Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What Am I Reading?

you ask....
I'm in the middle of a history titled "Mexico: The Struggle for Modernity"(Oxford University Press) by Prof. Charles Cumberland. It's an old text, written in 1968. But that's the nice thing about history--it doesn't often change much. History is one of my favorite subjects, and since I'm spending time in Mexico, it makes sense to read Mexican history. I've probably read half a dozen or so. What makes Mexican history so interesting are all the surprising twists and turns. It's like a West Virginia dirt road up in the mountains, twisting and rutted, filled with bumps and turns. And it's hard to follow without a road map.

With their black humor, Mexicans joke that every 100 years they have a revolution. In 1810, it was the War of Independence from Spain. Then 100 years later, in 1910, it was the Revolution. For those of you chronologically challenged, next year is 2010, marking a BIG year-long party celebrating the bicentennial of independence (just as ours was in 1976) and the centennial of their revolution. We HOPE it doesn't mean another NEW revolution is just around the corner.

Interestingly enough, the movement for independence was led primarily by Catholic priests. Liberation theology before liberation theology began! You've probably heard the story about Father Hidalgo ringing his church bell to call all the residents of his town, Dolores, together to take up arms. His "grito" (scream) is commemorated each year on Sept. 15, the eve of the anniversary, when the the president of Mexico and the state governors replicate Father Hidalgo's grito, "Viva Mexico!" The War of Independence lasted 11 long years (compared to the American Revolution, which lasted 8).

Whether or not Mexico was ready for independence in 1810 is a matter of controversy. This from Professor Cumberland's book:
"During independent Mexico's first fifty hectic and catastrophic years, over THIRTY different individuals served as president, heading more that FIFTY governments. One persons occupied the presidential chair on NINE different occasions, and three others sat on that rickety pinnacle of power three times each. In one short span (1837-1851 inclusive) 16 different men served 22 governments as president. Cabinet ministers changed more often than presidents, and those 15 years saw 48 foreign ministers, 61 ministers of government, 57 secretaries of finance, and 41 secretaries of war. Frequently two groups claimed control of the government at the same time, sometimes three. The pendulum swung from empire to federal republic to centralistic government to dictatorship and back president occupied the chair (which exception of 3) for longer that two consecutive years, and some served only a few weeks. One year saw FIVE changes in government...."

Makes you dizzy, doesn't it? Compare that with the early history of American independence. Makes you grateful for the steady hand of someone like George Washington.

And then came Porfirio Diaz. Originally a military man (many of Mexico's past leaders have come from the military....they're the ones with the power to stay in office). Diaz became Mexico's longest serving dictator, ruling from 1876-1880 and again from 1884-1911, a total of 31 years. He was a ruthless totalitarian but a proponent of sound finance and industrial development. Sort of like an early version of Chile's Augusto Pinochet. Today, his reputation is mostly negative.

I like to try to understand WHY the United States developed as it did and our next-door neighbor developed in a different manner. In the earliest settlement phase of the continent, who came to Mexico? Conquistadors. Conquerors. Their focus was "smash & grab": take the gold, silver, and riches and go back to Spain to become a wealthy landowner. In what was to become the U.S., the English quickly realized that there was no "gold in them thar hills." Yes, there were economic interests in settling North America (tobacco farming, one), but in the northern colonies, there was the primary interest of fleeing religious persecution. They were SETTLERS who brought their women and children and intended to make a home. No so much so in Mexico.

Whole libraries full of books have been written on the theme. I'm no historian. But it sure is interesting to speculate how and why things came out the way they did.