MEXICO : The Strong Man Is Unmasked as Everyman

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

Officials in Mexico City must have smiled, chuckled among themselves, when they revealed the true identity of Subcomandante Marcos. The masked leader of the Indian insurrection in the Mexican state of Chiapas--famous for his green eyes and his soft, determined voice, hidden by a mask like Zorro’s, the subject of female fantasy--was revealed to be an unglamorous, stocky, middle-class Mexican graduate student named Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente.

In Mexican wrestling matches, the drama of the luche libre concerns masks. (Unlike in American wrestling, in Mexico, good guys and bad guys appear masked.) In the end, in a ceremony as ancient as Indian memory, the loser’s great humiliation is the loss of his mask, his magic.

For months, the mask of Subcomandante Marcos served as a symbol of his power. For the mask was his secrecy--his evasion from government troops. There were rumors that he was a Jesuit priest. There were rumors that he was a European intellectual. For months, his mask was his allure.


Immediately after the Mexican government unmasked Subcomandante Marcos, distributing his prosaic photograph to the world’s press, Mexican troops rushed to Chiapas to seize Rafael Guillen Vicente and his fellow revolutionaries. But then a strange thing happened. Who in the government could have predicted it? It ended up that the government of Mexico, which for most of this century has been run by one party, was itself unmasked. The emperor, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), had no clothes!

It was as though Mexicans were galvanized, not demoralized, by the revelation that Subcomandante Marcos was of human size. Superman was, in fact, Everyman. Leftists organized demonstrations in Mexico City in support of the Chiapas Indians. At the same time, in the neighboring state of Jalisco, the right-wing National Action Party won nearly every elective office and overturned decades of PRI rule.

Mexico is a country littered with statues of heroes. In tiny villages, as in vast Mexican cities, there are Stalinist monuments to government leaders--most of them failed. There are statues to Mexico’s famous military figures--most of them losers. (Lose a battle, and Mexico will put up a statue in your honor.) The monuments express a skepticism regarding history, a quixotic, Spanish fatalism.

There are many more statues honoring the defeated Aztec, Cuauhtemoc, than there are monuments to Hernan Cortez. Cortez is the father of the nation but so reviled is the memory of colonial Spain that Mexico denies the father his place in the center of the plaza.

By contrast, Mexico has everywhere erected monuments to the Indian. There are statues, marbles, murals; even the great Anthropology Museum in Mexico City was built to house the artifacts of the Indian. In myth, the Indian is romanticized as true Mexico, even as the Spaniard is forever the outsider.

Mexico is unique in the Americas for being the country in which the Indian is everywhere. The famous mixing of races, the union of Spanish and Indian blood in the 16th Century, marked the nation’s true birth.

But the Indian is also, in myth, a female. She is the victim of male lust--raped first by Spain, then France and Britain. And, of course, since independence, the role of Cortez has been assumed by Uncle Sam. If the Spaniard stole Mexico’s land and her gold, the grizzled gringo stole Mexico’s land and her oil.

Despite Mexico’s many monuments to the Indian, or maybe because of them, Mexicans end up embarrassed by their own image. In Mexican Spanish, Indio is a slur. Mexican mothers yearn for light-skinned children. And the blond faces on Mexican television reveal a fantasy life among Mexicans even more outlandish than Aaron Spelling’s version of modern Los Angeles on “Melrose Place.”

Though most Mexicans carry a measure of Indian blood, the country has a history of ferocious mistreatment of the Indian. The Indians of Chiapas have borne witness to this for centuries.

Mexicans have struggled, for centuries, to accept the implication of their nations’s femininity. The most frequent image in Mexico--the unofficial flag of the nation--belongs to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary as she appeared in 1531, dressed as an Aztec princess. But the most hated woman in Mexico has been La Malinche, an Indian and the blood mother of the nation, reviled for being the whore-lover of Cortez.

Mexican males are famous, to this day, for their profanities concerning rape and motherhood. The country that gave the world the word macho has not, coincidentally, been tolerant of strong-man politics. To a nation embarrassed by its victimization, what could be more appealing than a strong ruler?

For most of this century, the PRI has given Mexico stability. The corruption and the mischief of the PRI was, for many Mexicans, the price they paid for order.

In recent years, Mexican impatience with the government has grown. Mexicans have begun to lament the PRI as something imposed on them from without, like Sire Spain or Uncle Sam. In fact, the PRI was a genuine Mexican invention created by Mexicans for Mexicans. It was authoritarian precisely because that is the way Mexicans wanted it.

Suddenly, a change. Think of the moment in “Spartacus"--the moment when the defeated slaves, first one, then several, then the entire mob, declare with one voice, “I am Spartacus.”

Government officials had expected to dishonor Subcomandante Marcos with his unmasking. Instead, there were crowds of protesters in the streets of Mexico City proclaiming “I am Marcos,” and voters turned out in Guadalajara to vote against the government.

Could it be that Mexicans were no longer waiting for a Superman who might rescue them? Could it be that Mexico had begun her democratic moment?

Watching from across the border, many in the United States saw only chaos. Everything in Mexico seems a mess. The peso is falling again. The Mexican president, with his Yale Ph.D., seems not in control. Americans fret like hens: What would happen to our border if chaos descended on Mexico?

We Americans seem to have forgotten that democracy is a messy thing. Elegant 18th-Century notions of individual responsibility often have their birth, these days, in jungle guerrilla skirmishes or at noisy rallies in the center of the city.

The irony could be that, even as Mexicans are turning away from their strong men, Americans are obsessed with heroes and role models and celebrities. Where are our leaders? The sports star falls from grace; the famous break our hearts with their humanity.

Instead of arguing over Newt Gingrich and whether the new Republican Congress will be able to give us a sense of direction, Americans would do better to wonder why most of their countrymen did not bother to vote in the last election. What is the meaning of the new American skepticism: “My one vote will not change things”?

We have forgotten what Mexico seems now to be learning. Democracy does not depend on romantic leaders, but on everyday people with unglamorous faces.*