When he moved to Mexico City, Daniel Hernandez planned to be less a journalist and more an observer and participant.
“For me, that meant to go to every possible event that I could,” explained the blogger and onetime Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly staffer to the full house at MOCA. “Every party, every concert, every rally, every religious tradition’s ceremony or ritual, every meeting, every talk.”
Drawing from his year-and-a-half immersion in the capital city, Hernandez explored how Mexico, despite economic, health, political, and environmental crises, manages to survive. The country, he explained, “has always been a survivalist kind of society. It has always been a society that has employed improvisation, adapting to whatever challenges are thrown at its people.”
It’s not just H1N1
Mexico today faces a number of serious challenges, beginning, Hernandez said, with the global economic crisis. The decline seems poised to worsen the country’s long-standing problems – a struggling agricultural market, high undermployment and involvement in gray or black markets, and severe social inequality. The H1N1 virus shut down major cities, and, Hernandez said, the government was ill-equipped to handle it. And before H1N1, there was obesity – Mexico is the most obese country after the U.S., Hernandez noted, perhaps because of U.S. influence. “Instead of going to the market to buy a 35-peso meal,” Hernandez said, one “would rather go to a McDonald’s or Burger King because it’s American, it’s better, it gives you status.”
HIV and AIDS are major health concerns as well, along with pollution. “They keep telling me it’s not as polluted as it was before,” Hernandez joked, “but I can’t believe them.” And the drug trade – a function of economic and political problems – thrives, draws in young Mexicans, and inflicts grave violence, while drug culture becomes more accepted.
The return of PRI?
Political disorder was the final problem Hernandez cited, noting the clamor in the country as midterm elections near. Looking further ahead, in 2012, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (“the ultimate oxymoron,” Hernandez said) could resume the presidency, after having ruled the country for decades before its ouster in 2000. Mexicans are divided on the prospect; some say the “dinosaurs” of the past are all out of the party, others worry about a return to authoritarianism. A tightly contested election could mean disputed results, and a loss of faith in institutions, Hernandez said, much like that provoked by the contest between Felipe Calderon and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (who is, Hernandez said, too readily ignored by American press).
Meanwhile, til 2012, Mexico faces the ordinary horse-trading between political parties aiming to pass legislation and trying to get reelected. The constant “gamesmanship” between Mexico’s several parties constitutes, he said, “total disorder, headlessness, madness.”
Migration and reverse migration
Hernandez outlined ways in which Mexicans survive, beginning even in pre-Hispanic times, when those vanquished by war would adapt to their conquerors, or perish. Today, the choice might be less stark, but those defeated by economic circumstances often choose to go north, to traditional immigrant cities like Los Angeles or to newly diversifying towns like Des Moines and Chapel Hill, Hernandez said. Mexico City in turn, he noted during Q&A, absorbs economic and other refugees from South and Central America and elsewhere, and has historically.
Those who return, Hernandez also mentioned in Q&A, often bring back bits of American and Mexican American culture, like Chicano style like baggy pants and Dodgers shirts. Returning immigrants also bring back some consumerism. “If you return to Mexico, you’re wearing this bling, you can afford a truck, you bring your Mom back a flat screen TV,” he said, “you’ve achieved the American dream.”
The new tribes
Those who remain in Mexico often look to tribalism. “People, in the face of so much madness,” Hernandez said, “find their little communities, find their little nodes. You’re into punk rock, you’re a punk.” Communities form – often through social networks or within public spaces and marketplaces – around everything from music to pets to sports to hobbies. “They give people a stability, a sense of community, now that the idea of national community is under so much duress,” he said. Trends arrive more quickly, Hernandez noted, thanks to social networks, and new communities form rapidly around them.
Young and old alike, Hernandez said, also turn to decadence as a means of survival. “Everyone knows Mexicans love to party,” Hernandez said, adding later that “the party is the job. This is what we’re here to do.” Hernandez appreciated the warmth and hospitality of party culture – the “tension between the flesh and the church . . . living in that in-between space and just wanting to make that salsa.” But he also acknowledged its darker side. Drug addiction and alcohol abuse are common, and drugs are becoming more potent, dangerous, and widespread, particularly among the poor and young.
The final means of survival Hernandez noted was resistance, of which Mexico has a long and valued tradition that lives on in Mexico City’s architecture, its monuments, and even its public transport system, with stops named after revolutionary heroes and dates. The Zapatista movement, though often criticized, is still alive and even well in some parts, Hernandez noted, and various leftist philosophies have vocal adherents. Mexico City is also undergoing several changes that speak of sustained resistance to norms, Hernandez noted in Q&A: new ethnic communities, though still not fully integrated or accepted, are settling in, and women, Indians, and homosexual and transgendered people are gaining acceptance and rights.
As 2010, the centenary of Mexico’s revolution and the bicentenary of its independence approaches, Mexicans anticipate some upheaval. “I’m nervous,” Hernandez said. But, he added, “for most people, I think it’ll just be another excuse to have a huge, huge party.”
*Photos by Aaron Salcido.