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March 2024
25min read

In the bright mestizo tapestry of Mexico’s thirty centuries of civilization, the Indian, the Spanish, and the modern threads interweave—and tangle

About one hundred years ago a roaring hurricane swept along the Mexican border with such fury that it radically changed the course of the Rio Grande—and consequently altered the international boundary. When the storm finally subsided, the village of El Paso, Texas, was about 630 acres larger, and the bawdy little pueblo of Juárez, Mexico, was that many acres smaller.

About one hundred years ago a roaring hurricane swept along the Mexican border with such fury that it radically changed the course of the Rio Grande—and consequently altered the international boundary. When the storm finally subsided, the village of El Paso, Texas, was about 630 acres larger, and the bawdy little pueblo of Juárez, Mexico, was that many acres smaller.

This accidental “land grab” caused prolonged and acrimonious litigation in several international tribunals, but some of the bitterness and resentment vanished on December 13, 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson and President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz simultaneously pressed buttons to dynamite the river back into a channel that restores the 630 acres to Mexico. Surrounded by cool, elegant diplomatic aides and decoratively accompanied by their wives, the two heads of state gave each other a cordial abrazo and exchanged assurances of eternal friendship between their two countries.


But there were certain die-hard Mexicans in the crowd who took a dim view of the polite ceremony performed on the new bridge crossing the Rio Grande. One of the more pithy skeptics was an old mestizo farmer from the other side of the muddy river, whose leathery, pockmarked face was fixed in a dark scowl as President Johnson announced that his government had voluntarily ceded the small tract of land back to Mexico.

“What a miserable farce, man!” the old man stage-whispered to his middle-aged son. “The goddamned gringos took a mountain [no doubt referring to the states of California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona] and now they give us back an anthill!” (“ Qué chingadera, mano! Los pinches gringos nos robaron una montaña y ahora nos devuelven un hormiguero! ”)

Aside from expressing an anti-American attitude that is fairly prevalent among his countrymen, the old man’s gripe is a prime example of the average Mexican’s intense everyday consciousness of his country’s tumultuous, violent history. No nation in Latin America is as attentively aware of its past as is Mexico. Hundreds of brightly colored murals in public buildings, schools, monasteries, theatres, even gas stations, are constant reminders of Mexico’s sanguinary struggles against Cortes, the Catholic Church, and subsequent military and commercial invaders from Spain, France, and the United States. Everywhere he turns, the twentieth-century Mexican can see remnants of each bloody era: rose-pink colonial mansions tightly squeezed between steel-and-glass skyscrapers on the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City; crumbling ruins of an Aztec temple next to a high-rise apartment complex; a full-blooded Zapotec peon leading a flock of proud turkeys across a busy intersection as the light-skinned driver of a sleek Mercedes-Benz shrugs with typical Hispaqic resignation.

The crosshatchings of Mexico’s multiethnic history can be found at every level of the country’s day-to-day existence, and quite frequently you will see some Mexican passionately react to his ancient past as if it were only yesterday. Several years ago, President Adolfo López Mateos entertained Marshal Josip Tito with a bullfight in which an outstanding Mexican matador competed with one from Spain. Much to the dismay of 60,000 highly patriotic spectators, the Spaniard easily dominated his less experienced rival during most of the afternoon. Then, just as the Mexican (he was a coppery-skinned youth with the high cheekbones of his Aztec forebears) was about to face his last bull, a shrill, piercing voice cut into the ominous hush that always precedes the bull’s sudden charge out of the pen: “Don’t forget, Joselito, that the goddamned Spaniards burned Cuauhtémoc’s feet!” (“ Acuérdate, Joselito, que los malditos gachupines∗ quemaron los pies de Cuauhlémoc! ”) He was referring, of course, to an incident that occurred more than four hundred years ago, but the matador, Joselito Huerta, responded to that chilling exhortation as if Cuauhtémoc were a member of his immediate family. Meeting the angry bull on his knees, he made several suicidal passes ( passos de muerte ) as his compatriots went wild with nationalistic pride. And with each successive pass Joselito created wave upon wave of hysteria, defiantly moving closer to the enraged and snorting beast while the crowd chanted “Cuauhtémoc! Cuauhtémoc! Cuauhtémoc!” as if the Spaniards were once again scorching the naked, blistered feet of Moctezuma’s nephew. Although not a graceful performance, it was easily the most dramatic bullfight in many decades, and Joselito was carried from the Plaza Mexico on the shoulders of still-screaming fans whose hatred of Cortes and all other gachupines had been fed to satiety by one of their own blood brothers.

Gachupín is derived from a Spanish word meaning “hollow log”; to a Mexican, however, it means “Spaniard”—in a derogatory sense.

In asserting a passionate pride in his Aztec ancestry, Joselito temporarily ignored the fact that he is a mestizo, a genetic amalgam of Indian and Spanish ancestors dating back to the days of Hernán Cortés. Considering the universal propensity for sexual intercourse regardless of race, one can confidently state that there are very few pure-blooded Spaniards or Indios in Mexico. Though some are more Spanish or more Indian than others (a perfect fifty-fifty combination would be improbable), almost all Mexicans are mestizos. Many of them are frankly ambivalent about their indigenous origins. Some Mexican women still refuse to shave the hair off their legs, no matter how unfashionable they look, because hairy legs and armpits are symbolic of Spanish heritage. Even their darker-skinned servants, whose legs tend to be naturally hairless because of their Indian parentage, often take pride in a slight fuzz on their calves. And there are certain Mexican men who constantly boast of their sangre española as if there were not a trace of Indian genes in their obviously mestizo makeup; but these same proud gentlemen are nevertheless quite willing to transmit their presumed genetic superiority to the bare-legged maids their wives disdain. The droit du seigneur , widely practiced by baronial landholders and lesser gachupines during the colonial era, closely paralleled the after-sundown integration of the southern gentry who fathered thousands of mulattoes in this country. There was, however, a very important difference: many of the Spaniards actually married native women or the mestizo offspring of preceding generations, thus creating the predominantly mestizo population that calls itself Mexican.


Although in a physiological sense their Indian heritage was clearly dominant, many upper-class mestizos joined the Spaniards in systematically oppressing millions of natives during the long colonial period, forcing them into a state of virtual peonage. This anti-indigenous attitude still persists in Mexico even though the government and certain intellectuals have occasionally encouraged pro-Indian movements. The regime of President Alvaro Obregon (1920–24) warmly endorsed an intense but short-lived campaign for indigenismo by José Vasconcelos, his minister of education, who himself later turned his back on the descendants of Moctezuma. The famous Mexican muralists—Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clémente Orozco—have all celebrated the greatness of Mexico’s native roots, and a long succession of brilliant anthropologists and archaeologists have sung the glories of Aztec, Mayan, and Zapotec cultures (the new museum of anthropology, opened in Mexico City in 1964, offers the most concrete evidence of their ancient grandeur); yet the average Mexican has been so brainwashed by centuries of racial humiliation that he still prefers to consider himself more Spanish than Indian. (This statement will no doubt annoy some of my more chauvinistic friends in Mexico, who a few minutes later will patronizingly use the term indito when referring to their maids, gardeners, or other darker-skinned subordinates.)

The fact remains that, in spite of their Hispanic pride, most Mexicans emotionally identify with their Indian ancestors when they look back on their historical beginnings. They hate Cortes and love Cuauhtémoc. And they are particularly disdainful of Malinche, the Aztec interpreter-mistress of Cortes, who helped the conquistadors defeat her own people. Indeed, her name has come to mean “traitor,” and among the worst insults in Mexico even to this day is to call someone a malinche . Several years ago we heard Juan O’Gorman, the painter, sneeringly refer to Rufino Tamayo as “a malinche who has forsaken his Mexican heritage and now paints like a decadent European.” There are, of course, numerous art connoisseurs who feel that Tamayo is far more Mexican than O’Gorman: he simply refuses to engage in the revolutionary polemics of the Rivera-Siqueiros coterie that has dominated Mexican art since the early twenties.

Putting aside any judgment of their aesthetic worth, the great muralists have indeed had a profound influence on the cultural life of Mexico. Along with the archaeologists who unearthed the magnificent ruins of past civilizations, Diego Rivera and his followers have given the Mexican a sense of cultural identity that is rare among Latin Americans. He may have a rather schizoid attitude about his Spanish-Indian background, but he at least knows where his roots are. He is, in fact, the progeny of two enormous cultural forces that have sometimes clashed like blind and angry giants, each struggling to overcome the other but never completely succeeding.

First of all, the Spaniards sought to impose their language upon the Indians and were generally successful; yet there are still thousands of natives in isolated areas who cling to their ancient tongues and absolutely refuse to speak “the devil’s language.” Less than fifty miles from Mexico City, in a small town called Tepoztlán, about seventy per cent of the villagers spoke Nahuatl, the native language of the Aztecs, as recently as 1940. There are, indeed, certain indigenistas who have proposed that Mexico adopt Nahuatl as the official language.

The Spaniards were perhaps more successful in imposing their religion on their defeated foes. They brutally forced the Aztecs, Mayans, and Zapotecs to bury their temples under huge mounds of earth, and then built elegant Christian churches on top of them. Because of its awesome ritual, mystery, and theatrical grandeur, Catholicism had a special appeal for the easily mesmerized masses who had formerly worshipped at the altar of Quetzalcoatl and other Aztec gods. It was fairly simple for them to accept at least the outward trappings of the new religion, but they also grafted onto it some of their own attitudes and superstitions. The Day of the Dead, which is a uniquely Mexican holiday, is a most fascinating example of an ancient Indian concept expressed in the brilliant ambient of the Catholic Church. Since they believed their own lives did not belong to them, death had no personal meaning for the Aztecs, and their philosophical resignation was transmitted to their mestizo descendants.

Thus, as the poet and critic Octavio Paz observes in his memorable Labyrinth of Solitude , we Mexicans decorate our houses with sugar-candy skulls and paper skeletons strung with fireworks, and eat bread in the shape of bones on the Day of the Dead. We also tell stories in which death laughs and cracks jokes, and we sing songs like “La Vida No Vale Nada” (“Life Is Worth Nothing”)—not defying death, mind you, but simply accepting it with a gentle irony.

Three years ago, while attending a Day of the Dead fiesta in the town of Mixquic, I saw a group of teenagers joyfully marching through a church cemetery with a pink papier-mâché coffin on their shoulders, chanting a silly little rhyme about death. The macabre joke horrified a group of American tourists but merely amused the hundreds of Mexicans who were casually eating dinner with their families and friends among the graves of deceased relatives. I cannot claim to be that nonchalant, yet I sometimes envy my Aztec ancestors’ commendable indifference to dying.

Aside from their religion, language, and architecture, the Spaniards imported a whole range of social mores that were absorbed or rejected with varying degrees of resistance by successive generations of Mexicans. Among the more easily propagated Spanish customs was machismo , the typical Latin’s neurotic insistence on his male superiority, which undoubtedly appealed to the manoriented societies of the Aztecs, Mayans, Zapotecs, Tarahumares, Yaquis, and other tribes. At any rate, Mexicans have widely adopted the European habit of relegating their wives to second-class status while keeping a mistress in a love nest, or casa chica .

Another Spanish custom which gained wide acceptance was compadrazco , the strong familial role of compadres (godfathers), who are actually expected to function as second fathers to their godchildren. It is a warm, cozy relationship, and many a Mexican child soon realizes that his godfather is a handy buffer between him and his parents. My godfather, who once gave me a dozen baby chicks and a half watermelon for my birthday, would always go into a towering rage whenever my father spanked me. He frequently belted his own children but was somehow convinced that my skinny little bottom was sacrosanct.

During the long dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (1876–1911), the French had a considerable influence on the intellectual and cultural life of Mexico. The French Parnassians and Symbolists were imitated by Mexican poets; Auguste Comte and Ernest Renan were suddenly discovered by philosophers at the Universidad Nacional; and the monied aristocracy adopted an urbane Parisian manner and tried to duplicate the ambiance of the Paris salons in their elegant mansions in the Colonia Roma. Speaking French is still a “must” among Mexican intellectuals and writers, most of whom are far more knowledgeable about Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus than they are about any American authors.

Referring to this Frenchification of his fellow intellectuals, Paz believes that the Mexican discovered his universality in French culture. “The models of our poetry, like those of our political systems, are universal—with little interest in time, space and local color. Our poets tend to ignore our national particulars in favor of a universal conception of mankind. … Hence our poetry is Romantic or national only when it is weak or self-betraying. The same is true, in various ways, of the rest of our artistic and political forms.” If this standard were applied to the murals of Rivera, Siqueiros, and their numerous followers, they would be judged “weak or self-betraying,” for they are certainly nationalistic in the most extreme sense of the word.

Although its principal ingredients have been culled from Indian, Spanish, and French antecedents, the Mexican ethos has also been strongly influenced by the United States. This is particularly true of modern Mexico. The Coca-Cola cultural invasion is clearly evident at every level: mini-skirted señoritas sit at IBM typewriters in sleek air-conditioned offices, typing letters in English to the parent company in Kalamazoo; long-haired Mexican hippies groove to Bob Dylan on RCA stereo sets turned on full blast; a buxom Mexican suburban matron boasts of her costly mass-produced furniture from Sears Roebuck and disdains handcarved colonial furniture that is actually less expensive; dark-eyed children munch American candy bars as they watch “The Untouchables,” perfectly dubbed into Spanish, on TV; a wily bootblack spouts a few well-rehearsed English phrases for the tourist trade; and bilingual prostitutes coyly flatter their yanqui customers in either language. Ambivalent in their attitude toward the United States (it is difficult to love an affluent neighbor), many Mexicans nevertheless slavishly imitate the gringos they purportedly hate. Carlos Fuentes, an astute novelist and social critic, once remarked that Mexico is the most Americanized antiAmerican country in the world.

To understand this curious ambivalence toward the United States, one must analyze this country’s in-and-out involvement in the Mexican revolution and its aftermath. First of all, one ought to take into account the unavoidable interdependence between our neighboring republics. In a geographic sense we are like Siamese twins. Mexico is the narrowing extension of the same land mass as the United States, being the longest stretch between this country and the crucial Panama Canal. The largest, most strategic deep-water harbor on the west coast of this continent is Mexico’s beautiful Bahia de Magdalena. In a land war (we shall wistfully discount the possibility of intercontinental nuclear missiles), the Rio Grande River would be a most vulnerable border.

But the interdependence between us goes beyond mere geographic considerations. Mexico occupies a most critical position in the political and cultural life of the entire hemisphere and thus necessarily influences U.S. foreign policy in this volatile area. As Anita Brenner cogently asserts in The Wind That Swept Mexico: “What the Mexican people think and feel about us is a sort of lens through which the rest of Latin America regards us.” Even when Mexico stands alone in the Western Hemisphere in maintaining friendly relations with Fidel Castro’s government, she may be serving as the secret alter ego of many sister republics who frankly envy Mexico—not because they agree with her regarding Cuba, but because she dares defy the most powerful nation in the world.

Bearing in mind the geopolitical web that enfolds our two countries, one can more readily understand Mexico’s attitude toward the United States. First of all, it is rather difficult for most Mexicans to forget that California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, the increasingly affluent southwestern sector of this country, once belonged to Mexico. Their resentment is constantly nourished by the fact that nearly all the major cities of California have retained their original Spanish names—Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento, Fresno, Monterey, San Jose, Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Bernardino—so that the Anglo-Saxon name of Bakersfield seems oddly intrusive midst all that Hispanic nomenclature. Several years ago, when I was the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Secretary of State in California, my opponent jokingly told a group of Rotarians that “Lopez is scheming to give California back to Mexico.” He probably never realized it, but he was actually expressing the secret longing of millions of chicanos (Mexican-Americans) who enviously know that California alone is wealthier and more productive than all of Mexico.

Though slightly less affluent and much less attractive than California, the state of Texas is probably more coveted by historically sensitive Mexicans who have always resented the texanos’ perpetual bragging about their last-ditch stand at the Alamo. Having been told that their Mexican-American paisanos in Texas are generally treated as second-class citizens, the average Mexican is all too willing to accept the most abusive and farfetched stereotypes about Texans. Even the most sophisticated Mexican intellectuals, notwithstanding the cogent findings of the Warren Commission, are still stubbornly convinced that President Kennedy was the victim of a devious plot by wealthy, power-hungry Texans who wanted Lyndon Johnson in the White House. Unfortunately, there are a few irrepressible Texans who seem to revel in the less attractive aspects of their public image. Last summer I heard a man from Houston loudly berating an old, stoop-shouldered peddler about the price of a scrape: “Don’t talk to me about pesos, boy—just tell me how much it costs in Texas dollars.” His friends seemed to enjoy the jest, but there were a few other American bystanders who found his humor a trifle heavy. Such incidents, admittedly blown out of all proportion by Texaphobes, no doubt inspired the saloonkeeper who named his hole-in-the-wall establishment La Conquista de Texas por los Aztecas en el Año 2000 (The Conquest of Texas by the Aztecs in the Year 2000).


Most saloons have shorter names, but most tend to express the inchoate wish-dreams of their poor clientele, who drown their collective sorrow in the cheap alcoholic drink called pulque. One bar in the slums of Mexico City is called The Reincarnation of Pancho Villa, and the one next door is hopefully named The Revolution Starts Tomorrow. For drinkers of more conservative bent there is a busy apolitical bar called Safe Refuge for Lonely Whores, which paradoxically discourages the patronage of unescorted women.

At first blush, one could easily assume that the revolutionary names of various neighborhood saloons are deliberately facetious (some probably are), but one soon realizes that most of them reflect a sort of linguistic ossification dating back to the bloody revolution of 1910. The whole country seems to be caught in a verbal prison defined by that word revolución . Wherever one travels—through the barren sierras of Durango, the muggy tropics of Chiapas, or the pine-covered mountains near the capital—many hillsides are decorated with giant slogans spelled out with large calcimined stones: Pan, Tierra y Libertad; Revolución Agraria; Revolución para los Obreros, Fuera Imperialismo; Mexico para los Mexicanos; Partido Revolucionario Institucional; Campesinos por la Revolución —(Bread, Land and Liberty; Agrarian Revolution; Revolution for the Workers; Down with Imperialism; Mexico for Mexicans; Party of Institutional Revolution; Farmers for Revolution). The very same slogans are plastered on the walls of public buildings, schools, bullrings, and thousands of private homes—a forever-echoing cry for social upheaval that gives the uninitiated traveller a jittery feeling that thousands of fiery-eyed campesinos are waiting at the barricades, fully prepared to invade scores of slumbering dusty villages and towns of questionable strategic value.


But every Mexican knows that the slogans are almost meaningless, that revolución is one of the emptiest words in the vocabulary. The politicians also know this but nevertheless feel a compulsion to mouth and gargle the word— revolución, revolución, revolución —as if to wash it clean of any dangerous semantic residue.

The obsession with revolución is understandable enough in a country where it is almost impossible to count accurately the number of revolutions that took place in a single century: from 1810—when the rebellious priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla started the first one—to 1911, when the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz was finally toppled. In recent times, revolución has become so sanitized that in 1954 Miguel Alemân, considered by some to be the most reactionary President since Diaz, actually formed a Committee for the Conservation of the Revolution ( Comité para la conservatión de la revolución ).

Yet one must admit that the word revolución was anything but abstract when it was the banner cry of Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, Venustiano Carranza, and Alvaro Obregon, the legendary guerrilla chieftains who supported Francisco Madero in the prolonged and devastating struggle that began in 1910. The revolution they talked about was not a fuzzy, ambiguous concept: they knew what it meant. Backed by thousands of landless peasants and lowly urban workers who yearned to be free of the oppressive thirty-year dictatorship of Diaz, they led a tumultuous campaign that eventually changed the face of Mexico. The old dictator fled into exile, the baronial hacendados lost their enormous estates, and the church was finally stripped of its great wealth and power. It was, in every sense of the word, a genuine revolution. No other country in the Western Hemisphere, with the sole exception of Cuba fifty years later, has been so radically restructured within a single decade.

But in spite of their ultimate success, the revolutionary forces participated in a strange, often bewildering series of battles and political coups that resembled a badly edited movie with maddening flashbacks, devious side plots, and innumerable minor actors spasmodically diverting attention from the main plot. The picture portfolio accompanying this essay has a chronological commentary that will guide the reader through—or at least along the edge of—the complexities of Mexican history, including the tangle of the revolution of 1910. Here, I would prefer to consider some of the principal characters in that hundred-act drama—Villa, Zapata, Carranza, Obregón, and Madero.

Since my father was perhaps the only permanent private in Villa’s army, I am naturally drawn to that picaresque Centauro del Norte , who was regarded as a Robin Hood benefactor by his admirers in the northern states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Sonora. Reared in a Mexican-American ghetto in Colorado, where the devil-may-care exploits of Villa were a constant source of supper-table conversation, I was understandably dismayed to learn (many years later) that he was held in low esteem by most Mexican historians. They agree that Villa was more bandit than revolutionary—that he was a bloodthirsty, womanizing adventurer with no basic understanding of the revolution. (Two years ago Villa’s widow heatedly denied that he frequently tortured his victims. “That’s a lie!” she told an interviewer. “If Pancho didn’t like someone he would simply shoot him, but he never tortured anyone.”) Rather reluctantly, I have been forced to accept the view that Villa was a somewhat less heroic figure than, say, George Washington, and that his understanding of the revolution was deficient.


Although his grasp of revolutionary theorems was probably no greater than Villa’s, Emiliano Zapata completely enchanted the intellectual radicals who disdained Villa and his hell-raising los dorados , “the golden ones,” who served as Villa’s elite personal troops. Zapata’s quiet, modest demeanor—which became a curiously aggressive modesty in Marion Brando’s film portrayal—is more appealing to certain historians and writers who like their heroes strong and silent. Of the many thousand words written about this charismatic guerrillero from the state of Morelos, none have been more perceptive than those of Octavio Paz. “Realism and myth are joined in this ardent, melancholy and hopeful figure who died as he had lived—embracing the earth. His image, like the earth, is made up of patience and fertility, silence and hope, death and resurrection.” In response to the peasants’ hungering determination to get back their ancestral lands, most revolutionary leaders strongly urged far-reaching agrarian reforms; but it was Zapata who best expressed the basic wants of his fellow campesinos with his demand for pan, tierra y libertad —a profound and moving gut cry that soon inflamed the deepest passions of thousands of white-clad peasants who followed and fought for Zapata as if he were the reincarnation of Cuauhtémoc himself.

Though they lacked the natural charisma of either Villa or Zapata, Madero, Obregón, and Carranza undoubtedly had a greater understanding of revolutionary principles. Aside from their active participation in the war itself, they were the principal architects of the constitution of 1917 and all subsequent enabling legislation. They also shared a fate common to many Mexican leaders—each one became President, and each one was shot to death as a result of political intrigue. (Small wonder that the average Mexican regarded violence and murder as political norms.)

Indeed, if one wishes to understand the Mexican psyche, one must be acutely aware of the kind of war Mexico fought to liberate itself from its feudal past. As previously indicated, Mexicans are obsessively fascinated by the most minute details of their glorious revolución . Their movies, their ballads, their murals, their public ceremonies, constantly allude to the exploits of their heroes, often ignoring the schisms that sometimes made them fight each other. Though there was no binding agreement between them, nor a general strategy, Villa, Zapata, Carranza, and Obregón were initially unified in their fundamental goals—death to reactionaries, down with foreigners, Mexico for Mexicans. Bound together only by their common hates, their various guerrilla forces operated as separate entities. They had no common supply lines, no general staffs, no over-all plans, no central organization. They simply attacked at random, arming themselves with captured guns and ammunition, feeding themselves from the storage bins of raided plantations. Snowballing in size with each successive attack, the rebel bands would ride into town in a cloud of dust, yelling “ Viva Madero!” “Viva la revolución! ” And they were soon joined by hundreds of defectors from the government rurales whose dove-gray uniforms contrasted sharply with the motley come-as-you-are garb of the maderistas .

Their tactics and weapons varied considerably, but they did share a common fondness for blowing up trains. Most of the crucial battles were fought along railroad lines, with some of the railroad workers conspiring with the rebels to sabotage their own trains. Quite frequently a handcar or an old steam engine was converted into a makeshift torpedo by loading it with dynamite and then rolling it down the rails for a brief encounter with an oncoming enemy troop train.

In spite of the obvious hazards, the trains were continuously used for the transportation of soldiers and their families from one battle area to another, often resembling mobile tenement buildings. Hundreds of men, women, and children were crammed into boxcars designed for livestock, some perched on top like sparrows, others blissfully slouched in hammocks slung between the wheels. With a stoic indifference to danger, the women cooked the tortillas, frijoles , and carnitas on oil-can braziers loosely attached to the catwalks on top of the boxcars, their children scrambling in and out of the moving cars in never-ending games of tag and hide-and-seek. However, these same carefree children grew up fast. By the age of ten most of them were buglers, drummers, couriers, and sentries, and many became full-fledged soldiers at twelve. The women also joined the fighting, especially if their husbands or lovers had been killed. There were hundreds of soldaderas whose military exploits were praised in earthy ballads like “Adelita,” a hauntingly beautiful song that would make strong men weep on their second glass of tequila. My father never tired of telling us about a reckless, dark-eyed señorita named Conchita Gomez, who could shoot a hole through a silver peso at fifty paces. “She was a stunning beauty,” he said, “but her prowess with a .38 pistol tended to scare away any potential suitors.”

But the presence of daring and lovely soldaderas could not conceal the essential horror and ugliness of the war itself. For several tortured years the whole country was plunged into a nightmare of carnage, looting, and physical devastation beyond all description. It was probably the bloodiest war in the bloody history of Latin America. Millions of Mexicans, rich and poor alike, had to adjust themselves to a most tenuous existence, ready to migrate at a moment’s notice as the contending armies swept back and forth across the scarred landscape. Every “general” printed his own money, which of course became the only legal tender in the locale he occupied at that moment. With nearly two hundred varieties of worthless paper money floating about like confetti, the economic chaos caused thousands of dejected workers to leave their jobs and join whatever troops happened to be passing through. Life was soon cheaper than the worthless paper bills, and the average mexicano had reason to believe the melancholy lyrics of “La Vida No Vale Nada.” Yet, strange as it may seem, few people showed fear or gloom, their mood being instead a curious blend of resignation and simmering excitement. Even now, fifty years later, the revolución is the favorite theme of Mexican movie producers. Every week, year after year, millions of men, women, and children crowd into theatres all over Mexico to watch the latest version of this or that battle, always cheering like mad for the rebel troops as they raid a hacienda or demolish an enemy troop train. Totally identifying with the insurgents, they never grow tired of watching the underdogs re-rekilling the rich, powerful overdogs.

When they leave the gilded movie houses to return once more to their crowded, smelly slums or their bleak, adobe shacks in the arid countryside—for many of them are no better off than they were before the downfall of Diaz—those briefly bedazzled peons may wonder what all the fighting was about. Nevertheless, one must admit that, despite the persistent misery of millions of campesinos and obreros , Mexico as a whole has indeed progressed during the past half century, particularly in such urban centers as Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey. Thousands of factories, skyscrapers, and housing developments have given urban Mexico the most modern face in all Latin America, while hundreds of villages and rural areas still suffer from gross neglect. Not surprisingly, huge masses of Mexicans have been afflicted by an urbicentric mania that has drawn them into the larger cities and has created almost insurmountable problems for the capital, which has mushroomed into one of the largest cities in this hemisphere. The once serene elegance of Paseo de la Reforma, where Emperor Maximilian rode in a gilded carriage to his home in Chapultepec Palace while Carlota waited for him on the broad shaded terrace, has given way to the ugly onslaught of jackhammers, bulldozers, and cranes as old colonial mansions come tumbling down to make room for cold, glittering skyscrapers. Thousands and thousands of automobiles, purchased by an ever-increasing middle class which buys new cars but never abandons their old ones, have polluted the air and created endless traffic snarls that get worse day by day. Mexican chaos is somehow less organized than American chaos. Caught in the nerve-wracking mesh of this latinized urban crisis, breathing foul air while he rides to work in a sardine-packed bus that now takes twice as long to get him there, the average Mexican is no longer the easy-smiling, carefree latino who seemed so charming to tourists. He is, in fact, well on his way to becoming an angry, sullen, urban animal with all the feral fulminations of a New York cab driver.


Perhaps his Catholic faith (or the remnants of an Aztec fatalism) will enable him to accept the ravages of urbanitis with some forbearance. His religious fatalism certainly contributed to his “what God wills” (“ lo que dios quiera ”) acceptance of three hundred years of colonial tyranny; yet I strongly suspect that Catholicism no longer has the tight hold it once had, notwithstanding the weird penitent displays of devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12, when thousands of moist-eyed believers crawl for miles and miles on bloodied knees to honor the gaudy effigy of their patron saint in the basilica in Mexico City. Although more than ninety per cent of the population professes to be Catholic, it is the women who go to church, informally serving as their husbands’ surrogates in religious matters. (My father, who doggedly claimed to be un buen católico all his life, attended mass about once every five years and quite frequently told risqué stories about priests and nuns.) In this connection, a most crucial current problem is the collision between the Catholic church and civil reformers over population control, the lack of which is threatening Mexico, like many other Latin American countries, with disaster.


Mexico has been officially anticlerical since 1857, when Benito Juárez promulgated laws which forced the church to divest itself of enormous property holdings. But with the complicity of Porfirio Dfaz and his conservative clique, Catholicism continued as a major force until President Plutarco Galles (in the late 1920’s) clamped down on the church and ordered strict enforcement of all anti-clerical measures. To make his point quite clear, he summarily ordered the public execution of a recalcitrant priest who belonged to the militant clerical order. All parochial schools and colleges were abolished, nuns and priests were (and still are) forbidden to wear clerical garb in public, many churches were closed, and all government functions were shorn of any religious observance, thus effecting a separation of church and state more complete than that in the United States. With the single exception of Avila Camacho, no Mexican President has ever publicly attended mass during his term of office. Indeed, less than five years ago, President Dfaz Ordaz pointedly declined to attend the religious celebration of his own daughter’s wedding, attending only the civil ceremony.

Aside from Mexico’s notoriously liberal divorce laws, there is a considerable laxity in all kinds of legal and administrative procedures, the ambiguous language of the Napoleonic Code providing great latitude for judicial accommodation. Though the courts seem solemnly dedicated to the enforcement of even the most minute letter of the law (government bureaucracies can be maddeningly persnickety about insignificant formal requirements), most Mexican lawyers know that the wheels of justice can be lubricated with generous applications of mordida ( mordida means “bite”—as in “put the bite on him”). As in most Latin countries, paying mordida to government officials is accepted without any particular outrage from the general citizenry. During the early sixties, when the mayor of Mexico City ordered the police to quit taking bribes from traffic violators, I heard a cab driver bitterly complain that he was now forced to pay more mordida than ever before. “ Qué chingadera! ” he grumbled. “In the old days I simply paid the cop five or ten pesos and he’d let me go. Now he has to arrest me and take me to court, where I pay fifty pesos and also lose a half day waiting for my case to be heard. I’d rather bribe a poor cop who needs it much more than a rich, fat judge.”

Although it is difficult to measure official corruption with any degree of statistical certainty (bribes are seldom recorded in public ledgers), some old-timers feel that mordida is now less prevalent than it was when the military ruled Mexico, the generals having had more agile and magnetic fingers than the police. From 1880 to 1940, with the sole exception of Francisco Madero, every President of Mexico was a general; and the most profitable ministries and top-echelon offices were reserved for military cronies and in-laws who generally appointed more knowledgeable civilian braintrusters to do the actual work. Yet in spite of their glutinous hold on the treasury, the get-rich generals have gradually lost their power during the past thirty years. In 1954 a civilian President suddenly “retired” 265 generals in one swoop, a delightfully flamboyant gesture which incidentally tended to support my father’s long-held belief that the Mexican army had more generals than privates.


With a commensurate reduction in all other military personnel, Mexico now spends about seven per cent of its national budget on the armed forces, while most other Latin American countries approach forty per cent. But the transition from military to civilian rule was not easy. There were no large-scale hostilities, but as Katherine Anne Porter showed in her classic portrayal of a revolutionary scoundrel in “Flowering Judas,” the twenties and thirties were decades of great civil violence and intrigue, a perpetual struggle for power between the radicals and conservatives. Miss Porter was herself involved as a secret courier for a group of revolutionaries, occasionally taking messages and food to political prisoners in a local jail. During those turbulent years most Mexican Presidents were either assassinated or forced into exile.

Then came an era of unprecedented political stability and presidential longevity. Violating all the norms of Mexico’s ancient modus operandi , five successive Presidents (Lázaro Cárdenas, Avila Camacho, Miguel Alemán, Adolfo Rufz Cortines, Adolfo López Mateos) completed their full terms without being shot at. What’s more, all of them belonged to the same political party, Partido Revolucionario Institucional.

Some historians may complain that Mexico’s political life has become dull and too predictable. But for the keen student of governmental intrigue, P.R.I, is one of the more fascinating political organizations in the Occidental world. With an almost fiendish Machiavellian skill, the party has been able to weld the most disparate socioeconomic elements into a political instrument that has stayed in power for nearly forty years. Its only visible rival, the Partido Auténtico National (P.A.N.), has made some inroads among the northern states of Chihuahua, Sonora, and Baja California—all of whom have resented the Mexico City orientation of P.R.I.—but they have thus far failed to mount an effective challenge in the country at large.

In the international sphere, Mexico successfully expropriated American- and British-owned oil fields in 1937, and more recently has carried on diplomatic relations with the government of Fidel Castro, yet has still managed to remain friendly with the United States. Swinging from left to right as internal and external circumstances dictate, P.R.I, selects its official sure-to-win presidential candidate in a manner so secret that it makes the papal election seem like an open, televised caucus. Every six years, for months on end, the national press and all its readers endlessly speculate about the party’s tapado (the hidden one), and professional politicians go mad trying to decide what side of what fence they should jump to.

Lately, however, the all-powerful P.R.I, seems to be developing a few cracks in its inscrutable mask. There is a certain flabbiness around its jowls, a touch of hysteria in its usually placid eyes. Perhaps it is only the inevitable ravages of time, a sense of growing helplessness against the crush of history. Last autumn the Plaza de las Très Culturas in Mexico City was the scene of a peaceful student protest meeting that was suddenly interrupted by heavily armed Mexican troops who attacked the unarmed demonstrators with automatic rifles, machine guns, and tear gas, killing at least fifty men, women, and children. Going beyond their own academic concerns, the students and their adult sympathizers were—and still are—demanding the abolition of harsh restrictive laws against political dissenters and the immediate dismissal of the chief of police and his much-feared granaderos (secret police).

However resourceful P.R.I.’s leaders have been in the past, their subtle strategies may not suffice in an era of urban crisis, population explosion, student unrest, and general discontent among millions of still-hungry campesinos and obreros who keep hearing the insistent echo of the liberty bell that el Padre Hidalgo rang one night in the little village of Dolores. And beyond that haunting echo they may be listening to the thunder of angry hooves as the unquiet spirits of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa lead their restless hordes through parched and desolate lands that have been left untouched by the revolution.

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