Review: Edward Stanton – “Vidas: Deep in Mexico and Spain”

by J.R. Patterson

Edward Stanton – Vidas: Deep in Mexico and Spain (Waterside 2021), Paperback, pp 239.

Book review by J. R. Patterson.

Spain and Mexico are perhaps the two greatest Spanish-speaking countries of the world by measure of population and international cultural influence. Seen through a narrow pigeonhole, the two countries occupy two disparate positions on the same cultural disc: Spain, as the cradle of hispanidad, is defined by traditional austerity struck by occasional bouts of serious fun. Mexico, on the dangerous periphery of the Hispanosphere, is a world where life is cheap, and blood and tequila swirl in the veins of banditos. 

These are lazy generalizations pulled from a distanced mind; they mean nothing. One would hope, then, that a book written to restore the reputation of these “demonized and ravaged” countries, would go far in dispelling these myths. Regrettably, that is not the case. 

In Vidas, Edward Stanton, a humanities scholar specializing in Hispanics, affably guides us through his sepia-tinted memories of raconteurs, gold-hearted whores, and wise gardeners who recite poetry. Inspired by his Californian childhood encounters with a Mexican migrant laborer, the teenage Stanton descends (the word is used to fit the scene) into the Mexico of the 1950s, whoring in Tijuana before busing through various Mexican states on a youthful turn of misadventure. The 1960s find him in Spain, teaching English in Madrid, then tramping to a litany of cities and having love affairs with various “ones that got away.” After a fifteen-year interlude in the States (army, career, marriage, children, divorce), Stanton returns to the Spain of the 1980s, newly liberated from under the dark helm of Franco. 

While a sense of place is evoked well enough — there is enough Hispanophilia here to sink the NinaPinta, and the Santa Maria in one blow, there is regrettably little feeling of time. The Mexico of the ’50s, the Spain of the ’60s — even the Spain of the ’80s — belong to an altogether different world now. Reading about those times in those places is, at least for this reader, uncommon enough to be interesting. However, much of what we learn of “the times” comes through in expositional dialogue rather than the experience of the author. 

There is little to place Stanton in time, and the result is a book that could be anyone’s travel memories at any point in history. By neglecting to place his encounters within the wider context of history leaves much to be desired. What of the “Mexican Miracle,” that saw the country’s economy boom throughout the ’50s and ’60s? How did (or didn’t) the world’s turn toward counter culture influence the Spain of the ’60s, for instance? When we zip ahead to the ’80s, we’re given only one brief mention of the Basque independence movement, a moment when, during the San Fermin festivities in Pamplona, a member of the violent-prone ETA independence group, is seen dancing with an associate of the more moderate PNV, the Basque National Party. A singular moment, to be sure, but one that doesn’t say much about anything. Instead, we’re treated to a description of drinking and brotherly back-thumping. 

That’s the great neglect of Vidas. The writing, like an éclair, is packed with filling, but is ultimately devoid of nutrition. This, of course, is sometimes the problem with memoir (the genre to which Vidas belongs at the end of the day), particularly when it includes some aspect of travel. We yearn to know what was happening at the small and large scale, but have to settle for the middling effects of memory. 

What, one wonders, made his time in Franco’s Spain seem comparable to Reagan’s California and Nixon’s America, as he fleetingly suggests? Wiretaps and jingoism hardly seem comparable to the torture and execution occurring in Spain, where blasphemy in public was illegal. It’s a joke, of course — Stanton couldn’t seriously compare the two. But by falling flat, the joke invokes questions about whether Stanton was paying as much attention sixty years ago as he wants us to believe. 

His love for Spain, and thus his memory, is sacralised. While he traipsed the streets “shielded by a company of angels,” the transition of power from Franco to democracy was far from bloodless, as he states (some 114,000 “disappeared” for opposing the regime). And his insistence on Spain as a model for South American countries is a clanger that shows a deafness to the country’s colonial inheritance. 

For a while, it seems we will be gratefully spared the obligatory mentions of Hemingway — Stanton has, after all, written an entire book (Hemingway and Spain: A Pursuit) about “finding” the man in Spain. With the third act, however, we are consistently drawn into Hemingway parallels so forced they’re abusive. 

Women populate the books, but usually as sexual objects, albeit strong ones, most of them some variation of “so beautiful your ribcage hurts to look at them.” (Yikes!) For a love-affair of Spain and Mexico, Vidas veers dangerously close to the realm of an histoire amoureuse. Tales of romantic misadventures, no matter how fulfilling they seemed at the time, rarely translate as such onto the page. Though he has spent months to years in both countries, most cultural description fails to rise above swirling generalizations and universal truths, of which women suffer as much as the countries as a whole. Did all women living under Franco “lower their eyes” to passing men? After the liberation, were they all suddenly “without curiosity or bashfulness?” If so, why? 

The takeaway from Vidas is one of access. As a fluent Spanish speaker, Stanton had unproblematic access to the inner world of Spain and Mexico. That ability, to command the confidence of a traveler without any of the funny (unfunny) misunderstandings, is a gift that can’t be faked. It’s a sentiment so true that Stanton repeats it twice, saying that “language can be a key… it can unlock doors closed to most foreigners, perhaps even to other native speakers.”

According to his biography, Stanton has also lived in Argentina and Uruguay, two countries the inclusion of which would have been a welcome addition to the book. It could do with some diversity; most historians, not to mention Latin Americans, would balk at Stanton’s idea that “in spite of all its regions, countries and dialects, at bottom the Spanish-speaking world is mostly one.” Granted, that quote was drawn from “the blur or clarity born from alcohol.” 

Stanton’s descriptions of food and drink at times court virtuosity (blurs not withstanding), showing a talent for translating the tongue onto the page. Alas, despite the sheer volume of chow through which Stanton chews, such moments are too rare to raise the book beyond much more than a collection of memories. Though it aspires to the veracity of travel literature, the book fits comfortably within the doldrums of memoir. 

And though Vidas is a venerable exercise in memory, the Mexico and Spain of this book no longer exist, if they ever did. Unfortunately, after reading this book, they remain behind the miasma of memory, obscured by time and distance as much as sentiment for youth. The remembrances described of this book are lovely and warming, within which any young man would easily find himself lost in, dreamlike. Vidas might just as well have been called Sueños.

Edward Stanton – Vidas: Deep in Mexico and Spain (Waterside 2021), Paperback, pp 239.

Book review by J. R. Patterson.

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