Compliant Defiance in Colonia Santo Domingo
They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par décret du peuple. The Romance of Democracy
is an ethnographic study of popular politics and official subjugation in the world's most populous city; a detailed, bottom-up exploration of the lives of residents of a poor working-class neighborhood of the Mexican capital; and an examination of how, when, and why they seek to change their political worlds, and how, when, and why they participate in or eschew the politics of politics. This is a book about what these men and women think about national and neighborhood democracy, about their dreams of a better society, and about their sense of themselves as cultural citizens.
During the period 1968-2000, broad socioeconomic and demographic changes were occurring within and without Mexico--changes that repeatedly revealed how the lives, loves, hopes, and fears of my neighbors on Huehuetzin Street were integrally tied to national, regional, and global events in ways both intimate and obscure. By considering contradictory political passions and practices that developed in the neighborhood of Santo Domingo in the course of a series of momentous events, this study seeks to document the antithetical processes of civil challenge, frustration, and accommodation during this period.
The group of men and women who are at the center of this inquiry lived in the 1990s in a colonia popular
that was founded by land invaders in the early 1970s. Originally, I decided to live and work in Colonia Santo Domingo because I was studying changing gender relations in Mexico. Given the active participation of many women in the colonia
in social movements for services like electricity, water, sewer systems, and schools, Santo Domingo seemed a good place to assess the modes and extent of changing identities and practices associated with men and women (see Gutmann 1996). In the 1990s the neighborhood was as large as many cities in Mexico. Demographic estimates are notoriously unreliable, but by the year 2000 well over a hundred thousand people called Santo Domingo home. And, despite its tumultuous origins, nearly three decades after the initial squatters arrived in September 1971, most residents characterized their colonia
as considerably more tranquil and stable than it had been in the early, chaotic years of land seizures and conflicts. Still, if residents of the colonia
kept alive any of the spirit of those early years, it was in their widespread belief that formal government institutions and officials could not be trusted to provide them with the necessities in life, and in a general feeling that self-reliance was both the cross and the honor they would bear in life.
I, my wife, and our infant daughter began our year of living in Colonia Santo Domingo in August 1992. As so often happens when doing ethnographic fieldwork, I gradually became an integral if irregular member of the neighborhood, or at least of one block on Huehuetzin Street. For many years afterward, once, twice, and three times a year when possible, I would return for a few weeks to touch base with my friends and acquaintances. They had become, truthfully, my family. The desires, experiences, challenges, and conflicts of the people living on Huehuetzin Street were no more exotic than those of my colleagues at Brown University in the United States. Nonetheless, when in the mid-1990s my neighbors in Santo Domingo began to insist that I pay more attention to the changes occurring in la política
(the formal political arena) in Mexico, it occurred to me that for the poor people in communities like this one, the machinations of Mexico's ruling elites must have seemed completely unrelated to their daily lives.
Colonia Santo Domingo is a poor but stable bedroom community on the south side of Mexico City. In the 1990s, the sons and daughters of the original land invaders doubted that they themselves would ever own a home. Such opportunities were less possible in 2000 than they had been even a few decades earlier. Most of them had more formal education than their parents, and most limited their own families to perhaps half the number of children their parents had. Some, women as well as men, had found steadier paid employment outside the home than their fathers enjoyed. Gentrification projects in the 1990s had brought expensive condominiums to the outskirts of the neighborhood, which was located near major transportation arteries and upscale shopping districts. Rumor in Santo Domingo had it that the main reason the area was attracting wealthier residents was because the volcanic-rock base of the colonia
and the surrounding Pedregales was far more seismically secure than the rock underlying the rest of Mexico City, which was largely built on mud left over from four lakes that covered much of the Valley of Mexico before the Spanish had arrived five hundred years earlier. Japanese investors, neighbors in Santo Domingo informed me in the mid-1990s, were especially aggressive in buying up condominiums in the area. After all, the Japanese knew a thing or two about these temblores
(tremors), people sometimes commented with a smirk.
So Santo Domingo was home to janitors, taxi drivers, maids, amas de casa
(housewives), factory assembly workers, curtain makers, tiny workshop owners and employees, furniture makers and restorers, secretaries, clerks, radiator and muffler repairers, day-care workers, street peddlers, long-haul and local-route truck drivers, albañiles
(construction laborers), bookkeepers, welders, schoolteachers, car mechanics, and a few middle-class professionals in need of inexpensive housing. Except for the condominium dwellers, generally in the 1990s one did not live in Santo Domingo if one could afford something nicer than homes made of cinderblock walls and tin-and-asbestos roofing, which were the most affordable construction materials in the colonia.
So it was that one neighbor, an employee at the nearby National University (UNAM--the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), could be seen twice a week in the morning shuffling through the dusty streets with his bucket filled with two plastic bags of government-subsidized milk. Although he had no children of his own, he claimed as a dependent the child of a neighbor, who was in fact breast-feeding, and in this way he was able to supplement his own nutritional needs.
People in Santo Domingo often measured their own standard of living by that of their children. They gauged their ability to satisfy the needs of their children at different ages, and then compared the lives of their offspring with their own childhoods. Neighbors would sometimes mark levels of poverty in households by noting whether infants slept in hammocks or if parents had enough spare cash to buy a new crib or settled for a hand-me-down that was not being used by other relatives. One of the poorest grandmothers in the colonia
explained to me, a bit defensively, that children who sleep in hamacas
from an early age are more intelligent later in life.
For the parents in Colonia Santo Domingo, the difficulties of raising their children did not simply repeat those of earlier generations of poor mothers and fathers who had migrated to Mexico City from the countryside. Parents in the 1990s had to deal with two contradictory elements that had not existed in the 1970s. On the one hand, real income was lower in the metropolitan centers than it had been two decades earlier, and as a consequence, financial expectations for the future were far lower. On the other hand, with the advent of more formal education, television, the Internet, and other global networks of communications, this generation of parents was generally more aware of the consumer goods and opportunities that were enjoyed by the middle and upper classes but were missing from their own lives.
For someone interested in questions of politics, of power relations at a general societal level as well as in the more intimate quarters of families and households, Colonia Santo Domingo and Mexico City as a whole could seem incoherent and bizarre. On the question of who might wield power in particular situations, all my friends and neighbors in the Mexican capital held firm opinions, usually based on their own sometimes painful, sometimes joyous, and sometimes confusing experiences. Clearly, there were some people (individuals and groups) who made more decisions, and more important ones, than others. Sifting through the conflicting opinions and experiences of a group such as the residents of Colonia Santo Domingo does not simply represent the busywork of ethnography; indeed, such work represents the heart and soul of ethnographic work. It helps us to achieve greater clarity about the who's, what's, where's, when's, and how's of classical sociological categories such as class, patriarchy, and racism, as well as more amorphous practical questions involving such issues as parenting, sexuality, and violence.
In this ethnographic field study, I focus on the intimate spaces and fantasies of popular politics in one part of one community over a period of several years in the 1990s. I am concerned more with the experiences of citizens, with the mundane details of everyday political life, than with formal institutional politics. Indeed, I have tried to chronicle rather than presuppose my subjects' views about what should be considered politically relevant in the first place. For example, some of the people I knew and lived with in Mexico City thought it was a bit absurd to even talk of democracy when there were so many poor people. They were far more concerned about poverty than they were about whether someone had voted or not in the last election, or whether one's ballot was or was not secret, as important as these latter considerations might be. The types of questions that ground this book politically have to do with what my friends and neighbors thought about voting--whether voting was considered the epitome of democratic participation, and whether, given a choice, they would have preferred to have as little to do with the Mexican government and state as possible. Considerations of self-government here are unavoidably practical as well as philosophical.
It might seem odd for an ethnographer to engage the sacred terrain of formal politics in a large-scale society such as Mexico's. Usually, questions about the politics of voting and abstention are considered the bailiwick of political scientists and others well versed in survey research. I examine these questions qualitatively, however, without resorting to questionnaires aimed at teasing out broad tendencies and trends. Neither is the study of such a large-scale society the customary domain of political anthropology, a field that has historically been more concerned with power relations in small-scale, tribal societies. Only fairly recently have scholars in the field begun to examine politics at the direct, face-to-face level of the village, the neighborhood, and the local community in societies of tens of millions of inhabitants.1 The Romance of Democracy
is a book about the political lives of the men and women of Huehuetzin Street during a specific juncture in their personal and social histories. In particular, I ask in this study what the people of Colonia Santo Domingo themselves think they can change about their personal and social histories--that is, what impact they think they might have in the narrower and perhaps superficially more circumscribed world of children, marriages, families, and households, as well as in the broader and sometimes seemingly limitless world of international geopolitics and affairs of state.
One aim is to expose the links between the apparently routine interactions and conversations of daily life in the colonia
and developments in the world of national and international politics. I do not pretend to comprehensively capture the cognitive connections made by my friends and neighbors in Santo Domingo, that is, to fully and definitively represent their ideas and motivations when it comes to political questions. Yet neither do I conform with the conclusions of behavioralist scientists and others who insist that such things as motives are wholly unknowable. Similar to the conclusions of certain interpretivist anthropologists, this kind of thinking tends to arrogantly render the comments of the people themselves as worthless, or at least thoroughly suspect. Instead, I prefer to acknowledge the limits of discourse--for instance, the extent to which people's words may obscure some truths--by placing high value on what people say about themselves and others, and by repeatedly returning to similar topics with the same people (it is simply astounding how people may say different things to the same person, depending on how their relationship develops), and always insisting on comparing different comments by different people, always asking people to compare words to deeds.
Bluntly put, and for better or for worse, most of what ethnographers "do" is talk to people. We talk to people about what they think, what others think, and about what they and others say they and others do. We also "observe," and these observations may be important, but I think on the whole many of us rely far more on words about deeds than on the deeds themselves.
The examination of political parties, administrative apparatuses, interest groups, polling, and electoral systems are crucial modes of study. Yet, in this study, like the people of Santo Domingo themselves, I have other political concerns and focuses that are different from, though I hope complementary to, such approaches. Here, my focus is to describe and understand the political perceptions and participation of los de abajo,
those social underdogs who are compliant in the face of social controls seemingly beyond their ability to resist, and who at the same time remain defiantly enraged at having to accept this very situation.
Contemporary Mexican History
One way to understand popular politics in Mexico City and contemporary Mexico in general is to note certain key junctures in recent Mexican history, events which for those old enough to have social memories mark turning points in their personal and historical lives. Commemorating unforgettable events and experiences can, of course, obscure processual changes that may lack such narrow temporal referents. The neoliberal decade of the 1980s in Mexico, for instance, witnessed the further bifurcation of income and more important of wealth there: by the 1990s the thirteen Mexican billionaires on the Forbes
list of the world's richest individuals owned more than 10 percent of Mexico's annual gross domestic product (Castañeda 1995, 216). Still, specific events have come to be associated with specific years in Mexico's recent history, and these, in turn, have come to epitomize signal historical transitions for many of my friends in Colonia Santo Domingo. It is worth enumerating the most significant.
Following months of student demonstrations in Mexico City (as happened in many other parts of the world), and shortly before the Olympic Games were to begin there, on October 2, hundreds of student protesters and onlookers were murdered by military troops in the Tlatelolco housing complex on the north side of the capital. Even three decades after the event, the reference "1968" still resonated for generations of Mexicans. It referred to what was seen as the defining moment in postrevolutionary Mexican history, after which millions of citizens no longer felt confidence either in their government or in the prospect for positive change in their government. In chapter 3 I provide an exegesis of "1968" as it exists in the popular memory of people in Santo Domingo. 1982
Despite rampant poverty and inequality in the post\-World War II economy in Mexico, until the late 1970s the country enjoyed remarkably solid and sustained industrial and financial growth. Consequently, even after 1968, when many lost faith in a brighter political and social future for their country, most continued to believe that the Mexican economy would continue to prosper, at least for the middle and upper classes--and if only one could make it out of the working class. In 1982, this dream, too, was dashed, precipitated in the short term by the financial and monetary policies of President José López Portillo, and more fundamentally by severe balance of payments problems, all of which spelled ruin for countless businesses and investors throughout Mexico. The illusion of a stable and inherently sound economy vanished in 1982, just as faith in the political integrity of the government had vanished in 1968. 1985
On September 19, at 7:19 a.m., an earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter Scale shook Mexico City for ninety seconds. Thousands died in collapsed buildings, at least 10,000 in all, and perhaps many more. One-quarter of a million people or more were left instantly homeless, and many more lost their jobs. In the wake of the tremor, and in the face of the incompetence of public authorities in coping with the disaster, hundreds of thousands of residents of the city took matters into their own hands. In the following days and months, they organized rescue squads, set up food-collection points, administered first-aid, located housing supplies, and provided shelter and support to as many victims as they could. The 1985 earthquake subsequently became emblematic for many, in Colonia Santo Domingo and throughout the capital, of both governmental ineptitude and the tremendous ability of masses of people to organize themselves--at least under dire circumstances. 1988
What some have termed the most fraudulent presidential vote in Mexico's long history of corrupt electoral politics took place this year. When it appeared that an opposition candidate, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, would win the presidency and unseat the PRI for the first time in sixty years, there was a sudden and mysterious "breakdown" of the computer system tallying the vote lasting three days. When the system was again up and running, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the government-PRI candidate, was declared the victor by a small margin. The election of 1988 became a symbol of political change, or more specifically, of political change frustrated and denied. 1994
This was quite a year indeed. On January 1, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA in English, and, amusingly, TLC--for Tratado de Libre Comercio--in Spanish) went into effect, economically tying the United States, Canada, and Mexico together in myriad new ways. That same day, and not coincidentally, in the southern state of Chiapas, thousands of masked indigenous women and men carried out a series of well-planned armed takeovers of strategic locations for a few days, announcing to the world, including through the Internet, their intention to fight for liberty, justice, and democracy by whatever means necessary (see chapter 7). Then, on March 23, Mexico was rocked by yet another political crisis, as Luis Donaldo Colosio, the PRI presidential candidate, was assassinated, exploding the idea that Mexico was somehow immune to the type of political violence that had long plagued other parts of the Americas north and south of Mexico. ("You may be used to this kind of thing in Gringolandia, Mateo," my friend Isabel told me, "but we don't live like that here.") The presidential race continued, with Ernesto Zedillo quickly replacing Colosio as the PRI candidate and winning in the (unexpectedly clean) elections in August. But the year was not yet over. On September 28, José Ruiz Massieu, general secretary of the PRI, was himself gunned down in Mexico City. Intrigue and plots on an international scale were said to be involved in both assassinations, the attendant power struggles were said to involve upwards of 100 million dollars and among those implicated was Raúl Salinas de Gortari, the sitting president's brother. Fittingly, if disastrously, for my neighbors in Santo Domingo, the end of the year brought another massive financial crisis, with the drastic devaluation of the peso sending many of those who had finally begun to emerge from the depths of the crisis of the 1980s back into a downward spiral of underemployment and unemployment. 1997
Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas won the first election for mayor in Mexico City, a post some say is the second most important elected office in Mexico. Until that year, the city had been governed by a mayor who was appointed by the sitting PRI president. The implications of Cárdenas's election to the post were widely debated in Santo Domingo. Many of my friends who are active in leftist grassroots and community organizing were convinced that the election represented a fabulous opening for democratic politics more generally in the country, all the while noting the degree to which Cárdenas was being hamstrung by interference and financial malfeasance at the hands of the PRI. More broadly, however, there was less optimism among most of my friends in Santo Domingo regarding the potential for change under Cárdenas, as if this were a more Pyrrhic than substantive opposition victory. 2000
The presidential election of 2000 was held in July, and for the first time in seventy-one years an opposition candidate won. Vicente Fox of the conservative PAN had carried a clear message to the voters: Out with the PRI! Anything will be better than they are! Among the questions raised by the election results, of course, was whether the former opposition now in power still could be considered the opposition. Despite infighting within the PRI over who was responsible for losing the election (outgoing president Ernesto Zedillo was the target of most dinosaurio
vituperation), and questions about whether the PAN victory was more symbolic than substantive, leading political pundits were quickly and uniformly assuring the Mexican electorate of the historic significance of the event. (As an aside, there was some consideration that Mexican citizens resident in the United States should be allowed to vote for the first time in these elections. Among other things, this would have involved Mexican candidates campaigning in the United States--as those from other countries like the Dominican Republic do--which, in turn, would have further blurred national boundaries between the two countries. It would also have led to even more votes for the non-PRI parties--not that this proved necessary. In the end, the proposal was quashed by the PRI in 1999, while it still held control of the presidential palace, Los Pinos.)
In this period of contested presidential elections and assassinations in Mexico and, in Chiapas, an indigenous-based revolt against the central government in Chiapas, whose political repercussions were felt throughout the Republic and indeed across the Americas generally, neoliberal economic policies came to dominate in all spheres of political life in Mexico. Neoliberalism quickly bore fruit, at least for some in Mexico: by 2000, with some $240 billion in commercial exchange, Mexico had become the second largest trading partner of the United States, ahead of Japan and second only to Canada. The United States had long been the major foreign stakeholder in Mexico's economy, of course, but by the 1990s investment was such that a crisis in Mexico could generate shocking repercussions in U.S. markets. Thus, U.S. speculation in Mexico required absolute vigilance of the political as well as economic conditions in that country. So it was that on February 17, 1995 the Washington Post
reported, "A memo last month by Chase Manhattan Bank's emerging markets group warned that a peaceful solution to the [Chiapas] rebellion was 'difficult to imagine after face-to-face talks with the government one year ago failed to demobilize the rebels'" (see Robberson 1995). The memo quoted in the Post
continued ominously: "While Chiapas, in our opinion, does not pose a fundamental threat to Mexican political stability, it is perceived to be so by many in the investment community. The [Mexican] government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and of security policy."
After the memo was leaked to the press, Chase bank officials tried to quickly dismiss it as representing the judgment of a single mid-level analyst. If most of my acquaintances in Colonia Santo Domingo believed that such ideas were without a doubt shared by Chase executives, and indeed executives of other banks as well, should they have been accused of puerile suspicions and naive conspiracy theories?
Commentary on Mexico's financial and governmental crises was the stuff of daily news in the United States in the 1990s. Yet the practical, day-to-day feelings, worries, and experiences of the poor in Mexico City's colonias populares,
reeling from the impact of sociopolitical and economic catastrophes, were usually ignored, unless they were rendered obligatory objects of concern by virtue of intermittent outbursts of rebellion. It is not my intention to perpetuate scholarly indifference to the poor continuing to ignore their politically dissident moods and activities--for example, the amorphous if nonetheless popular opposition to NAFTA (see chapter 4). Rather, I will consider in detail the muted and sometimes confused opinions of some of my neighbors in Colonia Santo Domingo, as well as certain of their more clearly voiced sentiments, as they related to democratic and not-so-democratic decisions--decisions about street paving, health care, and transportation, for example--that directly affected their daily lives. Moreover, I will also document their efforts to effect change in the larger national and international arenas as they recognized events and activities that also had everything to do with how they lived and who they were.
Localizing the Globalizing
In January 1997 I was standing outside the corner tienda
(shop) of one of my closest friends, Marcelo, sipping a Vickys beer that another friend, Marcial, a Yucateco carpenter, had just bought me to celebrate the New Year. Marcos, who lived next door to the tienda,
stopped by. Having just been on a family vacation to Yucatán, and having endured the forty-eight-hour bus ride to return to Mexico City, he was tanned, exhausted, and excited to tell us, and especially Marcial, about his trip. Two things stood out in his mind as highlights of the journey: the archaeological ruins he had seen in Chichén Itzá, and the topless beaches he had visited on Isla Mujeres.
Just as Marcos was beginning to describe the details of each encounter, a little boy walked up to him and asked for some coins to buy candy. I looked at the boy, who was around three years old, and asked him his name. He looked me in the eye and replied that it was Ruvelcaba. Ruvelcaba, I knew, was my friend Marcos's last name, too. Marcos prompted him to give his first name. "Marco Antonio," he responded. Quickly, Marcos then asked, "¿Y cómo se llama tu padre?
" (And what's your father's name?), to which the child answered matter-of-factly, "Abuelito
" (Grandpa), whereupon Marcos broke out into a big smile.
Marcos's daughter had become pregnant by a gang-banging youth who had long since fled the scene. The daughter and her son continued to live with the (biological) grandparents, and Marcos and his wife Delia and another daughter of theirs were all helping to raise the boy, with Marcos's formal role in this effort perhaps a bit more diversified, given the fact that he was the only man in the household.
Many people who saw Marcos, in his forties, with Marco Antonio no doubt assumed that they were biological father and son. So, in a quiet and unassuming way, Marcos was happy to go along with appearances as and if these served the larger purpose of raising the boy well. In addition to playing the anthropological game of fiddling with polysemic kinship terms, Marcos also exhibited a distinctly defiant pose, perhaps to surprise me at the casual way in which he slid between the personae of grandfather and father. In the same way that Marcos referred to himself that day as a father named "Grandpa," he had described himself in the May 1994 street debate with which I opened this book as a PRDista sin Cárdenas,
a PRDista who wishes the party could get rid of its leader, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas
The labels Marcos used for his contradictory experiences, familial and civic alike, were perhaps not so different from those employed by professional political analysts. Discussions of the form and substance of democracy often carry with them similarly confusing, house-of-mirrors descriptions. Democracy is sometimes treated more as a matter of régimes and sometimes seen principally as a question of popular sovereignty; in one version there are recognizable institutions but no people, whereas in the other there are people with ideas but no mechanism for engagement (see Collier 1999). When Marcos commented that he was "a citizen of democratic Mexico," for example, he generally used this declaration to mock Mexico's formal political régime. "We are the jodidos
(screwed) of Mexico, Mateo," he often told me.
What democracy means in a real, practical sense, and what it means to participate in a democracy, are questions my friends have sometimes asked themselves and each other. Their models for comparison have run the gamut from the formal democratic exercise of the right to vote, to a type of participatory democracy that is at once more fluid and more apparent, for example, that of grassroots feminist efforts in neighborhoods throughout Mexico (see Dietz 1992; Stephen 1997a). Periodically, my friends and I have talked about having been born into a certain life, with a particular political system, and experiencing the frustrations of trying to change that system. In our discussions, I occasionally invoked the formulation of Antonio Gramsci ([1929\-35] 1971, 333) regarding contradictory consciousness--the conflict that arises between ideas inherited from dead generations and those that develop in the course of new efforts to transform the world. In response, as often as not, Gabriel would make reference to one or another Aztec deity he admired on the question of change and continuity in society. Marcos might cite a Catholic saint, and Marcelo a musician who similarly talked about rights and responsibilities to make the world better for those who live in it.
At election time, Marcelo, our friend who for years ran the store on Huehuetzin Street, also manned the polls for the PRD--to guard against vote fraud. Marcelo described this activity as helping to guarantee that democracy was respected in Mexico. He did not really believe his presence near the polling booths made a big difference, he said, and he had less interest in catching fraudulent behavior than in lending a veneer of independence to the proceedings. Independence, even if only for the sake of appearance, was terribly important, Marcelo said. Because even a facade got people thinking about running their own political lives. He used to say that he supported the PRD because the other parties seemed to him more concerned with aping Gringo democracy than with building a truly independent Mexico. Sellouts, malinchistas,
he called them.
Coming Home Again
For close to a decade I spent as much time as I could in Colonia Santo Domingo, learning about child rearing, as well as chiles, futbol,
fandangos, and bouts of flojera,
tequila, and becoming tomado.
3 The central intellectual issue was to document and understand change, both the micro- and the macro-transformations in people's ideas and activities. Since I first set foot in the neighborhood in 1991, mystery and curiosity have been constant issues with which I have had to contend--as often as not with me
as the object of such appraisals. Santo Domingo is simply not on tourist maps, and the only Gringos who are known to live there are two or three evangelists who have a reputation among many of the residents as pushy and judgmental aliens. Not a group with which I ever would wish to be associated.
I was fortunate, and not a little opportunistic, because when I first came to Santo Domingo to live, I arrived with my wife Michelle McKenzie and our then seven-week-old daughter Liliana. Thus, my presence in the colonia
was associated from the start with my status as a new and basically inexperienced father. That is a condition that has changed over the years, according to my mentors and kibitzers in the arts of parenting on Huehuetzin Street, only insofar as I now have two children and am a bit less inept being a father. The expectation of my closest friends and anthropological family in Santo Domingo was that whenever I returned I would, as often as was possible, bring Liliana with me, because she was of the community in some symbiotic and culturally potent sense that I could never be.
If my relationship to the people on Huehuetzin Street had its constants, including my status as Liliana's father, other aspects of my status as an unusual Gringo indeed shifted over the years, often to my chagrin. On January 1, 1997, a day or two before I bumped into Marcos and Marco Antonio in the tienda,
neighbors invited me to stop by and tell them about a book of mine on Santo Domingo that had been published the previous summer in English (Gutmann 1996). The women were drinking eggnog-flavored Rompope liqueur and the men were sipping on their cubas
as they all crowded over my shoulder to look at the photographs in the book and wait for me to find their names in the index and translate the appropriate quotes, comments, and exposés. One young woman noticed herself in the background of a photo and wanted me to translate the caption. Another woman asked why I had not used a photograph I had taken in 1993 of her father-in-law. A man complained that he had grown thinner in the four years since I had photographed him, and made me promise that "the next book" would have an updated, slimmer image to display.
It was a rather chaotic scene, prompted no doubt by my return after a six months' absence, as well as by little sleep and lots of alcohol on the part of my neighbors. But mainly what struck me that New Year's morning was the feeling I had that I would not be able to write another book about Santo Domingo and Huehuetzin Street. People were treating me in a more obviously calculating manner than before--I was not simply an exotic Gringo father but, potentially at least, a means to getting their names and faces published in Gringolandia. The idea that students and others in the United States might actually come to know them, even what they looked like (hefty and svelte versions, no less) produced guffaws and backslaps.
I did not say anything at the time, but later that afternoon, when I met up again with some of my other friends, I voiced my concerns. Gabi and Marcelo, who were among my best friends, listened to me as I explained my fear that from here on out I would just be able to learn what people wanted me to see and hear, and that people would be ever more vigilant at hiding what they feared might end up in print at some later date. Gabi, in particular, was unimpressed by my worries. He pointed out that I was seriously out of touch if I thought that anything different had been the case previously. Sure, now my neighbors had a clearer sense of the possibility of "being published," he said, but people always divulge or hide information--to or from Gringo anthropologists, neighbors, wives, kids, bosses, parents, hell, even to and from themselves. To emphasize the point, he leaned over and with a wink whispered (loud enough for Marcelo to hear, too): "Cálmate, Mateo. Mira, vamos a tomar un anís ¿está bien?
" (Calm down, Mateo. Look, let's go have an Anise, okay?).
The offer of anís
was a signal to both Marcelo and me. Many years before, several of us had spent the better part of a Saturday getting bien pedo
(literally, well farted) on anís,
and, ever since, getting me to drink the licorice-flavored liqueur had been a running gag. This was Gabi's way of saying, "Look, you're a little different, sure. But you also have a history here in Santo Domingo, and if we can put up with you all this time, then you will have to learn to adjust to us as well." The conversation shifted to what had changed since 1992, when Michelle, Liliana, and I had first arrived to live in the colonia.
This question led to two topics: the people who were no longer with us, for one reason or another, and others who had only recently joined us. In the context of Santo Domingo, where families do not often move in or out, mostly we talked about who had died, which couples had split up, and what babies had been born.
Gabi and Marcelo mentioned that Enrique, the disabled son of an elderly neighbor, had finally succumbed to whatever disease it was that had afflicted him since birth. They were pretty sure his mother was comforted because she no longer had the burden of caring for Enrique. Another neighbor, a chronic alcoholic, a genuine teporocho
in Mexico City vernacular--and a man who when he noticed me on the street used to scream, "¡Griiiiiiiiiiiiingooooooooo!
"--also was no longer among the living. He had drowned in one too many bottles of rubbing alcohol; "96," those in the know call it, because it is supposedly 96 percent alcohol. None of us in 1997 yet knew that Juan, a young man who worked in his family's liquor store at the corner, would be murdered three years later only yards away from where we were talking that day. In January 2000, two drugged-up customers would try to steal a bottle of rum and, when Juan objected, one would pull out a pistol and shoot him dead. Some neighbors later said the gunmen were cops, though most thought this unlikely.
We talked of neighbors, sisters, brothers, and cousins who had gotten married or divorced since I had first come to Santo Domingo. Gabriel himself had separated from his wife. He was still supporting his family financially, but he saw the children far less now that they no longer lived in the same house. Our friend Luciano, on the other hand, a man who had lived with a second wife and family for several years, had moved back in with his first wife and children around 1995. So, we talked about happy reunions, not aware that by 2000 Luciano would be sleeping in a small room he had built outside the main part of the house where his former wife still lived. Regardless of whether he and his ex-wife were sharing a bed, Luciano was worried that if he did not live there on the premises, he could lose his rights to both the property and the house. Marriages and even marital separations, whether sanctified by the church, the government, or just the couple involved, seemed far less enduring than death.
In 1997 Don Timo was still at his spot on a main avenue waiting for customers who needed their wicker furniture repaired. He was still inviting all of us to his little ranch in Río de Bravo--"Somos gentes humildes y pobres, pero están bienvenidos a mi casa
" (We're humble and poor, but you are most welcome in our home), he graciously offered. And by 2000, Don Timo's son would be angry with me, after having read in the Spanish version of a book I had written (Gutmann 2000) what their neighbors had related to me about his parents. I promised the son that in the next book I wrote about Santo Domingo I would recount his insistence that his father had never beaten his mother.
In our talk that New Year's Day in 1997, Marcelo reminded us of another death in the neighborhood, one that affected me more than the others. On November 13, 1996, Angela Jiménez had died after suffering three massive heart attacks in rapid succession. My treasured friend, teacher, and confidant, Angela had been called abuelita
(grandma) by numerous children in the colonia,
including my own daughter Liliana. "There was nothing the doctors could do about it," Angela's brother Héctor later told me. And nothingness was what many of us in her extended family felt after we lost Angela.
Angela had exemplified the spirit of taking matters into one's own hands, from resolving family disputes, to neighborhood problems, to general social suffering. Her death made us all feel less able to cope with life--less capable of taking on the powers that be, large and small. She had asked no mercy from life, yet she had displayed it in abundance. Her role model was St. Francis, she used to tell us, because of his asceticism and humility. St. Francis loved poverty so much, she would smile when recounting his life, that he renounced the money he had inherited from his merchant father. Angela was a true believer, Norma, her daughter, reminded me. When one of her mother's dearest friends, Glafira, was diagnosed with cancer, Angela had commented, "¡Qué bueno!
" (Fantastic!). This might seem callous, but Angela said it with all her heart, because she believed that Glafira would soon get to meet her maker. Given the holy fervor her mother embodied, Norma could only shudder in slightly scandalized wonder. (As it happened, Glafira's cancer went into remission the next year.)
On my first trip home to Santo Domingo after Angela's passing, I cried and laughed upon hearing Norma recount how her mother had once admonished her, "¡Mientras tengas madre, chinga tu madre!
" (As long as you've got a mother, fuck your mother!). Typical, a characteristic example of both Angela's spirit and her tongue. In the following pages I have tried to capture some of Angela's spirit, knowing nevertheless that this would have been a far better study if I could have learned more from her about issues like voting, nationalism, blame, and innocence, and most of all about the twists and turns of remaining defiant and unrepentant in the face of authority.
In the middle of our reveries about who had died and who had separated, Gabi's assistant Momo came running up, asking about a brake-drum spring that he had dismantled but lost. We remembered that Momo, "barely off the breast himself," now had an infant daughter crawling and romping around the one-room home that Momo's mother and father had let him and his wife build on their land.
Thus, birth, marriage, and mortality, road signs of what demographers call the life course, and what people in Santo Domingo call simply "life," stood as appropriate symbols of cyclical changes for individuals, families, and neighbors. But both Marcelo and Gabi felt there had been more to the 1990s for them and for others in Mexico, in the way of linear change and transformation.
What, they wanted to know, did I think of the possibilities for democracy in Mexico's immediate future? How might these compare to democratic processes in the United States? I am often uncomfortable in Latin America when I am asked to represent some sort of U.S. position on a question, especially as in this case, when I am asked to rate progress toward becoming more like the United States. I nonetheless listened to Gabi as he explained once again his hopes and frustrations, which were tied to the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, just as I also listened to Marcelo, who still cherished a dream that the left-of-center PRD party would once again lead Mexico in a fundamental redistribution of wealth as had not happened even during the populist presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, Cuauhtémoc's father, in the 1930s.
Regardless of my views, it seemed that, in January 1997, some eight months before Cárdenas fils would be elected mayor of the Federal District, both my friends were intent on exploring the events of 1968 (Tlatelolco), the elections of 1988 and 1994, and the financial crises in between. And, they insisted, maybe I should start paying more attention to the winds of political conflict in Mexico.
"So you see, Mateo," said Marcelo, "we've figured out your next book already. Now all you have to do is write it."
Civil Impotence in Mexico
A common approach to the study of politics in Mexico is to focus on formal issues of political parties, political representation, political parties, electoral procedures, interest groups, political parties, administrative apparatuses, state\-society issues, and political parties. In Mexico the longevity of PRI (the party of institutional
revolution) hegemony at all levels of federal, state, and municipal government has been a topic of continued interest, as even the habitually out-of-office parties gained the sobriquet of "the institutionalized opposition" (se González Casanova 1970, 13). More recently, scholars have examined popular social movements in urban and rural areas. These groups of citizens, linked locally and nationally, harbor no illusions that the powers-that-be will concede to their demands without a struggle. They have therefore banded together to fight, both for single issues, and for a broader array of demands.
For many analysts the heart and soul of politics in Mexico remains the study of electoral parties--their foibles, fortunes, and futures. In particular, in the 1990s most commentators heralded the numerous PRD and PAN electoral victories, from governorships to the mayoralty of the national capital, as historically significant benchmarks of broader political changes afoot in the land. Many saw the election to major offices of PRD and PAN candidates as proof positive that now Mexico, too, had democracy (i.e., Mexico was finally a real multiparty state), and by extension, that the popular will was being exercised throughout the country. Whether and how these electoral achievements may have actually served to short-circuit fuller discussion and reflection, or even to waylay the continuing struggle regarding the content and strategies of popular sovereignty and democracy, were just about taboo subjects in certain formal political and academic circles. As to questioning the precise textures and configurations of genuinely popular discourse and governmentality, sorry. In the view of many political operatives and analysts, one should not dwell on such abstractions.
When they think about taking an active role in political and social issues of the day in Mexico, when they consider that democracy necessarily should integrate popular power and participation as central factors in the equation, then one critical question raised by many people in Colonia Santo Domingo is: Where on earth are they supposed to find the time and energy to actually assume such responsibilities on a regular basis? Some of my friends, when pushed, ask how democracy can be practically realized, what specifically constitutes popular sovereignty, and why should they regard democracy as anything more than a paper fiction and a trip to the voting booth every few years. Their conundrum is realistically grounded in a demographic problem: population concentrations have long since made the town meeting and equivalent forms of local assembly impossible. Therefore, despite its roots in the practical airing and decision-making of face-to-face congresses, applied democracy in the twenty-first century can clearly not be organized in this fashion. For this reason, one analyst has written of "the wave-like characteristic of democratizations." This, in part, means that "from the moment the term escaped the philosopher's study, 'democracy' . . . has been primarily an actor's term, not an analyst's" (Markoff 1997, 50, 51).
In Mexico it would appear that voting has replaced assembly--or in Tocquevillean language, associational life--as the primary form of democratic participation, the highest manifestation of popular rule, the most realistic opportunity for the citizenry to decide what kind of society they wish to have. The act of voting en masse in Mexico has come to personify the experience described by David Kertzer: "In simultaneity lies political communion" (1988, 23). Participation in the common and simultaneous ritual of voting thus becomes the sine qua non of citizenship and political legitimacy. Where this leaves abstainers is a surprisingly understudied question.
In an oddly parallel fashion to studies of sexuality that seek to neatly dichotomize "active" and "passive" involvement in sex, based on rigid distinctions between penetrators and penetrated, so too in the world of official politics in Mexico, resolute nonparticipation has no place or only marginal significance in most models. That is, by considering electoral politics as the totality of politics in general, analysts often consign abstentionism of any kind to the litterbox of apolitical and apathetic history. But just as one must study teetotalers as well as drunks to understand alcoholism, so too with politics: we gain a far better understanding of why some people participate sometimes in some forms of political activities if we understand why others do not, and in practice if not in theory "active" and "passive" forms of participation--in politics as in sex--are very difficult to neatly separate.
In his famous study of Democracy in Mexico,
Pablo González Casanova identified the "contemplative and patient attitude" among Mexico's "marginal people" as a prominent feature in the popular political landscape of his country (1970, 127). According to González, "the marginal lower classes" are "more patient and civilly harmless
" than other members of the lower classes who participate in some fashion in organized political activities such as elections, albeit often in exchange for paternalistic favors (129, emphasis added). Questions of cooptation, conformity, and consent have long been a staple of mainstream studies of political regimes in twentieth-century Mexico, and understandably so. Therefore, when political developments occur that are at odds with this pattern, they are all the more noteworthy. This was the case, for example, of a particular middle-class political coalition in the 1990s that proved to have a societywide impact: El Barzón was a debtors' movement formed by small shopkeepers and others who could not pay the money they owed banks. They decided to band together and declare a partial moratorium on their collective debt, and indeed were quite successful through the roughest years of financial insolvency and defaults on loans, 1995\-98 (see Williams 1996; Senzek 1997; and Rodríguez-Gómez 1998).
As recounted in the preface, in May 1994 my friends, at least my male friends, seemed intent on thrashing out the possible repercussions of the various elections that would take place in August. In May, there had been enthusiastic street debate over the future of Mexican politics and the role of common citizens in determining this future. By the time I had returned, in September, the elections were over and the political climate in Santo Domingo could not have been more different. There was now widespread civic weariness, due not only to the assassination of Ruiz Massieu, general secretary of the PRI, but also to a more general political melancholy among residents of Santo Domingo. Scarcely one month after the presidential elections on August 21, and in the face of the unambiguous return to the status quo ante, I now witnessed a wave of political disillusionment, apathy, and acquiescence among my circle of neighbors and acquaintances in Colonia Santo Domingo, at least among the men (see chapter 8). There were no more harangues in the streets over the politics of one or another of the candidates, and barely any political engagement whatsoever within families or among friends. Certainly, I witnessed nothing like what I had seen the previous May.
Following the elections in August, the political regime of the PRI had been annoyingly relegitimized, as people became reconciled to the fact that one had to accept, if not necessarily savor, the results. After all, as the media repeated ad nauseum, the citizenry had spoken. If yet another politician had been assassinated, well then, that just showed that Mexico was going to the dogs, heading in the same direction as the rest of Latin America, where violent social politics predominated. Somehow, in all the postmortem discussions of the elections of 1994, the initial enthusiasm and subsequent indifference of masses of voters was lost. This makes all the more persuasive the line of reasoning advanced by Jonathan Fox about voting and the broader questions of citizenship in Mexico: "Most analysis of the emergence of electoral competition concentrates quite appropriately on high politics, on the pacts which define the rules of contestation and the founding elections which shape much of national politics. But analysis of the effective extension of the full range of citizenship rights throughout
a society involves studying how most people are actually represented and governed" (1997, 392). The issue of citizenship is both straightforwardly complex and simultaneously old and new, as Fox shows, by drawing our attention in particular to the tensions of "high and low politics."
I stopped by a friend's house early one day in January 1997 and found his house full of relatives still enjoying a party that had begun the night before. Over coffee, Rompope, and rum drinks, several women initiated a rather curious conversation about domestic violence. It was an exchange promoted in good measure by concerns about agency, culpability, and acquiescence. Two or three women in the house, relatives of the couple who lived there, began talking about one particular man, who was also visiting, chastising him for beating his wife and trying to be "muy macho.
" I was confused, not sure what had elicited the round of ridicule. Perhaps it was alcohol, or lack of sleep from all-night festivities, or my own presence--several people there knew about my book on Mexican men. Then, rather quickly, the discussion dissipated, as the women turned to the wife of the alleged wifebeater and began to laugh. I wondered whether the whole conversation had been a joke. Or perhaps it was an example, famous in anthropological accounts, of how alcohol (or other means) allows one to play the "fool" and "jokester" and say what no one normally dares reveal (see, e.g., Dennis 1979). There are many theories as to who and what is responsible for domestic violence, both in the social sciences and in Colonia Santo Domingo as well.
Debates about domestic violence among my friends in Santo Domingo revolve around opposing theories regarding human will and human nature. As with conflicts regarding such "natural" phenomena as child rearing and mother\-infant bonding (see Gutmann 1998), so too with respect to wife beating and the like, men and women debate the relative merits of concepts of preordained and immutable male-versus-female natures and competing ideas that posit humans' willingness and ability to adapt and change. Nor is religion a safe guidepost, for people on all sides of these discussions can invoke religious scripture in an attempt to enhance their arguments. In an analogous fashion, I think, there is a certain overeagerness within the social sciences to attribute goodwill and good intentions to those who seek small, incremental change (i.e., those who resist), whereas there is a profound reluctance to do the same when it comes to (political) blame for events and ideas that reinforce oppression and social stratification.
Discussions about human will and change are generally concerned as well with the relationship between hope and development. Expectations have everything to do with conformity and control, not only for the most desperate and needy who rebel (i.e., those who can no longer endure), but also for those who have more freedom to realize what they seek to accomplish. Far from looking for simplistic analyses regarding abstentionism, the issue instead should be whether and to what extent different groups of people at different times see themselves as having a stake in one or another political system and form of representation and participation. This, in turn, relates back to the active/passive dichotomy, because one person's passivity may be another's activity--that is, what constitutes passivity in a certain context and from a particular perspective may take on quite different hues in other contexts and perspectives.
Many of my friends in Colonia Santo Domingo express frustration at their lives and living situations. Often this is framed in rather personal terms, such as feelings of being trapped by their families, jobs, unemployment, and the like. Yet I think that these emotions are not unlike those expressed more generally by women and men who feel helpless and complacent or, alternatively, driven and optimistic because of "el sistema,
" "la cultura,
" "la sociedad,
" or simply "las circunstancias.
Whatever else may be different about public affairs and active citizenship on the one hand, and child rearing, domestic violence, and other more "personal" matters on the other, they share several features. Not the least of these is recurring discourse about guilt and innocence, about cause and effect, so that perceived power differences are often subjectively implicated in available channels of change. Briefly put, transformation often occurs when those who feel oppressed force change on others.
Overture to Political Fantasies
The point of this study is not to substitute a facile vision of the scrappy underdog who wants his or her voice to be heard for the more conventional top-down version of political history. The book does focus on the choices, voices, and noises of women and men in Colonia Santo Domingo, Mexico City, in the 1990s, for whom a broader audience is rarely even a fantasy. What these residents of Santo Domingo think about the Free Trade Agreement, about issues of sovereignty and class and national allegiances, is not incidental here. Similarly, whether they vote or not, and whether voting is associated with the dream that somehow they might contribute to changing their political worlds, are not quaint or small matters. Whoever my friends think is to blame for political strife and quiescence, however they feel themselves implicated in the processes of world history, are issues that compel ongoing conjecture and debate--in the working-class neighborhoods of Mexico City as much as in the halls of the academy. Our particular goal in this study is to look for class and gendered qualities, characteristics, and goals to politics, as seen in different attitudes and practices in relation to specific political activities, or simply in the more inchoate manner of political sensibilities.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, it has become commonplace to talk about global connections and transnational associations, the important transformations that have occurred in the last century, whether they be labeled capitalist, imperialist, colonial, neocolonial, postmodern, or simple modern. David Held has written regarding democracy and the global order: "While everyone has a local life, 'phenomenal worlds' are now increasingly interpenetrated by developments and processes from diverse settings." Some feel justified, Held argues, in extrapolating from this understanding "a sense of global belonging and vulnerability which transcends loyalties to the nation-state; that is, to 'my country right or wrong.'" Yet Held inveighs against conclusions that would champion a sudden rise in "a universal political history," insisting instead on "the persistence of a plurality of frames of political meaning" in the contemporary world (1995, 124-25).
Such a conclusion certainly applies in the case of contemporary Mexico. Far from joining in some regional, hemispheric, Latin American, or universal frame of reference, my collaborators in Colonia Santo Domingo evince a sharp sensitivity and awareness to the global movement of both financial and symbolic capital, and they do so within a fairly wide array of viewpoints, eventually arriving at a dizzying panorama of judgments about what it all means and what it all has to do with them. Questions of change, large and small, are of utmost importance to many of my friends--not all the time for everyone, of course, but certainly sometimes, in some ways, for some people, in some places. Offering reasons for and against particular forms of change, and for and against their individual and collective participation in fomenting and/or retarding change, whether it be at the local level of street sewers or at the national level of safeguarding Mexico's natural resources--this is the stuff of daily life in homes, factories, schools, playgrounds, streets, markets, and subways.
Democracy is held by many to embrace self-government of and by the people. What on earth this means and what self-government might look and feel like are the subjects of this study.