by Reva Goujon
May 26, 2016
I recommend never leaving for a trip without bringing a literary companion along. If an onslaught of meetings awaits me at my destination, a collection of short stories or some poetry will do a fine job of filling the crevices of a jam-packed agenda. If several days of leisure lie ahead, then the shoulder aches from hauling a hefty novel in my bag will be well worth the hours spent engrossed in a great story (while I envy all of you efficient Kindle readers, with your slim, lit screens, I still prefer the old-fashioned reading experience of dog-eared pages, crisp and musty paper aromas, airline tickets repurposed as bookmarks.) The selection of a literary companion should never be rushed; careful thought must be given to whose words will best set the scene for what you are about to experience.
Octavio Paz and the Search For the Mexican Soul
This time, my destination is Mexico City. I am tempted to reach again for Roberto Bolano so I can relive the adventures of the visceral realists on Insurgentes Avenue, but this time, Octavio Paz is beckoning me from the bookshelf.
Paz is not the most uplifting read. A Nobel laureate best known for his literary attempts to probe the depths of the Mexican soul, Paz likes to take his readers down a dark and introspective path to explain, layer by layer, a Mexican identity of fused Indian and European blood that lives in admiration, fear and envy of its North American neighbor. But Paz’s somber portrayal of Mexican identity is sometimes difficult to reconcile with what most outsiders and locals experience. As he described in The Labyrinth of Solitude:
The Mexican, whether young or old, criollo or mestizo, general or laborer or lawyer, seems to me to be a person who shuts himself away to protect himself … he builds a wall of indifference and remoteness between reality and himself, a wall that is no less impenetrable for being invisible. The Mexican is always remote, from the world and from other people. And also from himself.
From Paz’s description, you would think Mexico were a member of the Warsaw Pact, a grey and isolated place dripping with paranoia where people live like hermits and constantly eye each other with suspicion. This is definitely not the impression you would get from walking through one of the city’s many bustling markets, where you can pay on the honor system for a quesadilla fresh off the griddle or lime-sprinkled jicama among a throng of people of all ages. Nor does Paz’s description fit the scene of the Mexican cantina, where the first few lyrics or a single guitar strum commencing a particularly beloved mariachi song launches patrons of all generations into spontaneous chorus.
But Paz’s obsession with walls, both physical and imaginary, strikes at something deeper. Paz’s words start to gel when I consider the striking contrast between homes in Mexico and the United States. In the United States, the home is a symbol of economic achievement, a prize that deserves to be displayed with a neatly manicured front lawn opening up to the street like a green entry rug. Never mind the tall hedges and imposing gates of our English ancestors; American homes were meant to be a reflection of security, success and egalitarianism for the neighborhood and the world to see.
On the other hand, residences in Mexico are an extension of, as opposed to a reaction to, the country’s colonial past. When Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in what is now Mexico City five centuries ago, he had the capital of New Spain built on a grid that segregated Spaniards in the city center from the local Indians in the surroundings. The conqueror can never live at ease with the conquered and so Spanish homes were built like fortresses, with tall imposing walls shielding the residence from the street. As the city grew larger and grittier, the wealthy moved westward to the colonias, where European-style boulevards and neighborhoods were more insulated from the inner city while the working classes were pushed more to the eastern and northern quarters. When further insulation was needed, post-revolutionary Mexico City took a cue from the English urban planner Ebenezer Howard, whose concept of a Garden City — a natural escape from industrial city life — inspired in the 1930s the development of Lomas de Chapultepec, one of the city’s wealthiest suburbs.
The fortress style of the Spanish colonial era is seen in many of Mexico City’s more affluent neighborhoods, where the home turns its back to the street in a very Paz-like fashion. All that can be viewed from the street is a row of solid walls, each one exhibiting a carefully crafted design to reflect the taste of the owner, leaving a cloud of mystique hanging over the passerby outside to imagine what lies beyond the metal fortress. Once behind those walls, the home opens up into a sanctuary for what is most sacred to Mexico’s national culture: the family. Rather than wasting space on a front yard for show, the Mexican home will typically feature an interior garden or courtyard that ties in all the sections of the home and draws the family together.
Then there is a part of the city where the Mexican home ceases to be Mexican altogether. On the western edge of the city lies the neighborhood of Santa Fe. Thirty years ago, this was no-man’s land — first an area of sand strip mines and then, once the sand ran out, a giant garbage dump where the poor would rummage through piles of waste for a living. Sprouting from that dump today is the hermetic society that Paz described with such foreboding. A freshly constructed highway cleaves through the former landfill, efficiently segregating a dense and colorful hodgepodge of slums from a sterile landscape of luxury high-rise condos, gargantuan shopping malls and glittering corporate towers. Public transportation is not an option here. And with all the amenities that any affluent American suburban scene would offer, there is no reason to leave. This is both a security compound and permanent escape for wealthy Mexicans to seal their families off from the dangers of the city streets.
This is a scene that would chill Paz to his bones. Paz implored his fellow citizens to connect with their Mesoamerican roots and internalize the idea that “Mexico is a nation between two civilizations and two pasts.” In an article he wrote for The New Yorker in 1979, Paz described how language, religion, political institutions and culture in Mexico may be Spanish, but “Mexico is Mexico thanks to the Indian presence.” The more wealthy Mexicans of European-descent retreat from the city and opt to live in tall buildings in the sky, the more they sever their links to the poorer indigenous peoples down below. Paz describes the Indian in his writing as the “Nobody,” the one easily forgotten.
The Indian blends into the landscape until he is an indistinguishable part of the white wall against which he leans at twilight, of the dark earth on which he stretches out to rest at midday, of the silence that surrounds him… Nobody is the blankness in our looks, the pauses in our conversations, the reserve in our silences. He is the name we always and inevitably forget, the eternal absentee, the guest we never invite, the emptiness we can never fill. He is an omission, and yet he is forever present. He is our secret, our crime, and our remorse. Thus the person who creates Nobody, by denying Somebody’s existence, is also changed into Nobody. And if we are all Nobody, then none of us exists. The circle is closed and the shadow of Nobody spreads out over our land, choking the Gesticulator and covering everything. Silence – the prehistoric silence, stronger than all the pyramids and sacrifices, all the churches and uprisings and popular songs – comes back to rule over Mexico.
Paz fears that this silence could one day subsume Mexico if the country is not careful. Inequality in Mexico is already staggering. According to international aid organization Oxfam, 46 percent of Mexico’s population of 122 million remains beneath the poverty line, with the country’s richest 1 percent holding 43 percent of the country’s wealth. Mexico may be the 15th largest country in the world by gross domestic product and the 11th largest by purchasing power parity, but institutional decay, corruption, a poor education system and depressed wages have fueled a cycle of the rich getting richer and the poor disappearing more and more into a silent majority. Many have pronounced the demise of the left and populism throughout Latin America, citing the commodity bust as the cause of death. But anyone willing to see the stark contrast between the living conditions of Iztapalapa and Santa Fe in Mexico City, or the disparity between Nuevo Leon in the north and Oaxaca in the south, would consider such pronouncements premature.
Tearing Down the Invisible Wall
This is the dark side to Mexico’s growth story. But it is a growth story nonetheless, one that is intrinsically tied to Mexico’s northern neighbor. Mexico and the United States have a shared geopolitical destiny. If the U.S. economy grows, Mexico’s economy is riding shotgun. If the U.S. economy sputters, Mexico’s economy tumbles. Nearly 80 percent of Mexico’s exports are destined for U.S. markets and half of those exports are higher value products like vehicles and electronic goods as parts of the country continue climbing up the value chain. Rising flows of U.S. natural gas to its southern neighbor provide Mexico with cheaper and cleaner fuel to expand the electric grid and support a growing manufacturing base. U.S. investment will at the same time be essential to Mexico’s ability to rehabilitate its energy industry over the next decade. As the United States improves its energy security and drives growth in advanced technologies like additive manufacturing and robotics, more capital and more jobs will return to North America and tighten up already well-integrated supply chains across the continent.
In the decades ahead, the U.S. economy will stand in a much stronger position relative to its peers in the developed world. But there will of course be bumps along the way with repercussions on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. The American middle class and blue-collar workers will not feel part of an economic recovery so long as their wages remain stagnant and living conditions remain difficult. The immigrant easily becomes the scapegoat for that economic frustration and Mexico once again becomes a punching bag in the United States. As Paz advised in the run-up to the 1996 U.S. presidential election, “Americans should not be that angry with Mexico, because we are condemned to live side by side.”
The fear that this wave of anti-immigrant sentiment will linger well beyond the U.S. election has been weighing heavily on the minds of many Mexican political and business elites. The idea of Washington cutting off remittances to Mexico unless Mexico pays for a wall to keep illegal immigrants out was easily dismissed as campaign rhetoric in Washington, but it struck a chord in Mexico City. In 2014, the United States sent out $54.2 billion every year in remittances, with $24 billion destined for Mexico. U.S. remittances to Mexico add up to only 2 percent of Mexico’s GDP, but cutting them would have a devastating effect on the country’s poorest regions, which would do whatever it takes to keep funds flowing underground. For Mexico, this would be tantamount to an act of war. To my surprise, the conversation around the dinner table in Mexico City even turned to what a potential military conflict between Mexico and the United States would look like in a 21st century setting.
The deep-seated paranoia Mexico harbors toward its northern neighbor is nothing new. Paz would say that this friction is what you get when you place side by side two versions of Western civilization, one grounded in Protestant reformism and the other in the ritualism of Catholic orthodoxy. From a geopolitical perspective, Mexico ineluctably resides in the shadow of a much larger, resource-abundant, capital-rich empire. Whether Mexico City tries to project power across the northern desert or across the Gulf of Mexico, the core of Mexico on the central high plateau and along the coast of Veracruz are inherently vulnerable to U.S. military preponderance. In other words, challenging the North American superpower is simply not an option for Mexico.
But that does not mean it makes sense for the United States to challenge its smaller southern neighbor, either. Demographics will shape North America’s destiny in the 21st century. By 2050, Europe, Japan, Russia and China will face existential questions over their economic models and the competitiveness of their militaries as the proportion of working-age population narrows sharply. The U.S. and Mexican population will be aging as well, but at a slower rate. With a wider base of working-age people, driven in large part by its immigrant population, the United States will have an easier time adapting to the coming demographic crunch. Even as immigration flows turned negative between 2009 and 2014 as more Mexicans returned home than came to the United States looking for work, the United States overall saw a quadrupling of the Hispanic share of the U.S. population from 1965 to 2015, according to Pew Research Center. The more Hispanics expand their share of the U.S. electorate (in 2016, 27.3 million mostly Millennial Hispanics will be eligible to vote) the more politically engaged they will be in American politics. By virtue of geography, a Mexican-American in the United States does not cease being Mexican when he or she settles north. Matters of the homeland will regularly spill across the border.
As Mexico City’s influence gradually migrates from the borderland to Washington, Mexico will be growing in lockstep with the United States, with the potential to join the top 10 economies in the world within a matter of years. But this is a future that is still difficult for Mexico to internalize. Paz describes this as the ultimate contradiction between Mexico and the United States. The American, Paz said, “lives on the very edge of the now, always ready to leap toward the future” — a condition shaped by the United States’ philosophical and geopolitical origins. Mexico, on the other hand, looks back, haunted by its “plurality of pasts, all present and at war within every Mexican’s soul. Cortes and Montezuma are still alive in Mexico.”
Paranoia regarding U.S. intentions and neglect for its indigenous peoples will paralyze Mexico City for only so long. North America is on the edge of now, and the time has come for Mexico to face its demons, one wall at a time.