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A Literary Love Affair

Books

Aztec

By Gary Jennings

Fantasy and fiction more convincing than truth.

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Order this book: Aztec

A classic big, trashy novel with lots of popular history, horrifying sadism and unbelievably hot sex, Aztec is fun to read but should not be taken very seriously. A lot of it seems to be mere conjecture based on fragments of fact.

On the whole, however, it does ring surprisingly true, and some scenes manage to humanize the more sordid aspects of Aztec life by provoking real emotions of shocking intensity.

In this sense, the book may be more useful and no more inaccurate than many academic histories -- which are rarely much more than conjecture themselves. Jennings does cover the Maya in some sections, but the book is about Mexico, not the Yucatan.

Distant Neighbors

By Alan Riding

Using the truth in order to deceive

This superficially comprehensive book reflects a typically condescending Eastern Establishment view of modern Mexico. The historical summary appears to be fairly accurate, but the contemporary observations are often factually incorrect or grotesquely misinterpreted.

Isolated Position

Riding was The New York Times' Mexico City correspondent when he wrote Distant Neighbors. Because of his isolated position he seems to have missed the texture of Mexico. He comments that the honorific term 'Don' is rarely used in Mexico. This is so ridiculous that it just makes you want to sigh in embarrassment. Hey, they even call me Don Julio. Riding doesn't know this because he probably mixed mostly with Europeanized upper-middle class administrative personnel who were almost certainly being intensively Anglo for his benefit.

Sneering at tourism

Demonstrating his grasp of modern Mexican economic history, Riding sneers at the uselessness of further foreign loans that would just be destined for more tourism projects, unaware that the $27 million World Bank credit that started Cancun has produced some $50 billion of income since 1971.

A careful reading of the book will reveal such errors of fact and interpretation throughout. A lot of the writing has a flat, boiled-over tone that suggests too much reliance on secondary and tertiary sources. There is very little evidence of direct contact at the operational level with Mexican workers and administrators.

One maliciously funny description of a political press junket, with politicians and reporters alike conforming faithfully to all stereotypes, is a telling exception. Here Riding is writing about something that he has actually seen that fits his prejudices.

Judging by the rest of the material, little else did, and he was forced to rely on what I consider to be various forms of anti-government propaganda masquerading as information.

Distant Neighbors is more useful for what it tells you about the American official attitude toward Mexico than as a portrait of the country and its people.

The book's problem is mostly a matter of tone and context—comparing Mexico City with Scarsdale, rather than the South Bronx with Cancun. You can be sure that The New York Times sent Riding to Mexico thinking that as a half-Brazilian he would understand the Latin mentality better than some other Spanish-speaking reporter.

Brazilians and other South Americans tend to see Mexico in racist terms, as their political and economic systems are mainly owned and administered by the racially European rather than indigenous classes.

Real Power

As the rest of Latin America knows very well, since the Revolution, Mexican political power has been essentially Indian and mestizo. The European Latin Americans blame the misery of the native classes on racially inherited inferiority. Mexico's accomplishments challenge this theory, the way Russia's rapid industrialization under Stalin challenged the European theory that only capitalism could produce new wealth.

It will probably be argued that Mexico is really still ruled by the racially European class. It is true that many racially and culturally European professionals occupy prominent roles, but the real power is always mestizo.

President Miguel de la Madrid and his classically beautiful blonde wife, Paloma, came to power at the pleasure of Fidel Velazquez, the aging leader of the CTM, Mexico's largest labor union.

As President and First Lady, the Madrids were far more visible and important to people such as Riding, and were indeed powerful, but they were merely transient figures. There's a new gringo-educated President every six years, but Fidel Velazquez led the CTM until his death in 1997 at the age of 97.

Ignorant Rhetoric

Riding sees none of this, and his facts, though often accurate in themselves, are turned to the service of surprisingly ignorant rhetoric, in a truly masterful demonstration of the art of telling the truth in order to deceive. This is very unfortunate, as the book is the most widely-distributed and intellectually accessible general reference in English on Mexico.

The Caste War of Yucatan

By Nelson Reed

Gripping true history of the Maya resistance

The modern history of the North American continent began here in Quintana Roo, the site of the first Spanish landing on the mainland. The story of Quintana Roo is the story of Mexico in miniature. Nelson Reed's book is by far the most authoritative history of Quintana Roo ever published in English. Although closely focused on the Maya rebellion that began in 1847 and continued well into the 20th Century, The Caste War of Yucatan presents a sensitive, accurate and comprehensive picture of the entire history of the Yucatan Peninsula, with many important insights into the history of Mexico as well. Published by the Stanford University Press and not always easily available in book stores, it is well worth special-ordering. Meticulously researched but written in a gripping narrative style that reads like a popular novel, this book is entertaining, horrifying, sad and always profoundly fascinating. Very highly recommended.

Order this book: Caste War of Yucatan

Mexico: The Struggle for Modernity

By Charles D. Cumberland

Uniquely fair scholarly appraisal of Revolution

Published in the late '60s by Oxford University Press and now out of print, Mexico: The Struggle for Modernity is unique in the fundamental fairness of its portrait of the Mexican Revolution and the accomplishments of the ruling party in transforming the country. Among English-speaking experts, Cumberland was almost alone in correctly assessing the positive trends that followed the consolidation of power in the post-revolutionary period. His description of the conditions that caused the Revolution in the first place is filled with dramatic facts and statistics rarely cited elsewhere: In 1893, 800 of every thousand live-born children died before reaching the age of one. In 1910, average national life expectancy was 30.

His brief account of the seizure of the petroleum industry in 1938 by President Lazaro Cardenas is the single best analysis of the issues I have ever read. The foreign-owned oil companies simply refused to accept the legal authority of the Mexican government to regulate their finances, production practices and labor relations, among other issues. Despite all efforts to achieve a peaceful solution, they finally gave Cardenas no alternative but to seize the industry in order to assert Mexican sovereignty. Much of Mexico's image problem has its roots in the anti-Mexican campaign undertaken by the oil companies in order to create a hostile climate of opinion in which the United States would intervene to reverse the expropriation. This might have actually taken place except for the outbreak of World War II and the more pressing priority of assuring Mexico's full cooperation against the Nazis.

Accurate data

Cumberland's review of Mexico's post-World War II progress is especially interesting for its accurate data on highly politicized programs such as the universally denounced land reforms. Many seized properties were put in the hands of ejidos (government-sponsored cooperatives based on traditional, pre-Conquest, indigenous forms of communal and collective land tenure).

Although difficult to find, this book is the single most objective short history of Mexico in English, and one of the few works that presents a view substantially different from the standard Third World cliché. It is absolutely necessary reading for anyone with a serious interest in Mexican economics.


 


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