Goodbye to all that

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(Apareció en Eva Hoffman (ed.) The Inner Lives of Cultures, Londres: Counterpoint, 2011)  Inner lives

The idea of a Mexican culture

I find extremely difficult to say anything meaningful about Mexican culture –either in the traditional sense of a national culture as spiritual way of life (attitude, identity, national character), or in the more complex sociological sense of culture as a structure of meanings tied to a system of social relations. Nowadays, if one listens carefully, almost everything that is said about Mexico and the Mexicans sounds shallow, fake, sham.

It is not Mexico that is at stake, but the idea of Mexico: not the nation itself, whether or not it exists and how, but the nation as symbol, meaningful in everyday life. And not only because of the dazzling regional diversity that has for long nurtured the idea of the “Many Mexicos”; not only because of the outrageous inequality that makes Mexico one of the most unequal societies on earth –gathering several of the richest men on the planet and nearly forty million people living under the poverty line. There is almost nothing new there –maybe some sharpened regional differences, a steeper concentration of income in the past twenty years. The real change lies elsewhere. It is the idea of the nation in itself, the image of the country as such and all its emotional connotations that seem to have lost weight and strength. The idea of Mexico, for the Mexicans, has lost its grip.

One easy way to grasp this loss of meaning is to look at the projects for the bicentennial anniversary of national independence that will take place next year. There will be memorial coins and stamps, to be sure, dozens of useless history books, parades and plenty of fireworks on September 16th. But there is not one single idea, shared and meaningful to everyone to signify these two hundred years of independent life.

We are just coming out of a century of nationalism –and therein lies part of the problem. Starting in the 1920s and up to the late 1980s, the public sphere was dominated by a powerful, pervasive, and ubiquitous national idea: Mexico and Mexican identity as foundation, framework, and project that informed almost any field of personal experience, from consumption to etiquette, from entertainment to corruption. It was tied to the ideological project of the Mexican Revolution, to the political structure of the revolutionary regime, and to the economic model derived from it, with all its turnabouts and inconsistencies. To be sure, historically Mexican nationalism was defined through a distant and mediated opposition to Spain and a more immediate opposition to the United States. And yet, that was not the core of “Mexican identity,” which indeed had more to do with an idea of a future society. That is what we have lost a sense of Mexico.

 

The Fate of Nationalism

The manifold abuses of the ruling party for over 70 years undoubtedly explain much of the current discredit of Mexican nationalism, since it was the main alibi of the many “idiosyncrasies” of the revolutionary regime. There is nothing new in that, nothing peculiarly Mexican. The national identity and the nationalist project were the basics of Mexico’s “Third Way” in politics, economy or human rights regime. There was no possibility of tuning our institutional arrangements according to any international standard. To suggest something like that would have almost amounted to high treason, since it would have meant letting the country to be dragged by American (or Soviet) imperialism.

As time went by and the revolutionary enthusiasm withered, the Mexican Way gradually lost its original appeal. Little by little, the popular language set a new meaning to expressing nationalist clichés. To do anything according to the Mexican Way came to mean to do it in an irregular, dirty or dubious way. An arranged election, a corrupt deal or a job poorly done was the Mexican way (“a la Mexicana”). As compared to an indeterminate “international way” –supposedly clean, efficient, and modern.

The decay and final dissolution of the revolutionary regime was a long, protracted process that took more than twenty years. It implied the dismantling of many public enterprises and protectionist legislation, the gradual acceptance of multi-party elections within a new, competitive electoral framework, and the loosening of political networks linked to the ruling party. In the long run it meant the end of the nationalist economy and the nationalist Third Way in politics, and carried with it not only the crisis of nationalism but of the very idea of a Mexican nation as a meaningful identity in everyday life.

This implied not only the watering down of the rhetoric initiated in the early 1980s, but also the stripping down of the legal, economic, and political mechanisms of the Old Regime; mechanisms that for decades had sustained the hegemony of the ruling class and the plausibility of the Mexican imagined community.

To be sure, the language of nationalism persists in the Mexican public sphere up to the present. In fact, it can be argued that it has acquired a new impetus as a consequence of the globalization process under way. But its meaning has been substantially altered. As the language to express the opposition to globalization, it is increasingly understood as a class-language. At the same time, and due to the same process, a new anti-nationalist and even anti-Mexican discourse has gained strength in the public sphere. It is a reaction against the economic and political ways of the Old Regime, against its rhetoric and institutional arrangements, but it bears quite plain and clear classist undertones: the reasons for our underdevelopment are the Mexicans (which means, of course, low-class, peasant, unionized Mexicans, not fully integrated into the global economy –and dependent upon state protection).

Mexican identity, thus, day by day appears more as the name of a cleavage within Mexican society –not anymore as hallmark of our shared values, expectations, and commitments. The idea of Mexico is increasingly a cultural battleground for a belligerent “Mexicanism” that clings to the more obvious and stereotypical traits of Mexican identity, and a disdainful, lofty cosmopolitanism –equally Mexican both, equally insecure.

In between lays the new “Indigenous” militancy: basically an offspring of the EZLN rebellion and its aftermath. It is not the product of an indigenous intelligentsia, but of a handful of anthropologists and philosophers from Mexico City, cherished and propagated by international –mainly European NGOs. In a certain sense it is absolutely modern and absolutely cosmopolitan in a world defined by multiculturalism; at the same time, however, for most of the Mexican public it is hard to distinguish it from the classic Revolutionary Nationalism –that incorporated the indigenous past as a fundamental trait of Mexican character and identity (confusion made deeper by the fact that in the public appearances of the EZLN leaders there was always a much visible Mexican flag).

It must be clear by now, but maybe it is not altogether futile to stress it, that this change is not only a superficial, rhetorical phenomenon, for it has its correlates in everyday life –in the material culture, in ways of production and modes of consumption. In practice, it is increasingly harder to locate and identify a national culture as such, unique and distinctive. Mexican, like any other culture is ostensibly hybrid, more than ever transnational, global, and fragmented: it can be labeled “Mexican” in a traditional sense only in details, oddities, and remainders, and only with a degree of irony (and maybe a tinge of nostalgia or disgust).

 

Which way to the border?

There is nothing mysterious or surprising in all of this. Mexico is now facing the consequences of a “modernization” process brought by the revolutionary regime, propelled to a significant extent by the nationalist rhetoric that has been outdated by its own success –to be fair, by its various successes and failures. Just to name a few of these: a sweeping industrialization crippled by a small national market at first and crucially dependent on the American market afterwards; a small but considerable middle class, unquiet, insecure of its own status in a still hierarchical society, and fundamentally detached from the revolutionary clichés of the Old Regime; a massive urbanization process, still under way after fifty years, that has altered habits, kinship networks and ways of life without providing a new, stable environment in cities frequently lacking basic urban facilities.

All along the modernization process, the United States was simultaneously model and antagonist –the cipher of a tacit aspiration and a very explicit threat used to bolster nationalist fears and alibis. They had riches, science and technology; they were powerful and affluent –but also decadent, lacking family values, sense of tradition or any real culture. And, above anything else, they were greedy and dangerously close. Thus the popular wisdom, seasoned with the official discourse, rephrased in many ways the saying attributed to Dictator Porfirio Díaz: “Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States!” A saying, by the way, that has probably been reversed in the past decades on the other side: “Poor US! So far from God, so close to Mexico!”

That symbolic opposition to the United States was to a large extent the template for the assumed Mexican character. Mexicans were supposed to be brave up to temerity, quixotic, selfless, and solidary, as opposed to the selfish, individualistic, and pragmatic Americans; Mexicans were supposed to be nostalgic, melancholic, deeply wounded by history, and always carrying the weight of centuries, as opposed to the Americans, oblivious of their past; Mexicans were supposed to be sentimental, witty, clever and secretly resentful, while the Americans were hard-headed, self-confident, practical people. Needless to say, all those attributes were at the very least overstatements filtered through the class structure of Mexican society. They were, nevertheless, widely shared –a sort of chimerical national character, for they provided a self-image, more or less flattering.

(Aside, by the way: during most of the Nineteenth Century Catholicism was also conceived as one of the basic traits of national identity –in opposition to the Protestantism of the United States. Nevertheless, the separation of Church and State was firmly established after the restoration of the liberal Republic in 1867 and has not been seriously challenged ever since; religion had no place whatsoever in the rhetoric of the revolutionary regime and has had only a minor and ambiguous role in popular nationalism –mainly as a devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe. To be more precise: it is not devotion that matters, not even faith or religious practice, but the recognition of the image of Guadalupe as a shared symbol –an iconic token of “Mexicanness”).

From the sixties onwards the ambivalent and uncomfortable relationship with the United States crystallized in the notion of “periphery.” It gained currency in the public sphere for several reasons: among them, because the idea of being a peripheral nation offered a clear and secure explanation of our dilemmas. It made clear who was to be blamed for our underdevelopment but it also offered the image of certain remoteness: underdevelopment was in a sense a measure of our distance with regard to the center. Not anymore.

In the beginning of the new century the United States –the image, the model, the economic and political reality of the country—cut across Mexican society like never before, rendering distance (and distinction) more problematic than ever. Whether we like it or not, our economies are entangled together, as are our financial systems and our demographic flows: be it in production or consumption, labor markets or crime, the asymmetries are as evident as the linkages. As if we were living on an extended, indefinable borderland. And thus the physical fact of the border –the very line of the border acquires an overwhelming importance for both countries; over-patrolled, heavily guarded, always on the spotlight, it has become one of the most violent zones of the world.

Some numbers. Between 10 and 15 per cent of the Mexican population now lives in the United States. Other 15 per cent has lived for months or years in the United States. And maybe up to a 20 per cent of the population now living in Mexican territory depend to a certain measure of revenues from their relatives on the other side of the border. A non-negligible part of menial jobs, agricultural work and personal services, from nursing for old people to gardening and child care in the United States depend on Mexican cheap, illegal work force. Mexican and American authorities and bureaucracies ignore this at their own risk: everyday life, on both sides of the border, has this as one basic, unavoidable –even welcome fact.

Oddly enough, much of what remains of ancient Mexican nationalism is much more alive “on the other side”. Militant, belligerent Mexicanism is more frequent among emigrants living in the United States –it is slightly different, anyhow: the National Holliday in Mexico is September 16th that marks the beginning of the Independence War, whereas the National Holliday for Mexicans living in the United States is May 5th, that is the date of the battle of Puebla, where the Mexican Army defeated the French in 1862. That is: to be Mexican, a Mexican nationalist, even belligerent Mexican nationalist means slightly different things on either side of the border.

North America is a massive economic and demographic fact that, nevertheless, is hard to conceive as a unit, because it is grounded on the asymmetries between the United States and Mexico. It is the border that creates the huge “illegal”, cheap labor force that in part sustains both our economies. It is the looser Mexican regulation –on environmental or health issues, on taxes and fiscal control—that allows for the American investment in Mexico. In other words: North America has been erected not in spite of the border but because of it, not owing to what we have in common but to what keeps us apart, unequal and different.

 

The other side

The emergence of North America has meant a de-centering of the Mexican elites. In politics, economy, science, art, the Mexican elites are now integrated as periphery to a system that has its center in the United States. The standards are set elsewhere, be it for academic performance, social success or political acceptability. And this has generated a peculiar sense of insecurity that appears as a mimetic desire: class distinctions are, as always, cultural distinctions –what is new is that today Mexico and Mexican ways appear clearly in one pole, as signs of backwardness (in a class struggle that spins around the idea of Modernity).

There is scarcely anything altogether new in this tension between (ever changing) Modernity and (so called) Tradition, not even in its guise as a tension between a Mexican and an American way. We might even go as far as saying that our blatant “Mexicanness” has been our path to (an obviously American) Modernity and it has always exhibited a characteristic class hallmark. Nevertheless, the de-centering of the elites and the decay of the post-revolutionary regime have widened the gap between the National Public Sphere and the common life of most people—in everyday politics, for example, there is an almost unbridgeable breach between local, empirical, pragmatic, old-style political knowledge and practice, and the abstract, up-to-date, cosmopolitan and technocratic knowledge of the elites. And this, obviously enough, results in a growing discredit of national politics –including special-interest groups of environmentalists, human rights activists and the like.

The fate of “culture” in the narrow sense of the term can be easily understood. During the best part of the twentieth century the State was the single most important sponsor of arts and literature: for better or worse, State institutions cared for music, painting, sculpture, dance, theater and literature –it promoted production, protected the artists and tried to create a massive public for it all, as a part of the Revolutionary program. All truth being said, some of the results were remarkable in almost every field. Nowadays, withered the old ideals and standards, the very idea of a National Culture, most of those cultural institutions (with a few outstanding exceptions) are adrift and mostly looking for approval –for standards, somewhere else. The current craze for Frida Kahlo’s paintings is a fitting example: it is basically a response to a European and American fad. In literature, just to mention another example, the universal fame of Carlos Fuentes as true representative of Mexican spirit and élan and colorful passion is entirely for international consumption –for his novels are of little or no consequence for the Mexican public at the beginning of the new century.

Thus goes our elite’s cultural insecurity. As a remainder or at least a token of their (lost) centrality they need at least some Mexican icons –but only the international recognition makes them truly Mexican. Another, minor inconsequence: while aggressively pushing forwards a Modernization process that would at last let us get rid of our underdeveloped/Mexican condition, our elites are also the most vocal in the defense of traditional arts and crafts, folklore, etcetera, supposedly at risk of loosing authenticity –while the popular classes have no real problem in mixing Halloween with the Day of the Dead, an orange plastic pumpkin with a handful of cempasuchitl flowers, a Mexican flag and maybe a rap rhythm.

The main issue, I will try to restate it again, is the idea of Mexico. To state it bluntly: on the institutional level “Mexico” is a battlefield of sorts, opposing a liberalizing cosmopolitan elite and the (strong and resilient) remnants of the revolutionary culture; on the cultural level (again, in the old-fashioned narrow sense of the term) it can be seen the other way round, with the elites for the defense of an authentic (picturesque, colorful) artistic idea of the country –of what qualifies as good taste, and the majority of the people much more at ease with a crossbred variety. For some, being Modern and (truly) Mexican is a way of not becoming just second-class Americans, whereas for the rest, the assimilation of patterns of work and consumption of the United States is a way out of their condition as second-class Mexicans.

If I am allowed to end up on an even more personal note, I would say that Mexico, like any other nation, is on the making. I would not worry very much about the strength and authenticity of its culture or its fate as a nation. I find reasons for concern, anyhow, in the traits of the class struggle –with no credible labor unions, political parties—and mainly in the lack of political, ideological and cultural resources of the elites to figure out new ways to integrate this incredibly complex mosaic that has always been Mexico.