Do you agree with the view that, for Octavio Paz, Mexican history is irrevocably defined by its experience of Colonialism.

El Laberinto de la Soledad by Octavio Paz, represents him as an intellectual engaged in the literary pursuit of the true identity of Mexico. The importance of the work is confirmed by its position as a prescribed text in the Mexican secondary education system.1 It is comprised of eight essays with an accompanying appendix. The first four critically analyse the Mexican psyche, the second four are interpretations of vital periods of Mexican history, but “not as a historian”.

2 As Paz’s first literary analysis, which concentrates on politics and nationalism, it represents an “other” Paz.3 This “other” Paz manifests in the dichotomy of the work, he is constantly struggling against the very Mexican identity he tries to define. This is represented in the duality of the titles and the internal structure of many of the essays. Paz enjoys opposing a thesis to its antithesis. He was also fascinated by the interplay between the individual and the collective life, leading him to discover another Mexico, one submerged in the history of all Mexicans.4

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The experience of colonialism for Mexico was the conquest of the Aztec empire by Hern�n Cort�s which begun when Cort�s landed at what is now Veracruz on the 22nd of April, 1519.5 Cort�s was able to take advantage of opponents of the Aztecs in order to bring down Tenochtitl�n.6 The Spaniards’ influence tipped the political balance away from Tenochtitl�n which finally fell by the 13th of August 15217, marking the commencement of almost 303 years of Spanish hegemony over the region. Colonisation is “the practice of acquiring control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically”8. What must be considered is the impact of these processes on Mexican history. Paz, acutely defines his idea of history within Hijos de la Malinche.

He explains that “el car�cter de los mexicanos” is a product of “las circunstancias sociales” and history “es la historia de esas circunstancias”9. Therefore for Paz, and for the purposes of this essay, the term “Mexican history” will be used synonymously with “Mexican psyche”, as Mexicans “actitud vital – tambi�n es historia”10. Furthermore he shows an appreciation of the complexity of history, stating that in a sphere like history it is impossible to distinguish between “causas y efectos”11. Therefore, to understand the impact of colonialism on Mexico’s history, the consciousness of the people it affected must be considered. Similarly, the causes and effects of each historical episode must be defined cautiously. In order to do so, I shall consider three of the essays in depth, concentrating on the effect colonialism had on the Mexican psyche, which they carry “en andrajos un pasado todav�a vivo”12.

Let us start by considering El D�a de los Muertos. In this essay Paz examines Mexican behaviour in terms of the manner in which they celebrate and their unique view of death. For Paz, “la manera explosiva y dram�tica, a veces suicida”13 in which Mexicans celebrate reflects that something “nos impide ser”14. This impediment makes fiestas their “�nico lujo”15 and the only time a Mexican feels “participaci�n”16 in society. To consider the impact of colonialism we must enter the Mexican psyche, examining what inhibits their participation. Paz describes the fiesta as unleashing the Mexican from “nuestra carga de tiempo y raz�n”17.

Comparably, the Aztecs lived in a world governed by their own “complejo de espacio-tiempo”18, which possessed “virtudes y poderes propios”19. The importation of Western Catholicism lead to the redundancy of these collective Aztec principles.20 Consequently, what inhibits the Mexican is the confinements of this world, of the modern day, of westernised imposed views. To this extent, during fiestas “se ridiculiza al ej�rcito, al clero, a la magistratura”21, in order to reach a state of “la vida pura” 22.

This antiestablishment view negates all militant, religious, social and political institutions established within the Mexican society; alien institutions imposed in the Colonial period. Analysing the manner of the Mexican fiesta, we can regard it as “a symptom of a deeper malaise”23, one categorised by loss and by a need to free themselves from modern institutions. Paz himself does not link this wound to the Colonial period, however, by looking at what the Mexican strives to be released from, it is a logical conclusion to associate these attitudes as being caused by the Colonial period. This problem of extrapolating Paz’s thoughts arises continuously in the search for the true Mexican psyche and is a problem I shall address later in the essay.

Let us move on to Los Hijos de la Malinche where Paz scrutinizes the origins of the current Mexican character, defining it as solitude born out of denial.24 It is within this essay that the clearest connection between Mexican history and the Colonial period can be made. According to Paz, Mexicans today are categorised by their “moral de siervo”25, which makes them “finge frente al se�or”26. A comparison can be made between the conquistadores and the indigenous people, master and slave. In this period a social hierarchy was imposed, the natives forced to the bottom strata. Subsequently, a mentality of “chingar o ser chingada”27 became the driving force, and today, Paz sees all relationships as being “envenenadas por el miedo y el recelo”28. Both the poisoned exchanges between Mexicans and their serf mentality could be said to have derived from the mistreatment of the indigenous people by the conquistadores. In this way we can say that the Colonial period had an effect upon Mexican history. Again, Paz does not make this direct link himself allowing the reader to decipher the cause and effect.

Perhaps of most importance is his defining of chingar.29 Behind chingar, there is more than a mere Mexican profanity, there is an obsession with origins, revealed by the phrase “Viva M�xico, hijos de la Chingada!”, a phrase which for Paz holds the “secreto” to their “ansiedad”30. The secret is being the “fruto de una violaci�n”31, with two historical parental figures: the violated mother and the father who shows “indiferencia frente a la prole que engendra”32. A direct identification can be seen, the mother as Do�a Marina33 and the father as Cort�s. For Mexicans, the passive mother is, “fascinadas, violadas o seducidas”34 by the father who “viene de lejos”35. The animosity with the “gran Ching�n”36 is what incurs them to deny their origins, discrediting the influence of the conquistadores and therefore the Colonial period. What’s more, the verb is used across the American continent to “denota violencia”37 and is “un verbo agresivo”38.

The word is endowed with negative connotations, negativity the Mexican wants to forget. Essentially the battle cry is, for Paz, the only time the Mexican shows “como somos de verdad” 39. In this way, as Mexican believe their character is completely determined by this violation, it is therefore what has contributed to their psyche. The continued usage of chingar in Mexico, coupled with its direct link to the Colonial period, confirms that colonialism has affected Mexican history and therefore psyche. Even Paz concedes that it does not seem “forzado asociarla a la Conquista”40. What’s more, when analysing the title of the essay it is possible to see Paz denying these very origins. It echoes the battle cry but is also avoiding it’s repetition, using Malinche instead of Chingada. He is unable to escape from his intrinsic Mexican nature, thus he cannot accept his past.

Conquista y Colonia, found in the second half of the work, refers directly to the period of the conquest. It looks more specifically at historical episodes, yet still reveals a vast amount in terms of the relationship between the Mexican psyche and colonialism. Paz shows an appreciation that the Spaniards were “la defensora de la fe”41 and wanted to bring homogeneity to all the lands, to unify people under Christianity. Catholicism brought the opportunity for “bautismo”42 which in turn lead to enrolment within the society, due to “la unificaci�n religiosa”43. Moreover, Paz describes the conquistadores as “aventureros” 44 almost glorifying their actions.

This description portrays the conquest as a passive movement, particularly as he says that “todo preparaba la dominaci�n espa�ola”45. Similarly, Hamnett comments that historically, the indigenous population were accustomed to “subordination” and “assimilation”46. However, the duality of the text is apparent as Paz, from the point of view of the indigenous people, shows an appreciation of the forced nature of the conquest and the unnatural “superposici�n tir�nica”47 of the Christian faith.

By contrast, he sees the conquest to be due to “el suicidio del pueblo azteca”48, aggravated because “los dioses lo han abandonado”49. Quiroga states that Paz sees colonial society “as a contradictory living totality”50, which “despite its homogeneity” was split by the “competing claims of its many people”51. For Paz, duality and lack of identity has always existed for the Mexican.52 Through Paz’s own explanation of the historical period of the conquest, he inadvertently exhibits the connection it has with the Mexican psyche. Despite this, Paz is again unwilling to confirm the impact colonialism has had on Mexican history, preferring to attribute it to “dualismo”53 of Aztec Gods. However, this merely highlights Paz’s own position as a Mexican, he negates his roots, trying to find shelter from his history.

Throughout the essay, the two biggest challenges have been to “escindir causas y efectos”54, whilst considering Paz’s attitude as a Mexican. Stanton highlights Paz’s dilemma of whether “history determines national character”55 or vice versa. This is a question for which Paz has no concrete answer. However, the continued use of chingar in Mexico today is a strong argument that Mexican history has been affected by the Colonial period. Despite this, Paz is not always willing to confirm the connection because it means accepting the past, a past that he as a Mexican wants to forget. This conflict is the undertone to the hybridism of the text; on the one hand he wants to define his identity but on the other he wants to keep it a secret.

This negation is why it is often hard to analyse the relationship between the Mexican psyche and colonialism, as Paz, as a Mexican, is not able to accept the full truth. Stanton holds a similar view, seeing the collection as an “essentialist definition of national identity and as the very negation of the possibility of this type of definition”56. Similarly, the use of a labyrinth within the title supports this notion and shows another level to the text. Literally speaking, the Mexican is stuck in a self created labyrinth of his own solitude, unsure of how to escape, because he will not look for the way out. However, the labyrinth is also a reference to a myth, that of the Minotaur, and associating the Mexican solitude with a myth is perhaps Paz’s way of denying the very existence of this solitude.

As well as this, it must be considered that this collection was written and conceived during voluntary exile, spending a year and a half in California 194357 and then a period in Paris from 1945 until 195158. It is important to note that Paz was a traveller, who forced upon himself an intentional exile, giving him the ability to reflect upon his own identity as a Mexican. This explains why, this collection is able to explain the Mexican psyche, as Paz is able to distance himself from his origins in order to think objectively. However, the constant conundrum of being Mexican, leads him to shy away from the truth at certain points throughout the collection.

Taking everything into consideration it is almost impossible to decipher whether Paz feels that colonialism has defined Mexican history, looking only at El Laberinto y la soledad. Each section of the text shows an insight into how Mexicans think but the cause is often masked.59 The duality which runs throughout the text, almost leading one to give a dual answer, is inherently is no answer at all. Paz states that Mexicans are “los �nicos” who can “contestar”60 the question of their solitude, but inherently, as a Mexican, he cannot. However, I do feel that within the essays studied there is an overriding sense of betrayal and hatred directed toward elements attributed with the colonial rule, particularly the “gran Ching�n”61.

Therefore, from an outsiders point of view, it can be accepted that colonialism had an impact on Mexican history but it does not irrevocably define that very history. As regard for Paz’s opinion, it is impossible to gauge a definite answer from the text due to Paz’s irresistible desire to refute much of his own history. However, Paz alludes to the impact that colonialism has had, but at certain points, he puts on his Mexican mascara and attempts to shy away from his origins he wishes to forget. What can be said is it most definitely does not irrevocably define, but perhaps aggravates an already apparent scar in the Mexican psyche.


Version of text used:

El laberinto de la soledad

Anthony Stanton

Manchester University Press 2008

The Labyrinth of Solitude

Translated by Lysander Kemp, Yara Milos and Rachel Phillips Belash

Penguin Books

Critical analysis:

A Concise History of Mexico

Brian R. Hamnett

University of Cambridge Press Published 1999

Octavio Paz

Jason Wilson

Published by Twayne Publishers 1986

Understanding Octavio Paz

Jos� Quiroga. Columbia

University of South Carolina Press, 1999. xii, 194 p.

Background reading:

Octavio Paz and the Chicano

Author(s): Luis Leal

Source: Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 5, No. 10, Special Issue of Chicano Literature (Spring,1977), pp. 115-123

Published by: Latin American Literary Review

Stable URL:

Octavio Paz: The Search for Mexican Identity

Author(s): Terry Hoy

Source: The Review of Politics, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Jul., 1982), pp. 370-385

Published by: Cambridge University Press for the University of Notre Dame du lac on behalf of Review of Politics

Stable URL:

The Fall of the Aztec Empire: Challenging Traditional Explanations

Connor J. Smith (’04)

Octavio Paz The Mythic Dimension

Frances Chiles

American University Studies: Ser. 2, Romance Language and Literature; Vol.6)

Peter Lang Publishing Inc., New York 1987

1 “El laberinto de la soledad” (Stanton 2008:1)

2 Argument found in Wilson’s book where he describes Paz’s view of history is structured “on the belief -experience that human nature is not entirely historical (art, love, games, ceremonies escape historical definition), though the historical part actively represses this other poetic side. Paz view history morally. “Octavio Paz” (Wilson 1986:53)

3 Concept of the “other” Paz can be found in “Understanding Paz” (Quiroga 1999:80)

4 Argument of the submerged history is in the introduction “El laberinto de la soledad” (Stanton 2008: 2008:7)

5 “The Fall of the Aztec Empire: Challenging Traditional Explanations” (Smith 2004:1)

6 “A Concise History of Mexico” (Hamnett 1999:58)

7 “The Fall of the Aztec Empire: Challenging Traditional Explanations” (Smith 2004:1)


9 “El laberinto de la soledad” (Stanton 2008:93)


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