A superb portrait of Mexico, a nation still in the process of being built—perhaps, hopes Shorris (In the Yucatán, 2000, etc.), by “inserting freedom and fairness into its past in order to change its future.”
It is an old trope, old even in Octavio Paz and Alfonso Reyes’s time, to suggest that Mexico is a country haunted by history. But so it is, and Shorris points out with reason that “everything that happens in Mexico today has roots in the clash of civilizations that took place at the beginning of the sixteenth century, from the choice of a president to the killing of Indians in the jungles of Chiapas.” That clash had improbable results, writes Shorris; the conquistadores, only a few hundred in number, under the lawyer Cortez should not have been able to overwhelm the great Aztec Empire. Yet it happened, and Mexico’s post-conquest history has been marked by struggle between Europeans and Indians for political power; the lowliest Spanish arrivals, however poor and disreputable, were socially superior to the best-educated and wealthiest creoles, to say nothing of the indigenes. Shorris’s narrative approach is at once journalistic (he’s spent a lot of time on Mexican ground over more than half a century) and historical (he’s read every book ever written, it seems, on Mexico’s past). It is also exquisitely literary, for Shorris believes that Mexico is driven by ideas such as the revolutionary antipositivism of the Flores Magón and the quasi-anti-Mexicanism of the newest generation of authors, who call themselves the Crack Generation (which “refers not to ‘crack’ as ‘rock cocaine,’ but to ‘crack’ as in la Ruptura”). He is not so literary, though, as to explain away with metaphor some of Mexico’s darkest secrets, among them the Dirty War of the 1970s, when government stooges murdered liberals at a rate to rival Argentina and Chile. Shorris closes by considering Mexico’s binational future (one in ten citizens now live in the US), the battle to end corruption, and the struggle to replace creaky authoritarian parties with democratic ones.
As useful in its time as Alan Riding’s Distant Neighbors was 20 years ago.