Mexico takes a new reading


MEXICO CITY - Had Jose Martinez's book on the life of Carlos Slim come out 10 years ago, his journalism career might well have ended right there.

Slim, a Lebanese-Mexican, is Latin America's wealthiest man. He owns the country's telephone company, Telmex, as well as more than 300 other companies.

For decades in Mexico, biographies about even lesser figures' political and economic life were considered out of bounds. A journalist who wrote about them took a huge risk.

But when Martinez's Carlos Slim came out, Slim commented on it - saying he liked it - and even permitted the book to be sold in Sanborn's, his chain of cafe/bookstores.

The book is selling well. Martinez, meanwhile, continues to thrive and is planning another biography.

That book, and others recently, are signs of how a country with a history of submission to authority is getting used to holding the wealthy and powerful up to public scrutiny.

"There's a tradition of writing this kind of biography in France, England, Spain and the United States. Here in Mexico, it doesn't exist," says Martinez, who in 1999 also wrote a biography of Carlos Hank Gonzalez, one of Mexico's most notoriously corrupt politicians.

"We're always inventing myths about the powerful. The president was untouchable, as was the Virgin of Guadalupe or the Army. What I'm trying to do is write about themes that before we'd see, but we wouldn't dare talk about."

Mexico's transition to democracy since the mid-1990s has spawned a boom in books about subjects that people here once wouldn't dare to talk about.

These books are often unblinking and well-researched yet written for a wide public. Some are first-hand accounts - rare for Mexico - of an event or campaign.

A growing number of books are critical biographies, a genre virtually unknown in Mexico three years ago.

"We've been a people that for centuries has grown accustomed to keeping quiet before power," says Sergio Aguayo, a columnist and academic who last year published La Charola (The Plate), the first book about Mexico's intelligence services.

"The media didn't inform you. The archives were closed. No one wanted to talk. It's been very important that recently we've been able to come out and say what we think."

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 years, controlled those media that influenced most people.

Television and radio, in particular, were produced under strict content rules.

Books are less so.

Publishers were left alone to print what they wanted. But what they printed was often written by academics in such dry prose that they rarely captivated readers. This was reflected in sales: 20,000 copies sold was a huge success.

Furthermore, publishers say, they rarely got much publicity for their political books.

That changed during the term of President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000). Realizing that Mexico was out of step with the world, Zedillo had the government back off censoring television, radio and newspapers.

Mexican dissent flourished. Television talk shows slowly included PRI opponents. Films and soap operas took on once-forbidden subjects, such as political corruption and drug smuggling.

Many AM radio stations in Mexico City started political talk shows - a genre virtually unknown in Mexico before 1995 - on which a range of opinions could be heard.

Books about power and politics were now received not with silence but with feature stories in newspapers, their authors interviewed on the radio.

Sales increased. A successful book is now one that sells 60,000 to 100,000 copies - tiny by U.S. standards, but a major increase in readership for Mexico.

Authors saw this and increasingly aimed to combine solid research with a clear writing style.

Several publishers opened new lines of books about Mexico's transition to democracy, aimed at a mass audience.

One of the first was Oceano, once an encyclopedia publisher, which started its line in 1993.

"The political situation in the country was important," says Oscar Davalos, Oceano spokesman. "Things were being discussed in the media. You didn't need to know much to see that this topic was of interest."

Nowadays, it seems that every month Mexican publishers are breaking with the taboos of the past.

In the PRI's heyday, insiders were famously silent about the inner workings of the party. But Ignacio Pichardo, president in 1994 of PRI, which saw a peasant rebellion and the murder of two PRI leaders, recently published his memoir of that year: Triunfos y Traiciones (Triumphs and Betrayals).

Publisher Plaza y Janes recently put out Tepeyac by Leoncio Garcia-Valdes. The book disputes the existence of Juan Diego, the Indian recently canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, who in 1521 was believed to have seen a vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint.

The Mexican president is finally a topic for books. Under the PRI, sitting presidents were untouchable. Vicente Fox was Mexico's first president to enter office accompanied by critical books about his life, his campaign and, later, his decisions in his first year.

Last year, father-son journalists Francisco Ortiz Pinchetti and Francisco Ortiz Pardo published El Fenomeno Fox (The Fox Phenomenon).

The book was their chronicle, as reporters at the news magazine Proceso, of Fox's campaign as it gained momentum and toppled the PRI in 2000.

Drug smuggling, too, was rarely written about 10 years ago; now several books touch on the issue and have not been censored.

"We keep scaling this mountain, and neither the government nor we can go back. We're every day at a new point of no return," says Jesus Blancornelas, editor of the Tijuana news weekly Zeta and author of this year's El Cartel, about the Arellano Felix brothers drug cartel.

The appearance of new biographies of the powerful, due to their delicate personal nature, have been especially groundbreaking.

For years, biographies of anyone were rare.

"Writers confused biography with hagiography," says Emilio Garcia, a Guadalajara biographer of several Mexican actors. "They'd write that the subject was wonderful for the simple act of having existed."

In 1993, Editorial Clio started a line of illustrated biographies about presidents, as well as stars such as actress Maria Felix and the pro wrestling icon, Blue Demon.

The large-format books, written critically but packed with photos, have sold enormously.

In 2000, reporters Andrew Paxman and Claudia Fernandez published what is believed to be the first critical biography in Mexico. Their book, El Tigre, was about the late Emilio Azcarraga, the tycoon who owned the entertainment conglomerate Televisa.

Written in an anecdotal style and based on extensive research, El Tigre sold 80,000 copies - the best-selling political nonfiction book that year.

"We benefited from the winds of opening that began to blow through Mexico in the mid-1990s," says Paxman. "All kinds of papers, magazines, radio shows and even TV shows were willing to help publicize the book. We gave about 60 interviews."

Absent the controls of a one-party state, Mexicans are proving that they will read, if books are well written and on interesting topics.

Reading has expanded as democracy has emerged.

"Journalists have always written for power. This is one of the characteristics of Mexican journalists," says Martinez. "They don't work for readers. [In books] that's changed."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad