Denuedo, baby.


I’m now just over one-third of the way into The War Against the Gringos, and it feels like longer.

I’m not one to curse a source of work and income, mind you, but Heriberto Frías, Mexican historian and pain-in-the-ass writer, demands hellish amounts of a certain something of his first-ever English-language translator. It’s a word that pops up repeatedly throughout the book: Denuedo.

I won’t tell you right away what that means, although I’m sure some of you will look it up if you don’t already know it. Chances are you don’t, unless you have an interest in the Mexican-American War. It’s a word that’s not entirely specific to the time and place of that war, but its faint whiff of the archaic, like the vanillic odor that wafts off a well-aged page, seems to date it nonetheless. Like duende, it has an essence, a spirit, that is hard to describe but is immediately recognizable when you’ve caught wind of it. And Frías uses it often, invariably in reference to his own side.

Given that Mexico lost a good half its territory during that war, it seems strange, but at the same time, the only mot juste for the way the Mexicans fought. It was not that their common soldiers lacked for denuedo; it was mainly their generals that did. Arista, Ampudia, Santa Anna — oh, how I have facepalmed my way through their bungling and their misadventures. And there are still 120 more pages to go…120 more pages of blood, gore, hunger, privation, gunsmoke and cannon thunder. If Allen Ginsberg howled about the best minds of his generation going “starving hysterical naked”, he should have seen how literally the very least of the Mexican soldiers did it. I have a sneaking hunch he would have ripped up his typescript and slunk off in shame. It would have done him a power of humbling good.

As for me, I’m still trying to get the tackiness of half-dried blood off my keyboard, and the stench of cordite out of my nostrils. I don’t feel like howling — yet — but my eyes are burning, and I’m sure it’s not just from staring at a hot PowerBook screen. I now have a fair idea where the term “Mexican standoff” arose, and I’ve also seen a hint that two could play at that game; the gringos took plenty of lumps along with the land. The fact that they did, is down to good old-fashioned Mexican denuedo.

And oh dear, most of my lumps are yet to come. Pray ’em if you got ’em for me, your humble scribe, who has yet to untangle the brangle of the last of Heriberto’s convoluted and infuriating sentences, which subconsciously evoke the rough and snaky terrain where the Mexican troops fought. Pray that I don’t fall down an arroyo or anything equally treacherous; the Gods know I’ve slogged through enough blood and quicksand already. Words that don’t appear in my gran diccionario, at least not in any context that would appear to fit: Parque doesn’t mean park, and trenes are not trains as we know them. I figured out through context, in one particularly mortifying battle scene where it suddenly ran out, that parque is ammunition. Trenes, I guess, are trains of a sort — wagon or mule/burro, as opposed to choo-choo. Meanwhile, one word that didn’t take a whole lot of figuring out, keeps figuring over and over: Denuedo, denuedo, denuedo.

And I’m gonna need a hell of a lot of valor if I’m ever to finish this insane manuscript.

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