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Mexico’s on the Move, Why Does It Stand Still?

<i> Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of "Days of Obligation" (Viking)</i>

At a time of great change and national confusion, after a season of violence and rumor, Mexicans voted for the political party that promised them least. Ernesto Zedillo, of Mexico’s antiquated Institutional Revolution ary Party, was elected president.

The PRI, as the ruling party is popularly called, is as truly a Mexican invention as the taco or machismo. It has ruled Mexico for most of this century; it owes its endurance to a Mexican fear of chaos and a yearning for orden .

Polls last week indicated that the older the voter, the more likely he or she was to vote for the PRI. The old in Mexico remember the early decades of this century--the blood and the bodies--as Mexican killed Mexican, and the victors romantically proclaimed the civil war to be “la Revolucion.”

After the Revolution, the PRI gave Mexico the stability of compromise. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, as its name implies, sought to reconcile institutional pragmatism with revolutionary rhetoric. Its genius was as go-between, mediating among competing Mexicos--business and labor, land owners and peasants. Mexicans tolerated the PRI’s corruption and mischief in exchange for orden . Though after extraordinary corruption in the presidential palace and the near-collapse of the economy in the early ‘80s, Mexicans wondered if the PRI was an invention appropriate to the age of steam.

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Last week, flush with victory, Zedillo offered to “dialogue” with the opposition parties. The PRI was thus again trying to play its role as mediator. In recent years, however, the ruling party has been torn by internal conflicts, pitting party bosses (“dinosaurs”) against Ivy League “technocrats.” Rumors persist that PRI bosses were behind the assassination earlier this year of their own party’s candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, in Tijuana.

For the moment, the PRI represents an odd marriage of Tammany Hall politicos and Ivy League graduates. Yale-educated Zedillo replaces Harvard-educated Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Many Americans say they will miss Salinas. People sigh: “At last, Mexico had a president who spoke our language.” But Salinas was preceded to the United States by peasants who journeyed north looking for work after the Revolution. Decades before Salinas introduced microeconomics to Mexico, Mexican peasants returned from the United States with rumors of dollars and Frank Sinatra records.

In Mexico City today, there are fancy new hotels and international boutiques to cater to business executives from all over the world. But all over Mexico, the poor are on the move. And the poor in Mexico are getting younger and younger--the average age is 15. Half of Mexico has yet to reach puberty. Half of Mexico wasn’t of age to vote this time around.

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Zedillo is not the face of future Mexico. Mexico is a teen-age girl. She has acne, but is just beginning to date. She wears a T-shirt that reads “HARD ROCK CAFE.” Mexico is looking for a job. Mexico is on the move, leaving the village for the city, leaving custom for possibility, leaving home for Monterrey, Mexico, or for Monterey, Calif.

We Americans, of course, are terrified of teen-aged Mexico. We much prefer Mexicans with Harvard degrees. During the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement, not a few in the United States wondered: How are we ever going to compete with a teen-ager who is willing to earn in a day what we pay ourselves for an hour?

For decades, cynics in Mexico noted the way the PRI “points to the left and then moves to the right.” The rhetoric of the party was fiery and leftist; the interest of the party was power, held tightly from on top--an oligarchy of media billionaires, police chiefs with mansions and presidential relatives with millions invested in tourist hotels.

This year, what distinguished the presidential elections was the presence of two true opposition parties--one on each flank of the PRI.

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On the left stood Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, candidate of the Democratic Revolutionary Party. The last time around, six years ago, Cardenas came close enough to winning the presidential race to require massive fraud by the PRI. This year, the rhetoric and the revolutionary agenda--the old nationalism and state-development model--were soundly defeated. After an Indian rebellion in Chiapas and the kidnaping of millionaires in Mexico City, Mexicans were wary of the rhetoric that had romanced their grandfathers.

On the right, coming in second, was the National Action Party’s candidate, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos. The PAN is pro-business, friendly to the Catholic Church, friendly as well to U.S. business interests. It emerged from the elections as the party of Mexico’s middle class--something new in Mexico’s history.

Imagine a parade: In the Election Day parade, the campesinos and the university Marxists rode the PRD float. The blond beauty queens and the Northern Mexican business executives were on the PAN float. On the PRI float, there was Zedillo, surrounded by overweight labor chiefs and pale MIT graduates. The PRI float had the least glamour.

Yet, the PRI won. It was as though Mexicans were voting for nothing. It was as though the PRI victory was hollow.

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Talking to Mexicans last week, I had the sense that the vote for the PRI was not one of affection or ideological solidarity. People, rather, wanted the status quo. Mexicans chose the PRI because it promised least.

“Poor Mexico,” goes the old saw. “So far from God, so close to the United States.” If Americans in recent years have feared proximity to Mexican teen-agers in the international labor market, Mexicans have their own reason to worry.

For generations, Mexicans have called people in the United States “norteamericanos.” (It was the polite way of saying “gringos.”) Now, of course, after NAFTA, Mexico is waking up to the idea that she, too, is a norteamericana. Her future is tied to her old antagonist, the gringo, and to Canada, a country she barely knows.

In Southwestern United States, Americans fret about illegal aliens. Throughout Mexico, there are Wal-Marts and satellite dishes that pull in the Playboy Channel and the Dallas Cowboys. Mexico broods: As her future turns north, how shall she remain distinctly separate? Mexican?

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The persons who have fewest answers are those at the top. The writers, the academics, the politicians of Mexico are offering Mexico no idea of what she is becoming. The dreams, the ambitions, the schemes are coming from the bottom of society. Mexico is stirring, moving, growing. Mexico is starting to shave. Mexico is converting to evangelical Protestantism or listening to Madonna. Mexico wants a job washing dishes at the new Italian restaurant on Sunset Boulevard.

Had there been fraud in the elections? The international cast of observers assembled in Mexico thought the fraud was less than usual. The PRI didn’t, after all, need to steal ballots or stuff the ballot boxes with the names of the dead.

After all, the PRI had an easy victory. Yale would replace Harvard at the Mexican White House, Los Pinos. But at a time of Indian rebellions and rock concerts; at a time of kidnapings and NFL football games in Mexico City; at a time when everything was changing everywhere in Mexico, it only seemed last week that nothing had changed.


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