Double Vantage: On Jorge Castañeda
There are a few things that Mañana Forever?, Jorge Castañeda’s new book on Mexico, pointedly isn’t about. It’s not about violence, and it’s not about the immigration debate (though it does consider the effects of emigration). Above all, it’s not about the drug wars. Castañeda, it soon becomes clear, considers these subjects, especially the last, to be distractions when it comes to a discussion of the Mexican national character—or of Mexico in general. He is in agreement with David Rieff, who recently lamented in The New Republic the tendency of American commentators to endorse the idea that Mexico is at risk of becoming a failed state, and to focus exclusively on the grisly fallout from President Felipe Calderón’s military campaign against the country’s narco-gangs.
Lately, better news from Mexico has been attracting attention. A July front-page article in the New York Times made it clear that US perceptions of its neighbor have lagged behind reality. According to recent statistics, the flow of illegal immigrants has already stopped, with net traffic falling to zero for the first time in sixty years. “The Mexican census recently discovered four million more people in Mexico than had been projected, which officials attributed to a sharp decline in emigration,” explained Damien Cave of the Times. Perhaps even more surprising, stepped-up enforcement on the US side of the border is only a small part of the picture. More significant are trends in Mexico, including increased work and educational opportunities and a sharp fall in birthrates. “The decision to leave home involves a comparison, a wrenching cost-benefit analysis,” wrote Cave, “and just as a Mexican baby boom and economic crises kicked off the emigration waves in the 1980s and ’90s, research now shows that the easing of demographic and economic pressures is helping keep departures in check.” In short, Mexicans are finding more reasons to stay in Mexico, despite the cloud of drug violence.
This is the Mexico that Castañeda wants Americans to understand better: a country where democracy is on the rise and a new middle class is rapidly emerging. In his shrewd, contrarian study, broadly informed and bold if occasionally highhanded, he analyzes a series of character traits that have long been attributed to the Mexican people and explains how an outmoded self-image is occluding analysis of economic and social gains. Castañeda is a political scientist, so his methods are more sociological than philosophical; but his book is ultimately an ontological inquiry, an attempt to probe the Mexican psyche—or, more accurately, to diagnose and perhaps exorcise its real and imagined ills. Unlike Octavio Paz—his most renowned predecessor—he’s no poet, nor does he claim to be, though he does implicitly situate himself in the lineage of Paz and other students of Mexican character, from essayists Jorge Cuesta and Samuel Ramos to psychoanalysts Santiago Ramírez and Jorge Portilla and anthropologists Roger Bartra and Claudio Lomnitz. (This book, like Castañeda’s previous ones, does double duty as an excellent guide to further reading.)
Born in 1953 in Mexico City, Castañeda spent his childhood partly in Cairo and Paris, where his father served as Mexico’s ambassador. He received a bachelor’s degree from Princeton and a doctorate from the University of Paris, and has taught at universities in Mexico and the United States, where he is currently a professor at New York University. He also writes regularly for Reforma, El País and Newsweek. In his youth, he was a communist and an admirer of Fidel Castro; but his admiration for the Cuban regime dimmed to the point that in 1993 he published Utopia Unarmed, a foundational study of the postwar Latin American left. The book is an obituary that is in part critical of, and in part an elegy for, the leftist ideal of armed struggle forged in Cuba and exported around the region. Castañeda did not cut corners, interviewing leftist guerrillas in the region as well as Castro’s spymasters. The result is an intellectually rigorous account of one of the most dizzyingly complex periods in Latin American history. As none other than Gabriel García Márquez, known for his cozy relationship with Castro, said of Utopia Unarmed, “This is the finely written and well-spun tale of the ascent and subsequent misfortune of the Latin American Left, a victim of its own willfulness and others’ dogma…. And it is also a blueprint—polemical but less illusory—for surviving the shipwreck even with the loss of much of the furniture.” The book remains an essential resource.
Castañeda has played two notable roles in Mexico’s transition to democracy after seventy years of PRI one-party rule: first, as a late supporter of the insurgent leader of the center-left opposition, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, who in 1988 lost a presidential election that many suspect was stolen from him when vote-counting computers mysteriously crashed; second, as the foreign minister in the center-right government of Vicente Fox, who was elected Mexico’s first post-PRI president in 2000. Castañeda still identifies with the left, but the left sees him as a controversial figure—a role, incidentally, that he seems to enjoy. Meanwhile, his international upbringing and cosmopolitan life—as controversial in their way as his political views—allow him to take a double vantage point as an insider and outsider of the sort that does not exist in American politics.
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The question of national character is tricky, at once irresistible on a conversational level and treacherous on a theoretical one. Castañeda acknowledges this, and grounds his discussion in a careful definition, distinguishing national character from national identity. The latter is a more straightforward blend of history, religion, language and ethnic origins: a nation’s official self-definition. The former is something harder to pin down: the way a nation views itself, and how it is viewed by others. Less charitably, it might be called national stereotype. According to Castañeda, it’s difficult to ascribe a national character to countries of immigrants like the United States. Countries of emigrants, like Mexico, face a different problem. Does national character change when a significant percentage of the citizens live outside the nation’s borders? And in this particular case, might certain elements of the American character—positive elements, specifically—be grafted onto the Mexican character via Mexico’s emigrants?
Castañeda eventually attempts to answer this question, but first he sets out to examine key aspects of the Mexican national character as it has traditionally been understood: lack of community spirit and collective initiative (Castañeda rather confusingly calls this “individualism”), avoidance of conflict and competition, fear of outsiders and mistrust of laws. Each trait is identified and then deconstructed or debunked, with Castañeda endeavoring to explain why current circumstances render it obsolete. Throughout the book, one underlying tendency keeps popping up: what Castañeda calls the “Mexican predilection for simulation.”
Simulation—or the tendency to present something as it is not, whether on an individual or a national level—is a Mexican peculiarity long dissected by writers and observers. In Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz celebrated it as the art of Form, a Spanish and Indian heritage, while noting the toll it takes on those who avail themselves of it; Castañeda condemns it as “a substitute for facing up to awkward realities,” and sees its noxious effects everywhere. Most fundamentally, he identifies it as the rot besetting the Mexican legal system. In colonial times, laws written in Spain often had little relevance in Mexico, and so a system was worked out whereby laws were officially “obeyed” but not applied. As Castañeda explains, “This was the beginning of the separation between law and fact, between a de jure world and a de facto one, between the outward, rhetorical, and even reverential respect for the law in the abstract, and the emergence of a path in everyday life totally decoupled from that law.”
This dissociation between rhetoric and reality was later reinforced by a series of Mexican constitutions, the first composed after the War of Independence and adopted in 1824, and the last proclaimed after the Mexican Revolution, in 1917. Like nearly all the constitutions of Latin American nations, these documents were based on the US Constitution and the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and were what Castañeda calls “aspirational” texts, based on the assumption that Mexico already had elections, separation of powers, economic freedoms and civil liberties. Yet in the absence of this framework for democracy, work-around solutions were devised from the beginning, and it was taken for granted that the letter of the law would remain precisely that. Even in the international arena, Mexico acquired the habit of ratifying treaties but never passing the legislation necessary to implement them at home.