The Labyrinth of Solitude

by Octavio Paz

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What occurs in Chapter 1 of The Labyrinth of Solitude?

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Octavio Paz opens his first chapter with a claim: each one of us believes that our existence is unique—that we are special—and that this often occurs during our adolescence. Whereas children and adults can escape into the world of work or play, however, the adolescent is trapped in the middle. Paz transposes this existential doubt into nations and peoples at certain levels of development. Answers, like people, are mutable depending on the situation and temporality.

Paz then segues into the existence of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, whom he calls pachucos, akin to a pendulum that ‘has lost its reason and swings violently and erratically back and forth.’ The pachucos are youths of Mexican origin who band together to form gangs in southern cities. They possess an ‘obstinate, almost fanatical will-to-be,’ but their identity revolves around their determination ‘not to be like those around them.’ An identity that relies on negatives is a tenuous one at best.

His whole being is sheer negative impulse, a tangle of contradictions, an enigma.

The word pachuco reflects his ambivalent identity, ‘saying nothing and saying everything.’ In contrast to African Americans, the pachucos are obstinate as regards sticking to their ‘identity,’ so they flaunt their differences. Paz describes the fashion and the society of the pachuco, which show the ‘obvious ambiguity’ of his identity:

[H]is clothing spotlights and isolates him, but at the same time it is paying homage to the society he is attempting to deny.

Instead of assimilating with the American way of life, the pachuco also tries to stand out by virtue of trying to cause terror, because it ‘is the only way he can establish a more vital relationship with the society he is antagonizing.’ The pachuco is a sadist of sorts but also a masochist: he tries to defy the society that has adopted him instead of uniting with it.

Persecution redeems him and breaks his solitude: his salvation depends on his becoming part of the very society he appears to deny.

In spite of this, however, solitude slowly returns to and permeates the existence of the pachuco. They are truly different and also truly alone.

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In this chapter, entitled "The Pachuco and Other Extremes", the author, Octavio Paz, examines the problem of establishing a Mexican American identity.  He uses the pachucos, Latin American youth who sought to express their uniqueness during the 1940s and 1950s through distinctive dress and antisiocial behavior, as an example.  The tragedy of the pachucos, according to the author, is that they rebelled against both their Mexican pasts as well as against the American society which would not accept them, leaving them men "who belong(ed) nowhere".  Paz describes their declaration of selfhood as "suicidal", affirming or defending nothing except the "exasperated will-not-to-be".

The author depicts Mexican and American attitudes as being fundamentally at odds.  According to him, Americans try to avoid seeing reality and horror, while Mexicans contemplate it; Americans "are credulous", while Mexicans "are believers"; Mexicans "(tell) lies because (they) delight in rise above the sordid facts", while Americans do not lie, but instead substitute "social truth for the real truth".   In the author's experience, Mexicans in America are "truly different...and...truly alone".  Like the pachuco, with an intangible sense of self-loathing, they "withdraw into (them)selves...increas(ing) (their) solitude by refusing to seek out (their) compatriots, perhaps because (they) fear (they) will see (them)selves in them" (Chapter 1).

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