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 email@example.com