About the Project

Mexico, the Puzzle: A Conversation about Civil Society and the Nation with Ilan Semo

Maps and Timeline

Photo Galleries:

Communities Abroad


Major Events

Ilan Semo was interviewed in his apartment in Mexico City in February 1999. I edited a transcript of the interview and invited him to make changes and corrections in April 1999. He returned a revision in July 1999, including several additional pages on the role of nongovernmental organizations in Mexico.
David Thelen

David Thelen: The Mexican Revolution (1911 – 1920) powerfully reinforced the nation-state, and many people looked to Mexico as a model of progressive nationalism. What is happening to the nation in Mexico now?

Ilan Semo: How does it look, the question of the nation today? When we ask, what is a nation, we ask a question that was asked by Ernest Renan after the Franco-Prussian War. As he saw that Lorraine no longer belonged to France, Renan asked what a nation is. He tried to define some properties. At first Renan thought that each nation was characterized by a language. He concluded that that was not true, of course; the United States has many languages; Belgium has two languages; the old Soviet Union and Spain each had many languages. So language has not very much to do with nations. Religion does not define a nation. Since it is so difficult to find common features that characterize a nation, Renan said that the way to find out whether a place was a nation was by referendum or plebiscite of all the people that are attached to that place. I think that’s a good way to define the nation. Twenty years ago, people might have voted to define Yugoslavia as their nation, and now they might vote for Croatia. The Basques have voted almost to separate from Spain in the last elections, but without elections, they are part of Spain. Renan said that if we really try to analyze nations, we do not need legal definitions, economic definitions, but to find out what it means for a person to belong to the nation. Why do nations rise so quickly and then are destroyed so quickly? The Soviet Union looked like a nation, but then it was not a nation. People will tell us what they want a nation to mean at different times and places.

     In the nineteenth century some nationalists tried to develop national languages that all citizens of a nation would speak and share. But by 1900 no more than 10 percent of the people who lived in Mexico spoke Spanish. At the time of Italian unification, a tiny fraction of Italians spoke what we now know as the official language. The nineteenth century was a century when the factories of national language were only starting. Bureaucracy was the first factory of language — it generated marriage certificates, birth certificates, documents required for getting a job in a bureaucracy. Such documents require national languages. Schooling is a factory of language; the army is. They are factories for destroying all the local ancien régimes.

     If no more than 10 percent of Mexicans spoke Spanish, what did they speak? Their own languages, in Martin Heidegger’s notion of language. For Heidegger, language is the home of man, where he sings and feels. In Mexico there were between eighty and one hundred languages. I do not want to call them Indian languages because the speakers do not call themselves Indian. The Otomi calls his language Otomi. Of course, from the perspective of the national state, from a Spanish perspective, their otherness would become Indian. But if we look at their languages, their homes, they do not call themselves Indians, they call themselves Mayans, Otomis, Mijes, and so on. Mexico is a mosaic of communities, of small societies, that are able to preserve their languages from attack by the national state as it seeks to destroy their enclaves. Attack comes from the schooling system. An attack comes from the bureaucratic system in the sense that it does not recognize anything spoken in any language except Spanish. A national language is a permanent attack on the identity that gives those communities the capability to resist the emergence of a national state.

     Mexico in the nineteenth century looked like an archipelago of cultures and identities. It was not like the United States of that time, for in Mexico there were cultural forces, institutional forces, that enabled local communities to survive against the emerging national state that was supported by an elite, the hacendados (large landowners), and by the national army. Within local communities were elites that were interested in bringing the national state inside the community. There was an attempt at homogenization.

     There is a national state in Mexico. In every war — and I think of the United States Civil War — it is the national state saying: We’re not going to allow another reality to protest nationalism. For me that is the real origin of the Civil War. The Yankee state conceived of itself as a nation-state and expanded as it tried to homogenize what was inside. The emergence of the national state is a process first of homogenization. It transforms residents with particular cultures into citizens among whom are no differences except the differences defining great minorities. The faith in what becomes the national state creates a reality except, of course, for the Indians. In Mexico this process was not very successful. The local communities were able to resist — through their own cultures, their own institutions, their own laws — the process of absorption, the process of destruction, that accompanies the creation of a national school system, a national bureaucracy, a national army. (That is one of the main reasons why states become national, to collect taxes to support those national institutions.) Today the national state looks like a machine that runs of itself, but it is not so.

     The evidence that national homogenization was not very successful comes from the Mexican Revolution. Of course, it was a social revolution, but it was a revolution that started, continued, and finished at the local level. In the revolution there were four regions — Morelos, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila — that rebelled against the national political system of Porfirio Díaz. From Morelos came Emiliano Zapata; from the northern border, Pancho Villa; from Coahuila, Venustiano Carranza and Francisco Madero. You have four states going into rebellion against a central power. The Mexican Revolution was through local leaders. There were no national leaders. This view runs counter to the nation-centered official national history. The leaders were not nation centered, not at all. The Mexican Revolution is local — economically it’s local, militarily it’s local — based on localized values, symbols, and signs that are only understandable for specific, particular, and singular cultures. The revolution was not only a class conflict. It was not only an ideological conflict between peasants and hacendados, between the forces of organization and the military regime, no, no, no; it had at the center the issue of the nation: to belong to it, and how to belong to it. Those who made the revolution were trying to look for a completely new relation between local society and the nation-state. With its consolidation in the 1920s, the Mexican Revolution took over the homework of the nineteenth century. But it formulated the problem of homogenizing society differently. It began culturally, putting images of the poor on the walls and the movie screens in the first movements of the revolution. They brought within the nation pictures of campesinos, people who live, not in cities, but in small villages.

     So, first, the Mexican Revolution created a new perception of who belonged to the nation and who was the nation, a new construction, a new imaginary of who were the subjects and who were the shadows and who was a fundamental part of the scenography of the nation.

     Second, the Mexican Revolution transformed the local communities into corporate sectors. Indians were seen as a social sector like workers or like peasants. In place of local societies, the revolutionaries created a national corporate state that represented people in national interest groups. They tried to make a structure of society organized by social sectors, to integrate Mexicans into a corporatist society.

     Third, state ownership of land was the fundamental way in which the state became a local presence. By ownership of land, the state became the veins of the country in the Constitution of 1917. The constitution promoted a form of landownership in which the state permits the peasants to work the land (ejidos). The peasants cannot buy it; they can only use it. So, who works on the land depends on the director of the place, and the assignments become political because ownership is in the hands of the state. After the land appropriation of 1917 – 1938, by the 1940s and 1950s, 60 percent of land was owned by the state, with peasants working for the state. The state becomes bigger because it can then sell the land. That was one of the main origins of corruption. For example, all these lands here in the 1930s were ejidos, but somebody sold them. I own them, thanks to my grandfather, but somebody sold them to my grandfather, and he had to pay for them. And someone benefited illegally from such a sale, the governor or some official.

     The process of homogenization — transforming Mexico into a nation of citizens, more or less homogeneous, with one language — was not successful. It was more successful in the nineteenth century. Today Indian cultures are alive, perfectly alive. The languages keep going. Nobody cultivated them officially, those languages, nobody respected those communities, but they are there. Below the attempts to impose a nation-state, there remains Mexico profundo, untouched, vibrant, resisting.

     There are really five nations or Mexicos now. First, there is this mosaic of Indian cultures, which is not a natural unit because each culture does not identify itself with the whole. Second, at the northern border, essentially 30 percent of Mexicans have created a completely new culture, in terms of values, economy, languages, schooling, and relations with the state. Third, you have the megacities, and they are linked among themselves because this is a source of power, this is a source of centralization, this is a source of Mexico. I think that what most Mexicans call Mexico is in fact the megacities, twelve cities each with a population larger than 1 million. Then, fourth, you have the Caribbean. There we have the black population of Mexico. This is linked to Florida, to Cuba, and to Guatemala. And then the fifth element is something I would call Mexico. And it’s mainly imaginary, if taxpaying is a major measure of citizenship. It’s difficult for the national state to collect taxes. Only 12 or 14 percent of people pay taxes, the honest and the elite. About half the economy is informal. Records aren’t kept, and taxes aren’t paid. Drug sales are a great example. In large sectors of the economy, taxes are not visible. It is impossible to police the enterprises in those sectors.

     This place I call Mexico, which is a very small place in comparison to our territory, has two big troubles. First, it is not culturally strong, and now it’s not economically strong because of the excesses of President Carlos Salinas in the 1980s. Recently, the state was strong. But it has lost or sold or given up a lot of its natural economic force. Today it has not the economic revenue, the economic legitimacy that derives from the ability to promise, I can give you jobs, I can give you work, I can expand my industry. And Mexico lost the fight against the media, which is a place where you produce a national imagination. It was not able to produce in national product terms what it had in national state terms. At one time, Mexican cinema rivaled Hollywood in stimulating imagination. The true attempts to organize a counterpart to Hollywood failed. Televisa (a private broadcasting company) produced some programs, but the main core of television is produced somewhere else, say, in Chicago, in Europe. The state produced museums, paintings, culture in the school systems, and so on, but that didn’t happen in the media. In the 1940s I think 45 percent of Mexicans saw Mexican movies, but in the 1990s, only 4 percent of Mexicans see Mexican movies.

     The collapse of the state has brought a new regionalization of politics in the country. The old communities are still there. The revolt in Chiapas is an example. Local politics is the most important politics in Mexico. Mexican society is still a mosaic society; it’s not nationalist. The national state is not adequate. Mexico still has the old structure, the heavy nationalist state of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It’s not adequate like the Spanish state. The Spanish state is trying to adjust to the existence of different persons, different cultures, different languages. The Canadian state is trying to do this, with a lot of problems. The Mexican state has particular problems because within it there are entire cultures that don’t represent themselves and seek accommodation with the national state.

DT: What’s the historical significance of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in Mexico?

IS: This is the disintegration of the old regime. There are two forces right now, stratification and globalization, and the Mexican state has a lot of troubles finding its presence in relation to them. So civil society and NGOs have become fundamental structural agents reformulating how cultures and economies can do something national. What we are seeing now is a process of reorganization of Mexican society resting on two forms: asociaciones políticas and NGOs. Asociaciones políticas are groups organized to participate in the dissemination of ideas on some aspect of politics, such as multinationals or the law. They are very close to NGOs, but they are recognized by the state. The growing influence of NGOs in Mexican political and social life during the last fifteen years can be seen in different spheres of society. Slowly but steadily NGOs are reformulating the complex relations between the state and civil society.

     The democratization that started in 1988 would have been inconceivable without the emergence of local and national civic organizations that contributed to the development of a new electoral system, which has resulted today in a semidemocratic regime. It is important to underline that the Mexican transition from an authoritarian political system to a democratic one is stuck: After more than a decade of political transformation, we can speak today only of a semidemocratic system, not of a democratic one. Electoral fraud is still a common practice. The PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) traditionally exchanged votes for money, food, scholarships, land, housing, etc. Nobody has yet been able to stop that practice. Surprisingly, the opposition parties, the prd (Partido de la Revolución Democrática) particularly, are repeating the same tactics. Instead of reinforcing a competitive and free electoral system, opposition parties are reinforcing the old practices of corruption.

     During the 1990s powerful NGOs emerged in order to observe and scrutinize the electoral process. The most important were: Alianza Cívica (civic alliance, which was supported by the United Nations), the Academia Mexicana de Derechos Humanos (Mexican academy of human rights), Convergencia de Organismos Civiles por la Democracia (Conference of civil organizations for democracy), Acuerdo Nacional por la Democracia (National accord for democracy), Movimiento Ciudadano por la Democracia (Citizens’ movement for democracy), Consejo por la Democracia (Council for democracy), and the Fundación Arturo Rosenbluth (Arturo Rosenbluth foundation). Most of those civic organizations were formed by citizens who were not members of any political party. During the early 1990s they played an important role by denouncing irregularities in elections at the local and national levels. After the national elections of 1994, the importance of such electorally focused NGOs in the process of democratization diminished drastically.

     The reasons for their decay are still to be studied. The book by Rafael Reygadas Robles, Abriendo veredas, is a first attempt to survey this history.1 Some aspects are very evident. Alianza Cívica, the most powerful civic organization, became an asociación politica, receiving financing from the state itself. Its compromises with the semidemocratic establishment grew fast, and its autonomy diminished. Many members of NGOs became members of the political parties, and they thereby undercut the autonomy of their organizations. Electoral NGOs became an arena for compromises among political parties. Laws concerning the legalization of NGOs were blocked permanently in Congress by the PRI. Today, electoral NGOs play a secondary role in political life. They have lost credibility and identity as an autonomous sphere vis-à-vis the traditional political realm.

     In other contexts NGOs remain enormously important. NGOs have played a decisive role in preventing the war against the Indians and peasants of Chiapas from becoming even crueler. Since the conflict began in 1994, mobilization of many citizens in the main cities of Mexico has taken the form of civic organizations that fought for a peaceful negotiated solution and expressed solidarity with the people of Chiapas. The most important were Espacio Civil por la Paz (Civil space for peace), Coordinadora de Organismos no Gubernamentales por la Paz en Chiapas (Coordinating committee of NGOs for peace in Chiapas), Convergencia de Organismos Civiles por la Democracia de Chiapas (Conference of civil organizations for democracy in Chiapas), Cristianos por la Paz (Christians for peace), and the Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (Center for human rights Bartolomé de Las Casas). During 1994 their actions were fundamental in producing the general clamor for peace, as well as in informing Mexican society and the world of the atrocities done by the army and the paramilitary groups against the Indians of Chiapas. In a sense, the NGOs created a "cinturón de denuncia" (belt of denunciation) that forced the government of Ernesto Zedillo to seek the first round of negotiations with the EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, Zapatista army of national liberation) that culminated in the agreement of San Andrés Larrainzar.

     After 1996, the government changed its strategy of war. It developed paramilitary groups, used the military to isolate the Zapatista regions, expelled foreigners as well as foreign NGOs through dramatic xenophobic campaigns, dismantled the support of the church, and repressed members of NGOs. The role of NGOs in the conflict changed also. They had to seek new ways of supporting the population in the region with food and clothes, while searching for international support. To the extent that negotiations are deadlocked because the government is escalating the conflict and not seeking a peaceful solution, the role of NGOs has diminished. After five years of conflict, much of the Mexican population is skeptical about the chances for peace.

     NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) has been a central issue in the development of a new kind of NGO. The Red Mexicana de Acción Frente al Libre Comercio (RMALC, Mexican network for action against free trade) is a visible example. The Red originated in 1991. Initially, its main purpose was to inform Mexican society about the secret agreements made by the Bush and Salinas administrations in order to convince a majority in the American Congress to support NAFTA. The agreements aimed to obtain concessions from the Mexican side that would be convincing for the American side; most of them protected the American market. Since NAFTA was approved, the main activities of the RMALC have been to organize producers on both sides of the border to protect the human rights of the Mexican workers and to try to develop binational institutions that could regulate a binational market that has already become wild.

     If the impact of NGOs in the political realm has been considerable, their fundamental role should be sought in the social realm. It is difficult, if not impossible, to characterize El Barzon as an NGO, but it represented one of the most decisive civic movements during the 1990s. After the economic crackdown of 1995, thousands of small debtors were not able to pay their debts to the banks. El Barzon organized them around the country in order to force the banks to negotiate. El Barzon hired lawyers, mobilized citizens, called for moratoria on debts, and forced the banking system into several rounds of concessions. A major result of the movement was to oblige the government to cover an important part of the debt of small producers in its rescue of the banking system. Today El Barzon is a civic organization that defends debtors against banks, changing the relations that are hidden in "individual" credits.

     NGOs have arisen in response to a variety of other needs. They grew rapidly as organizations that intervene after natural catastrophes, such as Hurricane Paulina in the Pacific or the drought in Chihuahua. Today, international financial organizations such as the World Bank prefer to funnel social spending through NGOs instead of doing it in the traditional way through the institutions of government. The reason is very simple: in the last twenty years, of every $10 given to the Mexican government to improve the living conditions of the poor, only $1 to $2 reached them. The rest remained in the hands of bureaucrats in the form of corruption. So NGOs, supported by international institutions, have developed networks that work in the slums of the cities, with Indian communities, and with emigrants to the United States who are stopped at the border. Feminism was the origin of a web of NGOs that support women who have been abused or raped, who are denied their rights in the workplace, or who have emigrated to the United States, leaving their families behind.

     In Mexico NGOs are reshaping the relations between the state and civil society. Their main problem is the lack of a tradition of autonomous forms of organization. Nevertheless, their emergence has given a new dimension to Mexican society, by showing the limits of traditional institutions and by experimenting with forms of organization that enrich the capability of civil society to react to the problems and conflicts of everyday life. Through NGOs, Mexicans are finding ways to link political and ideological pluralism with a pluralist form of social action. 

Ilan Semo is professor of history at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City and editor of the journal Fractal.

Readers may contact Semo at ilan.semo@via.mx.

1 Rafael Reygadas Robles Gil, Abriendo veredas: Indicativas pśblicas y sociales de las redes de organizaciones civiles (Opening paths: Public and social indicators of civil organization networks) (Mexico City, 1998).

Back to Articles