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The Mexican Hat Dance
by Paul Richard Harris    Axis of Logic
Entered into the database on Monday, December 26th, 2005 @ 12:22:14 MST


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Most North Americans don’t think a lot about Mexico, except as a source of cheap labour, border jumpers, and the place where all the jobs are going. Oh yeah, and we all know or at least pray that what Taco Bell calls Mexican food isn’t what those folks really eat. We learn almost nothing of their history (except the customary one-sided version of what the Alamo was all about), or their culture and, frankly, we seldom really even see them as people: at best, they are cute little tourist attractions with hot sun and hot food.

Despite being pretty well-read and having an abiding interest in history, I confess I was appalled by my ignorance when I visited Mexico a few years ago. This is a very complicated country with a rich, varied, and mostly tragic history but outside of cowboy movies where the bad guys are banditos, most of us don’t know a lot about it. I had enough sense not to go to the usual tourist destinations but instead spent some time exploring in the Yucatán peninsula and came away with a real sympathy for the separatist movement in Mexico, one of which I had been only vaguely aware and which I would have dismissed previously.

As a Canadian, I know about separatist movements because we have one here that has made noise throughout my whole life. It is presently fairly quiet but no less determined than ever; in the past, members of the movement resorted to a significant amount of violence and murder in an effort to win their cause but, for now at least, they seem to have put those methods aside. We even have a political party holding the third highest number of seats in our Parliament whose sole purpose is to remove the province of Québec from Canada. As you might expect, the movement divides solely along ethnic lines; the French Canadians against everyone else. Of course, I see evidence of similar struggles around the world: Chechnya and the Basque region readily come to mind from the recent daily news although the situation is Canada is nowhere near as acute, or as legitimate, as those.

But the separatist struggle in Mexico was largely unknown to me. I was informed enough to know that the indigenous peoples of Mexico suffered pretty much the same humiliation, degradation, and depersonalization as in Canada and the United States and I certainly had sympathy for that cause. But Mexico’s separatist movement is not a simple dichotomy between the natives and the conquerors; there are several other undercurrents running in contrary directions.

You might expect that the native population of Mexico would be looking for a much fairer shake than they have received to date and that they might even be organizing themselves to make that happen. There certainly is a good deal of that going on; but in a bit of a reversal of the usual struggle for independence, there is also a movement by the elites to separate. People in the developed and largely prosperous north want to break away from the poor south with its large Indian population. In other words, the wealthier classes of Mexico want to rid themselves of the poverty and the ethnic issues that is the usual lot in life for the people that the Spanish conquered. Hell, they don’t even want to subjugate them, they just want to get away from them. How bad must it be when even your conquerors get tired of dumping on you? Mexico’s political parties reflect this same division, with the business-oriented parties gathering most of their support in the north and the reformist and leftist parties being strongest in the south.

I don’t think it is likely that these rich separatists will get their wishes anytime soon, however. I can think of no instances where a country willingly divested itself of territory. Besides, it is so much more satisfying to beat up on the dissidents.

There is also a strong movement within Mexico for reunification of Mexico with the southwestern part of the United States. These people speak of ‘Aztlan’ (the mythical birthplace of the Aztecs) and its area would include California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and parts of Colorado and Texas. Their ideal is to have these areas merge in something like a ‘Republica del Norte’ and eventually have that merge with Mexico. At the least, these folks believe that large parts of Mexico’s territory was stolen by the Americans and they want it back, especially Texas. In my view, if that means they would also have to take George Bush, let ‘em have it.

To be sure, there is also a movement among various Indian groups for autonomy at least, separation at best. Some of these groups work together for a common goal but there are also splinters doing their own thing. In recent years, we all learned the names Chiapas, Tabasco (not the sauce), Zapatista and so on but most of us will have little real sense of what this is all about. As I noted above, the poor south is where most of the Indians live in Mexico and within states like Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, Quintana Roo there is not a lot of love lost between the Indians and the descendants of the Conquistadores del España. These natives have suffered the same indignations as native peoples throughout North America (and, I suppose, most of the rest of the world) and they now have similar social problems: low literacy, poverty, poor life expectancy, inadequate employment and housing — all the usual benefits of having been conquered by white people.

In the minds of some Mexicans, there are still dreams of the ‘Republica del Rio Grande’ which arose in 1840 as an attempt to break away from the central government in Mexico City. In 1841, the five administrative divisions within the Yucatán Peninsula (Mérida, Izamal, Valladolid, Tekax and Campeche) amalgamated to declare themselves the ‘Republic of Yucatán’. That is also a dream that has not died and today the Yucatán flag is readily seen everywhere in the peninsula (and on one of my T-shirts). In the case of the Republica del Rio Grande, we had the elite seeking to set up shop without Mexico City’s control; with the Yucatán, we had a largely Indian population thinking they had had enough of those damn Spanish.

Much of the social landscape in Mexico is muddied by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). While Canadians and Americans complain in varying degrees about NAFTA, the Mexicans probably got shafted more than anyone because the agreement is set up to guarantee they remain in poverty. They cannot get ahead as a people; the rich will get richer while the poor do no better than maintain status quo. That is another bullet in the chamber for those who think that Mexico is ripe for a good ‘ol revolution.

Most of the turmoil in Mexico can be readily traced to one source: racism. The massive poverty of the south derives from the racial disdain of the north. In that regard, the Mexicans are no different from Canadians and Americans who have subjugated their native people, who have promised them all sorts of things only to snap them away at the last minute, who have herded these people into little corrals, who feel sort of guilty about what they have done but resent every effort to redress.

From the outside, Mexico just looks like a poor country full of second rate citizens; it seems to be a sleepy land of sombreros, salsa, and siestas. In fact, it is a very divided country with a wide range of social and political aspirations that make it anything but stable. Some day, the siesta may be over and those disparate and desperate groups may finally rise up to take charge of their destinies. And if that happens, all those Canadian and American enterprises who moved their business facilities to Mexico to avoid giving safe working conditions and decent wages to their employees, may find themselves running for their lives.

So when Mexico presents itself to the world as a solid citizen and a united and coherent country, they aren’t just dancing on their hats; they’re talking through them.

Paul Richard Harris is an Axis of Logic editor and columnist, based in Canada. He can be reached at