Manana Forever?: Mexico and the Mexicans

Image of Manana Forever?: Mexico and the Mexicans
Release Date: 
May 16, 2011
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“Americans interested in Mexico will be fascinated by his astute analysis of the machinations of the Mexican mindset and mannerisms. . . . The last thing nationalistic Mexicans want to hear is that their future might be salvaged by Mexican-Americans who have taken on the ways of the ‘gringos.’”

There are no two countries so contiguous yet so far apart socially and politically as Mexico and the United States. The nations share a 2,000-mile long border crossed daily by millions of people. The vast majority of Mexico’s tourists are U.S. citizens vacationing in one of Mexico’s many popular resorts. One million Americans are retired there. Twelve to thirteen million Mexican nationals live in the United States.

Yet Mexico remains an enigma to most Americans—part of its allure—and an ongoing source of friction in U.S-Mexican relations.

Mexican political scientist and author Jorge G. Castañeda’s new book, Manaña Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans, deftly probes the Mexican psyche with an almost exhausting thoroughness from the unique perspective of a native son who has lived and studied abroad and had the job of representing his country as Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Americans interested in Mexico will be fascinated by his astute analysis of the machinations of the Mexican mindset and mannerisms.

But explaining Mexico to Americans is not Professor Castañeda’s real mission in writing this book. He has created what he calls a “road map,” starting from Mexico’s burdensome past, leading toward a future, he hopes, more reflective of a democracy with a vital work force, rich oil reserves, and an expanding middle class.

As one might expect from the title, Mañana Forever?, the book is almost a plaintive call for fundamental changes in the way his fellow Mexicans think and conduct their internal affairs.

Mexico is a “country of victims,” Dr. Castañeda contends, clinging to an “archaic and dysfunctional individualism” honed during centuries of brutal Spanish occupation. Mexico’s rejection of confrontation, competition, and controversy, says the author, makes it ill-equipped to compete in the world of modern democracies.

Dr. Castañeda has clearly lost patience with the Mexican status quo: an almost universal lack of civic engagement except by a political elite, a penchant for avoiding any kind of public debate or controversy which in other democracies can lead to consensus building and positive social change, and a fatalistic attitude about the corruption and nepotism which has plagued Mexico throughout its modern history.

Mexicans, Dr. Castañeda contends, are too polite, even fearful, to argue in public. This is the result of centuries of being colonized by Spanish overlords and their privileged descendants. Disputes led nowhere except to an early grave, perhaps. So the mestizo offspring of Spaniards and the indigenous learned to keep their mouths shut and their eyes averted from the myriad injustices and brutality they witnessed. Survival meant acquiescence and that passivity became internalized and institutionalized over generations and continues to permeate Mexican society.

Fiercely nationalistic, yet equally individualistic, Mexicans, by and large, don’t join groups, give to charity, take public transportation by choice, or live in high rises. Dr. Castañeda puts all this in an historical context that is both illuminating and provocative.

The author wisely supports his national critique by citing previous writers who have probed the Mexican collective unconscious, namely revered Mexican poet Octavio Paz (Labyrinth of Solitude) and former New York Times Mexico correspondent Alan Riding (Distant Neighbors).

As proof that the winds of political change may be blowing in the right direction, Dr. Castañeda points to the increasing democratization of the Mexican political process since the ruling PRI political party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) lost its decades-long grip on power in the 1990s, giving the electorate more faith in the nation’s ability to change.

Dr. Castañeda mentions briefly his campaign as an independent candidate for the Mexican Presidency from 2003-05. He toured the country but could not prevail against the rigid political party structure. One wishes he had included more details from that personal experience. Next book, perhaps.

Mexico’s saving grace, the author writes, may ultimately rest with the millions of Mexicans, especially the women, living in the United States, where they have engaged in civic life and workplace dynamics and have benefited by forming alliances. It is that example and their frequent trips home for extended stays that may influence Mexicans to aspire to a more open society.

Dr. Castañeda’s suggested panacea will undoubtedly ruffle many feathers south of the border. The last thing nationalistic Mexicans want to hear is that their future might be salvaged by Mexican-Americans who have taken on the ways of the “gringos.”

But the author’s entreaty for a better Mexico “that leaves its demons and fears behind and concentrates on its passion and personality” is earnest and respectful. Optimistically, he sees a more liberated Mexico “just over the horizon.”

“But the last haul is the toughest one,” he writes. “This book might marginally lighten it: if so it will have served its purpose.”