Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A whirlwind summary of Mexico

I am back from Mexico. The trip was illuminating in many ways. It’s time now to get on paper everything of importance that I observed. I’ll start with broad thoughts on the country, and in future posts – which might run for the next two months, or even more – I’ll elaborate on specific aspects. Wherever possible, I’ll try to contrast Mexico with India in the hope of unearthing interesting insights. Some readers may have wondered why I focus on topics that most of the time are unrelated to India. Indeed, it’s been a conscious choice, made in the hope that, at some time in the future, armed with knowledge about other cultures and their histories, I’ll be able to understand my own background better.

Mexico – the modern nation state – is about a fifth the size of the United States (India is about a third). It is broad in the north, and progressively tapers in width; at its southern end, the Yucatan Peninsula juts back up into the Atlantic, like the tail of a scorpion. This northward tilt of the Yucatan Peninsula means that Miami to Cancun is a short jaunt. Unsurprisingly, coastal Yucatan is full of beach resorts packed with American revelers.

My first trip to Mexico was in May 2007. I visited then the northern state of Chihuahua, the largest in the country, and which shares a long border with the United States. This time, I visited Mexico City, the capital, in Central Mexico. I also went to the country’s southernmost state, Chiapas. These are three very different places. Mexico may only be a fifth of the United States in size, but mountain ranges run relentlessly through the country. It takes a lot of time to travel by road in Mexico. For instance, Chiapas is a tiny southern state, and though roads there are in good condition, it takes seven hours to travel from San Cristobal de Las Casas in the central highlands to the Lacandon Rainforest, along the Mexico-Guatemala border.

Geography of this sort generally means diversity, and indeed, Mexico had diverse cultures before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. The National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City is testimony to that diversity. This unbelievably comprehensive museum collects and maintains with great care all pre-Hispanic cultures. Not just the Aztecs and the Mayans, the most visible and popular cultures, but also Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Olmecs, Toltecs, the people of Casas Grandes and countless others. Just as the Indian subcontinent has a shared civilizational heritage, yet each region its own culture, language and distinctness, so Mexico once had numerous cultures with common practices but which maintained their own identities and languages.

All that began to change in 1519, when strange things began happening on the Atlantic coast of Mexico. Bearded men arrived in ships, and rode on massive beasts that had never been seen before. Horses, which the Spaniards introduced, were new to the Americas. Indeed, all domesticated mammals – cows, pigs, donkeys, pack mules – did not exist in either North or South America at the time of Spanish arrival.

The clashes that ensued between the Spanish and the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mexico were won decisively by the Spanish. Some of the collisions were quite destructive - destructive on the pre-Hispanic side - as I’ve often stressed before.

In the centuries that followed, indigenous languages slowly faded – though many like Nahuatl still persist to this day – and Spanish became the lingua franca. Millions were converted to Catholicism. The Catholic Church became powerful. In contrast to Protestant United States, where the natives were either exterminated or corralled into reservations, the Spaniards in Mexico (then called New Spain) intermarried with the Indians, giving rise to the mestizo. This is a vital fact and difference between Mexico and its northern neighbor.

Colonial Mexico had a clear hierarchy: at the top was the tiny elite comprising of those born in Spain but living in Mexico; next were the criollos, who were of Spanish descent, but born in Mexico; next came the mestizos, of mixed Spanish and Indian descent. At the bottom of the pyramid were blacks and mulattoes who had been imported as slaves, and, of course, millions of Indians, many of whom were also enslaved and given very few rights.

Today, mestizos form nearly 60-75% of the population of Mexico. Northern Mexico – the Chihuahua region – even had Chinese immigrants, who had come to work for the construction of railroads in the 19th century. I met a potter in the village of Mata Ortiz who claimed he had some Chinese ancestry - and it looked that way too. There are also Mormon and Mennonite communities in Chihuahua.

In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain, but the country remained on the boil for the next hundred years. In that period, it lost almost half of its territory – all in its north: Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas – to American aggression. This is why immigrant Mexicans in the American Southwest today will tell you that they are merely repopulating a territory that is rightfully theirs.


In the late 1850s Mexico elected a liberal Indian President, Benito Juarez (left). This was a remarkable achievement, not only because Juarez was Indian - Indians were the most underrepresented group - but also because he was born into a poor family. Western Europe, meanwhile, was hatching its colonial schemes: Mexico was soon invaded by France, and came to be ruled for a while by, believe it or not, Maximilian I, a scion of an Austrian royal family. (Maximilian's wife Carlota was the daughter of the Belgian King Leopold, who plundered the Congo and sanctioned the death of millions – a holocaust that is hardly ever talked about.)

Eventually, though, Juarez regained control and after his death, Porfirio Diaz ruled for more than three decades. Diaz’s rule ended with the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, in 1911. The revolution essentially channeled the rage of peasants and the working class against wealthy, property-owning elite, and threw up such leaders as Emiliano Zapata, Francis Madero, and Pancho Villa. If you visit Mexico, you’ll find Zapata’s fiery face, with its long mustache (left), staring at you from walls and paintings – Zapata seems to be everywhere. His name also features in a modern, still-existing movement in Chiapas, which I mention below.


For the last 80 years, Mexico has had relative political stability, though one party – the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI – held power for more than seven decades, up until 2000. The country has benefited from its large oil reserves. In the 1990s, the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) were finalized, causing much controversy.

On January 1st 1994, as NAFTA went into effect, and as communal land was increasingly privatized, a new movement, comprising largely of indigenous people, emerged in Chiapas, called the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN in Spanish). EZLN was suppressed by the Mexican military in its initial years, but is still active in the villages of Chiapas. I saw plenty of signs during my travels that suggested it is still functioning.

With regard to the concerns they raise, movements like EZLN are not different from shadowy Marxist-Naxal movements in India.


Like India, Mexico is deeply unequal and many live in poverty. Mexico's complex history of subjugation and power have meant that wealth has not always trickled to those at the bottom. But if I compare, say, Bombay with Mexico City – two of the world’s largest cities – I would say the former, despite being more glitzy and glamorous, is a lot poorer and weaker in terms of infrastructure than the latter.

But as far as petty and violent crime is concerned, Mexico City probably fares worse: carjackings, kidnappings and murders are rife. Mexico’s drug cartels, its bane, have entered a new phase: the equilibrium of power seems to have spiraled out of control, resulting in increased violence this past year (violence has been especially severe in certain states like Michoacan and Sinaloa). The cartels are also locked in a struggle with Felipe Calderon’s government, which has decided to confront them head on. During my visit, one newspaper had a headline that screamed “Decapitated!” (in Spanish, of course); and below was the gruesome image of ten trussed-up headless men.


Infrastructure in Mexico is quite good. Roads and public transportation are very reasonable – the buses extremely comfortable and fares low – even in poorer states like Chiapas. One can argue that the country has been independent since 1821, and therefore has had much more time to control its trajectory as a nation and provide for its people. Indeed, given that it is rich in resources, it might come as a surprise to many that Mexico has not attained first-world status yet.

But really there is nothing to be surprised about. Modernity remains a wily beast, always eluding, always evanescent. Few countries have managed to tame it successfully, and Mexico is no exception.


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Krishnan said...

Fascinating stuff Hari, wish I had traveled with you :-)

Hari said...

Thanks, Krishnan. I am glad you enjoyed it!

Ale said...

I'm glad you enjoyed so much your visit in Mexico. Your comments are very interesting and the photos you took are amazing. Thank you for sharing them with us.