Friday, January 19, 2018

unfinished business on the lecture circuit


For the last few years, Costalegre Community Church in Villa Obregon has presented a series of cultural awareness lectures. I have participated in three of them -- the most recent one being yesterday afternoon.

Several readers have requested that I flesh out my notes and post them. I have done that. This is as close as I could come to reconstructing what I said.



Unfinished Business:
why Mexico is not yet a united nation
 

I don’t know about you, but I love stories.

Let me tell you one.

The year is 1519. Hernán Cortes, fresh from Havana, lands on the gulf shore of what will become Mexico. To prevent his troops from mutinying and returning to Cuba, he burns his ships.

He then marches his army of 500 soldiers with 13 horses, and a handful of cannon into the interior of Mexico, where he lays siege to one of the then-greatest empires in the world – the Aztec, led by the plumed emperor-god
Moctezuma II. 200,000 people live in its capital city, and Moctezuma has thousands of battle-hardened warriors at his disposal.

Cortes captures the Aztec capital city, and completely destroys it. The sun sets on the Aztec Empire.  Within 1 year, the Spanish are on the Pacific coast. And Cortes is the undisputed ruler of Mexico.

It is a nice story. Well, if you are a Spaniard and not an Aztec. A version of that tale appears in a lot of school history text books. The problem is that most of it is simply false.

If it had been that easy, if Cortes’s Spanish forces alone had fought the Aztecs and had won control of Mexico as a result, Mexico’s history (and some of its current and potential problems) may not have occurred.

As is true of life, the truth is far more complex. And far more interesting.

About 10 years ago, a major think tank concluded Mexico was about to become a failed state. A state that could not provide basic security and economic needs for its citizens. Mexico ranked right up there with Somalia, Haiti, and South Sudan.

The conclusion was a false alarm. Mexico has its problems. Cartels. Corruption. A stressed infrastructure. But a failed state, it is not.

What it does have is the danger of becoming a fractured state. It is not alone. The world has entered a new phase of assertive nationalism. And nations trapped in states with other nations are breaking free – or, at least, are trying to.

The former Soviet Union started it all when its dictatorship morphed into authoritarianism. Then a portion of central Europe unraveled. Most recently, of course, have been the independence movements in Catalonia and Scotland. As well as Quebec.

And like Spain, Great Britain, and Canada, Mexico is a state that harbors more than one nation. Those fracture lines present Mexico with some interesting future issues.

What I would like to talk about today are the three areas of Mexico who see themselves as not being fully Mexican.

1. Chiapas
2. The Yucatan Peninsula
3. Northern Mexico

Before we talk about those three regions, we need a little historical background for context.

Don’t worry, I am not going to present a comprehensive survey of Mexican history. I just want to touch on those events that have left enough historical detritus to put Mexico’s unity under stress.

Two years ago, I talked about the creation of Mexican national unity. How Mexico finally became one people: Mestizos.

Today I want to talk about what was left undone in the Mexican revolution and the creation of the Mestizo myth. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Let me tell you a little Mexican history. How a country with a diverse past created a sense of national identity and unity. As we step through each of the events, please keep in mind three questions. At each historical stage,

1. Who is a Mexican?
2. Who has been left out of that definition?
3. How unified is Mexico?

What we know as the current Mexican nationality started as multiple nations. The Spaniards and the approximate 150 tribes who were in Mexico when the Spanish arrived.

1. The Conquest (1519-1520)

Most Mexican history books start with the Spanish conquest in 1519. That cuts Mexican history short by 23,000 years. The Spanish did not invade an unpeopled land. Tribes had settled in Mexico for millennia before Cortes showed up.

Over those twenty millennia, several civilizations grew up and were either abandoned or destroyed by other tribes. And so the cycle went millennia after millennia, century after century.

When the Spanish arrived, two tribes were in control of most of the country – the Aztec in central Mexico, who were at the top of their game. And the Maya in Yucatan, who were fading as a civilization.

But there were also about 150 other tribes. In total about 25 million people lived in Mexico before the Spanish showed up. About the same population as modern Texas.

People often ask why didn’t the Indians band together to drive the Spanish into the sea. After all, there were only 500 Spaniards against 25 million Indians.
The question, of course, is anachronistic. There was no unifying concept of “Indian.” Each tribe was a separate nation. The 150 tribes had long battled against one another. The Spaniards were just another tribe. And seemingly not very threatening.

It was that disunity that Cortes sought to exploit – and to then impose a new unity dedicated to the two purposes of the conquest 1) finding gold and 2) saving souls.

But Cortes quickly discovered the key to conquering the Aztec. He allied himself with one of the tribes, the Tlaxcala, who hated the Aztecs enough to see that Cortes was the way to destroy the Aztecs. The Tlaxcalans provided Cortes with thousands of warriors. As a result, Cortes, with his Indian army, defeated the Aztec – and then tribe after tribe, using the same tactic, until he had nominal control over a territory that stretched from the Oregon and Louisiana borders in the north and through Central America to what is now Panama in the south.

I say “nominal” because the Spanish initially were interested only in areas where gold and silver could be mined and where vast estates for cattle and horses could be acquired. As a result, some areas had very little Spanish population or control.

Chiapas and Yucatan had neither gold nor pasture land. And the north was plagued with frequent attacks from the tribes. Especially, the Comanche. As a result, those three areas were never fully under Spanish control.

For three hundred years, Spain ruled Mexico. And because many of the Spaniards came to Mexico without spouses, they took local women as wives – usually consensually, but often by force. And, bit by bit, the mestizo (part Indian, part Spanish) arose.

But that was a slow process. As a result of warfare, disease, and slave labor, more than 95% of the 25 million tribe members were dead within two decades of the Conquest. Only 1 million Indians survived the transition.

Let’s look at our three questions. During the Conquest:

1. Who is a Mexican? For 300 years, Spain ruled Mexico. There was no concept of Mexican. You were either Spanish born in Spain. Of Spanish blood born in Mexico. Or an Indian.
2. Who has been left out of that definition?
3. How unified is Mexico? Not very

For 300 years, Spain ruled Mexico. Mexico was merely a Spanish possession – until a group of people who called themselves Americans decided Mexico should declare its independence from Spain.

2. War of Independence (1810-1821)

Opposition to Spanish rule arose in Mexico from people of Spanish blood who had been born here. But, because they had not been born in Spain, they were not allowed to hold the best political and social positions.

When Napoleon put his brother on the Spanish throne in 1810, the Americans (as the Mexican-born Spanish called themselves) rose in revolt. Joined by Indians and peons who had been abused by the Spanish system.

It was a bloody affair where most of the Independence leaders died in battle or were executed as traitors. But the Americans finally prevailed against Spain.

Mexico had independence, but it did not have peace. Mexico would be torn by internal and external wars for another six decades.

Part of that dispute centered around how Mexicans would identify themselves. There was a major political split between conservatives (who looked to Spain and Europe for political inspiration and favored a strong central government) and liberals (who looked north to the United States and to a mythical Aztec past for social and political ideals; they also favored de-centralized power – at least when they were not in power). Each argued their position was the true Mexican identity. But, one thing they agreed on, to be Mexican meant you had to be of Spanish blood. Not Indian.

These battles were not merely intellectual. They were also physical fights for political control.


In the chaos, Mexico lost a lot of its territory. During the Spanish empire, Central America was administered as part of Mexico. When independence was declared, Mexico retained control of the former colonies. Two years later, Central America withdrew from its union with Mexico. What we now know as the Mexican state of Chiapas left the union temporarily as part of Guatemala, but returned the next year.

I mentioned the Comanches earlier. They presented a problem in northern Mexico. Especially in the Mexican state of Texas.

Because Mexico could not provide sufficient security, very few Mexican citizens had an interest in settling there. Or in most of the territory north of the current Mexican border.

The Mexican government had a brilliant idea. If American settlers came to Texas, the American government would offer them some security.

It did not turn out well for Mexico. The American settlers and their fellow Mexican settlers were miffed that they were taxed by Mexico but did not receive any security. As a result, they declared independence in 1836. We now remember Texas because of the Alamo and its decade as an independent republic.

In 1840, three additional Mexican border states declared their independence. But they were not as fortunate as Texas. The Mexican army quickly put down the revolt.

The next year, the Yucatan peninsula declared independence and remained free until the Caste War broke out in 1848. We will talk about the Caste War in more detail. But it gets its name from a Maya uprising where any person with a drop of Spanish or European blood was marked for death. Including the Mestizos.

But the big loss of territory occurred during the Mexican-American war in 1848 when Mexico disastrously misjudged its military capacity against the American army. As a result, Mexico lost 55% of its territory.

Throughout all of this:
1. Who is a Mexican? The concept of nationality is growing. Even with the conservative-liberal split, the elite agree that Mexicans are those born of Spanish blood. Or who can pass as Spanish.
2. Who has been left out of that definition? All the Indians. Any mixed-blood person.
3. How unified is Mexico? Not very. Multiple centers of power.

3. War of Reforma (1857-1861)

That brings us to one of the least-known events in Mexican history, but one that is very important to Mexican identity: the War of Reforma between 1857 and 1861. If you were ever curious about where the street on the corner got its name, it is from this period of Mexican history.

Some of you are probably asking why, in this brief history of Mexico, I have not yet mentioned the Catholic church. It was there at the beginning of the Conquest. In fact, one of the goals of the conquest was to convert the tribes to Catholicism. In the process, like other Spaniards, the church acquired property – property that had formerly belonged to the tribes. By the mid-1800s, the church owned 25 to 40% of Mexican land. Churches and convents, of course. But also a tremendous amount of income-producing land.

Between 1857 and 1861 Mexico’s liberal and conservatives went to war with one another over the question of what type of nation Mexico would be. One of the big issues was church property and land reform. The conservatives defended the church. The liberals wanted land reform based on confiscated church property.

The war came to an end when the liberals won, and Mexico’s first and only full-blooded Indian became president.  Benito Juarez. He believed the only way that the tribes could survive was if they assimilated into the rest of Mexican society. But, without land, assimilation was problematic.

His solution was very clever. The church was his political enemy. So, he began confiscating the income-producing land owned by the church. Then the convents and churches became state property.

Most of us are similar with the ejido system -- where land was generally held communally. Juaraz's land reform system was different. He distributed the newly-acquired church land to individual tribe members hoping they would transform themselves into the equivalent of New England farmers. After all, he had worked his way up through Mexican society to become the head of the Supreme Court and then president.

But the experiment failed. Private landowners began buying up the land from the new yeoman. And the Indians were once again sharecroppers, at best, -- land slaves, at worst.

Had the experiment not been undermined, it would probably have collapsed in the next big event in Mexican history – the War of French Incursion from 1861 to 1867.

4. War of French Incursion (1861-1867)

I will skim through this very interesting interlude in Mexican history when the French deposed the Juarez government for failure to pay its debt to France. (It is the same period where Mexicans gained an antipathy toward Great Britain and Canada over debts.) With the support of the conservatives, the French put an Austrian Archduke – Maximilian – on the Mexican throne. The French occupation does not impact the question we are examining today. But the end of the French experiment does.

When the French withdrew their troops to fight European wars, Maximilian ended up as many Mexican leaders – in front of a firing squad.

President Juarez returned to power briefly. When he sought reelection, a young military hero of the war against the French, Porfirio Diaz, 
revolted. Before the dispute could be resolved, President Juarez died of natural causes.

By that time, Mexico was economically poorer than it had been on the day it gained independence. Mexicans were tired of it. And that is one reason they tolerated the longest period of one-man rule Mexico had ever experienced.

 The answer to our three questions had not changed.
1. Who is a Mexican? Still the people of Spanish blood.
2. Who has been left out of that definition?
3. How unified is Mexico? Not very, but a sense of nationhood is developing.

5. Porfiriano (1876-1910)

The man who ruled Mexico for the longest modern period was the same general who rose in revolt against President Juarez’s authoritarianism. Porfirio Diaz. And though he was a liberal who opposed reelection, he was elected president for seven terms. Longer than any other modern ruler of Mexico.

He was initially exactly what Mexico wanted -- summed up in three words:
Peace
Order
Prosperity

The last was the most obvious. Foreign investors moved in. Canadian-run mines. British-owned oil. American-constructed railroads. It was Mexico’s industrial revolution. Mexico started to become a wealthy country.

But Porfirio Diaz eventually abandoned his liberal instincts to preserve his dictatorship. Industrial growth came at the cost of a loss of Mexican political liberty. What had started as a liberal economy soon froze out competition and created very concentrated wealth. Much of it foreign.

Which brings us to what most historians consider to be “the most important event in Mexican history” – the Mexican Revolution. When the answer to our three questions will change drastically.

7. Mexican Revolution (1910-1929)

In 1910, Almost exactly 100 years after Mexico declared its independence, northern Mexico rose in revolt against Porfirio Diaz. The immediate cause seems almost trivial. Porfirio Diaz said he would not seek reelection. When Francisco Madero, a wealthy northerner, believed him and ran for president, Porfirio Diaz changed his mind, had Madero arrested, and ran for another term – and won in a transparently fraudulent election.

Porfirio Diaz fled when the revolution began. Madero was elected president and then assassinated. A series of revolutionary leaders suffered the same death over the next ten years.

By the end of the war, 1,000,000 Mexicans were dead. Out of a total of 15 million. Note that number. 15 million. There were 25 million tribe members living in Mexico in 1519. In 1917,there were only 15 million Mexicans. That is how cruel Mexico’s history had been to its citizens.

One of the largest changes that came out of the Revolution was how Mexicans began identifying themselves.

Let’s look at our three questions.
1. Who is a Mexican?
In the years between the conquest and the revolution, a demographic change occurred. What started as a few babies born of Spanish conquistadors and tribal mothers, grew into the majority population of Mexico. Being Mexican was now defined as anyone who carried the blood of the conquerors and the conquered.

And that is where I would like to talk about Mexico’s potential fragmentation. The Mestizo myth united about 80% of Mexico’s population. People who identified themselves with their mixed Spanish and Indian blood. But it left out 20% -- mainly the tribes that had not and have not been assimilated into Mexican society.

2. Who has been left out of that definition? The tribes – at least, the unassimilated tribes.

3. How unified is Mexico after the Revolution? Very centralized. Almost all power emanated from Mexico City under the Mexican Constitution of 1917.

That brings us to the three areas where there are obvious fracture lines in the Mexican state. Some historical. Some social. Some economic.

1. Chiapas
2. Yucatan
3. Northern Mexico

1.
Chiapas
Of the three areas, Chiapas has the most recent history of open rebellion against the Mexican government.

In January 1994, Zapatista rebels in Chiapas declared war on the Mexican government, declaring it to be illegitimate. They took over mayoral offices throughout the region and made a proclamation in the Tzotzil language (one of the few dozen indigenous languages still spoken in the Chiapas region), before a Catholic bishop intervened and defused the tension.

The rebellion had immediate modern causes. But, Mexico has never had a firm grasp on Chiapas. When the Spanish arrived, the area was made up of a mix of Mayan and non-Mayan Indians (including the Chiapas). They put up a strong resistance to Spanish incursion into the 1600s. But the Spanish never had much interest in the area because it lacked mineral wealth.

When Mexico gained independence, three groups arose in Chiapas: 1) those in favor of independence, 2) those in favor of becoming part of Guatemala (lowlands), 3) and those in favor of becoming part of Mexico (highlands).

In 1824 southwestern Chiapas joined Guatemala. To avoid further fragmentation, the state agreed to a referendum. Join Guatemala or Mexico. Mexico prevailed in an election that not even Vladimir Putin would call fair. But the full area was not reincorporated into Mexico for another twenty years.

Remember Juarez’s land reforms that gave church land to dispossessed Indians? It applied to Chiapas – with the same result as elsewhere. But, in Chiapas, the cause was a bit different. Whites and Mestizos encroached on traditional tribe lands.

A group of Tzeltals plotted to kill all of the mestizos and whites who had moved into their traditional lands. The plot was thwarted before being executed. But it summed up the tension that was growing in Chiapas. A second uprising occurred in 1868, and was brutally put down by military force.

It is no surprise the Indians rose in rebellion. They were treated as serfs or slaves during both the Spanish colonial period and following Independence.

The revolution should have offered some relief for the dissidents in Chiapas. It didn’t. Recall the revolution was primarily a Mestizo movement. And most of the grievances in Chiapas were from the tribes.

For two decades, the mestizo landowners fought any meaningful land reform. When they eventually lost out to the government’s ejido creations in the 1930s, Chiapas experienced approximately 60 years of social stability. But the fractures remained.

That stability came at a cost. Neither the central nor the state government provided security. The stability came from people’s trust in local government. The people of Chiapas had long thought of themselves as being free from central government control.  

And those are the roots of the Zapatista rebellion. In the 1980s and 1990s, Mexico experienced an economic surge. The Chiapas tribes were basically a very conservative people. They could see that the liberal economic policies of the central government were going to have a deleterious effect on society as they knew it. Especially, land ownership.

One of the main targets was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It included a clause requiring Mexico to amend its constitution to weaken the rights of ejido land. And Chiapas wanted nothing to do with that reform.

On the day the treaty went into effect 1 January 1994, a Marxist layer was added to the Chiapas rebellion. That was the day the Zapatistas rebelled against the central government. Declaring it illegitimate.  

The Zapatistas did not demand independence for Chiapas, just autonomy. But either did the Scots or the Catalonians -- initially.

The people of Chiapas have autonomy by default. It has never been specifically granted by the Mexican government, but the government has left the state alone, deciding that military suppression would only worsen the political situation. As a result, the Zapatistas and sympathizers have effective control of the state. Because they do not recognize the Mexican government’s legitimacy, they do not participate in federal elections.

On one of Dan Patman’s tours to Chiapas a couple of years ago, our guide, Antonio, briefed us on the Zapatistas. When he told us the local residents do not participate in federal elections, a very polite retired school teacher (from a country where nice is a national synonym) raised her hand and asked: “Why doesn’t someone let them know if they gathered together as voters, they could change their community for the better?” The answer, of course, is they believe participating would ratify a government the Zapatistas find inherently illegitimate.

That is, until this year. And this is a big change. Something is happening politically in Chiapas. The Zapatistas are actually running a candidate for Congress.

A full one-third of the population are tribal members who seem to be happy with the status quo. They have a good deal of autonomy, but any attempt by the central government to limit that authority may trigger hundreds of years of oppressive history.

The obvious choice would be to once again join Guatemala, whose 41% Indian population is very similar to that of Chiapas.

Of the three areas, Chiapas is the most likely to bolt in the future. But it is a limited possibility.

2. Yucatan

The Yucatan peninsula has a history very similar to Chiapas.

When the Spanish arrived, most of the large Maya city-states had declined. What had been some of the most amazing cities in the world were abandoned to the jungle. But the Maya were still there. Even if they had abandoned many of those great cities.

The Spanish conquest there was difficult – for the Spanish. There was no Moctezuma to conquer and then have a full civilization topple. The Spanish were forced to conquer the city-states one by one. The Maya on the Yucatan peninsula would fight on until 1697. Almost two hundred years of war.

Yucatan initially offered very little to the Spanish. The Maya gold and silver was soon looted. No mineral wealth existed. And the country was not disposed to cattle barons. What wealth Yucatan had was traded with the Caribbean islands, not the rest of Mexico. For a good reason. There were no roads or railways connecting Yucatan with the Mexican mainland. Even while it was part of the colony of Mexico, it acted as an independent island.

And because very few Spanish settled there, Spain’s hold on Yucatan was tenuous. How many of you have been to Yucatan? Remember the  churches. Those ark-like masonry buildings that looked like fortresses with very few windows?

They look that way because that is what they were. If there was an attack or the threat of an attack from the Maya, and it was a constant realistic threat, the Spanish would rush to the church and lock themselves in.

Nothing much happened in Yucatan during the war of independence. 11 years after the rest of Mexico declared its independence, and a month after Spain granted independence to the rest of Mexico, Yucatan declared its independence and requested to be admitted to the newly-formed Mexican empire. From 1835-1848, Yucatan was an independent republic. Those years should sound familiar. They were the same years Texas was settling its independence grudge with Mexico.

Yucatan may even have remained an independent republic if it had not been for one of the region’s bloodier moments.

From 1847 to 1901, the Maya rose in revolt in what has come to be called the Caste War. It is called that because the rebellion was based solely on race. On one side were the Maya. On the other side were people of Spanish blood and mestizos – everyone who was not a full-blood Maya. The Maya were committed to killing or driving out all non-Maya from Yucatan.

The war initially began when mestizos moved into land that was traditionally Mayan. But the roots ran far deeper. The Spanish and subsequently the power elite in independent Mexico treated the Maya as serfs or slaves. When the land dispute arose, the Maya said enough.

It was a bloody affair – as are most race wars. And, because it served its own geopolitical purposes in British Honduras, the British recognized a Mayan rebel state called Chan Santa Cruz, and supplied it with arms. That independent portion of Yucatán lasted until 1901 when the British, living up to their name of Perfidious Albion, switched sides in the dispute, and left the Maya to fend for themselves. They were slaughtered by Mexican troops. But skirmishes of the war dragged on until 1933.

Yucatan was finally integrated physically into mainland Mexico with a railroad in the 1950s and a highway in the 1960s.

But a strong independent streak remains. Yucatan faces east to the Caribbean rather than west to Mexico City – economically and socially. The fact that the state flag was the flag of independent Yucatan reminds its residents that Yucatan is different than Mexico.

And the Maya who still make up a high percentage of the population have not forgotten that what was once theirs has been taken from them. Just as in the caste wars, they realize the mestizo myth does not include them.

3. North

That brings us to the portion of Mexico that would have the most to gain by seeking independence, but is least likely to do so. The north.

Ironically, the north is the fountain from which the mestizo myth emerged – at least, in its most romantic version. But there are two groups I want to discuss. First, the tribes.

The tribes that populated the northern portion of Mexico were looked down upon by their sophisticated urban cousins – the Aztecs and Maya. In fact, the Aztecs referred to them as barbarians.

There was gold and silver in the north, and the Spanish conquered what they could, but tribes like the Tarahumara fiercely fought back. Rather than surrender to the Spanish in the late 1600s, they retreated further and further into the mountains where they still live – 400 years later.

They symbolize the tribes who fought the Spanish expansion and Mexican control in the north. The Apache. The Navajo. And particularly, the Comanche. Those tribes were pacified or destroyed in the late 19th century. But the Tarahumara are still there. And they are still not assimilated into Mexican culture.

The mestizos are the other group worth mentioning in the north. Without the north, the mestizo population would not have grown as quickly as it did.

In Spanish Mexico, it was against the law for an Indian to ride a horse, be armed, or serve in any job that paid well. Because the Mestizos were part Indian, most of the restrictions applied to them. And because they were not full-blooded Indians, the privileges accorded to the Indians did not apply to them. The choice was whether to spend your life in the gutter or to go somewhere where the social rules were a bit more accepting.

The more adventurous headed north. As the Spanish pacified new territory in the north, new settlers were needed to work the cattle ranches that thrived on the frontiers of Mexico. The Mestizos responded and an entirely new Mexican archetype was created. The vacaro. The cowboy.

Mestizos in the north became master horsemen and developed a new vocabulary along with a new uniform. He was a lariat-carrying, pistol-packing, sombrero-topped, chaps-wearing, boot-shod, spur-bedecked hombre.

Americans like to think they invented the concept of the cowboy. They didn’t. They merely borrowed from the vacaro culture that created the myth.

And by mounting his horse and facing danger, he soon became an integral part of developing the north. Often, becoming a large ranch owner himself.

Having escaped the effete city culture and its social strictures, the mestizos established an individualistic, entrepreneurial spirit in the north. The rugged individual.

There are still cattle ranches up north. And vacaros. But the northern states have turned into the capital-generating region of Mexico.

The Mexican states that bordered the United States have a far different culture than Mexicans in the south. It is wealthier. More entrepreneurial. Far more individualistic. Baseball, not soccer, is the most popular sport. And it is blissfully far from Mexico City.

If you look on the internet, you can find a very interesting map of Mexico. It shows the average earnings for Mexicans in each state. Dark green being the highest. A very light green the lowest.

Mexico looks like a dimmer switch. Dark across the top getting dimmer and dimmer with the states in the south.


That is a familiar pattern in a lot of countries. And it reminds me almost exactly of Italy. The same north-south division in income. With the north outstripping the south.

In Italy, that division has fed a political movement known as the Northern League that would like to make northern Italy free of the south.

Nothing like that has happened in the Mexican north. There is no current political movement to seek independence.

But that has not always been true. After Texas gained its independence from Mexico, three other northern states (Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas – and a portion of Chihuahua) formed the Republic of the Rio Grande in 1840 and declared their independence from Mexico. Within 11 months, the Mexican army returned the rebels to the mother country.

The north was also the portion of Mexico that sparked an d supported the Mexican revolution.

If I were a betting man, I would bet the north will remain within Mexico. Prosperous areas seldom make good revolutionary hotbeds.

But one factor could change that. A large portion of northern Mexican wealth has been created with the expansion of trade jobs through NAFTA. NAFTA was never as evil as its detractors predicted. And it was not as beneficial for all three signatories as the proponents promised. For example, Chiapas has undoubtedly suffered a net loss in its economy and certainly in its social structure.

Most of northern Mexico has prospered because of the accord. But the treaty is currently being renegotiated. That is good. In some areas, it was hopelessly out of date.

But, if the resulting revisions restrict what has become a beneficial trade relationship between Mexico, the United States, and Canada, its primary hit will be northern Mexico. If that occurs, the odds of the north digging into its independence bag will increase.

So, where does that leave Mexico? Pretty good when it comes to fracturing.

Let’s take our three areas of Mexico and compare them against separatist groups in the headlines. I think we can agree that the chances of separation stack up like this – from most likely to least likely:

1. Catalonia
2. Scotland
3. Quebec


If I had to use the three of those as a template for Mexico, I would put Chiapas between Scotland and Quebec. Yucatan equal with Quebec. And the north of Mexico less likely than Quebec to become independent.

For me, this is what is far more important, though. Since the conquest, social and political forces in Mexico have pushed a lot of groups to the edge of society. The revolution pulled 80% of the population back into the definition of who is a Mexican by defining it in the blood of Mestizos.

In Chiapas. In Yucatan. In the north. 20% of the population is once again excluded by blood.

The constitution of 1917 contains some very flowery words about protecting the rights of the tribes. There are even statutes that purport to ensure Indians are treated equally. And they are before the law.

Let me tell you one last story. On one of Dan Patman’s tours – this one to Copper Canyon – we stayed overnight high in the mountains. As we passed through a village, there was a long line of Indians receiving food boxes from a government truck. It looked like the type of thing a caring government should do.

But there was far more to the story. They were Tarahumara. The descendants of the Indians who had been driven deep in the mountains by the Spanish.

That area of Mexico was in its seventh year of drought. The Tarahumara live by subsistence farming. What they grow that year is their food. For seven years they had been starving. The Mexican government allowed its own citizens to be starved out of the hills before offering assistance.

The example is not extreme. It is one reason the tribes in Chiapas have risen in revolt and seized control of their local government.

That is the real story of why the revolution is not complete.

Maybe President Juarez was correct. The tribes will only be part of Mexico when they assimilate into the mestizo culture. That is not for me to answer.

Where does that leave us who are visitors to Mexico? We do not have the power to change the integration issue here. Nor should we.

But we all come into contact daily with people whose tribal links are still strong. Most of the vendors around town and on the beach are full-blooded tribe members. Most of them have assimilated to one degree -- or they would not be selling goods to us.

What we can do is present a far kinder attitude than I often witness. I have watched northerners negotiate aggressively over 5 or 10 pesos, and having saved the equivalent of pocket chain, they act as if they had just got a good deal on the Trump Tower. For us, it is chump change. For them, it is food for their families.

But, worse, are the people who think that negotiating means insulting the product or the seller. I literally cringe when I hear northerners say: "12 pesos for that piece of junk?" or "You have obviously been out in the sun too long." And I have heard both come out of visitors' mouths.

For a people who often feel marginalized themselves, those actions are very hurtful. For about a year, I lived next door to an Indian vendor couple, Nicanor and Maria, and their three children, Rodrigo, Nicolas, and Alondra. My conversations with them made me realize how often I had probably run across open nerves without realizing it.

So, here are my suggestions. Take them as you will.

1. When a vendor approaches you, do not cut them off with a curt: "No, gracias." Do as most Mexicans do. Look at the merchandise. Pick it up. Discuss how nice it looks with the vendor. And, then, if you are not interested, say: "Gracias. Pero no hoy."

2. If you see something that interests you, most items sold on the beach are very inexpensive. If I want it, I pay the price that is asked. If that is too expensive for you, you could ask: "Es que su mejor precio?" Is that your best price? The vendor will be very fair in answering the question. If that is too expensive for you, refer to step 1.

3. Never insult a vendor or her product. That seems so obvious, I am a bit embarrassed by making the suggestion. But I am far more embarrassed when I hear northerners do it. Don't.

Mexico's history has not been kind to the tribe members we encounter daily. We cannot fix that history. But we can fix ourselves. Making the day a bit kinder and gentler for even one vendor may be the best we can do.

But that is a lot.





Sunday, January 14, 2018

clowning with age

Happy birthday to me.

This was not going to be an essay about me. Not that I am above doing such a thing. Most of the words that appear here exist exclusively in my head.

But, this essay should not be about me because I have a far more important announcement. The rest of my family is here.

My mom (Marilyn), brother (Darrel), and sister-in-law (Christy) arrived on Saturday afternoon to stay an indeterminate number of months. However many it is, it will not be long enough.

The fact that today is my birthday made their arrival even better. Or, is it the other way around? Whichever, I am glad they are here.

To celebrate this rather oddly-numbered birthday, we went to one of my favorite places in Barra de Navidad -- El Manglito. It has a great view of our lagoon. And good food. I indulged in a favorite. Chicken molcajete.

And, like all good meals, this ended with a round of "Happy Birthday" played by the band, and a cake with a Roman candle served by a clown. What could be more fun than that?

Our dinner put me in high spirits. Well, high enough to divert me from writing an essay that I think about how our days are numbered each week when I fill my medication dispenser. That would be an essay for an old man.

But this will be my last outing for a few days. I volunteered to participate in the cultural awareness classes sponsored by our church in Villa Obregon. Two years ago, I talked about the creation of the Mestizo myth that offered Mexico an opportunity to create a unifying national identity. This Thursday (the 18th), I will update that lecture with some of the issues that were left undone in forging a Mexican national identity.

If you are interested in attending, it will be at 5 PM at the Costalegre Community Church in Villa Obregon. I look forward to seeing you.

Until then, the Mexpatriate theater will be dark.  


Thursday, January 11, 2018

going green can be a dirty business


China has just made it more difficult for greenies who enjoy being smug about their ever-smaller carbon footprint.

One of the stars in the recycling crown has just taken a hit. China has decided that it is tired of sorting through other people's garbage like a rabid raccoon.

For years, China was one of the world's major recyclers. Of the garbage that was exported from one country to another, China took half of the load.

It was a good deal for a country short on resources (especially, petroleum). By recycling plastics and electronics, China was able to build its economy. Now, that it is the second wealthiest country in the world, it has decided to let the rest of the world keep its own garbage.

On 1 January, China banned the export of two dozen types of waste. The reason is simple. If China is to show any advancement in cleaning up its deplorable environment, it needs to get rid of pollution-causing sources.

I was surprised to find out that recycling is an incredibly dirty business. I knew the manufacture of electronics created huge problems. And I should have realized that recycling electronics would be just as polluting. Lead poisoning in particular.

It turns out that recycling plastics creates massive pollution problems, as well. As a result, China has banned all consumer plastic waste from entering the country. For some countries this will be a major problem. Britain ships 80% of its waste plastic to China.

Now, what does this have to do with Mexico?

Our little corner of the country has several plastic collectors. The one at the top of this essay is just a few hundred feet from my house. I take all of my bottles and plastic products there, rather than tossing them in the garbage to go to the dump.

During the recession, there was a field on the drive to the county seat that was piled Himalaya high with mounds of plastic bottles. I stopped to talk with a guy working there. He said most of the bottles went to Manzanillo to  be shipped to China for recycling. But China's economy had slowed enough that it was no longer buying.

Yesterday I asked our local collector if his bottles usually went to China. He did not know. And he had not heard that China had banned consumer plastics. He sold his plastics to a man who picked them up from his lot.

If there is money in recycling the plastic, some country, with less money than China, will start stoking up the furnaces. But probably not Mexico. It is on the verge of becoming an upper middle income economy with a large interest in minimizing pollution. Recycling plastic does not fit in that picture.

As for me, I may start minimizing my use of plastics -- though that is rather difficult when most food products here come in plastic instead of glass. A choice I have lauded when I drop the plastic container of mayonnaise that bounces off the ceramic tile rather than shattering like a Syrian grenade.

But, my smug level of recycling plastic has just been taken down a notch.


Monday, January 08, 2018

hoping for change


My village has a change problem.

Not that the village is opposed to change. Quite the contrary. The villages around our bay live off of tourist pesos. And the residents are constantly looking for new ways to entertain tourists while receiving pesos in exchange.

It is the pesos that is the problem.

Most of the residents and visitors rely on access to money through two Banamex ATMs. One in Barra de Navidad. The other in San Patricio. During high tourist visits, long lines form at each of the ATMs -- when they are working.

And what comes out? If I request $6,000 (Mx), the machine gives me two $100 notes, four $200 notes, and ten $500 notes. The bank's explanation is that the reliance on $500 notes is to cut down on the number of times the machines need to be refilled during high usage periods.

It is the $500 notes that cause the problem in our economy. Very few purchases add up to $500. That leaves customers in the position of handing a large note to the proprietor of a small shop. And the customer (often a northern tourist) cannot understand why the shop has no change. The answer to that is because the previous customer paid with a $500 note and then wandered off with all of the shopkeeper's change.

I was having lunch today at a local restaurant where the staff knows me. One group of northerners at a table next to mine paid for their bill with a $500 note. The restaurant did not have enough change. So, the waiter asked me to change it.

A few minutes later, the same waiter stopped at my table holding a portrait of Miguel Hidalgo. Another group of northerners were paying for their meal with a large note -- this time, a $1,000 note. Same routine. I changed it.

I was doubly surprised by the $1,000 note. First, that it existed in our little town. It is only the second one I have seen here in the nine years I have lived on the bay. (They are as common as tortillas in places like San Miguel de Allende. But not here.) Second, that anyone could have imagined that a little restaurant would have change for a bill that size.

Because I live here, I do not bother carrying around $500 notes. They are a nuisance to everyone. And are almost as useless as currency as carrying around Confederate script. Granny Clampett does not live here.

As soon as I get my handful of $500 notes from the ATM, I immediately get in line at the bank and convert all of them into $100 or $200 notes. It takes a little extra time, but it also keeps me from over-complicating other people's lives. People who are usually eking out a living as entrepreneurs.

Admittedly, my solution has its rough spots, as well. Three times last month, I went to the bank to get change and I was told the tellers had none. Sure enough. The teller opened his drawer. It was filled with nothing but $500 notes -- just like the ATM.

So, that is my suggestion. Be a good neighbor and get your change at the source. It takes a little more time, but you will be seen as a courteous customer rather than someone draining a shopkeeper's meager change reserves.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

moving to mexico -- driver's license

I have been driving in Mexico for almost a decade -- without a Mexican driver's license.

That is not as bad as it sounds.

I really do not need one. I have a valid driver's license from Nevada, and it is all I need to maintain my car insurance and drive legally here.

I have been teaching a young Mexican to drive. He is at the point where he needs to get a license, and I thought I would get one, as well. So, we both headed off to the county seat on the same day I dealt with other financial matters (moving to mexico -- caesar's cut).

My friend had been told that we needed to schedule an appointment online. That was not true -- unless we were getting our licenses in Guadalajara. We weren't.

I knew we would need proof or residence and I would need my passport and visa. But, as is often the case when seeking something from the government, there was more.

When we stopped at the Transito office, the police officer in charge rummaged through a stack of papers and gave us the appropriate list of documents required to get a license. Mexican citizens, not surprisingly, have to provide different documents than do expatriates.

Here is what I need to take back to the office next week to support my request for a driver's license. The original and a copy of:

1. My permanent resident card.

2. A certification of my CURP number -- CURP is a unique identification number for all Mexican citizens and residents of Mexico. I got it online at: https://www.gob.mx/tramites/ficha/consulta-e-impresion-de-la-curp/SEGOB175

3. My passport.

4. Proof of residence -- a bill containing my name and address. I will use my electric bill. That is the most common form used by my neighbors.

5. A medical form showing my blood type. The officer sent me across the street for a medical consultation. 50 pesos after being weighed and measured, I walked out with my form.

Now, all I need to do is return to Cihuatlán next week with my car. I assume there is a physical driving examination based on that requirement. And I think there is also a written examination in Spanish. I will find out.

It all seems quite simple. To this point, it certainly has been far easier than dealing with departments of motor vehicles in Oregon, Texas, Colorado, California, Nevada, and Great Britain.

If all goes as planned, I will pay my $558 (Mx) next week and be just a little bit more part of the community in which I live. 

Thursday, January 04, 2018

moving to mexico -- caesar's cut


Happy Schadenfreude Month.

January is the time of the year when I mine my wallet for pesos and feel smug that I am not making the same governmental payments in The States.

I started this morning by stopping by the local government office to pay my water, sewer, and garbage bill for the full year. That is how we do it here. All the services in one lump sum paid at one time.

This is government, so, there was a cost increase. 6%. Just about the same as last year. But the cost is worth it. Our garbage service arrives almost daily. Without it, we would be awash in the detritus of modern life.

Our area has massive problems with the sewer infrastructure. But, other than the occasional flow in the streets, those problems do not manifest themselves in ways that would cause people to be upset enough to fix them. For me, I flush the toilet and something keeps everything from backing up into my library.

As for the water, even though I pay for it, I know nothing about the service. My house is not connected to the system. I rely on a well.

Even with the 6% increase, I get all of that for $1,655 (Mx). For those of you who need a comparison, that is about $86 (US).(Mx) That was about my monthly bill for water in Salem.

But the deals kept rolling in. I drove over to the county seat to pay renew my car registration and to pay my property tax.

Most of my driving career was in Oregon -- a state that had the enviable reputation of being one of the least expensive places to register a vehicle. Those days are long gone. A series of governors and single-party legislatures have hiked the fee. But it is still less than most other states.

In Mexico,
Even with a 6% increase over last year, I paid $510 (Mx) for 2018. That is about $26 (US). Less than Oregon. And I will bet that for most of you that would be a bargain -- especially for those of you who pay your governments extra fees related to cars.

With my new decal attached, I drove over to city hall to pay my property taxes. And I am willing to bet donuts to dollars (which may be an even bet in The States these days) that my property taxes here are lower than yours.

I live in a 4,000 square foot house with four bedrooms, six bathrooms, and a pool. I have no idea what the house would be assessed in value in your neighborhood.

But, for me, my total property taxes for 2018 are $1,958 (Mx). There are no additional assessments. That is about $101 (US). Not per month. That's for the full year.

Now, all of you who have been waiting to serve me up your small slice of schadenfreude, start dishing it up on this cold plate.

Because I am a foreigner living in the coastal forbidden zone (Yes. Yes. I know it is officially called the restricted zone, but I have a certain preference for the Trekkie-esque appellation.), I cannot hold free title to my property. A bank holds it in trust for me. Bancomer, to be exact.

Every year, the bank sends me an email (usually, ten months prior to the payment date) reminding me that my annual payment is due. The tone is distant and formal. But it does not contain the usual "we know where you live" subtext so infamous in the communications from northern banks.

For the privilege of the legal fiction that a foreigner does not own the house, I pay the bank $522 (US) each year. And what the bank does for that amount of money, I do not know. I do know the banks had enough clout a couple of years ago to spike legislation that would have repealed the restriction on foreign ownership of real property.

Since I had the money in a non-interest dollar account, I decided to pay the fee early while I was in Cihuatlán. It is now paid through September 2019.

All in all, it was a good day. I owe nothing more in 2018 for my water, sewer, garbage, car registration, and property taxes. All for the cost of dining out for one week.

Several of my blogger pals have commented the primary reason they moved to Mexico was its relatively reasonable cost of living. That was not why I moved here. And I am not certain it would rank very high on my list.

But I am certainly pleased to be a recipient of the bounty. Even with that bank trust fee.


Wednesday, January 03, 2018

touring costalegre -- grab bag


OK. So we have taken Robin to the mountains. To the beach. Out to sea. And to the salt pits.

East, north, west, and south. What else can there be to do when a visitor comes to town?

Well, there is Barra de Navidad itself. And, even though a wag once said (with some justification) that "the place looks like what Six Flags would build as a Mexican village," there are activities to be had in town.

I like to take guests across the lagoon to the town's major resort hotel -- Grand Bay. Or whatever name they are using this week.

There is nothing particularly outstanding about the place. Rooms that would not be out of place in a Holiday Inn. Pools that are -- well, pools. And some rather pedestrian food. (I make that last comment with only one reservation. I had the best breakfast I have ever eaten on the veranda three years ago. The experience has not been replicated.)

What the Grand Bay has is a view. Lots of them. Of the lagoon. Of Barra. Of the full circumference of Navidad Bay.




When walking the streets of Barra, it is easy to miss how the hodgepodge of buildings add up to a coherent whole. But it does. Order out of chaos.

The nice thing about Barra is that you never know what you might encounter. One day, it is boxing between pre-teens in the plaza. The next, it is nativity on parade. (Admittedly, the type of activity that may be a bit cloying unless you have DNA in the game.)




And then there is food. Probably, Robin's most memorable meal was the chicken molcajete at El Manglito on the lagoon. If only because of its exotic provenance. I felt the same way with my first -- in Mazatlan.




I have lived in this area nine years now. When I first arrived, I was told I had to go to the bar on the top of the Alondro Hotel to see the sun set over Navidad Bay. But I never went.

For two reasons. One, it was a bar. Two, because people said I had to.

Robin had been there with my sister-in-law and brother when they were all here last January. So, I swallowed nearly a decade of high dudgeon, and went.

Of course, I had a good time. The views of the town complement the view from the Grand Bay.




But, the real reason for going is to see the sunset. Even though we went there most of the nights he was here, what we saw mostly were overcast skies.

However, we were rewarded on a couple of nights with the free show that makes Barra a place to remember.




In truth, the bar is not a very good place to enjoy the sunset. There are too many buildings in the way. The malecon offers non-obstructed views, and has been my choice for sunset views for years.

So, there you have it. A few activities to divert your guests while they are here. Or, they could do as my friend Leo did: spend their time floating in the pool while reading whatever it is they like to read.

And that is the real answer. Instead of telling people what they will enjoy, let them find whatever fits their needs.

There are plenty of choices.