Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Pablo Neruda’s poem “Walking Around.” Neruda begins: “Sucede que me canso de ser hombre.” This gets translated to English by Robert Bly as “It so happens I am sick of being a man.” I feel for the enormity of Bly’s task. For me, the English cannot capture all that I hear. For one, the word “canso” evokes exhaustion more than sickness, and perhaps it indicates a tinge of disgust, too. Also, does the word “hombre” indicate “man” or “human”? And how can one translate to English the feeling you get when reading it in Spanish but seeing that the original title is in English: “Walking Around”?
I first read this poem as an undergraduate enrolled in a Spanish course. I changed my major from Journalism to English late in my studies, and I took Spanish as a minor that I could get through quickly: growing up speaking Spanish in my Mexican American home, I tested out of all the language classes and dove right into literature courses. This was all fine with me because I was passionate about studying literature—it didn’t matter in which language, but I was only fluent in two.
Besides my English major and Spanish minor, the other significant component of my studies was what we today call the Environmental Humanities, although that didn’t exist in the mid-1990s. I put together an ad hoc minor for myself by enrolling in electives on the History of American Environmentalism, Environmental Philosophy, Environmental Science, and Ecopsychology, plus I wrote as many term papers as possible on environmental topics. When I read “Walking Around,” there was something there that spoke to me about existential crisis but also about testing the limits of human existence on Earth. It seemed to me that Neruda was asking: What are we doing to this beautiful planet that we inhabit?
By the end of the poem, Neruda has us observing the ways humans inhabit a city, including a random patio where he spots hanging “underwear, towels, and shirts from which slow / dirty tears are falling.” Again, the original Spanish evokes so much more for me: “calzoncillos, toallas y camisas que lloran / lentas lágrimas sucias.” A direct translation of the words of the last line reads: “slow tears dirty,” which works in Spanish but is nonsensical in English. Deep despair exudes from the line “lentas lágrimas sucias.” Why would the clothes drying on the patio drip dirty water, when presumably the owner has gone through an effort to wash them? The poem suggests that the water and the air are already so contaminated that the clothes remain sullied. And what do the clothes care, except that they are also of this Earth and mourn the pollution.
Awareness of the ongoing practices of extractivism, dominance, and exploitation infuses me with a similar desperation, especially when I reflect on the longevity of colonization and capitalism. These practices have shaped human inhabitation of this planet for hundreds of years. Now that those who have benefitted from these routings are starting to feel their impacts, climate change has become a “crisis.”1 The climate for Indigenous peoples has been changed since 1492. I return to the word “hombre.” Whether that denotes “man” or “human,” for me it suggests structures of patriarchy, and it indicates the limits—or the margins—of the “human” itself as a concept. The people of the global majority have not always, or ever really, been interpellated by the word “human” from the Enlightenment up to today.2 It is to those decolonial ways of being and thinking that I turn for respite and energy for the ongoing fight.
I am not an ecocritic of Latin American literature, although I am an ecocritic of American literature, and specifically of Latinx literature. To me, it is important to drift across boundaries of scholarly categories to eschew Western disciplinarity.3 Still, I would like to end with words by Chilean ecocritic Andrea Casals, published in a special section of the journal Interdisciplinary Studies of Literature and Environment dedicated to Chilean ecocriticism: “a distinctive characteristic of Latin American ecological writing is the evident commitment to denounce environmental injustice.” In her essay, Casals encourages readers to also seek out Indigenous voices beyond the well-known mestizo writers. Inhabiting Indigenous worlds of creativity and cosmovisions can recharge one’s sense of wonder and reverence for the sacredness of this planet, and help to shrug off the cloak of exhaustion and disgust that Neruda warns against. I’m tired of being tired of being human.
- See work by Kyle Powys Whyte for his argument “Against Crisis Epistemology.”
- See by Walter Mignolo for a decolonial critique of the Enlightenment.
- See work by María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo for her concept of “paradigm drift.”