Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness
Part II of X:
On the Buena Vista Social Club, Ethnicity, and the Creation of the Self
Recently I was in my friend's car when he played for me the first Buena Vista Social Club recording. Normally, I do not like Caribbean Spanish music (salsa, meregue, etc.) but this stuff struck a chord with me. I recognized instantly that it had soul; something I find missing in a lot of music from the hotter climates of Latin America. I then went out and bought the recording, and have been playing it fairly regularly ever since.
One thing that you the reader have to realize is that one of the things that has formed this writer more than anything else is my ethnic identity, and even this is highly problematic. The above mentioned recording would be deemed "Latin" or "Latino" music, but this is largely a construct of census takers, opportunist academics and marketers. A person of Mexican descent is not the same as a person of Cuban descent. The language is similar, but they abide in very different emotional and psychological temperaments. The "Latino" in popular culture, though, is very homogenized: passionate, dark, and over-sexed. I can tell you now that I am very few of those things!
Where I grew up, there were no "Latinos", only "Mexicans" (whether you were born there or not). This I would classify as the "rural barrio" of the central coast of California, to distinguish it from the urban barrio of say, east Los Angeles. Here, multiple generations of the Mexican diaspora live together and overlap: my mother is first generation straight from northern Mexico, my father is fourth generation from southern Texas (virtually northern Mexico). I was raised in a church-going, ultra-conservative extended family on my mother's side: any drinking of alcohol is not allowed at family get-togethers, and you will never hear in our houses even the first syllable of one of the many curse words that inhabit the speech of most Mexican tongues. (Though I know them all by heart, you can rest assured!) I call my family the world's only example of Mexican Puritans; a rather odd spectacle to say the least.
Thus, strong clan-like tendencies formed my first sense of the self. Along with this, however, was the strong concept of "deber": duty. My mother's family came to this country as field-workers, and I am the first generation of those who did not have to work in the fields.(my mother and my father both had to as small children). We were expected to rise to the highest rank in the barrio hierarchy: those who leave for a better life. If I can get a little "red" here, those who grow up in poor Mexican-American neighborhoods are expected to fall into one of three categories:
1. Lumpen-proletariat: the gangsters or cholos who end up in prison or are trying their hardest to get there.
2. Proletariat: those who work the dead-end jobs or even some more decent jobs but stay in the barrio.
3. Petit-bourgeoisie: those who get good paying jobs, leave the barrio and usually end up marrying white people, or at least people of their own social stature, thus drying up that stream of the diaspora and becoming part of the great American melting pot.
Of course, these are generalizations, but they are accurate ones. And I was slated for number 3, and to go very high in number 3. However, little Arturito was not just smart, he was really, really different. I mean REALLY. A bookwarm, constantly in the library, and very reclusive, he did not seek to read to get better grades. He read for fun at a very young age. He began seriously reading philosophy in middle school, and one author, one prophet of self-assertion overshadowed the formative years of this youth who was surrounded by cultural conditions that would determine for him who he needed to become. That prophet, of course, was none other than Jean-Paul Sartre, the godfather of existentialism.
His master work, Being and Nothingness, took me six months to read, and it was the most pleasant agony of my life. I was fourteen and had spending money due to the fact that I had my first real summer job (my family took the children out to cut apricots since we were five, but that was more to keep us out of trouble). I saw a biography of Sartre in the library and was fascinated by the whole ethos that he portrayed. Since I found Descartes and Aquinas very boring (indeed, I don't think I understood them fully), I jumped at this thick, convoluted paperback volume and tore it to shreds trying to figure out what negation, consciousness, and freedom really were. The result of this rather strange task has formed my life ever since.
I don't remember a lot about Sartrian existentialism, but one thing that is very potent is his concept of the self. For Sartre, most of us live in "bad faith", i.e. we think we are something that we are really not. The self in Sartre's tome is a constantly roving ghost trying to catch its own shadow. Consciousness is always consciousness of something, and if you are conscious of that thing, you are NOT it. Thus, when a person says, "I am a waiter," for Sartre, this person is in a sense lying since he is looking outside of himself and saying: "I am that", when he really isn't. For Sartre, the self is a negation, a constant negation, and this is the ground for the absurdity of human life, but it is also the ground for freedom. Man, as Sartre says, may be a futile passion (since he wants to become God, ens causa sui), but this makes man free to choose his actions in an absurd universe.
Now you know why I am so messed up: a fourteen year old has no reason to read these things. One thing this did give me, though, was a sense that I can choose who I become. It exorcised from me the spirit of "deber" for better or for worse. I dropped out of college so many years ago to pursue a thing that most people don't even know exist: happiness in contemplation. I have resisted all labels even in my Faith. For most people in the Mexican American community, a person of my ethnic pedigree needs to go to one of "our" churches, whether they be Catholic or evangelical Protestant. But a Mexican-American Anglican or Byzantine-rite monk? What an absurdity! Even though I am very grateful for my upbringing, I think I have said to the barrio more than once the words that Sartre puts on the lips of one of his characters in a play he wrote:
I am my freedom. No sooner than you made me that I ceased to be yours.
Rather than reveling in my "Mexicaness" all of the time, I try and take a more Platonic approach. Rather than trying to distinguish myself in postmodern fashion from the rest of "Anglo" society, I try and see universals in all manifestations of human life and culture that I encounter. I try and find those things that bind us all; as a Christian it is something I must do. Yes, as a poor kid from the barrio, it's hard to mix with upper-class Anglicans, Russians, or even with people who grew up on the other side of the tracks. Who I am, however, is not determined by where I come from. It is determined by the fact that I am a free human being, made in the image and likeness of God. And we are all brothers and sisters of the same Father in heaven. That is the legacy that existentialism left with me, and it is one I intend to keep.