American Encounters:
Greater Mexico, the United States, and the Erotics of Culture
By José E. Limón
Boston: Beacon Press, 1998, $27.

reviewed by Ilan Stavans

May/June 1999

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It is unusual for a critic to come across a doppelgänger, a soulmate, in the course of his or her career, but I think I have found one in José E. Limón, author of American Encounters. Many of his obsessions—the fiction of Sandra Cisneros, Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude, the anthropologists Américo Paredes and Manuel Gamio, the stories of Katherine Anne Porter, and John Sayles’s film Lone Star—are also mine, and mine, too, is the quest for a clearer vision of what the serendipitous US-Mexico border is about. So much so that, while browsing through Limón’s book, I sometimes felt I was reading a version of myself. 

Of course, there are differences between Limón and me. He belongs to an earlier generation (b.1944) and is a tejano, who thus writes about la frontera, the borderland, from within it; whereas I—as a Jew from Ciudad de México (b.1961) and thus also part of what Limón, invoking Paredes, calls “the Greater Mexico”—am obsessed by a ubiquitous and far less tangible borderland. In my vision of race and identity, blood and skin (to paraphrase Ralph Ellison) do not think, while Limón views the world from a more ethnic perspective.

Shall I thus commend the editor at whose invitation I agreed to review Limón’s book, or shall I curse him?  In all honesty, browsing through it was a treat, not a threat. I admire the honesty of Limón’s erudite reflections, even though I found myself put off by the obtuse, impure language in which they are delivered. There is an ingredient of reportage in his prose, but the reportage is often overshadowed by an academic jargon alien to the mainstream reader. Limón derives his framework from Michel Foucault, Frederic Jameson, psychoanalysis, and other theorizers and theories. This is a pity, for ours is a world crowded with academic critics but empty of public intellectuals, and only the public intellectual—outspoken, intellectually sophisticated, yet accessible to the reading public—can usefully articulate the tension between society and its dreams.

Still, I cannot dismiss Limón’s work: it is too provocative (behind its layers of “discourse”), too eloquent in its vision. His approach is not only nondogmatic but deliciously eclectic, building bridges between popular culture and the highbrow, between literature, politics, and the social sciences. I was particularly struck by his chapter on the encounters between Porter and Gamio, his disquisition on the fateful popularity of tejana pop singer Selena, his examination of the symbolism in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, and, most of all, his ruminations on the corrupt morality of Hispanic politicians. Limón is entranced by the clash of illusions and of delusions in the US-Mexico border region, by the ongoing transit of misrepresentations. But he isn’t a pessimist—happily, for we have too many of those. Neither is he angry, a pervasive state in ethnic-minded circles. What drives him is a genuine curiosity to understand the present and find ways to assimilate it properly in all its complexity. 

His book does what a nonfiction book should do: invite dialogue. In fact, in the spirit of the doppelgänger, when I finished it, I fantasized an informal table talk between us wherein I voiced my disagreement with several of his arguments but also expressed, and in high tones, my admiration for his resourcefulness and creativity. The talk took place in Spanish and English (I don’t mind the term Spanglish, but I suspect he does), right on la frontera, for where else but on the border and through the looking-glass might a man find his double? And of course, I started the dialogue by thanking an editor for making me look at Limón—and at myself.

Ilan Stavans is a 1998-99 Guggenheim Fellow at the University of London Institute of Latin American Studies. His books include The Hispanic Condition (HarperCollins), The Riddle of Cantinflas (University of New Mexico Press), and The Oxford Book of Latin American Essays.

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