Commentary Magazine

Listening to Pedro Martinez

Since the Industrial Revolution, the belief has developed that a “true” history should reflect a multitude of voices: kings, cardinals, and philosophers no longer suffice when everyone makes history. To this belief we owe the extraordinary proliferation of such “humane” sciences as psychology, sociology, and anthropology, as well as the pressure that is applied to us to accept history as unformed, a mass of “material” awaiting an author. All voices being germane to the historical process, the twenty years of research and craftsmanship that have resulted in Oscar Lewis's Five Families, Children of Sanchez, and now Pedro Martinez1 are presumably “documents” on a par with all others—“documents” not in the narrow sense of registers of facts and events, but in the contemporary sense, in which almost anything is of equal value to the reconstruction of a culture or a society: old postcards, advertisements, recorded comment, possessions, and the laying bare of the soul.

On the surface, at least, Pedro Martinez seems to be another such documentary: an account in their own words, faithfully recorded on tape, of the lives of three Mexican peasants: a father Pedro Martinez, his wife Esperanza, and his oldest surviving son, Felipe. No comment on the background of the author, no surrounding history, no description, no analysis flaws the purity of these accounts. Nonetheless, it is quite clear that Mr. Lewis is doing far more than presenting “documents.” Indeed, in his introduction to The Children of Sanchez, Mr. Lewis makes fairly extensive claims for his method. It is a “new technique” which “gives us a cumulative, multifaceted, panoramic view,” a method that avoids “the two most common hazards in the study of the poor, namely over-sentimentalization and brutalization.” He also feels that his work in some way makes up for the fact that “novelists have not given us an adequate portrayal of the lives of the poor in the contemporary world”; that they write “within traditional literary forms,” whereas his own tape recorder makes possible “a new kind of literature of social realism,” one that has the “simplicity, sincerity, and directness” of oral literature “in contrast to written literature.” Finally, he assigns himself the role of “student and spokesman” of what he calls “the culture of poverty,” a role important because while “a process of culture change is going on among the peoples of the less-developed countries . . . we find no comparable outpouring of a universal literature which would help us improve our understanding of the process and the people. And yet the need for such an understanding has never been more urgent.”


With such claims in mind, it is small wonder that Mr. Michael Harrington, another and equally gifted witness of poverty, should cite Norman Mailer to the effect that the social scientists are encroaching on the domain of literature. In some respects, this is true. I don't think Pedro Martinez would have been written a few decades ago, or accorded by the public that read The Grapes of Wrath a similar reception. I doubt that this says anything very relevant about the touted “death of the novel,” but it does say a great deal about the confusion in both genres. For if the sociologist or anthropologist—taking Mr. Lewis as an example—wishes to do what the novelist does, he does so by using the techniques of the novel and with an evident risk to his “science.” The human personality remains at the core of literature; and remains obviously mysterious. Fundamentally so does Mr. Lewis's creation, Pedro Martinez. We are told he truly exists, but in fact, he only exists “in his own words.” It is clearly not the function of literature to explain; but science should and does.

There are some other obviously awkward questions suggested by such mélanges as those Mr. Lewis proposes. The line between popularization and “true” science is no easier to draw than that between literature and the social sciences. One takes it that if one is offered anything less than the “truth,” a disservice is being done. But literature, or Mr. Lewis qua littérateur, is hardly objective, hence he is something less than scientific. To the subjectivity of his informants, he has added his own—expressed first in the choice of his subject, and then in his diligence in pursuing it; and further, in the arrangement, compression, and selection of his material—done with such art that it seems natural. But, of course, it is not.

Thus one might consider this difficulty: does the human raw material of history, do the members of Mr. Lewis's “culture of poverty,” possess the self-awareness, the logic, or the sense of context that is necessary to relate their own story? And what danger lies in allowing this raw material to “speak for itself,” without situation, without context, without qualifications? In reading and rereading Pedro Martinez, it becomes obvious that the faculties of the Martinez family belong to Mr. Lewis: without him, Pedro Martinez would only half exist; he would neither question his life nor perhaps even think he possessed one in the historical sense. In short, being interviewed was, for Pedro Martinez, an education in itself and in being expressed through the medium of Mr. Lewis, Pedro is no longer the same man. Therefore, he and his life are both lies—lies, of course, of the kind from which literature is fashioned.

A third question, to which I shall come back later, refers to ourselves, the readers of Mr. Lewis's “document”: to what extent can we understand these lives? Is their experience of the same order as ours, so that we can, even imaginatively, make the necessary leap? We use a decimal system, while other civilizations have a vigesimal. Both systems explain the mathematical content of the universe, but our civilization makes it unlikely that we can, for any stretch of time, think “outside” the decimal system. Is this, from the standpoint of our “bourgeois” culture, perhaps true of the way we see the “culture of poverty”?


There is much to the portraits of the Mexican poor Mr. Lewis has drawn that is almost tragically true: the emotional asphyxia, the animal as well as refined and enjoyed cruelty, the docility and abasement before power, the covert admiration of the canny and the clever. These are part of the national temperament and in no way restricted to the poor. On the other hand, as Mr. Lewis himself acknowledges, Pedro Martinez is “exceptional.”

What distinguishes Pedro is that he has been marked by an event, the Mexican Revolution of 1910. He is one of those rare men who have participated in history. Rare anywhere, such men are even rarer in the peasant class. The experience has defined him; it has also embittered him. He shares the general introverted bitterness of the Mexican mass, because having played his part in history, he was thereafter excluded from that very history he thought he had helped create. No sooner had he won a victory over his non-identity than the levers of power, the only thing capable of making Pedro rise above the mass, slipped from his hands.

The fact of which this book is such eloquent testimony is that the Revolution is the myth at the heart of Mexican life. It is a myth of use to all and that all exploit: the Establishment does so because without the Revolution, the P.R.I.—Mexico's overwhelmingly dominant party—would have no political base; the mass does so because the Revolution is the legitimation of its demands.

The experience of the 20th century begins to teach us one thing: revolutions may start in reality, but they end in mythology. They are, in this respect, like new religions. Because they are “events” and not “processes,” great is the fervor at the origins, and reasonably concrete are the promises and achievements; but with the passing of time, there is the falling-off, the “priests” take over, and the result is a more subtle theology, more nuances, great strides in definitions and in the manufacture of history, and also the death of the Fact. In the first stage, an inarticulate mass may participate; in the second, it is out-talked and becomes a mere spectator at the rite.

For a Pedro Martinez, the Mexican Revolution was a watershed: life on the one side of it is not the same as life on the other. But though it disrupted history; though it killed, damaged, and transformed; though ideas, words, and structures changed—even the class structure—this revolution finally turned out to be a mere seismological “shift”: reality, what happens every day, did not change, and that is the horror and fascination of Mexico. It points up the fact that there are factors more powerful than government, state, or politics, elements that are inherent in the society and resist all change. Before the Revolution, power was what counted most; and after, power also counted most. Before, corruption; after, corruption. Before, the peasant's feeling that he was a cipher, powerless before the array of forces representing the “way things are”; after, as much of a cipher, as powerless, as yielding.

But it is worse now, because the Revolution incarnated a faith and a hope (for Pedro Martinez the martyred Zapata is a Saint Sebastian), and for a deprived mass there is no despair deeper than that which follows a betrayed expectation. The appetite is whetted, but not slaked. Even the young, who have no memory of the event itself, are expected to act, think, and vote (especially) in concordance with it. Thus a sacred cow stands in the way of their making their own revolution, more in keeping with the Mexico of today. The Revolution is now slogans on the wall, an institution; it lacks all relevance to the human raw material that once gave it life and death: today it is all Vivas!, but the soul is dead.

To understand Pedro Martinez one has to understand that this revolution was not only a great event: it was the only event of his life. The Mexicans—in general willfully, the peasants through ignorance—live in defiance of the greater geography of the world. The country is a gigantic tautology built around the word “Mexico.” The Mexican has been taught he lives in the best of all possible worlds, which conflicts with the evidence of his senses. But between sense and authority, there is no possible choice: it is the will of God that he should agree with authority.

Conformity to the topography of the culture and the society: no nation I know expresses this concept with a more crushing weight. If this is felt at the level of the educated and economically independent middle-class Mexicans, what can it be like at the level of Pedro Martinez?

Into this stagnation, the Revolution brought a momentary mobility; it extirpated old factions; it disturbed the normal order and hence introduced an element of doubt into the apparent immutability of the world; it denied the absolute continuity of time (what my grandfather did, my grandson shall also do). But with the passing of time, the Revolution merely formed another pattern to be accepted.

And here, Pedro's evidence is invaluable, for his Revolution was not a coherent thing at all, but an upheaval scattered in its effects all over a vast territory, in which the best and the worst men were indiscriminately mixed, killed or killing, in which profound social dissatisfactions played an equal but no greater role than greedy scurryings after power. The objects of hatred, Don Porfirio and his caciques,2 vanished early on: this changed nothing. The Revolution was not won with their overthrow; like any civil war, it was lost by all. And participants like Pedro Martinez were like Stendhal's Fabrizio del Dongo at Waterloo: who knew what was what? It was an interruption of the torpor, and when it was over, really some twenty years later (Pedro did not feel “safe” to return to his village until 1929), the torpor settled back in, like a coat of volcanic ash. Pedro Martinez has not been heard of since. For a while, there had been unity; then the old divisions returned. Of the thousand ways to split a peasantry and keep the poor in their place there is none so effective as to grant their demands. The Establishment is always surprised that these demands are so much less drastic than had been dreaded and how quickly it can right itself. In the case of the Mexican Revolution, the peasant wanted to be treated like a human being and not an animal; beyond that, he could not even see. One supposes that he won: at least today he is a slightly better-treated animal.


It is here that the larger context of Mr. Lewis's book enters: that which it is “urgent” to understand. For the question Mr. Lewis poses is whether the peasant qua peasant can survive in a modern society.

The cycle runs a little as follows: each of the countries of Latin America produces less food than it needs, but the peasant who should produce it is too poor and too backward for the land he has, which is too little or unsuitable. Giving him more land, better land, someone else's land, does not necessarily solve anything: this is the characteristic error of applying a political solution to problems that derive not from politics but from economics and culture. Giving him the tools, the credit, the training that he needs to become a more efficient producer is a help, but still does not solve the problem; he remains socially and politically backward in his distant, primitive isolation from the centers of civilized life. Overcome these obstacles, and you no longer have a peasantry: you face a problem in mass migration to the urban areas. And here, there is nothing in the structure of the Latin American nations to indicate that more than a tiny fraction of the rural population can be absorbed into the urban economy without cutting mercilessly into that minute proportion of the national investment available to “growth.”

In these terms, alas, is posed the great dilemma of the continent. Through the eyes of Mr. Lewis one can see the alternatives: rural squalor and urban lumpen-poor And through Mr. Lewis one can also learn why agrarian reform is the current cliché for a whole continent. It is not because agrarian reform will solve anything; it is because agrarian reform will enable the countries of Latin America to gain time, to postpone the moment of decision—the abolition of the peasantry. For all reforms proposed in Latin America at present are like two-lane superhighways, already obsolescent. The governments that propose them live in the hope that the peasant's “culture” will not develop more rapidly than his economic and social condition: when one outstrips the other, when the peasant “knows” too much to accept his inferior status, the ground will be laid for another revolution.


The lives that Oscar Lewis traces in Pedro Martinez are impenetrable in many ways: the incalculable loss of time in pre-technology such as grinding corn or walking four hours to the fields; the alliance of poverty with a pre-monetary economy; the animistic dread of a nature full of malefic influences; the sullen obedience, bigotry, and tribal xenophobia; and everywhere, and always, the brutality—murderous, vicious, and bestial. These are not conditions in which we happy readers of fat and expensive Random House books could live; I suggest we also have considerable difficulty in understanding these conditions.

Pedro himself, I have said, is an exception; he can, with justice, claim to have been, at least once, someone But what of his wife, Esperanza, of whom Pedro himself said she knows “nothing” and had never had an “idea”? What of his son Felipe who, when he finally marries, we realize with a shock, is already in his late thirties, and before that—half-blind, ever ill, and ill-accommodated to whatever society he finds himself in—was but an obedient wooden figure in the shadow of his father's brutality?

Pedro at least acquired, over the years, a rudiment of the conceptualizing power; he knows just enough to rebel against the forces that keep him at zero. He can argue with a neighbor about religion; he can be an “outsider” (indeed, he has a vocation for it); he can define himself as not someone else. But once that is done, he cannot take the next step. The concepts of a man such as Pedro Martinez should have access to a context, they should be insertable in a society; they do not, they are not. They come back, always, to himself. His revolution failed, his religious conversion failed: failed for want of breathing space.

There are times when Pedro tries to act in the larger world. He has various municipal posts, has his moments of social agitation; he is even, for a while, a judge. That these lead to nothing is a question of the System, or so he sees it. Pursuing a man at law for having wronged him, he does not see, a few years later when he is the Law, any reason not to abuse the law that once protected him. Justice is one of those concepts that requires a context: Pedro, declaiming against venal politicians, accepts bribes himself. Logic is not lacking, only severely limited.

Similarly with suffering, the most universal experience. When nature gets people down, she steps on them: a moral to be drawn from Pedro. But Pedro blames no one; these are things beyond his ken. Even Felipe, the butt, or Esperanza, the mater dolorosa, accept; they accept, accept, and accept. In so much ill fortune, there is little to distinguish between one degree or kind of evil and another, between those which are self-induced or corrigible (illness) and those that depend on fortune (politics, sudden death). The key scene in the book is that quoted in the epigraph. Pedro, quarreling with his son, unjustly, over a triviality, puts his hand on the boy's face (which the son accepts) and gouges out his eye: “It's a pity,” he says afterward, his son listening from the next room, “There's no revolution now so I could go and join it. Because the truth is that I am desperate.”

And desperate he is, and with reason. In all his long life, dragged about on Pedro's back like a senseless burden the bearer never questions, there is no recognizable source of evil; there is no scapegoat; no question of motive. All events are alien to the individual, and causeless. How unnatural to us seems this inability to determine the cause of our suffering!


It is a commonplace to say that the peasant, like the dumb brute, is passive, with neither enough memory nor enough anticipation to ward off evil; that this is derived from early education, subordination to the needs of the immediate community, and practiced self-sacrifice. But Pedro Martinez demonstrates that as much passivity as there is before those above, there is an equal tyranny on those below. What Pedro suffers from the caciques and politicos, he passes on to his wife and children; give him a little power and he gets drunk, and drunk with it.

The braggart and the bully are, psychologists tell us, products of an inferiority complex. Transfer this to a whole section of a society and infer from the behavior of Pedro Martinez, and the prognosis is an unhappy one. Time is needed to govern with justice, and those who overthrow one tyranny too suddenly, when they are not ready to assume their responsibilities, soon set up another in its place, less sophisticated, less controlled than its predecessor.

A part of us rebels against this harsh image of the peasant: surely his nobility does not lie purely in the literary mind? Surely his horny-handed toil-worthy endurance, those Jesus-like simplicities of his communion with the soil, his honor, and his adherence to ancient traditions are superior to our own sophistication? Surely he is—final question of all, for the modern alienated—closer to Life, more real?

The two truths exist side by side. But Mr. Lewis is a partisan of the poetry, as befits the writer of a “new literature of social realism.” Thus, though the reader can see a Pedro who achieves, at the end of his life, a stand somewhere “beyond good and evil,” freed of his rage and frustration, with honest toil to look back on, and his children, through education, measurably nearer the “better” life he himself will never see—the burden of Pedro Martinez, in spite of Mr. Lewis, is elsewhere. The more constant image is of a quasi human being, mired in abjection, unable to see beyond his appetites, subject to a capricious nature and a fantasy of politics: through this he has to maneuver with no higher standard than the defense of his own ego.


At the end, for Pedro Martinez the world has obviously gone to pot—such is the way of old men. But he is free: he no longer feels responsible. He has done what he could do. The Pedro who grew up in rebellion (the Revolution, and his conversion to Protestantism) and matured in frustration has ended in resignation. The extremely sad message of Pedro Martinez is that Death is the only culmination he will know. A vessel into which the promise of revolution and the change in the society about him have poured an excess of expectations, Pedro has seen an instance of “anxiety”; he has been fed a morsel from the tree of knowledge. The old order, in which he was at home, has been lost; in the new order, he does not fit. To fit, he would have to break with the past, and to do that is to abandon the self he has fought to preserve; to fit, he would also have to escape poverty, and he cannot raise the necessary energy.

What can he do? Migrate? Somewhere else is always a hope. Count on his posterity? It is the children, generation by generation, that are flung out into that Elsewhere. But isn't that perhaps the greatest horror? And wouldn't many Mexicans observing these migrations and the spawn breeding in the capital, say that better Pedro should suffer among his own values than be hurled into the mindless wrist-watchy, sunglassed, transistorized limbo of urban culture? The moral is that no greater price can be exacted of human beings than that imposed by an enforced “development.” The selection of the fittest was never more rigorously policed.

But there is a very different moral in store for us. For without a doubt, we are afraid of the peasant, a fear that we express in different forms. In Latin America, the intelligentsia rids itself of guilt by celebrating the peasant life or by trying to chain the poor to a political cause in the direction of which they, the poor, and the poorly prepared, have no part. We all suffer from a demographic fear: that there are so many of them and so few of us; that they do not behave as we do, or think, or feel. When we can—Ralph Ellison showed us in the Invisible Man—we do not see them, because what we see, when we do look, is something we do not want to be.

They are also afraid of us, but we fear the time when they will lose their fear. Then, in our nightmares, they overrun us, yellow, black, or merely poor Then, what we consider safe, reasonable, and sound, the rules of the game, will go by the board; then they will say, like Pedro Martinez, Zas ! and that will be the end of us.

Our “democratic revolution” in Latin America means, essentially: let this cup pass from me! Thus we call for orderly revolutions, so that we can adjust to their entry into our lives, so that when they do enter, they will have acquired some or most of our rules, so that they may behave as we do.

Meanwhile, the violence that might be visited on us is visited on them. Felipe, with his eye hanging out, is actually our scapegoat. Better his eye than ours. Pedro's scapegoat, ourselves, he does not see. For him and his fellow poor, we are only a potential scapegoat. Since the Mexican Revolution, he has been steered clear of the knowledge that it is we who are responsible. But we remain with the fear, the fear of falling back. We who have erected this civilization at such frightful cost, on the backs of unnumbered millions, are not sure that this civilization will protect us. The irrational still stalks the land, and has no regard for our lives, thoughts, possessions, or plans for the future.

Such a moral, or such a fear, is quite an achievement for a book. Without the recent discovery of our own poor, of our own Negroes, would this book receive the attention it does, and deserves?


It's a pity there's no revolution so I could go and join it. Because the truth is I am desperate. That's why I hit your brother

Pedro Martinez


1 Random House, 507 pp., $8.75.

2 Leading citizens of small towns or villages.

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