SOCIETY : Democracy Comes to Mexico--BUT AT A PRICE : Disintegrating Family Values

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

Mexican politics have assumed the quality of a telenovela . By day, on Mexican TV, you can watch blond soap opera. Lately, on the evening news, Mexicans have seen even more remarkable tales of family intrigue and betrayal.

The blonde soap heroine loses her husband. Shortly after, the news from the real world was the arrest of Raul Salinas de Gortari, the brother of Mexico's previous president, for his alleged role in last September's murder of his ex-brother-in-law, Francisco Ruiz Massieu.

There are many rumors afloat in Mexico these days--rumors of drug families and their ties to Mexican government officials. Rumors about Raul Salinas have been common in Mexico in recent weeks. What astonished Mexicans last week was not so much his arrest as the spectacle of the Mexican president, Ernesto Zedillo, breaking with his predecessor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Here was a drama Mexicans rarely had seen.

The ruling party of Mexico, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has for decades parodied the family life of Mexico. PRI bosses were paternalistic in the bad and the good sense: They took care of their own, just like ancient caciques took care of their tribes. The PRI was a kind of family with power passing from fathers to sons; political families intermarried. And every six years, the outgoing president would "handpick" his successor. Thus was it said that Carlos Salinas had handpicked Zedillo.

There was an Oedipal suggestion in Mexico City last week. The son had rebelled against his father. And the father was angry. Shortly after the arrest of his brother, Carlos Salinas rushed to a national radio station to attack the Zedillo Administration for its handling of the peso devaluation and for its investigation of last year's assassination of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana.

As surely as on any telenovela , the political family of Mexico is coming apart. For months, there had been rumors that Senor Colosio had been murdered by officials in his own party, in collusion with Tijuana drug lords. For months, there have been rumors that PRI officials had conspired to murder PRI reformer Ruiz Massieu. Last week, Zedillo's Administration arrested a second gunman in the Colosio murder, with ties to government officialdom.

A brother has appeared on Mexico television swearing revenge for a brother's murder. Proteges have undercut their father figures. Brothers in drug families have been implicated in the murder of a Roman Catholic archbishop in Guadalajara. Drug families are rumored to be in collusion with elegant government ministers and their sons.

The Mexican genius has long been for intimacy. Don't we in the United States know this when we hire Mexican women to watch over our children?

The male realm, the civic life of Mexico, may have been in shambles. But the female realm, the hearth, consoled Mexico. At times of political breakdown, during civil war, there was the stable family-- ma - masita at the center. There might be public disorder in the world outside the door--corrupt judges and cops, false politicians, assassinations--but within, there was certitude, order the realm of tu .

Of course, the family depended on an authoritarianism, a paternalism (however symbolic the father's role might be in the face of mamasita's rule). The male's authority within the house mirrored the Mexican government's paternalism.

"Journalists all over the world are obsessed with news of the collapse of the PRI," a Mexican writer recently confided. "No one is writing about the breakdown of the Mexican family--our growing divorce rate, our own 'Generation X' with its drug problems and rock music and despair."

Politicians and right-wing commentators in the United States, meanwhile, are famous for their nostalgia for "family values." But do we really expect the twice-divorced radio commentator or the congressman who abandoned his wife in a cancer ward to tell us what family values might mean?

In fact, the American democratic experiment began with a filial act of rebellion against a mad British king. And Bart Simpson and Huck Finn become mythical heroes in a country where the "old man" is out of touch. To be more blunt: Political democracy may be incompatible with family values of the sort our politicians like to romanticize.

New York magazine, a few weeks ago, published an article on internal divisions within the East Coast Mafia. The magazine offered the interesting suggestion that what ails the Mafia is the collapse of family values, Sicilian-style. The old don is losing control of the youngsters.

Mexico is losing control of her children. The average age of the nation descends into adolescence. Postwar Mexico has left the village with its traditional faith in structures to end up in the anonymous, cold, liberating city--Los Angeles or Mexico City.

The family yet survives for many Mexicans, but it is giving way to something more desperate and hopeful. "Mexican women are no longer asking permission," a nun who works with battered women tells me.

At the level of government, the old family structure has clearly grown corrupt. The PRI is disintegrating like a dysfunctional family. Males quarrel with males; males murder males; a new generation overturns the authority of older generations.

On afternoon television in the blond fantasy world of Mexico's telenovelas , the woman endures. Mother Mexico endures. She is wearing slacks and a sweat shirt. She is weeping because she has lost her man.

She stands at the window. Despite tears, there is sudden resolve, determination in her eyes. She stares out the window, out the house. She is unafraid.

Slow dissolve . . .

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