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Mexican Revolution

Why SJSU Professor Dr. Carlos Sanchez's new translation of an obscure 1950s Mexican philosopher is now going viral
A new translation of Emilio Uranga by SJSU's Carlos Sanchez is a breakthrough in philosophy—and our understanding of identity

When San Jose State professor Carlos Sanchez first read the work of Mexican philosopher Jorge Portilla, he had an epiphany.

"I realized that I had been robbed," Sanchez says. "Somehow, my education had failed me because I had never encountered this work in my life until that moment."

At the time, Sanchez had just completed his PhD in philosophy, without once coming across the work of Portilla, or any philosophy from Mexico for that matter. Then, towards the end of his doctorate, buried in a little-discussed essay published around the turn of the millennium, he found a single reference to a 70-year-old book by Portilla, which described it as "in need of rescue."

Maybe, Sanchez thought, he could be the one to rescue it.

So he started researching Portilla, and before long, he realized the mid-century Mexican philosopher was part of a larger movement, "this group of intellectuals in the '40s in Mexico who were doing this extraordinary work of 'autognosis'—of understanding their own selves, their circumstances," Sanchez says.

At the center of the movement loomed a mysterious figure, Emilio Uranga, and his 1952 work Analisis del ser del mexicano (Analysis of Mexican Being), a unique piece of thinking with few comparisons in the canon. Written as a response to a 1930s psychological profile that defined Mexican citizens by a "complex of inferiority," Analysis of Mexican Being sought to redefine both what it meant to be Mexican, and what it meant to be human—and, in the process, to profoundly change both.

"I had not heard of a philosopher applying these really metaphysical concepts to an actual lived experience, like the Mexican experience," Sanchez says. "Other philosophers will stay in their ivory tower and play with abstract concepts, but Uranga was really trying to apply them to a real, concrete thing: Mexican existence as he understood it. That's what really excited me about him: he had the courage to do with philosophy as he felt he needed to."

This year, the English-speaking world is finally able to read Uranga's vivid philosophy for the first time ever, thanks to Sanchez's translation of Analysis of Mexican Being. The author's much-delayed appearance in English is the beginning of a major event for philosophy: the long overdue introduction of Mexican thought into the discipline.

That this breakthrough comes via Emilio Uranga makes it all the more revolutionary. Though Uranga has been largely overlooked—especially in the English-speaking world—his quest to understand the very essence of humanity through the lens of lo mexicano is more relevant than ever.


By the 1940s, Mexico had reached a profound crossroads, the result of 300 years of colonialism, the decimation of indigenous populations, a lengthy war of independence, multiple coups, and a decade of hard-fought, bloody revolution. At that crossroads, gazing into a mirror, stood el grupo Hiperion.

In what sounds like the setup to a Roberto Bolaño novel, el grupo Hiperion (which translates to "the Hyperion Group") were a band of Mexico City-based existentialists trained by German philosopher Martin Heidegger's first translator, the Spanish emigré José Gaos. Hiperion included many of Mexico's future star philosophers, including Leopoldo Zea and Luis Villoro (who played a vital role during the 1994 Zapatista uprising). Together, Hiperion posed a philosophical question central to their very being: que es el Mexicano—"Who is the Mexican?" Trained in history and phenomenology (the study of sensory experience), Hiperion practiced what they called autognosis, or self-understanding.

Once Sanchez found out about Hiperion, he went on his own journey of understanding.

"I went to Mexico City and tried to find the remaining members of the group," he says.

At the time, he found Villoro, one of Hiperion's last surviving members, though the decorated philosopher wasn't particularly interested in discussing something from more than 60 years ago. Then, on another trip to Mexico City, Sanchez stumbled upon an original 1952 copy of the Analysis of Mexican Being. Previously focused on Portilla, he began to take Uranga's writing seriously and set out to translate it.

As a philosopher, Emilio Uranga's work fell into the field of ontology, or, the study of being. Historically, ontology has defined being as something objective and universal. In the Analysis, Uranga argues that this "objectivity" has really only ever meant "European."

"The idea of 'man in general' cannot be the starting point," Uranga writes, preparing to flip an entire philosophical tradition in one move. "When one speaks of man in general, in truth what we mean is European man."

Opposed to this "objectivity," Uranga described a kind of being specifically localized in a time and place: 1950s Mexico. That being was lo mexicano (Mexican being). For Uranga, lo mexicano was a way to fight the "entrenched prejudice" of ontology which said that objectivity could only be intuited from a European perspective. Rather than appeal to European norms, he sought to find "a new humanism" by using his own experience as a guide.

"I have my (Mexican) character proximally at hand," he wrote in the Analysis, "it would be absurd to appeal to something other than myself as a means to find the truth, like cleaning my neighbor's glasses so that I may see better."

Analysis And Accident

The central argument of the Analysis relates to the philosophical concepts of substance and accident.

Sanchez breaks it down: "In the medieval tradition, you have the substance, which is God, and you have the accident of substance, which is anything that changes, anything that has contingent relation to substance."

Put simply: the substance is whole, and the accident is less-than-whole.

Uranga takes this concept and brings it into modernity by relating it to colonialism. The Spanish colonizer, according to Uranga, identified with substance and saw its own identity as permanent, unchanging and right. This left the colonized—the indigenous, mestizo and criollo of Mexico—no choice but to identify as accident.

"There's this colonial motif that says that certain identities, certain cultures, certain ethnicities, have a permanence and a substance," Sanchez says. "When the Spanish set foot in the Americas, they promoted themselves as complete, mature, God-willing beings with history on their side. And by doing that, they made everyone else inferior and accidents to them." To put it in the words of Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck from his recent HBO documentary series Exterminate All the Brutes: "In the western conception, man was primarily European and male. Everyone else was at the lowest level of this hierarchy."

What Uranga does in the Analysis is take this hierarchy and flip it. Lo Mexicano, as a nexus of Indigenous and European cultures—historically mixed, colonialized and poised at crossroads—is indeed defined by accidentality. But, Uranga says, that's not a bad thing. Opposed to European values, Uranga says humanity itself is accidental.

"To be accidental should not involve...an inferior value before the substantiality of Europe," he writes, "but it should highlight precisely the notion that that which is authentic or genuinely human is nothing consistent and persistent, but something fragile and fractured."

In other words, European substantiality was always a lie to begin with. Mexican being in particular just makes humanity's essential accidentality easier to see.

"Accidentality is a way to describe human being as it is really," Sanchez says. "Uranga says if that's who we are, we need to own it. If we own that and make it a part of who we are, it's empowering. Then we're able to live in the world as we really are, not as a fictional, colonial motif, but as a real human presence that is subject to destruction and marginalization, but also empowerment and overcoming."

Forever In-Between

To help us see our accidentality, Uranga introduces a number of novel concepts, including nepantla, zozobra and the corazonada—the heart's intuition.

"Nepantla" is a Nahuatl word which meant "in between," or "in the middle." Quoting 16th century friar Diego Duran, Uranga recalls how indigenous Mexicans used "nepantla" to describe their own experience positioned in between Spanish Christianity and ancient customs.

"We can understand nepantla as an ontological category referring to being out of place and out of time," Sanchez writes in his introduction to the Analysis. This nepantla, Uranga suggests, is a fundamental in-between-ness that we all experience on some level, but is easier to locate in lo mexicano. A life lived in nepantla gives way to the most profound experience in Uranga's writing: zozobra.

If nepantla is the condition of being in-between, zozobra is the emotional content of such a condition—the anxiety that comes from feeling like no option is ever really the right one. Quoting the poet Ramón López Velarde, Uranga describes zozobra as a "sentimental limbo" torn between despair and hope.

Last November, on the day before the US presidential election, Sanchez and a coauthor (Wake Forest University professor Francisco Gallegos) published an opinion piece in The Conversation titled "Feeling disoriented by the election, pandemic and everything else? It's called 'zozobra,' and Mexican philosophers have some advice."

The article went viral. It got over 119,000 reads and more than 8,000 likes and shares on Facebook—quite a reception for an article about a little known 70-year-old philosophical concept.

"From the data we have, the article was a big success," says Joel Abrams, The Conversation's Director of Digital Strategy. "I really do think that zozobra, and the article about it, spoke to readers this fall."

Part of the strength of the article was its clarity. In it, the authors defined zozobra as "an ordinary Spanish term for 'anxiety' but with connotations that call to mind the wobbling of a ship about to capsize." In zozobra, we anxiously oscillate between states, hoping endlessly for something to settle on, all while trying to avoid an impending feeling of doom.

Eleven months into 2020, on a day before one of the most anxiety-inducing elections in recent memory, the concept very much connected with readers.

"It really pulled on people's imaginations to see what this word could do for them," Sanchez says.

The article concluded with the inevitable question: what do we do about zozobra? On this point, Uranga is clear.

"To submerge oneself in originary zozobra seems to be a movement that brings us closer to darkness," he writes, "but, at the extreme point when we are about to give ourselves over to twilight, our wakefulness shines."

Even though zozobra is painful ("as painful as a wound," Uranga writes), it is a foundational human experience. The only option is to accept it. When we do, Uranga suggests, we find each other, together there in our zozobra.

"The idea," Sanchez says, "is that the only way we're going to feel like a community again is to communicate our fears, our zozobra, to show ourselves as absolutely vulnerable and that that's ok."

Being In Particular

Appropriately enough, José Manuel Cuellar describes his first encounter with Emilio Uranga as accidental.

"Uranga is not an author that is studied much in Mexico," he says. "But a teacher mentioned him once, and I read the Analysis and was completely amazed and overwhelmed."

Cuellar is currently in the process of writing Uranga's biography. It will be the Mexico City-based author's second work on the philosopher, following 2018's La revolucion inconclusa, which examined Uranga's time as a journalist in the '60s. Even now, after conducting numerous interviews for the biography, Cuellar says an air of mystery surrounds the philosopher.

"It has been a challenge," he tells me. "He didn't say much about himself, even to his close friends."

Some things we know for sure. Born in Mexico City in 1921, Uranga was the son of a ranchero-composing father and a devout Catholic mother. He learned French at a young age and credited his philosophical education to a teenage love affair with an older woman.

"From a very early age, philosophy for him was something closer to a conversation in a living room, rather than something a teacher tells you," Cuellar says. "It is a very sensual sense of philosophy. He says very clearly, 'I discovered philosophy guided by a woman.'"

One thing about Uranga is incredibly clear: he was a very difficult person. Scathing, sarcastic and prone to argument, he did much to hurt his reputation over the years. So much so, his own daughter apparently had mixed feelings about allowing Sanchez's translation to go through.

"At first, she was hesitant to give us permission for the books, because she believed that her father didn't deserve the kind of attention we were going to give him," Sanchez says. "He had made a lot of enemies."

Uranga died on Halloween in 1988, the result of years of alcoholism. Almost a decade after writing his Analysis, he became a controversial figure in Mexico for his perceived role as a propagandist for the Mexican government. Throughout the '60s, Uranga increasingly involved himself in government, becoming advisor to multiple presidents, including Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, who oversaw the horrific Tlateloco Massacre, in which a still-untold number of student protesters, journalists and innocent bystanders (estimated at 300 to 400 total) were shot to death.

For decades, a career-darkening rumor from this time dogged Uranga, saying that he ghostwrote the infamous pamphlet ¡El Mondrigo! which justified the government massacre. As recently as last July, however, an analysis performed by the Linguistic Engineering Group at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) definitively fingered a different journalist, Jorge Joseph, as the heinous pamphlet's author.

Still, the persistent rumor, along with his own behavior, caused Uranga's philosophy to fall into obscurity for decades.

"Uranga had a really bad temper," Cuellar says. "A way to understand him is to say that he didn't like masks at all. He wanted to unmask everyone and everything. He couldn't keep his mouth shut."

For his part, Sanchez says he made a choice to leave biography aside entirely when taking up the translation, seeing much more worth in the content of the philosophy itself.

"My effort is to deal with the concepts, the ideas," he says, "and to see how we can make them viable for understanding our contemporary situation."

'He's Talking About Us'

Though he is "suspicious of self-narratives," professor Manuel Vargas relates a story from his time as a PhD student in philosophy.

"I started graduate school at a place where there were two foreign language requirements," Vargas tells Metro. "So, I met with the director of graduate studies and told him I wanted to use Spanish as one."

Spanish, he was told, was not an option. Vargas asked: why not?

"The reply was that there was no important philosophy that had been written in Spanish. The philosophical languages are Greek, Latin, French and German. Only those four." This view—that to really understand philosophy we must speak European languages and read European authors—is exactly the issue that Uranga was writing against in his Analysis, enacted in real-time, more than a half-century later.

These days, like Sanchez, Vargas has been fighting to bring Uranga's philosophy, and Mexican philosophy in general, closer to the academy. He currently heads the LATAM Free Will, Agency and Responsibility grant, a $1.2M project that seeks to educate promising young philosophers from Latin America. "The goal is basically to train up a generation of philosophers who can make substantial contributions to this literature," he says.

Recently, Vargas has also been teaching Analysis of Mexican Being in his Mexican Philosophy class at UC San Diego. The reaction from students is often visceral.

"Students get really excited by his work," he says. "In particular, one student blurted out, 'He's not talking about Mexicans, he's talking about us'—meaning Mexican-Americans in the United States and the sense of having one foot in two worlds."

In his own work, Vargas takes Uranga's idea of accidentality and applies it to the field of moral philosophy, "what it is to be active, to be deliberators, to be held to account, all that kind of stuff." In his recent paper, 'The Philosophy of Accidentality,' Vargas uses accidentality as a way to describe the experience of the children of immigrants in the US and distinguish it from the experience of their immigrant parents.

"They sometimes experience a feeling of disconnect with both the culture of their parents and with the majority culture in which they find themselves. Ni de aquí ni de allá—from neither here nor there—is how it is said in Spanish," Vargas observes in his paper. "These stories can convey a sense of profound unease or ungroundedness of a special sort that I characterize as accidentality."

Much like Sanchez's piece on zozobra in The Conversation, Vargas's paper on accidentality was a surprise hit.

"I've had more faculty members tell me that this piece resonated with them than nearly anything I've ever written," he says. "Frequently, it turns out to be folks who live in a condition of biculturality."

Thanks to Sanchez's efforts, a whole new generation of Anglophone scholars now have a chance to engage with a work that is both conceptually rich and, apparently, more relevant now than it ever was in its own time.

"I'm having my students read this book in my fall courses, because I really think it's going to help people understand themselves," Sanchez says.