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Mexico's Cultural Landscapes: 
A Conversation with
Carlos Monsiváis

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Carlos Monsiváis was interviewed in the Hotel Majestic overlooking Mexico City's Zocalo in April 1998. I edited a transcript of the interview and invited him to make changes and corrections in August 1998 and then further copyedited the manuscript and sent it to him in July 1999. He revised and returned that transcript in July 1999.

David Thelen

David Thelen: What do you see as the major developments that have transformed Mexicans' sense of who they are?

Carlos Monsiváis: In a way, the Zapatistas have transformed the cultural landscape. Perhaps, after five years of an orthodox cold war, of crimes against the Indian people in Chiapas, of harrassment by the army, and of boredom among the public, people are thinking differently, but it's a big cultural, social, and political change. To begin with, Mexican racism has been exposed for the first time at a national level. And we have a different perception of the country's history. Since the 1994 Chiapas revolt of the Zapatistas proclaiming the rights and grievances of poor Indians in southern Mexico, more books on the Indian question have been published than in the rest of the century. It's incredible that for the first time in Mexican history we have begun to problematize racism, the misery and inequality with respect to Indian rights. Chiapas is a key word for understanding what's transforming Mexico, but not because it's important as a political issue. As political issues, violence in the cities and drug trafficking are more important than Chiapas. But as a moral and cultural issue, Chiapas comes first. (Chiapas, here, is not the region but the consciousness of a tragedy). And Chiapas, now, is not only the Indian situation, but the tragedy of a country historically stricken by poverty.

Before the rebellion in Chiapas, the key word in Mexico was "modernization," the illusion of the First World around the corner: "Happiness is here again for the first time." "Modernization" took the place of nationalism, the old-time "act" that united all sectors through festivity, mythology. And Chiapas, I think, was powerful in destroying, first, the mirage of "modernity" and, second, that kind of nationalist mythology. It led to the discovery of a Hollywood scenario, the result of government know-how. We had really lived in a world of make-believe. For the first time we asked: How was it possible that we could believe in a Noah's ark of the happy few, and that we could overlook the existence of ten million Indians? Suppose you have an upper crust travelin' to Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, Las Vegas, and livin' like high-class Americans, suppose you have soccer games and national festivities and the generalizations, "Mexicans are like this, Mexicans are like that." All that now becomes secondary. If you have an unequal nation--80 percent of the Mexican population lives in either poverty or misery--you can't have modernization and you can't trust nationalism. And that's what Chiapas helped us discover.

Chiapas helped me understand the dangers of complacence. I thought I was a person of the intellectual Left. But I was unaware of the effects of the poverty and misery and the way they destroy lives all the time. And now the key word to me is democracy. No longer nationalism, and no longer the helpless faith in modernization. But it's not an easy task. Sometimes I try to be optimistic, but most of the time I feel the nation is trapped in a web of sordid interests, the big bosses of politics and money, the ruthless entrepreneurs, the bankers. See what happened with fobaproa (El Fondo Bancario de Protección al Ahorro, the bank fund to protect savings), the institution for rescuing the banking system. It's a mess--corruption and impunity. More than $70 billion thrown away to the wind. As long as impunity reigns, it's hard to believe in democracy getting closer. Nineteen ninety-nine has been the year of lost illusions.

DT: Could you please elaborate on this point about democracy getting closer and the disappointment?

CM: I felt, after the elections in 1997, this huge enthusiasm for democracy. No one was discussing nationalism. Everyone was discussing the transition to democracy and civil society. You heard everywhere: "What is hopeful is civil society. What is hopeful are the nongovernmental organizations. What is hopeful is to believe in democracy." And, certainly, compared to the past, we have a conscience, a national conscience. Before, we didn't. That's the difference. Fear is a creator of conscience, and hope is also, and the mixture can be terrific. Knowledge also helps. The knowledge of the incredible corruption of President Carlos Salinas's regime created conscience.

And then came the backlash. All of a sudden, we began to understand the role of scandals. Scandals like the fortune Raúl Salinas made because his brother was president, fobaproa, the generals corrupted by drug trafficking, the governors linked with the Mafia, and the politicians on the payroll of the mob exhausted the energies of public opinion. "It's amazing, but what can we do?" Scandals destroy social and political anger, they act as the psychic compensations for living amid a regime of impunity. See what's happening. After the proofs of vast corruption and the show of moral wrath by the government ("Never again! We promise righteousness from now on!"), nothing happened. There's only one banker in jail because of the enormous frauds of fobaproa. Only one, and he's going to be free in a few months.

The whole system of impunity is destroying faith in democracy. And the political parties, Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), and Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), are not a great help. The pan joined forces with the PRI in the fobaproA affair, and the PRD is almost destroyed by internal quarrels. People don't believe in political parties (in Mexico, when you say "people" you're really saying "I"). And the enthusiasm is being diluted in skepticism and sadness. Certainly, the elections next year are going to change this attitude, but only for a while. As long as impunity continues, democracy is going to reach the vanishing point.

DT: Have Mexican political leaders developed new ideologies and practices?

CM: They have a religious attitude to the free market, an economic fundamentalism. President Ernesto Zedillo went to an Indian area in Oaxaca and made a speech in praise of the International Monetary Fund. It's a crusade. It is amazing. He believes in the free market as a religion. He even said to an old Indian woman who tried to sell him an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe: "No traigo cash" (I don't carry cash), and he used the English word.

The president decided to give the banks an incredible amount of money to save them and to clean them up in preparation for the American or European bankers who decide to invest in Mexico. Despite his talk of free markets, President Zedillo has really decided not to open the economy. It is a closed economy tied to the American banking system and especially to the Clinton regime. And Mr. Zedillo, to dispel any doubts, every other day recites his belief: "Poverty in Mexico is the result of the populist regimes." Not of capitalism, not of corruption and impunity, but the result of atheism concerning the Free Market.

DT: Please explain that a little more.

CM: Eighty-two percent of the Mexican economy is tied to the United States. nafta (the North American Free Trade Agreement) was unavoidable, but not as President Salinas arranged it. In a lot of areas, nafta is closing the economy, not opening it. For instance, in areas producing coffee, tea, sugar, and citrus, nafta functions mostly against the rural side of Mexico. Certainly, it is greatly improving capital exports, but it is not improving the economy as a whole. And nafta makes Mexico a most humble part of the United States economy. Now even Taco Bell is here! The border is full of maquiladoras, but the rest is almost in ruins, especially the rural zones. No credits because of the bank situation. So there are many maquiladoras, and Mr. President is dreaming of the opportunities he is offering to the population because of the free market. He really believes in abundance, somewhere over the rainbow. Birds fly over the rainbow, so why can't Mexico?

DT: Would you say more Mexicans connect in more ways now with American things than in the past?

CM: Not more Mexicans, almost every Mexican.

Americanization was the inevitable process at the end of the nineteenth century. A lot of people protested in the papers against Americanization a century ago. So what you see now is an americanized society that mexicanized itself through poverty and imagination and a handful of traditions. Ambition and dreams and technical necessities are the way to Americanization. Poverty is a national identity, the feature that mexicanizes the society. You can see this most vividly in border towns like Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana. In the old Mexican town we see poverty and a lack of jobs, happily and promiscuously mixing American and Mexican traditions. Technology is gringa, those excluded from the real benefits of technology are Mexicans.

We don't have the sort of environment you can see in American cities. It is impossible to have that prosperous environment in Tijuana, or in Juárez, except in the bourgeois areas, which contain no more than 5 percent of the population there. So what you see at the border is the strength of poverty running against the pressures for Americanization. Or, to be more precise, not the pressures for Americanization, but the pressures for living like an average American.

DT: Can you elaborate on how poverty mexicanizes Mexican society?

CM: Poverty creates the constant sense of limitations. Ordeal, misery, 20 percent of the population is living in abject misery. Again, we discovered these things through recent events in Chiapas. You saw in Chiapas a military man, drunk and driving wildly, who killed thirteen soldiers. The soldiers were jogging along the highway. It's an example, not of a Vietnam syndrome, but of the lack of respect for human rights. In 1997 there was a massacre in a small town called Acteal in Chiapas. The people who sent the killers were officials in the Chiapas regime. And the physical killers were Indian. They were poor people. They killed forty-five men, women, and children just because of pure hate against persons like themselves, and I'm not using pop psychology. I suppose they were on drugs. But they were destroying people because of their poverty, because they can't make sense of the way they have to live. For them, the preachings on the free market are ridiculous, but the need to kill people like themselves is a relief.

DT: Do Mexican leaders have a different relationship to American culture than the Mexican people? Are they more americanized in any ways?

CM: Not in a profound way. They certainly go to the American universities, the Ivy League or the University of California system or even the Amarillo, Texas, high school, but they don't know anything about American culture. They don't read Walt Whitman or Edgar Allan Poe or Ralph Waldo Emerson or Scott Fitzgerald. They don't know anything about Aaron Copland. They, of course, hear rock and jazz and avidly read John Grisham and self-help literature.

Most of what they know is from the cinema. They know the language, the techniques, the methodology. They're worshippers of methodology. So they know only a fraction of American culture. For instance, Zedillo went to Yale, but he doesn't know about American culture. He went to Yale; he studied there; he was an honor student. He was with his home computer all day long. He is not americanized in a real cultural sense.

Our leaders know about America what they learned during the years they spent in the States. After that, they saw movies, all the new American movies. Titanic, of course, Star Wars, Episode I, no doubt. They read Time magazine or Newsweek. Occasionally, the highest politicians read the New York Times and watch CNN. That is Americanization for them.

DT: What would Americanization mean to other Mexicans?

CM: Technology is what they want. For the youngsters, hip-hop or rap or rock 'n' roll music and technology. From gadgets to computer games, and now the Internet. The Internet is really the new religion. They spend the money they have trying to be up-to-date. In fact, being up-to-date is a social and personal necessity even if they don't have money. But it is a very restricted notion of being up-to-date. Summer fashions, all the time.

Youngsters are fed up with traditions. They want to hear heavy metal or hip-hop or whatever in the towns. All of this is transforming and eroding what we used to know. And that's unavoidable. Modernity is the great notion, and most of the traditions are based on exclusion, machismo, and prejudice. But it's hard to see the new traditions. What we see instead is the rhythm of fashion.

DT: Has the center of these influences moved young Mexicans, say, from Mexico City to somewhere in the United States?

CM: Yes. People used to think of Mexico City as the mecca, as "the" city. Now it's Los Angeles. California offers jobs. Not glamorous jobs, but the young people believe that there are jobs there. And California, to a young Indian from Oaxaca, or to people with no real possibilities of jobs in Mexico, offers also and especially a new way of life, a freer and smarter way of life that they don't have in the countryside or in the slums. Los Angeles offers technology, gadgets, a new rhythm of life. Of course that's all a utopian ideal. They're going to find humiliations and low wages. But what they think they have in Los Angeles is the promise of modernity, being in tune with the changes at the end of the century. And that's what they don't find in Mexico. In Mexico, they are left out of a modernized society they want to be part of. For them speed is the new cathedral.

DT: What feeds that most? Is it reports from people who have been there? Is it images that come on the radio and the television?

CM: In the first place, automobiles. For instance, the low rider is a great image to Mexican youth. They transform the automobiles, and the automobiles transform them. Automobiles represent freedom from the family, freedom from tradition, freedom even from courtship of a girl friend. They represent instant access to everything that exists, the chance to know what is happening in the modern world at the same time as the rest of the people who are already living there. They provide instant access to the sensations, vibrations--like being in a disco forever with sexual and social benefits.

DT: Has there been resistance to globalization or Americanization?

CM: The Mexican Catholic Church tries to stop globalization, or what they understand as "globalization." They really don't want any kind of globalization, if that means liberal ways. In private schools, they launched a big campaign two or three years ago against the television program The Simpsons because it corrupted childhood. And in 1998 they suppressed a soap opera about a priest who falls in love with a girl in a Mexican town, because this soap opera was degrading Catholicism, insulting the priesthood, and trying to dissolve the Mexican family. Just like that. TV sets in Guadalajara were destroyed by a Catholic mob as a protest against hedonism in response to the pope's message opposing Americanization as an attack on tradition. So the forces against modernity are the ones who listened to the pope, but meanwhile their children and perhaps they themselves are watching The Simpsons. And now there's a great campaign against a show featuring male strippers. Old Mexico against The Full Monty.

DT: Do these conflicts have an impact on the strength of traditional families?

CM: There is a strong sense of family in Mexico. The traditional families are in the minority, but family is still the center of Mexican thought, even with newer families. In that sense, Americanization has been a very positive influence.

DT: What do you mean? What are some of the attributes of the new family?

CM: Fewer children; many new families have only one or two children. This was blasphemy in the old days. The pope went to Chiapas and said: You can have all the children you want. He wants more even though the country is already crowded with no jobs available. It's incredible the passion against birth control, legalization of abortion, condoms, women's rights, and so forth.

DT: Are relations among generations different?

CM: Very different. Hierarchic relations have changed. When I was a child, in the countryside they used to kiss the father's hand; there was a total respect for the patriarchs. Now there is a much more democratic society. For instance, we no longer have the idea that losing virginity is a family tragedy. And instead of honor, people are thinking in terms of dignity. But several states still have laws that demand the approval of the husband before his wife can go to work. If the husband doesn't approve, the wife can't work. And on moral issues the pan certainly belongs to the nineteenth century. So there are a lot of contradictions, but mostly the family is transforming itself rapidly. No more "Father knows best" and not so many "Archie Bunkers" in Mexico.

DT: Are the ideas of modernizing and americanizing synonymous in Mexico?

CM: No. The bourgeoisie, for example, is profoundly americanized but not modern in any cultural or mental way. The bourgeoisie are very much against feminism, which has been one of the greatest modernizing influences on Mexico. There are a lot of undercurrents that are modernizing Mexico outside the standard canon of Americanization.

More feminist-minded Mexican women are informed of what's happening in the States. The older Mexican women are also experiencing great changes. For instance, in Zacatecas, in Jalisco, in Oaxaca, there are towns with women and children, no men. And they practice autonomy in order to survive.

DT: Are there examples of Americanization that is not modernization?

CM: Yes, AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome. AIDS has come, devastatingly, to the rural areas because of migration, because women trust their men, and the men get AIDS in the States and bring it back to Mexico and spread it to their partners. And the religious belief in mass culture. Oh, these teenagers convinced that Darth Vader is the founder of a new religion!

DT: You said earlier that there's been a general shift in Mexican perceptions of the United States since the days of earlier nationalism. How do Mexicans identify Americans?

CM: In part with racism. There is a lot of resentment against people from California because of Proposition 187. And in part against the Mexican Americans, the same kind of people as we are. We are puzzled by Mexican Americans; in the Proposition 187 vote, a lot of the Latinos voted for it. More recently, a great number of the Latinos voted against bilingual education. Mexican Americans voted to learn a different language! Tomorrow is not written in Spanish for them.

DT: So how do people explain that?

CM: They don't explain it. It's impossible to explain.

The migrants and their children are going to blur Mexican versus American nationalism. For example, it's possible that in the future they can have both citizenships. That's a major change. Perhaps Mexicans in the United States are going to vote in Mexican elections in the next years.

DT: How else have perceptions changed?

CM: Migration has changed the perceptions of the United States. Everyone has a cousin, brother, or sister saying "come stay with me." And also almost every Mexican is exposed the whole day to American mass culture. Superman, Batman, Bambi, Donald Duck, and Elvis Presley are part of our traditions, even if people don't know or don't acknowledge that.

DT: So on a popular level, the United States is not just a different government and racism but also a land of familiar people.

CM: The gringo is the old racist who lives in the same city as my brother or my aunt. The United States is the land of the gringos and the relatives. And the gringos and the Mexicans see the same movies on the weekends.

DT: Are there ways that all these people in Los Angeles are actually mexicanizing the United States?

CM: They are not mexicanizing the United States in a cultural way, but in daily life there is a sense of increasing familiarity and acceptance of the Other's ways, from phrases and songs to cooking styles. There are so many Mexicans, and they are not of Negro background. So they activate at the same time acceptance and racism. The contacts increase. You have a lot of Californian housewives using Mexican girls for domestic work; this is new. I don't see Mexican girls influencing the culture, but they are certainly changing the social landscape in California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, New York, Chicago. New York received one hundred thousand Mexicans in the last ten years.

DT: When we talked before, you spoke about a sense of foreboding or doomsday . . .

CM: It's grown worse. Because of social dialogue, because of delinquency, people in the great cities are afraid, really afraid, especially in Mexico City. Women have definitely lost the streets; after 8 p.m. it's impossible for a woman to go out alone.

DT: Last time you spoke of the "Americanization of doomsday." What did you mean? Are these changes the result in any way of American influences?

CM: They are the result of drug trafficking, which we tend to see in the perspective of American thrillers. Not because drug trafficking has directly produced all this, but drug trafficking destroys the relationship with civil society and justice. We had a poor justice system to begin with, and with the drug trafficking, even that was destroyed. The narcos have bought police chiefs, governors, perhaps secretaries of states, certainly judges. They bought a lot. Every year in Mexico, as the result of drug trafficking, according to the authorities, $8 billion remain in the hands of the narcos and their friends (money laundry people). It is an enormous amount, so they can buy what they want. They are destroying what remains of the justice system. And that affects everyone. What you have is fear. We don't trust any police chief. If you can't trust your justice system, doomsday is in the wings.

DT: And would anyone connect this with the United States demand for drugs?

CM: Yes, but not in a conscious way. We acknowledge it, and journalists say that all the time, but what we are witnessing is what happens to us. The drug consumers in the States are a reality, but what is in the popular Mexican mind is the fundamental role of narcos: you see it in the songs, in films, you see it in ways of life. John Wayne has even influenced the narcos' style of walking. Narcos think they go into the cities like John Wayne or Randolph Scott into the saloons.

DT: You think the narcos adopt an American role?

CM: They adopt the role of the Marlboro man and John Wayne. Certainly, narcos have americanized their style. A film like Scarface, the one with Al Pacino, influenced the narcos a lot. The culture industry has affected more than you can believe. The narcos tried to be norteños in a sense new in Mexico, one that didn't exist before the 1960s, norteños like John Wayne or the Marlboro man or Clint Eastwood or a Vietnam vet turned FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) man.

It may not be conscious, but the narcos' walk, their outfits, their idea of a he-man, the obsession with guns--all come from American western movies. John Wayne and his gun. And the narco is a he-man with a lot of guns.

DT: What do you see as alternatives to the current neoliberalism?

CM: I don't see any.

DT: The Zapatistas?

CM: No, they don't present an alternative. They present a shock of recognition, but not an alternative. We don't have any alternative now. That makes it a tragedy.

DT: What do you think of some of these movements like Sin Fronteras?

CM: They're not significant yet. The Mexican unions oppose them.

DT: Have any NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) been able to have an influence?

CM: Yes, and a very positive one. Not the great influence, but they represent to a lot of people a sound alternative. They're expressions of goodwill, but they're not affecting the public, not yet. Except for a few moments--like in Chiapas--where they stopped the government assault.

I don't know what's going to happen. And that's not a conclusion but an act of wisdom.

Carlos Monsiváis is an independent scholar and writer living in Mexico City.

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