Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Future of Mexico, Part II: As Mexico City Turns
The Future of Mexico, Part II: As Mexico City Turns

The Future of Mexico, Part II: As Mexico City Turns

  • David Danelo
  • May 9, 2017
  • Center for the Study of America and the West

Aerial view of Mexico City (Hector Sanchez/Flickr)

On January 29, 2016, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed a law changing the official name of Mexico’s capital region from Distrito Federal, or D.F., to Ciudad de Mexico. Beyond altering nearly two centuries of dialectical urban description—the region had been called D.F. since 1824 when Mexico’s first constitution was written—the adjustment grants Ciudad de Mexico a level of autonomous governance similar to the country’s other 31 states. The name change devolved power from Mexico’s federal government “to the citizens of Mexico City” and was presented with great public fanfare. Much of Ciudad de Mexico’s new constitution, which was signed in February 2017 and will become law in September 2018, was crowd-sourced from online petitions and community advocates. With articles enshrining green space and LGBT protections, the document has been hailed by liberal advocates as the most progressive in the Western Hemisphere.

It is impossible to discuss Mexico without considering Mexico City. Counting its neighboring cities of Puebla, Toluca, Pachuca, and Cuernavaca, the mega-region encompasses 27 million people. About 20% of Mexico’s population lives in this immense urban network that spans central Mexico. This is about the same percentage by national population—one of every five citizens—who live in the Northeast United States; 58 million Americans occupy the megalopolis running down Interstate 95 from Boston’s subway arteries to Washington D.C.’s suburbs. In a country shaped like a cornucopia, Mexico City is the nation’s bountiful middle.

At the same time, many make the mistake of looking at the DF region (as many still call it, despite the official decree) as a barometer of the entire country. This would be similar to concluding that opinions of, say, New Yorkers represent the perspective of all Americans. The chilangos of Mexico City may view themselves as the embodiment of all things Mexican, yet many bring their own prejudices into intra-Mexican politics that reflect internal tensions in Mexico’s culture in ways that Americans often fail to recognize.

An Ancient Modern World

“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” So begins Las batallas en el desierto (Battles in the Desert), José Emilio Pacheco’s short story about a boy falling in love with his classmate’s mother amidst Mexico City’s post-World War II transformation. The epigraph in the Spanish edition of Pacheco’s 1981 novella begins in English, as do many of the sentences narrating American consumerism, the Catholic Church, and other social forces and cosmopolitan biases that shaped Mexico’s evolution into modernity.

Since the mid-1980s, Las batallas has become mandatory reading in Mexico’s middle and high schools in a similar way that Mark Twain is treated in the U.S. educational system. Like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Pacheco’s adolescent narrative fuses themes of racism, morality, nationalism, religion, and prejudice into a story of a boy learning about a world that appears to be changing faster than his elders appreciate. But because the story (and, the novella suggests, the country’s history) involves an old man whimsically remembering life as a boy, the plot of Las batallas is less relevant than the themes. For example, although many Baby Boomer Americans believe that growing up in Mexico during the 1950s would have meant living through extreme poverty and destitution (and in many cases, this was true), consider Pacheco’s descriptions of post-World War II Mexico City:

We already had supermarkets, but no television, only radio. . . . Paco Malgesto narrated the bullfights; Carlos Albert covered soccer games; Mago Septién was the baseball announcer. The first postwar cars had begun to circulate: Packards, Cadillacs, Buicks, Mercurys, Hudsons, Pontiacs, Dodges, Plymouths, De Sotos. We went to see Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power movies, to matinees featuring an entire film from beginning to end. My favorite was The Mongo Invasion.

The newspapers said: This is an anguished moment for the entire world. The specter of final war is hovering on the horizon. The atomic mushroom was the dismal symbol of our times. Nevertheless, there was still hope. . . . For a still unimaginable 1980, a future of plentitude and universal well-being was predicted, without specifying just how it was to be achieved. Clean cities without injustice, poor people, violence, congestion, or garbage. Every family with an ultramodern and aerodynamic (words from that era) house. No one will want for anything. Machines will do all the work. Streets full of trees and fountains, traveled by silent, nonpolluting vehicles that never collide. Paradise on earth. Finally, utopia will have been found.

Las batallas is relevant in two ways for understanding the relationship between Mexico City’s urban elites, the country’s rural regions, and how this shapes Mexico’s historical and current view of the United States. First, it is impossible to escape the similarity between the memories of Pacheco’s protagonist and the recollections of suburban American Baby Boomers who tell stories of crouching under desks at school during nuclear fallout drills; adapting their daily lives to automobiles, refrigerators, air conditioners, and vacuum cleaners; and living through dramatic social changes. The same technological transformations taking place during the 1950s in the United States were also happening in Mexico City—along with similar conflicts in values and social tensions that happened in America a decade later.

Simultaneously, there was an inevitable American spin to this modernization that Pacheco illustrates, both in terms of what the country wants to be and what the Mexican people sought to resist. “We began to eat hamburguesas, páys, donas, jotdogs, malteadas, áiscrim, margarina, pinutbuter,” he writes, emphasizing both the desirability and the elite-ness of these foreign foods. “Fresh juice drinks of lemon, jamaica, and sage were buried by Coca-Cola.” But this emphasis on the cultural takeover of all things American contrasts with the protagonist’s mother, who “detested everyone who was not from Jalisco.” The mother saw not only Americans, but all other Mexicans as “foreigners, and particularly loathed those from the capital.”

These contrasts continue in Mexico today and are amplified by the encounters Mexicans themselves have with the United States. The National Football League’s television audience is growing at a faster rate in Mexico than in its own country, particularly with upper and middle class Mexicans. In 2017, for the second consecutive year, the Oakland Raiders will host a “home” game in Mexico City, this time with the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots. When traveling in central and southern Mexico by bus, most of the movies shown on TV screens are Hollywood productions that—as in Pacheco’s era—are subtitled or dubbed in Spanish.

Yet, even as the cosmopolitan connections between the countries grow, the Mexicans whom I spoke to in “real Mexico” distanced themselves from the elite worlds of both Mexico City and the U.S. in ways that, to me, sounded similar to heartland Americans who hail from flyover country. “I miss the barbecue the most,” said Fernando, 60, an undocumented construction worker who lived in Charleston, South Carolina for nine years but returned to Córdoba, Mexico in 2012 to care for his ailing wife. When I asked Fernando about President Donald Trump, his opinions mirrored those of every other Mexican I met outside of the capital city: apathy, ambivalence and amusement. “We have always had bad politicians here in Mexico,” Fernando said, laughing. “I met many nice people in the United States who were nothing like him.”

Trump and Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Ascent

While conservative Americans may be inclined, as discussed in Part I, to view Mexico through a Huntingtonian “clash of civilizations” perspective, liberals north of the border can also see the U.S.-Mexico relationship through their own myopic bubble. In April 2017, Kavitha Surana of Foreign Policy wrote that Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, “a respected left wing politician,” was preparing a lawsuit against the United States for war reparations dating back to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signing that established most of the current U.S.-Mexico border and ended the Mexican-American War. “We are going to make a strong and tough case,” said Guillermo Hamdan Castro, who is publicizing the reparations campaign through a website. Since Mexico’s federal government would have to approve the lawsuit if it were to be taken to the International Court of Justice at The Hague—which is about as likely to happen as the country paying for a border wall—the demand appears unlikely to yield results.

Indeed, most Mexican commentators see the scheme as a supplementary move by liberal populists to rally Mexican voters in the 2018 presidential election. Two-time presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, best known in Mexico as AMLO, currently leads Mexico’s 2018 polls. One reason he may finally win Mexico’s highest office is because of his hard line opposition to the United States in general and Trump in particular. The trend worries many in the Trump administration; Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross sees the risk of an AMLO presidency as justification for renegotiating NAFTA by the end of this year. On April 5, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Senator John McCain also expressed concern regarding AMLO, saying at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing that Mexico was close to electing “a left-wing, anti-American president.” Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray responded by telling the American officials to respectfully mind their own business.

The rise of López Obrador illustrates how many Americans mistakenly conflate Mexican nationalism with anti-American rhetoric. “Anti-Americanism has always been a powerful undercurrent in Mexican society,” warns Surana. That’s not quite true. Although anti-Americanism has historically been a potent force among Mexico’s elites, the “powerful undercurrent” in Mexico is not anti-Americanism, but anti-elitism. When convenient, Mexican politicians like López Obrador may weave attacks against the United States into their broader political message, but their audience is directed to working-class Mexicans whose greatest frustrations are with their own privileged class.

Another way to understand AMLO’s rise beyond anti-Americanism is to pay closer attention to the correctives from Mexicans themselves. Consider this recent commentary from a Huffington Post writer who reminded bohemian adventurers that Mexico City, despite its new progressive constitution, is no liberal utopia. “Even in the affluent areas, one can often see signs of how deep inequality goes in this city,” writes Tamara Velasquez. “In the trendy bars and cafés of Condesa, Roma or Polanco, it is not an uncommon sight to see homeless children begging for money amidst the hipsters sipping their expensive cold brews.” In Pacheco’s Las batallas, the protagonist’s mother hated living in the colonia Roma because “Arabs, Jews, and Southerners—people from Campeche, Chiapas, Tabasco, Yucatán—were moving in.” This nationalism and xenophobia, rooted, as Velasquez notes, in profound social inequities, might seem all too familiar to many of President Donald Trump’s supporters in the United States.

With López Obrador’s populism resonating in Mexico, American policymakers would be wise to remember that AMLO is essentially taking a page out of Trump’s book, and risks similar consequences should he prevail. López Obrador left the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD, Party of the Democratic Revolution) in 2012 after President Enrique Peña Nieto’s election to start his own political party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA). As a theoretical president-elect, AMLO might ironically find himself in the same position as the U.S. President: mandated by Mexican voters to “drain the swamp,” yet irrelevantly blaming his own country’s problems on their closest neighbor.

“Most Mexicans are aware, North Americans less so, that fate has placed both nations upon the same continent, interacting, intermingling, coming constantly closer while remaining strangers divided by their pasts,” writes American historian T.R. Fehrenbach.[1] “Yet both heritages are vital to the American whole. And together they will forge its future.”

The third and final part of this series will examine the binational relationship from the U.S.-Mexico border.

[1] The late T.R. Fehrenbach  was a bilingual San Antonio-based historian who was raised on the U.S.-Mexico border. His book, Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico (Da Capo Press, 1973), was required reading for all State Department personnel stationed in Mexico during the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush administrations.