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.