* Selected excerpts from Revealing Mexico, published September 2010. Book available for purchase here.
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In a country where a large percentage of crimes go unpunished, how can there be so many cases of innocent people in jail? What role do prisons play in Mexico?
Good question. As I see it, it goes right to the heart of the problem. The central purpose of the commission on human rights was precisely to influence the justice system through specific cases as a way to start changing the justice system and break the pattern of impunity to which you allude. After working many years in human rights, I have come to the conclusion that impunity is structural in Mexico, that Mexico’s justice system is built on impunity. This has a historical foundation: ultimately we’re a country based on an authoritarian model, corporate, centralized, with a colonial heritage as well, where the law has always been an instrument of oppression and domination. If you look at Mexican legislation that has to do with alleged individual rights, in reality it’s practically inaccessible to the people, and it’s so complex that it doesn’t work.
Now, in this context, what role do prisons play in Mexico? I would say that the role of prisons in Mexico is multifaceted. Of course, I won’t say that everyone who is in prison hasn’t committed some type of offense, or committed a misdemeanor. But I wonder how many of those people were tried with the guarantee of a due process, how many of the crimes charged against a lot of these people were not incited by means of torture, coercion, or simply because people don’t know the laws because court proceedings are so complex, so alarming, so old world that people don’t have access to justice. I would say, then, that prisons play a big role in social control and political control. They’re sources of enormous corruption. The corruption in the judicial system is truly overwhelming, and anyone who has visited a prison immediately realizes that whatever happens in a prison is assessed and levied by a whole system, and that it represents the modus vivendi for many people. And I’d say that due to these tough crime-fighting policies that don’t really prevent crime, well, prisons have become crime schools, universities of crime.
It’s simply not possible that there are so many criminals in Mexican prisons. These numbers aren’t being seen in other penitentiary systems, nor can there be so many criminals being caught, as the authorities responsible for this in Mexico often boast. So we’re talking about a very grave and serious problem that also really wears on the citizens. It’s something truly difficult, and until it’s resolved, it’s really going to undermine what little we’ve achieved in terms of democratic advancements. I believe much of this stems from some very deep-rooted problems. Not because we as Mexicans are different from other countries—no! I believe this occurs in all countries making the transition to democracy.
How is it possible that a democracy can have so many human rights violations made on behalf of its government?
I believe that a democracy does not prevent human rights violations. I think we have cases of well-established democracies where human rights are violated—the United States, for example, the United Kingdom, Europe. But of course in a functioning democracy, the violation of human rights is the exception, not the rule. Mexico’s problem is that here it’s the rule and not the exception. I think the crux of the problem is impunity. If human rights are violated in a democracy, the guilty are punished. That’s not the case here, and I think that in Mexico we’ve barely had what other countries have had that have transitioned to democracy. What is a transitional justice process? Transitional justice is that effort to bring the perpetrators of crimes of the state who have endured an authoritarian regime to trial. And the mechanisms of transitional justice are the famous truth, justice, and reparation. Here we have had neither truth, nor justice, nor reparation of the damage. If we don’t have that, we won’t have a solid foundation to build institutions that we can trust. If we don’t know what happened, if we haven’t seen the least bit of justice because it’s never going to be able to be resolved, we’re never going to be able to bring justice to all the human rights violations committed in a country. But if we succeed in one case or two, and they become emblematic cases, then it starts to build trust, which is an essential element in a democracy. A democracy is based on confidence, the confidence that if I go and cast my vote, that vote will count; the confidence that if I make a request, that request will be attended to—this kind of confidence in institutions.
How do you view the development of human rights in Mexico? Has it improved since 2000, which was a year of great change?
No, unfortunately not. I believe there’s a lot more sensitivity and consciousness in Mexican society, and I believe that to be a great accomplishment. Of course, there’s enormous concern these days with the issue of security, but there hasn’t been any progress with respect to human rights, because our democracy’s structural problems haven’t been resolved. This is because there isn’t a serious battle against impunity, because of the lack of effort in properly constructing independent human rights advocacy organizations in the public arena, and because there haven’t been public policies to further develop citizenship.
What role might the Catholic Church play in bringing indigenous Mexico and mestizo Mexico together?
It should play a central role. All its energy, all its knowledge, all its time should be dedicated to this. There can be no discrimination: yes to one thing, no to another. Human solidarity should reach those most in need, the most indigent; that is common sense. The Church should be more committed to this than anyone. If the Church is not involved, if this is not part of its role, then it is not fulfilling its destiny.
Indigenous people are spread throughout the country and are often the most faithful to the word of Christ. How might one recover the respect and dignity so prevalent in indigenous communities that are in decline in Mexican society as a whole?
By having fair laws for all, which would mean that having respect for one meant having respect for others and that resources would be distributed evenly—that is, by having a sense of justice. There is no justice here, there is none, and the authorities do not get involved. When they do, it is for personal gain.
Do you think it’s the politicians’ fault or the responsibility of those not in power?
It’s everyone’s responsibility, but particularly that of the politicians, because it is their job to bring progress to the people. If the people are destitute, what progress can there be? Resources are distributed inequitably, don’t you think? It’s a shocking reality that one cannot help but notice; we have been living it for some time now.
Returning to the topic of indigenous communities and their culture, Mexico could serve as an example of a country that defines itself by and finds inspiration in the “respect for the rights of others,” as Benito Juárez once said. What role could the Catholic Church play in this process?
We strive to be the fruit of both cultures, to achieve democracy, to learn respect. Before Juárez and the rest, pre-Hispanic cultures were founded not only on respect for others but also on respect for all creation, for the universe—respect for, and the right to, all the necessities of life. These are cultures founded in truth, in which there are no presidents, no kings, nothing. These titles were arbitrarily imposed by Western influences. The ancient leaders were those who could bring progress to the people and give meaning, thinking first of the divine and then of the citizens. It is a matter of coming face-to-face with these cultures. It’s necessary to look to one’s roots, even if only on holidays. In some cases, indigenous groups still ask their deity for permission to cut down a tree: “If it were not necessary, we would not cut it down, but because we need to do so, we ask for your consent.” This used to be a sacred rite. Now who cares about divinity, who cares about others if everything is in a state of perpetual ruin and the authorities know it, are complicit in it?
And yet traditional healing techniques, which are viewed as witchcraft by the standards of modern medicine, require the acceptance of ancient indigenous beliefs.
Forgive me, but those are not beliefs; it is not a matter of belief, but rather an understanding of the world. During the conquest, Emperor Carlos V sent doctors to learn medicine in Mexico, and Spain was a great empire at the time.
What role might the Church play in integrating this knowledge with that of modern medicine?
Bringing it to light.
The Church would approve of it?
It’s not a question of approval, but of responsibility. It is a question of justice. I spent twenty years in the sierra (forested hills) north of Puebla, which is the area richest in medicine and medicinal herbs. Once, I came across two men. The face of one was twisted in pain from an infected molar. He said to his friend, “The doctor tells me that he can’t remove my molar, but he gave me this whole list of medicine. How am I supposed to pay for all this?” And the other man answered, “Don’t worry, just wait here.” He ducked down into a little gulley, came back out with an herb known as yante, and said, “This will cure you.” He didn’t even need to take out the tooth. I used to have a filling that fell out one day, without warning. The root was exposed, which causes terrible pain, but two treatments with that herb and I was able to manage for three months, just like that. It’s simply an ignorance of reality. Ignorance causes many things to be misunderstood, but it’s the ignorance of the West.
There was a great deal of respect in traditional cultures. The testament to this exists in the Virgin of Guadalupe—how she treated Juan Diego and how he treated her, with pure kindness. Nahuatl is a sweet language, it is almost musical, and in Nahuatl the Virgin said to Juan Diego, “My child, my son, little Juan, the smallest of my children.” That is the xocoyotzin, or youngest son, who receives all the care, all the tenderness, all the love of the family, and they were as equals. We have this great testament, which no one, no other nation has. What is needed is respect. The way indigenous people greet each other, by joining their hands, is a sign of respect. They get together to make decisions as a group, and that tradition has not been respected.
Globalization has existed for a long time, has it not? The need to emigrate to the United States ruins them, because they copy what should not be copied: not the good, but the ostentatious, the pretentious, to show that they have succeeded. But it is not true. They are stricken by the same poverty, and the problems of their families continue to worsen.
It can be concluded that male violence, such as raping a child or hitting a woman, is cowardly and sexist. In sports there’s a clear separation between the sexes or a biological equality in competition, something that no sane society is willing to accept or at least respect. The strange thing is that these macho men around the world take pleasure in this type of behavior without losing their very own society’s respect. How is this possible?
Look, what’s really happening here is that machismo is a cultural construct, like misogyny, as well as the patriarchy itself. So as long as there’s a cultural notion constructed for what it means to be a man or a woman, this will permeate absolutely everything: our domestic life, public life, private life, erotic life, sex life, absolutely everything. Not only in this country—where this sentiment is only made worse—but in the entire world. People, particularly women, who’ve spoken up or rebelled against this macho and violent culture not only face scorn from their perpetrators but rejection from others because they’re afraid.
When I was threatened with torture and kidnapping and so on, the majority of my male friends who love me and whom I love a lot said to me, “That’s enough, Lydia. Get out of here, leave the country, don’t get involved, it’s too dangerous.” And the women on the street, my girlfriends, my family, and all my sisters said, “Keep going, you can do it, don’t stop, don’t keep quiet.” There’s a prevailing need to say it, to also bring this fear of men into the light and say, “Don’t mess with me.” That’s the real power. And the worse part is that the system supports it. In the end they still have all the power in the system and, well, I’m a pariah—a heroic one, but a pariah—and willing to pay the price. How many people are willing to pay the price?
You’ve had to learn this with the cynicism of someone in a macho society where corruption predominates, where it’s difficult to be able to believe in institutions that should be defending the law. In another interview you said you had hope for Mexico but that the country would pass through an even worse stage. Do you believe we still haven’t seen anything yet and that much more is going to come to light?
I do think we’ve seen a lot. I think we’re in a very dramatic moment, one with a lot of violence. Our society is getting more and more polarized, and to me that’s the most dangerous part, when we’re incapable of listening to one another—to realize what’s going on with him, with her, to feel true compassion for others. It appears that this polarization is very effective in this sense. The system creates this polarization by operating a simple discourse that makes it so that it’s between the left or the right, the good guys and the bad guys, or the bad girls and the good ones. And this generates more types of violence, social violence. We’re a country with a tremendous tendency to endorse state violence as a form of justice for the citizens of a country where there is no justice—state violence, imprisonment of the guilty and the innocent at the expense of whatever, it doesn’t matter. What we have yet to see and feel are the consequences of the lack of compassion that exists in Mexico—compassion, not in the religious or moral sense but as an accompaniment to life’s passion, the suffering and joy of others. I think things are going to get a lot worse, that state violence is going to increase, and it looks to me as if the country is becoming radicalized. Obviously, there are places where this is lived more intensely, and I also think that people are very tired and scared, and that’s very dangerous, when people get tired of fighting.
Why are you determined to continue living in Mexico despite all of this and the very personal threats against you? Is it because you want to help contribute to the change in this country or simply because you like living here, because you like Mexico?
Well, of course I like it. Who doesn’t like Mexico? There’s no doubt I like it, but clearly I’m interested in contributing to the change. It’s like staying to battle with the rest of them. That’s important to me, of course, but the truth is it’s much simpler than that: Why should I go? To me this is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. With all our complexities and throwbacks to the past, the truth is Mexicans have one of the richest cultures in the world. I enjoy myself here. I like it a lot.
I leave and meet incredible people, take part in other cultures, and then I get back to Mexico and say, “What an enchanting country.” We have such a great sense of humor, we know how to have fun. I feel like myself here. In other places I feel like a folkloric heroine; it’s a fun life. In terms of what has happened and my role as a journalist and an activist, the answer is simple: the bad guys should leave, it’s that easy. They’re not going to throw me out of my own country. Why would I leave? To save my life and live like a pariah while avoiding them somewhere else? No! And it doesn’t have to do with pride. It has to do with a clear notion of when I ask myself, Where am I happy? I’m happy here. I have the people I love. I can’t imagine being without my significant other, my girlfriends, my friends, my refuge, the people I meet every day. And to have to leave all that behind? I’m not going to tell my partner, “Let’s leave because I’ve grown scared, so come with me.” We’re not like that; we’re partners for other reasons. And all of my family? I adore them! No, let the bad guys leave!
All of you are campesinos (farmers) and cardenche singers. Do you sing as a hobby? Do you do it every day as you work the land?
GUADELUPE: Yes, I’m 100 percent campesino and a singer, too. Because I like to sing, each time there’s a chance to do it, or I remember certain songs, I sing them. Traditional songs are passed on from generation to generation, from our grandparents, from our parents. I like to sing them because I can remember my people, my village’s way of life.
Cardenche music has its origins in the songs of the nineteenth-century farm laborers who narrated their joys and sorrows. Could you recite the words of a certain song that reflects this kind of country life?
GENARO: It’s called “At the Foot of a Tree”:
And at the foot of a tree
My soul feels sadness
And is illuminated
By the morning light.
It came out and said
That it was vain hope
At the same time, it’s better if I sleep.
I saw her coming
And I didn’t think it was her.
I went closer
To the foot of her window.
She came out and said
That it was vain hope
At the same time, it’s better if I sleep.
I wish I could be a Blue Heron
So I could stay looking at you
On a golden phial.
But, my little wheat-colored woman,
I just remembered that:
Who’s to blame?
You were the one who abandoned me.
What do the young people think about your village when they hear this?
GUADELUPE: Our own kids, for example, no longer want to sing, because they are used to the sounds of instruments, and our songs are a cappella.
ANTONIO: We’d like for it to continue being sung, for the tradition not to be lost, to have it kept alive by young people, but I see it as very difficult. These days, young people don’t pay attention to this.
GUADELUPE: I sense that young people no longer feel this type of sadness. In the community we live in, there are some young people who know the words to the songs, the verses, and who do sing them if they feel like singing them. Sometimes they sing them at night, but when we invite them to join us, no, they don’t want to.
So there’s still hope that cardenche singing won’t die with all of you?
ANTONIO: We hope not. We have a lot of faith that it won’t die. It’s a legacy that was passed on to us by our grandparents, our parents, and that we have hoped would last.
How can young people keep the songs alive if they don’t understand the real sadness behind it? Which do you desire: that they keep singing it without genuine feelings or that it dies being authentic?
GUADELUPE: I’m inclined to continue with our tradition as it’s been until now—authentic. If we’ve received recognition for managing to conserve it, well, we should go on doing the same, though perhaps it will die out.
The authentic feeling of sadness in cardenche music comes from the way the Spanish landowners treated the farm laborers like slaves. Nowadays things are different. I don’t know if this sadness persists.
ANTONIO: Well, yes, it exists within us, because we imagine the lives that our elders had to live. And it should make us sad, because it was our parents who suffered.
GUADELUPE: I think that for us, at this stage in our lives, we feel happiness because we’ve already created families, because we’ve already lived our lives. But we’ll always have our parents’ memories.
How did you arrive in Mexico, and why have you made Mexico your home?
I came to Mexico because I was living in the South of France, and when the Nazis crossed the Maginot Line, well, I was afraid. I was English and very anti-Nazi, as I expect you are, too. I, being a British subject by birth—Churchill had just declared war on the Germans, Hitler mainly—couldn’t go north because the Germans were coming in from over the Maginot Line. So I went to Spain, and I was in Spain for a while. And then I was in Portugal, and I didn’t want to go back to England because my brothers were also in the army—the British Army. I got married, anyway, to a Mexican, whom I had met before in Portugal, and then we went to New York, which I liked very, very much. I love New York. And then I came here to Mexico.
And you stayed in Mexico by choice? Because you liked it, or was it convenient?
There were probably half a dozen reasons why I was here, because I also like Mexico and the Mexican I married. Soon after my arrival in Mexico, many of the artists from the surrealist movement in Paris came to visit Mexico. Breton had been in Mexico before me. He loved Mexico. I was a friend of Breton, and I had known him in Paris as I was with the surrealist group. I think later came Benjamin Péret, Remedios Varo, Wolfgang Paalin, and Alice Rahon.
I like Mexico. The country is very, very interesting. Have you been to San Cristóbal?
Yes, it is a wonderful place. I stayed in a place called Na Bolom.
I once met the owner, Trudy Blom. I stayed there in her home. I had a place reserved, and she opened the door of her home and said, “If you are an anthropologist, I won’t let you in!”
She is a well-known photographer. She did a lot of work on the Lacandon Maya. How long did you stay there?
For about two weeks, I think. I don’t remember so well. It was a long time ago. I was there to do some work with local people, and there was no other place to stay. The government had commissioned me to paint this mural about the Mayas—well, not the Mayas, but the Chamulas. The mural is called The Magic World of the Maya. It was going to be placed in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The experience in San Cristóbal was fascinating.
I had an encounter with a healer there. I think his name was Antún, or Antonio—he was a witch doctor, basically. I included him in the mural. If you look at the mural, there’s a little hat, and there’s Antonio performing a healing. He was about fifty years old. Trudy arranged for me to meet him, and so I went to this little village in Chiapas. It was so long ago that I’ve forgotten many things. I arrived there with Pablo, my son, and there was this very sick person on the floor. And he said to Pablo—by that time Pablo was already in the second year of medical school—“Well, we’re both doctors. You can come in and you’ll see how I take care of this patient.” Antún lit many candles—perhaps forty—and started singing. He’s in the mural.
Did the healer actually heal the patient?
No! The patient was as unresponsive when we got there as when we left. Actually, I think he had already been dead before we arrived.
Would you say then that Mexico contributes to your work, as inspiration? Does it affect the way you dream, the way you imagine?
I think that everything contributes to your work, including what you eat or what you smoke—even a stomachache. And I think that they are not the same, dreaming and imagination. They somehow meet at times, but I don’t think it is the same place in the head.
Is there, beyond imagination, something like communication with spirits from other worlds in your mind?
Oh, that I don’t know. I’m sure there are all kinds of beings. Maybe they see us, maybe we see them, maybe we don’t. I don’t know. I don’t have any strict theories. We humans really don’t know anything about what reality is. I think one must see life with all possibilities, that is the best way—to live life with an open mind.
Do you think imagination, or art, could be a civilizing remedy—a way to augment the consciousness of the human species?
I think there are people who don’t have imagination and people who have. I think that we are a very dangerous species. We are naked apes. There have been many artists in the past who have had wonderful imaginations, and it hasn’t changed humans. One wishes... one wishes....
You became very famous in Mexico for a recent speech you made in the Mexican Senate. How is it possible that simple sincerity is scandalous enough to cause a small tremor in Mexican public life?
I often read The Labyrinth of Solitude because I feel it captures the essence of being Mexican. In it, Octavio Paz says that Mexicans are lovers of form, that Mexico is a country that places great value on being civil, on consensus, on social graces, and, as a result, hypocrisy.
I always say the problem is that Mexico is a country that doesn’t look at itself with sufficient honesty and therefore is incapable of telling the truth. It’s a country that consoles itself with the shared logic of an “at least.” How many times a day do we hear the phrase “at least”? “At least we didn’t come in last on the education evaluations; at least Felipe Calderón makes an effort; at least he’s a decent person.” There are so many placing the measuring stick at ground level and conforming. I’m convinced that Mexico can be more and deserves more.
The problem lies with our elite. We’re a country that has historically created viceroyalties, haciendas, large estates, one-party political systems, and monopolies. We’re a country that has concentrated all the power and wealth at the top of the pyramid, and it’s created that structure. It’s been taken by a self-sustained status quo, because the ones who would have to undertake the reforms are the major beneficiaries of the country not changing.
I think a lot about Ida Tarbell, from the United States, who, at the start of the twentieth century, launched a battle against John Rockefeller and wrote a book about Standard Oil and the implications of a monopoly for consumers, citizens, and United States capitalism. She managed to form a very powerful coalition that Theodore Roosevelt eventually joined, and they changed the nature of the U.S. political system. That is my cause: for this country to go back to being one with a much more level playing field, with opportunities for social mobility, for creative Mexicans and entrepreneurs, and with dynamic and meritocratic systems— because right now the country doesn’t allow it.
We need to change this triangle of wealth and power to a diamond. In the diamond countries, privileges aren’t concentrated at the tip of the pyramid; they are spread across a wide band of the middle class. If the country had this form, the Mexicans who cross the border in search of opportunities they can’t find in their own country would stay here. We’re exporting our best talent. That’s why those entrenched interests in education, energy, telecommunications, and political parties exist.
I always say that Mexico is a system of extraction without representation: they extract from us—they just raised our taxes—but they don’t really represent us.
Where does one start to make change? You call Mexico, economically, a country of the privileged, an oligopolized capitalism, you’ve even said of “de cuates”—of cronies. How can capitalism, with a level playing field like European countries have, be attained here?
First, the government has to act as such. What did Marx say? He was right: democracy is a government that serves the interests of the bourgeois class. That’s the case in every kind of capitalist country: Canada, the United States, Sweden. The government exists to allow the capitalist system to persist. The problem in Mexico is that the government isn’t even at the service of the bourgeois, because then it would also have to be at the service of the middle class, the oligopolies.
The government needs to save capitalism from the capitalists. What does that mean? Start dismantling that bottlenecking and those interests to create a capitalism where any one of my students can start their own business tomorrow in their own garage and compete against the country’s big businesses.
You’ve said that the oil in Mexico is one of the most serious problems, because Mexico’s government is self-sufficient by having PEMEX [Petróleos Mexicanos, Mexico’s state-owned petroleum company] revenues, and it doesn’t require citizen participation to maintain the political classes.
My hope for Mexico, aside from becoming a country of citizens, is that their oil runs out really soon. Perhaps it’s politically incorrect to say, but oil has been our devil’s excrement. That’s how a Venezuelan secretary of energy described it, because it leads to a government that receives the recourses it needs to maintain intact, to finance the philanthropic ogre, and maintain the clientele without having to collect taxes. A state that doesn’t collect taxes from its population doesn’t have any incentive to be accountable. The phrase “What I’m doing with the contribution money” does not exist in Mexico because the accountability is very low.
Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, says that there’s a petropolitical law: the higher the price of oil, the less impetus for reform and organizational commitment. That’s the case in Mexico. We’ve built a country where it doesn’t matter how you compete or how you innovate or how you educate the population—what matters is where to extract, drill. And when the oil is gone, what’s going to happen? The Mexican government is going to be obligated to do something it’s never had to do: educate its population, because we’re going to have to create products with market value, beyond exporting. Where will we get the resources? Only through what is sold, produced, and can attract foreign investment.
Once they asked PEMEX’s director what would have happened if Mexico didn’t have oil, and he said, “We wouldn’t be the twelfth economy of the world but the fifth.” We’d have to turn ourselves into a country that depends on its population’s talent and not on the extraction of a nonrenewable resource. That’s the Mexico I aspire to, a Mexico that’s capable of competing, of innovating, of creating wealth and distributing it better because it’s betting on its people instead of on its oil.
Its people are its best resource.
In your book Ética de la liberación (The Ethics of Liberation), you call for a political attitude that seems obvious to anyone who has a sense of community, demanding guarantees for vital commodities for everyone and mankind’s involvement in the evolution of humanity. Are there implied guarantees of nutrition, health care, education, and shelter?
Yes, of course. What happens is that it’s one of the principles, the one that’s materially fundamental, but there are other principles, too. In The Book of the Dead, which was written more than five thousand years ago, Osiris judges a dead man by asking, “What good did you do in your life?” And the dead man says, “I have given bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, and I’ve given a boat to him who could not cross the river.” And, in this, we regard all vital material goods—health, of course, as well as everything else. It’s the affirmation and development of community life, a humane one. This is the material criterion of every human act that we can call just or good.
Now, this is the material condition, but there’s also a more formal condition: who decides what’s best in the development and affirmation of life? This is where the second principle comes in, the concept of community agreement, and that with it there should be rationality: we should agree on our reasons, because otherwise it’s by force, and if it’s by force it’s going against freedom. So the second principle of freedom is the agreement between the various members of the community. How can we affirm and develop life? How are we going to eat? How will we dress ourselves and everything else? The third principle is that this can be possible. That is, the ideal should not be impossible to achieve.
What are these community self-preservation instincts that make us think that the guarantee of basic vital goods is a fundamental and inalienable requirement of a human sociopolitical system?
What happens is that human beings are living beings; we’re neither angels nor rocks. If we were angels, we wouldn’t have bodies, so there wouldn’t be material problems. If we were rocks, that means we would have always been here and life would not be a problem. Life is the problem! We’re living beings who are finite, and we have to make sure that life continues, and that the conditions that are absolutely necessary for the continuation of life are maintained.
The first thing a politician as representative and the political community as participants have to ensure is the affirmation of life: that people do not die of hunger, thirst, cold, disease, anguish, or be unable to express their culture, be unable to speak their language, be dominated by another. A fully realized life is politics’ starting point, its purpose. If that is accomplished, then society is happy. That’s why, then, it’s essential for politics to affirm human life and its development. What happens is that, again, there will be many who will not be able to live, who will live in a bad manner, or will live a life not worth living. Then you must change the system so that the victims can also live. Oaxaca, Chiapas, all that poverty—my criticism of the system stems from my thoughts of them.
How is it possible that our sense of community is getting lost in this globalized world?
We end up losing certain instincts, but thanks to culture we can save them— although no longer in a specifically necessary and infallible way as an instinct can offer. A bee knows how to organize a honeycomb, and it is perfect. There’s no injustice in a honeycomb. The Maya saw the bees’ honeycomb as a perfect political system; that’s why the bees are so present in Mayan thinking. They took it for an ideal, and it’s true. It’s a society without injustice, but also without possibilities for development. The bees have been like this for a hundred million years without advancement. Humans lose their instincts and replace them with institutions. Institutions allow for more development but also allow injustice. The instincts decrease, and the institution replaces those instincts. Then come the historical transformations—the revolutions that happen when a system creates such intolerable injustices that it bursts.
You call for a process of globalization where there can be no exclusion, where there can be no victims—that is, where the poor are not victims of a system in which they do not participate. You propose the term “victim” rather than “the other.” Explain this.
There is a great French philosopher named Emmanuel Lévinas who discovered that a system as a totality encloses onto itself. Now, the victims are the ones who suffer the negative effects of the system. The system has positive effects: it can offer more technology, more food, certain development. But it also has negative effects, and the one suffering the negative effects is the victim; he or she is not simply “the other” of the system, but rather is someone who suffers the system in his or her own corporeality. The patriarchal system makes it so that the women suffer. A racist system makes it so that the nonwhites suffer. A capitalist system makes it so that a worker who suffers produces surplus value. A colonial system makes it so that the center dominates the colonies and they suffer. What name can l give to those who suffer the negative effects of the system’s injustices? That’s why it’s simply not “the other,” but the other that suffers the negative effects of the system because it’s impossible to live in, such as nonparticipation in decisions. Because there are victims, the system is not effective enough. Otherwise, there would be no poor. There would be no victims.
You founded the Sarmiento Yaqui community in response to tribal discrimination against women and against those who were not born in the Yaqui Valley. What motivated you to create this refuge?
We do not have rights to the land in the Yaqui Valley because our parents came to live in the city and we lost all our rights. We have never had a place of our own to have celebrations, to get together. What happened was that I was the one who helped the men of our community throw their celebrations, and I began to realize that they were never going to accept me because I am a woman. So I spoke with one of the leaders and told him that we women had rights too. I asked him for permission to look for a place where we could have celebrations and that we not be rejected, that we be allowed to celebrate with them. Only the men were allowed to participate; the women never had any rights. I am the only one to own land. I have my people, and my home is open to all the tribes of Sonora. It has not been easy. Today, fifteen years later, they recognize me—but it has been a fight to the death with them.
With whom? The tribal leaders? The Yaqui? The Seri?
With the tribal leaders, because they are all men, and I am only a woman. That’s why, whenever there is a problem that involves a Seri woman, it’s so important to support her. A Seri woman comes to find me, and I help her deal with whatever problem she may have. Here she can be given food and shelter according to the way we ourselves live, and, when the time comes, I step in to mediate, to negotiate with the Seri tribal leaders, and the woman returns to her community.
So there is an opportunity for the women to return to their people after their stay in the refuge?
Yes. One time a Seri spent nearly a whole year here. I had to speak with her mother and father for her. Since she was raped and thrown out of her community, she came here, and we couldn’t turn her away. Here, the policy is to help any woman in need. Even if she’s being pursued by the police or by the law, we don’t allow her to be taken until it’s determined whether it’s fair or not; we support her to the end. If she’s in jail—because some of our women have been—we help them even in prison, like we helped a Triqui woman. I did not rest until she was released. She had been sentenced to 25 years.
Why don’t these groups treat women as equals?
Because women have always been relegated, they have always had to stay a step behind. Every year we go to a different indigenous community to see how the women are doing, how they’re being treated, whether there are programs for them arranged by the tribal government, what they need, and what the priorities of the community are.
Do you think it’s possible to create a community in which the Yaqui, both men and women, live as equals? Do you think the moment will come where the Yaqui could live like that, in a state of equality with women?
Well, when we came to live here, we were divorcées, widows, single mothers with many children but no husband. We came to live here alone then, but we started going around to different communities, to visit the Yaqui, to do business, and the women began to get together with, to marry, Yaqui men, and they came to live here.
So you have already created a traditional community, except with rights for all.
There are many indigenous groups that want to live in the modern world but say that they’re unwilling to make any changes to their culture. Then there are other groups that completely reject modernity. Here I see an indigenous group that wants to conserve its culture, but at the same time wants to make progress and become a more “modern” community—one that respects women, for example. It’s a change of values. Do you believe that indigenous customs have been idealized by Western anthropologists? We always hear good things about the indigenous communities and their traditions, but there are traditions, like that of the women walking behind the men, that are not fair.
Well, we barely get any anthropologists here, but some have visited the Yaqui in the valley and have spread lies, because we don’t always tell them the truth either. There are many elders who tell you to say this or that to the anthropologists just to make them go away. Women have always been oppressed by our traditions, but the anthropologist has never opened his eyes and said, “Look, women have the right to land too and the right to take part in traditions.” If we don’t preserve our traditions, the anthropologist will be out of a livelihood. It’s not good for the anthropologist if we aren’t in our proper place. Why? Because the anthropologist wants the indigenous person to be like an animal, because that’s what they said we were.
In the modern world there are indigenous people who live in towns and those who live in big cities, an effect of globalization. For those not familiar with your refuge, or who do not have a similar refuge where they live, what is their place in the world?
I am an indigenous woman who was born in the city. There will be times when I am not accepted because I was born outside of my community, and that is when the culture becomes unsettled. They are two separate worlds, and they are both very closed off. The indigenous person is not going to let you into his world, nor are you going to accept me within yours. We are indigenous and we are here, and I don’t care whether you like it or not. Here I am, and you have to respect my space and what is mine. Women are very important and very wise, and we can make it so that the men support us and march alongside us.
Fashion today really focuses on the erotic, on the desire to show one’s body. This affinity is absent in indigenous textiles, which cover the body completely and tell stories through designs that seem more like masks for the soul than revelations of the body. Where do your designs fall on the spectrum between costuming the soul and uncovering the body?
I think that indigenous textiles are just as sexy as the erotic attire of the West; it is just that the erogenous zones are different. For the indigenous woman, the most important areas are the feet, the hair, and the arms. The challenge for me is to make Western women feel sexy wearing, as you say, clothes that are more like a portrait of your soul, your history, your family, and all the generations you carry with you. People get to know you through your clothing. For example, I have a line of embroidered huipiles and ponchos. You can play with them, tie them in different ways, but they remain a square piece of cloth. For a city girl, this might reflect her and her partner. I think that the indigenous clothing of Mexico is just as erotic as an outfit by John Galliano. Take a Triqui textile, for example, where they sometimes use a sunlike figure to surround the face. It works like a frame; the face or a lock of hair becomes the erogenous zone. It brings attention to different parts of the body.
It’s true. Your designs translate traditional fabrics into contemporary fashion. In Mexico it’s possible to find textiles hand-woven with patterns and themes from a living culture that is thousands of years old. Do your designs help keep these cultures alive?
That’s our goal in working with the communities that we do: maintain this incredible culture and share it with the world. I don’t believe that fashion is ephemeral or that tradition is unchanging.
I believe that we can be more resourceful in the future. No one dresses the way we do, and no one has the artisans that we do. We have tremendous cultural potential—why not turn that into a business? They are doing it in England and Japan. We have such a rich culture, and the master artisans are resting on their laurels, thinking that it’s better to move to Mexico City and work for Telcel. It would be much better for them to remain artisans, for us to develop projects with them and move forward together, using our past, our present, and our future to bring Mexico forward.
Your way of doing business, fair trade, has earned you a lot of recognition. So has your concern with what’s ecological. How does fair trade work? How do you pay the artisans? Do you buy their products according to the price that day or do you give them a percentage of your profits?
When I go to the communities, I see how much the women earn, because jobs—as a waitress or a cook—are now in the cities. I see how much they’re leaving their families for, and we try to cover that amount and give them more. It’s better if they’re able to create these wonders that no one else knows how to make. I find it incredible that artisans are not paid intellectual ownership, and that people think, Why am I going to pay an artisan for something that belongs to an entire community? Or a designer? Designers are paid for their creativity, but people believe that the artisan “has to do it.” Why shouldn’t I pay the artisan who gave me a drawing that I later used to make a T-shirt, a scarf, or whatever I else I wanted?
I would, because they are the masters. I don’t know anybody else I’d do this with, and I’m not going to send my designs to China or India, either. If I don’t give work to Mexicans, who else will? In what country are my children going to live? It’s a simple process. On the other hand, haute couture is what keeps the artisanal traditions alive, where it’s a luxury brand, where more time is put into making things and the productions are smaller. Mexico has always set trends, and the whole fashion world is waiting to see what comes out of Mexico.
And the artisan’s name? Is there a credit?
That’s a great question. I always used my brand name, Taller Flora, but the fashion industry didn’t allow me to credit names. They want a designer name. Now we have the not-for-profit and the workshops we conduct with the communities called Taller Flora. We’re cultural ambassadors for Mexican textiles. Someone who buys a sample can go online and see how it was made, what textile techniques were used, and the people who were involved. For example, sixteen artisans collaborated on a single rebozo (shawl).
On one of your rebozos?
Yes. There are sixteen types of trades involved in the making of a rebozo. No one would imagine it to be so, but it’s very complicated to make one. You need a month and a half to do it. Now there’s no way of not understanding the fair price that’s asked for each piece, above all the care and the excitement that one feels knowing that these textiles are so difficult to make but so very beautiful.
All the ambitions behind your fashion creations—ecological, sustaining artisans and fair trade—are very special, but up to what point does it remain being a bit elitist—in other words, only being accessible to those with money?
I don’t think my brand is elitist, because we have two lines: the industrial one and the artisanal. There are affordable pieces, such as T-shirts, outfits for kids, and so on. We also have expensive pieces, because it takes six months to make them. They’re luxury pieces, with metallic threading, natural dyes, brocade, and other things, but the idea our brand promotes is precisely not to be elitist. If you want to buy the rebozo that takes three months to embroider, you can if you have the means; and if you don’t, you can buy the lower-priced rebozo. Once again, the artisan will be compensated for both items, not only the one that took three months. Nobody would pay for six months of work on one piece. An artisan can’t support a family with eight children making only one rebozo, although it should be this way.
You’ve attained a high level of success in your international career as a musician. Do you believe Mexico’s schools and universities could place more emphasis on music education?
A lot more, of course. Unfortunately the upper classes in Mexico bestow a very technocratic agenda to schools; for them, schools should be utilitarian institutions geared toward the profession you plan to pursue, and most don’t see artistic careers as a useful profession. In other words, the majority of private schools have programs with little artistic education. In addition, they’re not combining arts education with education in technology, economics, political science, and social studies, for example, and that’s why the arts are at a huge disadvantage.
Upper-class society plays a big part in this and will be responsible for determining the destiny of this country. It’s the students from the public schools, the middle and lower classes, that should have a greater level of social intervention, something that causes many feelings of resentment. It’s a shame, because if this country had a well-run democracy, it could be like Germany and Japan because of the human potential that we have.
The human potential here is incredible, and there’s a lot of willingness, but sometimes those who have the will don’t know how to use it. They don’t know what to dedicate themselves to.
Because it’s a class society. Because it continues to be a class society where the poor man is going to have to work a lot harder to get ahead.
I come from a poor family, and everything you see here I’ve worked hard for. No one has given me anything. But if I had been a rich and famous musician’s son, I’d probably be working in Europe, or maybe I’d be here, doing what I’m doing now—but I wouldn’t have needed to work as hard.
I was determined since I was very young to do as I pleased, and I left home when I was seventeen years old, aware of the work ahead of me.
Did you always want to work in music? Did someone in your family influence you?
I began playing the flute in elementary school when I was eleven years old. In my first year of school, I heard a girl playing the piano. It was amazing! Beautiful! I said to myself, I want to be a pianist; I want to be a musician. But when I told my parents that I wanted to be a pianist, they responded, “Ha ha ha! How are we going to buy a piano when we barely have enough to eat?” Realistically, we scarcely had enough money for food, so I settled on the flute, which came easily to me. Obviously, I continued playing the flute, and in my third year of elementary school I entered the National Conservatory.
You’ve created projects designed to give this country’s disadvantaged children better access to music.
I’ve always believed in the principle that music should form an integral part of every individual’s general education, and not just as an artistic expression. I’ve always enjoyed doing projects with schools, with kids. I’ve given many concerts in Mexico’s public schools.
An arts education should form part of any basic education, but it doesn’t. In Mexico, the arts are not only missing at school, they’re missing at home and at church, for example. I know that in Germany they provide a very good choir music education, but here we don’t have instruction in choir vocals. Most of the music that children hear is poorly composed popular music, mariachi music that’s off-key, vernacular music that’s completely out of tune. It’s not that we Mexicans don’t have a good ear, it’s just that we never learned to sing in a chorus, for example.
We have a commercial music culture that is truly deplorable. It makes it so that the children in this country grow up with a so-called multiculturalism, but on a highly questionable level.
Pop music in many cases is commercial. In your opinion, what’s the difference between commercial and pop music?
In reality, pop music—popular music—is also like classical music. It can be well made or poorly made. I’m referring to the efficiency of the music’s architecture, how well it’s thought out and formulated, how functional it is.
Mozart is functional; so is Bach. John Lennon and Madonna are functional. Why? Because they have perfect architecture, they are well defined in what they want to say, and they do it very well.
It’s the same with mariachi music, even if it’s a culture that’s a bit crude. When they do it well—like the Mariachi Vargas, for example, or great bands with disciplined musicians who’ve had some form of education—it’s very good. There’s a huge difference.
Another wonderful example is the son Jarocho [a traditional Mexican musical style from Veracruz] and the son Huasteca [a traditional Mexican musical style originating in La Huasteco, an area in Northeastern Mexico], where being in tune is not as important. It’s a type of music that is genuinely produced with the same elements that baroque music utilizes. There are a lot of similarities between baroque music and son Jarocho, son Huasteco.
What is missing is a foundation and an education in well-made popular music. It can be pop, folkloric—that’s our best music—or indigenous, which is excellent as well. It takes a multigenre foundation where the child has access to classical music, popular music, traditional music, and commercial music that’s good, that’s well made. That’s the problem. The artists who make it overnight, like those who compete on the television program La academia, are people who haven’t studied, who haven’t had any training—although they can be very talented. No one denies that there’s talent. Mexico has a lot of very talented people in the arts, but what’s missing is work, work, work.
You are an important author who has written many books. Of particular interest is a brief and beautiful text, Aura, that Octavio Paz once called “la nouvelle perfecte”—the perfect novella. Aura is one of those rare works of world literature before which other writers stand in admiration, asking themselves, “How on earth did he do it? How did he dream that up?”
By living. I was with a girl in Paris. She went into another room for a moment, and when she came back she passed through a shaft of sunlight. That nineteen-year-old girl changed, in the vertical light of day, into a ninety-year-old woman. The shadow transformed her into an old woman. She came all the way in to where I was, and she was the nineteen-year-old girl again. A light went on: if a woman could be a nineteen-year-old girl and a ninety-year-old woman at the same time, that was, perhaps, the basis of a story. The next day I sat down to write the story in a café. The writing went very quickly; it was done in five days. What happened was that it had a lot of background, a lot behind it. I think that one decisive element—although I was not aware of this when I was writing—was seeing Maria Callas in La Traviata in Mexico around 1950 or 1952. Her performance was extraordinary because at the end, when the soprano sings a high C as she exits the stage, Maria Callas stifled her voice little by little as though she were really dying. What is more, to move from Violetta’s youth to her old age, she ended up singing with the voice of an old woman. That might have been one of the seeds of the novel as well.
In Aura you demonstrate that the most engaging narrative perspective is the use of the second person, where the reader is addressed as “you,” and the future tense. The reader feels that someone is speaking to him, and that it could all really happen because it takes place in the future. How did you think of the brilliant pairing of “you” and the future tense?
It is very simple: by reading poetry. It is full of you. All poetry is you, second person; all poetry addresses the reader as you. It’s the easiest thing in the world, then, to adapt the poetic voice to a narrative one in the second person singular, which is what I did. I also added a bit of spice by putting it in the future: you and the future.
Aura could be compared to the novels and short stories of the great European masters, with the slow but inevitable development of a nightmare as in E.T.A. Hoffman’s short stories. More than anything, this vacillation between dreams and reality is both very Mexican and characteristic of Romantic literature, don’t you think?
What we call “Mexican magic” comes from a lost world, and because of that it’s magic. It could be an indigenous world, a world of myth, of dreams, in which Heaven and Hell intermingle, in which everything is life. This novel is closely related to the English Gothic style, to Romanticism, and to poetry in general—for example, because of the use of the second person—but it does not really have indigenous roots. Aura comes out of the romantic tradition of fantastic literature in Europe. There are a number of examples of this: Miss Havisham and Estella in Great Expectations, by Dickens; the old Miss Bordereau and her young student in The Aspern Papers, by Henry James; Countess Ranevskaya and her young secretary or assistant in “The Queen of Spades,” by Pushkin. In all these stories, which are the precursors of Aura, the old and the young woman are different. I decided, then, that the time had come to bring the old and the young woman together, to make them one, which added to the mystery and to the likelihood that the character-narrator of this “you” would never leave that house, that he would remain captive under the power of an old woman who can make herself young and a young woman who can make herself old.
You wrote a fantastic lyrical story and then, after that, the majority of your books have been based on the social and political realities of your country. Why?
You have become a specialist on the dark side of Mexican politics. In his first visit to Mexico in the fall of 2009, the French writer Michel Houellebecq said, in an interview with the newspaper El Universal, that he did “not believe that figures like Jean-Paul Sartre were necessarily positive ones; it is his fault that political engagement became obligatory for writers, and that has been disastrous.” Do you believe that contemporary writers are missing something—for example, the desire to create works of pure beauty like Aura?
I believe that the writer is responsible first and foremost to language and the imagination; that is his essential commitment. There is, of course, also the nonliterary commitment of a citizen. One can embrace that or not. I decided to do so, but no one is obligated to. Imagination and language are what make a work of literature, nothing else. You said something at the beginning of your question that I wanted to respond to. What was it?
That you had become a specialist on the dark side of Mexican politics.
There is no good optimistic literature. If you look back through all of literature, there are three exceptions that come to mind of positive heroes: Don Quixote, Dickens’s Pickwick, and Dostoyevsky’s Idiot. The rest are quite dark, because that is the side of things we don’t see every day, the side we don’t want to see, the one that broadens the spectrum of reality. It is the villains who are interesting. That dark side of humanity and of society is always there, and it’s up to the writer to show it, because if he doesn’t, it hides itself and appears when it’s least expected, bearing names like Hitler or Stalin. It’s important to be aware of the dark side of human nature.
You are known primarily as an actress in films and soap operas, and more recently for your column “Venus’s Navel,” which you wrote for El Universal. How did you make the transition from acting to political and social commentary?
I am a very opinionated woman, and I feel like I’m the average Jane and Joe who is so often overlooked by the critics, the specialized columnists. So I feel that, yes, I am a public figure, but I’m also basically an everyday citizen. I think I can offer the average person’s perspective on the basics that often get lost. A lot of the time it seems like columnists are so specialized that they only write for other columnists. It becomes too technical. So I focused on writing for people like me, on expressing my concerns, making my own arguments. My position might be a little exaggerated sometimes, but it has had an effect. I write on day-to-day worries, everyday questions.
I would like to keep writing. I have many irons in the fire, and I hope to continue. Besides, it’s something I think is missing: the critical voice of a woman in a country of machismo, where gender quotas for the Congress are ignored, and when they are observed, they are easily manipulated.
Machismo is a drama in itself.
It certainly is!
Why do you think the telenovela has had such success in Mexico?
In the world! The Mexican telenovela has been exported around the world. One day I am in Kenya and turn on the TV, and there I am; another day in Turkey, another in China, in Morocco, Lebanon. A few programs—just a few—have sold in France and even in Germany. You never would have guessed it about Germany, but it was a success. The show ends on a Friday, and on Monday they repeat it! Of course, the greater the economic solvency, the less room for melodrama. It does have something to do with that, but melodrama is a part of us all. Mexico is essentially a melodramatic country. The things that happen here on a daily basis are like one big telenovela.
Do you believe that the villain is necessary to melodrama?
Yes, because we are all victims in our own minds in one way or another, of someone or something, someone who didn’t allow us to do what we wanted or something that got in our way. In the case of the Mexican people, it’s always the damned gringos who are sticking their noses into our lives, who took our land. Come on! It’s like we want to erase our own faults and pass all the blame on to some overindulged villain. My goodness! The Americans are building a wall? How insensitive, how stubborn! And yet why don’t we put the elements, the infrastructure, in place to allow our people to stay here? So, yes, that is part of melodrama—someone always has to take the blame. We cannot be responsible for our own reality, which is why villains on television work so well.
Would you like to have your own televised editorial or political commentary along the lines of “Venus’s Navel”?
Something along those lines, yes. It would be very accessible. I think that what has gone wrong with all of those programs is that they are very far removed from the average citizen. I believe that we should have that type of program in a format that is much closer to the way people really speak. It shouldn’t be a program by specialists for specialists, which is how I think it is now—specialists speaking to each other.
Of course, I would love to do it! I don’t know how the hell I would, but that is why I started “Venus’s Navel,” to try to make things accessible in a more familiar, more colloquial, language—trying to take a deeper look at all our contradictions, which are many.
The Internet has meant greater viewer participation in television programming, that people can demand more. How do you see this in terms of television content?
The fate of the shows will be decided. It is survival of the fittest, the law of life. What will last and what will disappear? I am not taking responsibility away from television [producers], but just as every country gets the government it deserves and the intellectuals it deserves, it also gets the television it deserves. Mexico needs to be punctual for its date with the future. I don’t think that we’ve shown up on time for our date with history.
Tell me about your proposal for Mexico City: the creation of a lake city—much like that of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlán. Does this all stem from the idea of bringing the ancient lake of Texcoco back to Mexico City?
Yes, that was the group’s original idea. We wanted to restore the original geography of Mexico City.
And to bring back some if its pre-Hispanic roots, correct? The lake played an important role in Mexican culture.
It played a very important role in the decontamination of the environment, among many other things. The landscape used to be different. In the 1930s, I was still able to see Lake Texcoco as a backdrop between the mountains. Now you can’t see it anymore. It has dried up—has been eaten away. But there is still an enormous crater there nearly three times the size of Acapulco Bay.
Does pre-Hispanic history have anything to do with this dream of a lake?
If we created the lake only for a memory—because Tenochtitlán was that way—it wouldn’t be worth it.
Or maybe it would—it was a spectacular city.
Yes, impressive. And the terrain is still there, in the lowest part of the valley where Texcoco lies. It was made to hold water, and part of it—nitric land that is essentially useless—is full of salt because it is the oldest and lowest part of the lake. The Aztecs built a levee so that the salinated water would not contaminate the fresh water that came from Xochimilco and the springs in the south. The Spanish didn’t understand this great achievement. There were no beasts of burden, and the lake was the primary means of transportation. The Santa Anita canal was a lovely conduit for the inhabitants of the city. On Sundays they would take it all the way to Xochimilco and arrive near what is today the sports complex of Magdalena Mixhuca, practically in the center of town. Not long ago, vegetables were transported by water from Xochimilco to Mexico City.
And where does the project stand now?
The secretary of public works, who was very excited about the project, was recently replaced. But they’re always very excited in the beginning, and then their enthusiasm begins to cool when they think This is something that we will not be able to finish or This is something that we cannot control—strange things like that.
I assume this is why the project for a lacustrine city is not often spoken of anymore. But people still speak of your airport project, which would also be a way of bringing water back into the lives of the people of Mexico City. How many years would it take to complete?
The lake is one-tenth the work of the airport.
And what is the advantage of surrounding the airport with water? Is it just for the beauty of the lake?
Of course, because beauty brings excitement and hope into our lives. But it is much more than that: eighty kilometers of shoreline around the lake, in the poorest areas, will be developed into extraordinary public housing complexes and recreational space. It’s something completely new. The ecological benefit would be tremendous, specifically during periods of drought, which can be terrible here—especially when the pollution is at its worst. The lake’s evaporation would create humidity. Water offers many advantages. And it’s completely feasible. By collecting rainwater, we would fill the lake within two years’ time. Later, we would replenish it with recycled water—which, by the way, is another project Mexico needs to undertake. Recycling water and returning it to the lakes is practiced now, but not nearly enough.
There are people who say, “Let’s not build a new airport. Let’s just stick to what we have, which would be less detrimental to the ecosystem of the city.” How much damage would be caused by the construction of a new airport in the middle of a lake?
They might be right, if it were possible to stay as we are. But Mexico City cannot stay as it is. The airport is not sufficient for the dynamism and economic growth of the population. Furthermore, it is a lost source of income. Atlanta and Miami are taking the flights that, geographically, should be ours—and would be, if we had the equipment and the airport to manage them. An airport is a significant economic vehicle. It is quite romantic to think that Mexico should not grow because of the risk to the natural environment. We are a large population, and there are many who are impoverished and need economic growth. This is why we need modern instruments such as airports: for development. To combine such developmental projects with the element of water would be a great addition to the lives of Mexico City’s inhabitants.
You are influenced by the visual worlds of great filmmakers such as Fellini, Pasolini, Visconti, and especially Buñuel. Later on you studied with Manuel Álvarez Bravo. This introduction to the mystical and surreal could not be greater. Did you already have an artistic tendency toward surrealism before you met these great masters of the image?
I began to get to know my country through Manuel Álvarez Bravo. He opened a world to me that I wasn’t accustomed to. Overall it was a poetic world, a world I shared with him daily, listening to music in the afternoons. Let’s say he wasn’t a teacher, he was a master—a master not only in photography but in life.
As you are Mexican, the mystical and the surreal are almost part of your everyday life. You photographed locations such as Juchitán, a place filled with powerful women, where you examined their world and their myths. In which parts of Mexico are the mystical and surreal still present?
I’d like to clarify one thing that is very important to me: André Breton came to Mexico in 1938, and he belongs to the surrealist group—I admire him, although he’s the dictator of surrealism. He decided that Mexico was surrealist. This is something that bothers me, because Mexico has a fascinating culture, but it doesn’t seem right that Breton should bestow this term on it. Mexico has something special, wonderful, that perhaps has something to do with surrealism, but it is not a country that’s essentially surrealist.
Now, I completely agree that it’s a mystical country, because I’ve seen this in all of its celebrations and above all in the way death has such a strong presence in this country. It’s present in all of us, but more so in the marginalized areas due to the lack of food, doctors—those social differences that are so sad in our country. But when I’ve gone to the indigenous cemeteries, there’s something very mystical there, a mix of our pre-Hispanic past where, as Nezahualcóyotl said, “we’re only passing through.” They have a whole mix of Catholicism while still maintaining something pre-Hispanic. There are songs for the dead, flowers, food—there’s a mysticism that I believe does exist within us. I think that we’re a country that’s completely mystical. I’ve noticed it during my travels, and it’s a very beautiful way in which the Mexican perhaps deposits into this faith and hope all of his tragedy.
You’ve traveled the world taking photographs, but you always return to Mexico’s important themes. Is it because you’re Mexican or is it something more specific, like something imaginary that you can only find here?
No, it’s because I’m Mexican and because I’m interested in learning about my country’s culture. Because I love my country, although we’re in a big decline. The narcotrafficking problem makes it difficult to go to a lot of these villages.
With this decline we’re seeing in contemporary Mexico, can the mysticism, the rituals, be preserved, or is there a risk of losing them?
I don’t think we’re going to lose the mysticism; it’s a very strong culture, even among the narcos themselves. I was in Culiacán, where I got a little Malverde sculpture, which I adore. I have Malverde over there in my garden, and I also had it in the bathroom. The narcos bring him offerings of jugs filled with water, shrimp, and candles. In other words, the small church is transformed by the village’s goings-on. I admire Malverde, because he wasn’t a narcotrafficker but a kind of Robin Hood who robbed to give to the poor. Now, the fact that the narcotraffickers want to claim him as a saint, well, that’s great, right? It’s interesting how the narcotraffickers go and sing to him and create a ritual. Because, after all, they are creating rituals. That’s why I don’t believe that this part of the Mexican soul, which has been there for years, could ever disappear.
As a result of your fruitful work in the Sonora Desert in 1979, you produced that incomprehensibly surreal—or let’s say mystical—photo of the Seri woman with her boom box in the middle of the desert, the “Mujer ángel” (“Angel Woman”).
I really like the fact that the Seris preserve their culture but also adapt to other things. I find them fascinating, because they drastically jumped from nomadism— a hundred years ago they were nomads—to capitalism.
When the photo was taken, I had gone with the Seris, with a group of young people, to a cave. On the way back, I take a series of photos. When I’m doing my book, I have my contact sheets—I had already chosen all the photos. That’s when Pablo Ortíz Monasterio says to me, “And this photo?” And I answer him, “Maybe the anthropologist who I was traveling with took it?” I always remember what I photograph. I’m always left with the emotions in what I shoot, and sometimes it’s horrendous and sometimes it’s better than what I thought. When I revise my contact sheets, I realize that I do have it. She’s heading down, her hair gets caught in the rocks, and she has her boom box because she’s listening to Rigo Tovar, who was popular at the time, and they were fascinated with him, they dressed like him. In some way it’s a representation of who the Seris are—her traditional dress, the modern, the desert landscape. But I don’t deserve the credit. It’s a gift that I was given there. The photo is a gift from the desert.
The history of Mexico goes back a long time and has been preserved, for example, in the indigenous populations that were able to survive the conquest. And yet the mixing of people is inevitable in the modern world. What do you think of all this?
Mexico is the country that has best achieved integration throughout the centuries. It is so common here that the word mestizo is hardly used at all anymore, because about 90 percent of the population is of mixed descent. There is still an indigenous minority in Mexico that is left from this long process of admixture, and they live as part of our multicultural society and should be respected, both as people and for their customs. But to what extent? To the point at which their customs involve punishing dissidence with exile, for example? How are we to view their attitude toward women?
Do you believe that indigenous people are no longer marginalized today based on their race?
There is a certain amount of discrimination, but, for God’s sake, this is a country in which an indigenous man named Benito Juárez was named President of the Republic in 1857. I would like to have seen the United States name the Indian Geronimo president in 1857. I am absolutely certain that the social problems of Mexico, those of the marginalized 40 percent of the population, are not a matter of race. I say this to you as a person whose grandparents—great-grandparents, actually—died in the Holocaust. This country opened its doors to my family. This isn’t a country that kills its indigenous people, that persecutes them or sticks them in concentration camps for being indigenous. Nor is it true that they are the poorest of the poor. Go to Chalco or Mezquital; it’s not because they’re indigenous. There is a shocking degree of marginalization there because they’re in the country, marginalized from the cities. Mexico has three types of problems: political, economic, and social. Terrible government, terrible distribution of wealth. Mexico has many problems, but it also has many strengths. I’m quick to defend Mexico, with its creativity and its stoicism. It’s the fifteenth largest economy in the world. It’s not Somalia, but it’s the fifteenth of 140. I think we have made progress in thousands of things. This country was governed by a single ruling party for seventy years, and now we have a democracy—a democracy! It’s incredible! We’re still learning what to do with democracy, but it’s the first time in history that we’ve had one. I was alive during the 1968 massacre. This country was practically a dictatorship.
In a democracy, there should be freedom of speech, but there are many journalists here who are threatened.
Not by the government, though. By the drug lords. The point is this—and we weren’t talking about drug traffic.
Then let’s talk about it.
I am one of those who believe it has been allowed to reach an unacceptable point.
Unacceptable and uncontrollable?
I don’t think that it’s uncontrollable. Is it possible to win the war? No, it’s not. The only way is through the legalization of drugs. My friend Mario Vargas Llosa and I, along with Fernando Enrique Cardoso and a few ex-presidents, signed a document in favor of the legalization of drugs, which was later published. Until that happens, what option is there? To fight, which is what we’re doing now, and people are dying every day. Sooner or later, this will lead to legalization.
Is it the only solution?
Yes. It is like alcohol: if someone wants to kill himself, fine. But it’s very difficult these days. It is much easier for Europe to implement than the United States. It would be great if the United States would help by cutting the flow of automatic weapons, but the United States says that it cannot do that because of the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms—although that doesn’t include the right to resell them or have automatic weapons. I am no expert, but I feel that Mexico is an afflicted country. We are being put to the test, and I have always believed in this place, in the stoic people it attracts.
As foreigners, we always say that the potential of the people here is incredible, most of all in their generosity of spirit, which cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
It’s true, the people of Mexico are a treasure. There is no other like them. That’s why I mentioned my grandparents, who arrived here and said, “What is this?” My grandfather never wanted to go even so far as San Antonio, Texas. He reached Veracruz and said, “I will never leave this place!” And then what happened? Political corruption. The corruption of the political and professional elite is beneath the example set by the people.
A country becomes this way to the extent that its people view stoicism as a moral virtue. I have never seen another like it. We are a stoic people because, despite all the suffering—you should take a walk through Chapultepec on a Sunday to see how things really are—Mexicans have a unique perspective on life. We are an active and generally good people. What I’m trying to say is something you yourself already know; I can see it in your eyes: you also believe that the people of Mexico are the greatest in the world.
Yes, of course I see it that way. So you continue to believe in the Mexican people?
Absolutely, just as my parents and my grandfather did. I have dedicated my life to writing their history, to making history. I do it out of love. To see the religious faith and joy of this country is very moving. The natural courtesy. You sense it wherever you are. You ask where this or that street is, and you are answered happily. Anywhere in the country, you will be invited to share a meal even if it’s the very first time your host has laid eyes on you. They say, “We are poor, but we can add a little more water to the beans.” That is Mexico.
It seems like fundamental logic in the education of young people: teaching them how to think independently. This is extremely important in any society. What could Mexican society learn from the Waldorf philosophy? What would be the ideal school, and how would Mexico’s education system have to change?
The change has to start with the nuclear family, with parents who are more involved with and committed to their children’s education. Today in Mexico, parents allow others—teachers, schools, the state—to do what they want with our children, and that’s not good. Parents could work with teachers to develop an educational program, and at a political level, require it and implement it. If parents play a bigger role in education, teachers also have to be more committed. There cannot be a school detached from the family. Today, we as parents allow others to take responsibility because it’s easier for us. This is a cultural issue in Mexico: “You, the state, fix it, and I’ll stay home and say nothing.” This kind of passive attitude extends to its political, medical, and cultural systems and at all levels of society. And why? For the same reason: because from the time we’re young, we haven’t learned to think and act independently.
Taking all this into account, how do you foresee the future of education in Mexico?
It’s not clear. I see it as very complex, due to the teachers’ lack of initiative and the parents’ lack of involvement. And because of trade unions. Trade unionism can impede advancements, apply the brakes, and sabotage everything.
Are teachers’ unions detrimental to public schools?
Teachers’ strikes demonstrate a lack of responsibility and don’t take the child into account at all. These strikes aren’t about core demands that can benefit the children, the education system. Strikes are political games that are played at the expense of the children. It’s the children in public schools who suffer. And the gap continues to grow between those who can attend private schools and those who have to deal with the politics of public schooling.
At some point, the initial idea of public schools was the state’s attempt at assuring all children a means of mental development and schooling by educating them in an egalitarian manner. In other words, give them all the opportunity to develop their capacities to their maximum potential. Is this idea of public education failing in Mexico?
The mere fact of having to attend a public school in Mexico means a child is already at a huge disadvantage. If this was to change and we took more of an initiative as a civil society to assure that public schools do a better job, from parent involvement to teacher responsibility, the country would be able to change in many ways, and Mexico’s future would be brighter.
You’ve repeatedly stressed the importance of “the human” in your architecture. Can you go a little deeper into your concept of the human?
Architecture was created for man, and if we don’t give man what he looks for in our constructions, we’re not making architecture. We can make beautiful spaces, but we’re not solving the problem for human beings. For me, the human part is about a person feeling great in that space—in other words, whether they go with a determined spirit or without one, they arrive and feel like a person. The space doesn’t make them feel overwhelmed or dominated, but invites them to expand their minds, think, meditate, or have fun, depending on the space. I was once given the following definition: “Good architecture is that in which a queen feels as good within as a beggar.” That’s easy to say, but not to do.
True human values exist here. This is what I find amazing about Mexico. I’m not saying that it’s the only place like it in the world, but it has that. You go to all the towns, many of them, and they’re truly extraordinary. Imagine, I’ve never had a problem, and I’ve traveled all over the country. I just get into my Jeep and go. I stop where I want, and I’ve never had any problems. So this has been my endless source of inspiration.
In Mexico there is a profound humanity that’s hard to find in other parts of the world. What does this humanity consist of?
It’s a very strange combination. Octavio Paz analyzed it well, but it still remains extremely disconcerting. I believe that the mixture of the two races we’re identified with was explosive. On the one hand, we endured tremendous suffering— what we had to put up with in terms of political dominance is unbelievable. But when we explode, we do so in a wild manner. This then leads to an exceptional kind of romanticism. Mexican romanticism gets confused a bit with weakness, and it’s not. So this mixture of romanticism with tragedy, with creative talent, is the reason why this country’s situation allows us to have a huge imagination. I have hundreds of stories about these towns, of a wonderful humanity.
It seems the world is constantly losing its human aspect. In what ways can architecture contribute toward conserving or promoting human qualities?
It can contribute enormously, like each one of us, every individual. We’re already aware of the big mistakes. I think that architects can help by not spending more than we should, even though there’s more money. The architect has to hold himself back and not build anything crazy. In my opinion, the architect has an important social responsibility. For example, regarding schools, we don’t have to throw money away by making them luxurious; it’s better to spend it on professors. Architecture can make a contributtion. I’m not saying that it’s going to solve all the problems and change the world, but it’s going to live up to its social responsibility. Architecture has an advantage in the fact that, because you live it, you can feel it a lot more.
Yes, exactly. Spaces educate you, there’s no doubt. The architect has to rid himself of his ego. Unfortunately, architects are accustomed to receiving praise, and this only makes our egos bigger. They say to us, “You’re a genius, you’re the one who will teach people how to live,” but that’s not true; it’s a fallacy. That’s what it’s like for me. Architecture’s big picture isn’t based on me telling you, “I’m going to make your home, and I’m going to tell you how you should live because you don’t know how.” In fact, it’s the complete opposite: you have to tell me how you live, and I have to make you an adequate home for your lifestyle.
Vibrant colors, like the ones used in the city of Tlacotalpan, Veracruz, or in Ocotlán, Oaxaca, play a central role in your architecture. That is, you insist on the importance of vibrant colors, whereas many intellectuals prefer those of concrete, stone, or whitewash. Why is color so important to you?
It’s probably because I was educated by my travels through towns in which color was a part of daily life. I cannot conceive of life without brilliant colors—not only in architecture. The light all across Mexico has a certain clarity, from Mérida to Bajío, an intensity that makes colors appear bolder than in Nordic climates. Color, for me, is not only beautiful, it is also a reflection of many things. For example, color gives you a sense of individuality. You mentioned Tlacotalpan, which is an extraordinary urban space where you can identify the owner of each property by the color its walls are painted. This is very Mexican. In the towns, color has a purpose: you paint the baseboard in earth tones, just that. Then later, if you want to change the room entirely, you paint that little bit pink, and it’s completely different. Color, then, is an incredible tool. For me, white is the most aggressive color there is, particularly in architecture—you always notice it. For example, if there is something white on the face of a mountain, it simply stands out too much. Color is not important simply because I like it. I consider it an indispensable aspect of architecture. Color helps with everything. For me, it is a fundamental part of creating environments, filtering light, producing reflections—of so many things.
Speaking of light and its reflections, the Cathedral of Managua, a symbol of Central American—if not Latin American—Catholicism, and the central branch of the Monterrey library are composed of many elements that could be considered sacred. What does the sacred mean to you? How is it expressed in architecture?
I do not see the sacred as something strictly religious. The sacred is the great spiritual and intellectual values we hold. A corner of your house can be just as sacred as the Cathedral of Managua. It is a place where a human being reaches the highest planes of thought, of emotion.
If we compare Mesoamerican cultures with other ancient cultures like the Egyptians, we see that these cultures have had a real influence on world thought. In Mexico one feels the need to introduce one’s own millennial culture into modern philosophy, to have it be accepted and not only judged.
In the world’s history there have been few truly original civilizations, in the sense of a civilization that developed without the influence of any other. They went from living in small villages or as nomads to establishing larger sites. There was division of labor, they built cities, they had a writing system and historical records. These original civilizations are Egypt, Mesopotamia, those surrounding the Indus and Yellow rivers in India and China, Mesoamerica, and those in the Andes. I believe that Mexico is one part Mesoamerican and one part Mediterranean: the Spanish brought Roman law, language, Christianity, and Judaism. There are many Mexicans of Mesoamerican descent. You can tell by the way they talk. For example, if I go looking for someone to work in my garden and his wife says to me, “He isn’t here,” I would say, “That’s all right. Tell him to come by tomorrow, if he can. If not, then the day after.” The exact opposite of the idea “time is money.”
That is part of the language?
It’s the language, the temperament, the sensibility. The latter can be seen in texts that describe the ways of women and children—especially in the advice parents give to their children.
A more delicate sensibility?
Much more delicate. What is more, the indigenous person does everything calmly. For example, a North American could say to an amate paper artisan, “I want you to make a thousand copies of each of these three examples, but it has to be fast because I have a terrific market for this.” The paper maker would respond, “This I cannot do, because each one of these papers is made with care, thought, and enjoyment. You want me to make a thousand identical ones, and though you’d pay me whatever I’d want, I’m not interested.” You can tell you’re dealing with two kinds of mentalities. The texts say that everything the artist makes is done with calm and in dialogue with the heart.
Over the last fifty-three years, I have published several books on Nahuatl thought that have been translated into many languages. In this sense, the Nahuatl and Mayan poetry that we have disseminated has indeed had an influence. There are centers in Europe and the United States that are dedicated to the study of Mesoamerican culture. There are not as many who study the pygmies, for example. That is because Mesoamerican civilization is particularly interesting.
And because so much of it is still around.
The chicanos (Mexicans who have moved permanently to the United States) have become interested in my work and in that of my mentor, Ángel María Garibay. In the United States, they used to think that all Mexicans were Indians. When they saw someone with skin of another color, they would ask, “Are you a Spaniard?” and the Mexican would say, “No, I’m a Mexican.” Then they would respond, “You don’t look like a Mexican.” These days, chicanos want to feel like Indians, the descendants of the Great Cultures.
Do you believe that the chicanos conserve part of their Mexican and indigenous heritage?
I don’t know to what extent they do, and of course it depends on the chicano. Those living in California are different from those in New York or Chicago, but they all hold on to something. They may not have Tonantzin, but they have the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Do you think this interest and care come from an indigenous sensibility?
Yes. It is our indigenous heritage that gives each Latin American country its individuality. If it were only the language, we would all be the same. This identity is very different in Argentina, for example, where pre-Hispanic culture is secondary. People from the United States don’t feel connected to Mesoamerica. They might enjoy watching a feather dance, but that’s about it. One day, a North American asked me if I thought I had any indigenous blood. I said, “I imagine so, although I cannot prove it.” My family has lived in Mexico for many generations, and it’s likely that someone married an indigenous person or a mestizo at some point.
I feel immersed in Mexican culture. I am married to a Spanish woman; I know her culture very well, and yet we are very different. She is practically Mexican. We have lived here for fifty years, but we often travel to Spain. For example, if a Mexican family and a Spanish family go into the same restaurant, the Mexican family would say to the waiter, “Excuse me, sir, but the children are hungry, the poor little things, you see how they are. Would you be so kind as to bring us a little bit of bread, just a few little tortillas, and if you don’t have them now, well, then as soon as you can? We would be very grateful.” The Spaniard would say “Hey, move it. Get us some bread on the double. We’re waiting here. What, did you think we didn’t want to eat?” They are two different worlds.
At the presentation of the exposition on the Templo Mayor at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Americans said that one of the main researchers of the topic was profaning their “sanctuary of art” with his talk of sacrifice, and that the Mexicans were a bunch of monsters. And yet they did what they did because they believed they were strengthening the sun to preserve the era in which they were living. In contrast, we could bring about the end of the world with our wars—the Second World War, then Korea, then Vietnam—and it could continue. We are always at war, and not because we are protecting the cosmos. We go to war for business. We run the risk of achieving the opposite of what the Mexicans were trying to achieve with their sacrifices. We run the risk of ending the world.
Many come to your stand not only to eat tacos but also to talk about news and culture. They come to hear your opinion.
I’ve become famous [laughs]! In my generation, we still read. There was no Internet—everything that we knew we learned in libraries, by reading newspapers and so on. That’s how you can absorb a lot of culture. I believe that we’ve lost some of that today. People aren’t reading as much anymore.
Young people or adults?
Young people are reading less. At least that’s my belief.
The majority of Mexicans, as you say, are no longer reading newspapers or keeping themselves informed. What do you believe to be the joy or the benefit that comes from reading the paper and being informed?
The information—knowing what’s happening around you, around the world, in your neighborhood, in your country. The benefit is simply the information.
Many people in Mexico complain about the politicians and the corruption, but aside from that—although they’re discussing it at parties, with their friends, and with their families—they tolerate it, keep quiet, and remain passive about it.
I think if people were more involved, the country would change. First, you need to have your voter registration card. Without that you can’t demand a thing. After that, you have to participate in elections, give your opinion, see what your local leaders and representatives are doing.
But there are plenty of people who do make demands—for example, in Oaxaca, with the APPO [Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca] or with social movements like the one led by Marcos in Chiapas. People make demands, but there are very rarely any positive results or the government sends in the troops. How do people make demands without resorting to violence? How can they get involved?
That’s what your local leaders and representatives are there for. The thing is—and it happens everywhere—there are always people who take advantage and like to provoke disorder. I’m not for strikes and blockades; I don’t think they’re right. The city is in complete chaos when it’s like that. Why do we have a house of representatives and senators? There are well-known representatives who should pay attention.
Sure, because blockades interfere with everyone else’s rights.
Exactly! If they block this street, how will people get to my business? What do I gain? There needs to be another way for people to get involved. That’s why being informed is important: reading books, going to museums, educating yourself.
What do you think would happen if we lost our cultural knowledge? What would happen to humanity?
That’s a very important question, especially when it comes to humanity. I think it can’t be lost, that it shouldn’t be lost!
But what happens if we lose it?
There would be complete chaos, anarchy. We wouldn’t know anything. We wouldn’t be interested in our past, where we came from. It’s definitely cultural knowledge that’s going to save us.
Speaking of culture, tacos are very important in Mexico.
Yes, they’re part of Mexican culture.
If you could choose one taco for 2010, now that the country is celebrating 200 years of Mexican independence, which would it be and why?
Mexican cuisine is wide and varied, differing from region to region. It’s very extensive. I’ll choose the one that most represents this place: a machacado de huevo, a smashed-up meat-and-egg taco. It’s very northern, from the northeast.
So you’d go with the most typical from your region?
Of course. I’d promote it because it’s part of my tradition. The country should maintain its traditions and culture. It’s each region’s responsibility.
That’s why it would be your bicentennial taco?
Yes. A machacado. Dried meat and a little egg. Delicious!
You’re from the valley of Oaxaca and have come here, to the north. Have you thought about crossing over to the United States, or do you like living in Mexico?
I like Mexico because of our roots, because we are used to these lands. Living over there on the other side is nice and all, but it’s not my land. Being there doesn’t feel right to me.
Would you rather stay here in Tijuana, with things being what they are, or go back home?
Right now, with things being so hard here, honestly, what I want is... well, I don’t know, maybe to go home—for my family’s peace of mind, and my own. So if I could do it, I would, you know, to have peace of mind.
When was the last time you went home?
About seventeen years ago.
And you miss it...
Yes, I miss it because although nowadays we have phones and you can talk with your parents and all that, you always feel nostalgia for home. For one reason or another, though, we haven’t been able to go. We were happy there, and sometimes I say to myself, Why did I leave? Sometimes I think that and want to put all this behind me and say life was better back then—the life we had. I believe we had peace of mind. I had lots of brothers and sisters, and we used to play together. Sometimes I think to myself over and over, What if I hadn’t left? Maybe I would have been happy—poor as can be, but happy—because I don’t have much now, just what I need. The most important thing is being happy, having peace of mind.
I remember we used to have a house made of reeds, and I said to one of my brothers, “Let’s mix some mud in with the cow poop to plaster up the house.” Our dream was to have a real house. Ours was made of adobe or reeds, and we wanted something with a nice kitchen. So we went out and got some mud, and we used it for plaster, and we were happy. Nowadays you have what you have, and what for, if you are only worried about who’s going to come and take it from you? You leave your house, and someone sees what time you leave and sneaks in and takes everything you left there minutes before. They already took my television, my radio. I told my kids that unless we have to spend a lot of time at home, we should just buy a few things at a time, because there’s no reason for it—me buying things and people taking them. It doesn’t seem fair to me that we work like dogs to make a living.
What do you think is happening in Tijuana? What are the values here?
I mean, I don’t know. The values in my hometown are very different from the ones here. Here tradition changes a lot. People are coming into Tijuana from the other side, from the United States. Those people, who weren’t legal over there, are making problems.
Because they come from over there feeling bitter about the way they were treated by the government in the United States, like they’re getting even. They come here and things work out badly for them, it seems to me.
What do you think of the fact that so many Mexicans leave their country to work in the United States?
There’s no work here in Mexico. I feel like the government doesn’t do much to keep people here, to make sure they have good jobs, or maybe it’s about the salary. That’s why many people go to the United States, where they get paid in dollars. And I feel like, working there, you get paid more and can send money home.
So they are right to cross over?
They go because they have to. It’s a necessity.
In your role as the young indigenous boy Macario, you portray a very well-known indigenous quality: an innocence and a gracious dignity—as in never failing to be respectful to the boss while never lacking in self-respect. What is this type of dignity inherent in many Mexicans based on?
Well, I believe it’s a memory, what’s left of an inheritance from pre-Hispanic Mexico, where the indigenous world had exactly that: a great importance, a great dignity. That quality was inherited from great men and a great empire. Moctezuma was an incredible figure; I played him in the theater as well. That play was the quintessential Mexican tragedy, a marvelous text by the great writer Sergio Magaña, an important playwright who died very young.
Could you feel that duality when you played the role of the poor woodcutter Macario?
Yes. Macario knows the importance of the wood. Economically he gets very little back from it, barely enough to eat or dress well. He has nothing—he has a hut, but he can’t even think about owning a house. But he knows that what he’s carrying on his back every day is very useful to the person who cooks the turkeys for his bosses. An oven doesn’t work without firewood, right? And without wood you can’t make the candles that were fundamental to life in the village. The candle was very important.
Macario’s way of thinking is such that, even in his tremendous poverty, his misery, he still has dignity. He is a woodcutter who proclaims it like this: “I’m a woodcutter!” instead of saying it with shame. Every day, he wakes up very early before sunrise and goes to the mountains to get wood, because without wood you can’t start the oven in which they cook the food for the rich.
As another cog in the wheel, Macario still knows he has an important role. Even though they pay poorly, it’s a part of him. That’s how he interprets it. And he knows the value that his fetching the wood and receiving the payment has:
“Thank you very much, sir.”
“All right then, Macario, come again tomorrow and I’ll await you here.”
In short, they treated him fairly well, not in such a humiliating manner.
Macario also has to do with the way in which death is perceived in Mexico. In your opinion, what is there to understand about it?
Well, we should see death the way Macario sees it. He speaks with Death like a friend. Out of the three mysterious characters who appear to him, it’s Death that he really speaks to, enjoys talking to, and shares his turkey with.
He comes across the indigenous god and says to him, “No. Why are you asking for some of my turkey? You know that it’s my entire life’s ambition. You have everything, don’t bother me. Yes, I admire you a lot, love you a lot, but I’m not going to give you any.”
He recognizes the devil instantly and says to him, “No. You’re pulling my leg. What you want to do is deceive me. You’re not a charro (Mexican cowboy). Go to Hell, where you came from.” He knows exactly who he is and identifies him very well.
In turn, Death is received like a friend:
Death says to him, “Why didn’t you want to give God some turkey?”
“Well because he’s...”
“And the devil?”
“He’s a scoundrel. He was trying to trick me.”
“Why me then?” asks Death.
“Because I know there’s very little time left with you. If I don’t ask you to join me and eat together, I won’t be able to even eat a turkey leg [anymore]. Better to split it in half, you take one half and I’ll take the other, and that way we can eat together.”
That’s how he treats Death, with grace and that mischievous quality that Mexicans have in general. He takes advantage of the situation. He even makes fun of Death, treating Death like a good friend—without fear.
There wasn’t a major response to your research after it was published in 1974. How did it feel, after having made this alarming discovery that pointed to a huge threat to the planet and mankind, to realize that the government and large industries did not react?
It was a bit frustrating, but on the other hand it was logical. Compared to today— this was in the 1970s—there wasn’t much environmental awareness. Also, we were talking about what was considered to be an esoteric problem: some invisible gases that were affecting an invisible layer that protects us from ultraviolet rays, which are also invisible. So in the beginning it was difficult for us to explain this to people and politicians, including the scientists who weren’t specialists in these types of problems. That’s why we knew that it would take time.
Even though the proof was in plain sight?
Yes. But today society’s most serious problem is environmental. Perhaps this will be the century of climate change. In this case the scientific community is in agreement that it’s an urgent problem and that it’s important to resolve it. An international accord is needed. So the situation is analogous to the one we had with the CFCs at the beginning: at a certain moment the ones making the decisions in various governments became interested in the problem but were late to come to a decision. Climate change is the current problem. Luckily it’s now a lot more obvious, and many heads of state are aware that it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with. That’s why I’m optimistic. I believe that an international accord can be reached.
Which is the most viable alternative energy for replacing oil in your opinion?
Wind power, because over a decade ago there was a lot of initiative behind its development so that it now costs about the same as fossil fuels—but it has its limitations.
Sooner or later the oil is going to run out anyway.
That’s also very interesting, especially in Mexico, where we’ve already exceeded the limit. It’s clear there’s a decrease in the availability of oil. It must be made clear that although the oil will eventually run out, the atmosphere will be depleted beforehand. We have to act long before the oil is gone. But as I mentioned, with fossil fuels there’s a lot of carbon, and though the oil will run out, there will be enough carbon mines to contaminate the atmosphere unless the carbon is stored away.
Is Mexico working on creating alternative energies?
Important wind power plants are coming together, and there’s work being done with biofuels, but it’s just beginning, and there’s nothing on a large scale with solar energy. The only thing that can be done—where solar power is already starting to be used—is with water-heating systems; they’re solar-powered heating systems. But as far as these forms of energy go, we’re lagging behind. We also don’t know how to use them efficiently. Already the federal government approved a program, in collaboration with colleagues in Europe and the United States, in which our group has been very actively participating. It has to do with an economic development plan for “low carbon,” as we call it. The goal is to not have significant contamination in the atmosphere.
The government is already taking some steps toward placing norms for automobile efficiency standards, similar to what just happened in the United States and China. Here we are in the process of doing this, and with all those measures that yield returns and don’t require additional investment. The idea is to start this year.
Something very important that needs to be understood is that we need to work as a team. Many of these problems cannot be resolved only through science, chemistry, and physics. We need to collaborate with economists, sociologists; we all have to work together, because it’s the only way to solve these problems. As well as, of course, with the participation of politicians and officials.
What part of the environmental damage is due to what humans have done and what part is due to something natural, such as the planet’s cycles?
In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report containing evidence that made it very clear that the climate change is caused by human activity—not with absolute certainty, but with more than a 90 percent probability. This had a lot of impact, plus economic studies began coming out saying that resolving the problem is something that society can accomplish. The cost is around 1 or 2 percent of the global gross domestic product, so there’s no excuse for not tackling the problem.
Plus, we have a responsibility not only to ourselves, but to our children and our grandchildren, because we are creating problems that are practically irreversible. It’s going to be very difficult for future generations to maintain a high standard of living or to have active economic development unless we change our ways.
Many people fall in love with Mexican popular culture, what some consider the “Mexican spirit.” What do you think sets Mexico apart from other countries?
For one thing, there is no bourgeois culture like there is in Argentina, England, or parts of North America. Ours is a bourgeoisie that did not collect art, did not create museums, did not sponsor artists—except in a few very notable exceptions, and even then in a limited way. Mexico, then, is a country grounded in the popular because it has no other ideological base. This can even be seen in the work of abstract artists such as Gunther Gerzso and Vicente Rojo, in which the presence of pre-Hispanic Mexico is strongly felt.
There is something unique about Mexico, a depth that, to this day, we have not been able to touch.
Because we have never left any period in our history behind us, Mexico is at once pre-Hispanic, viceregal, neoclassical, modern. There is no desire to essentialize it, nor would there be any way to do so. It is everything at once, basically in ruins.
Will the passion, the tenderness, and the spirit of Mexico continue to exist if the country becomes more rational?
That would be the ideal. Rationality has led to extraordinary triumphs, such as the Liberal Reformation of Juárez, parts of the Mexican Revolution, and the Constitution of 1917. It was all oppositional, but there was nonetheless a sense of rationality. It’s not like that anymore, which is why I say that I’m in a state of interpretive collapse. The drug trade has destroyed my ability to understand. How many have died? It cannot be. What is truly incomprehensible is the idea that these killings have become habitual rather than exceptional. To see the flood of murders as a means of resisting anomie, unemployment, and accusations of inferiority is terrible. That moment in which one is unable to anticipate what is to come because human life has become so devalued, even though, for that matter, it has never been very highly regarded. There used to be some sense of respect, but not anymore. Marijuana has ruined the idea of community in many regions. In Ciudad Juárez, they have reached such an extreme that a group of drug dealers or thugs will go into a bar full of people and choose one, leave another alone, kill the third, leave the fourth, kill the fifth, kill nine more, and leave. They don’t know who they were, but the idea that the drug dealers are the masters of human life, that other people are just disposable bodies, gives them a feeling of power. This power has to do with the use of weapons. I don’t know what Mexico is thought to be right now. In myth and legend it is the Mexico of the people, but the drug lords are also the Mexico of the people, deep down. I have no idea. There is a radical change there that I cannot adequately describe, much less define.
Do you think that anything is being accomplished in the war on drugs?
It doesn’t seem so. We would need to legalize the use and trade of drugs. They say that the trade has nothing to do with it, but it does.
Many hope that the passion and the emotion, the daily sense of the surreal, the beauty of the irrational could continue to exist in Mexico, but that the crime and murder would end.
What is irrationality without beauty? The ruthless crime produced by an irrational world from which nothing can be derived that is not also monstrous. For example, Breton’s surrealist adage “Go to the window and shoot into the crowd” seems ridiculous now, at this point; much of what he thought was poetic was actually the glorification of a monstrous act. That won’t do anymore. Certain strains of the aesthetics of cruelty have become impossible to withstand.
Many people say that the Zapatista movement and Subcomandante Marcos are by now a part of Mexican popular culture. You seem to take Marcos especially seriously, at least up to a certain historical moment.
Marcos was extremely important. He catalyzed a new idea of the country. His interventions were brilliant. Then he praised the ETA [a Basque separatist group]. I sent him a letter that said, “That was too much”—that didn’t seem to have anything to do with civilized speech. For example, when he referred to “our ETA brothers”—the ETA is not anyone’s brother. They are murderers who plant bombs in supermarkets, kill police officers and judges. You cannot take their side about anything. Marcos began when they tore down a statue of one of the conquistadors in San Cristóbal in 1992, which was an incredibly important symbolic act. But then to insult the king of Spain with scatological tirades—no, that is going too far. I had a few arguments with him. He was no one, the leader of a movement. I insisted that he needed to move on from just making romantic proclamations, but to go from romantic to cynical proclamations? No.
An example of a great hero who has become a folkloric figure is Benito Juárez. His image is everywhere, even in the work of painters like Francisco Toledo, who has a piece in the Museo del Estanquillo. Where do you think the line between high art and popular art falls?
High art must be the product of critically demanding thought, refinement, and a network of connections that can be found in popular art as well. But if one thinks of the demands that a work of art can make according to what it proposes, popular art is absolutely extraordinary. What is happening in indigenous sculpture, for example, is marvelous.
Part of the appeal of popular art is that it manages to escape official political discourse. It is a form of expression that arises from the concerns and daily lives of the people.
From their obsession with forms that seem indispensable to them at some point— it could be a church, a skull, the reproduction of a scene, or whatever it is, but there has to be an autobiographical element. This has left such an impression on me that in re-creating it I feel free, genuine.
You are an enigma in Mexico, a phenomenon, a mystery. Where does it come from? At what point in your life did you develop the style of dance that you are known for?
Everything that I have been doing since I was born seems like it was just destiny, and I’m just following it. I think that ever since I was able to walk, I’ve wanted to dance. Mother always says that I was dancing when I was born [laughs]. She says, “She came out dancing.”
Did you ever take dancing classes?
I always wanted dancing lessons, but I didn’t know what kind of dance I wanted to learn, so I would take whatever classes my parents paid for, like ballet, tap, acrobatics, everything. My parents divorced when I was seven years old, and my mom and I went to live with my grandmother in San Francisco. My grandmother always had Tahitian records in the house, and, I don’t know why, I would just dance—with the door shut. I wouldn’t show anyone. I just danced to the rhythm, you know, and that was what I loved doing. I also had an interest in anything that had to do with dance: documentaries, photographs, everything! When I was fifteen years old, I went to an artists’ agency in San Francisco to see how I could begin dancing professionally. I lied about my age—I told them I was sixteen, and they said that I could pass for eighteen. Sure enough, they gave me a contract.
What did your parents think at the time?
I think deep down my mother loved it. She always knew I was a dancer. But my stepfather was very mad. He didn’t speak to me for two years. But I kept on dancing.
You’ve always been very independent and adventurous. Do you think this permeates into your dance?
I think so. If anyone made me a dance routine or a drum rhythm, I would always tell them beforehand, “I’ll do some of the routine, but I want to cut parts out and have the drums do something different.” While dancing, I would always communicate to the drummer with a slight hand gesture for a change of beat. I have to dance freestyle. I have to have my space, because I hate routines. I can’t do the same thing every day. I have to improvise.
How do you see dancing nowadays? Is there any great advancement in dancing here in Mexico?
It’s not my style. They dance like Cubans. Actually, a lot of dancers are from Cuba, and they continue the styles that they have in Cuba. They have no spontaneity. They dance all the same style because they have to go to dance school there to be able to travel.
Dance has taken you to many places throughout the world. With all of your international success, what made you stay in Mexico?
It was just destiny or something. I’ve lived in Cuba, Argentina, Chile, the United States, Europe. I had three homes in different places, but I wanted to be closer to my family in the United States. And I love the Mexican people. I love the art. It’s just something that attracts me. I love the people, and since I began dancing, the people have always loved me. It’s something like a family.
Have you always felt comfortable as a female dancer in Mexico, a country famous for its machismo?
I never went out with Mexicans because they are too jealous, too possessive. When you go to the movies with someone, they tell everyone, “She’s my girlfriend,” and I would always say, “No, we’re just friends.” I didn’t want anyone to possess me. I didn’t want to marry anyone because I knew they were going to try to close me in.
You are known here in Mexico as a great dancer. You are an icon. You have an extreme feel for music—it is a very erotic type of dance. Did you ever feel that you had to cross the line between art and what people, especially men, would look at as selling yourself?
I never did anything that they would have to censor. Luis Spota, a famous writer, was the censor for the government. He made them put a brassiere on Diana La Cazadora, the female wrestler, to cover her up. They ordered him to censor me, and he said, “I won’t censor her. She is a little girl that dances very pretty.”
So you always made the decision on how you would appear? You always had the last word?
So you kept your image—the image you wanted.
When I came here to Mexico, no one knew what Tahitian dance was, and the common movements here were Cuban dances, which are coquetos. I was always very serious because my dances were rituals, and I never smiled. I guess that’s why I became renowned as the one with the “laughing hips and the serious face.”
As the first man in space from Mexico—a country of pre-Hispanic roots that has always demonstrated such profound interest in the cosmos—do you see a connection between your passion for astronomy and your career as an astronaut and this millennial culture?
Of course. In Mexico there has always been tremendous interest in astronomy and, in general, in the exploration of the cosmos. We are, after all, proud descendants of Mayan culture. Every Mexican citizen knows that the Maya were excellent astronomers and mathematicians. We come, of course, from other pre-Hispanic cultures as well. But when it comes to the cosmos, to the knowledge of astrology and cosmology, ask any Mexican, and he immediately jumps to the Maya. I have always had a lot of contact with indigenous groups, with the cultures of different groups that live throughout Mexico, because I have always loved to travel. I really like Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Yucatán. I was born in the state of Guerrero, where Acapulco is—except I was born in the capital, Chilpancingo, which has its own roots, its own traditions. It also has its own cuisine: dishes that are famous all over the country. Speaking of food, I am very pleased to say that I was the first person in history to bring tortillas into space.
It’s important! I brought tortillas to space for the first time, and we folded them, my colleagues and I, into tacos to eat stewed chicken or things like that. From then on, tortillas have been part of the astronaut’s diet, because we discovered that it was easy to roll things up in them. They don’t crumble when you bite them, and they don’t break into tiny pieces that float around, unlike regular packaged bread that can disintegrate into tiny crumbs and get lost. So tortillas traveled to space in 1985, and they were there to stay.
Are you saying that today’s NASA astronauts eat them?
The ones who want to can eat tortillas. They also bring packaged bread, but the tortillas are there. In addition to bringing the tortillas, I also conducted an experiment with amaranth seeds, to see if they would germinate. Amaranth is a grain with a very high nutritional content, and it was considered a sacred food by the Aztecs. It was also used in religious ceremonies, and now we bring it into space not only as part of a germination experiment, but also in the form of biscuits made of amaranth flour. The Mexican people were really struck by this, because, beyond the tortillas, amaranth is cultivated in many states of the Mexican Republic and since the days of our ancestors has been eaten in sweet foods. It is known as alegría. After our trip into space, there was so much publicity, and the knowledge of the nutritional value of the grain became so widespread, that today you can find it in every supermarket in the country. It is even exported, and people everywhere are now more aware of the benefits of eating amaranth. This has meant the development of an amaranth industry here in Mexico, the creation of new jobs, and greater commercialization. The commercial aspect was an immediate benefit, independent of the scientific one.
How lovely that the amaranth, the alegría [which literally translated means “joy”] of pre-Hispanic culture has made it into space! These cultures had a spiritual view of the cosmos. There is a science here in Mexico, cosmoarchaeology, in which anthropologists and archaeologists study the knowledge of the Maya. Do you find yourself engaged in conversations about the cosmos, as an astronaut, with other scientists? Is there communication between the disciplines? What do you know of the year 2012?
I don’t believe so. A limited group of specialists covers anything having to do with archaeology, or with ancient cultures or traditions, while another covers modern technology, whatever is new. It seems to me that they are pretty separate, that there is not much integration. As for 2012, it all depends on your interpretation, just as the meaning of the Bible itself is open to different interpretations. In the case of the Mayan prediction, it’s about a new cycle; not that humanity or the world are going to come to an end, but that we will simply be entering a new evolutionary phase. On the subject of archaeology, I don’t know if you know this, but there is a Mayan pyramid in Palenque that you enter by climbing all the way to the top of one set of stairs, then back down the middle using another set of stairs. Inside there is a great stone tablet, about which some of the greatest authorities on Mayan culture from the fields of anthropology, archaeology, and history have differing opinions. Some say that it is a god, that what it has at its base are flowers; others say that it looks like an astronaut taking off, that the flowers are actually flames. Have you seen it?
What role should education play in Mexico’s future?
Learning should be a pleasure. Imagine how important it is to know what your world is made of—to have someone explain it to you and take you by the hand seems wonderful to me. Children don’t like school because they’re forced to go, and they view it as a boring obligation. Sometimes the teachers are tedious, other times they’re wonderful. The best army a country can have is its teachers, its country folk, scientists, and artists.
So you think there needs to be a slight change in the school system?
Yes, and it should transport children to a world where they know that what they’re learning in the classroom is useful for living and not just for passing an exam. I don’t care about passing exams. Everything that is taught in schools should be for living. I’d place more importance on conversations. I believe life is conversation, just like love. Children should learn how to tell each other things. I learned about conversation when I lived in the countryside, and it was very useful for me. After six in the evening, country people don’t have anything else to do but talk. So after the work is finished, the adults sit down, and the children listen. There, they tell you about life. We didn’t have books, but we’d tell each other about things: “What happened this morning?” “Well, there was this horse, and so-and-so came looking for me, and some other guy wants to buy the horse from so-and-so, and that man, it appears, is Miss so-and-so’s boyfriend, and that’s why he frequents the ranch.” Sharing stories about life is beautiful.
What do you think is lacking in the Mexican community?
The recuperation of their faith, identity, way of life, and language. But I want to stress that I am not a theorist, a sociologist, nor a communist. I say it because I see it: talking with people and learning about their lives, watching how they work, seeing how hard they try, how they overcome negative circumstances. I’m an optimist and believe in work, in ourselves, in defending our rights, and in raising our voices when it comes to talking about our history. It’s very difficult for me to talk about this, because I don’t want it to be a theory. But what I’m seeing is a people barely surviving. The poverty levels are terrible. It’s rare that children finish school; they have to start working very young.
I believe in the future. I’ve seen and interviewed people in the most extreme circumstances, and there’s always been someone who has given me a lecture on faith, like when a prisoner told me, “I’m here because I killed with this hand, but now I’m learning how to write with it.” Another example was when I met a seventy-five-year-old prostitute who told me, “I hit the streets in order not to be alone, to accompany an elder out there walking around without anyone to talk to. I’m a public woman, but that’s what I’m here for, so that people can tell me about their lives.” She told me that when she’s on the street, she brings a loaf of bread with her just in case someone needs it. She has nothing; she’s had a horrible life since she was ten, and despite this, she’s capable of offering her company and bread to someone in need.
Could you speak a bit about fighting poverty and improving education?
I would say we need change in education, employment, and health. Education is most important, because wherever you go, you’ve already won by being a person who knows how to read and write. One has to know what a law is, to be able to recognize when there’s injustice and discuss what’s happening. There are people with limited language skills who can’t communicate what’s going on with them. They can’t ask for a job—they’d have to explain themselves, and they don’t have the language for it. And more importance has to be given to scientific research. We only invest 0.4 percent of our gross domestic product on research. That’s nothing! If we don’t invest in it, if we’re not producing our own food, then we’re completely dependent.
Your work continues to shed light on a country that, despite all of its beauty and wonder, has so many basic issues that need to be resolved. What keeps you motivated?
Mexico is my passion. On top of that, it has given me everything, and it would be a crime not to reciprocate.
Although your people do not feel Mexican, do you feel that you owe Mexico your gratitude for all the country has given you?
Of course. Every Sunday, at the end of the religious service, our minister includes a few words about the Mexican government. He talks about how well things have gone for us, how we have progressed.
Why did you choose Mexico?
We did not choose Mexico; rather, we went looking for a country in which we could preserve our religion. During the Revolution, Mexico needed people who could work in the fields. Sometimes we think that it was a coincidence devised by God, because the Mennonite people needed liberty, and this country needed our people. But we don’t have a homeland; we don’t know what it means to feel Mexican. I was born here; I feel at home here, but not with the same right to the place as the mestizos, as Mexicans with indigenous blood. We love Mexico, but we don’t share its ideology. We have neither a homeland nor a flag. Our homeland is God.
Most people are accustomed to living a life that is tied to something and cannot imagine what it is to live without a homeland. How do you see those of us who identify with a flag and other patriotic symbols?
One wonders sometimes whether it would be so bad to have a flag. God allowed it. In the Bible it says that when humanity began, the land was divided, and although there were no flags at the time, certain lands belonged to certain groups, no? Sometimes I think perhaps it is us who are wrong; I wonder about this, because I do not understand the reality of it. I guess it’s okay for the government to love its flag, but I think it’s wrong to send the military out to defend it. Why are we asked to pray for the nation and for the president if we’re in disagreement about violence? Why is there this idea that we should plead on behalf of the government? Mexico encourages us to pray for the government and at the same time requires us to pay taxes, which I guess should be expected. But the Ten Commandments say not to bear arms, does it not? For this reason, we have neither a homeland nor a flag. Neither.
The idea of living without a homeland is very strange to most people. What is it like to live without a country?
Listen, for me it’s simple because I don’t know what it feels like to live with one. One should not get involved in the day-to-day issues; one has no reason to judge the government. Our obligation is to pray for the government even when it does wrong, to pray that God shows it the way and sets things right. This is the reason why we pray for Mexico, not because the government expects us to. It should be said that not all of us do what I’m describing, but that is our obligation, the doctrine we are all taught.
You live relatively isolated lives, but you also necessarily have contact with the Mexican community. How can the Mennonites contribute to Mexican society as a whole?
Our motto is “You should be an example.” A Mennonite should be an example of what it means to be Christian. When you are struck, you must turn the other cheek. For example, if I go to the bank to cash a check and the teller gives me less than the proper amount, I am going to ask for it. But if she gives me more, I am going to give it back. That should be the example. That is why God hoped for a people with profound faith. This is what we might offer, providing an example for those who do not believe.
Are you saying that in your “example” you bring your religion with you wherever you go, that your religion is your homeland?
Our homeland is God.
You don’t identify with any one place?
If you were to decide tomorrow to move to another place, you would not feel a bit of nostalgia?
No, not really. We are taught to live for today, not to worry about tomorrow. We concern ourselves only with today. My parents emigrated to Paraguay, and I had to go there a few times. They did not feel at home here, there, nor in Canada.
God is your home. It sounds like a very liberating way of life.
Yes, of course.
Abstraction is prevalent in your paintings. What do you consider the essence of pictorial abstraction to be?
Pictorially, I don’t want to set meanings. The materials and the experience of the canvas itself are what draw me to these abstract landscapes. Each painting leaves me with a different feeling. It’s sort of an internal archaeology as part of the process of painting. I don’t want to engage on the level of the figurative; I would rather engage on the level of color and its combinations, that contamination in which a thousandth of a part of one color is introduced into another. I try to accept chaos as I paint and then order it according to my pleasure, find forms that please me. It’s a spontaneous pleasure. As I paint, the canvas is constantly changing, so it can be very hard to find a final moment, a stopping point. There are thousands of things that go into the creation of one of these paintings. Deep down, what I do when I make a painting is sort of like a prayer. I am neither Catholic nor Christian, but I am a spiritual person, and I do believe that each painting has a lot of energy in it. I am trying to give it over to the canvas, as though I were saying, “Now it is up to you to pass this energy along, wherever you go, wherever it takes you.”
How do you know when a painting is done?
Tensions begin to form in the painting, and I have to start composing. The most difficult part is finding an end, because the beginning is so playful and full of pleasure, but there’s no composition at that point. I use layers and transparencies to compose, and these give the painting movement, fluidity.
Do you ever get rid of an element that you particularly liked at the beginning?
All the time! In fact, that’s the beginning of the final stage. When I decide to get rid of certain elements, I get rid of them and know that the painting is going to come together. All of a sudden I could find myself spending weeks, months, trying to compose certain elements, when what I probably need is for those elements to go to another, more hidden, plane.
I see something epic in that, in your work. There’s an element of time in it, a temporal structure. You let one layer of paint dry, paint another on top, dig out the earlier ones, leave something hidden and bring something else out. The process seems drawn directly from time.
I have never done it, but I would like to photograph each canvas day by day, because you could really see forty-six different paintings between the first and the last days. There’s a temporality to it, and it’s the kind of temporality I love; the layers are the traces of the temporality that gives my work transparency. If I start off with yellows and then start in with grays, I say to myself, “I may be hiding the yellows, but what do I do at the end?” I use sandpaper. For me, sandpaper reveals; it allows me to do the archaeological work I mentioned earlier. The sandpaper does the excavating. The sandpaper will bring the yellow back out for me and combine it with the gray and with the pink that was there on top, and that is when I say, “There, there it is. That’s it!” Even as difficult as that can be sometimes—it is a very baroque style.
The archaeologist excavates everything; everything he finds he brings to light. There is something in your work that is not archaeological because you decide what things to leave hidden.
Yes, I agree completely. I do bring some things to light, but they are things that I’d catalog as an archaeologist would, not place it in a historical moment. What I do is draw out certain structures that repeat from one painting to another and look at how they develop. It is like discovering myself in my own paintings, and it’s one of the reasons I paint.
Your art also has a Freudian side. It’s like psychoanalysis in that it gets deeper every time, and yet, like a patient, you choose what you are going to reveal.
Yes. Recently I have been seeing skulls and skeletons and other things with psychological meaning. Perhaps I should do a series of skulls or of dancing skeletons, but we have already seen that thousands of times. It has been done before, especially in Mexican art.
How much does your work have to do with Mexico, with the culture of your country?
I am not indigenous, obviously, although the other day I said to my wife, “I am an indigenous Mexican.” I am from here, I was born here in Mexico, and even though I have genes in me from all different eras and races, I am still a Mexican Indian.
Someone once said that five centuries of mixing has created a Mexican race, a new indigenous race formed by all the time spent sharing the different influences that have shaped Mexico.
That is the Mexico that I love most. It’s rare that we sit down to examine Mexico’s incredible cultural amalgamations, but this really is a country whose national culture is made of some wonderful combinations. The thing I like most about Mexico is its mixture, its mestizaje.
Is the clay you use treated in any particular way to get it to look like paper?
Yes, it’s a formula that allows me to work very thin, very fine. The clay speaks to you. It says, “This far, but don’t go any further. If you do, I will fall, I will collapse.” And you have to listen. My clay can stand up to a lot. My most delicate pieces do look like paper. I use the pinch method. Other artists use potters’ wheels or belts, but I pinch and move. I love moving the clay, pushing its balance to the limit.
You studied literature. How was the transition from literature to ceramics?
My mother always took me on her trips to Oaxaca and Teotihuacán so that I could see the pre-Hispanic art. I always loved ceramics. At first I thought that I wanted to be an archaeologist, but I realized that it wasn’t for me. I studied literature and ceramics at the same time. In the morning I went to my literature classes, and in the afternoon I went to ceramics, and I realized that I was able to speak better with clay than with words. Finding the right word can be very difficult for me.
Your work shows tenderness and depth as only a poem can. Novels are complex, but in a different way. A poem is an example of delicacy and balance—one word more would ruin it.
I often feel that when I say, “No further.” It reminds me, actually, of a phrase from a novel: “This almost nothing is everything.” That is, this almost nothing, this little pinch, is everything because it makes the work. My process is pretty unconscious if I let it flow.
It seems as though you enjoy music that disconnects you from the world. This disconnection is reflected in your art, which is why your work is so much like a poem. It inspires a sense of tranquillity.
I love the woods. I go for a walk in Chapultepec Park every day because I live nearby. I like the shape of the tree trunks. People look at my work and see corals, marine shapes. But it’s really sometimes tree trunks and sometimes my body, a woman’s body. You can even see dancing women in the trunks of trees. The truth is that many of my pieces are treetops. People see coral, but that is not what I make. I like symbolism, so I looked coral up in a dictionary of symbols, and it said that they were marine trees.
Pre-Hispanic poetry has a similar sensibility. It is timid; it never directly mentions the thing it means—the opposite, let’s say, of the English language, which is very direct. This quality is reflected in the mentality of the indigenous peoples and is what so many Mexicans and foreigners love about this country. I see a delicate sense of reserve in you and in other poets, and see that you have in common this relationship with indigenous communities. How much has indigenous culture, which is still very much alive, affected you? How much have the Mexican qualities of tenderness and generosity influenced your work?
I am going to answer with whatever comes to mind. I am obviously not very Mexican; my roots are Spanish, Irish, American, and French. I was born here and had an indigenous nanny from Oaxaca. I believe that we learn about Mexican culture from our nannies, our cooks, and the domestic help. I remember a woman who used to work in our house. She went barefoot because she couldn’t wear shoes. I remember that my mother liked, as her children do, to keep the same help for years. The girl that worked for my grandmother was with her for fifty years. She died not long after my grandmother.
If you compare Mexicans of Spanish descent with the Spanish in Spain, you see that they are completely different. You can tell by the way they talk. It doesn’t matter where the person is from. After ten years living here, they begin to become Mexican, in the sense that they speak more slowly, softly, musically, and with a smile.
And also with all those diminutives. It is so lovely, but we don’t even notice it. We aren’t aware of it. My mother’s nanny worked here for forty-five years and apparently became part of our family, as we did of theirs. They invite us to parties and weddings.
That often happens in Mexico. Little by little, the families have intermingled. The most obvious example is Benito Juárez, who married the daughter of the family his mother worked for.
Benito Juárez was indigenous, and he went to a priest to be educated. What does exist is classism. It is out there, even though we want to deny it.
There’s no question about it. That’s why it is so beautiful to see how we mix, unconsciously, from the bottom up.
In Mexico, everything is disguised. That’s why the political system was what it was during the PRI years—opaque. Everything was done behind closed doors. We are still like that. I think that’s the Mexican side of me, that which you cannot see but can only sense. They had to adapt, and that’s how Mexico got to where it is today. It’s distressing. We are very angry about it, and now we don’t believe in anything. I heard something once—I don’t remember who said it—that true leaders come up from the masses, like Fidel Castro or Lenin, who have never been part of a political party. They were of the people. Sometimes I think that Mexico will have a great leader like that who rises from the masses and whom everyone believes in.
Here in your workshop, as in your work, once you are disconnected from all the bitterness, all the worry about the country is set aside.
Yes. I have a friend who said that to me once. He is a philosopher, one of the last postmodern philosophers it seems. He arrived at the conclusion that the answer is not in philosophy but in literature. He always says, “Let’s go to the woods and read.” Sometimes I think to myself, I’ll go to the woods to read and make ceramics.
Why do you enjoy singing as a mariachi?
I like it because you can express yourself at parties, and it’s comprised of emotional music. Sometimes we show up during moments when someone has recently died, and the familes ask us to play something for them to make them happy. But I also enjoy playing sad songs and ones about goodbyes.
Do you feel that these emotional songs help people?
Well, that’s what certain songs can make you do: reflect. Then there are the songs for lovers, through which they say what they feel to their girlfriend or the person they’re serenading. You feel something special. It all depends on the event we’re working.
Is there a song that Mexicans sing for a better tomorrow? Is there a mariachi song that can give you hope for the future?
I think that today, with all these wars that everyone’s fighting—for land, oil, water, and all of that—there is one song, by Leo Dan. I don’t know if you know it, but it goes:
“Toquen mariachis, canten, que el mundo escuche su voz...
Fronteras, por qué fronteras,
si en mi música hay amor,
y nadie podrá nunca esta idea?
Poner fronteras, tan solo Dios.” 
 The verses sung by Salazar come from the song “Toquen mariachis, canten” (“Play Mariachis, Sing”), by the Argentine singer Leo Dan. The lyrics translate to “Play mariachis, sing / The whole world can hear your voice... / Borders, why are there borders / if in my music there is love? / And with this message nobody could ever / put up a border, only God himself.”
You have written that one of the most important differences between the Catholic faith and Toltec spirituality is not what is believed, but rather what is seen. What is seen by the initiated? Why do we not all see the way the initiated do?
Carlos Castaneda’s books had a tremendous impact, and many people have read them. Often, when someone asks me about the concept of seeing, I get the impression that there is a connection with that experience, with what they read on the subject. In my opinion, Castaneda’s idea of “sight”—at least how it can be understood through his books—is somewhat misleading, because it places a great deal of emphasis on the visual aspect. He alludes to shamanic states in which, in an enhanced or unusual state of consciousness, the perception of reality is changed. In fact, we all have the ability to change our perception through meditation and other practices. In the case of some pre-Hispanic cultures, this ability is also developed through the use of certain sacred plants. This shift in perception—which is understood in very visual terms in the West, as though visual transformation were the most important kind—is where we lose somewhat the sense of the transformation of sight. For example, if you enter a state of seeing in which you feel a connection with a tree, or with the earth, which spontaneously becomes Mother Earth, or with the sun, which becomes Father Sun, it creates a very different dynamic of relations and interrelations with entities like the earth or a tree, with nature or another human being. This meaning carries with it the feeling of unity, a search for integration from which will emerge, for example, care, respect, and expressions of love as a means of explanation. The pre-Hispanic civilizations of the sixteenth century were able to construct innumerable cities without damaging the environment, as they did in the area inhabited by the Aztecs and other groups, which was full of lakes. An emotional connection, a feeling of integration, was created. It’s an enhanced state of consciousness that we could call “seeing,” because it occasionally involves the transformation of what is being seen with the eyes, an ability that we all have.
It is widely known that, among the initiated shamans and sorcerers, as they tend to be called, there are some that use their power to earthly ends, such as attaining positions of power or spiting an enemy. José Gil Olmos’s book Los brujos del poder addresses this. In it, Olmos talks openly about the sorcerers behind certain Mexican presidents and how the problem of the abuse of spiritual power, which Castaneda also mentions, is perceived.
It’s a very important question. The problem is that there’s confusion between an extremely superficial and distorted idea on the one hand, and the profound knowledge and experience of the shaman on the other. It is a caricature that provides yet another way to feel oneself either blessed or cursed by the actions of someone else. Let me explain myself. For me, there are only two paths: that of the victim and that of personal responsibility. On the path of the victim, which is very popular in Western culture, when someone has a problem, they have to look for someone to blame it on. If someone places a curse on you, you have to find a more powerful sorcerer to undo it. The enormous popularity of this culture of making demands is evident, for example, in the United States. If something happens to you, you go out and find someone to blame, and you make demands of them. The message in both cases is that if things are going badly for you, if you’re not in good health, or you don’t have any money, or if you’re unlucky in love, it’s not your fault. It is because someone did something to you. The Toltec perspective is the complete opposite: it is a perspective based on responsibility. The Nahuatl word macehual means “the path toward worthiness.” The Toltec notion asserts that your destiny depends on you and on your actions, not on the gods. In this, you can see the tremendous divergence between the vision of sorcerers who bless or curse and the authentic shaman vision, in which the individual is responsible for everything: for his life, his death, his ability to come face-to-face with the Great Spirit. That is what I like so much about shamanism, that the encounter occurs between the person and the spiritual entity without the need for intermediaries.
Who are these groups that offer to help or hinder a president or a candidate?
Those sorcerers can be found among the others. It is a deformation of authentic shamanism. They have no understanding of its depth.
There are many books out there about shamanism, and many people believe that reading about it is enough to understand it.
It is one thing to read a book, another to read life. I think it’s very important that we not forget that. I was deeply affected by reading Castaneda’s books, in a positive sense. Castaneda sent me down the path of many important investigations. I think he draws attention to otherness. But at the same time, what has always been most important to me has been what I have encountered in real life. I like Don Juan—he is a wonderful and inspiring character—but I also have a problem with him: he is not made of flesh and bones; you cannot see or touch him. In indigenous communities, shamans and learned men are not so perfect. They are not walking over walls or flying over gullies, but their ability to raise themselves above misery, above tremendous adversity, to come face-to-face with the Spirit and forge a path along which the human soul can find its meaning, is unquestionably admirable.
Your novel Demasiado amor (Too Much Love) represents one extreme of your relationship with Mexico. I see it as a declaration of love. Your new book, País de mentiras (Country of Lies), represents the other extreme.
That book is the part of me that is angry with Mexico. It took me exactly twenty years to go from love to anger. The book is the result of fifteen years of work. Compiling all the lies was an absolute nightmare. I never thought the book would turn out this way when I started working on it. Originally it was only going to be about the lies that are part of political discourse, but in the end it became a project about lies at many different levels of society. Accepting and believing lies has become a way of life in Mexico. Many people believe that Mexico is divided between politicians and drug lords on one side, and good, decent people like me on the other. They believe that the middle class does not lie, that it’s something only politicians do. I prefer to live my life believing that. Things are more comfortable that way. What I suggest in this book is that we are all part of the same society: the politicians are part of this society and not another. For example, as a housewife I am aware of the dangers of pollution, but I still use toxic cleaning solvents because no one is watching. If I get a leak in my pipes, though, I am going to be much more careful about water, because I know that if I’m not I’m going to have a problem on my hands. In this sense, Mexicans have a double standard. Everyone knows, even in other countries, that fifty thousand pesos can make business deals run more smoothly in Mexico. Even in other countries, they know that this is how things work here. Where did this behavior come from, in which everyone knows things that we later deny and blame on someone else? It is not so bad for me to give fifty thousand pesos to the police because I ran a red light. What is really terrible is that Felipe Calderón says he is winning the war on drugs. The problem is when we get to a point at which lies of that size can be told. As a citizen, there is no way to know what is really going on. For example, if I find my neighbor dead, I have no way of knowing if it was a drug killing or another neighbor.
There is no one to investigate what went on?
No, no one takes responsibility. That is where the real problems begin, and you lose order, limits, and trust. We ignore the most basic laws of living with others because we think it doesn’t matter. The authorities won’t tell us that we are doing something wrong.
In the book you state that the institutions that exist in Germany and the rest of Europe would not work here. Why does this spirit not carry over?
We are not used to working in an organized or institutional way. In the book I try to give a historical explanation for this. My work focuses specifically on cultural questions, on trying to understand why a collective mentality functions the way it does. It’s similar to an individual going to psychoanalysis: first you have to understand what’s going on before you can propose a change. Mexicans always say, “If only law enforcement worked, everything would be fine; if only there were no drug trafficking, everything would be fine.” But why does the drug trade exist in a culture like ours? Because it finds somewhere to take root.
You call the promise to win the war on drugs one of the greatest lies ever told.
There is no way. Not for now, at least. In a country with as much poverty as Mexico, a farmer would have to be crazy not to grow drugs; it pays better than growing corn. Several colleagues, sociologists working in the field, have conducted studies that show how drugs improve the lives of the people. They gain access to goods beyond those necessary for basic survival. In my book I try to offer new definitions of the concept of poverty, because in the “official” definition, the only thing a poor person needs is food to eat. Why should he not have a cellular phone like someone from the middle class? Or shampoo? In Mexico you can find experts on each of the issues I discuss in the book. I believe that if the authorities were interested in solving these problems, they would have people to turn to. We have paid for a lifetime of public education to create these specialists.
Every specialist who enters the system would be responsible for bringing the uncomfortable truth to light so that change could come to the country?
Mexican culture would begin to change. It can happen, but it cannot be an individual decision. The change has to be collective, that is the key.
Coming back to your Too Much Love for Mexico...
I still love this country desperately for many reasons, the most important of which is that it saved my grandparents’ lives. It gave them the chance to live, to be.
There is an incredible sense of tolerance amid all these problems.
Exactly. People here don’t believe official histories or trust in laws or institutions. The other side of that coin, though, is quite positive. It creates an opening. People can come together, be themselves. I’m the blond girl with blue eyes, which makes some things harder for me and some things easier. I get both sides of it. It is such a generous country, so lovely, and I love everything about it: its people, my people. Everyone says that Mexico City is horrible, but it’s actually wonderful. You live like royalty, have all your favorite things, eat well, meet nice people. It’s a wonderful, exceptional country, which is why I am so sad and indignant that we can have so much at our fingertips and do nothing to improve our situation.
Tell me your story. What brought you to Mexico—and what made you stay?
My job in Texas brought me deep into Veracruz in the 1970s. We arrived at night after days of driving. I woke up in the morning in a little town called Fortín de las Flores, where I had breakfast. So I’m drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice, looking at banana trees, and on the horizon there’s a snowcapped mountain, el Pico de Orizaba. And I’m like, “Where has this been all my life? Can I stay here forever?”
Years later, I find myself living in San Miguel de Allende, and a friend of mine introduces me to a family living in the ghetto. So I meet these two kids, Gloria and Pancho, who both need medical help. The doctors say that Gloria needs an intravenous antibiotic—she has bacterial pneumonia in one lung—and that she has a good chance of surviving. But as for the little boy—they say it might be better to give our money to feed the hungry. He has bacterial pneumonia and probably won’t last even a week.
So we bought the antibiotics and took the children home. We talked to the mother—the poor mother. She’s a victim of the system, with seven kids, no food. She drank—I don’t know that I blame her. We say to her, “Let us help you get on your feet. There’s this shelter we work with. Put your kids in the shelter. They’ll take care of them—feed them and get them education, medical care, dental care.” They had this wealthy gringa there who was supporting everything.
So we took the kids to the shelter. We made sure they got their shots, but the little boy didn’t look too good. We ended up having to go to the hospital. We took turns—my wife, Becky, and I—spending a couple of nights in the hospital.
Basically, after taking him back to the shelter from the hospital, things don’t look good with Pancho. I decided, okay, our mission with this kid is to give him a pleasant place where he’s not being beaten for crying because he’s hungry. We were renting a place from an old blond guy, a well-known guy in San Miguel, right next door to the shelter. We basically took Pancho home and hoped for the best. We kept him on a pad in the corner of our bedroom. We would stroke his forehead and say, “Te amo, te amo muchisimo” (“I love you, I love you so much”).
Were you thinking he was going to die?
How old was he?
Two and a half, but he looked about eighteen months. He could barely walk. On the fourth night, something awakens me at about three o’clock in the morning. I look up, and this kid has crawled into our bed. Apparently, the fever broke. There’s this little guy looking down at me, and we’re both kind of surprised. He looks at me, and I’m like, “He’s alive.” And I smile, and he smiles real big, and he reaches down and touches my face, and that was it! I was the guy who took the puppy home. The bottom line is that I’ve been together with Becky since high school. I was forty-two years old and a devout non-parent. But something happened in that moment between me and him, and that devout non-parent suddenly became... I had been selfish all my life; I’ve always done what I’ve wanted to do. That’s how I got to Mexico. Whatever I wanted to do, I pursued. I’ve been fortunate to have a lady crazy enough to go along with the rhythm.
I adopted Mexico with the kids, and I’m going to be here forever. I’m not like the guys who complain and leave. Whatever happens, I’m here. I would fight for Mexico before I would fight for the “Sons of Bushes”—you know, Gringolandia (the United States). We’ll be here forever.
I get so tired and disturbed seeing the typical image of Mexico—the Mexican drunk sleeping against a cactus tree with his spilled tequila bottle. I once had a fantasy: I wanted to travel through Mexico with a film crew and show how the people really are—the coolest things I’ve seen in Mexico, the coolest places I’ve been, the neatest people I’ve met.
I’d hate leaving here. I’ve created all kinds of excuses not to leave. I’m afraid I’ll die somewhere else, you know? And what if they don’t bring me back here? I spent all my life looking for a place to live, and now I’ve found a place to die. And I’m not being morbid. There’s something very wonderful about life when you find the place where you want to die.
How old are your kids now?
Pancho is fifteen. Gloria is thirteen, going on twenty-seven [laughs]. What I’m experiencing now is why I never wanted kids. I didn’t want anybody to be more important than me! I never wanted any children. But something happens in Mexico. An author—I don’t know his name, but I’ll quote him—said, “Once the dust of Mexico has settled on your heart, you will find no peace in any other land.”
More than anything, you’re known for your fortune, but you’ve also invested and participated in projects not having to do with business, such as with the Museo del Estanquillo. Why are you interested in the collection on exhibit there?
Well, it’s an enormous body of work that Carlos Monsiváis has been expanding on all his life. They offered to put his collection in that place; he asked that I be invited, and I gladly accepted. Of course, it’s a project that I like very much, and I think it’s in the people’s interest to conserve this kind of popular art that he has so successfully put together.
What’s on exhibit there shows the Mexican people’s élan, their zest for life in the midst of a history filled with political and economic turmoil. As a son of Lebanese immigrants who’s made his fortune in Mexico, what kind of relationship do you have with the Mexico portrayed in the exhibit?
My mother was born in Mexico. My father was born in Lebanon and arrived here when he was fourteen years old, in 1902. His brothers arrived in Mexico in the nineteenth century—in other words, the family has been here for some time. But it’s important to point out that Lebanese culture is very similar to Mexican culture and that Mexico, of course, has its magic that all foreigners are attracted to: its lightheartedness, its color, its generosity and hospitality. Mexico’s soul and its culture are very similar to Lebanon’s.
In what sense?
In its customs, in respect to the family, perhaps in its religious foundation. Lebanese people are Catholic and give importance to their religion, to their family, to friendships, to being generous. I think these two cultures have a lot in common, and, well, one’s roots are very important, without a doubt.
Where you’re born is important—where you grow up, where you live, where you develop yourself—and obviously your home is full of customs based on your roots. But in this case, they’re very similar; they’re practically the same. My father came to Mexico from the Lebanese mountains. One hundred some-odd years ago, people didn’t know much about their surroundings; they didn’t travel more than thirty miles from where they were born. The truth is, a lot of the immigrants that came here lived longer lives. They developed themselves and built their businesses, their families. They got to know this country very well. The country that gave them so much hospitality and received them with open arms gave them many opportunities, and most important, freedom, because Lebanon depended on an empire that had it under its thumb. You come to deeply love the country that opens its doors to you.
And how do you personally live with this love you have for Mexico and its people, having to witness that huge gap between the wealth here in Mexico City and the enormous poverty on a daily basis?
It’s a real shame, and it’s very clear to me that poverty is not only an ethical problem and one of social justice, but that overcoming it is an economic necessity. I think the best investment that this country can make in terms of fighting poverty—from a social, economic, and political standpoint—is to incorporate these groups into modern society, forming large middle classes that can integrate into that modernity. Although it’s painful, I think it’s an opportunity for Mexico to promote a sustained growth. Taking them out of poverty and incorporating them into the middle class can offer them a livelihood.
How can they be incorporated?
For many years now we’ve been working on that through foundations. Basically, we believe that fighting poverty should begin with a mother’s nutrition during pregnancy, so that the child is born heavier and stronger. Mothers also need medical attention during the delivery, perinatal care, food for the first two years, good education at a quality level, and employment opportunities. If you have an education and a job, you are already entering the middle class.
Regarding the issue of education, where is Mexico headed? How can the quality of education be improved?
I believe that education in Mexico has had an enormous advantage: the reach of its public education system has been massive, and education has been the best vehicle for social mobility. Before, in agricultural societies, people were born slaves and remained slaves. They were born in the countryside and stayed in the countryside, living in ignorance, marginalized. Today, and for eighty years, the education and public health systems have allowed Mexico that great social mobility to go from being a rural, uneducated country that’s illiterate to one with a more advanced education system. One has to keep in mind that Mexico had an intense population growth spurt. Fortunately, we grew at levels that we could adapt to. In the past twenty-five years, the population has grown arithmetically: 1.6 million people per year. So you’d have to take on the two problems: population growth and economic growth.
In a country as big as Mexico, with such a diverse population, so varied and with such an exuberant culture, how do you interpret Mexican popular culture?
I’m going to tell you a very nice story about my brother: He was already feeling sick when he fell off the bed and ended up worse. So he went to the hospital, and then to Phoenix for an operation. The doctor examined him, and two hours later began to operate. The doctor wanted to relieve the pressure on his spinal cord, because he couldn’t move his arms—something like that. I went to see him two or three days later, and he had the Virgin of Guadalupe right there next to him and some other saint. And he said to me, “No, no, give me my Blue Demon [wrestler].” He wanted me to give him Blue Demon. And he wasn’t kidding!
Why did you settle in Mexico? What does the country mean to you?
I didn’t settle here. Mexico called to me as it calls to all the foreigners living here. It calls to us because it wants something; it needs new blood, new ideas that it receives from abroad, that we give if it’s willing to receive them. Sometimes it withdraws—it plays hard to get because it has been through some very difficult times, and it can be sullen. We want it to acknowledge us. We didn’t come to do Mexico any harm. Quite the opposite, we came to give it our love and compassion, to fight for it, to move forward. Mexico stands out among all the countries of Latin America for its way of being: it quivers. It has never been anything but what it is.
Of the fifty or sixty years you have lived in the country, which have been your favorite?
The ’50s and ’60s were decades of great intensity for me. I remember wonderful people, like Frida; she and I had many wonderful conversations. The nights I spent talking with Frida and Diego will be etched in my heart forever. They showed me how they painted; not how to paint, but the meaning of the paintings, the beauty of harmony, Diego’s and Frida’s ways of being, my own. It was three people getting together to talk about whatever they pleased. We would talk in the Casa Azul, where they had their studio. We saw each other when Frida was feeling well, because sometimes she was in terrible pain and didn’t want to do anything at all. I understood. There were tears every day, a letting go of the world, great gusts of pain.
Many of your songs are from that time. Many of them are like “gusts of pain,” as you just mentioned when talking about Frida. They speak to the pain of love, which you sing about with that deep, melancholy voice of yours. Is there a song that you would dedicate to Mexico for 2010, the bicentennial of its independence?
I don’t think there is, because there are no composers daring enough to write a song about the Mexico of today—none. They are too afraid and pained by it. These days, I find that lyrics are superficial. They are banal; I feel nothing when I hear them. They don’t reflect the reality of Mexico. They don’t say anything or call out to the country. Mexico doesn’t have a song. It’s very sad that it doesn’t, because we need a song right now, one to make the people tremble and cry. I don’t know what’s wrong with these composers. They’re afraid, but being afraid is dangerous, and sometimes it’s better not to sing at all. It’s better to remain silent, because that’s not music. It shouldn’t be like that. It’s very sad.
What direction do you see the country taking without its music?
I don’t know, it’s a bit—how would you say it—the wheels have come off a bit. The wheels have come off and we’re broken down, but we can’t say anything because it’s our own fault. Without question, singing songs to Mexico that don’t address this is absurd. It’s like a gringo singing.
Do you think that is part of the plan? That there are people in charge who are trying to suppress all passion, all beauty?
Yes, there are. Not people in charge, but morons! Idiots who want to bring an end to the culture of this country. Look at the vandals who paint graffiti. Just look at what they’ve done to Cuernavaca. It’s enough to turn your stomach! It’s very sad. There was a president once—I don’t know what country he was from—who said, “Just cut off their right hands.” This is how it is everywhere. Look at any country. We’re losing our humanity, losing our sense and our sense of beauty.
Life moves quickly now. The way we live is very sad. It was just New Year’s, and December is already here again. Soon we will have to celebrate New Year’s all over. It’s unbearable! This is a shocking time we’re living in. I only hope that the future is different, that it’s tranquil and lovely. I need tranquillity to be able not to sing. To retire from performing, I need a great deal of peace.
They say that you have given your last concert in Mexico. How did that farewell feel to you?
It pains me a great deal not to sing. It has been very, very painful, and I hope to return to it. Nothing is impossible, and I hope to return. I am not going anywhere. I am here to stay. Let them think what they will and say what they will. I am here to stay.
What do you think is the most beloved song in Mexico today?
It is one that goes:
Soy puro mexicano, nacido en esta tierra.
Si México lo quiere, que tenga que pelear,
Mi vida se la ofrezco, al cabo él me la ha dado
Y como buen soldado yo se la quiero dar.
¡Viva México! ¡Viva América!
Oh, tierra bendita de Dios.
¡Viva México! ¡Viva América!
Mi sangre por ti daré yo... 
 The two verses sung by Vargas come from “Viva México,” composed by Pedro Galindo and frequently performed on national holidays. The lyrics translate to: “I am all Mexican, born to this land / If Mexico demands, if I am called to fight / I offer my life, which after all it gave me / And like a good soldier I give it willingly. // Long live Mexico! Long live America! / Oh, land blessed by God. / Long live Mexico! Long live America! / I will give my blood for you...”
Was Mexico’s independence a true and absolute independence from the start? Or was it something written, declared, while strong ties, obligations, and pressures with other countries persisted?
Mexico’s independence was bloodier and longer than most. This was due to the fact that Mexico was extremely important not only to Spain but also to Great Britain and France, because all the world’s wars and foreign trade depended on Mexican silver. We must not forget that the Mexican peso circulated around China until the beginning of the twentieth century. There are many economic dependencies. I don’t think it’s been emphasized enough, and it’s been a general problem throughout Latin American history: other countries view us as if we don’t matter. There is a contradiction: in U.S. policy, Latin American history always comes second to the United States’s greatness, when in fact a large part of the United States was built at our expense.
The war with the United States started after our declaration of independence. It was completely unbalanced. The United States had twenty million soldiers, and we had only seven million. It was robbery, an assault, unfair, whatever you want to call it. But it was also a disaster, with old artillery against modern artillery. When we analyze this war, we can’t help but feel how depressed the soldiers must have felt, as well as their commanding officers. How were they supposed to beat long-range weapons with short-range cannons? We lost half the workforce during the war of independence. The country was undercapitalized, both because Spain had taken so much money and because of the outflow of money due to high taxes, forced loans, and volunteers. One of my professors, Edmundo O’Gorman, used to say that it was imperative to forgive, that is, to not study history by scolding it but by accepting all of it. All countries have an official history that’s misconstrued, not only the Mexicans. Ask the North Americans yourself. And they have a bigger problem: for them, the history of California before it was part of North America doesn’t exist.
Ignacio Ibarra published an article in the Arizona Daily Star in which he said that Mexico’s defeat in the war against the United States was so extreme that the United States could have annexed Mexico’s entire national territory at the end of the war. But Congress opposed this because it considered Mexico’s people inferior and a threat. There were prejudices, such as bad education, the fact that they were Catholic and not Protestant, and so on. Knowing Mexicans’ rebellious spirit, could it be the United States feared that a complete annexation could have caused a never-ending civil war? What’s your interpretation?
There was a movement to take all of Mexico. John Douglas Pitts Fuller published it in a book that could be rebutted. It turns out that racism itself was a big factor. I wrote an article about this. By the way, I wasn’t familiar with the word mongrel. It’s used for dogs of mixed breeds. The expansionists said, “The North American soldiers and the señoritas are to blame in this matter.” There were two extremes: on one hand racism played a big part, and on the other hand it was also difficult to subject people to a war that would be fought guerrilla style. There were conservatives who wanted General Scott to stay because he’d be able to charge taxes and maintain order. But I don’t think they made a real attempt, though they did want more territory. One must not forget poor Nicholas Trist. When they went to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, he had already said to them that he’d be returning to the United States. But the British minister and General Scott convinced him to stay. Nobody in Washington knew what was going on in Mexico; they wanted somebody to accept and sign. Later on, Trist writes his wife saying, “Could those Mexicans have seen into my heart at that moment, they would have known that my feeling of shame as an American was far stronger than theirs could be as Mexicans.” 
This problematic relationship still persists with the United States. Many Mexicans attribute the majority of their current problems to U.S. policies and consider NAFTA a further example of exploitation from their neighboring country.
I think it’s an unjust treaty. What’s curious is that they call it an “agreement” and we call it a “treaty.” I asked the person who signed it about this, and they insisted it was the same, but I don’t agree. Too bad the North Americans didn’t think as intelligently as the Europeans: let’s help Spain be on par with the rest of the world. What have they given us here? They just take from us. They have all the advantage, and it’s infuriating.
Isn’t it similar to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo?
At least Trist tried to give us Article 11 that would protect us.  It was never carried out, but at least it was an act of goodwill. NAFTA has none of this. You can’t create a so-called free trade treaty between three countries where there is disequilibrium: two world powers and an underdeveloped country. There’s no way.
And speaking of treaties, what do you think about “Plan Mérida”?
I don’t know if it’s worth anything or not. Perhaps what we need to do is limit the market. The North American market is very powerful. Now we know that narcotraffickers are planting in the United States. I found this news amusing and thought, That’s great, now they have them on their soil. Let’s see how easy it is to get rid of them! Because we’re wasting a lot of energy on this, and a few helicopters aren’t going to work to stop it. We’re wearing ourselves out on this battle, and for what? Drugs are consumed everywhere.
 Regarding Trist and his feelings on signing the deal, see footnote 38 on page 12.
 Article 11 gave the United States responsibility for controlling hostile Indian incursions originating on the U.S. side of the border.
In Mexico and throughout Latin America, many intellectuals have held positions in politics or have been directors of museums; Octavio Paz was an ambassador, and you yourself are the director of Channel 22. How is it possible for a writer to maintain his intellectual freedom while at the same time representing an official institution?
This is a long-standing tradition in Latin America, the origins of which are more French than anything else. The idea is to create intellectuals who later go on to public service as well. In Mexico, this tradition is extremely far-reaching. Nearly all of the important intellectuals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries held, at one point, some form of public appointment.
It’s a very powerful tradition, on top of which you also have the National Fund for Culture and Arts (Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes), which supports artists and intellectuals. It is one of the most comprehensive systems of stimulus for creative production in the world, which means that the relationship between intellectuals and the state is a very close one.
It’s true that during the years under the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party], it was very difficult to establish distance between the government and public offices. From 2000 on, though, I think things have begun to change a bit. A writer or intellectual doesn’t necessarily have to align himself with the government anymore.
Would you say that freedom of expression is a reality in Mexico?
Yes, I think that it’s one of the greatest victories in a long time, among those that took place in 2000 with the change of regime. At the time, many people expected drastic changes to the Mexican political system that never came about. But one of the things that was achieved was a high degree of freedom of expression.
Of course, in a country like Mexico, freedom of expression is still threatened by other things, like by crime—and drug trafficking in particular, which does limit freedom of expression. But in the press these days, you can say or write pretty much anything. On public television, generally, there tends to be a lot of freedom. The situation is different on commercial television, because it’s not as much a matter of the government as it is of private interest. Oddly, in Mexico the restrictions to freedom of expression are much greater on privately owned stations than on public television.
There are some who call private television a cancer attacking the country. Do you see it as being that serious—a manipulation of the public?
Yes, of course it is serious. In Mexico, there are only two privately owned television channels, Televisa and TV Azteca, which have tremendous power and a personal agenda that does not necessarily coincide with that of the country. This essentially means that the influence of commercial television is enormous and that, with all its power, it’s one of the greatest cancers affecting the country.
Do you personally have a dream, an idea, an inspiration for the milestone of 2010? What do you think its historical significance will be?
The most important thing will be to really discuss what should be done in Mexico and Latin America from 2010 on, beyond the commemoration of the Independence of Mexico and the Revolution.
Would any of those topics involve the question of intellectual independence, which is so important today with regard to the United States?
I think Mexico has always had an enormous sense of intellectual independence from the United States. The influence is tremendous, but no more than that of Germany or anywhere else. Mexico has a long and complicated history with the United States that it has always tried to engage and resist at the same time.
Admiration is one thing, assimilation is another. Millions of Mexicans are working in the United States and coming back with a completely different culture.
But this transformation is happening on both sides. It’s happening there as well, with the 20 million Mexicans living in the United States.
The United States is changing?
In all sorts of ways. Now, anywhere in the United States, you can eat what they call Mexican food, which isn’t really Mexican food. Even so, it’s surprising that anywhere, even in the whitest areas, there are Mexican restaurants. So, yes, this enormous migration has caused cultural transformations on both sides.
And do you think that, in this exchange between countries, Mexico’s culture is considered to be significant?
I think so, of course. For me, the ideal would be if something like the European Union could be formed across the Americas. Even the smaller countries of Europe have not lost their identities to Germany or France. In the same way, one believes that this could take place between Mexico and the United States.
From your personal point of view and as a journalist, how has the country changed most since the end of the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party] era?
In its ability to say “no.” It’s very important. Mexico was a country with only one political party that had executive power, judicial power, and legislative power: the three powers of the federation. But on top of that, it controlled all the other powers: economic, political, religious. And journalists had to move within the situation’s range of possibilities. Ten years ago, we elected a government that was no longer the PRI. There has been a significant transformation. There’s more freedom of expression and of opinions now, although we still have a long way to go on the road to democracy. But we are doing very well—there’s a big difference compared to what we used to have.
It seems the change is also noticeable in journalists’ commentaries.
Yes, it shows in the overall state of mind, especially if the journalist is using a radio as their tool. I think radio is the best medium for reflecting a journalist’s innermost feelings.
I heard part of your broadcast commentary during the 1985 earthquake, and it was very moving. There, you could sense your affinity with radio.
Yes, it was the worst tragedy this city has suffered. The city I was born in and have lived in all my life—I saw it collapsed. The place where I worked, where I spent more time than in my own house, was in ruins when I arrived. I knew who was underneath the ruins. I was Televisa’s news director and had hired those guys, had given them a schedule, a desk, and I knew what had happened to them. I can’t forget it, and every time I remember, I’m filled with sadness. The earthquake was at 7:19 a.m. on September 19, 1985. I began my transmission immediately without knowing what had happened, discovering things as I walked through the ruins, and as I discovered them, I spoke about them. There was no preparation. All I did was describe what I was seeing as I walked past Paseo de la Reforma, Avenida Madero, the zócalo, the Museum of Anthropology. And then I witnessed the corpses being lined up next to the houses that had fallen, the arrival of ambulances and firemen, the neighbors taking out the wounded and the dead from the ruins of homes, risking their own lives, lifting gas tanks so they wouldn’t explode. I saw and narrated all of this.
It was very moving. Compared with television, do you think radio offers different information?
I think television is the most important medium for disseminating information that mankind has created. But one thing is the medium’s importance and the other is the journalist’s work performance in each medium. The image is fundamental in television. In radio there are only words and a voice. You do everything. You say how far it is, what color it is, if there’s smoke or no smoke. The television journalist is kind of an add-on to the image, and we saw this clearly during the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. When the second plane crashed into the second tower, millions of people around the world watched along with the United States’ most famous news commentators, and what they said was, “Oh, my God!”
It’s true! It’s incredible how it was the only thing they could say!
Those images did not need an explanation, but the reporter who was transmitting the news by radio somewhere was trying his or her best to let those who were listening know exactly what was happening. Radio time is silent until you fill it, and that’s wonderful.
In your opinion, what should responsible journalism in all media be like in general? And what power does a televised image have in particular?
Television is an instrument. A knife can be used to remove a tumor, save a life, or kill someone. It’s the same with all of the instruments we have within reach or that were created by man. In some places, television is used as a tool by the government, and it’s always a fundamental political tool. In many countries it’s been shown that you can govern without television, but not against television. Counterweights must be created so that television doesn’t just become a business or a force to govern countries with, but that it serves a positive function in the development of every community.
You always show great concern for your people. One of the greatest threats to Mexican democracy and this country’s freedom of expression is organized crime—narcotrafficking. What’s your outlook on this?
It’s a difficult one, because these organized crime groups have connections outside of Mexico, and as long as there’s an active consumer such as the United States, well, there’s always going to be planting, harvesting, preparing, transporting, and selling drugs.
You ask yourself, How does it all get smuggled over there? Where are the narcotraffickers in the United States? These drugs have to travel many miles from the border to get to New York. How do they get there?
Yes, and how does the money move? We’re talking billions of dollars. How do you move that kind of money? It gets moved around the United States, and from there it moves to other places, making it impossible for a government in three years to say that drug trafficking is over. It just isn’t possible.