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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 and also as a modern society ridden with the distortions of “development.”

These are scenes to be applauded or deplored, yet they are rationally, even emotionally, explicable. But when Paz. pulls apart the final curtain of his drama, we are facing the unmentionable, the skeletons in the closet of our subconscious national life. His stage becomes a bare space where naked figures sing, weep, crawl next to a blood-stained wall, or dance in a festival that will soon be crushed by a violent physical intrusion. The light on that deepest of stages is the light of time: past, present, and future. The figures chant a line from a poem by Octavio Paz: “Time hungers for incarnation.”

The author is saying that Mexico is a multilayered civilization, a mixture of many coexisting times and cultures only partially expressed by the top-most crust of history and its institutions, its other layers waiting to emerge. So Paz’s first challenge in this book is that Mexico take a good look at itself, at its cultural and mythical past. The ghosts of our history will only be buried, the seeds will only germinate, if we critically examine their reality.

Paz, in effect, defines his book as “an exercise in the critical imagination.” He is most closely concerned with the avatars of modern Mexico during the postrevolutionary period. This close analysis raises two further issues. The first is the link between recent Mexican history and the codes of its past. The second is the rightness, in the light of that past, and as a nation in the shadow of contemporary world history, of Mexico’s present course as a developing nation. But what next comes under his close scrutiny is the idea of development itself. Paz objects to a model for development that will not take into account the reality and aspirations of Mexican culture, or that conceives the multiplicity of time in a strictly linear way.

Power, time, culture, and the individual’s harmonious or alienated relationship to them—these are, perhaps, the true subjects of The Other Mexico, and Paz relates them to other, broader and deeper, problems: Are the models offered by the dominant world systems the only ones available? What are the chances for a new democratic society within both the industrialized and the underdeveloped nations? And where does the agency for democratic change reside?

Paz sees Mexico as deeply divided, one half of the country being excluded from any of its material benefits while the developed half is denied real social, cultural, and political participation. These divisions will only deepen until the country becomes a stranger unto itself, unless there is a new national model for development which will let the diverse components of Mexico grow. Otherwise, there will be more Tlatelolcos, for repression is but the expression of power divorced from society.

How to link power and society democratically in Mexico? The first step, says Paz, is critical freedom. Only in an open critical atmosphere can the true problems of Mexico be defined and discussed, and the conflicting history of Mexico, hungering for incarnation, come out into the open. The Other Mexico is a critique of what the Mexican revolution achieved and failed to achieve, as well as a modest but far-ranging proposal for a new revolution: for a peaceful reform of our conscience and purposes.

Time hungers for incarnation.” But do not revolutions, like Saturn, hunger for their own children? One forgets that, in order to avoid devouring its own offspring, a revolution should devour its own past, for the future of the revolution depends on the capacity of its participants to look at the society and culture that both nourished and poisoned it. All revolutions, but particularly those in underdeveloped nations, face a double-edged problem. They must represent the new, the future. Yet they must also legitimate their national origins. Witness the Soviet revolution.

Revolutionary movements must show themselves to be the agents both for the hope of the future and for the past of the nation. Mexico has not been an exception. Geographically shaped like a pyramid, Mexico is also a political pyramid: power has imitated nature. The Aztec empire was a conglomerate of vassal states on the coasts and the terraced mountains leading up to the dominant summit of the pyramid, the capital of Mexico-Tenochtitlán, the seat of the god-emperor-priest, the Tlatoani, whose attributes were impersonal. The power at the top of the pyramid was maintained by economic and military repression of the nations living, one might say, on the steps leading up to the central city. It was also maintained by periodic rituals of bloodletting.

The Aztecs were newcomers to the central plateau. They legitimated their power as heirs to the more ancient cultures by adopting the myth of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent whose Godot-like absence was necessary to keep alive the memories of the benefits he poured on men while among them: a morality of peace and brotherhood; the gifts of education, poetry, weaving, pottery, and agriculture. But the Aztecs adopted the myth as an ideological mask. As the anthropologist Laurette Séjourné points out, Quetzalcoatl was the source of a creative patriarchy, the revealer of the eternal unity of the spirit. The Aztecs transformed him into a principle of cosmic anthropophagy; ritual murder became the means of reuniting with the spirit. Séjourné concludes that, as seems to be the rule for all despotisms, the Aztecs could only hold power by seizing upon a cultural heritage and transforming it into a tool of domination.

Cortés conquered Mexico with the aid of the numerous tribes in rebellion against central Aztec power. But the Spaniards quickly understood the symbolic alliance of geography and power in the world they had just burned into submission. The Spanish city of Mexico was built on the ruins of the Aztec capital, the viceroy’s palace erected on the site of the Aztec emperor’s. Moctezuma the man, weak, vacillating, unsure whether the conquerors were simply men or the god Quetzalcoatl himself, returned to reclaim his usurped legitimacy, was stoned to death. But the institution of the Tlatoani was perpetuated, from the center and the top, by the Spanish administration. The new name of legitimacy was Christian evangelism. The fact of power was colonial exploitation.

The impersonal character of the ruler was compounded by the absence of the king in Madrid; yet another masked image, the viceroy, governed in his name. The presidents of Mexico have assumed this double legacy. In the presidential palace, seated on the presidential chair at the peak of the pyramid, and ruling from the sacred center, the Zócalo, is the ancient Tlatoani, reborn, transfigured, impersonal. This is the basic difference between power as used by a Mexican president, who is an abstraction, an incarnation of sacred powers, and the Latin American caudillo, who is profanely himself.

Aztec power perverted the “creative patriarchy” of Quetzalcoatl, divested it of its positive, moral significance, suppressed and sacrificed the diverse outlawed contributions of the cultures under the domination of Tenochtitlán and the Tlatoani. The cultures went underground. But so did the real culture of the vice-royalty; when the poetess-nun Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz chose silence to avoid further confrontations with the church and secular power, she was dramatizing the fact that the culture of New Spain was also going underground. It is curious but significant that Emiliano Zapata, after the fall of Mexico City in 1915 to his and Pancho Villa’s forces, refused to sit on the presidential chair or sleep in the presidential palace. His body and his dreams were not there. The peasant guerrilla leader, the fighter for social and economic democracy, instinctively knew that the central power and its symbols denied all that he stood for and would eventually destroy him.

Zapata was like a phantasm risen from the deepest well of Mexican reality to speak for all that had been silenced and oppressed by the continuity of power at the summit of the pyramid. It is also revealing that, on that same occasion, Zapata’s peasant troops took over the Parisian-style mansions of the aristocrats who had fled the country in the wake of the downfall of the dictator, Porfirio Díaz, during the Madero uprising in 1910. The campesinos there made a wonderful discovery: mirrors, huge, gilded mirrors. They spent their time looking at their grinning reflections. They had hardly seen their own faces before.

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