Mexico Implodes


What now shall Mexico say, as Mexican kills Mexican? Since Independence in the 19th century, Mexico has imagined the threat to herself as a threat from without. Deep in Mexico's memory, Mexico imagines her true self as Indian, an Aztec virgin put upon by the grizzled Spaniard, Cortez.

The year is still young and already there is plentiful evidence that Mexico is imploding. Mexican is killing Mexican. In January, Mexican Indians in Chiapas took arms against Mexico City, embarrassing the government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, forcing him to play the role of Cortez. The Mexican government ended up shooting its own people on the evening news. Mexican businessmen have been kidnapped. Earlier this month drug dealers shot it out on the streets of Tijuana. And now, on those same tawdry streets, Mexico's ruling-party candidate for president, Luis Donaldo Colosio, is gunned down by a fellow Mexican.

Immediately after the assassination, Jorge Castaneda, a prominent Mexican political scientist, remarked that political assassinations "just don't happen in Mexico." But the history of Mexico, especially adolescent 19th-century Mexico, is littered with political assassinations.

Octavio Paz, the great poet of Mexico and her sultan prince, worried on Mexican television last week about the spreading violence in his country. But it was Mr. Paz who described not so many years ago, in "The Labyrinth of Solitude," the way Mexican men, "friends . . . get drunk together, trade confidences, weep over the same troubles, discover that they are brothers, and sometimes to prove it, kill each other."

It's all the fault of NAFTA. One heard that reasoning in Mexico after the Indian rebellion in Chiapas. It's the familiar logic of Mexico, her old fear. NAFTA is a Trojan Horse at the border. Beware the outsider!

To this day, Mexico refuses to honor Cortez as the father of the country. There are no monuments to Cortez. To this day, Mexico -- with reason -- blames the chaos of her 19th century on the outsider -- France, England and the greatest 19th-century villain of all, the grizzled gringo who took off with half her territory. The outsider was the conquistador, then the Roman Catholic Church, then the Spanish landowner, then the American businessman. The myth of the outsider has allowed Mexico a certain ease, an excuse for her own corruption, her own irresponsibility, and the cruelties of Mexican against Mexican.

Mexicans murdered Mexicans early in this century during the great civil war that Mexico still does not have the courage to call a civil war. Mexico prefers romantically to speak of "la Revolucion." It imagines the Revolution as a kind of cleansing, Mexico cleansing herself of the foreign, overturning a corrupt government that had sold Mexico to British and American business interests.

My Mexican father remembers those same years with another story. One night he opened the door of his house near Colima to see two men strapped with a leather belt to one another's wrists, slashing at one another in the dark. Two men fighting over lost honor, the love of a woman: Mexico against Mexico. !Viva Mexico!

My father fled Mexico for the United States during her heroic revolution; he turned away from the bloody streets of Mexico.

So vast and bloody was Mexico's Revolution that Mexicans have been willing for seven decades to tolerate the rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, a political machine appropriate to the age of steam. Out of fear of la Violencia, Mexicans have put up with the mischief and corruption of the PRI, have characteristically spoken of it with a sigh, as something foreign to them. But the PRI was in its way very much a Mexican institution, a compromise, an evasion.

What is happening in Mexico is certainly dangerous. But we may be seeing the beginning of true modernity for Mexico. For within the last few years there are emergent political opposition parties in Mexico and, more surprising, of public rivalries within the PRI.

Mexico's government has become an impossible union of American-educated technocrats with MBA degrees and old-line Tammany bosses. And the country itself is dividing -- the rural, more Indian south feels increasingly alien from the industrialized north and its buoyant future cities like Monterrey and Tijuana. Indian rebellions, drug wars, political assassinations. La Violencia pit Mexico against Mexico. And Mexico is not going to be able to externalize the threat to itself. Not this time.

After 150 years of demonizing the outsider and excusing herself, Mexico may be on the brink of some horrible night, friends slashing at one another in the dark with their knives. But, after so long forging a sense of nationhood from the threat from without, Mexico may be moving toward some new self-awareness which is the beginning of a true nationhood.

Richard Rodriguez is the author of "Days of Obligation," a book

about Mexico and the United States.

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