Sunday, November 21, 2010

Revolutionary Resonance: The Centennial

The Monument to the Revolution is a hulking mass of stone and steel that dominates a bleak plaza in the heart of Mexico City. It is an unsentimental memorial to the movement that toppled the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz and left nearly 1.5 million dead. Erected on the base of the uncompleted Porfirian legislature, it is a silent reminder that the Revolution borrowed heavily from the past even while it built modern Mexico.

The image of the Revolution, like its monumental representation, has loomed over Mexican life since the fighting abated in 1917. While the state fostered the cults of revolutionary icons such as Emiliano Zapata and Francisco Villa, literally and figuratively unifying them into a pantheon along with those who had been their mortal enemies, the popular resonance of these heroes and martyrs was often outside the bounds of official remembrance.

Constant references to its revolutionary provenance remained a central pillar of the rhetorical legitimacy of the PRI, whose very name suggested the institutionalization of the social struggle. The values of the--capital "R"--Revolution remained the central reference point of political discourse, even as the politics they justified drifted farther from those ideals. Former generals found ample opportunities for profit in the permissive years after the fighting ended, and the workers who had received significant guarantees in the 1917 revolutionary constitution increasingly found themselves submitted to corrupt and authoritarian union bosses. Many of these unions still retain an active protest tradition, and used the occasion of the centennial to take to the streets to defend their "revolutionary" rights against government privatization efforts.

For many other Mexicans, however, the centennial commemorates events as far removed from daily reality as the 200-year-old events of independence. Despite the achievements the Revolution brought--and they are not insubstantial--its cultural and political significance is greatly faded. Along with apathy and indifference, there are those who perceive the corruption of the Revolution, and have often looked outside the country for inspiration, mingling Mexican tradition with international symbols.

When I first visited the Monument in 2004, I peered down on a shaft to where an eternal flame was supposed to burn. The flame was out and bits of trash littered the platform. The bronze words on the walls spelled out a message about the meaning of the Revolution. The "D" had long since fallen from "Democracy."

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Sometimes, all you can do is hang on.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Balloons, and the Political Economy of Marginality

Fruit vendors, squatting communities, balloon-sellers, and taxi drivers are hardly the stuff of political legend. But in Mexico, such economically marginalized populations have long been a staple of urban politics, organized into countless trade unions and civic associations by ambitious politicians and upwardly mobile leaders. The proliferation of this low-level corporatism is not hard to understand in a country where millions live in the gray shadows of the informal economy, their livelihoods determined by the largesse and tolerance of often capricious authorities. For those who must obtain official permits--or achieve the official condonation of their absence--in order to survive, this vulnerability provides a strong impulse to organization, both for those who seek to defend legally-granted privilege as well as for those who must bitterly defend their non-legal means of subsistence. That there should exist a balloon-sellers union, then, is not surprising: how else to defend access to public plazas and confront extortion from police officers? But the price of defending or ensuring such privileges has never been cheap, and Mexico's one-party system was skilled at both incorporating and manipulating these groups, turning them into fiercely loyal clients of the regime. But lost in the chaotic swirl of Uniones, Coaliciones, Frentes, and Sindicatos, is the fact that these groups--prey as they might upon their members--also provided a certain degree of meaningful benefits. Corporatist incorporation into the PRI may have often meant subjugation to the demands of the state, but it was a relationship that only functioned due to its inherent reciprocity, and even balloon-sellers knew how to play the game.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

With its roots in pre-Hispanic celebrations and its distinctly non-Western attitude toward death, Dia de los Muertos has become Mexico's most marketable cultural holiday and a staple of middle school Spanish classes in the United States. This mingling of authentic tradition with exportable exhibition, of meaningful commemoration with commercialized caricature, are the marks of a holiday that has increasingly become a transnational event.

Across the country, students of all ages participated in altar building contests, painting elaborate designs with flower petals and arranging candles around photos of revolutionary heroes or famous musicians. The practice of incorporating an offering to the dead of special food and drink occasionally took an ironic turn: it was not uncommon to see a bottle of tequila sharing an altar with a picture of Pancho Villa--a notorious teetotaller.

While public plazas filled with overly-ornate ofrendas, a different scene unfolded in the municipal cemetery in Puebla. A stream of families swirled through the gates and crowded down the central walkway, carrying bunches of marigolds in tin cans. Workers stood amid the chaos, calling out "¿necesita pala, agua?" as they offered their shoveling services to families hoping to tidy up the tangles of weeds creeping over the graves.

In the fourth class section of the cemetery, among the tessellated sprawl of wrought-iron crosses and stone slabs, mariachis plucked out tunes and families hugged. By the grave of a salsa singer, a man replaced batteries in a tired boom box.

These intimate, personal ceremonies overlapped with boisterous public celebrations. The female icons of Santa Muerte--Saint Death--were paraded through the streets of Puebla in open veneration of a cult that has traditionally remained on the fringes of official Mexican Catholicism and connected to poverty and crime. Elsewhere, oversized skeleton puppets danced in plazas and festive crowds gathered around colorful altars and bought black and white balloons with images of cartoon skulls.

Not all the public altars were whimsical tributes to national heroes, however. Some were reminders of true grief, such as the horrific fire at a nursery school in Sonora. In the end, the perfusion of death in Mexican popular culture is more than a touristic curiosity or academic fascination, it is a reflection of a society that has lived far too many tragedies and where embracing death is easier than trying to push it away.