Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mañana Forever? - Jorge Castañeda

"Few countries have devoted so much time and energy as Mexico to dissecting and debating, to hailing or regretting their 'national character' "
-Jorge G. Castañeda

Every 20 - 25 years, some Mexican intellectual (or some immigrant who falls in love with the country) publishes a book trying to explain what is the essence of Mexicans and Mexico. A friend says that this interest for Mexico's soul derives from the fact that Mexico is a nation with a manifesto -unknown to everybody so far. I say that this passion for Mexico's character is due to the fact that Mexicans are full of themselves. 

In any case, what happens with these books is the following: that book is hyper-publicized and sold, and it usually ends up shaping the vision on Mexico of the generation next to the intellectual's. That's what happened with El Laberinto de la Soledad by Octavio Paz in the 50s, and with Roger Bartra's La Jaula de la Melancolía in the 80s, just to mention the two most recent examples.

Jorge Castañeda, author of a biography of Ché Guevara hated by the Cuban government, author of a book on Mexico's presidential succession process during the PRI regime, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, and current member of the board of Human Rights Watch, has recently authored a book that tries to explain the main cultural traits of Mexico and how they shape the country's development and modernization. (he has also dated this, this, and this lady)

However, contrary to Paz and Bartra, Castañeda is unlikely to shape the vision of the current students of Mexico's soul. On the one hand, Castañeda is highly unpopular within the center-to-the-left academic community, which is the ideological allegiance of most Mexicanologues. Part of it is because as a minister of foreign affairs, he was seen as too pro-American for Mexican political correctness. Part of it is also that he is too arrogant for Mexico. When asked whether he would like to run for president, he answered "sí, pero me da hueva; es que me encabrona que me toque la gente", which can be loosely translated as "yes, but I would get sick of it, because I get fucking upset when people touch me."

But the most important reason why Castañeda will not shape the generation-in-making of Mexicanologues is because Mañana Forever? was not designed for the Mexican market but for the US consumer, who actually buys books. Mañana Forever? ranked as number 1 in Amazon's foreign affairs list for around 3 weeks. This should be seen as a sign by people in Mexico who complain that the US public does not care about Mexico; it does, but not in the way Mexicans would like. 

In fairness, Castañeda issued the book in Spanish too, but it contains so many American cultural references, and is written in a style deemed as "informal" in Mexico's academic circles, that its failure is almost assured. In addition, there are countless blogs and books about Mexico written by Mexicans in the way Mexicans like, that this is not such a tragedy. In the past, "Mexicanologues" have mainly talked to Mexicans (Mexico is a country that loves to speak with its navel), so the mere fact that Castañeda is mainly addressing a non-Mexican public, explaining them how the country works, the differences and nuances within the regions, and how the country has changed in the last 25 years, is perhaps the biggest contribution of this book. 

Castañeda's argument is very straightforward: he describes what the previous "Mexicanologues" thought about the Mexican character, matches their arguments with recent data, describes how Mexico has reluctantly and slowly become a middle-class country, and mentions how the Mexicans' character is a drag on the modernization process. All of this is done with passion, sadness, admiration, love, and sometimes frustration. 

In his conclusions, Castañeda says that the agent of change is Mexican women in the United States. According to Castañeda, There is anecdotic and empirical evidence that Mexicans who migrate to the United States change their mores and become "more American than Americans," meaning that they are law-abiding. According to Castañeda, Mexican women also become more liberated and modernized than their peers in Mexico and male immigrants in the United States. Migrant women are, according to Castañeda, living a process similar to Western women after WWII: liberation, full integration in the workforce, etc. Following this logic, modern women will induce modernization in their peers back in Mexico and male migrants in the United States.

This is the least solid part of the book and the saddest one, at the same time. There is nothing that allows to conclude that Mexican men in the US will follow women in the US other than Castañeda's wishful thinking. Considering that most immigrants in the US stay for good, thinking that this will influence people back in Mexico (through twitter or visits every 2 or 3 years...) looks more like a long shot than anything else.

But at the same time, poor Castañeda. He's a guy who has been involved in politics and academia in Mexico for more than thirty years, who has seen how all the projects to accelerate Mexico's modernization, from institutional reform to economic liberalization, passing through the creation of intellectual and civil society groups, have fallen apart. He now teaches in NYU. When he's asked if he'd be interested in running for president again, he says that he has a very good life there... I guess that the immigrant women thing was something he had to come up with when he realized that everything else had failed.

In any case, this is an ideal book for non-Mexicans interested in having a modern and succinct introduction to Mexico.

The video below is an interview to Castañeda about the book (in Spanish). If you go to the youtube site, you will be able to see how much Mexicans dislike him.

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