'Ungovernable spaces' open up in a changing Mexico


MEXICO CITY -- While Americans fret over Mexicans migrating north to escape the country's economic crisis, political observers here are talking about a diffuse but equally persistent internal migration -- toward a more democratic Mexico.

All over this capital city and in the provinces, campesinos, bands of urban youth, gays and lesbians, street vendors, middle-class debtors, students, prostitutes and evangelicals are carving out what so-called "espacios de ingobernabilidad" -- ungovernable spaces -- where the long, corrupt arm of the Mexican state can't reach.

At the infamous Colonia Buenos Aires, the black market bazaar for every automobile part and accessory imaginable, a friend of mine was looking for plastic covers for the brake lights of her Karmann Ghia, the originals having been stolen.

We found the parts, dozens of pesos below the dealership rate, and we also found a crew of angry black marketeers facing off the federal police, one of whom had just shot and wounded a local youth in questionable circumstances.

Off limits to police

"We're not going to let them in here anymore," a vendor in a Bugs Bunny T-shirt told us. "There's 500 vendors here -- and we're all armed. They know they can't come in here anymore."

Deep inside the ramshackle streets of Buenos Aires, where vendors display their Mercedes rims and Volkswagen fenders, locals told us they had reached a new accord -- not to pay any more mordidads (bribes) to the officials. In Mexico, where the bribe is a time-honored tradition, such an accord approximates the first shot in a revolution against official corruption.

"The 'ungovernable spaces' occur because the old system is crumbling, causing a political vacuum," says Rev. David Fernandez, director of Miguel Pro Agustin Juarez Human Rights Center, one of dozens of new watchdog groups lobbying for a democratic opening in Mexico. "The Zapatistas in Chiapas represent one space, the Chontal Indians who've waged a struggle in the oil fields of Tabasco are another, the relatives of victims of police massacres who won't accept impunity for the assassins yet another. Any time there is an uprising in some small provincial town -- the lynching of a corrupt judge, perhaps -- there is an ungovernable space."

Amsterdam of the Americas

These spaces are increasingly visible in every social sphere. In a Roman Catholic country where sex is usually celebrated in public only indirectly, through highly stylized musical rituals (salsa) and double-entendres, sex is now further "out" than in most cities in the North. Mexico City is fast becoming the Amsterdam of the Americas. Videos and magazines -- straight, gay, S&M;, whatever your preference -- clog the kiosks.

"There's a sexual revolution going on in the streets," says Dorimio Lopez, a magazine vendor whose kiosk is just off the city's main thoroughfare, as he points to rows of Swank, Hustler, Penthouse, Club. "It wasn't like this before. Now you see it everywhere."

Alongside the explosion in pornography is an apparent growth in the tolerance of open homosexuality in Mexico City. Luis Gonzalez de Alba, novelist and owner of one of the oldest gay clubs in town, estimates there are some 70 gay and lesbian clubs in downtown Mexico City alone -- some underground, but most quite open.

"If you want to look for democracy in Mexico," he says, "look for it in sex."

Traditional values aren't the only part of the Catholic church's influence that is being challenged. Suddenly Mexico, the country the bishops declared would never fall to the evangelical hordes, is being "salvado" -- saved and bathed in the blood of the lamb.

There are now hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions (there are no firm numbers) of Jehovah's Witnesses, Presbyterians and members of the Assemblies of God in Mexico today, increasingly visible with their store-front churches and door-to-door proselytizing.

On Good Friday at Cerro de la Estrella, a sprawling collection of working-class barrios southeast of downtown, some 2 million spectators gathered to watch a re-enactment of the Passion of Christ. There in this most Catholic of spaces, as I trekked up the hill to pray beneath the three huge crosses, Hermano Ismael Arriaga grabbed my hand and began praying for me while his half-dozen disciples -- working-class housewives -- laid trembling hands on my neck, back, shoulders and chanted.

Spiritual landscape

What was clear to me about my extremely public saving was that Hermano Ismael was on a mission -- one that has the potential of transforming the spiritual landscape of old Mexico.

"Everyone who's come here today, whatever their reason, has the name of Jesus Christ on their minds, even if this is just a crude imitation of his Passion," he told me. "One day, sooner or later, one way or another, they'll come to Christ."

After bidding me farewell, Mr. Ismael spread his hands out over the dusty landscape streaming with prospective salvados. With a beaming smile, he told his followers, "Let us go to the multitudes."

Ruben Martinez, a bi-national writer based in Mexico City and Los Angeles, is author of "The Other Side."

Pub Date: 5/01/96

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