The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

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NOV 2011 Issue

What Mexico Doesn't Need

Jorge G. Castañeda
Mañana Forever?: Mexico and the Mexicans
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2011)

A well-educated member of the Mexican elite, Jorge Castañeda was born in Mexico City in 1953. His father was Jorge Castañeda y Álvarez de la Rosa, who served as Secretary of Foreign Affairs (1979 – 1982) during the administration of President José López Portillo. Castañeda the younger received the French Baccalaureate from the Lycée Franco-Mexicain in Mexico City. Then after receiving his B.A. from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in Economic History from the University of Paris (Panthéon-La Sorbonne) he worked as a professor at several universities. He served as Foreign Minister under President Vicente Fox but left in 2003 after disagreements with other cabinet members. He has published more than a dozen books and written for newspapers such as Reforma   (Mexico),  El País (Spain), and Los Angeles Times  (U.S.A.), as well as for several magazines including  Newsweek. Today he teaches at New York University.

In his latest work, Mañana Forever?, Castañeda wonders how Mexico will solve some of its longstanding financial and social problems. He largely directs his criticism at Mexicans themselves and decries what he sees as certain “old” cultural and collective psychological patterns which he believes keeps the country from “achieving the full modernity it deserves.”

What, exactly, does he mean by “full modernity?”  According to Castañeda, this refers to three things: 1) economic development; 2) enriched democratization; and 3) a robust, free-thinking, middle-class collectivity.

Given these three different, yet related, concentrations, Castañeda’s commentary is perhaps most provocative when dealing with presumed cultural and social psychological concerns. After a series of disclaimers warning readers that he seeks not to “essentialize” (read: stereotype) all Mexicans, he then nevertheless seems to invoke the spirit of Mexican writer Octavio Paz and his controversial 1950 book, Labyrinth of Solitude, in chiding Mexicans (read: the lower classes) for what he sees as an array of self-defeating behavior. Castañeda goes deep when he accuses Mexicans of being obsessive in their fascination with history, their assumed victim status, and perennial fear of the foreign. For him, these attitudes fly in the face of contemporary reality where open markets, bustling tourist trade, and income from remittances allegedly do much to lift up Mexico. Problems start because “Mexicans,” as he argues, are persistent individualists who reject “any kind of collective action.” Mexicans, according to Castañeda, are highly conflict avoidant. They balk at doing the required work of functioning democratic societies (debate, negotiation, respect for the law). Thus, the age-old sayings,  Se obdesco pero no se cumplo (I obey but do not comply) and El que no transa, no avanza  (He who doesn’t trick or cheat gets nowhere), as we are reminded by Castañeda, seem to make sense.

“Mexico is already, up to a point, a democracy, a middle class society, and an open economy, but is nowhere near becoming a nation of laws,” he writes. And, as everyone knows, “drug trafficking and drug wars have distanced it from this goal in recent years, even if corruption has in all likelihood diminished.” Given this, the task of building law-abiding institutions will most likely entail a “crucial clash, because the resistance to living by the law, and as well as the traditional justification for not doing so, are perhaps even more deeply entrenched in the Mexican psyche  than other attributes of the national character.”

True enough. Yet in today’s day and age, can we still legitimately speak of national psyche or national character? Upgrading from Paz who, after all, wrote his own scathing criticism of Mexicans more than a half-century ago, Castañeda is aware of the danger here. He rightly acknowledges, “There does not exist [any] underlying, culturalist, essentialist, or ontological bedrock” which constitutes a Mexican character. He acknowledges the great diversity of Mexico, regionally, culturally, ethnically, generationally, and so on. In place of attributing qualities to an imagined national soul, he argues for consideration of “a number of historical, economic, social, political, and international factors [that] have made Mexico a modern nation despite its culture, not as a result of it.” Despite its culture, not as a result of it. How can this be? What is Castañeda thinking?

Culture it seems, for Castañeda, is not so much organized religion, history, and typical “high” culture (art, literature, music), but the more messy “stuff” associated with the popular classes (folklore, food, drink, street art, cheap amusements, prejudice, assorted fear, superstition, etc.). This is the stuff that is keeping Mexico down. Thus in order to achieve “full modernity,” ordinary Mexicans must somehow shed their old, insular beliefs.

Generally a backer of NAFTA, globalization, and Mexico’s neoliberal turn, Castañeda’s prescription for what ails his country is thought to be a practical one; Mexicans simply need to start cooperating with each other and their neighbors. Yet, at the same time, his prognosis cannot help but be biased in favor of his own privileged perspective. His criticisms seem to coalesce around an imagined “Mexican psyche” and “national character” rooted in the collective practice of the Mexican popular classes more so then the country’s elite. Given the fact that Mexico’s most significant problems lay in corruption, drug trafficking, and an incredibly skewed distribution of wealth, these allegations, while no doubt possessing some merit, nevertheless seem off-target and poorly timed. What Mexico needs is significant reform in social, political, and economic terms. Worrying about the “national character” and “collective psyche” can wait until people are not being terrorized by drug dealers, corrupt politicians and their henchmen, and businessmen who seemingly wish to “privatize” the country for every last potential profit. In whining about the “lack of modernity” among the Mexican popular classes, Castañeda goes seriously astray.


Andrew G. Wood


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

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