A Mexican describes the Mexican mind.
It is very unusual to find a Latin American author who does not blame his country’s ills squarely on the United States. This is especially true of Mexicans, who are all taught in school that the United States invaded and dismembered their country in 1846-1848 and has ruthlessly exploited Mexico ever since. Most Mexicans cannot conceive of the wealth and power of the United States — and their own poverty and weakness — as anything but proof of American wickedness.
Monument to the revolution, Mexico City.
Luis Gonzalez de Alba is that rare Mexican who is able to see his country as it really is. In this short 1997 essay, My Teachers’ Lies, he brilliantly captures the delusions and contra-dictions of the Mexican national character.
Don Luis was born on March 6, 1944, in Char-cas, a small desert village in the state of San Luis Potosi. He came to Mexico City in the 1960s to study psychology at Mexico’s leading university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and was a leader in the student movement. The government arrested him in the wake of the Oct. 2, 1968, massacre of students and workers, and he spent two years and eight months in prison.
Don Luis has written novels and plays, but has achieved greatest success as a science writer. Needless to say, his political writing is controversial; this essay originally appeared in a now-defunct magazine called Tendencias, which was published in El Salvador. In 2002, he expanded on the ideas in this essay, and published a book of the same title, My Teachers’ Lies. Neither the essay nor the book was translated into English.
The true history of Mexico is a long series of glorious defeats and a weighty directory of fallen heroes.
Don Luis’s refusal to accept the distortions of the political, academic, and media elites is grounded in a thorough understanding of Mexican history, and he refers to people and events with which Americans are not familiar. It may seem distracting to go back and forth between the footnotes (page 4) and the essay, but most Americans will find the notes necessary. In any case, Americans would be well advised to learn the history of a country that is clearly determined to play an ever-larger role in our affairs.
My Teachers’ Lies
The Demolition of Myths
The Vision of the Vanquished
The true history of Mexico is a long series of glorious defeats and a weighty directory of fallen heroes. Cuauhtemoc1 is our purest hero, but not for his deeds, nor his nation-building, nor his victories, since he did not have time for such things, but only because he is the great loser. Hidalgo2 is the Pater Patriae [father of his country] by decree, not for his achievements. Morelos3 headed another uprising that was scarcely noted in our immense expanse of territory, and his defeat was absolute. Guerrero4 turned into a simple fugitive lost in the mountains of the south, where he could have stayed to die a natural death from old age, since in no way did he affect the course of the Spanish Empire. Madero5 never governed, and we continue to wait for a workable government. Zapata6 was shot down, and land reform had to wait until Cardenas7 and even longer — enough time for the growth of the population to make it impossible to give land to each peasant, and distribution created more problems than benefits.
The Perfidious Victors
The accursed victors are deep within our official hell. The greatest villain is the absolute victor, the man who made possible the Mexico of today, a country that was possible only upon the ruins of the indigenous nations, not one of them remotely Mexican. Hernan Cortes is the Father of Mexico8 because without his victory, the present population of Mexico would not exist. However, we choose to define ourselves as the conquered — the vanquished — in absolute denial of the father, the Spaniard and conqueror who triumphed because of so much evil.
The Process of Identification
Mexican social psychology has an unusual research theme in our identification with the vanquished and not the victorious, although we are sons of both. We say that “they,” the Spaniards, defeated “us.” But do we not have eyes of all colors and complexions of all shades? Do we not name ourselves Carlos, Miguel, Antonio, Maria, Carmen? Our surnames are Gonzalez, Lopez, Aguilar, Toledo, Segovia. The idyllic and silly image we have of the Aztec Empire we imagine to ourselves in Spanish, and when we insult Spain, we do it in Spanish. This is a country greatly in need of psychoanalysis, where in spite of so much nativism, the Indians cannot stage an uprising without some White Man brandishing a camera at them.
A Tale Told Backwards
If this country had been conquered by the 300 Spaniards of Cortes with ten starving horses and some ancient blunderbusses, it ought to make us ashamed just to talk about it. The “Conquest” was the result of indigenous hatred of the barbaric savagery of the Aztecs. The fall of Tenochtitlan9 was the result of a massive popular revolt. Independent for just a hundred years in 1521, the Aztecs had oppressed their subject nations with extremes of savagery never reached by the Nazis. The schoolboy version that “Mexico was conquered by a foreign power” is childish, ridiculous, and damaging in the first place to the Indian Nations. If 300 Spaniards really had conquered a city that had a population of half a million in the midst of a territory with a population of 20 million, truly they would have been Gods. However, 1) Mexico could not be conquered because it did not exist. 2) Spain was nothing more than a small country recently freed from a thousand years of Arab domination. 3) It was not only Spaniards, but also thousands of Native warriors who, oppressed by the reign of Aztec terror, took Tenochitlan and razed it with all the hatred and fury imaginable.
The Childish Sickness of the Mexican
We are a childish nation that always tries to blame outsiders: “The Spaniards conquered us,” say the children of blue, green, and chestnut eyes, whose names are Fernando and surnamed Cortes. We learn to degrade ourselves, and self-pity sickens us with sympathy for ourselves. We are full of willfulness, a quality that entitles us to everything, and if we do not get it, it is because of foreign evildoers: the Americans robbed us of the Northern Territories, the bad Mestizos get the good Indians drunk, and the Indians forget their values. We explain our poverty as the result of the imperialism of the United States, which has opened the veins of Latin America.10 But we never ask ourselves why we are not the imperialistic country and the United States a poor country with open veins. Or we claim we are poor because our politicians are swindlers and sluggards, but we do not observe that our governments spring from ourselves.
When We Grow Up
The Virgin of Guadalupe: not a
patroness of soccer champions.
To become adults we need two treatments for two failings that are, in themselves, a paradox: excessive humility and overbearing arrogance. First, we must not picture ourselves as the humbled product of a defeat. Second, we must not believe ourselves to be the favorite son of a heavenly mother who solves all. We are poor because of our mistakes, our history of violence and destruction, and because of our Catholic disdain of science, which is the basis of industry.11 Likewise, we do not win Olympic medals or soccer championships,12 first of all, because of the Virgin. If she wanted us to win we would emerge winners in everything, wouldn’t we? The second reason we are not winners is because we are a nation of potbellies for whom sport is a Sunday television program watched between beers and rich slices of barbecued pork. However, no taxi-driver would ever explain it this way. We lose because of bad luck or the bad faith of others.
Will God Speak Through the Aryan Race?
Cuauhtemoc, the unsullied hero.
The feminists have taught us to change the gender of a phrase to discover the masculine sexism hidden in everyday matters. Let us try the same thing with our vociferous racialism: “Will God speak through the Aryan race?”13 Let us suppose that was the motto of Heidelberg University. Would demonstrators not be applauded if they splashed paint on it? Or the mountain-climber who scaled the rectory tower to obliterate that declaration with a hammer? A monument to the German race, to the Aryan essence of Germany, would it not suffer every conceivable attempt to wipe it out? But what is dignity in the poor is abusive arrogance in the rich. Deutschland Uber Alles seems racialist to us, but “There are not two like Mexico”14 is only simple national pride. It is true, certainly, but a platitude, because the same applies to Guatemala or Nigeria, and it lends itself also to the type of joke that backfires: there are not two — fortunately.
1 Cuauthemoc (1495–1525) was the last of the Aztec emperors. He defended the Aztec capital against the conquistadors in 1521, and after his defeat and capture, he reluctantly went into Spanish service. In 1525, Cortes tried him for treason and had him executed, even though many Spaniards considered him innocent. He is said to have died defiantly, and is considered Mexico’s greatest hero.
2 Miguel Hidalgo (1753–1811) was a priest whose campaigns against Spain launched the independence movement. In 1810, he started a revolt in the hope of improving conditions for Indians, and marched on Mexico City with an army of 80,000. After winning an initial battle he was defeated by the Spanish, fled north, was captured and shot. Sept. 16, the day on which Hidalgo called for insurrection, is a national holiday, Mexican Independence Day. It is in this sense that Hidalgo is the father of his country by decree, and not by achievement.
3 Jose Maria Morelos (1765-1815), also a priest, joined Hidalgo’s insurrection and succeeded him as leader of the rebels. He was initially successful, and issued a declaration of independence from Spain in 1813. Two years later, royalists defeated and shot him. Like Hidalgo, he is a hero of the early struggle for independence.
4 Vicente Guerrero (1783? — 1831) was a Mexican soldier who joined the war for independence in 1810 under Morelos, and became leader of guerrilla forces. He served briefly as president of Mexico in 1829 but was overthrown in a revolt, and was shot in 1831.
5 Francisco Madero (1873-1913) was the original leader of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1920. The revolution against seven-term president and dictator, Porfirio Diaz, was ostensibly for land redistribution. It led to a confused and violent period during which local power was in the hands of warlords and guerilla bands. Madero managed to make himself president from 1911 to 1913, but was overthrown and shot. He is nevertheless a great hero, and Mexico celebrates Revolution Day every Nov. 20, the day in 1910 on which Madero denounced President Diaz, declared himself president of Mexico, and called for insurrection.
6 Emiliano Zapata (1877? — 1919) was another hero of the Mexican Revolution, but was an enemy of Madero, whom he thought not radical enough. Of peasant origin, he controlled the state of Morales, where he drove the wealthy off their estates, and divided the land among peasants. Another great hero, he was assassinated in 1919.
Although Don Luis does not mention him, Pancho Villa (1878–1923) is a somewhat more ambiguous “hero” of the revolution. Born Doroteo Arangol to a peasant family, he joined a bandit gang as a teenager, and adopted the name of the gang chieftain after police killed him in a shootout. In 1910, he joined Madero’s rebellion and operated in the north. After Madero was shot, he quarreled with other revolutionaries, and fled north, where he continued as a bandit and guerilla fighter. In 1916, he and his men attacked Columbus, New Mexico, murdering townspeople and burning most of the town. General John Pershing led an expeditionary force into Mexico and pursued him for 11 months, but could not catch him. Villa knew the terrain and was popular with the Mexicans, who refused to help Pershing despite a $5,000 reward on Villa’s head. This greatly adds to his sheen in Mexico today, but his popularity could not protect him from other Mexicans. He was assassinated in 1923, and some peasants pray to him as if he were a saint.
7 Lazaro Cardenas (1895-1970) was another anti-Diaz revolutionary, who managed to avoid being shot, and served as president from 1934-1940. He initiated serious land reform and nationalized the oil industry. His was perhaps the first honest, reasonably successful attempt to uplift the whole country. He did not loot the treasury, and lived a notably austere life.
8 Hernan Cortes (1485–1547) conquered Mexico during the famous campaign of 1519–1521. He is “the father of Mexico” because of his affair with La Malinche, an Aztec noblewoman who was his interpreter and consort. Cortes could have had many women, but was faithful to La Malinche during the campaign, and had a son, who is celebrated as the first “Mexican.” Although, as Don Luis points out, Cortes is not a hero to the Mexicans, Columbus is. Mexico celebrates October 12 — the origins of the mestizo — as Dia de la Raza or “day of the race.”
9 Tenochtitlan was the name of the Aztec capital conquered by Cortes, and was the precursor of today’s Mexico City.
10 This refers to a popular 1971 book by the Uruguayan communist, Eduardo Galeano, Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina, which blames all the ills of the region on the United States.
Library of the National Autonomous University.
11 One Mexican won a Nobel prize for literature, and another shared a peace prize. No Mexican has won a prize in science. Neighboring Guatemala, with only one ninth the population, has won one Nobel prize for literature and one for peace, both unshared.
12 Mexico has a population of 100 million, which is more than reunited Germany (82 million), France, or England (both 60 million), but it won only one silver and three bronze medals at the 2004 Olympics. Soccer is the national pastime, but Mexico has never won the World Cup.
13 Don Luis has taken the motto of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, “Will God Speak Through My Race?” and changed it to “Will God Speak Through the Aryan Race?” He credits this type of analysis to feminists, who claim that language is riddled with “sexism.” An example would be to point out that the masculine often stands for both sexes, as in “Every student should raise his hand.”
14 “There are not two like Mexico” (Como Mexico no hay dos) is a slogan the government used to promote tourism. It did not work very well, and instead became the butt of jokes of the kind Don Luis cites.