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Janus and the Northern Colossus: Perceptions of the United States in the Building of the Mexican Nation

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Francisco Valdés-Ugalde

The United States are the denial of what we were in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, and of what, since the nineteenth century, many among us would prefer us to be.
— Octavio Paz, 1976

In 1811 the founding father of independent Mexico, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, fled the country after the defeat of the insurgent army at Puente de Calderón. He and his fellow military men moved northward to Saltillo and then to Texas to protect themselves from the royal troops. For them it was the beginning of the end; many officers had been apprehended, and their chances of recovery were diminishing. Nearly forty years later, Lucas Alamán referred to this episode in his Historia de México:

it was Mexicans’ general opinion at the beginning of the revolution, and it continued to be for many years to come, until sad deceiving events changed this conviction, that the United States of America were the natural ally of their country, and that in them Mexicans would find the firmest support and the most sincere and disinterested of friends, and therefore it was there, of course, where Hidalgo tried to seek help.1 Luis de On’s, the Spanish ambassador to the United States, witnessed the afflictions of Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, Hidalgo’s envoy to Washington. Gutiérrez de Lara contacted American authorities to ask that they support the Mexican cause against Spain. In the context of rivalries between the United States and Spain over Cuba and other issues, James Monroe, the secretary of state at that time, had conceived a plan to support the Mexican revolutionaries. Hidalgo’s envoy recorded it in his diary as an offer by the United States to help the revolutionaries on the condition that they adopt a constitution similar to that of the United States. Monroe ventured to tell Gutiérrez de Lara that this would pave the way for annexation of Mexico by the American federation. Eventually, the secretary of state suggested, similar procedures in the rest of the Americas would result in the creation of the most powerful entity ever built.2 As the historian Enrique González Pedrero put it: "all historians coincide in the offended reaction of Gutiérrez de Lara who, after listening to such a proposition wrote in his diary, ‘Holy Mary, please help me and free me of these people.’ A nice beginning for Mexico’s independent diplomacy with the United States."3

     In April 1812 de On’s reported to the viceroy Venegas about American designs on New Spain: "This government intends nothing less than fixing its limits from the mouth of the Bravo river of the North [Rio Grande], following its course up to the thirty-first degree, drawing from there a straight line to the Pacific Ocean, gaining control of the provinces of New Santander, Coahuila, New Mexico and part of New Vizcaya and Sonora."4 These calculations were not far from what happened later: the independence of Texas and the annexation of the Mexican northern territories.

     The interactions between an independent Mexico and the United States, which began so inauspiciously, are of particular interest to me as an individual, a political scientist, and a Mexican citizen. I was born near the Mexican – United States border in Chihuahua city. So my interaction with the United States was always very fresh and very, very direct. We went to El Paso, Texas, to shop during long weekends and vacations. As students in primary and high school, when we talked about the United States, it was always about contrasts — for example, that affluence on the American side of the border contrasted with poverty on the Mexican one; that people on the Mexican side were Catholics and those on the other side Protestants; and that other divergences grew from those economic and religious differences. Now, I find much the same thing: differences that are difficult to conceptualize pervade the interactions between the two nations.

     It is important to understand those interactions now, when Mexico is in transition to a more democratic political regime. As at other times of transition in the Mexican experience — as when Monroe offered the United States Constitution as a model to the horrified Gutiérrez de Lara — the United States looms large. That country has repeatedly figured as an alternative cultural and political system that might be a model to follow or a threat to the survival of a distinctive Mexico. Its attraction and repulsion have been especially strong at times of political and economic change.

     One outcome of the process now underway could be the making of a new constitution, whether by adapting the current one to new circumstances or calling a constituent congress (constitutional convention). In any case, it would be the culmination of a long transition and crisis of regime, which would force us to think about the fundamental features of Mexican political history, the nature of democracy, and the potential for a democratic Mexico.

The Present Moment in Mexico

     More than twenty years ago we began to see cracks in what had earlier seemed well-integrated economic and political systems. After the Mexican Revolution, from the 1930s to the 1960s, we had a successful economic model in that the economy grew at a very high rate, on average nearly 6 percent annually. Those were the times of the "Mexican miracle." And the political model tended to be more inclusive; the government, the pri (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), and the political bosses included the people in their plans. But once scarcity became the rule because of the economic crisis of the 1970s, the government and the bosses ran out of money. The first attempts in Mexico to reject populism as an economic approach and to vindicate liberalism, that is, a market orientation, started in the early 1970s. It was the Mexican version of a worldwide phenomenon. In England, the United States, and Europe, people had the same debate, although the public policies derived from the discussion differed in different places. The general trend was toward a more globalist liberal model. But the economic shift by Mexican leaders — dramatized by the signing of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) in 1993 — had social and political ramifications. One effect of moving from a protectionist system to one oriented to a global market is the suffering of many people because industries shut down and public expenditure diminishes.

     This politico-economic transformation has become one of the major themes in the public sphere. At first, the ruling elite and the ordinary citizen were convinced that minor adjustments were needed. However, the persistence of political and economic problems led to a new conviction: the problems originate in the ineffectiveness of current institutions to respond to those problems. Mexico’s crisis is, then, a crisis of institutions and therefore a crisis of the rules that govern public action.

     Politically, since 1917 we have had a republican government with uninterrupted elections. That was the cleverness of the Mexican model: there was a strong president, replaced every six years, but the same party governed all the time. Elections were organized as a plebiscitarian activity, but there was no real test of the people’s will because no choice was offered. The formal system, the division of powers, is almost the same as the American system, but in practice that system did not work or worked within a hegemonic, one-party framework. Instead of democratic legitimation, there was revolutionary legitimation; in the elections the government contended for the revolutionary mandate. Of course, the distinction between a hegemonic and a competitive political system is not absolute: the United States had hegemonic government during the second part of the nineteenth century, with the Republican party dominant nationally.

     Now we have a democratic demand from different sectors in society for the state to become more liberal, in the sense of respect for individual freedom and rights. The formula of the hegemonic party system was either votes for goods or repression. In exchange for the people’s support for the ruling elite, people were given such goods as land or food, or even trade unions or organizations, all of which were goods supplied by the revolutionary state. The Mexican state organized the workers both in industry and in the countryside. The people no longer want to be treated that way; they want to have choices, make their own decisions, create their own organizations. But the new more liberal framework precludes the postrevolutionary Mexican political system, which rested on a difference between the laws guaranteeing rights and actual governmental functions.

     Democratizing Mexican politics has involved both the government’s surrender of some powers and a new conformity of government to formal legal rules. Consider press freedom, a feature of liberal polities and a right guaranteed by the Mexican constitutions of 1857 and 1917. But in Mexico twenty-five years ago, newspapers and reporters depended on the government — for the newsprint paper (imported and distributed by a government agency) and for payments to those who wrote stories that served official goals. The market for the newspapers was not the readers, but the government. When a journalist wrote an article he or she often had to think about the government instead of the readers. And there were powerful extralegal methods of enforcement. In the 1970s a major newspaper, Excélsior, was shut down because the paper’s editor and writers were criticizing the president and the system. The government attacked the paper through a mob operation; that is, government agents infiltrated the trade union and there was an internal coup by the union and the administrators against the writers, journalists, editorialists, and director. It was one of the most important points in the transition because after it happened two major newspapers (Uno Más Uno and later La Jornada), a new weekly magazine (Proceso), and Vuelta, the influential literary magazine directed by Octavio Paz, opened. The landscape of the press has changed immensely since then both in the capital city and elsewhere. Major cities in Mexico now have two or three important, independent papers, and public opinion is much better informed than before. That aspect of Mexican life has been reformed.

     During the transition a key source of reform has been the PRI. In an extraordinary process, the party accepted an opening and, whether slowing or accelerating its pace, has been in control of the democratization. In the 1960s and early 1970s, there was repression of opposition groups and oppositional political parties, but in 1977, the PRI itself proposed a new electoral law allowing other political parties to have proportional representation in Congress. Opponents of the government started to organize parties and to win elections, at first mainly for seats in Congress, later in some municipal governments, and from the 1980s onward in state governments — two years ago even in Mexico City. The PRI has been guided by reason of state. That is, PRI leaders know that at the beginning of the twentieth century the longtime president Porfirio Díaz said Mexico was ready for democracy but then repented and said it was not ready. He fraudulently denied election to Francisco I. Madero, and then came popular upheaval, Madero’s short term in the presidency and his assassination, and revolution. Mexican leadership with few exceptions think that this time Mexico must have orderly change to avoid revolution.

     Those developments — the opening of the Mexican economy to the global market and the ensuing inequality and suffering, changes in what people expect from government, greater freedom of expression, democratization of politics — have led me to see the Mexican past in new ways. The transition, the crisis, makes what had been invisible visible.

     Perhaps the profoundest newly visible phenomenon is the huge gap between informal practices and the legal order — the gap exists in all states, but it is larger in Mexico. For example, you have malpractice and corruption in government on all levels. But at every level you find a great effort to make everything legal after it is done. Officials have wanted to prevent their successors from prosecuting them, and legislators have built loopholes into the laws establishing accountability for officials because they might hold office someday and need loopholes.

      In any country there is a complex relationship between law and norms, on the one hand, and social and political behavior, on the other, but in Mexico our characteristic behavior regarding norms is in crisis. As informal features of legal practice become more apparent, the glaring gap between legal, constitutional norms and the informal political system becomes the subject of public discussion. Above all, the question is how to have a constitution that not only reigns but rules.

     The United States Constitution figures in my analysis of the crisis in two ways. The first is the common Mexican perception of the United States as a place where norm and informal practice work in harmony together. Although that is an exaggeration, since some social arrangements in the United States do not work, for much of the past two centuries Mexicans have postulated such a contrast between Mexico and the United States. Thus I use the American Constitution for comparison with the Mexican one in the relationship between formal and informal. The second is the social mission of constitutional law in the two countries, which reveals the United States and Mexico as representing two different historical types.

     One clue to the constitutional differences appears in the theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau stated that the purpose of the state was to collect and represent the general will. There is a Mexican version of that idea. According to the practice of Mexican constitutionalism, the leadership has to be an interpreter of the popular will. Several provisions of the constitution are considered "social" rights, some of them even "national" rights. Article 3 defines democracy "not only as a political structure but as a system of life founded in the constant economic, social, and cultural improvement of the people." Peasants’ right to land use and workers’ right to "remunerative" wages are also guaranteed by the constitution. Those rights contrast with actual forms of authoritarianism, inequality and injustice, unemployment, and low salaries. They are not rights to enforce, but rights to achieve. Mexico’s constitutional history is a history of goals to achieve that are not already, or are only partially, achieved.5

     Take the goal of equality. Some journalists and scholars contrast the society described in the first paragraphs of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America with that of Mexico. He said that the most striking characteristic of the United States was the "equality of condition among the people."6 In the Mexican colonial world there was the opposite; we had not only huge social differences in income, race, and regional distribution of population but also differences in rights. At the end of the colonial period, the civil code distinguished five different strata in the population with different rights. For example, certain marriages between strata were not allowed. A mestizo (one of Indian and European descent) male could not easily marry a peninsular (Spanish-born) woman. Such distinctions applied to landownership and to access to certain occupations: the right to be a merchant was reserved mainly for peninsulares and Creoles (or criollos, people born in Mexico of Spanish descent). In the nineteenth century and part of the twentieth, revolutionaries, republicans, and liberals regarded politics as the means to struggle toward the goal of equality — equal rights for everyone and an effective rule of law.

     In that long period social imagination grabbed the idea of forming a popular will and getting it represented in the state. A Rousseauean version of the popular will embodied in the state yields a revolutionary model. Mexican liberals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did not simply uphold the ideas that people are equal in rights and that individuals can do whatever they want so long as they do not bother their neighbors. They thought the state was entitled to organize the collective life to pursue those goals. But if the state that is empowered to pursue the liberal goals is authoritarian and the way to elect governments is not democratic, a semidictatorship rules many aspects of social life.

     At this deep level, the contrast between the Mexican and United States constitutions is great. The Mexican Constitution is theoretical, teleological, finalist. The Mexican Constitution is written for the future; the will of the nation has to be formed to achieve collective goals such as social justice. In the American Constitution, in contrast, the finalities do not focus on the collective, on the nation, and yet social cohesion is preserved.

     How can we harmonize the new demands for democracy and a more limited, liberal state with the Mexican tradition, still cherished, of the state as forming the popular will and shaping and remaking society? It is not clear. But in the realm of practical politics, a constituent congress offers a solution. A constitution does two things at the same time. It allows for democracy, and as a binding agreement that increases the cost of changing the rules, it constrains democracy. The theory of constitutions has always dealt with the contradiction that, although every generation is free to change and to establish rules, written constitutions are not easy to change. (In Mexico changes require support from two-thirds of each house of Congress and a majority of state legislatures.) I think that a new constitution would be the best conclusion of the transitional process toward democracy. By means of a pact we can adopt new rules and enter on an agreed-upon fate.

     This article is an outgrowth of my efforts to understand the transition, to take account of the invisible political arrangements it has made visible, and to contribute to a successful democratic outcome. It focuses on key moments of United States – Mexican interaction in order to uncover features of Mexican constitutional history. It explores certain themes that emerge from the examination of those moments: the weight of tradition in Mexico; the gap between formal and informal political systems in Mexico, which is often a gap between professed democracy and informal authoritarianism; and the way conflicts between tradition and modernity have sustained that gap.

Two Americas

     Mexico’s history is marked by pervasive contradictions between tradition and modernity. The heritage of the colonial past — including Spaniards’ fierce destruction of native cultures, religious and intellectual intolerance, social inequality, absolutism, and authoritarianism — has clashed repeatedly with modernization efforts. The memory of New Spain’s early economic success and of its puzzling decline into economic backwardness has both spurred and misled efforts to undo features of the colonial past engraved on everyday life. The proximity to the United States of America has been important in this conflict, for that country has always presented a chimerical image of what Mexicans could or should do to overcome the contradictions. The dialectics of the relationship between the two countries have involved imitation and rejection: the former as the means for Mexicans to adopt admired characteristics of the United States and the latter as a result of dissonance with Mexico’s own cultural and political heritage and as a reaction to intervention by the United States.

     For most of the past two hundred years, Mexico has endured what the historian Edmundo O’Gorman has called the paradox of Janus.7 Janus, the Roman god of gates and doorways, is depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions. He symbolizes the contradiction between past and present that cannot be reconciled into only one face.

     The long experience of contradiction and of failure to reconcile the irreconcilable cultural values and development paths of Anglo-America and Spanish America has inflicted a trauma. The American English colonies bore the seeds of a new world, different from and founded in rupture with its origins. The southern, Spanish American colonies, in contrast, attempted to prolong Spanish ideals in the New World. The new England and the new Spain were thus not equivalents, for they expressed very different mentalities.

     O’Gorman identified this difference as the "opposition between two different ways of understanding human destiny and the relationship between man and nature." Whereas the English mentality was rational and scientific, aimed at the transformation of the natural environment and made possible by religious reformation, the Iberian ideal was the restoration of "ecumenical unity with the realm of Catholic truth’s values, believed and lived as if they were of absolute and eternal validity."8

     By virtue of this difference, the United States emerged as a symbol of the ability to choose; Mexico has epitomized the impossibility of choice. Destiny and fate may be the appropriate words to summarize these two historical paths, representing the discrepancy between self-command and sovereign decision, on the one hand, and the oppressing burden of circumstances, on the other. This is the main difference between the polities of the United States of America and the United States of Mexico, a difference that has permeated the histories of both countries since the dawn of their independence from their European metropoles.9

     Although scholars have dealt with the origins of such differences, the literature has not come to terms with how the two societies perceive and elaborate them in a world where they live together and increasingly interact.10 Indeed, we must undertake such an analysis both to understand and to act effectively in Mexico’s current political transformation. As Charles A. Hale has recently pointed out, a decline in the historical study of politics and ideas took place in Latin America beginning in the mid-1960s.11 Scholars tried to work their way out of patriotic history (historia patria) in order to unveil social structures that were hidden by apologetic and even epic historiography. But that approach to Latin American history has reached its limits, showing that structural analysis cannot replace an approach that emphasizes politics and agency.

     In the pages that follow I will depict Mexican perceptions of the United States at critical moments in the Mexican past and show how those views have contributed to Mexico’s development. This is a historical essay written from the perspective of political science, with an interest in looking backward to explain current conditions. My objective is twofold: first, to reflect on some episodes and aspects of postindependence Mexico in the context of its complex relations with the United States; second, to understand how past options, choices, and events helped shape the present and influence the production of projects for the future.

The Colonial Heritage

     Very early in the era of Spanish rule, Mexico sustained a rich society and a sophisticated high culture. For example, David Brading suggests that no account of British imperial accomplishments can be compared to the annals of Spanish deeds in America. Hernán Cortés’s Cartas de Relaci—n (letters to Emperor Charles V on the conquest) and Bartolomé de Las Casas’s defense of the Indians are unique. They have no parallel in the letters of English or other European imperialism.12

     Brading’s observation may seem futile or merely rhetorical, but it is not. His remark points to the different significance that discovery and colonization of the New World had for Englishmen and Spaniards. Whereas the former conveyed the spirit of religious reform and enlightenment, the latter brought the spirit of the Catholic Counter Reformation and resistance to modernity. The austere English settlements became the seed for long-lasting, robust economic and political institutions. In turn, although the wealth and splendor of the Spanish Empire gave an impulse to the construction of the "first" America with its Creole pride and vital early economic and political institutions, that empire founded one of the most modernization-resistant social systems of European lineage. Brading’s remark underscores the fascination of the Spaniards with the Mesoamerican civilizations they discovered and their consciousness of their mission as both military and spiritual conquest. In contrast, the English in North America found civilizations that motivated less interpretive challenge. The outcome of Spanish conquest required greater intellectual effort as the conquerors tried to establish continuity with foreign and native cultures of great past significance. In contrast, in the English colonization process, native past traditions were of little interest as compared to the foundation of new communities with greater ability to innovate in economic and social matters.

     During the colonial period, New Spain became a truly new societal experiment. The mix of Spanish and pre-Columbian populations created a small group of mestizos that became larger in time. The peninsulares remained the majority of the ruling class, along with criollos. Minority groups, including blacks, and other groups resulting from intermixture of the four main groups formed the rest of the population.13 Therefore, the first main expression of European expansionism involved a vast ethnic experiment, the major experiment of mestizaje in the age of the Renaissance and the ethnic mark of modernity at its onset.

     Economic activity in New Spain became highly profitable. For two hundred years it enjoyed affluence, and that wealth served as the basis for the identity of Creoles who considered their society the ultimate frontier of civilization. That society was, nonetheless, the Catholic variant of European development, bound by absolutism and the Counter Reformation to remain isolated from the influence of the great intellectual movements of the eighteenth century. As the two west European peninsulas of Spain and Italy did, New Spain remained prisoner to Catholic orthodoxy and failed to develop intellectual and ruling elites capable of adapting their society to the new economic and political constraints and opportunities.14

     Within the elite of Iberian America, peninsulares outranked criollos. In New Spain the former dominated in the relationship with the exterior world and controlled the threads of power arising from the exchange between the colonies and Spain and Portugal, whereas the latter were subjected to their rule, taking little part in internal affairs and almost none in external ones. The result was the inexperience of native New Spaniards in dealing with the new order, both European and American, in which they found themselves after independence.

At last what someday had to happen happened; Iberian American colonies — flowers in the greenhouse of traditionalism — once they were responsible for their own destiny, entered fully into the great conflict they were born to (the Anglo-Hispanic civilizational conflict), but from which they had absented themselves during three centuries of isolation.15 Right after independence, Lorenzo de Zavala vividly described the Creoles’ attitude: "three hundred thousand Creoles wanted themselves in and seizing the place that for three hundred years sixty thousand Spaniards had occupied." Resentment had infected most social groups. Creoles, Indians, and castes had been displaced by peninsulares during the colonial period. The middle classes, mainly criollos and mestizos, were convinced that their place in society had to be readjusted. When Hidalgo’s conspiracy was discovered in 1810 and the "junta de los conjurados" (band of conspirators) was about to be imprisoned, the founding father exclaimed: "Caballeros somos perdidos; aquí no hay más recurso que ir a coger gachupines" (gentlemen, we are lost; there is no remedy but to go out to pick gachupines). Hidalgo meant that having been discovered by the government, the revolutionaries had to change their strategy from a well-planned insurrection to a disordered popular mobilization that would start the lynching of the Spanish-born (called gachupines).16

     But the confusion about what should be done was complete. The Napoleonic invasion of Spain and the subsequent conflict between monarchists and liberals there were reflected in the American colonies in a debate about their status. Were they kingdoms in their own right that had a contract with the Crown (the kings of Castile and Aragon) and were therefore equal to kingdoms on the peninsula? Or did they have a lesser status? The prevalent answer was the first. New Spain was an equal partner, not of Spain as a whole, but of the Crown as the sovereign of a union of kingdoms and provinces. New Spain, as Octavio Paz recapitulated the argument, "was not really a colony, in the strict sense of the word, but a kingdom subject to the crown of Spain like the others making up the Spanish Empire: Castile, Aragon, Navarre, Sicily, Andalusia, Asturias."17

     Drawing on this formula, Mexican nationalism in the first half of the nineteenth century was based on the colonial heritage. Many in the ruling and intellectual classes of former New Spain cherished the idea of a Hispanic civilization transplanted to America along with its Catholic religion and patrimonial culture.

Path Dependence and the Democratic Dilemma

     In the nineteenth century, an era of rapid economic growth elsewhere, Mexico was economically handicapped by its heritage of traditionalism and authoritarianism. It was also at the crossroads of political decision, for its ruling elite had to give the country a democratic constitution. The greatest obstacle was the tradition of absolutism, perpetuated in economic structures, that threatened to impregnate the new political regime in spite of all democratic intentions.

     In reviewing Mexico’s economic history at the end of the colonial period and in the nineteenth century, John H. Coatsworth has argued that with a different economic organization, the country would have developed economic standards similar to those of other North Atlantic economies in the same period. Consequently, the contrast with those economies would not have been as sharp as it became during the nineteenth century. From 1800 to 1900, per capita income in New Spain declined drastically relative to such income in Great Britain and the United States. In 1800 New Spanish per capita income represented 37 percent of that in Great Britain and 44 percent of that in the United States. Those figures reached 13 percent and 14 percent in 1860, and 12 percent for both cases in 1895. The figures for total income show a similar trend. Whereas in 1800 total income in New Spain represented 21 percent of Great Britain’s and 51 percent of the United States’, in 1860 it had declined to 5 percent and 4 percent respectively, and in 1895 it had fallen to 4 percent and 2 percent. The Porfiriato (the regime of Porfirio Díaz, 1878 – 1911) slowed the decline by introducing economic reforms.18

     Historians have emphasized that endogenous institutions play a central role in determining the shape of national markets and states. The decrease in Mexico’s comparative productivity originated in its economic organization. The colonial period had bequeathed two main obstacles to economic growth, "geography and ‘feudalism,’ which account for the difference in productivity between the Mexican and the U.S. economy." Central Mexico, the dominant economic center, had always been badly connected with the rest of the territory. Consequently, expensive transport did not allow for the expansion of trade. Besides, during the colonial period trade with Spain had been a monopolistic privilege of the Crown and peninsulares. Both factors inhibited investment in the improvement of transport, raising the costs of economic activity. The institutional environment (‘feudalism’) also slowed growth by increasing "the gap between the private and the social benefits of economic activity."19 Privileges and monopolies prevailed, thus private agents had little incentive to engage in economic activities due to the low reward they could expect from the economic system. The process of independence might have transformed these antientrepreneurial structures, both legal and practical. "The Bourbons had begun to limit special privilege; the [Spanish] Constitution of 1812 carried the process further, affecting the Inquisition, the mint, the guilds, the Indian communities, and the university."20 But Mexico’s independence was accomplished, not by leaders such as Hidalgo and José María Morelos who had clamored for democratic and economic reform, but by those who opposed it. After ten years of civil war and the defeat of popular insurgency, the colonial elite headed by Agustín de Iturbide declared independence from Spain and established the so-called First Empire in order to avoid the reformist impulse stemming from Europe and already flourishing in the United States. The colonial structures from which the elite benefited remained invulnerable to the new Spanish constitutional arrangement. And for most of the nineteenth century political instability added to the factors impeding economic development.

Culture, Law, and History: Adaptation versus Innovation

     The conditions that prevented the democracy enshrined in Mexican constitutions and law from being actualized have not received adequate attention. The historian Daniel Cosío Villegas, one of the most distinguished Mexican political writers, gave a hint when he pointed out that "good written law is not sufficient to engender democratic rulers, nor does bad written law necessarily engender tyrants; in the end, both are a result of environmental conditions."21 Cosío Villegas was referring to the schizophrenic conditions whereby the rule of law and democratic values, which are formally institutionalized in Mexico, are informally (and I should say pervasively) used to legitimate arbitrariness.

     The explanation for disparities between formal and informal systems resides in the existence of implicit codes of action that are often preeminent over formal codes. Examples are the persistence of torture as an extensive police practice in spite of laws aimed at proscribing it; endemic corruption in government and private business as opposed to laws that prohibit it; customary presidential authority that surpasses constitutional limits; hegemonic coalitions in Congress and the judiciary that suppress checks and balances; transgressions of the laws by ordinary citizens, from ignoring traffic signals to taking a neighbor’s property; and an informal economy that evades state policies. What these examples have in common is the difficulty of reconciling real life with the moral standards implicit in the laws. This phenomenon has helped authoritarianism prevail over democracy, for the formal, democratic features of the political system have been subordinated to practices that do not fit the assumptions of modern legislation.

     A gap between formal and informal political systems dates from the struggle for Mexican independence and the writing of Mexico’s first constitution in the 1820s. It is closely connected with attempts in that era to borrow political institutions from elsewhere, especially the United States. Independence (1810 – 1821) and its aftermath could be considered the stage of "choice" when Mexicans contemplated a parade of images of the "modernity" to be adopted and selected the institutional framework to shape political life. But the selection was blighted by the incapacity of political elites to design a system capable of successfully naturalizing modernity in the Mexican setting.

     When Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in his Social Contract that the basis of democracy is the general will of the people, he gave rise to an idea destined to influence the foundations of Latin American republics. In the early nineteenth century most liberal Latin American writers and men of action received Rousseau’s idea along with the impact of the French Revolution and used them in building their newly independent nations. At the same time, American republicanism, especially the ideas of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, informed the design of democratic structures based on elections and division of power.22

     The new republics drew from both experiences, creating a built-in contradiction in their political machinery. On the one hand, a collective will should be formed through citizens’ vote and embodied in government action, and on the other, individual liberty should be protected against state action. Collective and individual rationalities clashed in the realm of the state, allowing officials to act in the name of the collective personality of the nation and to comply with the law in a more formal than realistic way. In following the former they often trespassed the limits of individual freedom, but when they limited their action by the law, they were tempted to ignore such social conditions as inequality and poverty. The contradiction between a liberalism devoted to individual freedom and a populism that enshrined the collective will has been explored by William H. Riker: "in the populist interpretation of voting, the opinions of the majority must be right andmust be respected because the will of the people is the liberty of the people. In the liberal interpretation, there is no such magical identification. The outcome of voting is just a decision and has no special moral character."23

Mexicans evidently did not look to the United States as the only source of inspiration for their institution building. Liberals and conservatives alike used Spain, France, and England as examples. Indeed, learned Mexicans were more aware of what was happening in Europe than in the United States, since the former was still seen as more likely to have an effect on Mexico’s economic and political affairs. Moreover, what they drew from the United States (democratic government, division of powers, federalism, and popular sovereignty) was mixed with anachronistic institutions (legally established religious intolerance, for instance).24

Nonetheless, given the influence and importance of the United States for Mexico, it is paradoxical that when reviewing the period from 1810 to the 1830s, neither participants nor historians have reported significant interactions between Mexican and American leaders. Only the deliberate intervention of the United States in Spanish America has seemed worthy of attention, and most literature on the period centers on that. In most accounts there is no trace of the extended debates on the United States in the learned press and literature, in spite of their importance for decision making.25

Key political actors discussed "adapting" modern institutions to the country, and in doing so they constantly looked to the United States. Testimony comes from a critic of that approach. In a famous speech to the Constituent Congress on December 13, 1823, Servando Teresa de Mier — an early supporter of Mexican independence but only a recent convert to republicanism — opposed basing the Mexican constitution on federalism and the division of powers outlined in the United States Constitution. "The nation," he warned, "lacking a program, accepted with illusion one already elaborated that was of North American manufacture . . . the consequence has been that now everything in Mexico has the factory mark of that origin." From that episode onward, O’Gorman states, "Mexico enters the path of adaptation instead of the way of liberty."26

     The speech is called Mier’s Political Prophecy for good reason. In spite of the attempts to draw guidelines and even copy institutions from the United States government, the Mexican experience of political system building has been one of centralization and imbalance of power between a strong executive branch and a weaker congress and judiciary. The intensity of the American influence has been inversely proportional to the capacity of Mexicans to transform their environment to suit liberalism and modern political and economic institutions.

     But that was not clear when the constitution enacted in 1824 created the basis of the Mexican state. Liberals had triumphed over conservatives by defeating Iturbide, whose "empire" (1821 – 1823) had been ephemeral. At the same time, among the liberals, federalists won out over centralists in constituting a federal republic, with a weak executive branch and a strong congress. Behind those political forms stood the majority will: to get rid of Spanish absolutism, to build a state based on popular sovereignty (as against royal authority), and to make territorial integrity and local autonomy compatible.

     Servando Teresa de Mier, Lorenzo de Zavala, and José Mar’a Luis Mora, among others, made acute observations on the role played in Mexican liberal politics by the images Mexicans (themselves included) had of the United States. Mier wrote:

The prosperity of that neighbor republic [the United States] has been, and currently is, the trigger of our America because the immense distance between them and us has not been pondered enough. [They were a new people], homogenous, industrious, enlightened and full of social virtues as educated by a free nation; we are an old people, heterogeneous, with no industry, enemies of work and lovers of public jobs as are the Spaniards, as ignorant as our fathers were and degraded by vices derived from three hundred years of subjugation.27 Zavala considered that Mexico and other Latin American republics had the formulas, the phrases, the words, the names, the titles, in sum, all the constitutional appearances of the republic of the United States of the North, but there is still a long way to go before the facts, the essence of the system, the reality match the professed principles.

. . . Observe the course of both revolutions: Washington, Franklin, Mongomery [sic], on the one hand; Hidalgo, Morelos, and Matamoros on the other. The former proclaiming independence and liberty, the latter religion and the rights of Ferdinand VII.28 . . . Remember what North Americans were before their independence, their level of civilization, the form of their institutions, the extension of their trade, the homogeneity of castes, the equality between classes . . . and what Mexicans were: enslaved, superstitious, divided into castes, socially unequal, much more unequal with regard to property, wealth, and jobs. . . . [Compare] the act of the Fourth of July 1776, the most glorious monument erected to the cult of philosophy and the happiness of mankind; [with] the Plan de Iguala . . . a compromise with . . . the habits and superstitions of the country, a compromise between civilization and ignorance; a covenant between liberty and despotism.29

Mora, an editor and liberal political intellectual, attributed the failure of the constitutional framework to provide stability and progress to the survival of traditional power structures.30 It was the same preoccupation that had led Mier to oppose the adoption of federalism and a weak executive. The establishment of federalism bore the risk of a fragmentation of power that would divide the nation, but centralization in the hands of caudillos would prevent the equilibrium needed by a modern republic. By 1830 Mora could pass judgment on sixteen years of constitutional government and conclude that the main fault was the recourse of the executive (both federal and state) to the legislature for "extraordinary powers" in order to maintain governability. At the basis of this problem, he found a lack of control over government expenditure. "The first and main goal of the system of popular representation is to agree upon taxes and public expenditure. Every people would keep their freedom if they keep the laces of their pockets in their hands. This sentence by the famous author of the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania," continues Mora, "has become an axiom of constitutional law in every free nation." He ended his Philosophical Essay by calling for reforms that enforced the republican structure beyond appearances.31

     As if Teresa de Mier’s prophecy had taken place, the United States brought on "illusion" in Mexicans. The copying of United States democratic structures by the new Mexican republic was destined to have contradictory effects since the cultural, economic, and historic roots of the two nations were profoundly different.

The Problem of Liberal Reform

     From independence to the early 1870s, Mexican politics was dominated by the struggle between liberals and conservatives. In spite of their alternation in government, the conservatives, who considered themselves the heirs to colonial New Spain, declined in power over that half century. Yet the liberals — optimistic, believing themselves in tune with the age, open to influences from abroad — found Mexico resistant to their projects. The sagest of them learned that the formal political order they had created coexisted with an informal order and that liberal means were not adequate to achieve liberal ends.

     Liberals were buoyed by a sense that history was on their side. They saw the Iberian American independence movements as part of the great process of change inaugurated by the American and French revolutions. Consequently, liberalism, as it painfully became the dominant politico-economic ideology, took hold among the elites as the vehicle for attempts to build a new, postcolonial order. This optimism was based on the dominance of the liberal party. According to the historian David Brading, "From 1824 – 1855 the political nation’s dominant credo was liberalism. . . . The real divide in Mexican politics was between liberalism’s various factions. . . . The majority of liberals . . . believed in freedom and the sovereignty of the general will, in education, reform, progress and the future." Mexican liberals also believed that "North American [that is, United States] progress was the direct result of its political institutions."32

     Nonetheless, even in the heyday of Mexican liberalism, as in the Mexican nation to the present, political efforts to transform "old" regimes to produce "modernity" clashed with social practices and coalitions interested in maintaining those regimes unchanged. Thus during the wars of independence the defeat of the insurgents led by Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos at the hands of local (criollos) and metropolitan (peninsulares) conservatives gave rise to the first suspicions that the social realm to be transformed was resistant to change. Although the conservatives were out of power most of the time until the 1850s, they expanded and refined their economic and political conceptions.

     The best exponent of conservative ideas was Lucas Alamán, Mexico’s first foreign minister. He thought that the opposition between the Spanish and English heritages was insurmountable, that the United States sought control of the Western Hemisphere, and that only a vast Hispanic alliance (Hispanic America and Spain), bound together by religion, language, and customs, could resist North American imperialism. Domestically, he saw tradition as the source of legitimacy. He argued that Mexican history

constituted an uninterrupted continuation of ruling princes since the Conquest, and in a Spanish American Country where the Conquest is everything and where property rights derive from it, whose only source are the land concessions given by the King, this succession legitimized and enforced all rights which today do not have any foundations to lie upon.33 There were efforts to put kindred ideas into practice in the 1830s and 1840s. In 1836 Congress replaced the 1824 Constitution with the Seven Laws, a conservative act that strengthened presidential power, suppressed federalism, and constrained citizens’ liberties. In this context, the conflict between liberals and conservatives increased, Texas declared its independence (1836), political instability became habitual, and the military dominated political activity. In 1843 a new Congress enacted a new constitution that lasted only three years. Two years later, the United States Congress admitted Texas into the Union and the war between Mexico and the United States (1847 – 1848) ended with the loss of the Mexican northern territories. The conservatives’ policies had helped precipitate disaster, but liberals could take little satisfaction.

     The intellectual and political evolution of Mora, who may be considered the founding father of Mexican liberalism, illustrates liberals’ discovery of the obstacles to their plans. In other words, they discovered the persistence of the informal political system. Like his fellows, Mora tended to deny the inherited past in order to adapt the country to the images of modernity generated in Europe and the United States. Mora’s motto reveals the liberals’ stance: "the wisest and safest way to prevent man’s revolutions is to appreciate correctly time’s revolution and to agree on what it demands, not as a sovereign that cedes but as a sovereign that prescribes."34

     Under the influence of European and American liberalism, Mora at first thought that only landowners should be enfranchised. They were the only social class deserving respectability and having interests to defend against the state. He also thought that a balance of power should be established between the central government and the states. But as political events evolved, he realized that due to the gap between the constitutional model and social reality, very little could be achieved through the rule of law. The realm effectively ruled by law was very narrow. In Mexican society a decisive fracture separated the law from effective social practices. The crucial examples involved the perverse combination of modern republican institutions with traditional political practices: federalism became perverted by local caciques and regional strong men; presidentialism was perverted by caudillismo; justices were easy to buy or intimidate; Congress resembled a royal court more than the balancing power of a modern legislature.

     Mora grasped the core of this problem. None of the new republics of the Americas had been able to consolidate a stable government, he argued, because those republics "have not adopted of the representative system anything but its forms and exterior apparatus. They have tried to unite intimately the despotic and miserable laws and customs of the old absolutism with the principles of a system in which all must be liberty and openness."35

     Mora shifted from defending individual liberty to advocating the reform of society, notably, an end to the privileges of the Catholic Church, the military, and the hacendados (large landholders) in order to make such liberty possible. He distinguished the right of corporate property from that of private property. The latter should be protected as it was a natural right of individuals preceding society, but the former should be subject to social reform led by the state. Without subjecting the clergy and the military to civil rule and expropriating the land held by the church (nearly two-thirds of the national territory), reformers could not lay the foundation of liberal institutions in Mexican society.

     In one of his major works Mora evaluates the constitutional structure of Mexico and states that the key obstacle to making the rule of law actual was the Òpolitical omnipotence . . . that has in fact prevailed over the fundamental law.Ó And he concludes that establishing limits to political authority is the key to modernizing the polity.36

     Mora served as adviser to Valentín Gómez Far’as, Antonio López de Santa Anna’s vice-president in the 1830s, and tried to put into effect liberal policies that were resisted: abolition of privileges held by the clergy and the military; suppression of church authority in civil matters (such as marriage and education); freedom of opinion and the press; and public education. Mora died (1850) before he could see social and political reforms implemented at a national level.

     In the generation following Mora’s death, amid further conflict between liberals and conservatives and a dizzying alternation of disparate regimes, such reforms were made by the liberal president Benito Juárez. His successors confirmed them. And yet liberalism was not the long-term winner. The triumph of liberals headed by Juárez led to the 1856 Constituent Congress, which established a democratic republic and introduced drastic measures against the church as landowner.37 The expropriation of all church estates provoked radical antagonism from pro-ecclesiastical conservatives and led the country into new turmoil. The liberal government was subverted and the Austrian prince Maximilian of Habsburg was crowned emperor of Mexico. A few years later he was overthrown, the republic restored, and Juárez returned to the presidency. A compromise between liberals and conservatives was effected not long after Juárez resumed power. At the end of his mandate, he decided to run for reelection and won. His reelection was all but a betrayal of the principles for which liberals had fought so hard. Reelection to presidential office belonged to the caudillo tradition that liberals were trying to get rid of.

     Unrest among the military arose, for Porfirio Díaz, the republican caudillo who had triumphed over the French-backed Emperor Maximilian, became obsessed with being president. He rose against Juárez, but when the latter died eight months after the election, the rebellion lost impetus. Five years later (1877) Díaz rebelled again, opposing the reelection of Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada, Juárez’s successor. This time Díaz succeeded. He remained in charge for the next thirty years.38

     The Díaz regime, the Porfiriato, would look outward. Mexico entered a period of profound external influences, above all that of the United States. Given the international balance of powers, England, France, and Germany also had significant influence. Mexico became one locale for the struggle among those powers, whose imperialist strategies deeply influenced Mexico’s national identity.39

     From 1821 to the mid-1870s, the influence of the United States in Mexico was decisive. Liberal reform was largely inspired by that country’s experience. Liberals wanted to clear the obstacles to economic prosperity like that of the United States. Having removed a major hindrance by expropriating the church’s estates and transforming them into market commodities, and having installed democratic institutions, the liberal reform began to yield some positive economic and political prospects.

     However, the wounds liberals and conservatives inflicted on each other continued to undermine economic development and democracy. Liberals and conservatives had launched an enduring conflict over the way to implant "modernity" in the new nation. The two parties understood "modernity" differently. Whereas liberals wanted to get rid of the colonial past with its privileges, conservatives desired to prolong the grandeur of the viceregal society. They both faced the paradox of Janus. If liberals were to establish a new society, they would have to reform existing arrangements (and they did to a considerable extent), but in order to do so they had to challenge and revise the liberal creed. Essential to that creed are property and individual rights. At the foundations of the liberal idea there is a contradiction between two views: "historicism" and "conventionalism." The former considers that historical forms of property rights cannot be altered without violating individual rights, while the latter holds that conventions determine whose rights should be enforced and how. Whereas conventionalism accepts deliberate intervention in the molding of property rights, historicism does not. In Mexico, conservatives espoused historicism and liberals conventionalism; thus liberals tended to the reform of property rights while conservatives avoided it.40

     If conservatives had succeeded in their imperial dream, they would have restored many of the colonial structures that made material progress impossible.41 The consequence of this paradox was that the reconciliation of tradition and modernity became impossible, at least as Mexican conservatives and liberals attempted it. "It was the clash between two forms of arrogance, one aimed at being superior to the United States, and the other one pointed at a way of being that made us naturally the same as the United States."42


     The independence of Texas and the invasion of Mexico and amputation of its northern territories by the United States left a particularly deep wound in the national consciousness. The end result of caudillopolitics had been the loss of nearly one-half of the country’s land. Independence from Spain, civil war, conservative and liberal governments — all had landed onto the rough. National pride has grieved over the loss ever since. The perception of the United States in Mexico at the time is expressed in a note published by a newspaper in 1846: "we [Mexicans] are not a people of merchants and adventurers, the scum and rubbish of all other countries, whose mission is the usurpation of miserable Indians, and thereafter the stealing of the fertile land opened to civilization by the Spanish race. . . . We are a nation formed three centuries ago, not an aggregate of peoples with different customs."43

     Mexico was no longer the first America, but the frontier where Hispanic civilization had reached its ultimate limits. The Northern Colossus had established its final territorial boundaries to the south; Mexico and the United States entered a new stage in their relationship in which interaction would become a matter of everyday life.

     In this context Porfirio Díaz’s rise to the presidency had two implications. First, the traditional nineteenth-century conflict between conservatives and liberals was over. He himself was the hero who had defeated conservatives by overthrowing Maximilian’s forces. Juárez had already expropriated the church estates. When Díaz took office in 1877, there were no significant internal foes opposing the liberal program. Second, reconciliation with conservatives was in order, for national unity around political and economic modernization policies was feasible (and necessary).

     The Pax Porfiriana and "order and progress" were the mottoes defining government under Díaz. Díaz diminished liberals’ attacks on the Catholic Church and opened the door to conservatives willing to support his regime. Díaz encouraged economic development by granting foreign capital guarantees of political and social stability. European and United States funds were invested in railroads, energy, oil, mining, and port facilities. Foreign companies came to dominate the most productive sectors, so local interests obtained benefits as long as the former expanded. Thus economic dependency followed, and was the main consequence of, underdevelopment.

     The view of other countries as models turned from a focus on the political realm, which had earlier preoccupied conservatives and liberals, to the economic. Technology, capital, and organization were now seen as the key to "order" and "progress." The traditional interest in European countries, mainly England and France, persisted, but the influence of the United States began to increase steadily and contributed to shape internal affairs and national identity, the urban landscape, business economic activity, and all major economic issues. The United States presence in Mexico during the Porfiriato included railroad and mining companies, as well as a strong diplomatic presence. It was in those years that the United States became the largest foreign investor in Mexico, a true Northern Colossus whose influence was no longer avoidable nor reversible.

     Such influence awakened deep ambivalence. Justo Sierra, Díaz’s minister of education, traveled to the United States in 1895. He recorded his travel impressions in a series of newspaper articles entitled "In Yankee Land." His expressions of amazement at the wonders of progress are endless, as are his sentiments of estrangement from a culture that he felt foreign to his values. When he returned to Mexico after crossing the border at El Paso, he wrote:

Farewell, land of the instantaneous, the colossal and the magnificent; you were born just yesterday and you have grown up in one hour! . . . [I] return to the land of the horrible adobe shacks, of the low and ordinary houses with no comfort, to the land of the slow, anemic negligent people. . . . Could I see? Barely. Did I look? Neither! Did I discern? I couldn’t. What have I left? Ears buzzing in my soul; an apocalyptic vision, a series of fragments from an iron spiral whose turns hide behind the fog in the horizon and whose limits blur above in heaven’s incandescence and below in hell’s night. . . . Through those fragments people run ceaselessly, [saying] go ahead, go ahead.44 Yet in that era Mexicans too were eager to "go ahead." One source for the new prestige of economic activity was Auguste Comte’s Cours de Philosophie Positive, which decisively reconfigured the intellectual environment influencing state policies during the Porfiriato. An elite of "scientists" (the científicos) gave form to public administration. The regime’s most salient characteristic was the separation of politics and administration: "Little politics and much administration" was the proposition inspiring the intellectuals who governed the country as they pursued "order and progress." Díaz’s government was a technocratic one in which he dealt with political problems and his ministers were in charge of technical and economic problems. This division of labor was so firm that Díaz barely allowed his cabinet to intervene in political affairs.

     The results of Díaz’s economic policies were remarkable. In the public sector, reforms in fiscal policy were particularly successful. José Ives Limantour, the finance minister, ended internal custom taxes that had existed since the colonial period. Under his direction the tax structure was updated, and public sector revenues more than doubled between 1888 and 1904 from 34 million to 86 million pesos. In spite of crisis in the rural sector, mining grew steadily (6 percent annually, 1895 – 1905), and the three major industries (sugar, textiles, and tobacco) more than doubled their income. From 1890 to 1900 electric production capacity increased five times.45

     The Díaz government made railroad construction its most impressive enterprise. By 1900, 15,000 kilometers of railways had been built by forty-four foreign companies, which supplied technology and capital. Railroad construction and communications in general helped integrate the domestic market, and they do much to explain both internal economic growth and the insertion of the national economy into the international economic landscape. The Porfiriato contributed to overcoming important institutional constraints on economic success.46

     A synthesis of liberalism and conservatism was accomplished during this thirty-five years of dictatorship. The ways by which this was attained were odd for a liberal "democracy." In fact, there was no democracy at all, but democratic formalities were maintained. The Díaz regime celebrated elections according to the 1857 Constitution, which prescribed universal suffrage and a system of indirect elections. The stability of the regime lay in the leadership exercised by Díaz in command of the military and the ample autonomy given to local governments, where strong men ruled according to the national guidelines set by the caudillo. A network of loyalty and clientalism provided the bases for stability.

     There was no real rule of law. The political pacts guaranteeing stability and peace were built upon informal grounds and the law was used to legitimate government acts. The Porfirista regime was impeccable from a legalistic viewpoint, although real rights — whether human, civic, social, or political — were subject to arbitrary violations affecting the middle and lower classes and benefiting the upper class and foreign interests. In the dictator’s view, this was the only way of "taming" a country that was not yet ready for democracy.

     Courts and magistrates were subordinated to the caudillo’s power. The same happened with state and local authorities and Congress. Political rights were also conditioned. Citizens had the right to vote, but the only political organizations legally allowed to act were those that every election proposed Díaz’s candidacy for reelection. (In 1890 Congress passed a law allowing the president’s reelection indefinitely.) Even though a free press was tolerated, it was tightly restricted when political problems arose. In the last decade of his mandate (1900 – 1910), Díaz progressively strengthened political control over both the press and emerging clubs and parties, which could develop only clandestinely.47

     This particular contradiction between the rule of law and actual politics has struck historians and observers. It is a characteristic feature of Mexico’s polity, not exclusive to the Porfiriato but extensive in colonial as well as contemporary history. Janus was two-faced, not only because of the polarities of liberal and conservative, past and present, but because actual life and constitutional principles were divorced.

The Alpha and Omega of the Mexican Revolution

     Demands for democracy, for applying constitutional principles in actual life, were one of the initial causes of the Mexican Revolution, along with social justice, understood mainly as enfranchising and providing peasant communities with land and water and as granting workers the right to unionize. The revolutionary movement began with the intention of defeating Díaz’s candidacy to the presidency in 1910. It ended in insurrection and a ten-year civil war.

     The history of the Mexican Revolution as a democratic movement is the history of a twilight. Its star never really reached its zenith, yet it did not completely vanish. The reasons why are twofold. First, even though the construction of a democratic regime was a strong demand of the movement supporting Francisco Madero at the onset of the revolution, his legacy soon vanished among the revolutionary groups that gave social welfare priority over democracy and citizenship. Second, the revolution replaced the Porfirian elite with a new, middle-class, military-trained one whose goal oscillated between radical reform and capitalist economic development.

     The United States was a major contributor to this ambiguity. United States diplomacy moderated the most radical factions represented in the Constituent Congress of 1917 and persuaded President Venustiano Carranza to come to terms with the United States after near ten years of civil war. During the revolution, the United States often intervened in Mexico. First, Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson helped overthrow Madero and restore Porfirian forces; later, American troops occupied Veracruz with the goal of ousting Victoriano Huerta; finally, the United States invaded Mexican territory from the north to chase Francisco Villa and punish his incursion against Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916. Nationalism and anti-Americanism became strong sentiments among Mexicans as a response to interventionism.

     The revolution became a movement in search of a new national identity that would differentiate Mexico from the United States. The work of José Vasconcelos, rector of the national university and minister of public education, the great intellectual and "teacher of the Americas," the so-called civilizer of the Mexican Revolution, was among the most important contributions to a new conception of Mexican nationality. His contribution ranged from helping construct the new institutions of the revolutionary regime to transforming the school system into one with strong national and Hispanic American values. Vasconcelos’s perception of the United States and its relationship with Mexico was one of the most influential in postrevolutionary Mexico. He always viewed the United States through a hostile lens, although he considered some aspects of its history positive and valuable.

     Vasconcelos spent some of his early years in Piedras Negras, at the border with Eagle Pass, Texas. As he belonged to a middle-class family, he attended school on the American side. From this experience Vasconcelos drew both the advantage of attending a better school than those on the Mexican side and frustration at the lack of educational opportunities in Mexico. Barely populated then, the Mexican side of the border was a site where the United States presence became an indissoluble part of the Mexican experience. "The other side" (el otro lado) was for Mexicans a frontier to be built in their national culture, not only a border as it is today.

     Vasconcelos begins his influential autobiography Ulises Criollo (A Creole Ulysses) with an image of the United States splitting the desert by drawing the new border where Sonora and Arizona meet. Bringing back his first memories from his childhood, he recalls a day (circa 1886 – 1887?) in his town of Sásabe, "less than a village," a place where the Mexican government used to send its employees to meet the "Yankee outposts."

It was a strange daybreak. From our beds, through the open window, we saw . . . a group of foreigners in light blue uniform. Over the tent they put up floated the flag of the stripes and stars. From its folds flowed a hostile purpose. Vaguely I learned that the newcomers belonged to the North American limits commission. They had decided that our camp, with its well, lay under Yankee jurisdiction, and they were throwing us out: "we have to leave," exclaimed our people. "And the worst of all is that there is no other well around; we will have to advance until we find water."

We lost the houses, the fences. It was imperative to find a place, to found a new town . . .48

Vasconcelos reports that he does not have a clear memory of the town, for he was then a little boy, but he vividly conveys the image of the men in blue uniform [who] did not approach us to talk; restrained and distant they waited our departure to get hold of everything they wanted. The telegraph worked, but from Mexico we received the order to move back. . . . The invaders did not rush; they were smoking in their camp, they waited with the serenity of the powerful.49      From that experience, a sense of civilizational conflict arose. Anglo-Americans and Mexicans are not only two different peoples, but opposed civilizations. Vasconcelos begins one of his most influential works, Bolivarismo y Monro’smo (1934): "Let us call Bolivarism the Hispanic American ideal of creating a federation of all peoples of Spanish culture. Let us call ‘Monroism’ the Anglo-Saxon ideal of incorporating all twenty Hispanic nations into the Nordic Empire by means of the politics of Pan-Americanism." In this book Vasconcelos calls for Hispanic American unity against United States and British influences in the subcontinent. Religion, geography, the economy, and identity are threatened by "’Monroism’ [which] appears like a snake constricting the lethargic body of Hispanic America."50

     The argument revives the nineteenth-century liberal-conservative conflict. Mexican history, the source from which, according to Vasconcelos, all other Hispanic countries should draw their experience, is reinterpreted as a struggle of pro- versus anti-United States attitudes and values. The liberals are the villains. Juárez appears as much a traitor to the nation as Santa Anna, and Lorenzo de Zavala is portrayed as partner of "the raven" Sam Houston in promoting the independence of Texas from Mexico. On the other hand, Lucas Alamán, the first Mexican foreign minister and the key figure of nineteenth-century conservatism, is vindicated as the first great opponent of Pan-Americanism, the champion who defeated "monroism" in the Pan-American Conference of 1826 where the creation of either a Hispanic American or an all-American trade agreement was discussed. Joel Roberts Poinsett was the ambassador from John Quincy Adams’s administration to those meetings. Alamán confronted him, gaining the Hispanic American nations’ votes for his proposal, which excluded the United States from the continental trade agreement. Vasconcelos argues that by doing so Alamán put a halt to Adams’s policy of controlling "America for the Americans." "Alamán believed in the race, he believed in the language, he believed in the religious community. In sum, Alamán gave Bolivarism the content that it was lacking. And serenely annihilated Monroism."51

     Race, religion, and language — the components of Hispanic identity interlinked to build a barrier to the "Nordic Empire" — were leitmotivsof Vasconcelos’s writings throughout his life. Vasconcelos coined the phrase "por mi raza hablará el esp’ritu" (the spirit will speak through my race), which is the motto of the national university. Even when he recognizes that the virtues of hard work, respect for law, and adherence to the great "Christian family" are characteristic of the United States, he still considers that country a threat to the mission and destiny of the Òcosmic race.Ó But the ambiguities gathered in that concept forced Vasconcelos to search for its meaning in the past. He saw Mexico as the cauldron where the components were mixed and from which a great society will emerge. The condition for its emergence is resistance to absorption by the Northern Colossus with all its spurious Masonic lodges, Protestant sects, and blondness.

     Strongly influenced by racial ideology (not exempt from a Nazi bias), Vasconcelos stated in The Cosmic Race:

In Latin America there is, but infinitely attenuated, a repulsion between bloods that are strange to each other. There are a thousand bridges for the sincere and friendly fusion of all races. The ethnic wall-in of the Northerners [United States], as compared to the easier sympathy of the Southerners [Latin Americans], is the most important and most favorable fact for us . . . for it would be possible to conclude that we are the tomorrow while they are becoming the yesterday of the world. They will end up building the last great empire of a single race: the final empire of white power. Meanwhile, we will continue suffering the chaos of the formation of a new lineage. . . . The final outcome will be the ultimate race, the synthesis or integral race, made with the genius and the blood of all peoples.

[and continuing with his comparison:] the mission of the [Anglo] Saxon has been accomplished earlier than ours, because it was more immediate and already known in history . . . they only had to follow the example of the victorious peoples. . . . This is why North American history resembled a triumphal march’s strong and uninterrupted allegro. . . . How different are the sounds of Iberian American formation! They resemble a profound scherzo of an infinite and deep symphony: voices bringing accents from Atlantida.52

In spite of Vasconcelos’s powerful presence in the public debate, his version of Mexican nationalism has been outweighed in the twentieth century by revolutionary nationalism. The revolution built the economic and political institutions of modern Mexico. Vasconcelos was a heresiarch, the head of the tribe of dissidents who, having joined the Maderista movement, split from the military alliance that won the civil war. Having, like him, collaborated with the generals in power in the 1920s, they began to oppose corruption and authoritarianism, saying that the time for the military was over and that a new democratic political regime had to be built.

     In 1929 Vasconcelos ran for president as an independent candidate and was defeated; his followers were repressed by governmental forces, and he fled the country and sought refuge in the United States. As Hidalgo, Juárez, and Madero did earlier, Vasconcelos tested the double-standard doctrine of the United States. He was allowed to live in Los Angeles, he was recognized as a democratic figure, but the one-party "democracy" that was inaugurated in Mexico after his defeat won United States recognition on the grounds of pragmatism. From then on the history is well known: from 1920 to the present the revolutionary military and later their civilian scions have ruled the country on the grounds of revolutionary legitimacy organized in a hegemonic party.

     Perhaps Vasconcelos and others like him might have recognized earlier which way Janus was then looking. In 1917, only seven years after the revolution had begun, Manuel Aguirre Berlanga, undersecretary of interior ad interim to Venustiano Carranza’s provisional government, signed the Constitution to publish and thereby enact the fundamental law under which Mexicans still live. Those familiar with constitutions, especially democratic ones, might be amazed by its opening paragraphs:

The citizen First Chief of the Constitutional Army, in charge of the Executive Power, on this date has served me with the following decree:

I, Venustiano Carranza, First Chief of the Constitutionalist Army, in charge of the executive power of the United States of Mexico, proclaim:

Whereas the Constituent Congress convened in this city on the First of December of 1916 by virtue of the convocational decree of the 19th of December of the same year issued by the Office of the First Chief on September the 19th of the same year pursuant to article 4 of the amendments of September 14th to the Decree of 12 December of 1914, issued in Veracruz in addition to the Guadalupe Plan of 26th March of 1913, has issued the following:

Political Constitution of the United States of Mexico that Amends the Constitution of February 5th of 1857.53

If we admit that there is something significant in the "spirit of the laws," the spirit of the Mexican law is inadvertently reflected in those paragraphs: bureaucratic, disengaging, and untrustworthy — reflecting a will to power of the elite more than the power of will and collective decision. The starting paragraphs of the Mexican Constitution show both the burden of military events in the revolutionary political pact that is reflected in the constitution and the divorce between the revolutionary and the republican ethos. The coexistence of both ended in the subordination of the latter by the former and in the renewal of the gap between the formal and the informal, between the rule of law and the reason of state embodied first by the military and later by the hegemonic party system.

     Neither revolutionary nationalism with its burden of authoritarianism nor what might be called messianic nationalism, coined by Vasconcelos and adapted in a watered-down version by his followers, established a coherent perspective on how Mexico should deal with the United States.54 The lack of democracy and an increasingly impoverished nationalistic discourse weakened Mexican foreign policy. Failure to understand the culture, customs, and uses of the United States led to an exaggeration of past Mexican splendors and of the capacity of the country to project them into the future. The burden of things past occluded the competence to build the present with a view to future goals.

     Octavio Paz, a generation after Vasconcelos, has provided a fresher and more productive view of the United States, related to his understanding of both Mexican and United States history. In the work of Paz and others of his generation, a sharp break with the colonial past at last appears on Mexico’s intellectual horizon.55 He examines the late colonial period as one in which New Spain isolated herself from Calvinist and Lutheran reformist movements and later from the philosophical and scientific revolution of the Enlightenment. The same happened in Spain. Even though figures such as Francisco Suárez (1548 – 1617) and Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos (1744 – 1811) strove to bring Spanish political culture into harmony with the Enlightenment in the rest of Europe, absolutism and religious prejudice remained longer there than in northern European countries. For New Spain its isolation represented the loss of opportunities to adjust its internal structures to the perspective of the world’s future. The United States, whether in religion, politics, or science, represents the opposite trend.

     Although Mexico was a result of early modern Europe ("a sprout of the West"), it interrupted its promising possibilities and remained captive in the defense of Catholicism. Isolation from the Enlightenment meant isolation from critical thinking, the core component of modernity. It also implied isolation from technical and economic thinking. With the ultramontane defense of the Catholic Church’s authority over all secular matters, New Spain first and Mexico later prevented the formation of modern social structures. Citizenship, the rule of law, freedom of expression and organization, democratic and market institutions were not, or were only barely, established. Backwardness was the general consequence of this historical path.

     Paz finds the opposite tendency in the history of the United States. The United States and Mexico represent the two ends of the European partition produced by the dispute about modernity. Different, and even opposite, the two countries are inevitably bound together, and their relationship will have to produce a new reality that will be the ultimate synthesis of Western history. But according to Paz, on the way lies a formidable obstacle. The United States is not just another country: it is an imperial power, and that prevents the establishment of a stable and productive relationship with its southern neighbor.

     Mexico has mirrored United States political and economic institutions but infused them with its own way of life. The main difference between Mexico and the United States is that the former has been unable to look at the future without bearing the guilt, burdens, and contradictions of its past, whereas the history of the United States began in a break with its European past and a general will to build up newer institutions.

     From this analysis Paz draws a simple but spectacular lesson: Modernity is not feasible if there is no break with the past, and a break is only possible if there is reconciliation with traditions. In other words there is no future without oblivion, but oblivion springs only from reconciliation. And that includes the United States.

Loyal to their origins, the United States . . . have always ignored the other. Domestically the black, the chicano, the puerto rican; externally: marginal cultures and societies. Today the United States face powerful enemies, but the deadly ones are not outside but inside. . . . In order to defeat its enemies the United States first have to contain themselves: they have to turn back to their origins. But not to repeat them but to rectify them: the other and the others — minorities within as well as foreign marginal peoples and nations — exist. We are not only the majority of the human species but every marginal society . . . represents a unique and precious version of humanity. If the United States would sometime recover their integrity and lucidity, in order to recover themselves they have to be able to recover the others: the excluded of Western civilization.56 Conclusion: The Model and the Copy

     The preceding pages offer a collection of images of the role and influence of the United States in Mexico’s history. The main conclusion is that the dynamics of United States history have impacted Mexico through the recurrence of a contrast between the two countries. Mexico appears as Janus staring at its past and future without being able to reconcile them. The image of the United States as a giant whose strength dazzles and provokes attraction and repulsion pervades Mexican history.

     United States influence has therefore been decisive in the formation of Mexican identities, as has resistance to such influence. American economic, civic, and democratic institutions have fascinated the Mexican mind, but the fascination has inspired both motion and paralysis. United States influence in Mexican affairs has been paradoxical, for it has both fostered democratic and republican institutions and driven Mexicans to cling to their past, thus helping postpone the time when modern, democratic institutions have real as well as formal powers.

Francisco Valdés-Ugalde is professor-researcher at the Institute for Social Research, Autonomous National University of Mexico, Mexico City.
Readers may contact Valdés-Ugalde at ugalde@servidor.unam.mx or valdesu@flacso.flacso.edu.mx.

I would like to thank David Thelen for suggesting the writing of this essay and for his useful comments. I would also like to thank Christopher Dominguez and Claudia Schatan for their insightful comments, and Yolanda Olvera and Adriana González for their assistance. Without the expert advice of Susan Armeny this article would have not seen the light, my thanks to her too. This article is dedicated to my parents, Francisco Valdés and Maria Luisa Ugalde. The first draft of this article was written during my stay as a visiting scholar at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University, 1997 – 1998.

1 Enrique González Pedrero, País de un solo hombre. El México de Santa Anna, vol. I: La ronda de los contrarios (One man’s country. Santa Anna’s Mexico, vol. I: The opponents’ round) (Mexico City, 1993), 42. All quotations from sources in Spanish have been translated by the author.

2 Ibid., 32.

3 "Ayúdame María Santí’sima, y l’brame de estas gentes." Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Other Political Writings, ed. and trans. Victor Gourevitch (1762; New York, 1997), 39 – 152. Constitución Politica de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, arts. 3, 27, 123 (Mexico).

6 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Phillips Bradley, trans. Henry Reeve (1835 – 1840; 2 vols., New York, 1945), I, 3.

7 Edmundo O’Gorman, Mexico: El trauma de su historia (Mexico: The trauma of its history) (Mexico City, 1977), 7 – 8.

8 Ibid.

9 The United States of Mexico has been the official name of Mexico since 1824, used only in political and bureaucratic formalities.

10 In recent literature, much informed by pluralistic approaches, more than two Americas tend to appear. Certainly, there is a Francophone America in the North and the Caribbean, a Portuguese one in Brazil, and a Native, or Indian, America in different countries. However, my argument will deal only with the two main European inheritances informing the building up of the main American regions.

11 Charles A. Hale, "The Revival of Political History and the French Revolution in Mexico," in The Global Ramifications of the French Revolution, ed. Joseph Klaitis and Michael H. Haltzel (Washington, 1994).

12 David Anthony Brading, The First America (New York, 1991), 1. On the conquest and early colonization of Mexico, see Bartolomé de Las Casas, Historia de las Indias (History of the Indies). Las Casas (1474 – 1566) was a Dominican missionary and historian and the first and foremost abolitionist of Indian slavery in New Spain.

13 The racial groups were known as "castas." There were 22 different racial combinations with differential legal and social status. Alexander von Humboldt calculated that at the end of the eighteenth century the mestizo population reached 40% and Indians another 40%, whereas peninsulares and Creoles together represented 20%. Alexander Von Humboldt, Ensayo Político sobre el Reino la Nueva España (A political essay on the kingdom of New Spain) (1818; Mexico City, 1941).

14 For more on this problem, see Octavio Paz, Sor Juana; or, The Traps of Faith (Cambridge, Mass., 1988).

15 O’Gorman, Mexico, 20 – 21.

16 González Pedrero, País de un solo hombre, I, xxv, xxviii.

17 Octavio Paz, One Earth, Four or Five Worlds: Reflections on Contemporary History , trans. Helen R. Lane (San Diego, 1985), 138. See also David A. Brading, The Origins of Mexican Nationalism (Cambridge, Eng., 1985).

18 See John H. Coatsworth, "Obstacles to Economic Growth in Nineteenth-Century Mexico," American Historical Review, 83 (Feb. 1978), 82.

19 Ibid., 91, 92.

20 Charles A. Hale, Mexican Liberalism in the Age of Mora (New Haven, 1968), 114.

21 Daniel Cos’o Villegas, La Constitución de 1857 y sus críticos (The constitution of 1857 and its critics) (Mexico City, 1980), 198. Emphasis added.

22 Rousseau, Social Contract.

23 William H. Riker, Liberalism against Populism: A Confrontation between the Theory of Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice (1982; Prospect Heights, 1988), 14.

24 The Constituent Congress of 1824 considered the problem of religious freedom. The consensus reached was that the Catholic religion would be protected from other confessions. Since most Mexicans were Catholic, participants in the congress thought it was meaningless to "protect" or allow other religions.

25 Literature on Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first permanent United States envoy to Mexico, is abundant, but records and analyses of either the debates over adopting the republican structure of the United States or Mexicans’ awareness of the political process in the United States are rare and insufficient.

26 Fray Servando Teresa de Mier (1765 – 1827), a Dominican monk and intellectual, in 1794, had asserted that the painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe was not a "miracle," but was brought by Thomas the Apostle who had evangelized the Mesoamerican civilization under the form of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. After his first visit to the United States (1816), as part of the insurgents’ efforts to get support there, he returned to Mexico falsely declaring that he had been appointed the bishop of Baltimore. On federalism in Mexico, see Charles A. Hale’s argument that it came less from the United States experience than from municipal and local government in Spain. The writing of the constitution, however, followed that of the United States Constitution. See Hale, Mexican Liberalism in the Age of Mora, 193 – 97. For the statements by Mier and O’Gorman, see González Pedrero, País de un solo hombre, I, 296.

27 Servando Teresa de Mier, Pensamiento político del padre Mier (The political thought of Father Mier), ed. Edmundo O’Gorman (Mexico City, 1945), 127.

28 The Grito de Dolores pronounced by Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla in 1810 declaring independence invoked religion and the Crown’s sovereignty as major vindications for revolution. Once the movement became a popular upheaval, independence and national sovereignty became central to its program. See Luis Villoro, El proceso ideológico de la revolución de independencia (The ideological process of the revolution of independence) (Mexico City, 1986).

29 Lorenzo de Zavala, Ensayo histórico de las revoluciones de México desde 1808 hasta 1830 (Historical essay on Mexico’s revolutions from 1808 until 1830) (1845; Mexico City, 1985), 300 – 301.

30 José María Luis Mora (1794 – 1850) was ordained a Catholic priest in 1829. During the war of independence he edited the Semanario Poltico y Literario. He opposed Iturbide and was prosecuted. He wrote the constitution of the state of Mexico and other laws. Having served the government of Antonio López de Santa Anna, he left government after its defeat in the Texas Revolution and moved to Paris. He lived in Europe the rest of his life. During a resurgence of liberals in government, he was appointed ambassador to Great Britain (1847). Although there is no solid evidence, historians think that he became a Protestant in his later years.

31 Although in the Spanish original the reference is not conclusive, Mora seems to be referring to John Dickinson, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies (Boston, 1768). José María Luis Mora "Ensayo filosófico sobre nuestra revolución constitucional" (Philosophical essay on our constitutional revolution), [1830], in Mora, legislador (Mora as legislator), ed. Lilian Briseño and Laura Suárez (Mexico City, 1994), 124 – 31.

32 David Brading, Los orígenes del nacionalismo mexicano (The origins of Mexican nationalism) (Mexico City, 1973), 157; Hale, Mexican Liberalism in the Age of Mora, 195.

33 Villoro, Proceso ideológico de la revolución de independencia, 241.

34 Ibid., 249.

35 Hale, Mexican Liberalism in the Age of Mora, 105.

36 José María Luis Mora, México y sus revoluciones (Mexico and its revolutions) (1836; 3 vols., Mexico City, 1977), I, 282 – 83.

37 This measure also expropriated land owned by Indian communities. Corporate property in land and other feudal privileges were the targets of the liberal reform of Benito Juárez and his group.

38 The only interruption in Porfiro Díaz’s regime occurred in 1880 when his friend Manuel González succeeded him. Díaz resumed his presidency in 1884 and remained in power until 1911.

39 Friedrich Katz, The Secret War in Mexico: Europe, the United States, and the Mexican Revolution (Chicago, 1981), ch. 1.

40 Liberals’ faith in the invisible hand of classical political economy contrasted at times with the defense of state intervention policies by conservatives such as Lucas Alamán. See Hale, Mexican Liberalism in the Age of Mora, 249. On the roles of liberals and conservatives in setting the economic policy agenda between the 1820s and the 1840s, see Torcuato S. Di Tella, National Popular Politics in Early Independent Mexico, 1820 – 1847 (Albuquerque, 1996), ch. 7.

41 Indeed, Maximilian refused to dismantle the Juárez government’s liberal reforms, aducing that restoring the Catholic Church’s property, among other measures, would have obstructed economic progress. This refusal, a sign of his attachment to European standards of "modernity," weakened support for him among conservative constituencies.

42 O’Gorman, México, 37.

43 Gilberto Lopez y Rivas, La guerra del 47 y la resistencia popular a la ocupación (The war of ‘47 and popular resistance to the occupation) (Mexico City, 1976), 74.

44 Emmanuel Carballo, ed., ¿Qué pa’s es éste? (What country is this?) (Mexico City, 1996), 165.

45 Luis González, "El liberalismo triunfante" (Liberalism triumphant), in Historia general de México (General history of Mexico), ed. Daniel Cosío Villegas (4 vols., Mexico City, 1976), III, 233 – 35.

46 Ibid., III, 234 – 35; John H. Coatsworth, "Economic Impact of Railroads in an Underdeveloped Economy," Journal of Economic History , 39 (no. 4, 1979), 939 – 60.

47 Díaz had a famous expression "ese gallo quiere máiz" (that cock wants corn), referring to his favorite form of cooptation: buying out opposers. On the development of civil organizations, see Francois-Xavier Guerra, Le Mexique. De l’Ancien Régime à la Révolution (Mexico: From the ancien régime to the revolution) (2 vols., Paris, 1985), part 3.

48 José Vasconcelos, Memorias (Memoirs) (2 vols., 1936; Mexico City, 1983), I, 7 – 11, esp. 10.

49 Ibid., 10.

50 José Vasconcelos, Bolivarismo y Monroísmo (Bolivarism and Monroeism) (Santiago, 1934), 7, 15. Emphasis added.

51 Ibid., 12 – 13, 9 – 10. "Juárez is the hero of Pan-Americanism. He represents the Anglo-Saxon idea in the Hispanic consciousness." Ibid., 15.

52 José Vasconcelos, La raza cósmica (The cosmic race) (Mexico City, 1948), 30 – 31.

53 Constitución Politica de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, preamble (Mexico).

54 The National Action Party or pan may be considered in the tradition of Vasconcelos.

55 A caveat is in order. As in any intellectual generation, Octavio Paz does not act alone. Other individuals have made considerable contributions to this problem, struggling to overcome the blindness of nationalistic views. One among them who has done much to shape views of the United States is the novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes, whose writings are not taken into account here.

56Octavio Paz, Tiempo nublado (Cloudy weather) (Barcelona, 1983), 159.
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