A well-known author of interesting books on many subjects visited Oaxaca about the same time I did and published his Journal of his time there, which was favorably reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement: “Mexico past and present emerges from these bursts of association and digression with only a few pages of hard history needed. Luís, an Oaxacan who has joined the party, explains that the legacy of colonialism is to blame for the extremes of wealth and poverty which unsettle all but the most blinkered visitor to the country. The hopeless squalor which so many Mexicans appear to accept as their lot has resulted from a loss of self-respect, a condition perpetuated by today’s corrupt officials who have assumed the role of the conquistadors.”
How fortunate that Luís happened by to supply some of that helpful hard history. This is probably the point at which I ought quote from Evelyn Waugh’s introduction to his book on Mexico, Robbery Under Law, recently re-issued under the less-inflammatory title Mexico: An Object Lesson:
“Let me, then, warn the reader that I was a Conservative when I went to Mexico and that everything I saw there strengthened my opinions.”
Waugh’s observation was that Mexico’s backwardness was a post-Independence phenomenon. Before Independence, Mexico was culturally and economically a leading nation of the hemisphere and, since that time, it had experimented always with the most modern political arrangements, though always of the continental-left variety, and it is these political experiments -- not some natural, indigenous backwardness or historical bad luck -- which had brought Mexico down to its present low estate. Hence, the Mexican “object lesson”.
But whether Waugh is right or not about Mexico, why does the United States never get to plead its legacy of colonialism, particularly as one of its most intractable problems is clearly traceable to colonialism: the importation of African slaves and the settling of a slave economy on a number of the original colonies, such that their union after Independence required the toleration of the institution even by those who found it abhorrent?
On a happier matter, in an installment of “Nova,” archæologists excavate cliff tombs in Chiapas and find evidence of infant sacrifice to Tlaloc, the rain god. The practice was known from historical records. The priest would buy a child to sacrifice from his parents, and if the child cried it was a good sign. We are reminded that we have to understand the Indians’ practices as they saw them, and cut them more slack than we would Thomas Jefferson.
And while we are still on Chiapas, a bit of Progressive Tourism that I caught on CBC. The Usual Suspects, young and earnest and politically correct, visit the Zapatistas in the forest of Chiapas. As they waited for permission to meet with the comandantes they were permitted to visit the Zapatista gift shop. When I was in Chiapas a few years before them, even the shops in town were selling Subcomandante Marcos dolls with their little black ski masks and rifles, as well as Marcos key chains and postcards of rifle-wielding Indians in ski masks. I can only imagine what a line of merchandise is now available.
The Indians were playing their usual mind games, though their young visitors were so innocent and earnest it seemed almost unfair. The young people anguished over everything; they feared that the Indians might be offended and refuse the money they had collected back home in Canada, but at length the Indians set them at ease on this point and gave them receipts in triplicate. A young woman in the group of possibly Maoist leanings recommended that they engage in constant self-criticism of their own motives.
I don't think Mexico is any more failed now than it has ever been, though there have been times when that wasn’t saying much. When I was in Oaxaca in the late ‘Nineties there was a demonstration every day at noon in the square in front of the city offices. Such stability as the country had seemed to come either from corruption so extensive and institutionalized that almost everyone got -- or thought they were getting -- something, or the profound, conservative inertia of the Indians who thought any day you weren't murdered was a good day. Even when the Indians are bestirred to get guns things don't go very far, as the revolt in Chiapas has been simmering for as long as anyone can remember and a knowledgeable fellow in Oaxaca told me this was simply the latest manifestation of the Cristeros uprising of the 1920s. The Caste War, the Indian revolt in the Yucatán, kept going from 1847 to 1901. Maybe this time it is worse, but I have been warned about applying gringo logic to these things.