Saturday, November 20, 2010

¡Viva México! 100 Años

We visited one of our new favorite restaurants last night -- El Mariachi in Easton -- and from promotional signs learned that today is the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. Although we have spent a lot of time in and around Mexico, this date had somehow escaped our notice. It is easy to see why: Mexico had three major transformations: Independence (from Spain), Reform (reducing the political power of the Church), and Revolution (against the dictator Porfirio Díaz, who ruled for three decades on behalf of the most wealthy). Each movement has various monuments and anniversaries, and we had somehow missed the importance of this date, which marks the start of a decade-long struggle, from 1910 to 1920. (To learn more, see the narrative at MexConnect and the online bibliography at Latin American Studies.)

The Mexican Revolution was exceptionally long and violent, with perhaps a tenth of Mexico's citizens dying in the process. The purposes of the Revolution were to end the dictatorial rule of Díaz and, more fundamentally, to reverse the extreme concentration of land holdings in the country. As in many parts of Latin America, the wealthy exhibited and maintained their wealth by controlling very large tracts of land. (One reason for the Church's power, in fact, was that children of the wealthy were routinely sent to religious orders so that they would not divide land by inheritance.) 

The problem of land distribution in Mexico is known as the minifundio/latifundio problem -- meaning small-farm/big-farm. As with the concentration of wealth in other contexts, the concentration of land ownership at one of the social spectrum contributed directly to the paucity of land ownership at the other end -- and vice-versa. The rich would use some of their land to produce wealth, but they would leave even more of it idle, so that peasants could not find enough land of their own to farm. This would keep the cost of labor low -- sometimes lower even that it would be in slavery, because peasants would work on big farms just for the right to have some land, which they would also work on. Even some farmers who owned a small parcel would need to work on the latifundio, to compensate for what they were unable to produce on the minifundio.

This unpublished cover by
Jhinuk Sarkar captures the magic
realism and many other themes
of the book and film.
The Mexican Revolution was in some ways the template for many uprisings elsewhere in Latin America, as the problem of concentrated land ownership has been -- and continues to be -- an important aspect of social injustice throughout the region. Many outside observers -- particularly in the United States -- have ascribed  ideological motivations to movements that really began with people seeking the opportunity to grow their own food. A century after the Revolution, I would argue that its promise remains largely unfulfilled. The Revolution ended in 1920, and led eventually to the 1929 emergence of the oddly-named PRI: the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Essentially subsuming the peasants, the workers, and the chamber of commerce, the PRI became extremely adept at co-opting the demands of each constituency in turn, and in building a network interlaced, corrupt relationships that allowed the PRI eventually to become the longest-ruling political party in the world, outlasting even the Communist Party in the USSR.

During our meal, we talked about the revolution and about our wish for a return to the Mexico we have loved and enjoyed. Although I have been filling this blog with the many current troubles in Mexico, it was the introduction to Latin America for both of us, and we enjoyed living in and near it through much of the 1980s and 1990s.

Waxing nostalgic, we went home to watch one of our very favorite films, Como Agua para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate), the 1992 adaptation of Laura Esquivel's novel. The film is set in the border city of Piedras Negras, across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas and about 200 miles north of our old home in the Valley. We love the movie because it bring together familiar landscapes and traditions, along with food, romance, and insights into the revolutionary period a century ago.

1 comment:

  1. Very insightful, James. Like Water for Chocolate is one of my faves. Too bad Mexico continues to struggle. Such a beautiful country, people, and my heritage. On the bright side for us, along the border, is the influx of shoppers and their pesos into our local economy thanks to this holiday.


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