Essay from Profile of Man and Culture in Mexico by Samuel Ramos, trans. Peter G. Earle, copyright 1962.
"In one of his observations on the New World, Bolívar wrote that the Americans are Europeans by heritage. In Mexico, this heritage was abused for an entire century; there was excessive imitation of Europe with no other guide than individual caprice. The original sin of Mexican Europeanism was its lack of a standard for selecting foreign seeds of culture which in our spiritual earth could have produced the appropriate remedies for particular needs. That standard should have been none other than reality itself, but reality was unknown, because all our attention and interest had turned to Europe. The fallacy of always attempting to imitate Europe was possibly derived from an erroneous concept of culture which by extravagant idealization separated it from life, as if warmth and energy were not indispensable to the spirit's survival.
The prevailing culture--present or future--is necessarily that which determines vocation of the race and its historical destiny. We shall try to draw the profile of a culture that conceivably could exist in Mexico, given certain organic circumstances of society and man as the results of a particular history.
We must not continue to practice a false Europeanism; but it is just as urgent to avoid another dangerous illusion, cherished by equally false type of Mexicanism. Enlivened by a resentment against everything foreign, this Mexicanism seeks to rebuild our national life on other bases than those which it has had up to now--as if it were possible to undo in one moment our entire history. There is an attempt to isolate Mexico from all contact with the outside world so as to free its native qualities from all extraneous elements. Just as "Europanism" was founded on the ideal of a culture which could exist apart from life, "nationalism" was founded on the belief that Mexico was already complete in itself, with a definitive national physiognomy, and that its only need was to be drawn our into the light of day, like an unearthed idol. Such a belief is supported by an inclination to the picturesque--mountain scenes, dotted with Indian figures in their typical white cotton suits and with cactus plants. Recent art has undertaken an amplification--as in a resounding box--of the "picturesque" dimensions that have found wide acceptance, especially among Yankee tourists. But this Mexico of the charro (Mexican cowboy/horseman) and the Mexico of the china poblana (colorful style of women's regional dress), as well as the Mexico of the legendary savage (whose novelty and attraction for Europeans I cannot understand; there is proof of their own savagery in what has transpired since 1914), constitute a Mexico for export which is just as false as the romantic Spain of the tambourine.
But if we can rid our nationalistic spirit of all its resentment against things foreign (the kind of resentment which is typical in those suffering from an inferiority complex), there will undoubtedly remain a moral substance of absolute value for Mexico. This will be the voice of our most authentic being, which now finally makes itself heard after so many years in which Mexican turned a deaf ear to his destiny. It is almost impossible to believe that this is a novelty; but it is. Mexicans have not lived naturally; their history has always lacked candor. That is why they now should quickly heed that voice, which demands a life of sincerity. We must have the courage to be ourselves and the humility to accept the life that fate bestowed upon us without being ashamed of its poverty. All the ills that have outlived us are due to our failure to practice these simple rules of austerity; we have chosen to feign a situation which is very superior to that in which we actually live. Many of the sufferings which now afflict us will disappear the day we cure ourselves of our vanity. As a consequence of living outside reality of our being, we are lost in a chaotic world, in the midst of which we walk blindly and aimlessly, buffeted about by the four winds. For times of radical confusion there is no better remedy than to withdraw into ourselves, to return to the native soil. There is no doubt that after periods of muddled thinking and debilitation men and even entire peoples have revived. In our particular case, a figurative return to our own land will give us the physical and moral health necessary for recovering the confidence in the future. It is a consolation note that for some years the Mexican conscience has steadfastly sought true national introspection. But unfortunately the examination of our conscience has not been undertaken with the rigor, depth, and objectivity that the case requires. How can people be impartial judges in questions which affect their personal interest and partisan passions? Human experience shows that an interest or a passion cannot be defeated except by a greater interest or a greater passion. Therefore, we shall be incapable of knowing ourselves as individuals or as a people until we can overcome our little passions with the great passions for truth. This is one of the ways of disinterested love for persons and things, whether real or ideal. Love of knowledge was best symbolized by the eros of Plato. In order to develop, this love of knowledge must be a fundamental concern of Mexican Education.
The man who has this passion for truth will have also the indispensable moral strength to carry out a merciless analysis of himself, overcoming the weaknesses that might prevent a clear and objective view of his interior world. But the achievement of his high mental vantage point, from which we can look at things not as if we were extraterrestrial beings, but merely intelligent spectators, would not suffice to probe the inner recesses of reality. To this moral discipline an intellectual discipline must be added. It would be senseless to insist on this point if there were not a trend of opinion obviously favorable to scientific learning as the absolute prerequisite for an investigation of Mexican problems. A false concept of science seems to support this dangerous error.
Indeed, it is an exceedingly vulgar concept, the result of ignorance of superficiality, in which one can hear the distant echo of positivism; it is the fallacy that knowledge is acquired simply by opening up the five senses to reality. In this way of thinking, the intellectual function becomes subservient to the scientific process, to the extent that experience by its own virtue has the magic capacity of converting itself into ideas. Scientific research is reduced to a matter of accumulating facts, as if gathering them up to a certain amount were sufficient to cause scientific knowledge to burst into light. The chauvinistic mentality supposes, since science is European, that all intellectual preparation must constitute a bias in the scholar's mind, and accordingly blinds him to its native originality.
Therefore it is not surprising that such a theory of science should encourage the notion of creating a "Mexican science" which would admit no debt to the principles of universal science.
This is why in Mexico the true theory of science must be assimilated, because the popularized image that we have just described is no more than its caricature. Scientific research is impracticable if it does not confront reality with a prejudgement. Prejudgement is what guides the attention toward a given phenomenon; to prejudgement we owe our discovery of the relationship among different facts and perceive the continuity of a single process in events of diverse appearance. In a word, prejudgement is what within the medium of experience leads us to the scientific idea. But one cannot acquire these prejudgements without learning, before the actual investigation, the principles of the science in question.
To believe that we can develop in Mexico an original culture unrelated to the rest of the world constitutes a total misunderstanding of what culture is. The commonest notion is that culture is pure knowledge.. One fails to recognize the truth that it is rather a function of the spirit destined to humanize reality. But it is clear that this function is not spontaneous. Education, then, develops in the mind of each individual the wealth of culture already accumulated. Once that education is properly oriented, it should not simply work toward an increase in knowledge, but toward the transformation of the latter into a spiritual capacity to comprehend and elaborate the substance of every meaningful experience. Only by extracting from traditional culture its most subtle essence and making it a basic element of our spirit, can we speak of an "assimilation of culture."
Each spirit needs for its development the support and stimulus of a universal culture. It is therefore evident that the good intention of examining Mexican conscience may come to naught if we isolate it from the outside world, closing our doors to every possible foreign influence, for then we shall be left in the dark. The two extreme options in educational method are equally injurious to the future of national culture. One is to ignore Mexican reality altogether, which is what happened during the past century, so as to obtain a European culture at the possible cost of destroying our own ideas. The other is to deny categorically the significance of European culture, in the utopian hope of creating a Mexican culture which of course could not grow out of nothing. We shall never be able to decipher the mysteries of our being unless we can illuminate its depths with a guiding ideal that can come only from Europe.
When we reach some understanding of the idiosyncrasies of our national soul, we will have a standard to guide us through the complexities of European culture--which contains many important elements that are of no interest to us. Only by scientific knowledge of the Mexican mind will we have a basis for a systematic exploration of the maze of European culture and a separation of those elements which can be assimilated to our environment. Up to now, fashion has been the only arbiter for evaluating the heterogeneous products of spiritual life in the Old World. Lacking precise data on the nature of our soul, we have also lacked reference points for acquiring a Mexican perspective of European phenomena. The idea of selecting conscientiously and methodically the forms of European culture potentially adaptable to our own environment has never occurred to us. There is no doubt that such a system is possible, on the basis of choosing certain instinctive affinities that persuade our race to prefer certain cultural aspects over others. The hard thing is to distinguish between genuine congenialities and certain misguided interests which have nevertheless drawn our attention to culture. With the exception of an insignificant minority, Mexicans up to now have not cared about getting to the bottom of culture; instead, they have been content to stand aside, dazzled by its brilliant outward effects.
In the future Mexico must have a Mexican culture, but we have no illusions about its being original or unique. By Mexican culture we mean universal culture made over into our own, the kind that can coexist with us and appropriately express our spirit. Curiously enough, the only way open to us---in order to shape this Mexican culture---is to continue learning about European culture. Our race is a branch of a European race. Our history has unfolded in a European manner. But we have not succeeded in forming our own culture, because we have separated culture and life. We no longer want an artificial culture that lives like a hothouse flower; we do not want a false Americanism.
It is therefore essential to approach our problem in that modern spirit which by reiteration has become trite: to relate culture to life. As far as scientific knowledge is concerned, it is necessary to correlate continually the study of universal scientific principles with a specific analysis of our own reality. One reason for the hostility toward culture is the Mexican's individualistic character, resistant to all authority and to every standard. Accordingly, to accept the idea of radical "nationalism" would be tantamount to perpetuating the spiritual crisis; it would mean taking the path of least resistance, so as to continue facile achievements, superficial observations, and fragmentary studies devoid of scientific rigor. To give substance to our spiritual work of the future, it will be necessary to prepare our young people in schools and universities by means of an austere program basically oriented toward discipline of the will and intelligence. Concrete knowledge is what should least concern us with regard to culture as much as it can of intellectual and moral discipline. When this is achieved it will be possible to show that even those who reach the highest pinnacles of spiritual life need not, in their haughtiness, succumb to the error of rejecting native values. On the contrary, their enlightenment will permit them to comprehend and judge Mexican life more effectively.