In the autumn of 1947, 25-year-old Jack Kerouac left San Francisco and headed for Southern California in search of unforeseen adventures. He met a Mexican girl named Bea Franco on a bus and ended up following her to an encampment of Mexican grape- and cotton-pickers, where they briefly contemplated a life together before Kerouac returned home. Kerouac’s telling of this poignant episode would become part of the first trip in ‘On The Road,’ and was published as an excerpt (‘The Mexican Girl’) in The Paris Review. Kerouac hadn’t even reached Mexico yet (he would soon), but the Beat fascination for Mexican culture was already clear.
The Beats didn’t have much money, but they craved alternative cultures, and going to Mexico was the cheapest and easiest way to delve into what we now call the Third World. William S. Burroughs lived in Mexico City for a time, and it was here that he caused the death of his wife while playing with guns. He had to flee Mexico, but later explored South American jungles in search of a drug called Yage, and the letters he wrote to Allen Ginsberg during this time have been published as ‘The Yage Letters.’
Ginsberg had his own Mexican adventures. The year before he became famous for ‘Howl,’ he went on an archeological expedition to the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula, and ended up leading a spontaneous expedition of over fifty villagers to explore a volcano during an earthquake. This episode is typical of Ginsberg’s career — he didn’t know exactly what he was doing, but he had the courage to do it, and when people sensed this they named him their leader.
There are more Beat connections to Mexico than I can possibly capture here. Kerouac’s novel ‘Tristessa’ takes place there. Brooklyn poet Marty Matz was imprisoned there for four difficult years on a drug trafficking charge. Lawrence Ferlinghetti published a travel journal called ‘The Mexican Night’ in 1962. Timothy Leary’s experiments with mind-altering drugs began with his discovery of natural Mexican psychedelics, although Leary soon adopted the use of synthetic psychedelics. Natural Mexican drugs like peyote and mescaline have always been popular, though, and Carlos Casteneda’s ‘Don Juan’ books helped to spread this mystique. Ken Kesey, another one who liked to use synthetic psychedelics, was a fugitive from American justice in Mexico during the mid-Sixties. Neal Cassady died while trying to walk the railroad tracks between two Mexican villages on a cold night.
The European conquest of Mexico began in 1519, a few decades after Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Several advanced Native American populations such as the Aztecs and Mayans were decimated by Europeans (Cortez’s murderous confrontation with Montezuma’s grand empire is the subject of Neil Young’s excellent song ‘Cortez the Killer’). The area was known as New Spain, but the Native American population survived better than in North America, and the current population of Mexico is largely Native American in origin. The nation of Mexico was created in 1821, during the wave of independent uprisings that followed Napoleon’s disruption of the European order and his conquest of Spain.
I’ve been to the Yucatan, and the Mayan ruins there are an amazing experience. I also just can’t say enough good things about Mexican food, although I doubt any true Mexican would be very impressed by the California concoctions we Americans refer to as burritos and tacos.