Mexico in 1970

COLIN McGLASHAN reports on the explosively changing country where the World Cup fiesta opens today.

Published in the Observer on Sunday May 31st 1970.

The Aztecs called it Tenochtitlan, a lake of floating gardens and a million charred sacrificial hearts. Cortes and his conquistadors stripped the Indians of their language, razed their pyramids, burned their manuscripts, slaughtered their priests and rulers, took away their names, brought new diseases that killed them by the million, plundered their artefacts to be melted down in to dull bars of gold for the vaults of Madrid. The natives, said the Spaniards, could never be converted to a money culture.

Today the fine thin air of the mesa, 7,400 feet above sea level, reeks with prosperity and progress and half a million cars. The trains of a new £100m subway glide on rubber wheels. The luxury shops of Zona Rosa rival Bond Street. The capital of seven million people, the Mexico of the Olympics, the World Cup and the international conventions is on show. This is the one ‘developing’ country apparently on the brink of joining the league of rich nations. Mexico today is testing the theory that the ex-colonial nations can industrialise the way Europe did. This decade will decide.

The statistics of progress are heady. Production grows by 6 per cent a year. This is a billion-dollar-a-year market for the United States – fifth largest after Britain, Canada, Germany and France. The investment analysts who come here from New York talk about a new Japan. “We are building a new world here,” says a Mexican businessman across a ritual four-hour lunch. “In 15 or 20 years we are going to be the country of the future.”

The new affluence is Latin America’s broadest-based. The workers in the new industries of the cities sometimes earn 100 times what their fathers did. They live in suburbs of boxy houses that resemble parts of Southern California. Income per-head has passed Portugal’s and is chasing Spain’s.

Five years ago, the managers of Barcelona were packing their families into tiny new SEAT’s – locally made Fiat 600s – for a weekend at a small hotel behind the Costa Brava. Here, the sons of managers drive Ford Mustangs with ‘screech horns’. They eat in US style drive-in restaurants, pay £40 a table at El Forum to hear entertainers like Little Richard, weekend in the beach resort of Acapulco or amongst the bougainvillaea and jacaranda of Cuernavaca.

But outside the capital, near Zumbango, peasant families still visit Lord Cowdray’s sewage works, built in 1901 in a style halfway between Victorian railway architecture and a Mayan temple. They file down the steps at sunrise towards a powerful stench, which they believe immunises children against whooping cough.

Half of the 50 million population doesn’t share the new industrial affluence. It lives at subsistence level. Despite repeated distribution of land, there are more landless peasants than in 1910. And for all the effervescent statistics about the sales of consumer durables, it’s still cheaper to keep a resident maid with two children than buy a washing machine.

The halfway houses between traditional peasant poverty and the new life are teeming. They are the ‘misery circles’ – shantytowns of huts and hovels – stretching to the horizon around the capital. No one knows their population. Half a million people are said to live in Netzacohuatl, the slum city near the airport. Their inhabitants often blot themselves into oblivion with a daily three litres of pulque, the whitish, fermented sap of a cactus-like plant that is ‘milked’ three times a day through a long tube. It tastes like a cross between beer and country cider.

There are no pavements, no water, and no sanitation. When it rains, the ruts in the street run raw sewage. When it’s dry, there are dust storms and rats. In one courtyard, perhaps 20 yards long, 14 families live in one room – a doorless brick shack. Within 50 yards, the cars of the new class rush past along a four-lane concrete motorway, past Shakey’s Pizza House, Denny’s Restaurant Open 24 Hours, and the hoardings: Dodge, Agfa, Cognac Martell, ICI Paints, Coca-Cola, Fly Air India to London.

The poor tend to be Indians, or the darker among the mestizos – mixed Indian and Spanish. Attitudes towards them are deeply ambivalent. “I have a dark boy, dark like the night!” said a businessman. His son, in fact, was the palest olive. Everyone likes to be called ‘indigenous,’ but ‘Indian’ is often a term of abuse or stigma. Yet in the cathedrals Mexicans of all colours shun the Spanish images to prey before and African-black Christ with feathered Indian headdress. And European language and culture are skin-deep here. Beneath them, the attitudes and reflexes of the pre-Cortesian civilisation – hermetic, proud, fatalist – survive.

There is an oriental acceptance of death. On All Souls Day, children receive skull-shaped bread-rolls with their names on. A motorway is called the ‘Cliff of Death’. An insurance company’s television advert has a rock group of skeletons chanting “if you want to be happy when you die, insure with us. Be alive to the possibilities.” The weekly crime reviews, with their photographs of corpses, have coined a word for the husband-killer: ‘auto-viuda,’ – the self-made widow. The capital’s murder rate is the hemisphere’s highest. One can meet men who have killed a dozen times. “I used to wonder what a murderer was like.” says a European priest. “Now I know lots, and they’re very nice people.” Not long ago, the Judas in an Easter Passion Play couldn’t stand the crowd’s insults. He shot six people.

Mexico had the first socialist revolution, in 1910. One million, perhaps two million died. The violence lasted 14 years. Starvation followed. Those years are etched on the national consciousness – like the twenties on Tees-side. When the U.S. and British oil companies were nationalised in 1938, women gave wedding rings and peasants came in from the country with live chickens to help pay the bill.

Today, government is stable. It wears the mask of a democracy. Beneath it is what one U.S. observer calls “… an ingenious, amazing system. The politics of magic.” that has as its particular ingenuity abolished orthodox politics. It has replaced them with an adaptation of the complex, authoritarian but sometimes beautiful system of human relationships that marked the civilisations of the Aztecs, Mixtecs, Toltecs and Mayas.

What is now called the Institutional Revolutionary Party (P.R.I.) has run the country since the revolution. In the thirties its leaders talked and acted like Fidel Castro. Today it encompasses all views from Marxism to the far right.

But outside the umbrella of ‘the Revolutionary Family,’ dissent is not admired. It is not that opposition parties are banned – all of them, including the illegal Communist Party, receive Government subsidies and share a gift of 20 seats in Congress. It is merely that the P.R.I., while intensely disliking walkovers, insists on winning by 95 percent.

And the price for newspaper opposition is high. The Diario de Yucatan is paying for criticism with an electrified fence behind its front door and boxes of light bulbs filled with nitric acid beside each window. Its editor, Carlos Mendendez, who does not look like a man who frightens easily, keeps a revolver on his desk. He is not anxious to be quoted about press freedom.

This is a staggeringly young country. Well over half the population is under 20. At Volkswagen’s new plant in Puebla, the average age of the 3,000 workers is 20. The dollar-a-day earned by apprentices often makes them the families’ highest-ever wage earner.

The young are reared on a heroic history and the rhetoric of socialist revolution. They grow-up to find politics controlled by a middle-class bureaucracy that hates dissent. The mixture is explosive. Eighteen months ago it led to a massacre.

The student movement of 1968 started with fights and rivalry between two schools, brutally broken-up by the granaderos, Mexico’s riot police. The students forgot their differences to build a movement around police brutality and the laws against ‘social dissolution,’ traditionally used to jail independent trade union leaders and other dissenters. Within three months several hundred thousand people were marching down the Paseo de la Reforma for the first time since the Revolution. The Olympic Games were due to start. The Government sent in heavily armed troops. Officially, 39 were killed. Reliable estimates are that 500 students and bystanders died in a hail of bullets. Thousands more were arrested. At least 100 are still jailed without trial.

The movement was smashed. It has vanished almost without trace. The grievances behind it survive and fester, and they’re not confined to the young. The generation gap is narrower here. The students’ parents shared their concerns for the fabric of society. “They were in a movement in which we believed,” says an affluent and conservative lawyer. “We don’t like the industrial culture, the slavery of the man to his products. We believed in our sons. We cried and we grieved with the youths who were killed.”

Mexico has freed herself from the classic Latin American millstones. Where Brazil is crushed by a repressive military dictatorship, El Salvador is owned by 14 families, Colombia held back by a rich, conservative Roman Catholic hierarchy, Mexico dealt with the Army, the landowners and Rome a generation ago.

In the fields where it is its own master, progress is staggering. Fifteen years ago it imported food. Now – in spite of having only 11 percent of land fit for agriculture and most of that at the mercy of the droughts – it is an exporter. Fifteen million acres of once-desert land in Sonora now, with irrigation, produce more than half the country’s wheat. New strains of dwarf corn developed in its tropical regions grow across Afro-Asia. Latin America’s largest hydroelectric project is going up in Malpaso. The rich swamplands of the south-east are being drained to produce three crops a year.

Priorities are right: 8 per cent of the budget on defence, 37 per cent on education. But with the population growing at 3 per cent a year, even that isn’t enough. And it needs to find half a million new jobs a year to stand still.

The dilemmas of underdevelopment remain as real and as sharp as in Afro-Asia. As one American analyst here puts it, the decisions that count are made in Washington: tariffs, quotas, raw material prices. And the rich countries, says Alejandro Carrillo, editor of the Government newspaper El Nacional, still defend their industrial cathedral by discriminating against the poor. “We’ve seen nothing very concrete come out of the promises they’ve made. They leave us the crumbs of industrial production. When we try and produce goods that can compete, tariffs stop them. We are still part of the Third World.”

He writes off tourism as “… the golden legend. If you analyse it, you find the cream of the tourist trade is not going into the hands of Mexicans. We get the fringe benefits. We can’t rely on tourism as a main source of revenue.” The trouble is that tourism is a main source of revenue, and growing. Most of the visitors are from the U.S. They fly in by American Airlines or Braniff, stay at the Hilton or the Sheraton, drive a Hertz or Avis hire-car, eat at an Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House or a Shakey’s Pizza parlour, shop at Woolworths, Sanborns or Sears Roebuck. The profits go back home.

More than 1,000 U.S. companies operate in Mexico. They dominate the consumer goods market – food processing, cars, fridges, cosmetics – and its £115 million a year worth of advertising. “Look around this room,” said a teenage girl angrily. “Nothing here is Mexican, except the food you’re eating. We don’t own anything in the country any more. The gringos are taking it all.”

“Most of my friends are American,” says a manager, “but they took half our country to make Texas and California. Its very hard to forget.” Hatred of the yanquis is almost a religion, like the magistrate who speaks English perfectly, but won’t. “I’m sorry. I hate the gringos so much. If you speak English here you spend the rest of your life working for Woolworths or Sears. They think they are Cortes, that they are going to change our way of thinking, our way of life.”

Advocates of foreign investment argue that Mexico must learn from foreign technology so as to progress to compete with it. The trouble is that the Third World has to take the technology it is given, and that tends to be obsolescent. One example was the brave but disastrous attempt to found an industry making radio valves. As it got under way, along came the transistor.

There is also Mexico’s industrial pride – its motor industry. The machines in the ring of fifteen car-making plants around the capital are new and expensive. They are not, however, those used in Detroit. They are specially designed for a low production, high cost and therefore inefficient car industry.

Eight motor companies rushed into Mexico in the early sixties to compete for a market totalling 100,000 units a year – the minimum economic run for mass production of one car model. The results is that a Ford Mustang, for example, in spite of wage rates one-eighth of Detroit’s, costs almost twice the price.

One efficient car firm using the latest machinery could, according to U.S. experts, produce a mini-car for £250 or less. It would then be able to compete with Detroit in the same way as the Japanese, who have piled-up a billion dollar favourable trade gap with the U.S. – the largest the Americans have ever had with any nation.

By law, two-thirds of each car must be made in Mexico. A look at the assembly line of one of the largest car factories reveals it isn’t. “No, of course we don’t make 65 per cent here,” admits the works manager. “But it’s important to tell the Government we do, or they’d close the plant.” Edmundo Flores – one of Latin America’s leading economists says, “The auto industry is not Mexican and it’s never going to be Mexican.”

Meanwhile an industry that was seen by the Government as the passport to industrialised-nation status comes close to crippling the economy. One estimate is that it has cost close to £500 million. To contemplate this tragedy from the Mexican side of the development gap is at best to suspect the industrial nations don’t intend to encourage possible competitors. At worst it is to wonder if exploitation is not in eradicable.

But perhaps nothing can keep Mexico back from identity and economic independence. Its immense vitality, its passionate nationalism, its individual and collective desire to succeed will drive it on to emulate Japan. “There is no question we will swing it like the Japanese,” says Edmundo Flores. “We had our great reform before the Cold War, so the Americans couldn’t interfere with us like they did with the Cubans. We are going to do every imaginable thing to pacify the gringos. Why shouldn’t we?”

“We have better technicians than anywhere in Latin America. Industry is growing by leaps and bounds. In a couple of years we will be making watches, we will be making cars. Expensive and badly made, but that’s always the beginning. The Japanese, when you go into their history, God, have they made mistakes. What matters is the batting average. We will imitate badly, like they did 30 years ago. Then perhaps some genius will invent the equivalent of the Sony TV.”

What does seem certain is that if Mexico can’t cross the development gap between rich and poor nations in the seventies, there will have to be some changes in the rules.

This article was published in The Observer on Sunday May 31st 1970 – the day the World Cup began in Mexico. Although attempts to clear copyright and enable reproduction of this article have been made, we have so far received no response. However, if there are copyright issues outstanding please let us know.
End of Chapter - Mexico70 Sombrero