Americans don’t know what to make of Mexico, in part because they only tend to hear fragmentary snippets of their neighbor’s national odyssey: economic development amidst persistent poverty: drugs and people flowing across the porous border; beckoning beaches; a proud heritage; yummy food and evermore drug violence.
Zócalo hosts panels on “Telling Mexico’s Stories” in Los Angeles on June 1st and in Phoenix on June 2nd, hosting journalists who have spent extensive time in Mexico for a discussion of how to create a coherent story for a country with so many divergent and demanding plot lines. In advance of those events, Zócalo asked four experts: If Mexico had its neighbor’s undivided attention, say for a two-hour summer movie, how would you describe the story’s plotline? What is Mexico, the movie, really about? Will it have a happy ending?
It Would Focus On the Everyday
If I were to write a movie about Mexico today, I would focus on the daily life of one of the many towns around the country. It would be a documentary of those areas of Mexico rarely appearing in glossy travel magazines or in the drug-war-violence stories in U.S. newspapers. The movie would challenge the stereotypical images of the country and focus on the deeper forces that are driving the relatively young Mexican democracy.
And so our camera cuts to Saturday night at El Patio, a cash-only eatery grown out of a garage in San Marcos, a lackluster town in the cement production region of the State of Hidalgo, in Central Mexico. El Patio is a beehive of activity, with no less than a dozen young workers moving constantly between frying pans and plastic tables full of hungry patrons coming for an evening plate. Famous for its green enchiladas, El Patio is notoriously clean and its service extremely efficient. An hour and a half away from Mexico City, El Patio is off the tourist beaten path and caters mostly to the surrounding industrial towns’ middle class. El Patio is successful enough to open only during weekends. The women who work there earn less than 10 dollars per night but they clearly love working there and give it their best effort, resulting in some of the best service you could experience anywhere. Like many other businesses in the area, El Patio does not pay local taxes, but the place is still exemplifies the work ethic that is alive and well in Mexico.
At the dawn of the 20th century, British investors built two of Mexico’s first cement plants in Hidalgo’s southwestern tip, transforming this semi-arid area into a major industrial hub. The cement industry left San Marcos some decades ago, making this town the least prosperous among its neighbors. The relics of a once fruitful era are evident when driving by the empty industrial buildings.
San Marcos, like most nearby communities, is a striking testament to the unplanned urban growth that happened despite last century’s economic boom. Just a few blocks from El Patio, a smelly open-air sewage runs beneath a beautiful ash tree row. At the height of the country’s authoritarian rule in the 1970s, the Mexican government decided that the best way to dispose of Mexico City’s septic residue was to send it to the Tula River in Hidalgo’s desert country. As a consequence, San Marcos and surrounding towns never developed treatment facilities and just proceeded to throw their sewage waste to the local canal feeding the Tula River. Today, neighbors in San Marcos have grown so used to the open-air sewage that they recently opposed a federal plan to close it.
You would never find San Marcos in any Mexico travel guide. Other than being 20 minutes away from Tula, the fabled capital of the Pre-Columbian Toltec civilization, there is almost no reason to pass by this town. Except for the occasional burglary, San Marcos is far away from the regions that are now famous for violent crime. But a Saturday night stroll through town would reveal the visitor the subtle tension between two contrasting images of Mexico. The first one, the notable work ethic of a dozen people walking in and out of a notably good place to eat; the second, the local complacency of living next to an open-air sewage despite the evident related health risks. Just as in many other places in the country, San Marcos lives between the culture of citizen inaction and a vibrant inner work ethic.
It’s just a scene in a larger unfolding epic, a building block towards the narrative’s culmination. Stay tuned.
José Díaz-Briseño is the Washington, DC correspondent for Reforma, Mexico’s leading newspaper.
It Would Have a Happy Ending
Mexico is about excess and ambiguity. It is about the acting out of the forbidden, about enjoying it fully and, then, regretting it intensely. It is about convoluted forms desperately seeking to contain floods and thunders of throbbing physical impulses; about an exquisitely baroque etiquette attempting to rein in the havoc and the beauty of unbridled humanness. Mexico is about the tension implicit in experiencing life in the intersection between an impossibly demanding “ought” and the irresistible pleasures of surrendering, head on, to the “is.” Mexico is about living in the edge of the here and now, and about seeking, always, to escape the consequences.
Ritual writ large; love and hatred gone wild; courtesy and crassness enjoined; absolute power and absolute submission feeding each other; infinite generosity coexisting with brutal selfishness; immense wealth alongside extreme poverty; extremes of all kinds touching each other – an explosion of never ending contradictions: this is Mexico.
Mexico is about the pleasures and pains of experiencing life without assuming responsibility for one’s choices. It’s the adrenaline rush of bending the rules, of escaping them and of making up stories about whom else is to blame for it.
The plotline of Mexico’s story is the recurrent attempt to generate some semblance of order among groups and individuals systematically attempting to push the limits, one inch further. It’s the story of spasmodic attempts to be modern and civilized and proper, and about the wretched and glorious ability to end up always grabbing pieces of modernity, eating them up, and transforming them into threads that can be woven into our own subtle and roaring tapestry.
In recent years, Mexico’s mode of experiencing life, of living it, has been undergoing tremendous stress. The full intrusion of the world beyond us into our daily lives has opened up old wounds and is forcing us to come to terms with realities that cannot be simply pushed aside or told to wait “un ratito.”
Mexico’s exposure to the dynamics of a global market is proving simultaneously exhilarating and tremendously painful. And it is not only about the jobs lost to the Chinese. It is about coming to terms with the laws of cause and effect – namely, with the fact that our choices have consequences, and about the anguishing fear that submitting to those laws, while allowing us to survive, might actually destroy what we are, really.
Will the story have a happy ending? I think it will. Mexico will manage, as it has in the past, to adapt sufficiently to the world around it, to take what it must from it, to transform it and weave it into a different music: glorious Mexican music.
Blanca Heredia, a former Deputy Undersecretary for Political Development at Mexico’s Secretaría de Gobernación and former provost of the CIDE (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas), now teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Uncle Sam Would Be the Villain
The movie of Mexico is not being made in Hollywood, and so I fear its ending will be a sort of uncomfortable, unresolved tragedy.
The most severe problem facing Mexico is not the one most often discussed: it is poverty, not drugs. The beheadings generate headlines. But they are designed to do this. Does a beheading actually affect you, if it was the head of a stranger? The headlines systematically overestimate the effects of the drug war on everyday life.
The drug violence will recede in time. The next president will quietly cease to press as Calderon has, and the bees will go back to making honey.
But what is the root cause of that crisis? It is no great insight to say that the fundamental cause lies in the United States, in the combination of our citizenry’s substantial demand for drugs coupled with our government’s prohibition of them.
Therein lies the central theme of our movie – the responsibility that the United States bears for the problems of Mexico. This is something that is occasionally acknowledged by U.S. Presidents and Secretaries of State, but that is not ever really understood. Our responsibility is not limited to the surface issues of crime and violence, but also to the broader shortcomings of development in Mexico.
Our North American economies are integrated, by circumstance and by design, but the net beneficiaries of this integration have not done nearly enough to help the net losers.
There is a direct causal link between American politicians’ desire to appear tough on crime and the murders on the streets of Culiacan and Juarez. There is also a direct link between American politicians’ desire to promote border security (along with a chimerical vision of notional terrorist infiltrators, as if such people can be caught at a border) and Mexico’s economic malaise.
The plot of the movie is this: will Mexico emerge from poverty? There are many villains in this movie: the drug lords, the monopolists, the corrupt union bosses, and America’s political class. But though it is the violence that attracts (and repulses) the camera, it is the other shortfalls – in education and in infrastructure, that undermine the lives of the 40% of Mexicans who live in poverty.
What is it mean to leave your country for a decade, as millions of migrants do? To leave children behind in the care of grandparents, to never see your parents again, to go years without seeing your wife. One in ten people born in Mexico now live north of the border. Roughly speaking, half of them are here without papers. This half – something on the order of 5 million people – can’t cross the border without great risk and expense.
Many on the left were scandalized by NAFTA, seeing is as a form of mercantile imperialism. The truth is that NAFTA didn’t go nearly far enough. A free flow of capital without a free flow of labor is not really free trade. It’s economic integration engineered by politics, not economic reality.
None of this is to excuse Mexico’s basic dysfunction. Compare it to Brazil – in many ways a peer competitor – and almost any way you measure things, Mexico comes out substantially less dynamic (it is, however, also less violent). But Brazil does not suffer a comparable drain of the entrepreneurially-minded to the US.
The Mexican-American community has yet to find its political voice. But this will change, and it will soon become impossible to separate the story of Mexico from that of Mexicans in the United States. The very cause of Mexico’s stagnation – its loss of talented people to the US – could also be the roots of its deliverance. But right now the position of the reasonable American centrist politician – with regard to the prohibition of drugs, with regard to immigration, with regard to structural economic aid to Mexico – is so far removed from basic moral decency that the movie seems unlikely to end very happily.
Konstantin Kakaes is a former Mexico City correspondent for the Economist.
It Would Be Sensual and Disturbing
The woman is screaming, and her screams leave almost no room to breathe in this house. Her lungs are almost coming out of her agonized body. There is spit, feces and urine on the floor. Blood from her insides is coming out; it is a disturbing yet discrete flow.
Also, a white angel is making love to her face.
She is almost unconscious. But she is not afraid. Strange, no? Someone runs to get another medic… and also a priest… The human faces around are turning shadowy, but there is a spark of light in each one of the eyes present. Someone holds her head because she is losing strength. The sweat from her forehead flows down her body to cover her nakedness. Completely. Like a beautiful, peaceful and wide river, one that runs through the most intimate circle of the virginal rain forest. The river is not very deep, it is a transparent silk curtain that contains the pain and becomes a mirror of joy to the observer.
My mind focuses on one special drop that lives in that river, a very special one. The mischievous little drop of sweat that wants to explore this body in pain. She wants to know. She wants to understand. No. She wants to feel the deep sorrow and cover it with a blue blanket made of passion. Why? Because she needs to know. Is this the end or the beginning? Is this a dying creature? How bad is the wound? Why is the Aztec princess crying so hard and so loud?
Her skin is beautiful. Her natural scent is intoxicating.
Sensuality. Richness. Mother Earth herself!
The spectator must bite to have a taste of this panorama. HE becomes alive and violent. HE wants to fornicate. HE is very scared. This force is powerful as the full moon.
Who is this mysterious WOMAN? Her name is Mexico. She is giving birth to herself.
The ending for this movie will be strong like the sky. Absolutely unpredictable. Fascinating. Sexy! Just like the nature of Life at its purest.
Antonio Cervantes-Guerrero is an independent journalist and producer based in Mexico City.
*Photo courtesy of Anirudh Koul.