Which country holds the record for the tallest artificial Christmas tree? Mexico. The biggest taco? Mexico. The greatest number of people kissing each other for the longest period of time? The most people dancing together to Michael Jackson's "Thriller"? Mexico and Mexico.
You could view this obsession with getting into the Guinness book of world records as a charming national idiosyncrasy. But there is also a more disturbing explanation. As a people, Mexicans shun genuine competition. Claiming Guinness records is a way of winning something without actually having to compete one-on-one. No one really loses because no other country is actually out there trying to cook the world's largest tamale.
The anti-competition trait pops up in other ways that are far less benign than simply trying to get into the record books. Consider what happened last month in Michoacan, one of the country's most beautiful and historic states, and a place that has seen skyrocketing levels of violence in the wake of President Felipe Calderon's ill-fated war on drugs. Leaders there floated what they billed as an innovative idea. Instead of a robust competition for votes among the three main political parties in the upcoming governor's race, they proposed having the parties agree on a single candidate, thus avoiding polarization and opportunities for the drug cartels to try to corrupt the process.
The idea, fortunately, was quickly abandoned. As many observers noted, Mexican society had not fought for free and fair elections — after decades of near-total control by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI — only to return to a one-party election in 2011 because of isolated, though substantial, levels of crime.
But the idea illustrates a disturbing truth: Mexicans are far too comfortable choosing the route that avoids conflict, even when it results in appeasing forces that shouldn't be appeased. Take, for example, a poll conducted in late May, which showed that half of all Mexicans believe Calderon should cut a deal with the drug gangs instead of persevering in his war. One can disagree with the way that the unwinnable and excessively costly war on drugs is being fought, but it's nevertheless worrying that half the country believes an alliance between the government and criminals would be preferable.
A willingness to make deals with criminals attests to another deeply ingrained Mexican trait that I deal with in my new book, "Mañana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans": an extreme disregard and lack of respect for the law. A recent poll carried out by Banamex and Fundación Este País asked respondents whether they thought citizens of Mexico respected its laws. About 49% said rarely or never, and only 6% replied always. The rule of law does not really exist in Mexico today, in big and small matters alike.
A nation is forged by circumstances and certain traits of a national character. Mexico is no exception, and these traits in Mexicans are understandable, given a past in which conflict was almost always unequal and led to defeat and misery; a past in which the law was always an object of negotiation, never of compliance. In Mexico, a common history was one of the few things binding groups of mestizos, Europeans, indigenous peoples and Africans with little else to share.
Today, Mexico has a middle class encompassing nearly 60% of the population; it has a functioning representative democracy; it enjoys the benefits and vicissitudes of an open economy; and it has become one of the world's most globalized countries. One out of every nine Mexicans lives abroad (a higher proportion than any other nation except El Salvador and Ecuador), foreign trade represents well over half of its gross domestic product, tourism is its largest employer and more civilian Americans reside in Mexico than any other foreign country.
This is a tremendous success story, despite the prolonged time it took to accomplish it. But the nation's future is dependent on shedding traits that are holding it back. To become a true 21st century nation will require every bit of competition Mexicans can muster, and finally establishing a type of rule of law that guarantees its citizens security and foreigners their property rights and due process.
But is this possible? Can a nation transform its cultural, psychological and spiritual reality in a generation?
One reason for hope can be seen by looking at Mexicans who recently immigrated, legally or illegally, to the United States. Once there, either they adapt to a new economic, social, political and legal environment, or their enormous effort and sacrifice go to naught. And they do adapt: Men save more, children stay in school all day and women attain a degree of independence, self-esteem and achievement that becomes an example for friends and family back home. This conclusion is unlikely to win me many fans in Mexico or in the United States, but Mexico has much to learn from those who have left it. They demonstrate categorically that we can change. And change is exactly what we have to do.
Jorge Castañeda, a professor at New York University and former foreign minister of Mexico, is the author, most recently, of "Mañana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans."