The Mexico into which the Old Gringo, the character closely modeled after the Civil War veteran and journalist Ambroce Bierce, enters early in Carlos Fuentes’ novel is struck by the contrasts between the country he is leaving behind, the United States, and one he is entering. While Bierce’s experiences serving in the Union Army during the Civil War certainly exposed him to venues and circumstances which he otherwise may never have encountered, for example, the forested and mountainous regions of Tennessee where the Battle of Shiloh was fought, the grassy plains of Nebraska, and the cosmopolitan surroundings of San Francisco, where his military service ended following a journey across the Plains to visit U.S. Army outposts, nothing had prepared him for the geography and culture he would confront in the American Southwest, particularly, the long, monotonous desert plains that lined Northern Mexico. In The Old Gringo, Fuentes suggests that Bierce was surprised by the extent to which the last American town had been developed relative to his preconceptions. In Chapter Three, Fuentes’ protagonist, the Old Gringo of the title, arrives in the south Texas town of El Paso, the departure point for his entry into Mexico. Fuentes describes the old man’s observations:
“He walked a few blocks through the border town; he’d imagined it drearier and duller and older than it actually was, and sick, as well, of the Revolution, of the rage from across the river. Instead, it was a town of bright new automobiles, five-and-ten-cent stores, and young people, so young they could hardly have been born in the nineteenth century. In vain, he searched for his idea of the American frontier.”
Old Gringo/Bierce, it is presumed, had envisioned El Paso as being as depressed as the Mexican towns across the border, particularly Ciudad Juarez, and was surprised to find it more representative of the United States, to which it now belonged, than to Mexico, from which it was taken. The relatively modern appearance of El Paso contrasted starkly with the vast, dusty, empty and depressive state into which the old man was entering.
Beyond the stark contrasts between the United States and Mexico across the long border, Fuentes uses the character of Harriet Winslow to illuminate the enormous cultural and intellectual gulf between the two countries. A sheltered school teacher from Washington, D.C. who heads to Mexico to tutor the children of a wealthy Mexican family, Winslow soon crosses paths with Mexican revolutionaries and with the tired old American journalist and veteran who, it becomes apparent, has come to war-torn Mexico to die a more colorful death than would have been the case in the United States. Described in the novel as “a cultivated young lady, but headstrong and fanciful,” Winslow, far more than the old war veteran gringo, is clearly out of her element among the revolutionary armies sweeping across Northern Mexico. The prominent role in Fuentes’ novel of rebel general Pancho Villa and his guerrilla army, the massive scale of poverty endemic across Northern Mexico and the masses, of peasantry increasingly angered by the corruption and ostentatious wealth thousands of miles south in Mexico City all combined for a radically different environment than anything this young, naïve school teacher could have imagined – just as the old gringo himself was struck by the contrasts between countries. And, then, there is the spiritual component that divides those on each side of the border. Early in the story, in Chapter Two, General Arroyo and Colonel Garcia are explaining to their woman visitor the nature of the old gringo, whose buried corpse is being exhumed for return to the United States. The old gringo – the aging journalist who has fought in his own country’s war and has come to Mexico to die violently in their’s – represented a transcendent phenomenon to this Mexican Army officer. During this scene, Fuentes references the physical and spiritual borders across which the old gringo and others like him crossed in search of new frontiers and new challenges:
“They did, said Colonel Garcia, yes the gringos did. They sent their lives crossing frontiers, theirs and those that belonged to others, and now the old man had crossed to the south because he didn’t have any frontiers left to cross in his own country.”
“And the frontier in here?" the North American woman had asked, tapping her forehead. "And the frontier in hear?" General Arroyo had responded, touching his heart. "There's one frontier we only dare to cross at night," the old gringo said. "The frontier of our differences with others, of our battles with ourselves.”
Towards the end of The Old Gringo, Winslow comes face-to-face with the historical and cultural gulf that existed between Mexico and the United States. Mexico simply wasn’t the United States, and no amount of wishing could erase the huge differences between these neighboring countries. Mexican resentment of U.S. usurpation of Mexican territories along the southwestern U.S. assured that there would be no meeting of minds. Responding to a question regarding his views of the American occupation of Veracruz, Villa, connecting the dead American journalist to the American military incursion, offers the following proverb: “An unwelcome guest and a dead man both stink after two days.”
The enduring bitterness among the Mexicans in Fuentes’ story is directed both at the growing power to the north and the corrupt autocrat to the south. “They’re right when they say this isn’t a border; it’s a scar,” laments one Mexican national to the finally departing Winslow. Such was the antipathy towards the United States held by many in Mexico. It presents a contrast that Winslow knows, in the end, she can never reconcile.