Twenty-eight years ago, in the summer of 1980, I moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, to take a job teaching English and journalism at a university there. The job ended just as soon as it began: On the first day of classes, the university, a private institution with connections to the country’s thriving neofascist movement and, thence, to the central government, closed to protest the city government’s having named a nearby street in honor of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, a self-professed communist then seven-years dead. When an administrator came around asking that I sign an oath of allegiance to the university, I refused, explaining that my country’s constitution forbade such inscriptions. The look on his face suggested that I was right to pack my books and leave at once, and so I did.
Now jobless, I walked several miles back to the small farm where I had found an apartment to rent and told the proprietor that it might have to become available once again. I was unhappy, not least because it was a lovely place, a huge, airy L-shaped suite of rooms on the second floor above a granary, its wide terrace overhung by half a dozen avocado trees available for the plucking whenever I wished, and it was cheap, $100 per month, about $250 in today’s dollars. I explained the day’s events and my newly unemployed status.
“Don’t worry,” said the farmer. “We’ll find a job for you. Besides, Mexico is a great country to be poor in. Look at those avocados. There’s food everywhere around here. Look, those oranges and limes are falling into the street; you just need to pick them up. It’s not ever very cold, so you don’t need many clothes. You can always trade English lessons for a chicken.”
He did find me a job: shooting rats off the tall stone walls surrounding the farmyard. I didn’t have to give lessons for my meals in the manner of a Jane Austen novel, but, instead, was soon hired at a high school to teach English to the children of wealthy Mexicans and Europeans. The former wanted, it seemed to me, only to become Americans, or at least American consumers; on the weekends, as I sipped beer and gunned down football-sized rats, they jetted up to Los Angeles or Houston to shop.
I took pains to remind them that they, as the children of privilege, would be called upon to rule one day and might do well to cultivate an interest in their own country. I brought in copies of the dissident poet Octavio Paz’s magazine Vuelta, a cousin of Libération in Paris and Corriere della Sera in Milan, written by some of the smartest and independently minded journalists and intellectuals in the country; leftists accused it of being rightist, and rightists, of being leftist, which suggested to me that someone was doing something right. The students smiled politely when I asked them to debate the merits of, say, Enrique Krauze’s proposal to privatize the state-owned oil company or to discuss Elena Poniatowska’s groundbreaking investigative reports on the 1968 massacre of student protestors in Mexico City, but the bright lights of Century City held more sway. In all events, Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)” was the top hit of the hour, and when I pressed a point, the answer that came back, in gently accented English, was all too often “Ay, teassher, leave us kids alone.”
The farmer was right. Mexico was an easy country to be poor in. Paid $600 per month, I was close to being a rich man in the little farm town I lived in, since swallowed up by Guadalajara, which mushroomed from a million inhabitants in 1980 to five or six times that number today. The farmers were not so bad off themselves. So I thought, at least, when the government decreed one October morning that the prices of tortillas and beans, staples of the Mexican diet, would double overnight. But the smallholders of Las Fuentes saw none of that hike, which consumers immediately felt. The federal government in Mexico City, the sole commander of the country’s command economy, pocketed the difference, in preparation, back in those days when the oxymoronically named Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ruled uncontested, for a change of presidents two years down the road. The custom was for the departing president to loot the treasury before handing the keys to office over to his handpicked successor, handpicked so that there would be no investigation into the looting. The tradition seems to have outlasted the PRI: It is reported that Vicente Fox, who left office last year, remodeled his Guanajuato ranch to the tune of several million public dollars—a pittance compared with the billions that the Harvard-educated, neoliberal Carlos Salinas de Gortari is said to have smuggled out of the country on leaving office in 1994, just after having signed off on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that would impoverish his country even further.
Government fiats have always made Mexico less easy to be poor in, as have the rapacious habits of Mexico’s rulers, a pattern established by the conquistador Hernán Cortés and repeated ever since. One of the great tragedies of Mexican history, repeated for nearly 500 years, is this: Mexico is unusually rich in natural resources of many kinds, including oil and, in much of the country, water. Her soil is fertile, her climate moderate. Her geography has allowed for great ranches in the north, vast farms in the south, and some of the New World’s most important seaports on either coast.
And yet Mexico is poor. Or, at any rate, most of her people are poor.
P. Lamartine Yates, a British-born agricultural economist long resident in Mexico, whose work I would edit not long after returning to the United States, likened the country to China: ruled by a monolithic single party that, regardless of what it called itself, practiced a form of corporate fascism and that took care of its inner circle—the party faithful, the praetorian guard, the residents of the capital, the residents of provincial capitals, and then the rest of the populace, in that order. Certainly, Mexico’s command economy functions so, even in the supposedly free market of today: Go into a restaurant in Sonora, where the best beef in Mexico is produced in abundance, and you will often be told that there is no beef to be had, for all of it has been shipped off to Mexico City, just as the best tea in Hangzhou goes off to Beijing.
Other scholars of Mexico, in the wake of the end of one-party rule, have likened the country, instead, to India, which, for all her manifold problems, functions somewhat better in many ways. Indeed, Octavio Paz, at one time Mexico’s ambassador to India, suggested that India ran more efficiently because she had been colonized by England, which built roads, railroads, telegraphs, hospitals, and schools, while Mexico was a colony of Spain at a particularly unfortunate time, when the order of the day was to cart off as much silver, gold, copper, and other wealth as could be stuffed into a galleon, in the meanwhile imposing all sorts of arcane rules by which the colony was constrained from competing with the motherland. To name just one example, until Spanish rule ended in 1821, growers in fertile Mexico were forbidden to plant olive orchards or vineyards, olive oil and wine from Spain being lucrative, crown-controlled luxuries subject to still more lucrative tariffs on being shipped across the waters.
Like China and India, Mexico was once a nation with a vast rural population, one that greatly outnumbered the residents of the cities, most of which were really only large towns. That ratio began slowly to shift in the early 1940’s, when the government of Miguel Alemán inaugurated a series of nationalization measures that brought the country’s oil industry under government control and expropriated millions of hectares of land that, in theory, were to be redistributed to the poor. They were, but, rather than be allotted to individual farmers, the backbone of Mexico’s agricultural economy, the newly public holdings were organized as collectives called ejidos and administered with all the care of their cousins in the Soviet Union and China. Ejidatarios soon found themselves without much incentive to work, since the fruits of their labor were taken off by government functionaries, minor heirs of the caudillos of colonial times. Most of the ejidos had collapsed by the 1960’s, the farmers who worked them preferring to take their chances elsewhere. Millions began to move from the countryside into towns and cities; by 1980, according to some estimates, Mexico City and the high valley in which the conurbation sits had nearly 25 million residents, only half of them recorded by census.
In the meanwhile, millions more were moving northward, a migration that began, if slowly at first, with the decline of the ejidos in northern border states such as Baja California and Tamaulipas and that accelerated throughout the 1980’s and early 90’s. The passage of NAFTA, which favored corporate farming over smallholders, displaced still more rural Mexicans from the land. More went to the cities; more went north, now by the millions. The rise of the media-savvy Zapatista revolutionary movement a decade ago coincided with this massive demographic shift, which left many lush southern Mexican rural districts nearly despoblado, depopulated, as the conquistadors once described the northern deserts; Subcomandante Marcos may have been a pipe-smoking philosophy major from the capital, but he was also an astute critic of a supposed free-trade agreement that would make the poor even poorer while putting still more money into the hands of Mexico’s tiny ruling class, as NAFTA surely has.
The tragedy of Mexico, as Boris Pasternak said of Russia, is in the end her accursed capacity for suffering: With a few exceptions, her people have allowed themselves to be robbed, exploited, expropriated, misled, and misgoverned for generation after generation. Mexico, of course, is not alone; the same might be said of our own country, if one were to put a sharp point on it. But, as Octavio Paz pondered in his still-essential Labyrinth of Solitude, Mexico’s capacity is deepened by a unique brand of fatalism, one that seems to accept without complaint—but with plenty of jokes and ballads—the fact that the people are lambs, and the rulers and their circle, wolves, and that this is not just the way things are but the way things must be.
There is another proposition hidden in that fatalism, and that is the idea that it is better to shrug one’s shoulders and leave rather than stand one’s ground and fight. Subcomandante Marcos’s calls to arms notwithstanding, the rural dispossessed of Mexico have long looked to the north as a place of refuge and possibility, and it is to the north that they have gone. Just so, their dispossessors have long looked to the United States as a sort of pressure-release valve for social tensions, as a dumping ground for unwanted campesinos and excess urban labor; when times are hard, it has proved expedient for the privileged to let the landless and jobless head north to look for work landscaping in Los Angeles or washing dishes in Boston, remitting paychecks home, a good deal for all concerned except for the workers, most of whom surely would have preferred to stay put.
The tragedy of Mexico is that a political and economic system that reflects the people’s industriousness and capacity for thoughtful, careful work—look to any one of countless indigenous arts and shade-tree labors, from silversmithing to auto repair to music to cooking, for examples—has never been put into place. Properly channeled, the energies of the nation’s people, and notably of those of her people who have had to leave to work elsewhere, could make of Mexico an economic powerhouse of international significance. Properly channeled, those energies would make Guadalajara a city to rival Barcelona, the Federal District a New World rejoinder to Shanghai, Tokyo, or even London.
Poor Mexico, said onetime ruler Porfirio Diaz a century ago—so far from God and so close to the United States. The tragedy of Mexico is that she is not rich, though she should be, and that she does not lead, though she should do so. The tragedy is that she is not free, least of all her market. The tragedy is that, having suffered so much for so long, she patiently awaits more suffering. But the greatest tragedy is that, as with so much of the world, her body lies not so close to the United States, but so far from her soul.