Mexico From the South

A graduate of Vassar who has studied at the Sorbonne and at Cambridge University, GLADYS DELMAS is married to a French publisher of encyclopedias. Since 1952 she has lived in Latin America, chiefly in Buenos Aires and Mexico, and has written articles and reports for several American magazines, including the ATLANTIC. She broadcasts editorial comment on Latin America for the English and French networks of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and for the Radiodiffusion Télévision hrancaise.



MOST visitors to Mexico come from the north, from the United States or Canada. Mexico is often their first contact with Latin America, and the realities of this other America seem distressingly harsh. They are appalled by the contrast between the splendors of the capital and the ragged, barefoot peasants wandering hungry amid them, by the hovels on the outskirts and whole blocks of blight festering in the ancient palaces of the old town. If they stray off superhighways worthy of the proudest engineer, they find dusty villages swarming with children who ought to be in school, women clustered about a well of dubious hygiene, men idling under the trees.

All this is part of Mexico, and it is shocking. Yet conditions such as these prevail throughout the hemisphere; and when one comes to Mexico from South or Central America, as I generally do, what strikes one is not the poverty or the social and political inequalities — one’s eyes and ears have become conditioned by continual assault —but the tremendous strides that are being made in eradicating them. Everywhere in this hemisphere the heritage of medieval Spain — feudal, dogmatic, fatalistic — lies heavy over indigenous suffering and indifference. Only in Mexico does one find, at least in the higher regions of government, a modern, dynamic conception of society and a determined, effective effort to make it a reality.

Thus it is not the halo of prosperity and selfassurance hanging over Mexico City, Monterrey, Guadalajara, that most impresses me. São Paulo, Caracas, Lima, also have splendid flowery avenues and glittering new buildings in the latest architectural mode: the Iberian world has always emphasized appearances. But Mexico is no bankrupt in a palace. Behind the proud facade is the most solidly constructed economy in the hemisphere, steadily growing. The only other country in Latin America with as prolonged a growth is Brazil, but Brazil has paid for it with galloping inflation and political and social disorder, which greatly reduce the benefits. In Mexico the peso has not budged in value since 1954, and the cost of living has risen barely more than in the United States. Wage increases have some meaning in Mexico. Low as they are by American standards, they are in real terms striding steadily ahead; in the last four years the minimum legal wage has almost doubled. Spectacular increases in Chile, Argentina, or Brazil barely compensate for inflation.

There is balance, too, in the type of growth. Mexico’s power elite are rarely, as elsewhere in Latin America, politicians whose first concern is the care of a clientele; they are more likely to be economists or social scientists, often educated at Harvard, M.I.T., or the London School of Economics, using modern techniques to allocateand analyze resources. Are schools or roads or irrigation most important? Before we encourage new industries, do we have enough electricity and steel? To what extent can we afford to automate when our chief problem is jobs for an exploding population? In very few countries have these questions even been formulated, and when they have, political considerations have often turned the answers into mere rhetoric.

Thus, Mexico’s prosperity is no mere industrial boom, spewing out automobiles, refrigerators, and other consumer luxuries. The foundations of the economy — communications, power, irrigation, heavy industry — have received priority. Mexico has the second largest steel industry in Latin America (Brazil’s is larger) and a road system second to none, in spite of a terrifyingly rugged terrain. But only last year were steps taken to build an integrated automotive industry. Argentina did it the other way around. At one time some twenty companies were manufacturing as many models of cars, but the Argentine steel industry is still in embryo, and the roads across the flat pampas arE in such a parlous state that often nothing but a jeep can negotiate them. In Argentina the industrial boom, which has now burst disastrously, was paid for by agriculture. In Mexico, agriculture has grown along with industry.

It is not only the commercial crops—cotton, coffee, sugar, tobacco — which have increased significantly; Mexicans themselves are eating better than ever before. In 1946 they had a skimpy diet of some 1700 calories a day. Now, with 2700, they are no longer classed among the hungry. Yet their land, shaped though it is like a horn of plenty, is one of the most arduous in the Americas. Most of it is either too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry; two thirds of it is mountainous, and only 8 percent of the rest can be called level.

Furthermore, half of the population live in rural areas, in a tradition-bound society where modern technology penetrates slowly. Nevertheless, thanks to irrigation, which covers one quarter of the cultivated area, and tremendous efforts on the part of government agencies in research and in the propagation of improved methods, production has risen dramatically. Production of beans, the meat and potatoes of humble Mexicans, has doubled in ten years; that of corn, their bread, has risen 67 percent. Wheat used to be imported; this year for the first time there was some left over for export, largely because of Mexico’s own development of a rustresistant variety which grows well in the dampness of irrigated fields. Mexico’s achievements in agricultural research have led the Rockefeller Foundation to establish here an International Center for Corn and Wheat Improvement.

On the great plains of Argentina, a natural paradise for wheat and beef, yields are, in many cases, lower than in 1940. Chile, which once exported food from its rich Central Valley, now must import a sizable proportion of its needs. Argentines and Chileans, of course, still live better than the majority of Mexicans, whose protein comes largely from beans and corn. But an abundance of frijoles wrested from a stubborn soil may well be more satisfying, to the soul at least, than a huge steak cut from a diminishing herd.

If, in spite of all these favorable factors, there is still much misery in Mexico, the chief culprit is the explosive population growth. With no immigration to speak of, the population grew from 25 million in 1950 to more than 36 million today — a tribute to government health programs and the Mexicans’ deep love for children, but a headache for planners. This means that each year, in a country already straining every resource simply to catch up, there are a million more little Mexicans clamoring for schoolrooms and nearly half a million youngpeople looking for jobs. It also means that a plot of land which once provided a living for a given family soon becomes woefully inadequate. Clearing the jungle, irrigating the desert, providing industrial jobs, are the main solutions so far envisaged.

No one, of course, has mentioned birth control, although in an officially anticlerical country the taboo is not so much religious as emotional. Having many sons is proof of virility, of machismo (“maleness”), that quality prized above all others in Latin America. The planners say that with increasing prosperity the birthrate will level off, as it has elsewhere: when one has something to leave one’s sons, one is more concerned that each son receive something of worth. They also say that more people means more labor, more production, more creativity; emptiness never produced a civilization.

WHEN I tell all this to my friends in South America, their immediate reply is “Sure Mexico is going ahead; it’s practically an American province. If we had all those dollars, we’d prosper too.”

This is a common Latin-American misconception about Mexico, symptomatic too of the complacency prevalent farther south: prosperity is just something that falls into your lap thanks to geography, geology, or a winning lottery ticket. As a matter of fact, the geographical propinquity has always been deplored by Mexico. “So far from God and so close to the U.S.A.” is a rueful Mexican saying.

It is true that American dollars have aided Mexican development, but they are tourist dollars or dollars earned in the United States — and saved — by migrant laborers, the braceros, much more than investment dollars. Actually, at least 90 percent of the capital invested here during the last twenty years has been Mexican; the American stake, in the neighborhood of a billion dollars, is about as much as in pre-Castro Cuba, a country one sixth the size of Mexico. Nor has there been a facile recourse to foreign loans. But in the last two years, with the country’s credit rating at an all-time high (Mexico alone among Latin-Arnerican countries has been able to launch a private loan on the New York market), the foreign debt has increased significantly. It is still of manageable proportions, however — little more than the income from one year’s foreign trade — and is unlikely to produce the balance of payments crises that periodically convulse the republics to the south. Mexican progress is indeed a Mexican achievement.

Nor is this well-built economic structure continually menaced by the political upheavals, military pronunciamentos, and subterranean manipulations which are the common lot of so many LatinAmerican countries. Presidents have succeeded presidents in perfect constitutional order since the 1930s; since Ávila Camacho, during World War II. not one has been a general. Only Chile and Uruguay can equal this record, and they are overwhelmingly European, and economically stagnant. In Mexico the military, who elsewhere aspire to be more politicians than soldiers, stick to their guns. They are not tranquilized, either, by handouts from the national treasury; the military budget is about one third of what goes to education. In some countries the military get three times as much as is spent on schools.

Critics say that this stability is due to the “dictatorship of a single party” — the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) — and that in spite of a great measure of personal freedom, Mexico is not a democracy at all. In a literal sense this is true. The official party always wins. And it is also true that political stability when it is bought at the price of civil liberties is a meager blessing, as in Trujillo’s Dominican Republic or Stroessner’s Paraguay. But the political stability of Mexico is neither oppressive nor static. The PRI covers a wide spectrum, wider perhaps than the American Democratic Party, with its unreconstructed Southerners and Northern liberals. The arguments between left and right and center are thrashed out in party councils and not on the public rostrum.

If one demurs that this is not democracy, Mexicans reply, “Parliamentary democracy has never really worked outside the Anglo-Saxon countries. What we have developed here by trial and many errors is a sort of monarchy, run by a council of regents. It may not be a very tidy arrangement from a theoretical point of view, but it works.”

There is, too, a noticeable trend toward some sort of open dialogue. An electoral reform law passed at the end of 1962 will grant five seats in Congress to any opposition party which wins 2.5 percent of the vote, even though it has not won in any particular constituency, and up to twenty seats as it wins proportionately more of the vote. The prospect of some sort of participation in political life lias already invigorated the opposition. Some people suspect, however, that the real purpose is to invigorate officialdom by making it more sensitive to public opinion.

This is an election year in Mexico, and the system will be tested once again. The official candidate is Gustavo Diáz Ordaz, Minister of the Interior in the present administration and, somewhat surprisingly, in view of present Latin-American upheavals, no leftist. Although he is already hailed as the next president, he is campaigning throughout the country as if each vote were needed.

Once sworn in, he will be, to an extent that Americans find sycophantic, beyond the pale of any criticism. But now, in these exhausting journeys, which are part ritual, part education of a president, he is learning what matters most to people in the remote hamlets, on the farms, and in the little towns of the republic; and the people are getting to know him. From this subtle intercourse, which has little to do with parliamentary procedure and tabulated votes, will come the next government of Mexico.

SUCH political and economic stability is startling to those who remember the Mexico of a generation ago, in the throes of a long and bloody revolution. Those were the days when General Pershing led a punitive expedition across the Rio Grande in pursuit of the marauding Pancho Villa, when the Marines seized Veracruz to avenge an insult to our flag, when no Masses were said in the churches and priests were hounded in the remote provinces, when Cárdenas seized the oil fields and no landowner was safe on his land.

Yet it is from the Revolution and its peculiar mellowing that modern Mexico has sprung. Historically the Revolution was but the last episode in the centuries-old struggle to gain freedom, not only from Spain but from the feudal patterns that Spain imposed. Seizing the land, defying the Church, exalting the native, and brutally eliminating foreigners — these are recurrent violences in Mexican history. Hidalgo, fighting for independence in 1810, marching with his raggle-taggle army of Indians and mestizos behind the banner of the brown Virgin of Guadalupe, and Juárez, the Zapotec Indian, defeating the Hapsburg Maximilian in the name of anticlerical “reform,” were each followed by a period when feudal society prevailed once again. Only with this latest of Mexico’s “revolutions” has independence from an alien, and obsolete, social pattern been won. In this independence Mexico is unique in Latin America, except, of course, for Castro’s Cuba; and the latent sympathy in Mexico for Castro no doubt stems in part from this sense of community in revolt.

The violent smashing of the old molds was long and costly: twenty years and nearly a million lives. For a time it seemed as though the price were more than any future could repay. Yet today historians feel that the Revolution and the open society stemming from it have been, more than money or technology, the instruments which put Mexico in the forefront of the Latin-American republics.

It started more as a convulsion than a revolution. Mexicans are proud that it antedates the Russian upheaval by some years, that its methods and ideals were indigenous: no German exile provided its philosophy; no technician in revolution told them how to do it. Mexicans are thus not bound by any body of dogma. The “ideals of the Revolution" so constantly stressed are an evolving, living thing, to which even the Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Manufacturers proclaim their devotion. They are a goal rather than a doctrine: the Constitution of 1917, for instance, provided that workers should share in the profits of the enterprise for which they work. Only last year was this made into law, after long consultations between management, the unions, and the government. “A true revolutionary is known by his respect for the law,”the President said recently &emdash a disturbing exercise in semantics, but a vivid illustration of how the revolutionary aura has been made to serve the modern state.

The Alliance for Progress, with its emphasis on social priorities, on planning, on such unpleasant expedients as agrarian reform and effective tax collection, has been received elsewhere with coolness, if not dismay. Many countries are not sure they want to pay this price for dollars. Mexicans have hailed the Alliance as their own: at last the United States has understood our revolution, they say.

The Revolution has also enabled Mexico to outstrip its neighbors — except perhaps Brazil— in the most important field of all: racial integration. Latin America has no color line in law, but in fact throughout the Andean countries and in Central America the lines are sharp between pure white, mixed blood, and Indian or Negro. In Peru when a baby is born the proper thing to say to the proud mother is “How white he is!" The Indian is treated little better than an animal, sometimes worse, for an animal is valuable. None has ever risen to high estate.

A Mexican is proud of an Indian ancestor, and pure white blood is a handicap in running for office. The official textbook of Mexican history used in the schools describes “the blending of two races from which you, young Mexican, spring.”There are no official barriers of caste and prejudice. The problem has been reduced to the manageable realm of education and economics. While Mexicans are constantly bewailing the poverty still prevailing in vast indigenous regions, there is no doubt that progress is being made. One quarter of the federal budget is devoted to education, the highest percentage in the world, and the agrarian reform program, once a mere expropriation and handout device, is now emphasizing technical assistance, credits to improve the land and the development of agricultural industries.

I his successful blend of widely disparate elements — revolution and order, Spanish and Indian — plus a sense of national achievement, has resulted in a national character as strongly defined as any in the hemisphere. A citizen of Montevideo. Buenos Aires, or Santiago wishes above all to be considered a man of the world. A Mexican is content to be himself, and anyone who tries to flatter him by calling Mexico City the “Paris of Latin America.”as Buenos Aires so longs to be, is likely to be met with a cold stare.

In the torrid heat of a Southern December, Santa Claus in red flannel and white fur parades through the streets of Buenos Aires for the wonderment of small Italian and Spanish Argentines whose fathers never heard of him. In Mexico, however. the old customs, Spanish with an Indian flavor, remain. Gifts are brought by the Magi, a splendid symbol of all races united in worship, and the Northern tree has not replaced the Nativity scene, where the ass and the ox seem at home in an adobe hut amid the figures of kneeling Mexicans.

To come to Mexico from the chilly highland valleys of Peru, where Indians are rented with the land like cattle; from the coffee plantations of Guatemala, where a man gets twenty-five cents for a full day’s work and labor organizers are railroaded into jail; from a payday shopping crowd in Santiago, where people are hustling to change their volatile money into something solid; from a long vigil in Buenos Aires to know which general will come out on top to come from frustration and dismay north to Mexico is to come into a land which, for all its shortcomings, is recognizably part of the Western world: not because it yet approaches our standard of living, but because it is progressing.

I sat one lazy afternoon on the plaza of a little Mexican town. An Indian countryman came along, trotting briskly on his bare, dusty feet, carrying a toddler in his arms. He sat down beside me and called the shoeshine boy. Then 1 noticed that his son was wearing shoes. Proudly, gravely, he placed a little foot on the stand, and watched with satisfaction the ritual of brush and slapping rag which seems to mean so much to the Latin-American male. If you can put shoes on the feet of your son, I thought, it is not so painful to go barefoot yourself.