Column No. 92 By Steven Jonas, MD, MPH - January 12, 2006

At the end of 2005, my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting Mexico for nine days.  In this column I share with you some observations on the history and politics of this fascinating country, along with some travel tips for those who might be stimulated by these thoughts and other information as well, to pay Mexico a visit.  I make no pretense at being any kind of expert on Mexico.  The facts, or what I believe to be facts, are based on information gathered in a series of historical/anthropological museum visits and a bit of reading.  I think that I am stating things correctly here, but if I am not, misstatements are not made with intention and I do apologize in advance for them.

First of all, Mexico is an historic country.  There is evidence of civilization being established there going back thousands of years.  The only other area in the Western Hemisphere where, to our present knowledge, civilization arose was in the South American Andes, where the Incas created an apparently highly developed one.  They, however, did not have a written language.  The most highly developed Mexican one, the Mayan, centered in Yucatan and having at least two separate eras of civilized society, did.  However, the Spaniards who took over the country in the 16th century, Catholic Church and Royal Armed forces working side-by-side, went out of their way to destroy as much of the written legacy of the Mayans (apparently vast) as they could, by burning every Mayan book they could lay their hands on.  A few, courtesy of a few Catholic monks who realized what their superiors were doing and were horrified by it, survived, and so there is a bit of a written record still left.  But most of it is gone.  Among the Mayan achievements were an accurate calendar and the concept of zero, which their Western European conquerors had learned only from the Arabs.  It does not appear in Roman numerology.

An interesting historical conflict with the Christian world is that while Biblical literalists date the Creation of the Earth to 6004 B.C.E., the Mayans, to the best of our knowledge, dated it only to 3123 B.C.E.  I wonder how we could determine just which creation story has the correct date.

Travel tip I.  If you are flying to Mexico, making a connection in Mexico City before reaching your final destination, be careful with whom you fly.  We flew with Delta from New York City to Mexico City and then changed planes for a flight to Oaxaca.  We booked through Aero México, but we had code shares internationally with Delta and in Mexico with Mexicana Airlines.  We missed our connection in Mexico City.  We were able to get onto an AeroMexico flight several hours later but wanted to make sure that our luggage would make it also.  Neither Aero México, nor Mexicana, nor Delta, could give us any more precise information.  Fortunately, our bags got onto our flight into Oaxaca.  Others were not so fortunate.  My wife met an American couple who had flown in on Delta, made a change in Mexico City and five days later still had not got their luggage.  We heard from other travelers that this was not a totally unusual occurrence.  Next time we go to Mexico, should we have to make a change in Mexico City; we will make sure that we fly on the same, Mexican, airline from New York to wherever in Mexico.

In the history of Mexico, from the early civilizations onward, the society seems to have been made up of two primary classes: the owner-rulers and everyone else, with a few variations over time and place.  Certainly the Aztec civilization that the first Spanish explorers encountered was stratified in this way.  There was a ruling class that lived very well.  Then there were the worker/farmers who supported them and who, for example, were not allowed, on pain of death, to acquire any marginal goods or property beyond what they needed to be productive in their work.  Certain skilled tradesmen and artisans drawn from this serving class were permitted certain privileges, as were highly skilled warriors.  Beneath them all was a slave class, made up of people captured in the perpetual wars with the Aztecs’ neighbors that seemed to characterize the period.  The Aztecs produced some marvelous artwork and some magnificent buildings (most of which were destroyed by the Spanish, as they destroyed the Mayans’ books).  They also produced a remarkably violent domestic culture, with human sacrifice, sometime in very large numbers, apparently being a common occurrence.  Supposedly done to “appease the Gods,” it most likely also served a very useful purpose for the rulers for keeping the working class, the slaves, and any captured enemies in their respective places.

Travel tip II.  Mexico City is one of the largest in the world.  Its present population is around 23 million.  Its altitude is 7000 ft. and it is covered by a permanent layer of smog.  Nevertheless, it is a city that works, at least for the Mexicans who have enough to live on and for tourists (for whom Mexico, unless you stay in a high-priced hotel, is a bargain).  It has a fairly comprehensive, and very low-priced (even for Mexicans) metro system, and I strongly recommend using it to get around, especially at rush hour.  There is much to see in Mexico City.  The main Anthropological Museum in Chapultepec Park, actually a combination historical, anthropological, archeological, art, crafts, and cultural museum, is the best museum-qua-museum I have visited in the world. (Te Papa, in Wellington, New Zealand, for me ranks second; it was first before I visited the one in Mexico City.)  The exhibits are very imaginatively set forth, are very accessible, have many illustrations of the settings in which the artifacts were found, have extensive descriptions, some with English translations, very comfortable lighting, and are set up to flow historically from the first arrivals of settlers originally from Asia, perhaps as long ago as 30,000 years B.C.E.  Great museuming is not confined to this particular museum, however.  We found it in the cultural museum in the small city of Oaxaca and in other small museums in Mexico City as well.

My impression is that the general two-class system, with variations, has continued throughout Mexican history.  It was obviously a feature of the Spanish dominion which lasted until the War of Independence, 1810-1820.  It was quickly re-established by a home-grown ruling class, which had developed under the Spanish, leading to a revolt following the disastrous (for Mexico) Mexican-American War of 1846-48 (in which they lost more than half of their territory).  A fledgling democracy with some land-reform followed, with a strange interlude in the 1860s of a French “Emperor” backed by French troops.  When they were thrown out, a democracy again was established but quickly turned into another home-grown dictatorship (of President Porfirio Diaz).  “Porfirism” did bring in major foreign investment and the beginnings of industrialization but with much repression of the mass of the population by the Mexican ruling class. The modern revolution of 1910-1920 (Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, et al) threw out the Porfiristas, democracy was re-established, and major advances in education, health care, and social services were made.  But one party, the PRI, remained in power for approximately 70 years from that time to the last election, in 2000, of the rightist current President Vicente Fox.  The two-class system has been somewhat modified, of course (but see the last paragraph).  However, Mexico still has one of the widest income/wealth gaps in the world for a semi-developed country.  This has widened under NAFTA which, among other things, made it very easy for Mexican owners to send their profits abroad instead of having to re-invest them in their own country.

Travel Tip III.  If you can manage it, the winter is a good time to go.  The weather is mild and dry.  There are not too many tourists about.  Be prepared for some world-class museuming, some magnificent Spanish colonial era baroque churches, lots and lots of people in Mexico City, friendliness, enough people who speak at least some English (we both speak some tourist Spanish and that does help), lots and lots of history, and of course the profusion of the great mural art of Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros, as well as others in public buildings, especially in Mexico City.  You can even see, in the Palacio des Belles Artes in Mexico City, a recreation of the mural that Rivera painted on commission at Rockefeller Center in New York City that John D. had destroyed because, among other things, it had a portrait of Lenin in it.  (It also features Marx, Engels and Darwin, but old J.D. apparently was particularly incensed about Lenin being there).  And oh yes, there is the Trotsky House where he was murdered by an agent of Stalin, and much, much of the art and life of Frida Kahlo, the two-time wife of Diego Rivera, an inamorata of Trotsky as well as others, and a fine artist in her right.

I could not finish this column without a thought or two on the illegal immigration problem.  In an article written by a senior Mexican economist with a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, Dr. Ricardo Pasco (The [Miami] Herald Mexico, 12/28/05) I was surprised to learn that only a minority of illegal immigrants from Mexico are unemployed farmers.  The majority are people who have jobs and at least some education but simply cannot make enough to support their families as the NAFTA-driven ever-widening income gap continues on its un-merry way.  As Dr. Pascoe says: “The problem is that wages are very low in Mexico.”  Building a wall is one way, theoretically, to solve the problem for the U.S.  (Yes, it does seem as if the Republican Right and the Israeli Right have the same set of advisors, doesn’t it?)  But criminalizing illegal immigration would likely not act as a deterrent (since the vast majority of illegal immigrants don’t get caught and likely wouldn’t even with a wall) and accomplish nothing more than expanding the United States’ already vast prison system, at taxpayer expense.  (The Georgites would likely privatize it, to provide more profits for their prison-operator campaign contributors.)  Penalizing US employers of illegal immigrants would likely be effective to some extent, except that among some the Republicans’ biggest campaign contributors are those employers who use and exploit illegal immigrant labor.  (Just imagine what would happen to their profits if they had to pay US workers a living wage.)  The best long-term solution for both countries?  Repeal NAFTA so that manufacturing jobs would stay here and profits that the Mexican ruling class makes could not so easily be exported and they might have to re-invest in income- and job-producing enterprises at home.  Just a thought.  And with it, I end this quick visit to Mexico.