Former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda loves his home country deeply, but he’s not afraid to poke a bit of fun at it.
Regarding the shutdown of the 405 Freeway scheduled for an hour after his talk at the Skirball Cultural Center: “In Mexico we don’t get scared about these things because [the freeways] are always closed.”
About the Mexican national soccer team: We live a national tragedy in Mexico every four years when the soccer World Cup takes place. This is something that plunges us into deep depression. We simply are terrible at any collective sport.”
Castañeda delivered an incisive and often funny lecture, co-sponsored by the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, to a packed house at Skirball on the topic “Can Mexico Get Its Act Together?” And while he addressed several problems in modern-day Mexico, he ended the talk on an optimistic note.
Determining Mexico’s Character
In writing his new book, Mañana Forever?: Mexico and the Mexicans, Castañeda – currently a professor at New York University – drew on three main sources for his thesis about the “puzzling paradox” posed by Mexico. That paradox, he said, is at the heart of the challenges of 21st-century Mexico.
The contradictions between character traits inherent to all Mexican natives and what the country is like today, he said, have become major hindrances to progress.
“One of the reasons we were able to build a nation where there wasn’t one, was because of these traits of character … but today they clash greatly [with modern circumstances],” he said.
To prove his point in the book, he first relied on “what the classics wrote,” the historic descriptions of the Mexican nation and its people from Mexican scholars and foreign ones from anthropologist Oscar Lewis to writer D.H. Lawrence.
The question people have posed throughout history, he said with a nod to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is “Who are these guys?”
The second source of his research is current thinking on Mexico, using information that scholars from previous generation did not have access to. And finally, he said, he relied on personal experience: growing up in Mexico City, studying the country as an undergraduate at Princeton and a Ph.D student at the University of Paris, his teaching career and his stint in the Mexican government. He splits his time between New York and Mexico City.
“Some people, I’m sure, know Mexico much better than I do,” he said. “But I think I have a certain specialness in being at the same time close and distant.”
Individualism and the Middle Class
A major element of Castañeda’s argument is that Mexicans are at heart a very individualistic population, an assertion he said might seem counterintuitive to people who have seen paintings of town squares and huge parties there. Yet the nation is also becoming solidly middle-class (though poverty levels remain high), which he said is incompatible with that individualism because a middle-class society requires civic cooperation.
Research shows that fewer Mexicans are participating in collective groups than ever before, whether churches or sports teams, he said. While Mexicans have historically performed very well in individual Olympic sports, they have a dismal record in team athletes.
But perhaps the most vivid example of Mexicans’ commitment to being by themselves, Castañeda said, is the fact that they don’t want to live with other people. He drew a contrast between São Paulo, where high-rise apartments are the norm, and Mexico City, where the vast majority of people live in single-family dwellings.
“The only thing that’s mine is a house,” he said, drawing laughs. “It’s not mi casa es su casa. No! It’s mi casa es mi casa.”
The Importance Of Competition
Another paradox is that Mexico has an open democratic society, but Mexicans tend to hate competition, confrontation or conflict, Castañeda said. The reasons for this character trait are valid historically, he emphasized – Mexico has long been an underdog who generally lost international competitions whether athletic or political.
“The fact of people confronting each other over issues and then agreeing or disagreeing does not exist. If you’re going to lose anyway, why fight?,” he said.
But as the country grows economically and flourishes economically, competition must become a bigger part of Mexican life, he argued. One of the reasons that Mexican Carlos Slim has become the wealthiest man in the world is because few entrepreneurs in his home country are willing to challenge him, he said.
Castañeda acknowledged that wanting people to fight more seems counterintuitive, but said conflict is a part of life in any other market-based economy and representative democracy. And, he added, he is hopeful that Mexicans will overcome these inherent character traits to improve their country. One major reason is Mexicans who move abroad – most of them to the United States – change themselves based on their new country and can then influence family and friends back home.
Mexican women, particularly, change dramatically when they move to the U.S., he said.
“They go through an incredible transformational experience here because they come in the same numbers as men and they [tend to] come alone,” he said. “They get their job and they live on their own. They are accountable to nobody, they do whatever the hell they want.”
Castañeda also combated some ideas about Mexico, particularly what he called an overblown idea of the scope of the drug trafficking problem. Rates of drug use remain significantly lower in Mexico than in the U.S. or many other countries, he said.
“We can change,” he said. “We don’t have to keep doing the same things which worked in the past but don’t work anymore.”
For event photos, please click here.
For full video, please click here.
*Photos by Aaron Salcido.