LATIN AMERICA’s OTHER BITE
by Jessica Sequeira
After FIFA suspended Uruguayan footballer Luis Suárez for “biting” Italian player Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder during the World Cup, fans around the world raised questions about commissions and kickbacks. Symbolically, at least, they may have had a point. In Spanish, mordida refers to a physical bite, but according to a use of the term that originated in Mexico and spread through Latin America, it can also mean “bribe” or “pay-off.” High levels of corruption in the region are mirrored in its literature, where palm greasing is a favorite theme.
Mexico, home of the term, is rich in literature of the mordida. “I know how I would like to act; but I also know that the only truth in Mexico is the mordida. There isn’t anything one can do to fight it: it is sacred and circulates through the whole body of the country like blood,” says a character in ¡Viva México!, a 1968 novel by Rubén Salazar Mallén. In Mauro Rodríguez Estrada’s 1999 El miedo a la verdad: el mal silencioso [Fear of the Truth: The Silent Evil], a character philosophizes that
in fields like administration, politics, law, and religion, pragmatism becomes very complex. If someone says, for instance, that an action “works” or is highly effective, it’s worth asking, for whom and how? For example: the dictatorship of Stalin worked for him and his cabal; the system of the mordida might work for me, if I were a policeman and received substantial bribes, or an industrial magnate who greased the palms of civil servants in order to operate at leisure.
Foreign visitors have been no less intrigued by “the bite.” After completing his famous 1947 novel Under the Volcano, the British writer Malcolm Lowry wrote up notes for a novel called La Mordida, set in Acapulco and based on his real life experiences. During a previous trip, he had overstayed his visa and allegedly failed to pay a 50-peso fine. Local officials, portrayed as venal, unscrupulous sharks, made it clear they could be persuaded to look the other way. In those years, the same applied to the oversight of drugs. In his 1951 novel Queer, William S. Burroughs observed that “there were no regulations curtailing self-medication, and needles and syringes could be bought anywhere. This was in the time of Alemán, when the mordida was king, and a pyramid of bribes reached from the cop on the beat up to the presidente.” As Luis Urrea explained in his 1998 account Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border, “La mordida is not a private vice of the Mexican police. The phenomenon is too complex to dissect here—suffice it to say that it’s a culture of patronage, with a long tradition of graft.”
In other Spanish-speaking countries, the mordida has made its way into literature too, as a loan word from Mexican Spanish. In Argentina, Ezequiel Muhtar’s 1977 novel La Mordida (soborno) was a bestseller that went through multiple reprintings. (“Soborno” means bribe.) In the introduction, after ranting about the omnipresence of corruption on the American continent, the author offered a ray of hope: “There are places in which some people combat with intelligence that small élite of VAMPIRE-MARKETEERS, who use their prodigious commercial sophistries for evil, deception, lies, robbery, betrayal, and above all, the accumulation of fortunes acquired by those means.” In her 2007 memoir Amando a Pablo, odiando a Escobar [Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar], journalist Virginia Vallejo recalled a period when
for the first time in the history of Colombia, everyone who drove a Mercedes in the city or a Ferrari on the highway was detained as suspicious, ordered down from the car with insults in a military tone, and mercilessly seized by police; and this time the proverbial mordida with a high denomination bill did no good, because the Army was everywhere.
An example of the mordida in its double meaning isn’t so easily forthcoming in Suárez’s country. By regional standards, Uruguay is not corrupt; according to a 2013 Transparency International report, it is the second least crooked country in Latin America following Chile, while Haiti and Bolivia are the most corrupt. Perhaps a correlation exists between frequency of the term and corruption level. (This is the sort of data-based analysis for which scientific criticism like Franco Moretti’s much-touted Stanford Literary Lab might have something genuinely useful to say.)
In Uruguayan literature, however, the bite in its physical form is very much present, in a variety of registers and connotations. It too often points to corruption, though not so much to political manifestations like bribe taking as to insincerity and hypocrisy at the level of personal relationships. Given the country’s image as a low-key, scaled-down version of its neighbors, this seems fitting. “Our environment isn’t given to those great occasions on which heroes make their careers (and in this we distinguish ourselves clearly from other Latin American countries). What we have are anecdotes, portraits, moods; essentially, themes for a short story. Our corner of America does not have oil, or Indians, or minerals, or volcanos. We are a small country of brief tales,” wrote Mario Benedetti in 1962, in the first essay of his collection Literatura uruguaya siglo XX [20th Century Uruguayan Literature].
Benedetti’s observation remains something of a stereotype, or a truth. Uruguay tends to specialize in the literature of bureaucracy and neuroticism, mostly obsessive short accounts by solitary men far too intelligent for the boredom of their circumstances. The hallucinatory worlds in their own minds map onto ordinary surroundings, rendering them strange. The best-known 20th century Uruguayan writers are probably Juan Carlos Onetti (a great); Mario Levrero, Felisberto Hernández, Armonía Somers, and José Pedro Díaz (a group that critic Ángel Rama referred to as los raros, “the strange ones”); Mario Benedetti; and Eduardo Galeano.
Bites are everywhere in these writers’ work. In Levrero the bite tends to suggest anxiety, as when in La novela luminosa [The Luminous Novel] the protagonist writes that “to my own discomfiture, I took a spectacularly large bite [mordida] of the croissant; anxious as I am, I always fill my mouth with too much food.” In Onetti, they represent a kind of fear prefiguring death. In the story “El perro tendrá su día” [“The dog will have his day”], two men share “a pause chewed over [mordida, literally bitten] by both of them, a shared fear.” In Galeano’s El libro de los abrazos, they amplify a moment of familial connection before death: “The brothers stood in the center of the viewfinder, unmoving, perfectly outlined against the wall recently bitten into [mordido] by bullets.”
In literature, a bite is rarely just a bite. Spanish terminology reflects the subtle differences between mordisco (a bite or nibble as when eating), mordida (a bite as when attacked by an animal), and mordedura (a bite mark). A bite can be a number of things: an act of savagery, of alimentation, of love. And it can reflect in astonishing miniature the larger literary concerns of authors. The idea that the bite can represent more transcendental values has even been intuited by contemporary journalists. “Onetti would have written a short story about his countryman Luis Suárez,” was the headline of an article in the Spanish sports newspaper As, its author pointing to the values of virtue and punishment exemplified by the Uruguayan case.
It’s easy to understand why the bite, with its transgression of personal space and personal values, has become a metaphor for corruption. Corruption is the crossing of the gap between one’s inner life and the complex of social gestures and norms—from bribery to fake-smiling at parties—required to live in a claustrophobic society in which everyone knows everyone, or is at one remove from a friend, uncle, brother-in-law, niece. It works like acid on sheet metal, biting into or eating away at conceptions of what something should be, transgressing or irreversibly transforming a thing’s fundamental nature in a one-way process. (“Corruption” in the sexual context also rests its moralizing weight on this irreversibility.) Once done, it cannot be undone; it leaves not just fadeable red marks on the flesh but scars. Someone who takes a bribe will never go back to being the kind of person who doesn’t take bribes.
Driving around town while visiting family in California last December, I was pulled over by a policeman who gave me my first speeding ticket. When he walked up to the passenger’s window, I tried to talk my way out of the fine. I was flying out of the country to Argentina the next day, I said. “Ah, what city?” he asked, interested. “I’m from Santa Fe, in the interior of Argentina.” So much for that attempted recourse to the exotic. When I told the story later to someone in Buenos Aires, he immediately asked why I didn’t slip the cop a few bank notes. It was always worth a try, he said.
The bite begins in the collapse of that unstable space between two people or two certainties, the moment when one’s convictions collide with a different set of possibilities to result in insincerity or the proverbial “little envelope”. But perhaps one can think about the mordida in an entirely different way. The concept of cannibalism was retheorized by Oswald de Andrade and other Brazilian writers in the 1920s to talk about their country’s intellectual consumption of both European and Indian cultures. Today, the concept of corruption might be similarly useful in discussing the awkward and ambiguous moments in which the personal comes up against the social, with the rapidity of Suárez approaching Chiellini. While few would openly defend bribe-taking, literary corruption does possess an allure in its borrowing, reworking or Latin Americanizing of European tropes. Not full-fledged anthropophagy—just a bite.
- There is a substantial gap in translation of South American literature into English. The English translations of titles and quotes are mine.