Saturday, January 29, 2005

Ominous Mexico

A few days ago I returned from a winter vacation with a friend in Mexico, my fifth visit since 1969. We avoided the usual hotspots of Cancun, Puerto Escondido, Mazatlan and so forth, in order to stick to north-central Mexico (the Bajio) and Puebla, with a final incursion into the capital. My spoken Spanish has become pretty limber, going beyond the usual inquiries about hotels and food to encompass intellectual discussions.

We saw many beautiful colonial buildings and refreshed our knowledge of pre-Columbian art. The attractions of those things are to me, an art historian, obvious.

Those benefits aside, I have developed serious forebodings about the country. When presidente Fox took office (at the same time as Bush's ascendency), there was much hope. Mexico was finally developing a working two-party system. Fox would move to dismantle the established PRI hierarchies and introduce a wave of neo-liberalism that would release the economic energies of the Mexican people. Contrary to stereotypes they have much endurance for hard work. Indeed they must, for it is necessary to work two full-time jobs to maintain a middle-class standard of living.

But little has changed--except for the worse. Now we hear ominous warnings about visiting northern Mexico, where kidnappings are rife. While the US is distracted by the Middle East ominous developments are happening right on our own southern border.

In reality Mexico is at least three countries. First are the tourist enclaves, constituting a kind of necklace dotting the shores (or some of them) of the country. We easterners are most familiar with Cancun. West Coast folks have a broader assortment available, from Mazatlan to Puerto Escondido. These enclaves are maintained by government policy to rake in tourist dollars. As far as the average tourist goes, they might as well be in Florida or California. For they rarely venture inland.

Then there is a second Mexico consisting of a few islands that show what the country could become if it could discard the debilitating heritage of its culture and the incubus of imported state socialism. San Luis Potosi, north of Mexico City, is a model of order and prosperity. The streets are clean and there is little evidence of begging. Most citizens seem reasonably happy, and they are easy to deal with. The city is lovely.

Finally, there is the swamp of pollution, crime, and hopelessness that makes up most of Mexico. This is true for the twenty-five million people who live in Mexico City, one of the most wretched places on earth. Tourists have pretty much abandoned this once desirable place. Even worse, though smaller, are such border towns as Tijuana and Nogales.

The roots of Mexican difficulties lie in her history. At the beginning there was the sixteenth-century conquest and subjugation of New Spain by the conquistadores. This relatively small Herrenvolk of European origin effectively inferiorized the indigenous peoples.

The foundations for addressing the problem of the racial caste system were ostensibly laid by the revolt proclaimed by Father Hidalgo in the Grito de Dolores of 1810. However, when Mexican independence was achieved a decade later the rule of the white minority was simply confirmed (with a small number of Spanish-born individuals being shipped back to Europe). The prolonged and destructive Mexican Revolution a century later was supposed to address the divisive stratification at a more basic level. The grandiose concept of La Raza Cosmica proclaimed the mestizo to be the bearer of a new type of exemplary hybridity. At the same time the regime adopted a symbology derived from the Aztecs.

Yet serious problems remained. Most Indian groups, as in Chiapas and Guerrero, remained aggrieved. The Aztec symbology favored only one group, the Nahua speakers and those with such a background. Moreover, it became increasingly evident that the indigenista symbology was in large measure simply a cloak for the continued hegemony of the white elite.

Mexico has also been hindered by the imposition of foreign ideologies. During the colonial period a type of mercantilism took root, which empowered the state to restrict economic activity rather than to promote it. The twentieth century saw the importation of a half-baked state socialism.

In some ways Mexico recalls the vanished regimes of Eastern Europe. Yet liberation does not seem to be coming. A basic lack interferes with this, for in reality there is no unified Mexican identity. Today one hears little of the Raza Cosmica (except north of the border where Chicanos speak of La Raza).

In short Mexico is a failed state. Prospects for improvement are dim at best. And sooner or later we will have to deal with this problem. Immigration, massive though it is, is only a temporary palliative.

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