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This page currently contains the following book reviews, listed in this order:
Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy, by Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon
The Hacienda in Mexico, by Daniel Nierman and Ernesto H. Vallejo
 Dancing Alone in Mexico,  by Ron Butler 

Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy     by Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 594 pgg., $30   Reviewed by Wayne Greenhaw

     The authors, Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists who have covered Mexico for The New York Times for several decades, boxes their superbly researched book with the emergence of democracy in that illusive, enigmatic country whose government has been struggling for most of the second half of the 20th century.

     Beginning “Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy” with the day in 2000 when its current president, Vicente Fox, was elected at the end of a long period of domination by the Partido Revolutionario Institutional or PRI, the authors digress to the dramatic beginning in 1910 when the revolution set the stage for change. Then authors meander their way through the maze of problems that led up to Fox’s election as the opposition candidate of Partido Accion Nacional or PAN. It is a long, amazing, and bumpy ride.

     The authors begin with the earlier 19th century revolution when Father Miguel Hidalgo and Captain Ignacio Allende took up arms against the Spanish who had ruled the New World for almost 300 years. After both leaders were killed and beheaded, their fight for independence ended after 11 years of battle with General Agustin de Iturbide crowning himself emperor. He was followed by numerous other strongmen or caudillo-style leaders, including Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who was president for 11 different terms between 1833 and 1855, during which time his army was defeated by Sam Houston and he signed away Texas and lost Mexico’s northwestern lands, including California. In the 1860s, before and after the reign of Maximilian, after French troops invaded Mexico, Benito Juarez, a Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca, was a president who brought about massive reforms, reduced the power of the Catholic Church and established principles of individual rights and the rule of law.

     These reforms proved to be short-lived when Porfirio Diaz came into power and remained president for more than 30 years. The authors write: “Diaz was a master of the Mexican art of pragmatic politics. He regarded political debate as so much ‘scandal’ that distracted from his modernizing program to maintain order, expand the economy, and unify the nation with national roads and railways.” He rewarded his rich friends and perpetuated the hacienda system of economics that basically followed the old European system of fiefdoms with a few rich families, operating out of great centrally located haciendas, controlling hundreds of thousands of acres and thousands of peasants.

     In early 20th century, Francisco I. Madero, wrote a political manifesto that drew a picture in opposition to Diaz-style dictatorship, calling for free elections and individual liberties. A well-educated man from a well-to-do family, Madero engineered the ouster of Diaz and became president himself. After little more than a year in office, he was assassinated by a friend of General Victoriano Huerta, who became president.

     After more than a decade of fighting the revolution, which was little more than a many-sided civil war, led by Pancho Villa in the north, Emiliano Zapata in the south, Huerta forces, and troops led by Generals Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregon, the latter two each became president and each was assassinated in office.

     Finally, a peace was called. Another revolutionary general, Plutarco Elias Calles, called for an official party to represent the ideals they had been fighting for. Again, in 1938, President Lazaro Cardenas not only called for drastic reforms he nationalized the oil industry, redistributed the land, and organized factory workers, government bureaucrats, and schoolteachers. He renamed it the Party of the Mexican Revolution. But it was not until 1946 that it was restructured as PRI and “its rules of conduct became part of the civic decorum, as routine as Sunday Mass for Catholics,” the authors tell us.

     It is shown how the PRI became synonymous with heavy-handed corruption and ego-centered political power that resulted in such atrocities as the killing of hundreds of demonstrating students at Tlatelolco in 1968, the absence of aid after the earthquake of 1985 in downtown Mexico City, the illegal and violent activities during elections around the country that were symbolized by the gubernatorial elections in Chihuahua in 1986, the growth of narcotics trafficking in the 1990s, and the prevelance of the crime of kidnapping. The authors detail the problems that were exacerbated by the presidencies of Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo.

     Detail is piled upon detail, all fascinating and relevant, showing the reason for the rise of the country boy cowboy politician, Vicente Fox, who became the first opposition candidate to win the presidency, opening the doors for democracy. The authors point out that Mexico had the perfect opportunity for dictatorship or a communist regime throughout the 20th century. However, unlike many other Latin American countries, it veered away from either, keeping itself primed for democracy.

     They write: “Mexico was changing because Mexicans were changing. When the author-itarian system was founded in 1929, the population was just 16 million. During the four decades of development that followed, the population tripled, to 48 million in 1970. Then widespread use of birth control led to a plunge in the fertility rate. In 1965 women had seven children on average; by the 1990s only three. With smaller families to care for, Mexicans spent more of their money on their children’s education, and women worked or spent more time outside the home. Life expectancy rose from 61 to 70 years for men and from 65 to 75 for women. The infant-mortality rate dropped from 31 to 22 deaths per 1,000 live births in just seven years during the 1990s, despite the economic crisis. During the same years university enrollment jumped by 42 percent.”

     Throughout the rich historical narrative the authors interject personal observations of the events and personalities they witnessed. Comparing the U.S. with Mexico, they point out that “democratic government in the United States was born in the last decades of the 18th century with a brilliant constitution and tremendous grassroots vigor. Yet it took U.S. democracy eight decades to abolish slavery, and after a full century urban corruption as bad as any seen under the PRI was proliferating in the New York slums controlled by Tammany Hall. Did U.S. democracy produce efficient economic policies? The United States had experienced a century and a half of democratic government when the Great Depression put a third of  its workers onto soup lines.

     “Democracy does not guarantee good government, but it is a set of rules and a culture for resolving differences that allows citizens to limit misgovernment. Mexicans had been building their democracy in earnest for more than three decades, and it was a work in progress. They were now directing a drama in which Vicente Fox, Lopez Obrador, and the lawmakers of the newly independent Congress were temporary players. If those politicians faltered, Mexicans now had the power to call forth other leaders to more boldly carry forward the nation’s agenda.”

4/25/04  The Hacienda in Mexico, by Daniel Nierman and Ernesto H. Vallejo, University of Texas Press, Austin, 144 pgg., $34.95   reviewed by Wayne Greenhaw

     “The Hacienda in Mexico” is a big, beautiful and important book about the institution of the hacienda in Mexico. The hacienda was not just a house or even a large house, it was virtually a community and a way of life from the time the Spaniards first came to the new world in 1520 until the revolution that began in 1911.

     A few years ago, traveling in the Sonora desert of northwest Mexico, friends and I happened upon a huge house about ten miles northeast of the village of Mata Ortiz, where we were seeking an audience with a maestro potter. Walking up to the main door of the big house, we looked up. The double doorway was more than 20 feet high. It was locked, so we walked around to a huge courtyard that was larger than a football field.

     The stables could accommodate more than two-dozen horses and all the tack necessary. In the far corner we  found an antique buggy and w hat appeared to be a very old stagecoach. Beyond the stables was a tannery and a furniture-making taller or factory. After seeing that huge hacienda where literally hundreds of people worked and lived, I was especially interested in this book.

     The authors, both knowledgeable professors and practitioners of architecture, write: “Diverse activities took place in the haciendas, each one with its corresponding space with distinct characteristics. This accounts for the architectural richness of the hacienda, which could accommodate the whole gamut of human endeavor: to harvest, to sing, to milk, to laugh, to cry, to pray, to die, to dream.”

     The authors visited sites in the Mexican states of Hidalgo, Tlaxcala and San Luis Potosi. As you walk with these men through the big houses, the massive patios, viewing the elaborate ironwork and interesting masonry, the decorative chapels with high altars and complex statues and colorful domes, and even the tinacales where the alcoholic drink pulque was made from the maguey cactus, you see the entire expansive property as a whole.

     From the hacienda, the landlord controlled the operation of hundreds of thousands of acres. People in tiny villages throughout the country worked for the landlords. Peons were not allowed to own property. They were kept at the mercy of the few wealthy landowners. It was this economic system of a handful of families ruling the masses that the dictator Porforio Diaz maintained for more than 30 years of his presidency of Mexico. It was this system that brought on the rebellion of 1911, led by Francisco Madero, who was himself assassinated, throwing the country into chaos of civil war for ten years, after which a government was formed which allowed elections of president every six years with the provision that there would be no re-elections. A president could serve only one term.

     In her foreword, Mexican writer Elena Poniatowzka states that “through the delicacy of (the authors’) drawings, which seem to be embroidered by a diligent ant, we see every one of the rounded stones in the pavement, each flight of steps leading to the altar, the purity of the lines, the unequaled strength of the buttresses, and the baroque richness of the altar, over whose volutes and curves pose shafts of light, exposing them, polishing them just as the air and the wind, water and time burnish the walls, the roof, and the great doors, giving them their color and texture.”

     There is a rich remembrance of a life long past in each of these photographs and each of these drawings. They stand just as the literature of Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes stands as a monument to that past that still resonates through the history of Mexico. 

4/20/04    Dancing Alone in Mexico,  by Ron Butler  University of Arizona Press  203 pgg.  $17.95 paper.           reviewed by Wayne Greenhaw

     If you live in Mexico, you will love this new edition of Ron Butler’s “Dancing Alone in Mexico.”

     If you want to know where to go and who to see in Mexico, “Dancing Alone in Mexico” is well worth the price. Ron Butler is a man who loves, enjoys, understands and knows the country better than most norte Americanos who have lived and traveled in the country.

     I have traveled to many of the places that Ron Butler writes about, and I can tell you he has walked the walk and knows the smells and writes about his experiences with great  authority.

     When he describes huevos rancheros -- two fried eggs on a tortilla, bathed in hot sauce, with refried beans, a slice of tomato with fiery jalapeno peppers as “a meal calculated for get up and go,” he knows the scene. He’s been there. Butler explains chiles, a great Mexican delight that are filled with vitamin C and many minerals and may be prepared in various ways.

     A short but brilliant chapter portrays Cantinflas, Mexico’s famed movie star who had a vacation home in San Miguel (the Hotel Posada Ermita on Salida Queretaro). He was known to American audiences for his portrayal of David Nevin’s funny little companion in “Around the World in 80 Days.” It tells about the author’s short but poignant meeting with the great comedian.  Each word vibrates with life, saying far more than the simple scene.

     Like a moment of truth,  the final chapter of “Dancing Alone in Mexico” tells of “the last American matador,” Diego O’Bolger and his visit to the bullring at Nogales, where John Wayne and Ward Bond, writer Barnaby Conrad and others came to experience the drama of man against animal. Ron Butler is an aficionado who displays perfect sensibilities to the art, the sport, the life.

     With deft short thrusts of his verbal sword, Butler proves again and again that he is far more than a travel writer. Like the power and sharp eye of Paul Theroux writing about a train ride through South America, Butler delves into Mexican life, its people and their mores.

     In a chapter about Zacatecas, an ancient town with baroque churches and colonial buildings, cobblestone streets and the aroma of baking tortillas in the air, Butler describes not only the unique architecture of the old bullring turned into a classic hotel but moves among the artists who have translated the vibrance and rhythm of the place. Here, where Pancho Villa defeated 12,000 federales during the 20th century Revolution and where the movie “The Old Gringo” was filmed, is also “a royal smorgasbord of treasures.” Butler does not merely describe. A simple experience of sitting in a sidewalk cafe provides a picture of now and yesterday, the whispered remembrance of an old love and a time of romance that is still felt.

     Butler begins his story with a personal vision of the place, remembered beautifully and sadly, when he and his wife enjoyed a simpatico time together in the hills of Acapulco overlooking the Pacific. It is a time broken in memory, a time and a place that resonates for him, and the reader is brought into his world and is shown how he becomes a man left to dance alone in Mexico.

     The author sings a song that, like an old-time ballad, leaves the reader to remember bits and pieces, looking back over the words, reading them again and again, feeling the place while seeing it, knowing that after reading “Dancing Alone in Mexico,” the place is more memorable than it ever was before.

Objectives of this page:: to provide residents an opportunity to read and write regular periodic reviews of books of general interest to our San Miguel de Allende community...




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