Jack Kerouac as a Mexican
by Joe Olvera
Posted on September 3, 2006
Jack Kerouac's descriptions of Mexico – and of Mexicans – are breathtaking in their simple beauty and in their beautiful simplicity. Once he discovered that an ancient civilization waited just across the dry-river bed that is the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo, he didn't waste any time learning everything he could about the ancient Azteca Kingdom – with its dark-skinned Indios looming over sunken prayer wheels. Sometimes Kerouac even fancied himself a Mexican.
In the “Mexican Girl” chapter of On the Road, Kerouac (aka Sal Paradise) says this about that: “There was talk that Terry's (the Mexican Girl) husband was back in Sabinal and out for me; I was ready for him. One night the Okies went berserk in the roadhouse and tied a man to a tree and beat him with two-by-fours. I was asleep at the time and only heard about it. From then on I carried a big stick with me in the tent in case they got the idea we Mexicans were fouling up their trailer camp. They thought I was a Mexican, of course; and I am.”
And from then on, Kerouac became a defender of things Indian – los Indios son de la noche, los Indios son de la tierra . In another part of that magical book, as he drove into Mexico proper, with Dean and Stan asleep in the back seat of Dean's decrepit jalopy, Kerouac marveled at Mexico's tortilla-carpeted streets and dawnish fragrances intermingling with the sweat from one million farm workers drying in the sun and adobe bricks baked with work-toughed hands:
“…The boys were sleeping, and I was alone in my eternity at the wheel, and the road ran straight as an arrow. Not like driving across Carolina, or Texas, or Arizona, or Illinois; but like driving across the world and into the places where we would finally learn ourselves among the Fellaheen Indians of the world, the essential strain of the basic primitive, wailing humanity that stretches in a belt around the equatorial belly of the world from Malaya…to Morocco to the selfsame deserts and jungles of Mexico. These people were unmistakably Indians and were not at all like the Pedros and Panchos of silly civilized American lore – they had high cheekbones, and slanted eyes, and soft ways; they were not fools, they were not clowns; they were great, grave Indians and they were the source of mankind and the fathers of it. The waves are Chinese, but the earth is an Indian thing. As essential as rocks in the desert are they in the desert of ‘history.' And they knew this when we passed, ostensibly self-important moneybag Americans on a lark in their land; they knew who was the father and who was the son of antique life on earth, and made no comment.”
But back to Terry, as Kerouac fell in love with Terry's “blue timidities,” and recognized that she was a damsel in distress. He forced himself to talk to her:
“I had bought my ticket and was waiting for the L.A. bus when all of a sudden I saw the cutest little Mexican girl in slacks come cutting across my sight…Her breasts stuck out straight; her little thighs looked delicious; her hair was long and lustrous black; and her eyes were great blue windows with timidities inside. I wished I was on her bus. A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too big world.”
But, Kerouac didn't give up on Terry – the blue-eyed Chicanita fell for Kerouac too. She thought he was a “nice college boy.” Oh, I'm a college boy, Kerouac assured her. And so he fell in love, as her blue eyes reached out to him in that City of Night, with its lonely platform streets and its immensity swallowing them whole. With Terry, Kerouac experiences first-hand a little bit of the discrimination that Chicanos have faced since that time when they lost the right and the promise.
“We stood under a roadlamp thumbing when suddenly cars full of young kids roared by with streamers flying….Then they yoo-hooed us and got great glee out of seeing a guy and a girl on the road….I hated everyone of them. Who did they think they were yaahing at somebody on the road because they were little high school punks and their parents carved the roast beef on Sunday afternoons.”
While Chicano mothers yawned in the early dawn, fixing the beans for that day's eating, and tortillas calientitas filled the air with a soft yearning and good things to eat, but soft. Later, Kerouac and Terry see the self-same kids at a diner:
“We had battered bags and all the world before us…all that ground out there, that desert dirt and rat-tat-tat. We looked like a couple of sullen Indians in a Navajo Springs soda fountain, black bent heads at a table. The school kids saw now that Terry was a Mexican, a Pachuco wildcat; and that her boy was worse than that. With her pretty nose in the air, she cut out of there and we wandered together in the dark up along the ditches of highways.”
Pachuco wild-haired throngs of L.A., cutting across the world making their presence known. Talking the talk and walking the walk, as switchblade knives spent entire days cooped up inside pants packets, safe and serene as a cool summer breeze. Terry and Kerouac are, or course, no pachucos, but they could be if they wanted to, que no? But, they weren't, you see. But Chicanos in East L.A., or in L.A. proper, were always accused of being pachucos, and of being bad, no matter if they were sensitive, prolonging a love affair with life and the common ground. No matter the soft tears and the tender hearts.
As Chicanos are misunderstood in L.A., so are they misunderstood in Sabinal, Terry's hometown. Terry is a blue-eyed Chicana, but very few people know that there's nothing novel or amazing about that. It's only people not knowing that mestizos are the blood and the fury that blanketed the Aztec night when the Spaniards came a-calling. The lust carried over when white European blood mixed with brown skin and la raza cosmica was born. Mestizo is as Mestizo does, but ignorance is the blot that falls and covers tremulous and shaky bones.
That old blue-eyed bull must've jumped the heavenly fence, guffaws one ignoramus. Kerouac had been staying in farmer Heffelfinger's damp barn. They talk:
“How you doing young fella?
“Fine. I hope it's all right my staying here.”
“Sure. You going with that little Mexican floozie?”
“She's a very nice girl.
“Pretty too. S'got blue eyes. I think the bull jumped the fence there…”
Yes, and so the Spanish nightmare – gachupin glory hounds lapping up Aztec Princesses, and impregnating them with the seeds of doom. Impregnating and leaving blue eyes behind so that the brown hordes were left dangling in their common misery – cold, blue eyes stringing together curses and love songs, but only to rape and to merge blue bloods with brown-skinned calzones.
And Kerouac understood maòana as he worked to understand Terry and her crazy brother, Freddy. Maòana with that golden-throated promise of tomorrow:
“Maòana,” she said, “everything'll be all right tomorrow, don't you think so…honey-man?”
“Sure baby, maòana. It was always maòana. For the next week that was all I heard. Maòana, a lovely word and one that probably means heaven.”
Right you are, my boy. Maòana is the manna from heaven. And it means everlasting hope – because la esperanza es lo ultimo que muere – que no? To Chicanos like Terry and Freddy – and even Little Raymond, Terry's little boy – maòana is what keeps them going. What has kept them going beyond the gates of heaven. What has kept them going beyond the misery, beyond lackluster days of trying to survive, beyond devilish flashes of pain – to Nirvana.
Tripping along on life with Freddy and Ponzo, Kerouac lets himself be carried by these California Chicanos. Hugging Terry like there's no tomorrow, making love to her under the yum-yum tree, with little Raymond wide-eyed at their heated exploits. Caring for Terry and little Raymond, Sal sees himself as a man of the land, with his little family waiting for him and dependent on his bringing home the bacon, or the pork and beans, whichever comes first. He thinks he's found his life's calling, to pick cotton. But Terry knows better:
“You see, you see, it's very hard picking cotton. If you can't boogie, I'll show you how.”
And so no boogie, no mambo, no cumbias rocking the morning star. Kerouac works his fingers to the bone for his lovely little family – a man of the earth is he.
“Pshaw! No such thing,” Sal says to Terry, wanting to prove his manliness. But he sees beauty in even the most humble things. “We bent down and began picking cotton. It was beautiful. Across the field were the tents, and beyond them the sere brown cottonfields that stretched out of sight, and over that brown arroyo foothills, and then as in a dream the snowcapped Sierras in the blue morning air…But I knew nothing about cotton picking. I spent too much time disengaging the white ball from its crackly bed…Moreover my fingers began to bleed…My back began to ache. But it was beautiful kneeling and hiding in that earth; if I felt like resting I just lay down with my face on the pillow of brown moist earth.”
Like everything that Kerouac wrote about Mexico, and Mexicans, the love and respect shows through. For he is much more than a mere writer, he sees beauty even when there's no beauty, but only the lustful, bloody carcasses of life. He knows. He sees. He understands that brown-stroked folks, those with hard and calloused hands – hands that go digging in that dark earth – must also be pampered and protected against that cold, wintry rain. He knows. He sees. Kerouac is a Mexican. Yes, he is. He said so himself. Orale!
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