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Double Vantage: On Jorge Castañeda

Mexico: a moving target

Jorge Casteñada’s new book is both timely and out of date, since Mexico is constantly changing and the violence he tends to downplay has become much more overwhelmingly present. The great city of Monterrey is paralyzed by vicious, often totally senseless, mayhem and corruption; cab drivers and others are being assassinated in prime tourist zones in Acapulco, Mexico’s most important Pacific city; and the terrorism of the battling groups of gangsters is spreading into more parts of the country. When 80 percent of the people say violence is the most important issue and three-fourths don’t trust the police enough to expect help rather than additional harm from them, things are pretty awful.

But it is very important to Americans to know that this is a large, fascinating and resilient society, which, like Italy, is wonderful in spite of its government. The Centro Historico of Mexico City, where I have a home and live part of each year, is the great center of Latin culture, a very diverse and dynamic world city, with a murder rate well below California’s, and amazing monuments of centuries of diverse Indian, Spanish and Mexican cultures. It is a very busy city, but people are usually both friendly and kind. It is a cynical but romantic society. Not only is there a huge middle class but also a substantial and very wealthy upper class, which includes Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, who has just built a striking new museum (there are scores in the city) for his astonishing personal art collection. There is also awful poverty and millions of people trying to live in the “informal” economy at a meager subsistence level. The last two governments have had no coherent social policy to deal with the terrible inequality. Yet when I am out biking on Sunday on the grand boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma, with thousands of Chilango families, there is a happy, open feeling across all the lines of division that is rare in a great world city.

Americans, as Casteñada tells us, need a deeper understanding of all the contradictions and successes as well as tragedies of this great country, which badly needs a new generation of strong and honest leaders and long-term and persistent support from the United States for the full development of its potential.

Gary Orfield

Mexico City

Sep 1 2011 - 8:36pm