Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Alex Pears
There are a couple of writers whose work is firmly rooted in their own place and time, yet whose words and images always seem relevant.
E.B. White is one.
John Steinbeck is another.
It’s embarrassing for this literature grad to admit, but I haven’t read a lot of the classics. I was always (and still am) more interested in postcolonial literature, writing from the margins, non-fiction.
Last year, I picked up Steinbeck’s travelogue, Travels with Charley. Charley, Steinbeck’s dog, accompanied the writer on a cross-country road trip and the book is a chronicle of their journey. Nothing too dramatic–except real daily life–happened along the way, but I was taken in by Steinbeck’s astute observations and vivid descriptions, especially of seemingly simple exchanges between people he met along the way and insights he had into his own character as a result of doing nothing more than driving the pavement with his dog.
After I finished the book and started raving about it, my friend and fellow travel writer, Tim Patterson, said I had to read Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez. I went out and bought the book right away, but I just couldn’t get into it. No particular reason.
A few weeks back, I pulled it off the shelf again and dropped it in my bag– some subway reading. And this time, I was drawn in. A completely different narrative, totally different journey, but one with equally profound meaning.
Reading Log from the Sea of Cortez as I did, during the swine flu (ahem, H1N1) mania–by which Mexico was particularly affected– and after recently closing up a chapter from my own life in that country, I found myself marking passages where Steinbeck expertly explored notions of Mexican and American temperaments and lifestyles… and subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) criticized Americans’ all too frequent condescension toward Mexicans in the process.
But rather than say anything else, I should just let Steinbeck speak for himself:
“It is said so often and in such ignorance that Mexicans are contented, happy people. ‘They don’t want anything.’ This, of course, is not a description of the happiness of Mexicans, but of the unhappiness of the person who says it. For Americans, and probably all northern peoples, are all masses of wants growing out of inner insecurity. The great drive of our people stems from insecurity.”
“How can you say to a people who are preoccupied with getting enough food and enough children that you have come to pick up useless little animals so that perhaps your world picture will be enlarged?”
“…[T]he Indian [Mexican] might say ‘What good is this knowledge? Since you make a duty of it, what is its purpose?….Is it advancing, and toward what? Or is it merely becoming complicated? You save the lives of children for a world that does not love them.”
“And although [our boat] was swarmed with visitors from morning to night…although we were infested and crawling with very poor people and children, we lost nothing; and this in spite of the fact that there were little gadgets lying around that any one of us would have stolen if we had had the chance.”
“It would be interesting to see whether a nation governed by the small boys of Mexico would not be a better, happier nation than those ruled by old men whose prejudices may or may not be conditioned by ulcerous stomachs and perhaps a little drying up of the stream of love.”
“And in our contacts with Mexican people we had been faced with a change in expediencies….What they did for us was without hope or plan of profit. [T]here must have been some kind of profit involved, but not the kind we are used to….And yet some trade took place at every contact–something was exchanged, some unnameable of great value. Perhaps these people are expedient in the unnamables. Maybe they bargain in feelings, in pleasures, even in simple contacts.”
“This was not bad or good, it was only different. Time and beauty, they thought, could not be captured and sold, and we knew they not only could be, but that time could be warped and beauty made ugly….Our people would pay more for pills in a yellow box than in a white box….They would buy books because they should rather than because they wanted to. They bought immunity from fear in salves to go under their arms. They bought romantic adventure in bars of tomato-colored soaps…. They bought courage and rest and had neither….