About Secret History

Commentary on Latin America.
Mostly about Mexico - but not always.
Designed to encourage readers to learn about
the apparently "secret history" of 500 million people
spread across two continents
- but not always.
You can always count on a little snark.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Fox and The Pope

There are moments such as these when I have a hair's breadth more sympathy for the Juaristas of the 19th century.

See this craziness. No pun intended.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Revolution...part deux

Uno Mas Uno is reporting that as unemployment rises in Mexico, that the largest group affected by the trend is the 18 to 24 set. While the general unemployment index is pegged by UAM at just over 3%, the youth unemployment ranking is at 6.3%. Rising visible violence and youth unemployment are a dangerous combination. (Read the article).

Nevertheless, the entire economy contintues to expand, according to INEGI, with agriculture growing at 4.9% - a rate large enough to balance industrial losses associated with the decline of the US economy. This seems like a good sign for the popular Alberto Cardenas, current secretary of ag and a possible candidate in 2012. Most importantly, I think it bodes well (I hope) for keeping a lid on the spread of political violence as the bi/centennial approaches.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

No kidding, Tony.

Ambassador to Mexico, Anthony Garza, has made what appears to be his first intelligent move for some time. After creating a panic in Mexico last week by implying that the United States had intelligence services operating in Mexico City, Garza has rectified his blunder this week through a fairly interesting piece of honesty - the United States is responsible for the problem of drug violence in Mexico.

The picture to the side was on the cover of Uno Mas Uno today. Check out the following from Garza:

“México no sería el centro de la actividad de los cárteles o estaría experimentando este nivel de violencia, si no fuera por Estados Unidos, el mayor consumidor de drogas ilegales y el principal abastecedor de armas a los cárteles.”

Did I wake up in a "really" segment of SNL?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Call For Papers

They Say You Want a Revolution

This week my students are discussing Daniel Cosio Villegas and the idea of the Mexican Revolution being alive or dead. Some have gotten bogged down with the question as early as 1911, but others are plugging right along in 2008. I am curious about the centennial celebrations, bicentennial celebrations, and the current war with the narcotraficantes that is dominating many of the headlines these days. Is the Calderon push a new Revolution to take Mexico back from organized crime, or is it the effort of a despot looking to stifle a black market economy that provides income for otherwise impoverished sectors? I know I am less convinced of the mafiosos and their altruistic intentions, but it is hard to travel in Chihuahua and not see their hands working to the benefit of local economies on the surface.

On a happier note, I was interested to see the official government site celebrating the Revolution has items on there from Catholic participants. Take a look. The home site can be found here. I'm sure the intro video will be deconstructed in class rooms accross academia using Ilene V. O'Malley and Thomas Benjamin.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Cristeros, Mr. Calles, and Prop 8

Having left California just over a year ago, I still have a large number of ties to the area and two friends on either side of the Proposition 8 firestorm have been in frequent contact. One was for prop 8, and in the span of 36 hours he had his sign vandalized 10 times. This is what was left after he finally replaced his official sign with spray paint and plywood.

The other friend is, as I quote him now, a "fat, white, hopelessly heterosexual Jew" that lives in the mission district of San Francisco. He stands firmly against the results of the November 4 vote, and he is truly moved that many of his neighbors were heartbroken at the passage of Prop 8. As he kept in contact with me, he recounted a growing conflict among some of my former colleagues - some of whom are evangelical Christians and Mormons - and others who are firmly opposed to those beliefs. Most interesting of the emails he forwarded on to me was the reflection of a colleague who justified his statements by saying he was a "Chicano from Bakersfield" and so his observations on why rural minorities voted for Prop 8 were supposed to have extra legitimacy. The thrust of his email was that rural minorities were uneducated and poor, thus they were in the grip of their pastors and preachers, and without the money to pay for access to other sources of information, these Latinos and blacks were mere dupes.

For me, this brought to mind the position of the Sonoran generals during the consolidation phase of the Revolution in Mexico. Doing research in Guadalajara and Mexico City, I had occasion to read not only the official public documents, but also those letters and programs designed by the official party's anti-clerical association whose motto decreed that "God is a Lie and Religion is a Farce." Their stated duty was to "liberate" the masses from the oppression and tyranny of the Catholic clergy and bring light and truth to the masses via the public education of the Revolution. Benighted Indian mobs, they maintained, waited to be brought into the Revolution by education, and women, silly and seduced in the confessional, were banned from voting in Mexico until 1952. I'm not sure that this was what my former colleague was after (and I'm sure he would balk at my comparison between him and Mr. Calles) but I was certainly struck by his language. The war that grew out of this state sponsored control of religion killed 80,000 people in 3 years.

Mexico "resolved" its conflict by simply casting aside the rule of law and allowing churches free reign, while continuing to hold the Revolutionary laws at the ready in case the clergy should insert themselves into politics in the future - a condition that was supposed to change in 1991, but in real practice never was modified.

I might observe here that the work of Jennifer Purnell has pointed out that many of the Catholics that revolted against the state's attempt to restrict religion did so because of accompanying economic issues (read the book - there is not enough space here). It might be a fun little study to pay attention to the divide that exists between those that voted for prop 8 who sip coffee at the cafes of urban California, and those that voted against it who serve that coffee.

And please, considering what I have seen on the net on this topic, take note that I am not insinuating that those who voted against prop 8 hate religion and religious people. I'm simply pointing out that those who voted against the measure and found that they were opposed by the very people that they champion in their scholarship, exist in the same situation as those Sonoran generals who claimed to have fought the Revolution for the peasants, but found that many of the people on the ground rejected their version of this Revolution. Those generals, unfortunately, reacted with violence and intolerance, and only when a "modus vivendi" was worked out were both parties able to move forward. Both the Revolution and the opponents of prop 8 should have viewed their opponents through a more complex lens than that of "oppressed people."

Friday, November 14, 2008

Secret Literature?

This from Mexico City:

Yanet Aguilar Sosa
El Universal
Viernes 14 de noviembre de 2008

La tardanza con la que Alemania ha comenzado a leer a autores latinoamericanos ha generado que en los últimos años algunas de las obras de Carlos Fuentes vendan entre 20 y 50 mil ejemplares, y que muchas de sus novelas y libros de cuentos, tengan dos o hasta tres ediciones.
Read the rest.

Huzzah for Germany and Don Carlos, but what an illustration of how an integral part of the world system is consistently overlooked. Is this because Fuentes was so popular in France? (Yes, I mean that with tongue firmly in cheek.) Secret history? Secret literature.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Of Cello Bows and Futbol

Sitting alone in a second-rate motel in Flagstaff, Ariz., I started to think about Bruce Chatwin’s classic travel tale, In Patagonia. I’d picked the book up about eight years previous in a fit of homesickness while I was in my Massachusetts Captivity period.

But I’m not from Patagonia. I’m from Montana.

At the time it was something of a riff on the composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s answer to how a Russian could be so comfortable capturing the “feel” of the American prairie: “a steppe is a steppe is a steppe” he quipped. A mountain is a mountain is a mountain, I suppose is what I was thinking, and surrounded by the mole hills of the east coast, that was a particularly attractive thought at the time.

But a few years have gone by, and as I’ve really thought about it, I think what linked me to Chatwin’s description of the peaks and plains of Patagonia was not that a “steppe is a steppe” or a “mountain is a mountain” but that essentially, in the big view, I was reading about the same mountains that I had grown up in when I read Chatwin – just at a point a few thousand miles to the north. Who can’t love an unbroken – or pretty much unbroken (dang you, Panama) – chain of mountains that stretch from the Arctic Circle to Tierra Del Fuego?

These mountains that touch virtually every nation of the American continents (poor, lonely, Uruguay) are really a shared sacred space, beyond all of the meta-geographic impositions of politicians and nationalism. I was thinking about Chatwin because I’d just met Glenn and Janice.

Glenn Weyant is an interesting character: His business card lists him as a sound sculptor, journalist, educator, baker, and instrument builder. What’s that mean? It means Glenn plays the U.S./Mexico border fence with a cello bow. And mallets. And sticks. And an egg whisk. I meant it when I said he was an interesting character.

Looking at the fence between the United States and Mexico in Nogales, Glenn set out to overcome this fairly unnatural divide in the landscape and the people with music, and what better music could their be to bring two sides of a fence together than to play the actual fence. Glenn says on his web site that that he wants the listener to ask themselves “What is it I am hearing? Why do these things exist? Who is kept in and who is kept out?” And in the end, his big vision is to change the wall from “an implement of division” into “an instrument of creation with the power to unite.”

In a way, Glenn’s vision makes sense to me. When I think about that eternal flow of mountains and prairies, a steel wall seems like an ugly scar ripped across the belly of society by some act of unnatural and incomprehensible violence.

A fence across the Americas?

Native Americans from Alaska to Patagonia have carved out their own cathedrals of sacred space in the towering peaks and roaring waterfalls of the great range of mountains that linked them together. The Salish found solace in the peaks of what are today known as the Mission Mountains while the Andes were dotted with sacred points connected by invisible lines of power known as Zeq’e by the Inca. Later Catholicism introduced a maze of shrines in sacred locations from Argentina to Canada, and nineteenth century Mormon pioneers referred to the mountains as those “everlasting hills” in Biblical prophesy. Surely, they thought, something so wondrous and grand stretching from north to south was a sign that God favored this land.

But I haven’t yet mentioned Janice, or why she and Glenn put me in this reflective funk in Flagstaff.

Janice is a professor at a small university on the high northern plains. I met her at a conference and stopped to ask some questions about her research (she works on travel writers) and we ended up having lunch. Over some raw fish and hot tea, I found out that in Janice’s little prairie town, immigration has turned into quite the issue.

It seems that with the general labor drain from the prairie that small farmers are hiring Mexican and other Latin American immigrants to work on sheep ranches or harvesting wheat and potatoes. Their children long since gone to drink Starbucks in Minneapolis or Seattle, farmers and ranchers are importing man power to hang on to the legacy given them by their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.

What intrigued me most about Janice’s tale was the discussion of a harvest festival in which two neighboring towns get together for a little competition. The game? Soccer. The players? Latinos. The sidelines, said Janice, were lined with older white farmers, ranchers, and town folk all cheering on their champions, while little mestizo children ran around and clapped for their papis to win. You see, when the old farmer’s children go to the city, they take their children with them, and losing them means losing the grand children - losing the future. The men out on the soccer field and the labor they provide aren’t the only necessary import for a small western town.

I can’t help but find a little bit of hope in Bruce, Glenn, and Janice. Close your eyes…a sage filled Patagonian wind fills your nostrils while eerie and ethereal sound sculptures dance along with the breeze. In the background you can hear the laughter of children and the elderly – maybe a few cheers and swears uttered in Spanish – as a small town on the prairie finds hope in the strong backs and smiling children brought to them in the flow of people up the everlasting hills.

Chatwin has been dead for a decade. Glenn has plans to create a trans-border orchestra experience in which the fence is played from both sides. Janice is moving to Morocco. I’m sitting in a hotel room in Flagstaff, staring at headlines about a border fence.