DD. This article was written by J. Reed Brundage, Ph.D, founder and editor of Mexico Voices, whose aim is raising the awareness of U.S. citizens regarding the destructive impact of the U.S. economic policy and the War on Drugs on Mexico—on its people, their economic and physical security and their human rights, on the nation’s dysfunctional justice system, and on the rule of law and Mexico’s fragile democracy.
This is a long article, but you cannot encapsulate the "How and Why" of Mexico in just a few paragraphs and is well worth reading for a better understanding of Mexico.
For those whose 1st language is Spanish and who would prefer to read it in Spanish a link to the article on Espanol is provided at the end of the article.
Mexico: Fractured and Fragmented
J. Reed Brundage, Ph.D.*
The foreigner trying to understand Mexican culture, society and politics is confronted by a seemingly limitless, potentially overwhelming number of incongruities. Modern lifestyles exist alongside ancient ones, extreme wealth alongside extreme poverty, the well-educated alongside virtual illiterates, personal courtesy and friendliness alongside random violence, a day-to-day flow of normal life alongside almost daily marches in the streets and frequent eruptions of civil disorder. México tranquilo over against México bronco, Mexico untamed, uncivilized. The oft-repeated grito, cry of el pueblo, the people, is ¡La lucha sigue!—the struggle continues.
Behind these ongoing disparities and the conflicts between them lie multiple, powerful dynamics rooted in the many layers of Mexican history: from the millennial prehispanic times and the Spanish colonial era, through the nineteenth century War of Independence with its battles for political control and struggles over adoption of European liberal models, to the chaos of the twentieth century Mexican Revolution, the seven decades of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and late twentieth century globalization with its invasion by transnational economic and political forces. This is the historical backdrop against which Mexico is today struggling to develop a fully functioning democracy.
The incongruities, divisions and resulting luchas, conflicts or struggles, underlying Mexican society can be identified as essentially variations on two sets of dynamic realities:
Geographic regionalism created by Mexico’s fragmented, dramatically contrasting topography that, by rendering travel and communication difficult, gave rise to cultural differences that go back thousands of years.
Los de arriba versus los de abajo encapsulates economic and power divisions embodied in:
Ethnic divisions between those who identify primarily with Spanish roots and “Western”—and increasingly globalized—culture, and those who identify primarily with traditional, rural indigenous roots and culture.
Class divisions between those with economic and political power and control of the “system”, and those who have historically lacked any power whatsoever.
According to Aztec mythology, the goddess Coyolxauhqui was slain and dismembered by her half-brother, Huitzilopochtli, in retaliation for having killed their mother, Coatlicue, at the time of his birth. Huitzilopochtli then became the chief god of the Aztecs. In this way, a female goddess of fertility was replaced by a male god of war, even as the earlier agrarian society gave way to a military, imperial society.
Relief of Coyolxauhqui dismembered by her brother, Huitzilopochtli, Templo Mayor, Mexico City (Photo: Reed Brundage)
The relief shown here depicts Coyolxauhqui’s body parts—her fragments being all that remain of the once-dominant goddess. The relief was found at the base of the pyramid to Huitzilopochtli in Tenochtitlán, the Aztec seat of power, now the site of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City adjacent to the National Palace, which is the seat of power of the Republic of Mexico.
Measuring 10’ 8” x 9’ 9”, the relief is second in size only to the Aztec Sun Stone. Its size and theme recommend it to be a fitting introduction for this analysis of the key dynamics in Mexico’s history: fractured from within and without, the surviving fragments continue to be powerful forces shaping contemporary Mexico.
Geography is Destiny: Geographic Fragmentation, Indigenous Ethnic Groups and Regionalism
As U.S. historian Lesley Byrd Simpson made clear by the title and organization of his classic history, Many Mexicos (1941, 4th ed., 1966), the development of human societies in the terrain that is now Mexico was shaped by its fragmented geography. This fragmentation is the consequence of the multiple, underlying and surrounding tectonic plates that pushed up its many mountain ranges and that regularly continue to make their presence known through earthquakes and volcanic activity. The mountain ranges divide and isolate the various regions of the land from one another, which has led to the development of multiple, discrete indigenous societies.
Indigenous Divisions: A Society Fragmented by Geography and Culture
Before their conquest by the Spanish, the indigenous cultures now called Mesoamerican shared a common world view and many cultural elements based on the cultivation of corn, care of Mother Earth and dependence on natural forces. All were organized hierarchically, with a lord and nobles controlling the artisan and laboring classes below them. However, they spoke hundreds of languages, some within the same language families; others, isolates, were unrelated to any other tongue, the result of multiple migrations into the region. Major migrations, related to disruptions of control by dominate groups, occurred up until two hundred years before the Spanish arrived, when the Mexicas or Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico. In the years that followed, the Mexicas conquered or subjugated the surrounding groups into what some historians have described as an Aztec Empire by virtue of the control exerted and tribute exacted.
Regionalism from the Conquest to Today
When Hernán Cortés arrived, the Aztecs or Mexicas dominated much of the center of the land. Cortés took advantage of the resentments and opposition to the Aztecs to gather an indigenous army with which he defeated them.
While many of these indigenous groups have more or less merged into a shared, Spanish-speaking, Catholic, Mexican culture, many continue to speak their original languages and maintain their traditions and identity. This identity continues to be grounded in their relationship with la tierra, the earth that provides life.
Indigenous groups are especially prevalent, diversified and politically active in the southern states. Almost eighty per cent of those who speak an indigenous language live in eight of Mexico's thirty-one states; in rank order these are Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, Puebla, Yucatán, Guerrero, Hidalgo and Mexico City. The five predominant languages spoken by indigenous people are Náhuatl, followed by Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec and Otomí.
Officially, the Mexican Constitution not only recognizes the existence of indigenous peoples and their right to govern their communities following their traditional “uses and customs”, but their right to control their lands as well. However, the existence of two separate systems of governance, and failures to support the ostensible rights of indigenous peoples, continues to create conflicts. Conflicts between indigenous groups over indeterminate land boundaries (resulting, in part, from the many historically fragmented layers of governance) are numerous.
Even among people who do not identify with one of the indigenous groups, a strong sense of geographic-based differences remains: north, central, south, west, and the two coastal regions. Within states, people are identified by the town they come from (e.g., Pátzcuarense, from Pátzcuaro, Michoacán) and nationally by the state they come from: Sonorense (the first group of presidents after the Revolution), Tabasqueño (leftist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador), Chilangos (Mexico City), Mexiquense (State of Mexico, home of President Peña Nieto and several current cabinet members), Hidalgense (other cabinet members). Peña Nieto is from the town of Atlacomulco, the home of several other influential politicians during the PRI’s initial uninterrupted seventy-year reign (1929-1999).
Mexico's municipalities are the local unit of government and can cover areas from a size equivalent to that of a small U.S. township to that of an entire state. Located in Mexico's 31 states are 2,438 municipalities. Chihuahua, the largest state [95,500 sq. mi], has 67; Tlaxcala, the smallest [1,541 sq mi], has 60. Oaxaca [36,214 sq mi]--highly mountainous and populated by many ancient, indigenous communities--has 570 municipalities. The largest municipality, in Baja California, covers 20,000 square miles; the smallest, in Tlaxcala, is 1.6 square miles.
For years, towns and states were ruled by caciques, formal or informal ‘chiefs’. With the breakdown of the PRI and its loss of the presidency in 2000, state governors have been viewed as becoming new caciques. Peña Nieto is seen as trying to regain centralized control or at least the cooperation of the governors.
Los de arriba versus los de abajo: A Society Split Top from Bottom by Race, Class and Culture
The Spanish Conquest created a primary fracture, or split, in the society of Nueva España, New Spain, between los de arriba (those above) and los de abajo (those below). It also reinforced the split between the center (Mexico City) and the provinces that had existed since the time of the Aztecs.
Race: Foreign Invaders vs. Original Peoples
The Spanish removed the indigenous ruling class by killing those who opposed them and incorporating those who submitted as ladino (Spanish-named, Spanish-speaking and Catholic) intermediaries to manage the indigenous, los indios. They established political, economic, ideological (religious) and cultural control through peninsulares (government officials and clergy from the Iberian Peninsula, Spain) who often stayed temporarily, returning to Spain when their term of office was over (viceroy, bishop), or when they had made sufficient money. Los de arriba viewed los de abajo, los indios, the indigenous, solely as a source of labor to aid in the extraction of wealth for personal use or to be sent back to Crown and Church in Spain.
Subsequent invasions, twice by the French and twice by the United States—first, in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, when Mexico City was occupied and the country lost half of its territory; then again in 1914 during the Mexican Revolution—have heightened Mexicans’ sensitivity to control by foreign powers. The theme of foreign invasion and la lucha against such invasion is evident today.
One example is the struggle of indigenous communities against the intrusion of multinational corporations granted access by the federal government to extract minerals and other natural resources from land that has been theirs for millennia and is sacred to them. Another is the current debate over whether PEMEX, the state oil company, which arose from President Lázaro Cárdenas’ nationalization of U.S. and European oil companies in 1938, should be opened to foreign investment. The Constitution designated oil and other natural resources (e.g., minerals, water, wind) as the country’s patrimonio, a heritage that both symbolizes sovereignty and the national pride of the Mexican people.
In the case of oil, this legacy is highly personal. In announcing nationalization of the oil company, Cárdenas asked the people for their moral and material support. The people’s reply was absolute, unequivocal. Caught up in the patriotism of their president, workers, women and children collaborated to subsidize the president’s action. In addition to money, they donated hens, pigs, turkeys, goats, rabbits, pigeons, ornaments, shoes, watches, rings, dolls, beans, corn…. As a result, ordinary Mexican people have a profound sense that they have a stake in the nation’s petroleum. It belongs to them, they helped to pay for it, it is theirs. Recent amendments  modified state ownership to allow foreign company participation in extracting and processing oil resources. This has provoked demonstrations against this "betrayal of the nation" and announcements by the Left of intent to "revoke" the changes.
Race and Class: Criollos versus Mestizos
Some Spaniards chose to remain in New Spain and have families with the few Spanish women who undertook the dangerous voyage to the Spanish colony. Their offspring, Spanish-blooded born in New Spain were termed criollos to distinguish them from peninsulares, Spanish born in Spain. Other Spanish men married indigenous women, which gave rise to mixed Spanish-indigenous mestizos. Africans were imported to work on coffee and hemp plantations in the south; the resulting Spanish-African unions gave rise to mulattos. As subsequent generations were born, possible combinations became virtually limitless.
The Spanish king imposed a caste system that placed specific legal and economic limitations around each group—limitations that served to formalize and reinforce these divisions. In the campaign to promote a common national identity after the Mexican Revolution, mestizo became the generic term for all mixed raced people.
A high school teacher in Michoacán, traditional land of the Purhépecha people, relates that he asked his students if they feel indigenous. No, was their reply, we don’t speak the language, we don’t keep the traditions. Then do you feel European, he asked. Their ‘no’ was even more emphatic. He concluded, “We are the children of Malinche.” The indigenous woman Malinche was given to Cortés and served as his translator; their offspring are recognized as the first mestizos. With visible pride, the teacher concluded, “We call ourselves la raza bronce, the bronze race.”
Political Culture: Cities vs. Countryside, Center vs. Provinces
The Spanish destroyed indigenous cities and built European-style cities for themselves from the ruins. For example, Aztec Tenochtitlán became Mexico City, the capital and seat of viceroyal and Church control. The Spanish also built entirely new cities such as Veracruz, Puebla and Guadalajara. With one notable exception, indigenous people were not allowed to live within city limits. Indigenous workers who provided services to the Spanish were allowed to live in cities, but they were confined to indian barrios.
Many indigenous in the countryside were gathered into new, consolidated pueblos, villages. These forced removals facilitated conversion to Catholicism and Spanish culture and submission to Spanish control. They also enabled the Crown to hand out indigenous lands as encomiendas, land grants, to conquistadores and other Spanish hidalgos (literally, sons of somebody). Some indigenous people were allowed to remain on their traditional lands in the countryside, which the king “granted” back to them communally.
In these ways, the Spanish imposed divisions between city and countryside, capital and provinces on top of underlying, indigenous regional divisions.
Political Culture: La Autoridad versus el Pueblo
The government of New Spain was authoritarian, centered on the King in Spain and his representative, the Viceroy, in Mexico City. Agents of the Viceroy governed in provincial cities. Los pueblos, referring both to the common people and the villages where they lived, might have ladino caciques (chiefs), or jefes (bosses), who functioned as intermediaries with the Spanish government. Spanish and later mestizo, priests served in local churches, but the indigenous communities also maintained traditions of el pueblo, i.e., communal organization based on family ties and highly structured, communal responsibilities or systems of cargos.
Los de abajo had choices: they could be clients (virtual vassals) of los de arriba, which meant subservience and providing work; they could pay cuotas “fees” and bribes to get what they needed; or they could be excluded. Those who experienced themselves as excluded either aguántese, bore up, or they rebelled in outbursts of public protests that sometimes became violent. If they became too extreme, los de arriba cracked down with la represión. This reinforced a strong sense of “us” versus “them” on both sides of the divide.
Cycles of popular rebellion and government repression mark the history of New Spain and Mexico. The Maya and other indigenous groups rose up numerous times against the Spanish in attempts to eliminate them and reestablish autonomous rule. Mestizos, who were literally outcasts in the cities, erupted in motines, riots. Nineteenth century Mexican history is one almost continuous rebellion and civil war, culminating in the Mexican Revolution. During periods of stability, repression of any opposition was the order of the day, whether under Porfirio Díaz or the PRI. It remains an ever present fear and possibility. A most recent example: On December 1, 2012, in Mexico City, the day Peña Nieto was sworn in as president, the police ignored rioting porros (thugs), agitators, and arrested innocent protesters and by-standers.
Current Manifestations of the Vertical Splits
The splits between the indigenous and the “westernized” worlds, between los de arriba and los de abajo, between city and country, center and provinces, authority and el pueblo currently show up in a number of conflicts. One such manifestation is the battle in public education over the so-called “education reform”, which establishes standardized testing of students and teachers as a component in the evaluation of teachers to determine whether they are qualified to remain in their jobs—jobs previously constitutionally granted for life upon graduation (Mexican Constitution, Article 3).
Many teachers from the heavily indigenous states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Michoacán come from rural pueblos with indigenous roots and were trained in rural normal schools established in the 1920’s, after the Mexican Revolution, to provide basic education in these communities. These rural normal schools have a history of serving as bases for populist opposition to centralized state and federal governments. The teachers vehemently, even violently, oppose what they see as the imposition from above, by the central government, of a plan proposed by global powers through the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development):
"[It is a plan] conceived by the entrepreneurial powers that seek the privatization and commercialization of teaching, and the ideological and political control of students. ... these powers and the federal Executive [are] introducing concepts such as quality, efficiency, competence, continuous improvement, evaluation, etc., coming from the transnational corporate world." (“Mexico Dissident Teachers Make Their Case for Repeal of Education Counter-Reform”, Gilberto López y Rivas, Ph.D., La Jornada, June 14, 2013)
A professor of education states the complementary side:
"What is behind the profound energy of the teachers' movement is the struggle of communities, peoples and regions to reclaim Mexico for what it is—a constitutionally plural nation. It is a struggle that is not just marches and strikes, but which has materialized in a long and patient construction of multiple projects in education (and evaluation) in Chiapas, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Michoacán, Puebla and other states. Given this, a return to uniformity not only denies the current situation, it is a relapse." (“The New Crisis of Education Evaluation”, Hugo Aboites, Ph.D., La Jornada, June 22, 2013)
An indigenous teacher from the Mountain Region of Guerrero gives direct voice to this worldview:
"I am in the movement because the government is making its reforms without considering the needs of indigenous peoples who live discarded because we don't have what they have in the cities.
"We analyzed the changes proposed in the education reform. We concluded that they will affect parents, and we believe struggling in this way is the only way to support them. The government doesn't know what happens in our communities nor does it live together with the people. It doesn't take into account the problems and needs of children in the Mountains. It just wants to make the reform because it is being pushed by another country, and now they want to do it in Mexico." (“Being a Woman, Indigenous and a Teacher is Source of Pride for Guerrero Activist”, La Jornada, April 7, 2013)
We have found no more apt description than these words summing up the experience of a highly regarded teacher:
“Teacher Maria Magdalena Herrera Carillo’s experience demonstrates the absurdity of the recently approved education reform. A reform designed for a country that doesn't exist.” [Emphasis added] (“Teacher Magda and Education Reform”, La Jornada, Luis Hernández Navarro, July 9, 2013)
Another current dynamic that vividly demonstrates the splits between those above and those below, as embodied in the government versus the people, and between the written law and the actual public security and justice system is the uprising of numerous "self-defense" groups and community police in such states as Guerrero and Michoacán. These are in response to the failure of government security forces to protect the people from the predations of the drug cartels which have expanded their "businesses" into extortion, kidnapping and robbery and virtual control of large regions. The taking up of arms (which are severely restricted by Mexican law) to protect one's self and family is a direct confrontation with the absence of a real State that has the unique right to exercise force to maintain civil order.
Dynamics that Bind and Fragment: Society Pits “Us” against “Others”
The fundamental fractures have given rise to social systems capable of functioning within this broken society. The most important dynamics are described below.
Personalismo and Clientelismo: Dynamics that Bind the Mexican Body Politic
Within the Spanish court—including its off-shoot in New Spain—and beneath the formal relationships of a new nation-state held together by a central monarchy, power was wielded by means of a medieval, hierarchically layered culture based on fealty, i.e., personal relationships, and loyalties built through the exchange of favors between patron and client. For example, the Viceroy and other officials were known, at times, to have purchased their offices or otherwise to have gained office in exchange for favors done for the king or his courtiers. Corruption was just another name for this system.
After Independence was gained from Spain, overriding loyalties to a hereditary king and the authoritarian system he represented were abandoned (although on two occasions efforts were made by Conservatives to impose an “emperor”), but the personal nature of governance that had prevailed during the colonial period foreclosed the possibility of the young country's politicians and bureaucrats gaining the essential experience with democratic principles and decision-making procedures on which self-sustaining institutions could have been established. Therefore, political power reverted to a type of medieval fealty. To this day, Mexico's weak institutions handicap the country's development.
Power was gained by individuals, known as caudillos, medieval-like lords as it were, who took power by military force or military reputation, or by personal political connections. Loyalties were based on opportunistic assessment of which individual would come out on top. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the situation led to innumerable power struggles, switching of sides, pronunciamientos (coups d’etat), assassinations, revolutions and civil wars, i.e., to frequent, virtual anarchy. While this anarchy has come to an end, politics is still discussed in terms of leading individuals and their followers. Hence, the new federal administration under President Enrique Peña Nieto is peñanietista.
A recent newspaper column communicates how alive these issues still are:
"To its historical problems and deviations, the PRI has added mexiquense (i.e., from the state of Mexico) tribalism to the peñanietista administration. The conflict is not just due to the natural imbalance based in the nation´s diversity or the predictable favoritism that generates a job structure privileging natives or those related to the region from which those at the apex of the pyramid of power come.
"It also comes from limitations in operational capacity of many of the managers transferred to the federal bureaucratic elite as part of the buddies of the winner of the election. They have no experience or capacity or, in the case of the more or less enshrined dinosaurs [term used for old PRI political bosses], they carry an excess of vices with them.
"It’s the buddyism or cronyism that is traditional in Mexican politics, but in many current mexiquenses cases, it is also improvisational and abusive, (manifested in) the regional swagger and the presumed untouchable status gained by having a similar hairstyle (i.e., by means of political encopetamiento) [This last reference is a very Mexican play on words referring to Enrique Peña Nieto’s copete, his highly stylized crest of hair]. (Spanish original: Julio Hernández López, ‘Astillero’, La Jornada, April 29, 2013)
The Party of the Institutional Revolution, the PRI, held Mexico together for seventy years with a system of corporatism. Society was organized into sectors, groups or 'corporate' entities, such as workers, unions, farmers, and social organizations, which were controlled from the top down, or more precisely by the President through a client system within party and government structures. A number of Mexican and foreign political analysts now maintain that when the PRI lost its hegemony in the 1990’s and political power became pluralized, the “corporate” structure fell apart and its various pieces—businesses, unions and state governors—became independent competitors for political influence and wealth, with a weak federal government left to serve them. Among these competitors are the drug cartels.
Corrupción and Impunidad: “We respect the law, but we don't fulfill it”
Given that personal, client relationships have determined political and economic success, the written law, the Constitution and all the laws derived from it, have virtually not mattered. In fact, they have interfered. As a system of objective accountability, the law is the diametric opposite of personalism and clientelism. For los de arriba, the benefits of the system have far overridden any allegiance to the law, so a tradition of legal consequences for violations of the law has simply not developed. Public force, the Army and police were instruments of personal power, used only to control political enemies or los de abajo. Impunity has been the norm. Corruption is simply the underside of personalism and clientalism.
Over time, the attitude and behavior of los de arriba came to be mirrored by los de abajo, who reasoned that if those above don’t have to obey the law, then neither do they. The popular Mexican dicho, saying, goes, “We treat the law with respect (i.e., we defer to the authority that concretely represents it), but we don’t fulfill it.”
Thus it is that the complex cultural dynamics of personalism and clientelism, together with corruption and impunity, serve not only to divide Mexico but also to bind it together.
Traición (Betrayal), Mentiras (Lies) and Suspiciousness: Dynamics that Fragment Society
A running theme throughout the history of Mexico is that of traición, betrayal. Malinche, the indigenous woman who spoke both Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and Maya, is viewed as having betrayed her people by serving as Cortés translator and adviser. Cortés massacred the leaders of Cholula, accusing them of plotting to betray him. Indigenous groups, such as the Tlaxcalans, are seen as having betrayed the original peoples of the land by siding with Cortés in order to attack the dominant Aztecs. Moctezuma is seen as having betrayed his people by allowing Cortés and his indigenous allies into the island city of Tenochtitlán. One indigenous interpretation of the Aztec loss to Cortés is that their gods betrayed them.
The initiator of Mexico’s War for Independence from Spain in 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo, was betrayed so that he could be captured and killed. In the battles between the various caudillos after Independence was achieved, Vicente Guerrero, a hero of the war and the new nation’s second president, was betrayed and killed by agents of his vice president, Anastasio Bustamante. Santa Anna, the muti-time president and military leader from the 1833 to 1853, switched his loyalties and politics frequently. His loss of Texas and his subsequent losses of battles against the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846-47, which led to Mexico ceding half of its territory to the U.S., are seen as two of the greatest betrayals of the nation.
Porfirio Díaz, a victorious general on the side of the liberal forces of Benito Juárez in the War of Reform and then the fight against the French invasion (1857-67), turned against the liberals and in the 1870’s essentially made himself president for life. Francisco Madero, who initiated the Revolution against Díaz in 1910 and became president in 1911, was betrayed and assassinated in 1913 by his general, Victoriano Huerta with the support of the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson. After Huerta was overthrown the following year by Venustiano Carranza, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zappata, Carranza turned against Villa and Zapata. Zapata was betrayed and assassinated by agents loyal to Carranza. Carranza was subsequently assassinated by supporters of his former lead general, Álvaro Obregón.
On a more institutional and contemporary scale, the PRI, the Party of the Institutional Revolution, claimed it was the embodiment of, and tool for fulfilling, the goals of the populist side (Zapata, Villa) of the Mexican Revolution. It incorporated peasant and worker groups into its structure. But through corruption and intimidation, it co-opted populist leaders, and it is seen, at least by leftist groups, as having betrayed the Revolution.
The PRI´s ending of Mexico’s nationalist-oriented, state-run economy in the 1980’s and 90’s, with the selling off, i.e., privatization of state businesses such as the railroads, telephone and television, the ending of agrarian supports and its opening to the global, free-market economy, led by Presidents Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo, is seen, again by the left and los de abajo, as the most recent betrayal of el pueblo. The current lucha over the “privatization” of the state-owned oil company, Pemex, i.e., allowing private and foreign investment and profit sharing in the last bit of nation’s patrimony, is only the most recent and, perhaps, final act in this sequence of betrayals, potently reminiscent of the betrayals by Santa Anna in his losses of Mexican territory to the United States.
All the fractures and splits between los de arriba and los de abajo, the betrayals by los de arriba of one-another and, more so, of those dependent upon them, los de abajo, and the resulting rivalries, biases, envies and resentments have created a great deal of distrust in Mexican society. The government is perceived as always lying which, given the endemic corruption, is not an unfounded perception. There is widespread suspiciousness not only towards all those above and those below, but towards anyone seen as outside one’s personal circle of trust, ellos de confianza.
Guadalupe Loaeza, political scientist, cites historian Daniel Cosío Villegas (1898-1976) who, in his book Critique of Power, writes, "The Mexican is sospechosista, highly suspicious by nature." Loaeza then adds:
"... If [Cosío Villegas] were alive, he would probably corroborate how the evil of "sospechosismo", great suspiciousness, continues to afflict us and is now in the DNA of Mexicans. Everyone suspects everyone and everything" (“On Mexican Suspiciousness”, Guadalupe Loaeza, political scientist, Reforma, Feb. 5, 2013). MV Note: Link is to MV translation; Reforma grants online access to subscribers only.
A number of Mexican political analysts have written books on this cultural dynamic. Octavio Paz’s El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude) is the most famous. Anthony Pagden’s chapter titled “Trust and Honor in Spanish Naples” in his work Spanish Imperialism and the Political Imagination (Yale University Press, 1990) sheds important light on Imperial Spain’s political strategy for administering conquered peoples, which was to destroy the trust that bound together the pre-existing civil society by setting domestic groups against one another—a strategy pioneered by the Spanish Crown in New Spain.
Sara Sefchovich’s País de mentiras (Country of Lies, 2008), Agustín Basave’s Mexicanidad y esquizofrenia (Mexicanness and Schizophrenia, 2010), César Cansino’s “El excepcionalismo mexicano” (Mexican Exceptionalism, 2012); two essays by Lorenzo Meyer, Death of Mexican Revolution Leaves Big Hole in Mexican Psyche (Reforma, January 9, 2014); Third and Final Death of the Mexican Revolution (Reforma, January 2, 2014) and Juan Pablo Proal's essay Mexico Government: The Lie as Political Practice (Proceso, February 21, 2014) are recent analyses of the splits in Mexicans’ social psyche.
Mexico’s fractured cultural, social, economic and political dynamics have culminated in a failure to develop the strong national institutions that could provide the county with coherence. The five hundred year history of authoritarian, de arriba government and the consequent prolongation of the society’s fractures have given rise to fragmented, dysfunctional systems.
Justice System: Fulfilling the personalized, self-serving purposes of los de arriba in eliminating opposition and maintaining control of los de abajo, the ‘justice’ system is suffused through and through with corruption and impunity. The net result is a virtually non-functional system of ‘justice’, including the police. The Spanish-based inquisitorial system, in which judges privately determine guilt or innocence based on documents submitted by prosecution and defense, allows for corruption. Police dependence on torture to elicit confessions has led to the imprisonment of many innocent people.
People do not trust the system, which leads to vast under-reporting of crimes—estimated to be as high as fifty percent. Of crimes reported, fewer than ten percent result in convictions. Thus, the rule of law is an ideal expressed in official discourse, but it is not a daily reality [see René Delgado, Mexico: A Country of Laws Without A Culture of Legality (La Jornada, February 8, 2014); Adolfo Sánchez Rebolledo, The Great Mexican Distrust (La Jornada, April 3, 2014)]. A Constitutional reform in 2008 established a transition by 2016 to a system of adversarial, public oral trials, but implementation has been slow due to widespread resistance throughout the justice system [see Gustavo Castillo García, New Criminal Justice System Advances Slowly (La Jornada, March 11, 2014); Alfredo Méndez, Mexico Police Lack Adequate Training to be Effective Under New Code of Criminal Justice - Legal Specialists (La Jornada, February 11, 2014); Ana Laura Magaloni Kerpel, Ph.D. in Law and CIDE research professor, Mexico Criminal Justice Reform: Scope of the Challenge (La Jornada, February 8, 2014); Alfredo Méndez, Mexico Lawyers Reject New Criminal Code Out of Self-Interest - Legal Specialists (La Jornada, February 7, 2014)].
Education System: Designed to maintain control de arriba, the public education system has taught official versions of the nation’s history and rote learning of basic reading and math skills, with scant development of critical thinking skills. Many students withdraw from elementary school because of poverty; others drop out of middle school to work. Still others don't finish high school. The average number of years in school is eight. Many graduates of middle school can only read and do math at an elementary level. The public education system is also suffused with corporatism, personalism and corruption. It is widely recognized as a failure and inadequate for Mexico to become a modern, democratic society.
Economy: Despite the opening of Mexico’s closed, nationalist, state-controlled economy to the global “neoliberal”, “free market” economy in the 1980’s and 90’s, a large part of the population remains outside whatever benefits this opening may have brought and many are worse off, with less purchasing power and less secure employment.
According to the latest government statistics, in 2012 fifty-three million people (45.5 percent of the population) lived in 'multidimensional poverty'. Of these, 11.5 million people or 9.8 percent of the population live in extreme poverty. Also according to government data for 2010, 44 million people, 39.16% of Mexicans were classified as "middle-class" (annual income above USD $14,600; World Bank). However, 32 million are "vulnerable" to return to poverty with the slightest shift in fortune, e.g. job loss, serious illness. Only twenty percent of the population is judged to be economically secure.
Only forty percent of the economy is ‘formal’, with employment contracts and benefits. Sixty percent of Mexican workers labor in the ‘informal’, cash economy and hence lack all benefits (medical, pension, etc.), nor do they pay income taxes. Loopholes and avoidance of tax payments by los de arriba further undermine any stable source of government income, which remains highly dependent on revenues from PEMEX, the state-owned oil company.
Government: Deriving from rule by the Spanish viceroy during the colonial period, Mexico has a tradition and history of strong presidents and weak legislative and judicial branches. While the Congress and Judiciary have become more independent since the PRI lost its hegemony, momentum remains to shift power to the Executive branch. The return of PRI has been accompanied by speeches about regaining the “rectory,” i.e., control, of the State. Peña Nieto’s Pact for Mexico and his National Security Plan both seek to centralize decision making and management.
Political Parties: Having freed itself from Spanish royal control early in the nineteenth century, Mexico nonetheless lacked any practical experience in self-government, including political debate and decision making. The emergence of true political parties that could represent society’s various interests was stymied by personalized power battles between caudillos, the domination and repression by dictators (Porfirio Díaz), and the PRI’s one-party rule.
The conservative, Catholic and business-oriented National Action Party (PAN) was tolerated by the PRI as a “loyal opposition”, but held no political offices until the late 1980’s. Although the PAN won the presidency in 2000 and 2006, it is now widely criticized for not knowing how to run a government, leading to a further fracturing of political and economic powers.
The Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) grew out of a kind of marriage of convenience between members of the left wing of the PRI, who left the party after the 1988 election of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and traditional leftist socialist and communist parties that were always marginal and suppressed. The PRD continues to be fractured by splits—most notably, the exodus in 2012 of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, following his defeat in the presidential election, in order to form his own party MORENA [Movement for National Regeneration]. The remaining factions or “tribes” within the PRD, whose roots lie in their various origins—and all with highly personalized leadership—now argue over whether to actively cooperate with the PRI government of Peña Nieto or stand as a vocal opposition to it.
El Retraso/The Delay: All these institutional fractures and dysfunctions have resulted in what Mexicans refer to as el retraso, the delays in development noted in each of these areas. Although there have been many efforts at reform and modernization, there is a common feeling that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.
So What Does Hold Mexico Together?
With all this fragmentation, one wonders how Mexico and Mexicans manage to maintain a coherent day-to-day life and any generally functioning economic and social organization. In a previous section, personalism and clientelism, corruption and impunity were identified as complex, even contradictory cultural dynamics that serve not only to divide Mexico but also to hold it together at political and economic levels.
Personal Relations: In villages and small cities, family and community ties remain strong. Even in Mexico City, there are communities with prehispanic, indigenous roots where generation after generation grow up. Personal networks made up of family and trusted friends constitute the basic social structure.
Catholic Faith: Shared by a majority of Mexicans across all geographic regions and from bottom to top of the classes, the Catholic Church remains a common frame of reference and set of beliefs about life. The Virgin of Guadalupe, a merger of Spanish and indigenous identities, is the symbolic Mother of Mexico and of all Mexicans.
Work: Mexicans have a strong work ethic and are very proud of whatever may be their particular work role. Scarcely any Mexican would ever say he or she is “unemployed”. More than fifty percent of Mexicans work in the “informal” cash economy. Wherever there is a need, there is someone ready to earn a few pesos by creating a mercado, a market, to meet it. As a show of respect, university-educated people are addressed formally by the title of their degree, e.g., Licenciado (Bachelors), Ingeniero (engineer), Doctor.
Sports: Fútbol, soccer, of course, is the national passion. In the most humble village, a soccer field is laid out—often on bare ground. Sunday is soccer day, and the game is played by men and boys of all ages. But basketball is not far behind. Basketball courts are also found in every town. Sometimes situated in front of the church, these roofed courts are used not just for games, but for town meetings, civil ceremonies and even weddings. Finally, an increasingly popular sport has its roots in the ball game that was played throughout Mesoamerica. In Michoacán, the game is played at night with a hard rubber ball doused in kerosene, set afire and kicked. It should be mentioned that girls also play, and their teams can be quite good!
Popular Culture: Although regional variations in food, music, dance and folk art are virtually infinite, these pillars of popular culture show core common elements and a strong, shared sense of Mexican identity—often with strong indigenous roots. The corn tortilla (and its European, wheat variant) in all its varied forms and uses (plain, fried, toasted, steamed, rolled, stuffed, covered in sauces), along with chilies, frijoles (beans), salsas, moles, and a rich and endless variety of other ingredients and seasonings are essential components of Mexican identity. Norteno, ranchero, banda and other regional popular music forms are each distinct, but also share a liveliness of rhythms that is distinctly Mexican. The same is true of folkloric dances, which are based in Spanish culture, but with distinctive regional variations of movement and dress.
Death: Chilean-born, Mexican-educated anthropologist and naturalized Mexican citizen, Claudio Lomnitz, maintains that a particular view and representation of death is also a central “totem,” or symbolic center, that holds Mexico together. In his book, Death and the Idea of Mexico, he reviews the long history of Mexican representations and beliefs about death as central to how life is to be understood and lived. While in life, the world may be divided between los de arriba and los de abajo, when death arrives, she makes all humans equals. Death, or at least the images of death—the calaveras (skulls) and Catrinas (skeletal figures dressed as elegant ladies or other characters)—is sardonically played with. Life is a Dance with Death, which she leads and brings to an end.
Life: But above all, Mexico’s peoples are bound together by their irrepressible ánimo, vitality, joie de vivre. Perhaps it is most evident in the various pueblo fiestas for the patron saints of each parish that are religiously celebrated as manifestations of communal identity. Then there are the family celebrations of baptisms, first communions, quinceañeras (girls’ fifteenth birthday parties), weddings and ordinary weekend parties. Mexicans’ vitality is also visible in the active, highly personal exchanges in traditional mercados, markets and the street life of the informal economy. Finally, there is the unremarkable fact that Mexicans simply get up every morning and get on with their lives—no matter how difficult their circumstances. They aguántese, they bear up. There is also the distinctly Mexican sense of humor: variously playful, sardonic or self-deprecating—with a cheerful, even ironic, recognition that “we´re all in this together”.
El Discurso de México imaginario / The Mexican Worldview: A more subtle, subliminal cohesion is carried and transmitted by the language and verbal imagery used by all Mexicans to talk about themselves and their world. In order to convey the almost ritualistic, taken-for-granted way language is used, we have deliberately drawn on typical examples to construct our description of Mexico’s fractures and fragments and society’s efforts to deal with them. México tranquilo versus México bronco, los indios, los pobres, los mexiquenses or los de whatever-city-or-región, las provincias, México (meaning Mexico City). The divided world of los de arriba versus los de abajo, la autoridad, la imposición, la represión, la lucha del pueblo, pronunciamientos, el personalismo, el clientelismo, el corporativismo, la corrupción, la impunidad, la mentira, el sospechosismo, el retraso, la esperanza (the hope). Other examples abound.
Mexicans also have an accepted, ritualized and humorous way of making up new words to locate current events and their players within the accepted conceptual framework. For example, “-ista” can be attached to the name of any politician to identify his followers or his policies. Peñanietista is only the latest one. The suffix “-azo”, a “blow”—as in manotazo, a slap of the hand (mano)—can be added to any name or event to mean a blow or attack against that person, the instrument of attack, or a symbolic object used to represent the attack. A recent example is the “Elbatazo”, the arrest by the peñanietistas of teachers’ union leader, Elba Esther Gordillo, on charges of embezzlement (corruption).
The Mexican worldview is a dramatic one, full of protagonists and antagonists, heroes and villains, the forces of good versus the forces of evil, entangled in a lucha, a struggle for victory one over the other. An archetypical representation of this drama appears in pastorelas, shepherds plays. Typical medieval morality plays brought by the Spanish friars to teach Catholicism to the indigenous, pastorelas are still performed across Mexico from Advent (November) through Christmas and up to Candelaria (presentation of the Baby Jesus in the Temple, February 2).
In the typical pastorela, simple peasant folk (el pueblo) are called to go to Bethlehem to honor the new-born King of Men, the Baby Jesus. On the way, they are confronted by el Diáblo, the Devil, or several devils, representing various cardinal sins—dressed in black or red—who try to tempt them into sin. The Devil has the biggest, best and funniest role. Eventually, the archangel, San Miguel (St. Michael), patron saint of Mexico, arrives dressed in pristine white, and, with his sword, forces the Devil into submission. A general celebration then ensues. Leading up to Christmas, this is a piñata party for the kids. The traditional seven-pointed piñata represents the seven deadly sins, which are eventually overcome by the blindfolded (innocent) children beating the piñata into pieces. The candies that fall are rewards for being virtuous, good.
Where Does Mexico Go From Here?
Thoughtful Mexicans are themselves deeply divided on this question. We have tried to highlight here the profound fractures that divide the nation. Leading up to and following the 2012 presidential election, many books and articles appeared debating “the future of Mexico.” The word proyecto, project, is commonly used in this political discourse to describe what in English is termed vision. Not surprisingly, various proyectos, or visions, compete for dominance over the future direction of Mexico. Thus, one way to view Mexico today is through the lens of these efforts to achieve national wholeness. Neither coherent nor cohesive, they are nonetheless the ‘green shoots’ of a people—and a nation—trying to find its way to become a unified whole.
Government efforts to foster national unity are grounded in globalization and modernization. Such efforts are the latest in a long line of ‘reforms’ that began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when President Porfirio Díaz attempted to ‘modernize’ Mexico by aligning its economy with that of the industrializing countries. Following the Mexican Revolution, the PRI attempted to unify Mexico around themes of national pride and mestizaje. The politically charged Pact for Mexico, which is driving a whole brace of so-called “structural reforms” for labor, education, energy, taxes, is widely regarded as the latest example of these top-down, de arriba, government efforts.
At the other end of the social spectrum are grassroots, bottom-up, de abajo, approaches that seek to link peoples and regions together in common cause around shared concerns. These attempts are perhaps most visible in the actions of various civil society organizations acting, or beginning to function, regionally and even at a national level. Significantly, many of these organizations focus on human rights, such as the National Network of Civil Human Rights Agencies All for All (Red Nacional de Organismos Civiles de Derechos Humanos Todos los Derechos para Todas y Todos), which addresses such issues as the rule of law, corruption and impunity. Similarly, the violence associated with the Drug War has prompted the emergence of such human rights organizations as the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity headed by Javier Sicilia, the poet-activist. Other groups focus on defense of the land and agriculture, such as the Coalition of Democratic Urban and Rural Organizations (Coalición de Organizaciones Democráticas, Urbanas y Campesinas, CODUC), which is made up of six regional organizations; still other civil organizations are focused on combating the extractive practices of transnational mining companies.
It has been said that human rights and environmental rights are opposite sides of the same coin. Be that as it may, these grassroots efforts are without a doubt providing ordinary Mexicans—long excluded from the political life of their country—valuable experience in the art and practice of democracy. So, for Mexico and her people, the struggle continues … ¡La lucha sigue.
Words are powerful weapons, be careful how you use them.
@DD: Great article. ..
Every paragraph packed with insights that validated my experiences and learning ...while also giving me insights and perspectives that were illuminating, provocative, and very disturbing at times considering the dark future implications that I forsee. One being, that Mexico is too fractured on too many dimensions (except maybe Catholicism) to ever become a legitimate functioning Democracy. IMO, not even the promising AD movements will suffice. The future for Mexico seems bleak.
Given my pessimism , above, I pray the USA, stays far, far away from getting entangled in Mexican affairs more than it already is...to do so is inviting disaster for "both" countries. Also, I wish more would have been said about the narco cartels and the 800# gorilla, the millions of legal and illegal Mexicans in the USA...
DD, I got lots of stuff to think about now. Gracias!
In reply to this post by DD
I guess, on the other hand, the PRI under Pena, kinda like the porfiriato, is trying to herd cats... Barbarous Mexico (link below).
@Tu Sancho. Thanks for posting the link to Barbarous Mexico. I haven't read it yet (free on line) but just looking at the table of contents and reading the first few pages it sounds very interesting. Historical context is just another thing BB provides.
Words are powerful weapons, be careful how you use them.
Read chapter 8 beginning on page 138. It will sound much like what is taking place today in Michoacan by the federal government. With very little difference the same things that took place in that chapter are taking place now.
One significant difference is the internet and instant communications. Mexico is on fire with cell phones and internet.
And by the way, about the question of 'fractured and fragmented', there is a name for it... cangrejo mexicano
I say, apathy and a lingering sense of colonialism. It's been defeated & ruled by just about everyone: Spanish/French/Belgians/US proxy ...
Plus that whole lust for gold thing (money love) being mixed into society along with the bloodlines causing a caste system similar to India kinda screwed up the whole Country.
|Free forum by Nabble||Edit this page|