Sunday, August 15, 2004

Mexico - Commentary and History

I wrote the following after reading information out of my travel guide, Footprint Central America and Mexico 2004 by Peter Hutchison, taking to locals, and reading information on the internet. Any page references used in this commentary come from the above book by Peter Hutchison.

Mexico is about 1/4 the size of the United States. Only 14% of the land holds nearly 50% of the country’s people. It borders the United States, Belize, and Guatemala.

The history of Mexico - On April 21, 1519, when the Spaniards (Hernan Cortes with 500 men, some horses, and a cannon) arrived in Mexico and first encountered the Aztec Empire and destroyed it within two years. Many natives were killed due to fears of a rising. Over time, the Spaniards imposed their ways on the natives. The high class Spaniards ruled the country for 300 years and would not even let Spaniards born in Mexico or mestizos (people mixed with Spanish and Indigenous) have any part in the Government. Many native nations were wiped out and the Spaniards took over their land, and all resources.

Finally, 300 years later, after pushing for independence from Spain (just like America once pushed for independence from England), Mexico was established as a federal republic in late 1824.

Shortly thereafter, the section of Mexico, Texas, declared independence from Mexico because their farming greatly relied on slavery (which was abolished in Mexico in 1829). The United States jumped at an opportunity, annexed Texas, which resulted in a war with Mexico. The ordeal was resolved with the Treaty of Hidalgo where the United States not only kept Texas, but also, all land from there to California, and from the Rio Grande, to Oregon.

Beginning in 1857 with Benito Juarez, a period of reform went on. Later, General Porfirio Diaz ruled from 1876 to 1910 with an iron fist under the expense of the peasants. Many things got straightened out (industries and railways built, strengthened economy, etc.), peace followed for 35 years...while the peasants continued to be abused worse than ever (for example, loss of land and rights, many driven to forced labor). A direct relation occurred... the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.

Eventually, the Mexican lower class revolted under strong, important, and great leaders such as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. Some of the goals of the revolution were satisfied (on a small scale) after Diaz was exiled and 4 leaders followed.

In terms of recent politics, there has been a lot of turmoil. The following quotes are taken from Footprint: "The failure of any agricultural reforms to benefit the peasants of Chiapas was one of the roots of the EZLN uprising in early 1994." (page 1192)

"On New Year’s Day of the election year, 1994, at the moment when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA - Mexico, the US and Canada) came into force, a guerrilla group briefly took control of several towns in Chiapas. The Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN) demanded social justice, indigenous people`s rights, democracy at all levels of Mexican politics, an end to government corruption, and land reform for the peasantry." (page 1188)

Also in 1994, the peso (Mexican currency) was devalued with hopes of sparking the economy. Not only did the devaluation fail, but also, intrigue and corruption continued, along with more political reform. During these periods, the EZLN and Mexican government clash continued.

Government supported gorilla groups were formed and several massacres of natives occurred One such case involved the killing of 45 people - mostly women and children outside of San Cristobal de las Casas. Paramilitary groups were held responsible.

In 1999, a new president was elected under an historical win because it had been 71 years since a different party held office. This new and current president, Vicente Fox, claimed that he could solve the Chiapas problem in 15 minutes. This claim was followed by a two week nationwide march around the country and ended with 100,000 people gathering in Mexico City to show their support and ongoing demands for the fairness for all. Since then, nothing has been resolved. The EZLN is sitting tight until Fox situates himself.

While being in San Cristobal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas (the place the EZLN made their first public appearance 10 years ago), you can get a strong sense of the political turmoil that affects the Chiapas native groups. There is a huge support for the EZLN and the reform and protection of indigenous rights and traditions. This can be seen in t-shirts worn and sold, and by crafts for sale (such as hand made dolls of EZLN leader - Marcos). There is also a strong presence of highly armed local and federal forces.

And, funny enough there is hardly a single statue of Cortez in all of Mexico. And the Mexicans, if anything, discriminate more against the Spanish element. They are very proud of their heritage and their heroes are mainly the revolutionaries - starting with Moctezuma all the way to Miguel Hidalgo, Benito Juarez, Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, and the current EZLN Subcomandante Marcos.

In researching the history of Mexico, and learning about the successful peasant revolution leaders (Zapata, Villa, and so on), I can see how there would be high hopes with EZLN Subcomandante Marcos.

Governmentally, Mexico is a federal republic of 31 states and a Federal District which contains the capital, Mexico City. The President is elected for a six year term and cannot be re-elected. Congress consists of a Senate and Chamber of Deputies. Similarly to the United States, the individual states have local autonomy, levy their own taxes, and each state has a Governor.

Economically, Mexico is the world’s 6th largest producer of oil. It is the world’s leading producer of silver, fluorite and arsenic, and a major producer of many other minerals. Agriculture had been going down hill since the early 1970´s and now only contributes 5.8% of GDP. Manufacturing contributes 17.6% of GDP. Tourism is their largest employer. It is estimated that about 6.7 million tourists visit Mexico every year - about 85% from the US.

In terms of the people of Mexico, according the 2000 Census, the total population was 97.4 million people. About 9% are considered white, 30% Indigenous, 60% mestizos (mostly a mix of Spanish/Indigenous, with a small percentage black/white, black/Indigenous). There are an estimated 24 million Indians with 54 groups, each with its own language.

With regards to Mexican social life, daily, families gather after dinner and sit outside of their homes in chairs on sidewalks and on the street, or on their front steps...or they gather in plazas near cathedrals and parks...every single talk about the day's happenings, the weather, politics, gossip...and just to be together. Family time is very important here.

It is also quite common for elders to live their last years at home - not in the elderly facilities that are common in the United States.

In terms of kids... so far we have seen kids cliff diving; working long hours (usually selling various items); playing soccer in the streets, beaches, parks, and fields; and spending time with their families at the beaches or in plazas during the late afternoon, early evenings. The kids are very well behaved and seem to have a high level of respect for their elders.

With regards to work, almost all people (ages 5 and up at least) work very hard daily and all day - often much more than 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, doing whatever is available from working the land to serving the travelers. Many people have a different notion of what life is like in Mexico by what a person sees, hears, and reads in the United States. Mexico is not about people with sombreros sleeping the afternoon away underneath a tree. People work very hard... many many children as well.

Here is a good example - here is me, getting my shoes shined by a ten year old boy who has been shining shoes for three years (by the way, he speaks three languages).

In the right here, right now, he needs the money. He depends upon it. But, in the big picture of things - one could say that what I did was very wrong, disturbing, or hypocritical. No child should be working, nor should I be supporting it. My money is like a drug - a right here, right now fix. Theoretically, money could be better used to help get them out of oppression - not to need to work as a child.
Before Spaniards came, the people of what is now Mexico, lived more in balance. Once their land and rights were stolen from them, they were forced into this oppression - to work the land they once owned - on top of doing anything else to support themselves.

So - my money may have been better off given to an organization or ideal pushing toward a social equality or fairness, rather than providing the quick patch. As one person commented, "I thought exploitation of children was why we didn’t shop at Wal-Mart." This person mentioned "Wal-Mart" as it represents a type of place that benefits by selling products which use child labor and sweat shops.

Perhaps what makes this photo also so disturbing or sad is that you see is in your face... but there is a saying... "what the eyes do not see, the heart does not feel"... How many things do you think you own, use, or wear that were made by children under poor conditions? Food for thought for all of us. What do you think?

More questions to ask yourself... Is there a difference between a person getting shoes shined by a child and a person buying a souvenir from a child? If so, what? If not, why not? Would the reaction to this picture be the same if a Mexican man or Brazilian man were getting his shoes shined from a child rather than a "middle aged white American woman"? Bottom line... many many children work here... and some for many hours... what do you think about that? Can you make a difference? How?

In closing, after 30 days, Mexico is a fabulous country with an amazing history, beautiful landscape, and strong determined people. There is so much to see and do - one could spend a lifetime at play here.

The differences between states and regions had their own style of music, food, clothing, and way of life. Yet none of these differences was envied, but rather, celebrated.

Political involvement of the people was greatly felt and seen. It was enlightening and refreshing to find little apathy. It is important however, to note that not everything is wine and roses. The high level of oppression on the working class (yes, including the children) is a serious issue. We as Americans can have a huge say; Mexico is not only a direct neighbor, but also, a very large contributor to our economical status. We should recognize their role and act accordingly with great respect and less abuse. This is my third time in Mexico, and for sure, not my last.

Lastly, here are a few photos of some animals and plants, along with a water tank.

Pictures of an iguana that I came across while walking near the beach. It was about a foot long.

Picture of pelican...

Picture of a yucca plant...(If you have read "Island of the Blue Dolphins" by Scott O´Dell, then you will remember that the main character made a skirt out of the yucca plant fibers.)

Another interesting fact - people also use the yucca plant as a deterrent for crime. If grown outside of a window, its prickly sharp leaves make it uninviting to those trying to break into a house.

Black water tanks...located at the tops of homes, businesses, hotels, etc... are painted black so the sun heats up the water naturally so as to save on hot water bills.

This is a gas delivery truck...they all have chains with metal hoops that drag behind the vehicles to make noise so that people hear them coming and can be prepared to purchase more gas used for cooking...

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