Halfway across the zócalo, a central plaza typical of Mexican cities, in the little city of Tlaxiaco in the southern state of Oaxaca, I stopped, my appreciation of the mid-morning sunlight temporarily diverted. A middle-aged man and woman—obviously tourists—were sidling this way and that in a jerky, indecisive dance. The man held a camera that he lifted, lowered, moved from side to side, and the woman, fidgety, motioned him in one direction, then another, gesturing toward Tlaxiaco’s colonial cathedral.
Momentarily puzzled, I squinted toward what they seemed to be seeing and perceived the reasons for their dance: The man wanted to take photos of the cathedral, but if he moved to the left, the bulldozer that had been disgorging concrete from a street under repair crowded the composition. If he moved to the right, a canvas-topped portable tent announcing “Free Diabetes Testing” entered the frame. And no matter what angle he chose, two baseball-capped locals, one wearing a black jacket emblazoned with a pirate logo and the word Raiders and the other a sweatshirt bearing a bold IDAHO among a splay of pine cones, would be in the center of the photo, the hotdogs they were munching in plain view. The woman, catching a glimpse of me behind them, tugged the man’s sleeve, and he turned to approach me.
“Excuse please,” he said, his smile stiffly cordial and his words heavily accented in what I presumed was German. “You ask, please those men, they move? So the photo, you see, is the way, supposed to be.”
The way it is supposed to be….Like so many American and European tourists who come to Mexico and like many Mexicans who see in their changing environment the corruption of traditional values by which they have defined themselves and their country, the couple wanted to photograph “Mexico Típico,” not a Mexico whose roots and communal values have given way to globalization. Capturing those snapshots is becoming a challenge in the new Mexico, where shopping malls abound, golf courses lure tourists to five-star beach accommodations and archeological sites are updated and their histories edited to appeal to foreigners. These days Mexicans consume more Coca-Cola and potato chips than do Americans or Europeans; meat has replaced beans as a principal source of protein; and television is a daily staple for the very poor as well as the middle-class and the wealthy.
Although government officials and entrepreneurs glorify Mexico’s traditions and religion, both serve merely as shiny hood ornaments for what actually is happening in the country. Since 1988 more than 20 million campesinos and subsistence farmers have been driven off their land, glutting cities with their poverty. Many of the farms they once owned have become grazing land for cattle or planted with eucalyptus for pulpwood. Millions more left rural communities whose agricultural production had for many years provided them with incomes.
The Great Rompimiento
Change has come much more rapidly than confidence in change. The great rompimiento (“breakup”) of Mexico’s traditional life began after the Mexican revolution (1910-24). Military movements and the conscription of civilians into the forces of Emilio Zapata and Pancho Villa drew both men and women out of their home communities, either as combatants or refugees. Often they did not return to their places of origin, choosing urban and semi-urban life instead. This trend escalated during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40), when, according to Prof. Ricardo Pozas of the Autonomous National University, “The women and men were central figures in a redefinition politically and culturally of the state and its institutions, which they undertook with demonstrable civic enthusiasm.”
As this new, democratized Mexico took form, industrialization replaced agriculture as the government’s first priority. Migration to the cities increased; rural life, defined by sun and rain, daylight and dark, gave way to time-clock-regulated employment habits and the values associated with them. Children no longer automatically participated in their parents’ work life on subsistence agricultural plots, where contact with outsiders was extremely limited. Dislocated from communal roots, where roles were clearly defined and where the entire community adhered to the same norms, Mexico’s new men and women, now wage- and salary-earners, adjusted to purchasing rather than producing their own food, clothing and household items. Church festivals and activities no longer dominated social life, and attendance and participation at Mass and confession waned. Urbanization ruptured the composition that integrated religious and social life, school and employment that had existed in rural communities or in smaller cities and towns.
A second rompimiento occurred when the United States contracted Mexican braceros to work in agriculture, sugar factories and for the railroads during the Second World War. With the postwar boom the bracero program expanded, and with it a surge of farm and industry laborers headed northward. Thousands of others crossed the border on their own to look for farm and cannery work. A majority of them did not become—or even attempt to become—permanent U.S. residents. Their interaction with the communities in which they worked was relatively limited. Those most influenced by postwar U.S. values were people who lived in the border states and frequently passed back and forth from one country to the other.
Before the 1970s, impressions of life north of the border were based primarily on American movies and television sitcoms. That changed as more and more migrant workers returned to their home communities after working for U.S. wages and experiencing life in U.S. towns and cities beyond the border zone. Even those who were content in the familiar surroundings of their villages and ranchos re-entered Mexican society with their factory-made jeans, shoes and hand tools.
Transistor radios replaced street corner musicians as an entertainment source; families added hotdogs, hot cakes and hamburgers to their diets. More and more autos appeared, many legally imported, others surreptitiously slipped across the border. Long before international franchises arrived, individual eateries in towns throughout northern and north-central Mexico began offering hamburgers, “Texas chili,” French fries and pizza. Hormigas—“ants,” the description given to smugglers of clothes, appliances, cosmetics, auto parts and other items—scurried back and forth to fulfill demands for U.S.-made goods, many of them secondhand and acquired at garage sales, Goodwill and Salvation Army stores in el norte.
A bus passenger riding from San Luis Río Colorado to Jalisco in the 1960s laughingly confided how embarrassed he had become going through customs when a Mexican official opened one of his suitcases and pulled out a half-dozen women’s brassieres, slips and nylons, then shrugged and observed in curt rural Spanish, “But these women, that is how they are; they want the norteamericano things.”
The majority of those returning to their communities of origin in Michoacán, Durango, Zacatecas and Jalisco during the 1960s and 70s no longer wanted to live in “Mexico Típico,” plowing rocky little hillside plots by hand, weaving baskets and riding mules, no matter how appealing such traditions might have seemed to the tourist trade. From the 1970s through the 1990s, more than a million Mexican citizens emigrated to the United States every year. Ties between newly formed communities in the United States and the communities of origin in Mexico tightened, in part because of the millions of dollars that workers sent home but also because, culturally, those who remained in Mexico felt increasingly comfortable with American habits and customs.
When a group of workers who had returned to Oaxaca in southern Mexico described the arduous working conditions they had encountered in North Carolina meat and poultry processing plants, one of them burst out: “But after the work, remember? The Budweiser and Kentucky [Fried Chicken]!” Another agreed, “Ay! I would love to have the Budweisers and a tub of Kentucky right now!”
In 1910 Mexico had a population of slightly over 16 million people, most of whom lived on what could be produced locally. Most of them identified with their places of origin; neither radios nor television sets existed, and very few newspapers reported what was happening in distant parts of the country, much less the world. An estimated 90 percent of the population was illiterate; the child mortality rate was over 50 percent in many areas; and government was in the hands of wealthy hacienderos (big landlords) and caciques (tribal chiefs).
Today nearly 80 percent of Mexico’s 110 million inhabitants live in urban areas, most of them congested and scourged by inflation, crime and underemployment. They buy clothes and school supplies at Walmart, use disposable diapers, watch American movies and file for divorces even as they retain their preference for handicrafts, atole (a kind of porridge) and the Virgin of Guadalupe. No longer do they automatically refer to themselves with the pronoun “we” (as in “We Mexicans believe…”; “We Mexicans always do…”; “We Mexicans love…”), as they commonly did in the 19th and first two-thirds of the 20th centuries. Instead they say, “I.” A rupture in identity, a break with a past that defined “who I am” and collectively “who we are,” thrusts the modern Mexican into an uncomfortable individualism, where the rules of behavior are less clearly defined. Part of the reluctance to give up traditional identities is the “something missing” that urban dwellers in particular feel. They share a sense that they have lost something essential in the transition from “tortillas, hand-made, filled with beans and chilis eaten together amid laughter and songs” to “white bread and telenovelas taken on the run,” to use the words of a Mexico City schoolteacher who moonlights as a parts inspector for an electronics manufacturer.
But cultural practices and niceties that worked in the ethnically compact geography familiar to the campesino do not work in urban areas, where modern Mexico’s workers commute between apartments and time clocks but no longer share equivalent ethnic backgrounds, religion or customs. The clear demarcations between good and bad, the expectations of conduct between adults and children and the exaggerated courtesy paid to women that characterized provincial life during the 19th and early 20th centuries have become as incongruous amid the 21st-century reality of industrialization, money laundering and migration as 1930s’ Pedro Infante singing cowboy movies or street corner pulquerias (where a person could enjoy a pulque, the fermented sap of the maguey plant).
This is not to say that most Mexicans want to destroy the “old ways” or forget about them. “We carry the past with us, we adapt it to the present, but it’s always there. It’s what we build on,” Fernando Horcasitas, a Mexico City college professor, insisted years ago. “Building on them” implies not only recognizing what is good and what is bad, but also what is practical and what is possible.
This urban generation of Mexicans acknowledge their parents’ and grandparents’ devout Catholicism, submission to authority and patriarchal double standard of morality without themselves subscribing to them. They may go to Mass, but they ignore the church’s negation of condom use. Many individual priests and churches have tried to adapt to the changes, even as the Catholic hierarchy maintains strong ties with the conservative government of President Felipe Calderón. “When the [hierarchy] seems to support the government, many of those who are striving for change pull away, creating social divisions within the church as well as with the populace,” the Rev. Manuel Arías, of Oaxaca, said.
While the 30 or so wealthiest families (and a more or less equal number of drug cartel capos) buy airplanes and yachts, build five-star hotels and surround themselves with armed bodyguards, the rest of Mexico struggles to meet daily expenses. A bag of Big Macs, a pack of disposable razors, a dozen throwaway diapers are quicker and easier to come by than the “traditional” ways, even though those ways may have been more satisfying.
Wryly, Julio Hernández, a columnist for Mexico City’s daily paper, La Journada, credits these wealthiest families and the politicians they control with re-establishing some traditions. Unfortunately most of them derive from the Middle Ages, the Inquisition and imperial rule. They repave the past with concrete, steel and debt, whisk naked indigenous children out of sight, send their children to private schools and worship the Virgin of Guadalupe one day a year. They fill the country’s jails with dissidents, parlay untaxed drug profits into multibillion dollar gains, huff like a barnyard rooster at perceived criticisms and extol the patriotic spirit of “those who love Mexico.” Meanwhile millions of Mexicans brave death and imprisonment to migrate, and political candidates bore holes in the pyramid of Teotihuacan to give tourists “the most fabulous light show in the world.”
What really matters in this continuing, complex confrontation between Mexico’s overburdened past and its growing expectations for the new century? Tradition? Or a new and better future built on a solid grasp of cultural reality and a meaningful commitment to sharing the national wealth? Maybe the next generation of Mexicans will be able to decide for themselves.
View a slideshow of life in Oaxaca, past and present.