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(Un)traceable Circuits:
Cultural Production via Insects, Cognition & Mexican Masks*

The trajectories of thought are often an impenetrable mystery, even to their thinkers. One
experiences an intense unhinging of body and mindor perhaps more accurately, of
thought and meta-thoughtwhen stepping back to try and retrace the uncanny darts and
dashes of memories triggered and images evoked by scenes, actions, smells and all those
surprising explosions of whose potential we are unaware until they happen. It is the
experience of the quotidian turned absurd and vice versa. It gives the feeling of being
foreign in ones own grey matter. Attempting to map thought is akin to the lost sensation
of watching an insect move. Entomologists may have explanations for bees
choreographed promenades and the migratory habits of Monarch butterflies, but in those
moments when we are confronted tte--tte with these ubiquitous fellow planet dwellers,
we must admit that, like our thoughts, we dont know where the hell they are going next
or why. I cannot predict if the ladybug on my hand will scurry up into the security of my
sleeve or venture out on the precipice of my fingertip. Flight adds more enigmatic
dimensions; the sonorous housefly seems to choose the most random midair routes in the
extra planes open to its meandering. We might understand better when we finally
maneuver the flying autos we have so long been promised. Until then, if even, thoughts
circuits and the locomotive motivation of the six-legged remain equally unknowable.
Recently however, these mysteries cooperated to remind me of a brief childhood time
when I could know, even control, how a beetle flew. First, some background is necessary.
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As I write this essay, the largely Mexican-American community in which I live
(second highest concentration in the U.S. outside of L.A.) is counting rapidly down to the
Dia de los Muertos. Octavio Paz, in his essentialist, but unavoidably pretty diction, be it
Spanish or English translationtoo often accurate and perfectly attune to the wants of
our indulgent egos to ignore for its bombastic assumptions, no matter how much a
modern Mexican, Mexican-American or U.S. Latin@ might trydescribes it as follows
(with the intervention of three translators):
[On this day] the Mexican does not seek amusement; he seeks to escape
from himself, to leap over the wall of solitude that confines him during the
rest of the yearThe important thing is to go out, open a way, get drunk
on noise, people, colorsthis fiesta, shot through with lightning and
delirium, is the brilliant reverse to our silence and apathy, our reticence
and gloom.
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So, perhaps for these reasons, perhaps not, on this upcoming Day of the Dead, the streets
in my neighborhood will populate with masked processionists. Unlike cognition and
bugs, our route is firmly mapped out along the streets of downtown and West Side San
Antonio, a special area informally called San Anto by its constituents. The masks we
wear will be the work of our own hands. In a simple but time-consuming process
involving Styrofoam beauty salon heads, clay, papier-mch and hours of construction
and decoration, we created the faces through the donning of which we will escape
ourselves.
After staring for a few moments at my own blank face, I found myself starting
predictably. Within that Mexican motif that the English speaking world often deems
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macabre, I began with a simple pen drawing of a skeleton in place of this invented
visages right eye. I found myself drawing an apple in the left eyescape, and there it was,
the beginning of another untraceable path of thought; from bones to fruit, I watched as
my own ideas, realized in cheap acrylic, crawled around like disoriented insects.
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The
stream of consciousness ran: apple of my eye being obvious, an apple a day, keeps the
doctor (death envisioned in the ocular cavity opposite the fruit) away came next, and so
on, but none of them satisfied. I was doing a very Mexican thing here. As a U.S. Latino
of Mexican descent, what did it mean for me to appropriate these images? One must have
something to do with the other
Masks go back as far as pre-Colombian days. Lord Pakal of Palenqu and his
substantial jade burial face, the human masks of statuary dogs at Colima,
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and literally
thousands of other examples of double-countenance are imbedded in the traditions and
indigenous histories of Mexican culture. But at what bizarre roundabout did my mind join
the traffic flow where Mexican masks, insects, fruit, and death converge? The lowest
common denominator I could find is exoskeletal. On the evening of el Dia de los
Muertos, the glue-stiffened masks worn to protect the identities of soft, brown faces
during the day will be laid next to graves, alongside offerings of fruit whose exterior
rinds futilely protect their fleshy pulps. Emerging from the ground, the military bugs in
their petrified shells will leave behind the stripping of one set of bones to get at their own
share of these encased offerings, leaving behind only knobby pits and pithy seeds. Only
the most rigid materials remain after the candle-lit ceremonies and nocturnal cants of this
Mexican celebration cease. Only exoskeletons and those encased in them survive.
Somehow I am supposedly connected to all of this.
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Ethnicity is often reduced to a box one checks off on forms for doctors, graduate
school admissions offices, and online surveys. In this moment of frustratingly acute self-
identification, I often think of my grandparents. Most of my explicit connections to
Mexico and Mexican culture exist through them; gastronomically, linguistically,
sartorially, they receive credit when anyone recognizes my Mexican-ness. This is
based on dozens of personal conversationsa common experience among Latin@s my
age. My maternal grandmother, Nana, will forever be associated with two insects: the
cicada
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(pronounced chee-cha-duh in Spanish) and a type of beetle whose exterior is like
an oil slick. Childishly entering insects shiny wings in the Google field, I found an
insect that approximates my memories closely enough. Its title: Onypterigia tricolor
beetle.
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The cicada was hated in Nanas household. My cousins and I liked to collect their
perfect hollow shells from tree trunks, take them into the kitchen and stick them in our
demure grandmothers hair. Then we would sit back and wait for that terror-stricken face,
the eruption of Spanish near-obscenities, and the passionate rebuking of the exoskeletons
ugliness: Que feo! We love our Nana. To prove it, we continue to teach our youngest
relatives this game.
The obsidian beetle, on the other hand, features in a more charming, less abusive
vignette. In less raucous moments, when we played on the front lawn while Nana
watched over us, her matriarchy undiminished by the shoddy lawn chair in which she
roosted, we would make those small discoveries which are special to childhood. When
we found these creatures like onyxes in an emerald nest, we took them to Nana, and she
helped us turn them into surreal, buzzing playthings. She would retrieve a piece of string
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from indoors then come back outside, sit down and put out her soft wrinkled hand for the
beetle. Then she would deftly loop the string around a hidden crevice only she could find
at the beetles neck-joint and hand us the other end of the string. Lying back in the grass,
we would watch as the beetle flew over our heads. Its path was circular and predictable.
Roald Dahl surely experienced some Anglo-Norwegian version of this as a child. I was
James Henry Trotter
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in those moments, enjoying the interruption of the normal
human/bug relationship in favor of a fantastic tethering of my existence to this living kite.
As an increasingly adult being I discovered something interesting about the
Onypterigia tricolor beetle. Researchers at UC Berkeley, led by Kipling Will, assistant
professor of insect biology, surveyed over two hundred species of beetle. Among them,
the team found three that are monorchid, that is, they lack one testis.
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Apparently, these
beetles continue to function normally, reproductively and otherwise. In moments of
evolutionary megalomania, I like to think maybe I had something to do with this. What if
the traumatic force of so many repeated leftward loops at the end of my grandmothers
string forced the left testicle into oblivion by way of centrifugal force? Perhaps it shifted
in such a way that it eventually merged with the right testis. Eventually, Onypterigia
tricolors gave in to circumstance, and their bodies admitted subjugation to string by
preemptively omitting the left gonad of later generations. Again, this is a hyperbolic view
of my singular potential influence on bug species development, but it is an interesting
thought: my innocent childhood games leading to testicular oblivion for an entire species,
and my tiny, Spanish-speaking Nana providing the tools and know-how. Of course, I had
none of this in mind then. All I knew is that for a few moments, I was omniscient Kite-
String Holder, manipulating and breaking the impenetrable code of the insect way.
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Nowhere is a non-place. If bugs understand us, I am sure they are offended by
our constant accusations that they are going nowhere. We all make our journeys with
different outsides on. Masks, exoskeletons, and skin are so many costumes worn while
meandering through existence. It is a dying positivist notion that not knowing ones goal
precisely renders the process of discovery fruitless. Process. As peoples searching for
cultural identities through art and making discoveries by way of tracing the enigmatic
migrations of thoughts (and testicles), our paths are inevitably errant ones, but as insects
show us in their Lilliputian way, going anywhere is getting somewhere. Enjoy your
flight.

1
Paz, Octavio, interps. Lysander Kemp, Yara Milos, Rachel Phillips Belash. New York: Grove Press, Inc.
1985, 49.

2
My mask: Muerte y Manzana en Amarillo y Negro como las Abejas Siniestros (Death & Fruit in the
Sinster Yellow-and-Black of Bees)

3
www.recursos.org/masks/slide7.html

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www.cicadas-pictures.com/cicada_bugs_pictures.htm

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Onypterigia tricolor beetle, www.berkeley.edu/.../2005/03/03_beetles.shtml

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I am of course referring to the childrens book, James and the Giant Peach. Dahl is one of the few beings
for whom I will still commit the intellectual transgression of granting genius.

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Researchers have found that monorchid (single testis) beetles are more common than previously thought.
(Photos by Kipling Will, UC Berkeley) www.berkeley.edu/.../2005/03/03_beetles.shtml

* Originally published in The Thing Itself (2008, 60 66), literary magazine of Our Lady Of the Lake
University; Judges Choice for Non-fiction

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