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A Life

Pedro Martinez: A Mexican Peasant and His Family

by Oscar Lewis, Drawings by Alberto Beltrán
Random House, 507 pp., $8.75

Oscar Lewis’s new book is the life of a Mexican peasant, now seventy-four years old, his wife, and their son, as told by the actors themselves and preserved by Lewis on tape. It follows Pedro from his birth in 1889 through his childhood, his young manhood as a peón in the brutal cacique-system of his native “Azteca,” his marriage to Esperanza in 1910 (the year of the revolutionary explosion against the Díaz dictatorship), the birth of the first of twelve children, his life in Emiliano Zapata’s agrarian army, his fight for the welfare of his people after the Revolution, the political infighting between radical and conservative groups in the village, his flight to Mexico City when local conditions are adverse to his faction, his return and conversion from Catholicism to Seventh Day Adventism, his social rise—of sorts—when he becomes a judge in the village, his life as an old, widowed man. Most of his children die young. Some manage to evade their traditional tragic destinies and become schoolteachers. Esperanza, his wife, leads on the surface the life of the dominated Mexican woman, the victim of a double sexual standard: a life of being made love to mechanically, giving birth, rearing children as she can, suffocating in a shack with the smoke of braziers. Yet like most Mexican women, she seems to draw strength from her husband’s vibrant contact with the outer world. It is Pedro who must drink both the milk and hemlock of the world, and if this makes him the stronger one outside his house, it is Esperanza who, within the home, seems the more secretly powerful: Pedro lives by the rule of force, Esperanza by the demands of love. Their life together, the claims of the outside world and of their inner feelings, their illusions dreamt and lost, their relations with their children, form the subject matter of Pedro Martínez.

It is not fiction, even if the author has naturally edited the flow of memory and wisely structured these lives with an eye not only on clear chronology but on mounting tension and dramatic conflict. It is not factual reporting, for Lewis, during his twenty-year relationship with Pedro Martínez, his family, and his world, has evidently developed bonds that go beyond the cold ease of the reporter. It is not strictly scientific anthropology, since it is obvious that Lewis himself has become entangled with the life of Pedro Martínez and is as much a subject of the campesino‘s humor, wiles, affection, and suspicion as Pedro is the subject of Lewis’s tape-recorder.

The result is literature as statement, as the ground upon which the twin trees of history and personality grow. For the life of Pedro Martínez is a striking example of the dramatic clash between history and personality in the underdeveloped world. In the highly developed societies of the West, perhaps a balance has been struck between the muted actions of history, which are experienced merely as day-to-day administration, and the equally muted reactions of personal life, which are felt in an isloated sphere of anguish or indifference. In the world of Pedro Martínez life is beseiged, pressed, and devoured by history. Life cannot begin before the battles of history are fought and won or lost. Yet life is only worth living if it is claimed and reclaimed by men who face the wild upsurge of history. As the author sums it up, “Few men have undergone greater changes within a lifetime. Pedro has changed from an Indian to a mestizo way of life, from an illiterate to a ‘half-lawyer,’ from a peón to a village politician, from a Catholic to a Seventh Day Adventist.” In this sense, Pedro Martínez is representative of peasant-revolutionaries in all underdeveloped countries. As such, his life has world-wide implications, not only from a political, historical, or economic viewpoint, but essentially from a personal, human perspective. That all these levels are harmonized within Oscar Lewis’s book through concrete experience and not through theoretical abstraction gives Pedro Martínez its urgent power.

Urgent, above all, to the very public it addresses. It is frequently said that the flaw of American foreign policy is its incapacity to understand the changes that are coming about in the underdeveloped world: That flaw can only be corrected through knowledge of the people making these changes and of the context of their actions. Pedro Martínez provides this knowledge in a deceptively simple way. Yet the man, his life and his book are thoroughly wedded to the centuries-old agrarian problem of Mexico—the ageless problem of three-quarters of the world’s population. Pedro’s immediate historical milieu is that of the Mexican Revolution, in which he fought with Zapata’s army and in whose aftermath he is still living. (Let it be added, as a literary footnote, that the indirect fashion in which Pedro narrates the revolutionary battles is beautifully reminiscent of Stephen Crane’s ever-elusive Civil War battles, or Fabrizio’s present-unpresent Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma.)

It is perhaps illuminating to recall the vast and intricate history that surrounds Pedro, his memories, and his dreams. The Mexican peasant inherited, from pre-Columbian times, a mixed system of private and communal exploitation of the land. The Spanish colony, in fact, respected the communal (ejido) lands since according to law all lands originally belonged to the Crown, which then disposed of them as it saw fit. But, in fact, the Crown delivered the best lands to the encomendero—the Spanish conquistador and colonizerturned-landowner—and to the Church. At the heart of Pedro’s memories there is this dream of Paradise lost. At the height of his rebellion he has the illusion that the encomendero will be wiped off the land forever; finally he is disenchanted and comes to terms with political realities. For the old system persisted, even after Mexico won her independence in 1821, until the country was shaken by defeat at the hands of the armies of Taylor and Scott, and the Liberal movement headed by Benito Juárez was born. Juárez’s nineteenth-century Liberalism was something of a paradox. Through faith in free enterprise, à la Adam Smith, he broke the unproductive feudal system of land tenure by the Church and the descendants of the encomenderos, only to sell their lands to the highest bidder. It was not the peasants who bought them, but the Liberal middle class that had supported Juárez. Even the communal lands were overwhelmed in the commercial rush, and during the long dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1910) a new feudalism was erected, now managed by a Díaz “aristocracy” and foreign landholders. While Díaz invited foreign investors to develop agriculture, mining, railways, and industry, he denied any responsibility for the welfare of the workers; the result was that Mexico became an enormous forced-labor camp. The workers were paid in company scrip, indebted for generations, killed off in unsanitary work, sent in chains from one end of the country to the other, or simply sentenced to hard work in the tropical hell at Valle Nacional. Pedro Martínez remembers: “They earned miserable pay…On the haciendas the peones who came late were whipped…If someone talked back…when he least expected it, the troops came and zas! they took him away to be a soldier or a prisoner in Quintana Roo.”

These were the conditions that brought about the Mexican Revolution, and Zapata’s purpose was the restitution of the communal lands to the peasants. But the Revolution was not merely a struggle of the people against an old and oppressive system. Within the Revolution itself factions arose. Some believed in a return to the purity of the Juárez Liberalism; others in State intervention; others in the limitation of the latifundia—the large estates—and the protection of small landowners; still others in complete communal ownership of the land. This struggle is clearly reflected in the village politics of “Azteca,” where Pedro Martinez is on the side of the communal system against the remnants of the old, exploiting caciques who became the apostles of free enterprise. A compromise finally emerged; the big haciendas were to be expropriated (without indemnity) and redistributed in two ways: as small private plots and as communal lands. The first stage of agrarian reform reached its climax in the Thirties, when President Cárdenas distributed sixteen million hectares in five years. The tempo of redistribution slowed down in the Forties and Fifties, and the rivalries described on a local level in Pedro Martínez were repeated nationally. Only under President López Mateos, during the last six years, has a balance of sorts been achieved: Mexican agrarian reform is now entering a second and most important stage in which the peasants are beginning to be given the material means to produce more, through credit, seeds, machinery, permanent prizes and schools.

It was Chou En-lai who said (I quote from memory): “Once an agrarian reform is applied, even a mild one, the armed uprising of the peasantry becomes very difficult.” It would take several volumes to write the history of Mexican agrarian reform, its successes and its failures. Suffice it to say that, whatever its mistakes, it is an irreversible fact and the peasant continues, in the contradictory progress of Mexico, to be the key problem. In many places, the Mexican peasant is still as poor as he was fifty years ago. But his situation is far more fluid than that, say, of the Peruvian peasant. The Mexican campesino is no longer a slave to the big landowners. He can go off, alas!, as a bracero to the United States. He can move freely from one community to another. He can emigrate—and does so by the millions—to the big city, where he becomes a cheaply paid industrial worker (and feels privileged in comparison to his campesino brothers) or, like Pedro Martínez himself in 1928, remains part of a torn lumpenproletariat. When Pedro Martinez goes to the city, he becomes Jesus Sánchez, the sire of the tragic slum family of Lewis’s previous book, The Children of Sánchez. When he stays on the land, he is the root of all Mexican contradictions.

Pedro paradoxically longs for the security and values of communal life and, at the same time, cannot give up his proud, often suicidal, individualism. He is the earth-bound guardian of old and cherished traditions, and, at the same time, the man most easily dazzled by the bright and rootless life of the city (in Mexico City, where he ekes out a living selling oranges and ice cream, Pedro discovers that he “has two hearts”). He is a paternalist despot and a sincere revolutionary. He is the procreator of great common illusions:

My thought has been to improve the village, not myself. No, The Lord came to struggle for the people, not for Himself! I fought with Zapata in the Revolution and since then I have been struggling for justice. That’s why I have nothing and why my family suffered. To be a hero, a man cannot think of his home or of how his children or his wife or parents will suffer. They must suffer! There is no other way. A man who thinks first of his family is not a hero or a patriot. He is nothing.

Yet he himself has lost the very hopes he fosters:

I don’t believe in the Revolution any more…Nobody won the Revolution; even Zapata lost…The success of the Revolution was no great advance. It only seemed to be because at that time we got rid of the big plantation owners and the government of don Porfirio, who were the exploiters. But now there have appeared even worse exploiters. Now it is the bankers.

He is conscious of the multiple corruptions that have infected the Revolution, yet he is the upholder of the system from which he expects help. The tongue-in-cheek Machiavellianism of the Mexican “guided-democracy” has been to let free enterprise work freely and fail freely, and then let the worker turn to the Government and its carefully manipulated levers of intervention as his last hope. (“The government [says Pedro] should attack the high prices and give the peasants some benefit from the fruits of the land. They should stop the bankers from monopolizing everything…”) The procedure is not only defensive: it is actively useful, since the Government can keep an ear open to the grumblings from below. It realizes that, if these problems are not solved, they can swell and menace the power and stability of the Government and its supporters, the Mexican middle class. At this point the State openly intervenes to follow up the agrarian reform: who would dare call it Communist? Mexican statesmen seem to follow a rule of sorts. In an underdeveloped country, only the State can create the conditions of progress. But the government of an underdeveloped country that shares a 3,000-kilometer border with the United States must make a show of free enterprise, well knowing that native capitalism itself can only grow on the general conditions created by a strong central State. And, except for some cactus-grown Goldwaters, Mexican capitalists also know it.

Pedro Martínez waits. A million Mexicans are born every year. Four hundred thousand new jobs must be handed them yearly. Fifteen million campesinos are still hungry and must be brought into a consumer’s market now largely limited to the urban population. An explosive revolution followed by peaceful evolution thus draws the historical frontiers of the life of Pedro Martínez. Would the latter have been possible without the former? Will the former ever be possible again so long as the latter retains the practical allegiance—disillusioned as it may be—of Mexico’s Pedro Martínez? No other Revolution in the Third World has so long a practice and perspective as the Mexican Revolution; that is why the life of Pedro Martínez offers such a vital statement on a subject generally clouded in bogus fears, wishful thinking, and hurt feelings. What is the peasant’s role in a revolutionary world? Is he an agent of revolt or part of the backwash of conservatism? Is he the last remnant of bucolic purity or the most easily corrupted part of society? Does he face oblivion in a future dominated by technology? Is ideology or industrialization or nationalism the moving force of Revolution? Oscar Lewis does not openly pose these questions. But they lie behind the immensely powerful and intense life that Pedro Martínez talks of.

As a Mexican, I realize that the life of Pedro Martínez is the center of a storm. Pedro is tragically aware of himself and the storm: “Anyone who is a man of ideas is that way from birth. Such a man is aware of what goes on,” says Pedro in his initial statement. Let me, finally, speak of Pedro Martínez as he affects me, both as a writer and as a Mexican. I believe that where the demands of social justice swallow the tragic vision, we are left with a purely mechanical optimism that hides some nasty truths. I also believe that where tragic awareness is incapable of meeting the eyes of injustice, we are left with an empty conformity and, at the end, a vicious, if whitewashed, complicity. As Capitalism socializes and Communism liberalizes, we begin to see the human implications of this dilemma. Both extremes meet in the creation of an essentially indifferent man. Seen as either a positive or negative product of his society, this man of indifference is the anticipation of C. Wright Mills’s “Cheerful Robot.” He may be what he is because he conforms—like Cheever’s bland middle-class Americans or the Soviet cinema’s upright young kolkhozians do; or because he rebels—like Kerouac’s beatniks or Russia’s new affluent nihilists. Yet they are all indifferent and their future symbol might well be a disembodied voyeur who handles objects in a nouveau roman.

Shall I become a quaint Rousseauite and see in the Pedro Martínezes of this world our noble savages? That is not the point. There is no “golden age” of primitive people unscourged by modernism. D. H. Lawrence did not find El Dorado among the Mexican Indians, since picturesque paradises of the imagination become a hell of hunger, ignorance, sickness, death, and oppression. The problem is that Pedro Martínez might stop being hungry and sick, and not become a robot. The problem is that we may live in a world of material well-being that is at the same time vigorously human and aware of itself, tragically conscious that after all the demands of history have been met, life will not have given up its own fierce demands and that these require an even tougher struggle than history, revolution, or industrialization ever proposed. Children will die, Camus once said, even in the perfect society. Happiness will only exist in contrast to suffering, life to death, love to hatred. Pedro Martínez is a poor man aware of the intensity of life but deprived of the materials of life. The men of indifference of East and West have the materials of life, without the intensity of life. How to give the Mexican peasant and the American commuter and the Soviet technician both is a greater problem, perhaps, than building strategic villages in South Viet Nam.

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