Mexico and Its Demons

The Other Mexico: Critique of the Pyramid

by Octavio Paz, translated by Lysander Kemp, with a postscript translated by Helen R. Lane
Grove Press, 149 pp., $1.65 (paper)

The Other Mexico was written in 1968, shortly after the democratic movement led by the students was abruptly ended with the massacre of several hundred peaceful demonstrators at the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Tlatelolco. In that ancient quarter of Mexico City nearly 450 years ago, the Spanish captain Pedro de Alvarado sealed off the square and mercilessly butchered the Indian priests and dancers. Today the square is bounded on three sides by a restored Aztec pyramid, a baroque Spanish church, and a complex of modern skyscrapers.

In protest against the massacre of the students, Octavio Paz resigned his post as Mexican, ambassador to India and wrote this book. In Mexico, though it has been a bestseller, very few literate Mexicans have actually approved of Paz’s vision. For The Other Mexico is an uncomfortable book for almost anyone living behind what the painter José Luis Cuevas has called “The Cactus Curtain.” As uncomfortable as the marriage of architectural symbols at Tlatelolco, where five years ago the riddled corpses were piled at the foot of the pyramid.

The doors of the church had been closed to demonstrators seeking asylum from the brutal repression of the khaki-clad descendants of Alvarado. From the towering glass structure of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, looming over the square as a symbol of modern Mexico, it was announced that the government had simply been defending itself against a “foreign-inspired plot” designed to thwart the celebration of the Olympic Games; that the students had been misguided by the misty teachings of “the philosophers of destruction”—a somewhat melodramatic reference to Herbert Marcuse. A threefold rationalization of the crusade of repression seemed to meet at Tlatelolco: the Aztec guerra florida, a ceremonial staging of feigned battles whose purpose it was to capture prisoners for sacrificial ends; the Spanish wars of genocide against idolaters and infidels, strikingly illustrated by the Alvarado massacre at Tlatelolco during yet another Aztec festival; and, on the eve of the modern Olympic festival, the cold war excuse for internal repression as a defense against international conspiracy.

Octavio Paz was struck by the continuity of a power structure, masked by different ideologies, serving equally well the needs of Indian theocracy, Spanish colonialism, and modern desarrollismo, development for development’s sake. He presents us with the drama of a people, suffering and silent, but given to periodic explosions that have formed the conscience of Mexico: the revolution to gain political independence from Spain; the liberal movement to achieve independence from colonial institutions; and the vast, bloody, chaotic revolution of this century, inflamed by the cultural passion for self-knowledge, the democratic passion for self-government, and by an economic passion for success as a modern nation. We watch the drama of a country constantly invaded, mutilated, exploited, and humiliated by foreign powers while the people and the state are shaped in response to these threats. We also see the country today, “the other Mexico,” both as an isolated, Indian, and agrarian country excluded from modern development …

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