Álvaro Enrigue

El Vocho: A Familiar Subject

An Elegy for the Twilight Years of Mexico’s Late Party Dictatorship upon the Occasion of the Rise of a Third Nation of Narcoterrorism

DISCUSSED: Late Revolutionary Nationalism, The Sturm und Drang of Led Zeppelin, Habitational Units, International Politics on the Playground, A Conquistador Son of a Bitch, Sandinista Triumph, The Peanut Farmer, Black-Market Sugar, Global Mafias, The Hyper-Opening of NAFTA, An Extinct Volcano, Symbolic Geography

As a writer born on the cusp of the ’60s and ’70s, I’ve never been considered part of the wave of authors born in the ’70s, nor of those who came up in the ’60s. As a result, I think I’ve lived all my life with the feeling that the best of everything had already come and gone by the time I arrived. To think about the Mexico of my youth, the country of late revolutionary nationalism—whose time lasted from, let’s say, 1970, when Mexico hosted the World Cup for the first time, to 1994, when NAFTA took effect—is to consider a world blistered by the simultaneously ridiculous and endearing form of the Volkswagen Bug, nicknamed “el Vocho” by the Mexican people.

I used to have a memory that Lenus, one of our neighbors in the apartment building in Mexico City where I grew up, owned one. When we headed out to visit some part of the city inaccessible by public transit (my mother belongs to the last generation of Mexicans who enjoyed the luxury of not driving), I remembered Lenus cramming us all into her Vocho.

In 1973, I was four years old, and one of the hit songs of the day was “Un gato en la oscuridad” (Cat in the dark) by Roberto Carlos, which we kids sang in the car at the top of our lungs. I still know it by heart. At that age, my sister, La Nena, and I still traveled standing up in the little storage space that separated the backseat from the Vocho’s rear window. Latin America’s history tends to be seen by our neighbors in the United States as a continuum of violence and abuse. Our stories can be told that way—all stories can be crafted to suit the narrator’s needs—but our fateful year, the one that changed everything because various governments began dispensing wanton violence in a shamelessly mechanical way, was 1973, when Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile in a coup d’état famously supported by the CIA. All I remember about that year, however, is the cozy feeling of riding around Mexico City inside a Vocho, singing with my sister.

In the Mexico of those years, there was a genuine provincial peace, even if it was a peace imposed by the totalitarian regime of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (or the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party). It was a party dictatorship that could be gentle in its ways, if one respected the rules and stood in line with the silent majorities that accepted the regime as the best possible government we could expect to have. The government knew how to be ruthless and was essentially antidemocratic, but throughout the immensities of Latin America it was clearly the most tolerant regime, and the one least prone to violence.

We had Vochos, we lived in a land protected by the mantle of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and we were told that we were “the great Mexican family”: la gran familia mexicana. We were happily feeding a monster, never suspecting that when things went wrong, we would find ourselves devoured, too.

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Álvaro Enrigue’s work has been translated into multiple languages, including German, English, and French. He has taught creative writing at the University of Maryland, Princeton, and NYU. He currently lives in New York, where he is visiting at Columbia University. His latest novel, Sudden Death, will be published in English by Riverhead.

Brendan Riley’s many translations include Álvaro Enrigue’s acclaimed Hypothermia, (a Times Literary Supplement Best Book of 2013), as well as Juan Filloy’s legendary Caterva and Carlos Fuentes’s The Great Latin American Novel, both due out from Dalkey Archive Press in 2015.

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