an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 2, December 2005, ISSN 1552-5112




When West was North: Spirits of Frontier Experience, Or Can the MacGuffin Speak?

Juan Bruce-Novoa

I am but mad north-north-west.  When the wind is southerly . . .

                                                  Shakespeare, Hamlet



Every Usonian—Frank Lloyd Wright's term for a citizen of the U.S.A.—knows what The West means (Wright, 319).   A combination of geography, history, a constant flood of popular culture—from pulp novels to Hollywood movies—and plentiful doses of myth have traced its outline and filled in the figure.  Dr. Lee Clark Mitchell, in his contribution to the dual plenary session of Narrating Frontiers: Transgressions and Exchanges Along the North American Borders, a conference held at the John F. Kennedy Institute in Berlin, recently profiled that process, focusing attention on historiography's interventions and the working of the mythical dimensions, especially in regard to the Canadian-U.S. border.  In the second half of the plenary, I picked up a thread of that paper to segue into my essay on that border's southern twin, the Mexican-U.S. border.  But while the Canadian Studies Association published Prof. Mitchell's version of the West, they apparently judged that my adjustment of his thesis was dispensable.  I offer it here to complete the record and give readers a chance to judge for themselves if seeing the West only through the Canadian connection suffices for historical accuracy.

As a fan and teacher of film, I appreciated Dr. Mitchell's use of a movie both to frame his opening sequence and generate the development of his exposition on myth and origins in the American west.  For a paper on the historiography of the Usonian West in this age of revisionist history, his choice is highly appropriate:  Spirit:  Stallion of the Cimarron (2002).  Revisionism resonates in Spirit's first words—spoken by the actor Matt Damon—in the opening sequence: "The story I want to tell you cannot be found in a book."   The claim is explicit:  the written record, including textualized history, lacks the story viewers are about to witness.  The audience can assume it will be privy to an oral account, undocumented in any book, forgotten or suppressed by the official, written record of the American academy that seems to maintain a tradition of selective publication.  Hearing Spirit's opening lines, one might expect some version of the oral traditions rescued in the last century and already well incorporated into the written archives under the rubric of "Oral Tales."  Not so, since Spirit quickly adds that while the history of the West has been told by humans, this is the first time it will be told from the horse's point of view:   "They say the history of the West was written from the saddle of a horse, but it's never been told from the heart of one.  Not till now."  The film's historical revision will come from that of nature itself.  We finally are to hear the voice of the ultimate subaltern, the world of things-in-themselves Kant declared inaccessible to humans, in this case,  "the spirit of the West" incarnated in and remembered by a horse.

Screenwriter John Fusco prepares us for this fusion of character and myth with the following claims spoken by Spirit—that is, right from the horse's mouth:  “I was born here, in this place that would come to be called the old West, but to my time the land was ageless.  It had no beginning and no end, no boundary between earth and sky.  Like the wind in the buffalo grass, we belong here.  We would always belong here.  They say the mustang is the spirit of the West.”  The film claims to transport us to a time before human presence and their spatial and temporal ordering that divide a supposedly seamless, totally unified nature—hence, before history and implicitly before the arrival of Europeans.  Much of what Lee Mitchell analyzes in his paper is the historiographic tradition of the U.S. academy that represents the order associated with Euro-American written tradition against which Spirit narrates his tale.  In the film Spirit will resist and revise that tradition in the name of the purity of a supposedly original non-Euro paradise that existed somewhere in a lush, green mountain valley somewhere within eagle flight of the Grand Canyon in the apparent direction of northern Colorado or Wyoming.  Mitchell purposefully contextualizes the tradition of U.S. historiography within the mythic West incarnated in Spirit:  Stallion of the Cimarron.

And yet, Mitchell's paper, by eschewing any dogmatic conclusion, also leaves a fade-away ending open to spin-off sequels, like my essay.  My academic self immediately recognizes the priority of the dual nouns forming the subject of the film's title, but Mitchell's paper already thoroughly charts the relationship between the horse and the spirit that incarnates the myth of the West played out like the melody of an old standard.  My film-studies background tells me that I shouldn't let it worry me that Mitchell has given no attention to the last word in the title:  Cimarron.  After all, it could be seen to function like a Hitchcock MacGuffin:  a plot device that moves the story forward by giving the action a catalyst and/or goal, motivating the characters who accept its importance, "yet from the audience's perspective it might be minimally explained or may test their suspension of disbelief if it is scrutinized" (MacGuffin).  Cimarron, never explained, is a location of Spirit's origin from which he is torn and to which he must return—home, pure and simple, but with the ring of westernness that lends Spirit and the story the desired geographic and mythical orientation. 

The ex-musician in me, however, cannot resist riffing on his performance by picking up, jazz-fashion, that least significant of its notes, the unaccented, off-beat Cimarron left almost dangling at the end of the title and then never given a second thought by professionals or academics.  My essay extemporizes a syncopated scat on the motif, an improvisation offered in the ancient sense of parody, a song played alongside another to establish a mutually dependent relationship.  It would begin like this:


Cimarron [sih´ mer ron] … Cimarron [see mah´ rohn] … Cimarrón! [see ma  rrone´].


Seems that the studly Spirit of the pre-discovery West was hiding a telltale Spanish origin, something like Espíritu:  Semental del Cimarrón—although the film gives no evidence that the filmmakers had any geographic, historical or linguistic sense of the term they so cavalierly attached to their title, to say nothing about their apparent ignorance of the equine history of the Americas, a dangerous oversight for someone claiming to speak from the horse's point of view.

            Though most Spanish dictionaries do not list Cimarrón, Santamaría's Diccionario de Mejicanismos defines it as an adjective attributed to a wild animal of which there is also a domesticated species; i.e., pato cimarrón [Cimarron duck].  Santamaría also includes an archaic usage that coincides with the sole modern listing in most English dictionaries:  a slave who has absconded to the wilderness.  Santamaría does not include that it was also the name of an alternate, more dangerous and wild, southern spur of the Santa Fe Trail between New Mexico and Missouri as surveyed by the U.S government in 1825.  Santamaría omits it because the area lies out of his bailiwick, north of the modern boundary of Mexico—apparently Mexicans also forget that the U.S. Southwest was once their northern territory.  Forgetfulness aside, my improvisational solo seems to have picked up a bit of bass resonance with the addition of a Spanish guitar and Moroccan drums in Afro-Latino rhythm thrown in for good measure. 

Could it be that our free-spirited stallion only pretends to be nature's ahistorical child, a sort of noble savage in equine drag?   Or perhaps Spirit just does not care to remember that he too is the descendant of immigrants who ran away or were stolen from the Spanish herds brought by Coronado in the 1540s or distributed into the area from Father Kino's stud farm in Pimería Alta in the seventeenth century.  Prior to the mid 1800s when Spirit unfortunately strayed into the path of the Usonian Westering élan in the form of the U.S. Cavalry and the Railroad—fused by the filmmakers into one bicephalous, national project—his Rocky Mountains home had been the contested northern limit of Nueva España for three centuries.  The addition of the Spanish colonization project would trace a very different development for Spirit.  First of all, Spirit's fusion with the geography—with its "always belong here" claim—dissolves, revealing a basic hidden truth:  There never was an uncontested wilderness for the United States to expand into.  Second, Spirit's immigrant ancestors arrived long after the wind and the buffalo grass had formed their relationship, and time had left much more behind it on the scale of past than Spirit's clan would share with it as a future.  Third, once we place Spirit's species in the Spanish entourage, their past shifts from the realm of oral legend to the well-documented history of centuries of old and new-world development.  An abbreviated form might read thus:  slow domestication of the horse in the old world by many different cultures ranging from China to Europe, the rise of Arabian-Iberia as the zone of the finest horse stock in Europe, transportation to the Americas by the newly united Spain to aid in conquest and colonization, its subsequent escape to reclaim a memory of wildness—its cimarronization—only to eventually be recaptured, in the film's version of the tale, for Usonian re-domestication against which it will struggle in the name of returning to its imagined origins in the "virgin landscape" of The WEST.  Wonderful Hollywood dreams of the authentic, natural origin of the nation!

The mistake would be to accept the film's naïve presentation of the horse as synonymous with the West in some imagined purity of timeless presence, the autochthonous inhabitant, the original Native America.  That would be to read Spirit in the same way we have been taught to read the Native American Indians themselves.  In effect, the film explicitly compares and links Spirit to the Native American character through shared skin shading, their position vis-à-vis the invading U.S. military, the shared love object of a beautiful mare, and certain forms of vocal and gesticulative expression.  Instead of yet another immigrated foreigner from across the sea who settled down in the northern frontier of the Spanish empire, the horse is depicted as "born here" before time began, like nature itself, an ahistorical essence in a way Native Americans themselves are often depicted, even in their own myths. 

On a frontier crescent pertaining to Nueva España cum México, U.S. intervention in the form of the Mexican American War and subsequent expansion into the conquered territory brings a sense of location and destiny called the West as the final step in Spirit's development.  The overwhelming Usonian power—military, economic, demographic, and, yes, of its imaginary—forces a mistaken reading on the area, writing West over Norte, turning all resistance into a gesture of the pre-European spirit of the land.  We are to believe that before it became The West, the land was simply centered in and upon itself and that everything in it—mineral, vegetable, animal, and human—arose directly from the earth of that center. Yet no erasure is ever complete, leaving traces of the suppressed other imbedded in the palimpsest.  The search for those traces is the substance of my own parodic performance.

These, then, become the themes of my tune, although I would transpose it onto the clef of liminality.  With this maneuver, our discussion of the North cum West is recontextualized into a transformational ritual of initiation so deeply ingrained in the historiography of Usonian westering . . . but allow me to put off for a moment a working definition of liminality while I fill in some other necessary elements of my foundation.

As Mitchell also pointed out in his presentation, the idea of North evokes ambiguous images among Usonians.  While The West looms solid and defined, no sure set of referential images supports North, leaving it floating unreliably somewhere in the general orientation of Canada, like the ephemeral lights associated with the direction.  In fact, one of the most successful of our popular culture sources both captures this ambiguity and lends itself well to my purpose, using as it does the train as the setting for a significant portion of the plot while also forcing an engagement of the two directional terms I am working:  Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1959).  The film's title expresses the elusiveness of the term in Usonian parlance.  It conveys a semblance of scientific exactitude—neither north nor west, but sufficient degrees between them to merit a separate category, like an authoritative meteorologist tracking an approaching storm—while still failing to define where the exact directional there lies, except perhaps for the trained seaman or Boy Scout.[1] This mix of precision and confusion mirrors well the flustered state into which Cary Grant's character is thrown when his secure, if somewhat frivolous life of prolonged adolescence (still dependent on his mother) is rendered irrational by menacing yet elegant, cultured strangers—both enemies and allies—who seem to know everything of which Grant is ignorant, especially the rules of this uncanny dis-territory in which he unexpectedly finds himself.  These strange wise men impose a new identity on Grant, force him into the wilderness where he almost perishes under the attack of familiar objects turned lethal, initiate him into the world's hidden realities, and then submit him to an ultimate test of courage and strength to prove himself fit to merit a triumphal return to society in possession of a just prize for his heroics.  Critics have sought to give the title a Shakespearian provenance pointing to Hamlet as the title's source.  The troubled prince defines his feeling of madness as "north-north-west.  When the wind is southerly" (A.II, s.II); that is, insanity is a disturbance suffered when one is blown off a rational westward course by a wind heading north, a sense consistent with Hitchcock's filmic rendition:  Grant's nightmarish test of character comes to a head when he turns off his east-to-west route—simultaneously trading in the epitome of Nineteenth Century travel technology, the train, for its Twentieth-Century equivalent, the plane—to fly on Northwest Airlines.  All this frantic movement ultimately leads to playing out the myth of chivalrous quest—Eva Marie Saint, a U.S. undercover agent, and the nation fused into one heroine in mortal distress must be rescued from the clutches of international spies who in the cold war context represent what used to be called the Eastern Bloc.  The climactic battle is waged on the grandest monumental stage of the Usonian foundation myth, Mount Rushmore.  At the critical culmination of Grant's initiation ritual, after having vanquished his foes, he hangs on to Saint who dangles precariously over the edge of the monument:  will the quest prove successful or the ultimate prize slip from his grasp in the end?  Will the errant into the wilderness once again spell victory for the Usonian warrior's team in capital letters:  The WEST?  And in that moment the Mount Rushmore scenery dissolves back into the train car where Grant and Eva Marie Saint—the re-territorialized damsel/nation rescued from cold-war distress—are about to consummate their relationship in the secure upper berth of a Pullman sleeper car—epitome of the epitome—dispelling all confusion by restoring the myth to a secure, historical and directional contextual flow back to East-coast origins as the train heads home.  As the film closes, our hero is about to become a real man by bedding the nation he has won through his heroics.  Not only has he saved himself from the brink of chaos to reassert his real identity, he has rescued the American damsel from the threat of having to live—and die—enacting a false identity.  The American couple returns home secure, reunited and reaffirmed.  All well that ends well, especially when those evil international villains, who even dared to desecrate the U.N. by committing murder in its hallowed building, have been defeated.

            What might be overlooked, however, is another identity, once again the MacGuffin's.  In North by Northwest the MacGuffin takes its most accustomed form of an object, here a statuette that the international spies purchase at an art auction in Chicago.  It supposedly contains invaluable microfilm, although in MacGuffin fashion the audience is never shown the content or told what information it carries.  Yet it holds such great importance for the spies that they must risk killing Grant to insure the success of the mission to acquire the statuette.  And it functions perfectly in the film, serving its purpose then receding to the fringes of memory from where it provokes no question about the plot or its meaning that might undermine the rhythm of the denouenment or the audience's pleasure in a well-rounded plot that receives its brilliant closure in that fusion of the iconographic Pullman and Frontier hero in the height of erotic transport that somehow balances the scales of Cold War tensions in favor to team West, if only for the moment.

Whatever Hitchcock may have wanted North to mean, ultimately it signifies a detour, albeit a life-altering one, on the way West, or West by East—the established psychohistoriological migration pattern underlying the Usonian spirit.   Hitchcock staged an East-West confrontation within that U.S. archetypal paradigm; Grant's evil foes may be leftover Nazis or eastern cold-war agents, Hitchcock covers both bases, although Zizek does not hesitate to call them "Russian spies"(Zizek 150).  Whichever or both at once, they are meant to be read as agents of the East pursuing their struggle for world domination in the heart of the West.  Within that frame of expectations, north functions as the sign of a distraction from the performance the normal trajectory, a Hamlet-like spiritual disorder that temporarily bogs down the system with considerations beyond the clear opposition of East vs. West.  This effect could be compared to what could happen if the MacGuffin malfunctions, attracting too much attention—and we are reminded again of Hamlet and his comparison of madness and being blown north, that is, of having been disoriented by something coming from the south. 

It should come as no surprise that the MacGuffin statuette in which the microfilm resides also comes from the south: a pre-Columbian artifact from Latin America to where the spies intend to fly back for security and from whence, it is assumed, they will continue to plan the demise of the WEST writ large.  It falls to Grant, the complacent and frivolous, immature easterner, to both save the country and himself, by setting off on yet one more performance of the westering ritual.  But with Jackson Turner's fall line already long off shore by 1959, what Grant discovers is the lingering presence of that old, never resolved transversal force of the ever northering other frontier dream of the Spanish empire ((F.J. Turner Frontier 9).  When the two directional impulses meet, they skew in a diagonal, North By Northwest, a fitting accommodation for both ventures, a mestizo compromise shifting between two solid points of orientation, perpetually ill-defined and never fully acknowledged.   

Despite the many differences that distinguish the Spirit Stallion's and Cary Grant's experiences, they share the deep structural pattern and transformational effect of a liminal ritual as defined by Victor Turner:  the central phase in rite-of-passage rituals, played out between separation from the group and re-incorporation into it, is called liminal.  During this phase, “ritual subjects pass through a period and area of ambiguity, a sort of social limbo which has few (though sometimes these are most crucial) of the attributes of either the preceding or subsequent profane social statuses or cultural states” (V. Turner 24).  Liminality rituals are used by stable societies to preserve collective solidarity by inculcating common values in their adult members.  Non-traditional societies often revert back to some form of liminal rituals when their collective solidarity is questioned in order to reaffirm their threatened ability to control contemporary social practice.  The celebration of simulacra liminal rituals creates the appearance that the group still has the ability to control its future. 

Whether real or simulated, liminal ritual are structured experiences of estrangement intended to develop mature survival skills, played out within a semi-controlled field of performance in which initiates are subjected to threats and trials that channel their comportment away from childishness and towards adult patterns expected of mature participants in society.  The initiate emerges with a new adult identity, that of a reliable, law-abiding community member.  Hence, liminal rituals ultimately reinforce group tradition, even when an individual initiate, through strength of personality, forces some alteration in the tradition into which s/he is reintegrated after the ritual. 

The major difference between Spirit and Grant within the shared ritual structure is that Grant's character performs the traditional form of the ritual, while Spirit faces an altered form.  Grant returns to the group from which he was torn and forced to undergo the ritual. He matures, becomes a man, and through the trial becomes a full fledged citizen worthy of returning to claim his place in the nation where he will once again know who and where he is, now fully affirmed through his acquisition of a mate to mark his successful rite of passage.  Spirit seems to undergo the same experience—even to the extent of returning with a beautiful mate who will displace the mother.  Yet because his Spanish origin is subjected to Indian miscegenation prior to encountering the trials at the hands of the U.S. army, an unambiguous return to origins is difficult.  Instead, Spirit is somewhat more liminoid than liminal; that is, his initiation ritual neither fully returns him to his origins nor incorporates him into the group that is placed as the binary other, the United States.  He remains the wild outsider, the figure on the edge, the inhabitant of the in between zone outside "normal" social space, marketing his invented image of supernatural nature to those other initiates who have returned to society.  He personifies their nostalgia for the lost REAL of primitive and natural otherness they invest in his image, but at the cost of his hidden identity and origin as Spanish/Arabic immigrant to the North by Northwest.   

And yet, perhaps the makers of Spirit, the Stallion of the Cimarron did capture a true sense of the West in Spirit:  his multicultural floating sign can shift to meet the demands of different moments, or so it seems as long as his historical origin remains hidden under mystification, covered over the myth of The West.  If we scratch the surface of U.S. history perhaps we can find a basis for asserting liminoid status as the tradition of America as North by Northwest.

In the first East-to-West voyage across the area of what has become present-day Usonia, Cabeza de Vaca's experience prefigured Spirit's and Cary Grant's.  In 1527, Cabeza de Vaca set out for what cartographers called America Septentrionalis, by which they meant everything above America Meridional—that is, from Panama to the north pole, a concept of North America that also used to be familiar to any school child despite popular opinion in the United States that lumps Mexico into South America.  It is this orientation that the Spanish Empire, the original global power, gave the cartography of the Americas, dividing it into northern and southern hemispheres of its total colonial geography.  On his voyage that produced the first major text on events in what is now the U.S. territory, CdV accompanied an expedition given exploration and colonization rights to the area north of the territory Cortez had previously claimed, known to us now as Mexico.  The area his expedition was granted was called La Florida, an unspecified land mass flowing north from Tampico Bay along the Gulf coast to present day Miami then all the way up the Atlantic seaboard to Newfoundland, from where a then still to be defined squaring off of the north-west coordinates was to be worked out.  The plot of his tale is familiar to students of Usonian culture, especially since the introduction of The Heath Anthology in 1990.  His voyage east to west and eventually south back into Cortez's jurisdiction cut a path across the northern territory claimed by Spain, marking with its trajectory the de facto border between more or less occupied areas to the south and terra incognita to the north.  The most current view holds that his route roughly followed the present Mexico/U.S. borderline, at least in the Rio Grande portion, so it was not without typological import.  And at one critical point, CdV decides to continue following the route of corn and the sun westward in search of Spaniards instead of turning north to follow the route of the Buffalo which would have taken him into New Mexico and beyond.  

            The character of liminal ritual that CdV gave his account of the trip can also be read as paradigmatic.  One could say that CdV was the first liminal frontiersman in the Usonian canon.  When faced with being treated as a failure and hence denied full re-incorporation into the sociopolitical inner circle of Imperial entrepreneurs, CdV turned the tale of his failure into one of success by narrating his misfortunes in terms of a liminal conversion tale.  Failure is redefined as divine intervention meant to strip the Spaniards of their secure identity, and their clothes for good measure, force them into the wilderness to be tormented and severely tested, while simultaneously instructed on the ultimate meaning of life through service to the less fortunate in God's name.  Only those who proved worthy of salvation—four out of over six hundred—survived the liminal experience and worked their way back into the fold, reeducated and prepared to be better citizens (a fifth remained behind in Florida proper to be rescued by the De Soto expedition).

            I must emphasize that I do not hold this version of CdV's voyage to be the ultimate significance of the actual experience, rather the one he gave it through his rhetorical manipulation of generic codes of performance and writing available to him within the cultural discourse of the time.  A cursory comparison with Cortez's Letters or Pizarro's account suffice to show that the liminal, conversion-tale reading was not the general pattern of conquest chronicles.  CdV's Account is unique, yet somehow it marks the Usonian experience, especially in as much as CdV never manages to reintegrate himself into the Spanish system as a Spaniard, rather he must convince the Emperor that he should be given preference for appointment to the American colonial project because he has come back a changed man.  His American experience infuses him with a liminoid spirit, making him an in between creature, the ideal bridge between Europeans and Indians (Bruce-Novoa, "Naufragios").  As I have explained elsewhere, when CdV writes in his text a "we" that is neither Indian nor Spaniard, the American pronoun appears for the first time in print, and its position is that of the liminoid—returning from his ritual of initiation to find that he can neither stay among the Indian other nor return to his former group, the Spaniards.  In other words, CdV's first American we is less Cary Grant and more Spirit Stallion, even to the detail that his Spanish origins are vociferously denied by the "Native Americans" who insist on inventing for him a difference that would allow them to appropriate him for their purposes, much like what the filmmakers do with the horse in Spirit.  

Frederick Jackson Turner's vision of the creation of the Usonian character as a product of a series of historical transformations worked out at specific moments and places distributed across the continent can equally be read in terms of liminality (Bruce-Novoa "Off Shoring").  Since those "fall lines" moved gradually west, he saw the country's spirit as having been formed in a constant westering ritual.  “At the Atlantic frontier one can study the germs of the process repeated at each successive frontier . . . . complex European life sharply precipitated by the wilderness into the simplicity of primitive conditions”(F.J. Turner, Frontier 9).  Fall lines forced explorers and settlers to prove themselves when “the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant” (F.J, Turner, "Significance" 41-42).  The situation was only momentary, however, since each fall line was incorporated eventually into the nation's legal and social cartography.   Frontier migrants undertook the archetypal, liminal voyage:  leaving social normality to enter the dangerous unknown, only to be re-incorporated into normality after proving their courage and fidelity to the old norms. F.J. Turner saw the frontier as both location for and process of  re-invigorating community.  His frontier process and Victor Turner’s liminal ritual share that same pattern as well. 

One can hardly miss the similarity between the liminal process and the American Dream of self-creation through individual effort, through movement, through indulgence of unrestrained behavior, through overcoming hardship, but also by proving oneself worthy of re-incorporation into the established community as a valuable, new continuation of the tradition ("Offshoring").  We should not forget, however, that this dream was tied to the availability of land:  “All that we are proud of in national life and national character comes primarily from our background of unused land” (George, 21).   George's unused vacated the “West” of civilized others, reducing Native Americans to nomads incapable of “using” land according to Euro-American standards, and erasing any presence of Spanish colonials with their own system of land use directly related to European traditions brought north in a previous frontier movement with its own series of "fall lines."  Both the movement and the mental vacating of the land of any previous legal and/or social organizing principle constituted a national rite of passage for "Americans" in F.J. Turner's mind:  “If one would understand why we are today one nation, rather than a collection of isolated states, he must study this economic and social consolidation of the country.  In this process from savage conditions lie topics for the evolutionist” (F. J. Turner, 1962, 15).

One could easily aver, however, that Spirit's friend, the horse-riding Native American—that arch villain cum arch victim of the Usonian Western Saga—was no longer the "natural savage" of the wilderness, rather already a by-product of a concept of political organization and land use brought to the northern frontier by the Spaniards.  The mere fact that he rides a horse represents a major intervention in Native culture by the Spanish, an intervention that is now read as essential to the image of the Western tribes. As such, the horse is a metonymy that generates a string of similar phenomena:  mesta and cañada [open range and migratory pasturing], rodeos and branding, mule and ox tethering, slurry mining, communal mineral and water rights, ejido [communal] cultivation, subletting herds, acequia [gated surface ditches] watering, Mercedes titling [land grants], pueblo chartering, family compounding and fractioning, compadrazco  [godfather] responsibilities, etc. etc.  No need to wait until Hitchcock's Cold War on the northwestern frontier to have a clash of individual versus communal property concepts.  It was already there from the time the Euro-based powers rubbed up against each other, to speak nothing of each one of their encounters with Native Americans.

            Unused land was Henry George's and V. J. Turner's MacGuffin:  as long as it remained unexplored and silently on the fringes of the discussion, the western frontier theory could be performed as a logical, convincing, even entertaining plot of a good story, one that unfortunately falls apart when the MacGuffin speaks.

            In this context of conflicting memories of how the North/West was won, the figures of Miguel Antonio Otero Sr. (1829-1882) and Jr. (1859-1944) looms instructive because like Hitchcock's film they addressed both the Westering élan and the persistent Northering subtext in their lives and Otero Jr.'s voluminous writing:  a three volume autobiography and multi-volume reports authored while Territorial Governor of New Mexico from 1897-1906.  Also, like Spirit, their return to New Mexican society was complicated by the competing ways to perform "normally" open to them.

Otero Sr., the son of Spanish immigrants to New Mexico, had taken advantage of the new transcontinental interchange with the United States opened by the Santa Fe Trail in 1821—the same year Nueva España won its independence from Spain, becoming Mexico.  In 1841 he followed the trail east to the United States to study in Missouri at St. Louis University and then to New York, becoming a professor and eventually a lawyer.  Upon returning home in 1852 he entered territorial politics and served as a delegate to the national congress (1855-1861), and then traveled to Leavenworth, Kansas to start a successful commission business to work closely with the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe railroad as it worked its way, first west to Colorado, and eventually South by Southwest into New Mexico and across to Southern California.  By 1879, when the rail head reached Las Vegas, New Mexico, the old Santa Fe Trail's first "Mexican" stop, the trail became obsolete. One could say that those rail head towns were like Turner's fall lines, but on an accelerated pace, sometimes lasting for only short periods of time before another was established further along the tracks.  But at each the tension of civilization and frontier was played out, except, as I have shown elsewhere, the direction was not towards an empty wilderness, rather the centuries old northern colonies of New Spain/Mexico (Bruce-Novoa, "Offshoring").  And with the train's arrival in New Mexico, Otero was bringing his family back full circle to its origin. 

Miguel Antonio Jr. was born in Saint Louis, Missouri in 1859, at mid point in his father's second sojourn west of the Mississippi.  This allowed him to stage the opening volume of his autobiography as an eyewitness account of the closing of the Usonian Frontier as well as his personal liminal tale of coming to maturity on the archetypal migrant trail west.:


As the railway lines pushed their way westward through Kansas, I migrated from one rough and sporadic terminal town to another, scraping acquaintance with Westport Landing, Leavenworth, Ellsworth, Hays City, Sheridan and Fort Wallace in quick succession during my boyhood.  In like manner, I followed the Kansas-Pacific Railroad into Colorado and sojourned in Kit Carson for over three years.  Then when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fé [sic.] Railroad began to build west from Topeka to Granada, Colo., at the crossing of the Arkansas, I transferred my nomadizing to that line, first locating at Granada in the fall of 1873, then at West Las Animas, La Junta, El Moro and Trinidad, and when it eventually continued its lines into New Mexico, I left El Moro and Trinidad and became part of Otero and Las Vegas.  Naturally, I saw much of the last phase of frontier life in America.  (Otero 1864-1882, 1) 


Otero’s opening paragraph of  My Life on the Frontier, 1864-1882 summarizes his voyage on the same railroad network that Spirit encountered at a slightly earlier time and more northern longitude.  Hence, we can read their adventures as versions of the same story as told from opposite sides of the Turner fall line as it moved west with the train.  For both it is an adventure in liminal transformation.

Like Spirit, Otero leaves the security of home and mother at an early age.  At the age of twelve, Otero left school for the open countryside, presumably to find more suitable environment for his health.  Unlike, Spirit, who is kidnapped by strangers, Otero looks forward to setting out to explore "frontier life in America," and he later boasts of having lived among infamous strangers who became his friends.  Among outlaws and prostitutes, Otero witnessed Indian raids, gun fights and murders, the familiar archetypal experience of the wild west frontier during the years when the territory taken from Mexico by conquest in 1846 was incorporated into the United States.  Before he had turned twenty-three, Otero had experienced the disappearance of the open space between the United States and Mexico, the mythical yet all too real closing of the frontier.

            To understand how Otero viewed this phase of his life as a liminal experience it might be instructive to compare it to another youth who also set out from Missouri along much the same route.  Kit Carson escaped westward down the Santa Fe Trail a quarter of century earlier on his own voyage of initiation and became one of the success stories of the frontier, a respected military guide and revered hero of expansionism.  Carson's experience must be viewed, like Spirit's, as liminoid, rather than liminal in as much as he remained forever the figure on the edge, the inhabitant of the in between zone outside "normal" social space.  It was exactly his intimate familiarity with and continued residence in the unincorporated frontier that made Carson a valued mediator.  If anything, rather than return to the group after his initiation, Carson became one of the wise mentors who remain in liminal space and guided others, like the youthful Otero, who ventured into it for their own initiation.  Otero, to the contrary, closed out volume one by replacing his deceased father as head of the Otero clan back in New Mexico in 1882 and accepting, though reluctantly, the end of his "nomadizing" youth:


Almost immediately after the death of my father, my life took a more serious turn. Unfortunately for me, I was named one of the administrators of my father estate.  This position interfered greatly with my own affairs and compelled me to act as wet nurse for the rest of the family . . . I was scarcely twenty-three years old when my father died, and at that tender age had to assume many responsibilities which were forced upon me, not at all to my liking or desire. (287).


Despite the tone of a lament for the liminal freedom of his frontier youth—which his text amply documented—readers recognize the motif of social re-incorporation in his closing remarks.  He was returning to the home from which his father set out years before to study and return, only to set out again, crossing and re-crossing the open frontier.  But the freedom of the frontier space disappeared as Miguel Antonio Jr.'s emerged from his liminal experience and he had to assume the position of pater familias.  Like Grant at the end of North by Northwest, Otero had passed his initiation rites and emerged to claim his rewards, although Otero was not enthusiastic about his new status, perhaps because there was no damsel like Eva Marie Saint to make it more satisfying. 

            Lest readers assume that only elite types like Otero Sr. and Jr. could indulge in this back and forth movement between the old northern Spanish/Mexican territory and the expanding U.S., Otero provided another example from a markedly different class.   In Chapter Two, when describing life in Hays City [Kansas] in 1868, Otero comments on the "houses of prostitution kept by such notorious characters as "Calamity Jane," "Lousy Liz," "Stink-foot Mag," and "Steamboat"(11).  Cleaned up for her Broadway musical reincarnation, Calamity Jane would undergo her own re-incorporation of sorts into Usonian mainstream culture, but it is Steamboat who interests us.  She was one of the only figures outside his family and a few business associates that Otero mentioned on the voyage from start to finish, albeit it with only a brief summary of her experience.  She resurfaces in Ch. 12 where Otero significantly characterized her in the following manner:  "She was really an adjunct to the commission houses, starting with them from the first and continuing at every move until reaching Las Vegas in 1879" (134).  In this way Steamboat became a participant in the same adventure of the closing of the frontier Otero called his own.  He even implicitly made prostitution an extension of the official AT&SF Railroad.   Then Otero revealed more significant details. "She really was a fragile old girl and would not have weighed more than three hundred and fifty pounds on the platform scales.  Her name was Dolores Martinez and she was an exceptionally bright native woman or she could not have remained so long in the dance-hall business and its subsidiary attachments" (134).  After dedicating another two pages to her fascinating, grotesquely comical figure, Otero closed by summarizing once again her participation in the adventure that formed his liminal experience:  "Steamboat followed the advance of the railroad and was soon afterward located in Las Vegas along with her old friends and associates of the early days on the frontier, the commission-house boys."  But then Otero added the result of her liminal voyage by relating her return to the home town:  "From Las Vegas she went back to her mountain home near Mora, taking with her a quite neat little sum of hard-earned shekels, enough to keep her comfortably for her few remaining years" (136-137).  In the end, Steamboat Dolores Martinez, a native New Mexican, returns to her roots to reap the rewards of her liminal adventure back and forth across the frontier.

            Re-incorporation into the social community was probably easier for Steamboat than for the Oteros.  Despite the family's economic and social prominence and Miguel Antonio Jr.'s declaration of the end of his liminal rite of passage, both father and son  were to be reminded often of the precariousness of their position.  They constantly encountered the shifting nature of their existence, from Westerners enjoying full rights in the U.S. project of expansion, to that of residual Northerners fighting for equal treatment.  The Oteros' return to the group always had to be prefaced with the question, to which?  While they might see the options as equal and the same—two civilized groups, Mexicans and Usonians, as opposed to the barbarous nomads, the Indians—not everyone with whom they came into contact would agree, forcing them at different times to take sides on one side or the other of the "civilized" border.

As mentioned above, after leaving Mexico (New Mexico was a northern province of Independent Mexico since 1821) to educate himself and become a lawyer in the United States, Miguel Antonio Sr. had returned to follow in his own father's footsteps in New Mexican politics, but now the home space had been incorporated by conquest into the United States.  But when he sought election as a delegate to the U.S. Congress, the opposition came not from the Gringo newcomers, but from those who could have been considered his constituents, the Hispano community.  So in 1856, he had to file an official complaint in Congress contesting the election. According to Otero's document, the seat had been awarded fraudulently to José Manuel Gallegos.  Using the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican American War, Otero Sr. constructed his argument:


It provided that "those Mexican citizens who shall prefer to remain in the said territories may either retain the title and rights of Mexican citizens, or acquire those of citizens of the United States; but they shall be under the obligation to make their election within one year from the date of the exchange to ratifications of this treaty; and those who shall remain in the said territories after the expiration of that year without having declared their intention to retain the character of Mexican citizens, shall be considered to have elected to become citizens of the United States."  The said contestant avers, that in the county of Santa Fé, in precincts Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8, eight hundred voters who had elected, as afore said under said treaty, to retain the title and rights of Mexican citizens within one year from the ratification of said treaty, and who were not American citizens, and who had no right to vote, and who were disqualified from voting by the decision of the supreme court of New Mexico, which decision is unreversed and unappealed from, and who were also disqualified by the thirty-eight section of the election law of said Territory, did, at said election, on the 3d day of September, 1855, in said precincts, in said county, cast for you illegal votes to the number of eight hundred, which votes should be rejected and not counted in your favor, but were counted for you as legal votes. (Otero Sr. "Memorial," 2)


As the victim of fraud, no one can blame Otero Sr. for filing the complaint, the outcome of which was his being consequently awarded the congressional seat.  However, in proving the votes in several counties to be illegal, Otero in effect disenfranchised some 2229 de facto Hispano New Mexicans.  Whatever the situation of these New Mexicans may have been after the treaty of 1848, the fact is that by remaining in the country and voting in the election, they were claiming citizenship rights in the United States—ad hoc rights, perhaps, but nonetheless rights.  To establish his legitimate right to the congressional seat, Otero's contestation demanded a legal definition of voters' rights that effectively yanked the U.S. rug out from under 2229 aspiring "Americans."  Otero shifted the legal ground out from under them by forcing an investigation that determined their status as national others, as Mexicans as opposed to U.S. Hispanos. In so doing, he was drawing the borderline between himself and those on the other side, even when that other side remained well within the newly acquired territory of the national state.  This would not be the last time the border would shift for the Oteros. 

Volume II of Miguel Antonio Jr.'s autobiography contains the case of "The Nuestra Señora de los Dolores Mine" (82-96).   "The mine was first discovered and located under the Mexican government, in 1840, by two citizens of the Republic of Mexico.  These two prospectors were being financed by Don Carlos Jaquez, a wealthy lawyer of the city and state of Chihuahua.  The ore taken from the mine at that time was carried on the backs of burros over rough trails to the city of Chihuahua" (82).  It should be noted that the account of the mine starts by recalling the fact basic to his and my argument:  before the expansion of the United States into its West—an expansion Otero Jr. himself wants his readers to take as synonymous with his own growth into manhood—it functioned under the legal system of Mexico, and before that of New Spain.  The mention of a "lawyer" emphasizes the existence of a system of law and order that George, Turner and Spirit relegate to silence. 

After the Mexican American war, the original prospectors decided to remain Mexicans, crossing south over the new border, and sold the mine to the Otero family. But an infamous Santa Fe political ring tried to steal the claim by falsifying a Mexican land grant they had acquired.  Suddenly the Oteros are faced with split loyalties between the new West in which they are being victimized and the old North where their rights were registered—one could say that Miguel Antonio Sr. and Jr. shifted from liminal to liminoid by circumstances that remind them that they did not belong entirely in one camp of the other, but somewhere in between.  The family's border status is reflected in the fact that Otero's father had to travel to Mexico to secure proof of ownership.  A Mexican judge offered to help in exchange for half the mine, taking advantage of Otero's foreign status as an outsider in need of insider help.   Otero Jr. eventually had to occupy the mine by force to impose his Mexican claim, but then was arrested and brought to trial by U.S authorities.  This time the Hispanos supported him as jurors voting to clear him.  The victory, however, was for naught, with. betrayal coming from the other side of the borderline:  "R. W. Webb and most of my attorneys and associates of Golden, New Mexico, gave me the double-cross, for when I succeeded in having the ground thrown open, they relocated all the surrounding country and left me out entirely.  They sold their interests back to the company for large sums of money and I never received a dollar from any of them" (96).   The immigrant practitioners of the new code of law simply redrew the map of the West to erase old lines of the Norte.  The latter, as legally defined from the national Mexican capital to the south, is deterritorialized quite literally, leaving the subsurface relocated on another map defined vis-à-vis Washington D.C. and the eastern interests that need to place the Oteros on the other side of the border, just as Miguel Antonio Sr. had done earlier with the New Mexican voters.

            As Territorial Governor, Otero found himself fighting yet again a similar battle, but now at a much higher level, that of states' rights, specifically, New Mexico's right to become a state.  And while these struggles are related in his autobiography, they are better represented in the contemporary heat of the moment in his yearly Governor's Reports.  While almost all of the area that had been taken by the United States in its two Nineteenth Century expansions—the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican American War—had been turned into states by the turn of the century, New Mexico, which included the present Arizona, had not.  In part, it was because the area was considered by many to have retained too much of its character of a northern Mexican province.  Otero dedicated much of his time and effort to combating this prejudice in different forms.  Against those who thought New Mexico a land of barbarians Otero responded by reminding them of  New Mexico's claims as the seat of civilized presence—in its sense of permanent city dwellings of people with cultural production—in an unbroken line from before the founding of the English or Spanish colonies. The Spanish tradition proper left the Governor's Palace in Santa Fe considered one of the most significant historical buildings in the country.  From that building had been radiated a legal tradition ante-dating that of the English colonies.    

            And if that didn't work, he could always play the liminoid card, as he did at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, aka Louisiana Purchase Exposition.  As Governor of a non-Louisiana Purchase state, Otero emphasized his states participation in the history of the development of Missouri, and vice versa.  But all through his speech he pictured New Mexico as the place where the old, authentic spirit of the Spanish Northern frontier still survived in its pure form.  New Mexico, like Kit Carson, merchandized its otherness as cultural capital.  A good example was the Maria-Josefa  bell that was brought to St. Louis as part of the territory's exhibit.  "The oldest bell in America . . . cast in the year 1355," it was originally brought to the mythical "seven cities of Cibola," then taken "to Gran Quivira, and thence to Algodones, in Sandoval County, New Mexico" (Otero, My Nine Years, 305-6).  Here lies the essence of Otero Jr.'s rhetoric:  he evokes a prized object of antiquity, traces out its Hispano/Indian provenance through the grand map of exotic myths, until it reaches its present location in New Mexico.  Thus, the Hispanic tradition and the native tradition formed an organic continuum in Otero's writing.  He achieved the same effect when addressing the make-up of the state's exhibition itself:


The New Mexico building at the exposition was an attractive structure in the mission style.  The exhibit was designed to attract the attention of home-seekers and capitalists.  In addition to Navajo blankets, Indian baskets, and pueblo pottery, there were samples of apples, cotton, and wool raised in the territory.  The collection of minerals was very comprehensive, turquoise being especially conspicuous.  Ours was the only exhibit of this gem at the exposition. (Otero, My Nine Years, 305)


 The center of the paragraph, sentence three out of five, juxtaposes typical Indio products —artifacts—with supposedly non-Indian products to convey the state's bicultural heritage.  This central sentence is framed by 2 and 4 that address the contemporary needs of an expanding nation:  homes and investment, especially minerals, although agriculture and livestock are already implicit in sentence three.  Yet Otero frames the paragraph with images of the exotic, the liminoid, the otherness that comes from those two ancient sources:  the Spanish Empire and the Pueblo Civilization:  Missions and Turquoise, closing the paragraph by emphasizing that "ours was the only exhibit of this gem," with turquoise functioning as the synecdoche of both ancient cultures fused into one image. 

            Otero placed himself firmly on shifting ground:  he could offer whatever the occasion demanded.  In his ability to move from Westerner to Northerner, and perhaps both and neither, he personified what border cultural critics claim is the essential characteristic of the new reality of shifting identities.  Certainly Otero, in the center of the political struggle over territorial redefinition, lived the experience in ways many of his more culturally isolated contemporaries could not.  And although some Chicano critics would rather not acknowledge him on grounds of his class and privilege, these may well be exactly the reasons for giving him the attention he merits if nothing else for the quality of his writing.

            The wonderfully constructed paragraph I quoted and analyzed must be revisited for one last observation.  Otero begins by stating that the New Mexico building was "an attractive structure in the mission style" (305).  And I read it within what I believe were his intentions.   However, the "mission style" must not be confused with Spanish Missions, just like Spirit must not be confused with the prelapsarian West.  Mission Style was invented by Arthur Page Brown, a Cornell graduate, for the California building at the Chicago Exposition in 1892 and introduced into New Mexico by the Fred Harvey Company for its hotel chain, the same chain greatly responsible for popularizing Native American Turquoise jewelry souvenirs and Southwest artifact collections (Howard).  By 1904, Mission architecture and all the rest had come to represent what tourists expected the Southwest to look like.  So Otero, even when offering images of the Real North by Northwest, was manipulating discourses being manufactured within the great industry of the imaginary.   Perhaps this is actually what the Spirit of the West has always been, a dream of living comfortably within a community that also allows one to play at being a heroic Cimarron/Cimarrón.  

            The Oteros' MacGuffin, like that in Spirit, the Stallion of the Cimarron, hides in the last word in Otero Jr.'s title: My Life on the Frontier.  The word appears in all its well-understood solidity, and as such Otero can declare in his opening paragraph that he has witnessed and lived its "last phase," that key moment in Usonian history:  the end of the American frontier.  As such, he expects to follow the Turner theory of fall-lines incorporation into mainstream society.  Yet, what he discovers is the other hidden voice of Frontier—and again Spirit shows us the way:


     Frontier [frun teer´] … Frontier [frohn tehr´] ... Frontera [Frone teh´ rah]


Seems that mature Otero of the post-conquest West was hiding a telltale Spanish origin, too, something like Mi Vida en la Frontera.  What Otero first saw and celebrated as the fringe of wilderness west of Usonian civilization—awaiting incoporration through migration in persistent Turneresque steps—reveals another meaning when read from the Spanish of northern Mexico:  frontera as border.  The Oteros found that everytime they demonstrated their ability to perform as fully civilized participants in the mainstream,  especially in the legal arena, the Frontier split like a faultline marking a border of difference, and no matter on which side they chose, part of themselves remained across the line on the other side.  No Cary Grant, clear liminal return to the West-cum-East would be possible unless they somehow could forget their norte-sur roots.  But unlike Spirit, they had no screenwriter or director with the power to voice over their historic reality and erase their Spanish/Mexican origins.  And their Macguffin was always in the background, but refused to keep still. 




an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 2, December 2005, ISSN 1552-5112


Works Cited

Bruce-Novoa.  "Naufragios en los mares de la significación: de la relación de Cabeza de

Vaca a la literatura chicana," Plural, 19‑5, no. 221 (Feb. 1990), 12‑21

_________. "Offshoring the American Dream," The New Centennial Review, 3, 1

(Spring 2003), 109-145.

George, Henry.  Social Problems.  New York: Robert Schakenbach Foundation, 1941.

Howard, Kathleen L. and Diana F. Pardue.  Inventing the Southwest, The Fred Harvey

Company and Native American Art.  Flagstaff:  Northland Publishing Co., 1996.

"MacGuffin" in

Mitchell, Lee. "Whose West Is It Anyway?  Or What's Myth Got to Do With It?  The

Role of 'American' in the Creation of the Myth of the West," American Review of Canadian Studies, Dec. 2003.

North by Northwest.  Directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Ernest

Lehman; M.G.M. Pictures, 1959

Otero. Miquel Antonio, Jr.    My Life on the Frontier, 1864-1882, Incidents and

Characters of  the Period when Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico were passing

through the last of their Wild and Romantic Years.  New York:  The Press of the Pioneers, 1935.

_________.  My Life on the Frontier 1882-1897, Death Knell of a Territory and Birth of

a State,  Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico Press, 1939.                        

_________. My Nine Years as Governor of the Territory of New Mexico, 1897-1906.

Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico Press, 1940.

_________.  Report of the Governor of New Mexico for the Year Ending June 30,

1898.  Washington:  Government Printing Office, 1898.

Otero, Miquel Antonio, Sr.. "Memorial of Miguel A. Otero, Contesting the Seat of Hon.

José Manuel Gallégos [sic.], as Delegate from the Territory of New Mexico." Miscellaneous Document No. 5.  Washington D.C.:  Congressional Record, February 14, 1856, 1-4.

Santamaría, Francisco J.  Diccionario de Mejicanismos.  México:  Editorial Porrúa, 1959.

Spirit:  Stallion of the Cimarron. Directed by Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook; produced

by Mireille Soria and Jeffrey Katzenberg; Co-executive Producer, Max Howard; screenplay by John Fusco; Dream Works: 2002.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. . The Frontier in American History.  New York:  Holt,

Reinhart & Winston, 1962.

_________.  “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” in  The American

Frontier, A Social and Literary Record, ed. C. Merton Babcock. New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965, 29-42

Turner, Victor. “Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual, An Essay in

Comparative Symbology,” From Ritual to Theatre, The Human Seriousness of Play, New York, PAJ Publications, 1982, pp. 20-60.

Wright, Frank Lloyd. "An Organic Architecture," in Frank Lloyd Wright Collected

Writings, V. 3, 1931-1939, ed. Bruce Books Pfeiffer, New York:  Rizzoli, 1993. 299-334. 

Zizek, Slavoj.  Enjoy Your Symptom!  Jacques Lacan In Hollywood and Out, New York:

Routledge, 2001. 



[1] In reality, both Hamlet's words and Hitchcock's title refer to the system of mariner's compass readings that are anything but inexact, assigning to each term a specific point on the directional circle.  Hence, Hamlet's "north-north-west" is N 22o 30' W, two points west of due north, halfway between due north and northwest.  "Northwest by north" signals N 33o 45' W, one point north of due northwest.  "North by Northwest," however, does not exist in system and therefore occupies no location.  While it could be an inversion of "northwest by north," in a precise system such slipshod inexactitude can prove life threatening, as happens in the film itself.  It is a slight misapprehension that sets off the mistaken identity and hence the plot of the film.