Mexico City assumed its current character around the turn of the twentieth century, during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1911). In those years, wealthy Mexicans moved away from the Zócalo, the city's traditional center, to western suburbs where they sought to imitate European and American ways of life. At the same time, poorer Mexicans, many of whom were peasants, crowded into eastern suburbs that lacked such basic amenities as schools, potable water, and adequate sewerage. These slums looked and felt more like rural villages than city neighborhoods. A century—and some twenty million more inhabitants—later, Mexico City retains its divided, robust, and almost labyrinthine character.
In this provocative and beautifully written book, Michael Johns proposes to fathom the character of Mexico City and, through it, the Mexican national character that shaped and was shaped by the capital city. Drawing on sources from government documents to newspapers to literary works, he looks at such things as work, taste, violence, architecture, and political power during the formative Díaz era. From this portrait of daily life in Mexico City, he shows us the qualities that "make a Mexican a Mexican" and have created a culture in which, as the Mexican saying goes, "everything changes so that everything remains the same."
The entire man is, so to speak, to be seen in the cradle of the child. The growth of nations presents something analogous to this; they all bear some marks of their origin. —Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
The Aztecs left fragments of their shattered society, from the corn cakes and adobe huts of the peasants to the death cult that stained the sacrificial temples that rose high above their imperial capital of Tenoch titlan. The Spaniards quickly vanquished that sanguinary empire, immediately imposed a new language and a new religion, and slowly introduced private property and production for profit, modern ways that they themselves were just learning from their more advanced European neighbors. For three centuries colonial rule worked to meld Christian and pagan beliefs into an idol-worshiping Catholicism that still reveres saints, virgins, and bloody crucifixes. It herded peasants onto haciendas that fed the cities and silver mines of New Spain and that now export fruit and vegetables to Texas and California. And it blended Indian and Spanish blood into the mestizo—the "half-breed" who was to become the archetypal Mexican.
Yet the traits of that national type did not coalesce into their modern form until late in the nineteenth century. The best accounts of Mexico City during the 1840s and 1850s—Manuel Payno's Los bandidos de Río Frío, Guillermo Prieto's Memorias de mis tiempos, and Fanny Calderón de la Barca's Life in Mexico during a Residence of Two Years in That Country—depict early forms of Mexico's exaggerated courtesy, describe the mestizo's emergence as a dominant racial and cultural type, regret the presence of wretched Indians and their adoration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and detect the looming influence of Mexico's northern neighbor.
But Payno, Prieto, and Calderón de la Barca, like the novelists of the 1850s and 1860s, who merely translated the mannerisms and mores of French society into a Mexican setting, did not see the traits they described as forming a coherent Mexican character. Neither did Ignacio Altamirano, an important liberal thinker and early promoter of nationalism in Mexican letters, or Lucas Alamán, a leading conservative historian. Each, in fact, lamented his country's lack of a national character at mid-century. To Altamirano, "the cult of the Virgin is the only thing that unites us. If we lose it, we will lose our Mexican nationality" (all translations are mine unless otherwise noted). In his 1852 Historia de Méjico, Alamán, wrote this about a country that had fought a destructive battle for independence in the 1810s, ruined its economy with thirty years of civil war, and suffered a humiliating defeat by the United States in 1847:
To think that in just a few years we have lost so much of our land [to America]; that our country is bankrupt and in debt; that our valiant army was crushed and has left us defenseless; and above all that we have lost all sense of public spirit and thus any concept of national character: there are no Mexicans in Mexico, a nation that has leapt from infancy to a state of decrepitude without ever knowing the vigor of youth, a nation that has shown no signs of life other than violent spasms.'
The traits that emerged over three centuries of colonial rule, and during the two tumultuous generations that followed independence, were shaped into a national character by the advanced machinery of economy and state that could develop only when Mexico attached its fate to a growing world market driven by the United States and western Europe. Railroads, ports, and markets tied the country together economically and generated the wealth that allowed Porfirio Díaz to rule his country, between 1876 and 1911, under the banner of "Order, Peace and Progress."
The dictator delivered all three. He built a government based on the rule of law—a pliable rule of law, but a marked advance over the legal and political anarchy of the two generations preceding his regime. He brought thirty-five years of peace to a country whose independence had touched off six decades of sporadic civil war interrupted only by an American invasion (in the late 1840s) and a French occupation (in the mid-1860s). And he guaranteed that peaceful order with a mounted guard in the countryside and a huge police force in the city.
Peace and order meant progress: Mexican entrepreneurs and foreign capitalists modernized the communal lands and refurbished the mines that now produced raw materials and foodstuffs for Mexican, American, and European markets; Mexico City's merchants and landowners spent most of the wealth produced in the countryside acquiring the culture that let them pose as Europeans; and the government used the rest to organize the ministries that paved the capital's streets, drained its valley's waters, and erected its public buildings.
Within a decade of Díaz's first administration the fragments of Aztec, Spanish, and early Mexican society were being fused by steady markets and a stable government. "Finally," wrote a city paper in 1883, "the Mexican people are coming out of their state of separation and isolation to prepare a dignified celebration of national independence."' The Mexican people, in other words, were acquiring a national character. If the pace was quick, the effect was lasting: basic traits that were then acquired, and existing ones that were then solidified, still make a Mexican a Mexican and not someone else. Go to Mexico today, or read about it in the papers, and you will instantly recognize the ideas, the images, and the behaviors of a century ago.
If the age of Díaz was the critical time in the making of the Mexican character, the capital was the central place. Although Mexico's is a profoundly rural culture, as parts of a national character its country ways were first expressed in the capital city. What the paternal, despotic landowner was to his peons, Díaz was to his people, and during his rule Mexico City became home to two hundred thousand peasants who had lost their lands, but not their country ways. The city also was a mecca for the provincial writers and artists who through their paintings and novels brought images of the hacienda, the peasant, and the Indian hamlet to national attention.
Yet the capital was not a passive recipient of the customs and people of rural Mexico: it helped fashion the countryside it came to embody. Mexico City built the commercial and transport systems that tied distant regions to the center. It appointed political henchmen to run the provinces, and if they were loyal let them profit from the new laws they were sent to enforce. It mounted the rurales, the rural police, to patrol the countryside and keep the peace. It spread its official heroes throughout the land, idols like Cuauhtémoc, the valiant Aztec warrior; Miguel Hidalgo, the inspired martyr of independence; and Benito Juárez, the stern founder of the modern state. And it represented Mexico before the world-which meant France, England, and America. The capital's upstart gentry adopted the manners of Europe, and they welcomed the Old World's divas and politicians, thanks to fortunes seized from the mines, valleys, and highlands of their enormous and bountiful country.
National character is not a thing we can point to and say, "There it is." It is not a symbol, a government, or a psychological condition.' It is a "design for living" that instructs a people how to work, play, and love; wield power, take offense, and get justice; exercise rights, assume responsibility, and respect rules; see their history, honor their word, and treat the opposite sex. That design shapes the lives of all Mexicans, even if its exact color or material varies according to who or where they are within it, even if much of it was stitched together by a small group of powerful people, and even if pieces slowly fray and need repair and replacement.
The idea of examining a people's character may seem presumptuous in an age that tends to mistake appraisal for injury and is often too quick to brand judgments as racist, sexist, or ethnocentrist. Many will flinch at the idea that a nation has essential features that were acquired at a key moment in its history. But a nation's character, like a person's, endures; and we can better discern the possibilities for progress by acknowledging the tenacity of that character and by identifying parts of it that can be altered.
Mexicans are now searching for a new type of what they call forma—a formula or template that gives order to their society. Mexican history has been a constant search for formas: the civil wars that followed independence were a costly and vain attempt to make a nation; Porfirio Díaz ended the fighting and used his dictatorial powers to give his people a modern state; a revolution defeated his tyranny in the name of democracy, land, and liberty; since then one party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), has run the country in a style known as "collective Porfirism." Opposing parties are now crying for fair elections, just as upper-class insurgent Francisco Madero did in 1910. Light-skinned prophets wearing army fatigues and ski masks have adapted Zapata's revolutionary slogan to demand "liberty, justice, and democracy" for Maya Indians in Chiapas. Intrepid journalists write about the judiciales, the judicial police who terrorize today's Mexicans with the same impunity that Díaz's rurales did a century ago. And Mexicans still see their past as the deeds of individual men rather than the development of larger themes like democracy, civil rights, or even class struggle. That is because politics today is much like that of a century ago: the power of the man prevails over the force of the law. Mexican history is not simply repeating itself. The national character, I am suggesting, has barely changed since the age of Díaz.
I begin with a tour of Díaz's city. By 1890 the capital had acquired the principal geographic feature that defines it to this day—a division into a rich west and a poor east. Late last century peasants began flocking to the city to live in shacks and tenements on the east side's unpaved and sewerless streets, and the affluent and their government began to spend their rapidly growing wealth on the west side. By 1911, Díaz's last year in power, the near west side housed all of the city's treasures. Reforma Boulevard, Alameda Park, the Palace of Fine Arts, and the new post office each meant to declare Mexico's entry into the league of modern nations, and its aristocracy's admission to the ranks of refined peoples. I describe the rapid economic growth and the divided geography of the city and introduce several themes that appear again in later chapters: the effects of the great distance that separated the upper class from its lower and middle orders; the struggle of the wealthy to develop standards of taste for the European goods they were consuming in large quantities; and the creation, through statues on Reforma, of a convenient history that helped a new ruling class and its government understand themselves and their young country.
The provincialism betrayed by the metropolis, I'll show in chapter 3, was more than a simple result of peasants heaped into vast slums, or of the unseasoned gentry trying to shine with European polish. Educated Mexicans admired Paris, London, and New York. Yet they knew, in their hearts, that Mexico was the capital of a peasant land, and that the character of that land lay in the cornfields, the haciendas, and the hamlets. That character necessarily infused the big city. It was revealed in the awful sanitary conditions of the capital, especially on the east side; in the drinking of pulque, the ancient Aztec beverage that was as dear to the masses as it was vile to the upper classes; and in the many tens of thousands of ragged peasant migrants, known as pelados, whose mere appearance in the downtown could ruin a rich person's outing to a cafe, boutique, or department store. Could the capital assimilate the pelados and become an urbane, integrated, and cohesive city? That question exercised the capital's thinkers, who felt that their country, in contrast to Europe and America, and to Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina as well, was weighed down by a rural culture burdened by centuries of poverty, ignorance, and oppression.
The Aztecs are famous for making human sacrifice their society's chief ritual. The "religious frenzy had to be stopped," wrote Justo Sierra, Díaz's education minister; "blessed were the cross and the sword that finished it." But the savagery was replaced by harsh colonial rule. And the war of independence that ended Spain's authority in the early nineteenth century incited two generations of civil strife. Díaz stopped the fighting, but not the violence, which turned into a smaller-scale, grinding sort of cruelty. In chapter 4 we'll look at the mistrust and the violence, and how they were played up symbolically in many ways, such as a craze for bullfighting, elaborate funeral ceremonies, the burning of Judas effigies during Easter week, and macabre celebrations of the Day of the Dead. Practically, they were expressed in what became the unspoken credo of city life: "For the Mexican," writes Octavio Paz, "life presents the chance to chingar or to be chingado." Translated roughly, this means "to punish, humiliate, and offend, or suffer the inverse." Perhaps no other city in the Americas combined such high levels of mistrust and violence with a penchant for the images and rituals of blood and death.
The extreme separation of the classes, the crudity of a city whose wealthy sought refinement, the ubiquitous mistrust and the intensity of violence all pushed the Mexican's life into gaps between the spoken word and its actual meaning, between the city's hygienic and criminal codes and the reality of its housing stock and police system, between the pomp and circumstance of state and the raw power of politics. Díaz, for instance, won the presidency in 1876 on the slogan of "no re-election" and then had a servile Congress revise his own amendments to the 1857 Constitution to legalize his seven terms in office. He was a caudillo who fought his way into power and ruled despotically. But he was also his country's first real president: he ruled with coercion and force and, like his successors in the PRI, he did so behind a veil of fraudulent elections, pliant congresses, and sham courts. No other Latin American country combined the oppression of dictatorship with such an obsession for the appearance of legality and legitimacy. That fetish, I'll show in the last chapter, was one example of a Mexican penchant for giving the form or the appearance of an institution or a behavior while neglecting its substance.
The chasm between rich and poor, the rustic nature of the city, the rancor and the discord, the stress on appearance over substance—these did not make for a safe, elegant, dispassionate, or well-ordered national character. But there may be a point in Schopenhauer's hyperbole: "National character is only another name for the particular form which the littleness, perversity and baseness of mankind take in every country. If we become disgusted with one, we praise another, until we get disgusted with this too. Every nation mocks at other nations, and all are right."
By Michael Johns
"Johns captures the pulse of a brawling city, with a sure-handed feel for both the grit and the dazzle....Anybody involved in Mexico in whatever way should read this work with care, or ignore it at their peril. It is simply superb."
—Karl W. Butzer, Dickson Centennial Professor of Liberal Arts, University of Texas at Austin