El General

PBS Premiere: July 20, 2010Check the broadcast schedule »

Mexico: Past and Present

Mark Twain

El General: Mark TwainHistory does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
— Mark Twain

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Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835 – 1910) was an American writer and humorist who wrote under the pen name Mark Twain. He is best known for his novels Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.



Carmen Boullosa
I like Mark Twain’s quote in relation to the world at large, but it doesn’t work for Mexico. In Mexico, our relationship with the past is very intimate, and we like to imagine ourselves as beings from the past. But for my generation, our real sense of pride really comes from the fact that we come from a glorious indigenous past. Well, that all took place 500 years ago. And we don’t just want the past to rhyme; we want the present to be saturated with the past. So we have a very unique relationship with the past. I do like Twain’s quote. It is very apt when talking about Europe, about the United States and about some Latin American countries, but not about Mexico.

Well, Mexico is a very particular case. We Mexicans have a unique perception of time. I think this is what distinguishes us as Mexicans. We have a circular sense of time. We measure time differently. In reality, it is true that we are very Western, but it is also true that we are very different from other Westerners; our sense of time is different, even in the everyday. Time is measured differently, perceived differently. And our historical time is also recycled. This is also the cause of much frustration, because we continue to carry the same problems from 200 years ago without having been able to chipping away at the problems. Problems that were very prominent during the struggle for Mexico’s independence in 1810 and less prominent during the Mexican Revolution in 1910 are still intact today in 2010. And I think that this is in part due to our being rooted in circular time. We have a desire for repetition, for the circular, and a desire to measure memory, not only of the present but of the past, in a different way. I don’t believe that there is another country like Mexico. Our arrows do not fly vertically. They have a greater sense of distance. Our lands, our arrows, fly circularly, like the earth. Our culture, Mexican culture, is very peculiar.

That said, I would say that the major causes of the Revolution were the same causes that were important in 1810. And these problems still haven’t been resolved. For example, the issue of race, which was forgotten in 1910, was very present in 1810, not only with regard to the black population in Mexico, but also with regard to indigenous issues. These were very prominent in 1810, but in 1910 they were silenced. In 2010, the indigenous issue continues to be a problem, and Mexico is an incredibly racist country on all levels. We still have the same problem. As another example, in 1810, women’s rights, the equality of men and women and the problem of violence against women were discussed, but they were discussed less in 1910. The Revolution seems more misogynist in the retelling than it was when it was happening. We have to remember that Dolores Jiménez y Muro was the author of Emiliano Zapata’s political ideology, the Plan de Ayala. Zapata got all his ideas from a woman, not a man, but that woman has been erased from our collective memory. During the Porfirian years, however, with the experience of 1810 in mind, the memory of insurgent women was carefully kept intact, though the Revolution erased that memory. We could say that the ideology of the Mexican Revolution was an incomplete ideology. And even that incomplete ideology was never realized.

I don’t mean to say that we live in a state of paralysis. Mexico is not paralyzed; Mexico lives at a very fast pace. Mexico is capable of confronting difficult problems and finding solutions very quickly. But we Mexicans have a different perception of time and a desire to keep the future from attacking us. I would say that we are future-phobic as a nation. And this future-phobia is really a problem. It is a problem because while we avoid the catastrophes of the future, and we avoid a future that is hostile to us and has been hostile since 2010, we can’t separate ourselves from an unbearable past. The truth is that Mexico experiences an asphyxiating reality.

Cuauhtémoc Medina
First, I would have to say that there is another tradition that considers repetition very important, which is the Hegelian-Marxist tradition. There is a big difference between there being a potentially analogous relationship and there being a reappearance of the same problems, or that there historical moments that superficially appear to be the same as previous moments. The classic argument that history repeats itself twice, first as tragedy and then as farce, means that the first time history repeats itself it takes the form of a tragic representation and that its subsequent representation is actually comical and false. There is no political moment that fails to involve a moment of representation of something from the past. Mexico is one of the places where the phenomenon of revolution occurred. To begin, the notion of revolution comes from astronomy, that the astral cycle runs over the same orbit again and again. There is a beginning and an end to the cycle. Making a certain cyclical structure is intrinsic to the notion of revolution. At the same time, while this term comes from Copernicus’ book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, it incorporates the modern notion of a complete change to a situation. It involves the change of perspective that put the earth at the center of the heliocentric view of the world. So, there is a paradoxical structure to the very notion of revolution.

Ultimately, I would say that on the one hand this repetition is characteristic of all revolutions, which is why the French Revolution was modeled after the Roman Republic. Again there is that notion of a historical mirror. But there is also a series of turns and returns that can’t be underestimated. It is also important that frequently the process of change is performed in the name of a return to a previous order and that the argument during a moment of uprising is the literal implementation of written law.

To give you another example of history’s complications: The crisis that led to the Cristero War in 1926 has two curious components. It was the first time that the Mexican government tried to enforce the constitution and the limits on the Church that had been established in 1857. It was the first true attempt to bring to bear the Reformation’s laws regarding the relationship between church and state. But there is another very curious item that served as a trigger: an article that included an archbishop’s text against the constitution in 1917, nearly 10 years prior. The journalist published it verbatim and that was interpreted as a contemporary attack, which the rest of the bishops then reaffirmed.

So, it would be very difficult to think about these episodes without understanding the new events and the repeated events and the dialectic between the fact that something reemerges and the fact that something reemerges with a new structure. In a way, I think Mark Twain’s notion is weak, because there is a notable difference between rhyme and reenactment. But I refuse to think that this is just a pre-modern way of thinking that seems eccentric when situated alongside modern thinking. I think that the very existence of revolutions is a very significant aspect of modern thought, and that every moment of political or social crisis involves an activation of the past within the present in a unique way. I would not say that this is unique to Mexico, although here it has been practiced with much fervor.

Jean Meyer
Since Mark Twain was both ironic and a joker, I’m not sure what he meant to say. There is an old story that Karl Marx said, “Hegel says that sometimes history repeats itself two times.” Then Marx added, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

People are superstitious and they like coincidences — dates, anniversaries. So, people say, “In 1810 there was the Hidalgo uprising and the revolution for independence. In 1910 there was the Madero uprising and the start of the Mexican Revolution.” So in 2010, something similar will happen. At least there were people who predicted as much late last year. It’s the same kind of hope and fear as when the century and the millennium ended. What’s going to happen in 2000? Remember? People thought there would be a technological disaster. It’s even an auditory kind of rhyming — 1810, 1910, 2010. People believe in that arithmetic magic, so they say every tenth year after the start of every century, Mexico will be shaken. Now, they didn’t look back to see that nothing happened in 1710 or 1610 or 1510. That would break the magic. But we should let people be, don’t you think?

Many people repeat Francisco Madero’s slogan, which was also a slogan during Porfirio Díaz’s time. When Díaz took up arms against Benito Juarez in 1876, he also cried, “Effective suffrage, no re-election.” The first time he was not re-elected. He allowed his friend Manuel Gonzáles to be president. But after that he had himself re-elected, saying that it wasn’t a successive term, so it wasn’t re-election. After that, he modified the constitution. So all Mexicans know that two revolutions were fought under the slogan “effective suffrage,” and to this day the effectiveness of suffrage is still in doubt. So there are two possible conclusions — either we need another revolution, or revolutions are good for nothing because they never realize their goals.

Effective suffrage is still an issue, but for different reasons. We can’t really talk about fraud anymore. It is much more subtle. Much more complicated. It isn’t the way it used to be when, for instance, the secretary of government, Jesús Reyes Heroles, said to me with a smile, “I have the results of the elections in Oaxaca. What percent of the population do you think voted?” I wasn’t sure, but I knew that Mexico was like the Soviet Union, which had 95 percent or 90 percent voter participation, so I timidly guessed 92 percent. And he said to me, “No, 101 percent!” Well, that doesn’t happen anymore. But the deeper problem still exists.