Not a day goes by when someone, somewhere perpetuates a misconstrued concept about Mexico either in person or through the news media. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the United States; some other country or even in Mexico the perception of my country is often mischaracterized by preconceived ideas often created by agendas seeking to gain an advantage. As I celebrate my country’s 203 years of Independence from Spain I can’t help but think that the notion of Independence for Mexico is not only a notion perpetuated by political and historical necessities but in reality the thought that Independence was achieved is nothing more than a figment of reality.
Let me explain.
In the traditional sense, Mexico did achieve independence from Spain but if we were to take an untraditional look into the ongoing evolution of Mexico I might be able to show how, I believe, Mexican Independence is still an ongoing struggle for defining the Mexican identity. I believe that as you follow me through this textual, frequently superficial journey I might be able to convince a few of you to look deeper into the Mexican identity and put aside the preconceive notions that perpetuate the continued mischaracterization about Mexico, both inwardly and outwardly.
This piece is not intended to be the conclusive and detailed analysis of what I believe is still an ongoing search for the Mexican identity. First of all, I’m not arrogant enough, although some might argue that I am, to pretend that I know the answers to this very complex quest for self-identity. Second, in order to provide you with a detailed explanation I would have to write my magnum opus that I’m clearly not equipped to do, nor would anyone be willing to read it through to the end.
Rather, I want this piece to be a starting point; a place where we can start the discussion and develop the thesis further, beyond what I would ever be capable of doing on my own. This is not a condemnation of those who question and continually push forth the notion that Mexico is an oppressive regime continually seeking to oppress while others benefit from their oppression of the others. I, for one, see Mexico as a misunderstood country continuously striving to attain greatness, often failing but nonetheless overcoming internal and external impediments in the continued struggle for greatness. Mexico has not achieved the greatness it is seeking, however neither has it failed miserably as often portrayed by many.
We, Mexicans are our own worst enemies while at the same time we are our country’s greatest heroes who often times step up when needed the most for the good of the Republic. As Mexicans we are in a continued struggle with our own, often self-created and other times imposed upon us, ghosts that both impede us while making us stronger.
Octavio Paz once wrote that the biggest difference between Mexico and the United States is that the United States was born as a country always striving for the future and never looking back. In contrast, Mexico is a country born out of oppression constantly anchored by our own historical oppressive nature that gives us both a unique familial and paternalistic reality that makes us both weak and strong at the same time. Two hundred and three years ago we achieved Independence from Spain but we are still struggling to define our identity.
We are a nation of smoke and mirrors, Paz added and others have opined, often portraying one thing while actually believing another. Macho is the first thing that comes to mind to most when defining Mexicans. This is often cloaked in negativity when in reality machismo is more than concubines or beating women, as normally elucidated. Those that speak Spanish will understand that there is one word in the Spanish language that can both be the ugliest word uttered while it can also be the most tender word spoken by anyone.
The word is mother, or madre.
This example is but a crumb in the understanding of the duality and complexity of the evolving Mexican identity. Take a moment to think about this and please accept for the purposes of discussion that it is true because for me to prove it would take hundreds of words and distract from establishing a base from where we can begin the discussion. I believe that as I lay out the rest of this work you will see that the following is not only true but a personification that is the complexity of the ever evolving Mexican identity.
A Mexican man will portray himself to be selfish, disrespectful of his children’s mother and uncaring about his females in general. The women, for their part will generally, but not always be submissive in public and allow the husband to lead the way. This is the public perception. The reality, however, is much more complex then that because to understand Mexico you must first understand Paz’ notion that Mexico is a land of smoke and mirrors. There is a duality to this example; the public portrayal and the reality. Women in Mexico are the glue that binds the familial nucleus. They are the nurturers, the disciplinarians and when called upon the defenders of the family unit. They will act publicly; “dándole su lugar al hombre” (giving man his place) but behind closed doors they are the ones that insure the family’s future. Most Mexican men would publicly, wrongly so, portray machismo as a womanizer keeping women in their place but they are also the first to beat senseless the first-born male for disrespecting his mother. A Mexican man will also be the first one to cry over his mother.
Yes, I understand this is an overly simplification of a very complex dynamic, however I believe it also sets the stage for me developing the thesis I hope to challenge you to consider. Hang with me as I continue to develop it.
Consider the Catholic religion in Mexico. Most anyone will tell you that Mexico is a Catholic country driven by the dictates of the Vatican. Most of you would be surprised to learn that in fact the Catholic Church was not officially recognized by the government of Mexico for many years. Most of you will be surprised to learn that the argument about the separation of Church and State was settled in Mexico after the Mexican Revolution with the Constitution of 1917 that was based on Benito Juárez’ 1857 version. Both constitutions set strict separations between the Church and the Mexican government. Priests were prohibited from wearing Church vestments in public or administering religious ceremonies publicly. You might also be surprised to know that Mexico and the Vatican had no formal recognition of each other until 1992. You will also be surprised to learn that Benito Juárez, who was of Zapotec origin, confiscated Church property in 1856 and again in 1861.
Many in Mexico and everywhere else in the world have come to believe that Porfirio Díaz and Carlos Salinas de Gortari are some of the worst people ever imposed on Mexico. However, it was Díaz and Salinas de Gortari that opened up Mexico to the Holy See. In fact, Carlos Salinas de Gortari pushed forth reforms that ultimately led to the Holy See reestablishing a relationship with Mexico.
Unfortunately our search for defining Mexico is not as simple as revitalizing the reputations of two, or more reviled individuals because it is not about reestablishing reputations but rather studying the complexity of the Mexican identity and thus understanding Mexico beyond the superficial definition of a country divided between a few rich people and a nation in misery.
As with any country’s independence the reasons for seeking independence and the eventual establishment of the country is a result of struggle and external forces that contribute or impede the process. Normally historical superficiality explains the manner of eventual independence. Mexicans and Mexico are no different. However, unlike the American Revolutionary War, where the majority sought to establish a future for a people, the Mexican War of Independence started as a matter of necessity by competing forces not seeking to establish a new country but rather taking advantage of circumstances in Europe and political and personal intrigue within New Spain, today’s Mexico.
Historically we accept the notion that a Catholic priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla started the drive for Independence with “El Grito” on September 16, 1810. Traditionally we accept that the march to Independence was driven by campesinos and indigenous populations trying to drive the yoke of oppression out of their lives. Hidalgo started the spark that led to Mexico’s independence from Spain but not because of the drive for equality but rather to safeguard his own life against other forces trying to end his.
Do not misunderstand this as to imply that I believe that Miguel Hidalgo’s place in history should not be honored but rather it should be understood for what it was in order to understand why Mexico is so misunderstood.
In the morning of September 16, 1810, a small group of indigenous Indian Mexicans, mestizos; Mexicans born to native Indians and European occupiers, and criollos; those born from Spanish parents in Mexico collectively rose to oust the Spanish from Mexico. The precursors to this uprising were a result of the US independence from England, the French Revolution and the fact that the Peninsular War weakened Spain to the point that not only was it unable to continue to subjugate its New World colonies but it imposed even further oppressions upon those colonies. Also, liberalism was spreading across the Americas further fanning the fires for perceived freedoms.
Originally the call for independence was driven by criollos looking for equality within the Spanish caste system that marginalized them although they, themselves, marginalized the mestizos and the indigenous populations. Taking advantage of the French waging war against the Spanish, the criollos asked their military counterparts to renounce the Spanish authority, under the French occupiers and pledge their allegiance to the Spanish crown in exile. Some refused, including Fr. Hidalgo.
As the loyal Spanish began to round up the instigators word got back to Miguel Hidalgo who called his parishioners to arms to protect himself from arrest. In the early morning, in his small hometown of Dolores, in present day Guanajuato, Miguel Hidalgo ordered the arrest of the gachupines; the derogatory term used for the Spanish in Mexico and rang the church bell to gather his flock. Hidalgo then delivered his call to arms that set in motion a war of independence wrapped in a semblance of a class struggle that lasted eleven years but never achieved the independence that it purported to achieve because of competing ideologies and ever-shifting allegiances.
Although wrapped in the mantle of class equality, Mexico’s war of independence was never about class equality but rather about protecting the self-interests of four distinct identities who did not unite for a common goal but rather each continued to attempt to get the upper hand over the other three. To this ongoing struggle, external forces such as the United States’ Manifest Destiny and France’s quest to dominate the New World and others such as the Church continued disrupting and continue today to disrupt Mexico’s search for defining its identity. As if all of this wasn’t enough; add to the turmoil an ideological battle between conservatism and liberalism that makes defining Mexico’s psyche schizophrenic at best.
Consider this, Mexico City, the largest city in Mexico and the defacto establisher of the country’s national agenda, established legalized same-sex marriages in 2009 before the United States. This made Mexico the first country in the Americas to legalize gay marriage. As of 2010, almost every state, except one, recognizes same-sex marriages performed in states where it has been legalized.
Think about this for a moment; a country that is accepted to be predominantly Catholic and most consider that the notion of “machismo” as driving the national agenda is the country that recognizes same-sex marriages before the United States does. When most people are asked, they would unequivocally state that Mexico does not accept gay marriage. This fact begins to pierce the duality that is the Mexican misperceived ideology of conservatism hiding the liberalism that actually drives the national agenda.
Let’s look further into the continued drive for Mexican Independence.
About six months into the rebellion, Miguel Hidalgo was captured by the Spaniards and executed by firing squad in March 1811. Hidalgo had been excommunicated by the Church. José María Morelos y Pavón took over the fight for independence. Although Hidalgo has been perceived as fighting for Mexican independence he, in fact, never called for independence rather he was fighting to correct wrongs perpetuated upon those in Mexico by the Spanish crown. Hidalgo never renounced his allegiance to the Spanish crown.
It was Morelos who actually called for and declared Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1814. This was about three years after Hidalgo began his call to arms. Morelos also officially abolished slavery in Mexico that was the impetus for a future war with the United States.
By 1815, the War for Independence was stalling with the defeat of Morelos by Spanish forces under the command of criollo general Agustín de Iturbide. Vicente Guerrero took over the rebels who were under siege. As will become the standard when it comes to Mexico, external forces conspired to bring former enemies together and change the course of Mexico. In 1820, the Liberal Triennium conspiracy led to the rise of liberal authority in Spain and the erosion of Spanish-Roman Catholic unity.
Outside events conspired to change allegiances and in this case Agustín de Iturbide, responsible for defeating Morelos, now formed a pact with his former enemy Vicente Guerrero. The two joined up in 1821 and signed the Plan de Iguala pact.
The Plan de Iguala established three primary doctrines in Mexico. The first was that Mexico would be an independent nation governed by a Spanish Monarch; two, the Catholic religion would be the official and only religion in Mexico and third, Spanish and criollos would have equal rights and privileges.
What seemingly started out as a call to revolt to create equality was in reality an attempt to equalize Mexican born Spaniards with those born in Spain. The liberals, meanwhile regained authority in Spain but empowered the conservatives and the Church in Mexico.
In 1821, the Treaty of Córdoba was signed and Guerrero and Iturbide, former enemies and now partners triumphantly marched into Mexico City. The treaty established Agustin I as the Emperor of Mexico and Spain recognized Mexico’s independence.
Historically this is the end of Mexico’s quest for independence and it did result in Spain ceding Mexico to the criollos. However, the War of Independence did nothing to resolve the conflicts between the indigenous populations, the mestizos and the criollos; taking from four to three the ongoing competing cultural war in Mexico as the Spaniards no longer had a say in Mexican affairs. The criollos, that silently started the rebellion, were the ones that ended up in power. The only major benefit to the collective was the abolition of slavery in Mexico; however this single act would be the catalyst for Mexico loosing over half of its territory.
For their part, the conservatives lost Spain but gained Mexico. Likewise the Church may not have completely lost Spain but its authority was significantly reduced in Spain while it gained authority in Mexico. Hidalgo had been excommunicated by the Church but he nonetheless gave the Church the opportunity to establish itself in Mexico, however temporarily. This is one of the many facets in play in Mexico with each component striving to outdo the other. The inequality remained and it continued to simmer. Mexico began to divide into two major camps as the three cultural identities jockeyed for position. One camp, the conservatives was comprised of religious leaders, the hacendedos; rich landowners, the criollos and those looking to build a strong centralized government, including the military. The other camp was made up of liberals; generally comprised of anti-Church advocates and indigenous populations as well as some disfranchised mestizos. These “federalists” were looking to form a federation made up of sovereign states and do away with the monarchy.
By 1829, Vicente Guerrero, from the federalist’s camp became Mexico’s first president and by 1831 he had been assassinated. By 1833, Antonio López de Santa Anna who was popular within the military and considered a centrist was elected president.
Unfortunately the abolishment of slavery in 1829 would come to haunt Mexico in the form of a rebellion in Texas. In 1836, Santa Anna’s army had been defeated in San Jacinto and by 1848 Mexico had lost over half of its territory to the United States.
Mexico, unfortunately, did not have time to recover from this loss as outside forces once again conspired to keep the fires of war lit for the Mexican people. Santa Anna, who had been forced to resign after the loss of national territory returned to Mexico from exile in 1853 and with the support of the centrists, proclaimed himself dictator of Mexico. The ideological rift between the liberals trying to establish a republic and the conservatives trying to keep power continued to boil over.
In 1857, Benito Juárez, an indigenous Indian, rose to become president of Mexico and the Constitution of 1857 was established. The conservatives refused to abdicate and with the support of European powers continued to attempt to regain power. In 1861, France, along with England and Spain invaded Mexico under the pretext of safe-guarding their interests in Mexico but in reality were there to help the conservatives attempt to regain power. On the surface the European intervention was about one thing while another protagonist had other plans of its own. Napolean III was looking to expand French influence in the Americas and had used this pretext to begin establishing a beachhead. Realizing this, both England and Spain settled with Mexico and withdrew in 1862.
In 1863, France established the second Mexican Empire and imposed Maximiliano I, the Archduke of Austria upon Mexico. Benito Juárez continued to resist until 1867, when with the additional pressure from the United States, France withdrew its forces from Mexico. Benito Juárez finally established the much sought after liberal republic while the conservatives continued to battle for control of the republic.
Juárez died in 1872 and was replaced by Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada who was subsequently followed by Dictator Porfirio Díaz, a conservative who had rebelled against Juárez in 1871. The Porfiriato is known as the nexus to the Mexican Revolution but it was also a time of significant industrialization of Mexico. His thirty year rule was also a time of relative peace and prosperity.
However, although Díaz was generally inclusive of two of the competing forces at play, the mestizo and the criollo as Díaz himself was mestizo, the calm and growth in Mexico further enlarged the chasm in Mexico between the lower and upper classes. The mestizos had somewhat equalized themselves with the criollos but the indigenous continued to be disfranchised.
In 1910 war once again engulfed Mexico this time by the Mexican Revolution. As usual, outwardly the Mexican Revolution was an agrarian and a class equalization revolution but in reality it was much more than that. Liberalism versus conservatism and Church interjection as well as the geopolitics of the era conspired to force constantly shifting alliances and ideological identities to continuously change the reasons for the Revolution.
In 1914 and in 1916 US forces intervened in Mexico and both times the warring factions repelled or impeded the invaders. The Catholic Church tried to reestablish itself within Mexico and their interference even led to the Cristero War between the faithful and the government of Mexico in the latter part of the Revolution.
By the time the dust somewhat settled ten years later the psyche of the Mexican identity was severely damaged from the constant death and the current version of the Mexican conservative-liberal ideology was carved out from the ashes each giving up something while gaining something else. That is the overly simplistic look at the outcome with many experts opining about the winners and the losers. However, in my view, the end result is the schizophrenic conservative-liberal inner battle still ongoing within the Mexican psyche that continually manifests itself in our culture and in our politics.
As a result of the Revolution, the 1917 Mexican Constitution is a complex document of guarantees and responsibilities that addresses even the rights of children. Intermixed within all of this, are inherent rights that both protect Mexico while hampering its ability to grow as a nation.
Some examples of this are the land rights that continue to simmer in Mexico while making sure that clear title or ownership of land in Mexico is unattainable. The current debate about foreign investment in oil is derived from the fear of foreign intervention and the continued inequality within society intermixed with the fear that the patrimony of the nation is being squandered away is another example.
One of the largest winners of the Mexican Revolution is the worker’s movement with the rise of very powerful labor unions that still dominate Mexican politics. The much maligned PRI Party also rose from the ashes of the Mexican Revolution. However it is the labor movement that benefited the most and interfered with Mexico’s national prosperity. Today, this is manifested by the teacher strikes as a result of the government’s educational reforms.
What many ignore about the teacher movement is that there are many teachers who have either never set foot in a classroom while receiving a paycheck or have sold their “spot” to another family member or other person or both. The country’s youngest generations are the ones that suffer from this abuse as the educational system does not serve them leading to another generation of Mexicans fighting to remain relevant without the tools to do so with.
Most people have the mistaken belief that Mexico is a third-world country made up of campesinos taking siestas everyday while Mexico remains just a footnote on the world stage. However Mexico is an active and effective player on the world stage and a contributor to the collective economy and knowledge of the world, even though other forces continue to interfere in Mexico.
Most of you would again be surprised to know that Mexico is:
- Is the eleventh largest economy in the world. In fact the World Bank ranks it the tenth largest economy in the world.
- Mexico derives power from its own operated nuclear power plants and operates two research plants.
- Mexico manages its own fleet of satellites and provides communications through 120 earth stations to North and South America.
- Mexico is the second largest electronics exporter to the United States.
- Cemex is the largest construction company in the world and the third largest cement company.
- Mastretta designs and produces the MXT sports car that is sold in Europe and in the United States.
- Dina is the largest manufacturer of buses in the world.
- Alfred V. Rascon was a Mexican citizen while serving in the US Army in Vietnam where his actions of heroism led to him being awarded the Medal of Honor.
- Silvestre Santana Herrera was also a Mexican citizen when he was also awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism in World War II.
- Marcelino Serna was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest military decoration, after the Medal of Honor, for his heroism in World War I.
- Miguel Acubierre is a theoretical physicist who is best known for developing a theory for faster-than-light travel that does not violate the accepted principal that mass cannot travel faster than light.
- Hydra Technologies designs and builds unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
- America Móvil is the fourth largest mobile telephone operator in the world.
- Mexico, a member since 1945, is one of the top ten contributors to the United Nations budget and actively participates in all UN functions, including the Security Council, with the exception of contributing military forces to peace keeping missions because of constitutional prohibitions.
Consider what I have outlined above as you listen to the rhetoric about Mexican immigration into the US. The ongoing national teacher strike that superficially seems to be about class equality when in reality it is about protecting self-interests that protect familial incomes for no work to the detriment of the children of the country. Or the developing rhetoric about opening up oil exploration to foreign investors.
The latter two are very significant to the Mexican evolution as each of them fundamentally changes the very fabric of what we as Mexicans think our ideals are about. Each requires the government to change the Constitution that was established to seemingly protect the country and establish social equality but in reality was just a step in the evolutionary process. I cannot even begin to express to you how significant these two events are, not only in the necessary and required changes to the Constitution of Mexico and the doctrine established by long-held fears and beliefs but also how Mexicans are being forced to look deep within themselves to continue to find and establish our illusive identity.
It is my sincere hope that this quick peek into what I define as the ongoing struggle that is the Mexican identity stimulates in you a need to look beyond the superficial “realities” that are perpetuated in the general consciousness about Mexico and you begin to question them as they enter you realm of thought. I also hope that you consider becoming ambassadors to the continued misperceptions about Mexico and dispel them by pointing out the truth that Mexico is more than a siesta taking country with good food to eat.