Through The Tortilla Curtain


new internationalist
issue 251 - January 1994

Bridging the US/Mexico border.
through the Tortilla Curtain
There are plenty of good reasons why Mexico matters but it can be
difficult to see what they are. Before setting out on a journey through
the country David Ransom wonders why the myopia persists.

Nowhere else in the world does the South meet the North directly across a land border – and not just anywhere in the North, but the American metropolis itself. Today, along that 3,000-kilometre line in the sand, a ‘Tortilla Curtain’ made from razor wire and bits of landing strip left over from the Gulf War is descending over the lives and the minds of the people who live on either side of it.

When walls like this start going up it’s a sure sign that something deeply wrong is going down. The ‘Tortilla Curtain’ has come to represent the deepening division between North and South. This has replaced the conflict between East and West as the most urgent and potentially dangerous challenge facing the world. Mexico is where you have to come to discover what lies behind it.

But Mexico is not just symbolic of wider issues. The country has an absorbing history of its own that is not confined to the mysteries of its pre-Columbian past.

Mexico City shrouded in pollution.

While Europe and North America had their eyes on the First World War and the Russian Revolution in 1917, Mexico was nearing the end of a bloody revolution that was no less profound and arguably left a more fruitful legacy. An Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI) slowly emerged from the bloodshed and took power in 1928. It has held on ever since, longer than any other political party in the world. In Mexico grandparents have been able to live out their three score years and ten if not in blissful tranquillity then free from the fear of mass violence or the urgent desire to use it.

But a perverse indifference to the country persists, and to be honest I am at a loss to know quite why this should be so. Perhaps the modern news agenda doesn’t yet know how to deal with the absence of war. Or maybe it has something to do with tourism. Millions of tourists visit Mexico every year only to be blinded by the great beauty of the place, by the cosmetics of tourist attraction. They leave knowing very little but quite satisfied that they have discovered enough.

Another possibility is a good deal less palatable. A large majority of the Mexican population is mestizo, a mixture of indigenous and Spanish ancestry. This makes them a particularly intriguing people. But racists of all kinds reserve a special contempt for them, needing to believe that nothing of any real interest could possibly come from such a mixture and preferring to remain in ignorance of any evidence to the contrary.

Mexico doesn’t fit into standard perceptions of the Third World either. If you divide up the country’s national wealth equally among all Mexicans you find that they are much richer than most other people in the South. But of course Mexico’s wealth is not divided up equally. Even the most conservative official estimate shows a third of the population, perhaps 30 million people, living beneath a very meagre poverty line indeed. Mexico’s 35 richest families, on the other hand, have as much wealth between them as its 15 million poorest citizens.

Most Mexicans now seem to agree that the legacy of the Revolution – if not what lay behind it – has finally been exhausted. Corruption, authoritarianism, massive debts, the IMF and the World Bank have between them undermined the kind of regime that staged power cuts in polling booths and kept multinationals like Shell and Esso out of roadside gas stations. What remains, however, is a slightly jaded but nonetheless deep conviction that democracy, ‘the will of the people’, matters.

So where now and what next? The PRI itself appears to have few doubts. It outspent every other lobbyist in Washington in pursuit of congressional approval for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and the US. The Agreement should, the PRI believes, resolve the ambiguities of Mexican history by bestowing upon the country permanent membership of the North.

This summer there are presidential elections which might have some bearing on the outcome. But it’s doubtful. What matters is not so much the ritual contest of rhetoric, money and power in six-yearly presidential elections, but how Mexicans think and feel day by day about the society they live in or want to create. The journey that follows aims to give you a sense of what these sentiments are.

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