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Mexico: Past and Present

Filmmaker Natalia Almada spoke with three of Mexico's leading intellectuals about the landscape of Mexican history and how it has shaped the present.

El General: PazAfter centuries of failures, the only thing Mexicans believe in are the Virgin of Guadelupe and the national lottery.
— Octavio Paz

Read this transcript in: English | Español


Octavio Paz Lozano (1914-1998) was a Mexican writer, poet and diplomat. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990. His essays often dealt with Mexican politics and economics. The Labyrinth of Solitude, originally published in 1950, is a collection of essays dealing with the idea that solitude influences the Mexican perspective on rituals and identity.

 

Transcript

Carmen Boullosa
I understand Octavio Paz’s quote, but I believe that we are a country with blind faith in ourselves. I wouldn’t say that it is a blind faith in something else. Looking at Mexican reality from a distance, one might think that there is nothing to enjoy, nothing to be happy about, that there is only reason for despair, or that the only option is to hope to win the lottery, if that. But the truth is that this is a country where there is blind faith in a perpetual present, or in a past that hasn’t allowed us to advance into the present. And it is a country with an abundance of faith — faith and good spirits, even in this terrible time.

I find it very provocative. I move between Mexico and New York and I travel frequently and I am always struck that Mexicans have an excess of faith. Any public place you go in Mexico, any diner, you find an infinite reserve of faith — not faith in the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is really only for people with severe problems, or the lottery, which is really only a collective game, nothing other than a good Russian roulette in which we all believe in one way or another. But it’s a lottery that is not about the little ticket, but about blind faith that something good will happen to all of us, even if there is no sign of it. It is simply and completely blind faith. I think Mexico is always full of hope.

In Mexico, even in the face of tragedy there is a feeling that nothing is going to touch us! It will not touch us. It is very strange, and I think it is part of our future-phobia – a fear that if we were certain that the future were going to arrive and that it awaits us, then there would be enormous collective despair.
We do not believe in the law, but we do believe in institutions. Mexico is a country where everything becomes institutionalized immediately and everything is aligned like a pyramid. I would even say that it is anti-democratic. Everything automatically becomes an institution in Mexico. Everything becomes a pyramid. Everything gets turned into a monument with incredible speed. No, there isn’t faith in . . . Well, we all know that the governments of the last who knows how many years have been disastrous, but despite that, people continue to believe in institutions. They are good for nothing. It is a disaster, a huge disaster, but there is always a way to create an institution. I don’t understand it.
I think the key is our relationship to the past. And I imagine it probably wasn’t like this before 1810. I think that what the revolutionary movements did was to create a collective frame of mind.

Cuauhtémoc Medina
Octavio Paz was an intellectual employee of the state if ever there was one. To speak in the name of the people that way is to produce the idea that there is some kind of point of convergence. Believing that there is just one national plan and that it results in a series of obvious failures makes one exempt from performing a relatively rational examination of history. Specific plans saw achievement or failure, and negotiations put certain power games into play after given conflicts. And to me it is obvious that no hegemony — not educational, media, artistic or sexual hegemony — could exist if there weren’t some range of assumptions to which people adhere. As a result, the problem is that there is a double construction. First, Paz is saying that there is a national plan and that that plan is singular. It would be virtually impossible for someone such as myself who had the misfortune to study history to make such a statement. A student of history wouldn’t say that, because a student of history can name 10 examples where that was not the case.

Today there are a series of skeptical political discourses that are terribly useful politically. They can be used by political structures in their disputes for power. Talking about national failure is political capital. I use it. There have been times when I have put forth what I would call the “vocation to failure” of very specific policies: For example, neo-liberal politics and its supposed economic progress have proven to be an expression of the “vocation to failure,” and the politics of drug prohibition and the related idiotic violence have proven to be a kind of addiction to failure. But I understand that following this kind of trajectory is a way to produce a hegemony. And sometimes we have to play the game of producing hegemony, even in an arena where one needs to be critical. This statement seems mundane, especially now when opposing any kind of sovereign gesture of political operation serves a purpose. In other words, discrediting the government is a proposition that serves the right wing here and in the United States more than it disadvantages any other faction.

Jean Meyer
Since you are not a historian, which may be an advantage, and that isn’t a criticism, you did not concern yourself with the date when Octavio Paz said this. When did he say this? He said it at a moment of great pessimism, obviously. At the end of his life, Paz was much more optimistic about Mexico’s future.

But, centuries of failures. I would be more inclined to say that Mexico’s history is like this. [gestures up and down and waves with one hand] It is not one failure after another. There are moments of great achievements, success and growth. I don’t want to go all the way back to Mexico’s prehistoric period or the colonial period, but just look at the architecture we inherited from pre-Hispanic civilizations or the three centuries of New Spain. Based on that alone, you can’t speak of a history of only failure. It wasn’t the case in the 19th century either, even though it was difficult to establish stability, which explains why Porfirio Díaz remained popular and ran uncontested for so many years. Certainly the constitution was violated in an ongoing manner and judicial tricks were used to manipulate it. We could talk about it as a dictatorship, but we would have to use the play on words dictablanda, which means “soft dictatorship.” It was a paternalistic dictatorship that brought order, peace and progress. And then we can play the game that historians dislike but that I like a lot: What if? What would have happened if one month before the 1910 presidential elections, Díaz’s last re-election, he had slipped getting out of the tub and cracked his head open? Well, I can bet you that there wouldn’t have been a Mexican Revolution, because at that moment the problem was political. At that moment there was no Zapata or Villa. They hadn’t awakened yet; the tiger was sleeping. The agricultural problem was solved in the courts. No demands were made, weapons in hand, for land. The problem was that Díaz wanted to be re-elected once again and his party wanted him to continue, but for the first time there was a strong candidate to oppose him, Madero. But Madero was willing to make huge concessions. He even proposed to Díaz that Díaz run for president with himself as vice president. But Díaz laughed and did not accept. So, if Díaz had died there would have been no re-election. I don’t know if Madero would have won or who would have replaced Díaz as the candidate, but there wouldn’t have been a re-election. And we’d have statues of Díaz on the avenues, plazas and glorietas throughout the country.

Today one could once again say that yes, Paz is right, we only believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.

I don’t know if this will interest you, but last week I published an article, as I do every Sunday, and a reader sent me a very nice email: “Dear Lic. Don Juanito Meyer, I found your article to be quite pessimistic about our country. The many problems that we confront in all areas and of all sizes are evident and palpable. That is all well, but on the level of day-to-day life, talking with the people around me. . .” And he must be a man about my age, between 60 and 70 and probably retired, because he has time to talk to “domestic workers, gardeners, chauffeurs, bank tellers, senior citizens with small pensions, good pensions, ex-bank directors, bank directors” and the lovely list continues. And then he says, “I have not seen the pessimism that you express in your article and that all other analysts, as well as the president and all the political parties, seem to share. In general, the people I encounter, who come from very diverse socio-economic conditions, seem happy. They are worried, but they have a lot of desire to work and progress.” They tell me about their accomplishments, particularly those of their children, who have graduated from university, or are studying, or are finishing building a house, things like that. They say nothing about Brazil. They say nothing at all of Mexico’s foreign policy. Not a word. They talk about their own lives, their work, their plans or lack of plans, but I report that they share these things with a lot of optimism.” I think this man is from Durango [a northern state hit hard by drug war], and in the same email he wrote, “Last weekend they went into a bar and killed eight people.”

So, it isn’t because people believe or don’t believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe, but I do think that there are two Mexicos, two realities.

There is a company that every year ranks the happiest countries. And Mexico, that is to say Mexicans, define themselves as one of the top five happiest countries. Always. Sometimes in second place, sometimes in fifth, but Mexico is always there.





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For seven years General Plutarco Elías Calles has loomed indestructible in the Mexican picture, like a Toltec pyramid — huge, harsh, mysterious. His name adds naturally to the list of dictatorial gladiators that the world watches with mixed feelings. . . . He has been called a Mexican Mussolini, an Indian von Hindenburg, a Latin American Lenin.”

— Anita Brenner,
The New York Times, 1937

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