This guest post is published in conjunction with the meeting of the Latin American Studies Association taking place April 29-May 1 in Lima, Peru. #LASA17
by Kathryn A. Sloan, author of Death in the City: Suicide and the Social Imaginary in Modern Mexico
My son asked me why I study morbid topics like suicide and death. He went on to inquire if I was depressed. I paused a moment before responding, recalling that many of my history colleagues have teased me for being attracted to salacious and macabre themes in Mexican history. I always laugh and remark on the richness of criminal documents for intellectual inquiry, especially for those of us who searching for plebeian voices. The fact is that studying a society in time and place through the lens of perceived social problems like suicide or crime or disease bears considerable scholarly fruit. In my work I have found that when I dig down into the weeds of judicial documents replete with testimony and letters and the newspaper reporting on said crimes, notions of Mexico or Mexicanidad are unsettled.
Indeed Mexico has long been associated with the macabre in popular culture. Heart sacrifice, conquest, civil war, and social revolution have marked Mexican society. Today drug traffickers act with impunity and hang headless corpses from overpasses and kidnap people in broad daylight. On a lighter note, Mexicans celebrate Day of the Dead by festooning tombstones with marigolds, feasting on delicacies, and toasting their dearly departed at gravesites. Likewise tourists consume sugary skulls as they gaze upon the exotic spectacle. Mexico’s making, cured in this crucible of conquest, war, and death, has led some prominent intellectuals to suggest that death defines Mexico. In fact, the stereotype is that Mexicans (especially the Mexican man) mock and face down death with a devil-may-care nonchalance. Death is his ever-present and intimate friend. He is immune to suffering around him.
Intellectuals shaped mexicanidad in a post-revolutionary milieu and strived to define a singular essence that set Mexico apart from its European and Anglo peers. To them Mexicans were trapped in ‘labyrinths of solitude’ and ‘cages of melancholy.’ Examining how Mexicans confronted suicide in Mexico on the cusp of the twentieth century reveals that they did not accept death with a cavalier snicker, nor did they develop a unique death cult for that matter. Mexicans behaved just as their contemporaries did around the modern world. They devoted scientific inquiry to the malady and mourned the loss of each life to suicide. Front-page articles eulogized the women who jumped from the cathedral to their deaths on the paving stones below. Mexico’s Central Park—Chapultepec Park—became a common destination for lovelorn suicides. Medical students and their teachers peered into the craniums of suicide victims in hopes of finding physical markers that foretold a death wish. Crowds of city residents congregated around literal stains of blood to mourn the young man or woman who took their lives in public spaces. Uncovering the myriad ways that Mexicans defined and approached the phenomenon of suicide reveals that they approached death like any world citizens, with an immense sense of concern, humanity, and sensitivity.
Kathryn A. Sloan is Associate Dean of Fine Arts and Humanities in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas. She is the author of Runaway Daughters: Seduction, Elopement, and Honor in Nineteenth-Century Mexico and Women’s Roles in Latin America and the Caribbean.