fashionable spirit in Mexico, is produced according to long-standing artisanal methods.8

Yet Oaxaca rarely appears in recent Mexican literary works, and Theroux’s detailed description of its various regions shows how his travel writing often presents spaces and peoples ignored by national culture. In particular, On the Plain of Snakes looks deeply into Oaxaca by presenting the state’s contemporary peasant communities, many of which have been defined by migration to the US and by the production of crafts and goods (from hats to mezcal) for which they make a pittance, even when those same goods sell at premium prices in boutique shops of Mexico City and New York.

In Oaxaca, Theroux masterfully manages the balance between being an outsider unfamiliar with the situation and being learned enough to engage in critical dialogue with the people he encounters. An example of this is his conversation with Germán García, the patriarch of a rural family. García, a well-read man, brings up John Kenneth Turner’s 1910 Barbarous Mexico, a book more widely known in Spanish than in its original English.9

Turner was an American activist reporter who traveled to Mexico often during the first two decades of the 20th century. His book is a respected work. It was credited at the time with exposing the brutal exploitation of peasants under the regime of Porfirio Díaz, who ruled Mexico for 30 years and was ultimately ousted by the Mexican Revolution.

Even though the book’s Spanish translation is widely read in Mexico and available in various collections of literature and history, the English original has been out of print for years. Theroux writes of his conversation with García and follows this with his post-factum reading of Turner (as he was unfamiliar with him during his travels).

“When at last I found the book, I discovered it to be an exhaustive account of the abuses of the Díaz period,” he notes. He seems to register the paradox that the one truly respectful and intelligent book about Mexico written by an Anglo writer is the one he was unable to find for his pre-travel research.

Theroux belongs to a tradition of Americans, including Turner and many others, who have helped to build the Mexicanist field in the United States’s academic humanities and social sciences. These Americans become able to understand the deep ties between our countries by reading Mexico without any sense of cultural supremacy and with a keen eye to Mexican realities and politics.

Theroux deploys a deep awareness both of the US’s responsibilities toward Mexico in the past, present, and future, and of the unfulfilled duties of Mexican elites toward the strong and wonderful Mexican people that inhabit both countries. Because of this, On the Plain of Snakes is a mandatory book for Mexicans and Americans. The mutual knowledge of our nations has become a political and intellectual obligation; Theroux gives us a model for how to read and debate the country next door.


This article was commissioned by Geraldo Cadava. icon

  1. Gringos in Mexico: One Hundred Years of Mexico in the American Short Story, edited by Edward Simmen (Texas Christian University Press, 1988).
  2. Graham Greene, The Lawless Roads (1939; Penguin, 2006); Evelyn Waugh, Robbery Under Law: A Mexican Object-Lesson (1939; Penguin, 2011).
  3. Theroux’s only other book on Latin America, The Old Patagonian Express (Houghton Mifflin, 1979), chronicled his railroad journey from Massachusetts to the Southern Cone in the 1970s.
  4. Paul Theroux, Deep South (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).
  5. David Lida, First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the Twenty-First Century (Riverhead, 2008); Francisco Goldman, The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle (Grove, 2015); Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Mexican Enough: My Life between the Borderlines (Washington Square, 2008).
  6. Mexican Poetry: An Anthology (1958; Grove, 1994).
  7. Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (Coffee House, 2017).
  8. Diana Kennedy, the dean of Mexican gastronomic culture, devoted an encyclopedic book to this: Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy (University of Texas Press, 2010). On mezcal, see Sarah Bowen, Divided Spirits: On Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production (University of California Press, 2015).
  9. John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico (Charles H. Kerr, 1910).
Featured image: Saltillo, Mexico (2004). Photograph by Sachavir / Flickr