A story from the Aztecs to Zapata

The Life and Times of Mexico

November 25, 2005

In September 2005, it was reported in the UK media that a column of Mexican troops, sent to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, was the first Mexican force to enter US territory since the Mexican-American War of 1847. Readers of Earl Shorris's weighty introduction to Mexico will find that this report was inaccurate: Pancho Villa attacked Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916.

Shorris loses few opportunities to explain to his fellow Americans that their country has treated Mexico unjustly on many occasions.

The 1847 war was an "ultimately shameful campaign", not the patriotic triumph portrayed in the jingoistic Marines hymn From the Halls of Montezuma . The North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 has inflicted economic damage on Mexico no less painful than its military defeat 150 years earlier. Undocumented workers from Mexico are harassed at the border by "vigilantes and racists" and brutally treated by US immigration authorities, and yet they "work hard, collect very little in return for the taxes they pay and are, in short, a huge net profit".

Shorris has read more widely than most authors of introductions to Mexico and seems to have talked to more Mexicans - from government ministers and business plutocrats to prostitutes and struggling workers - than any commentator I can think of. The result is a book of enormous range. For a convenient introduction to Mexican letters, from the Popol Vuh through Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz to the post-modern crack generation of 1996, the reader could not ask for more.

Shorris's treatment of the visual arts is more patchy. Pre-Columbian art is represented, as are the great 20th-century masters, but 300 years of the colonial period are barely touched on, and some major figures, such as the 19th-century landscape painter Jose Mar!a Velasco, are absent. Music, other than popular forms such as the corrido , is given short shrift: there are "few outstanding Mexican musical compositions".

Any introduction to Mexico inevitably devotes a good deal of space to history - economic, social and political - and unfortunately this is not Shorris's forte. Statements such as "[Zapata] passed his days dark-eyed and serious and his nights drinking, telling stories of his days as a bullfighter, enjoying his women" seek to add more drama to the story than history can justify. Zapata drank, but not to excess, as far as we know, and was renowned for his horsemanship, not for bullfighting. Shorris is overly fond of theories that ultimately explain very little. After the triumph of Comtean Positivism under Porfirio D!az (president for most of 1876-1911), we are told Mexicans turned to spiritualism. And it is interesting to learn that later presidents Alvaro Obreg"n and Plutarco El!as Calles were spiritualists, but this hardly helps the reader understand their ruthlessness after the weak rule of President Francisco Madero.

Shorris clearly intends his book for the uninitiated, but its division into four parts, corresponding to the Aztec conception of the body, fragments his account and leads to repetition. At times he assumes a familiarity with Mexican terminology ( chilango : a resident of Mexico City) or Hispanic letters (for example, the writings of Miguel de Unamuno) that his readers are unlikely to possess.

At heart Shorris is a novelist. He writes powerfully (if sometimes lengthily), but sometimes prefers sweeping statements to judicious judgments. From the fall of the last Aztec Emperor, Cuauhtemoc, in 1521, until the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40), Shorris boldly asserts, not one ruler of Mexico "truly loved its indigenous people, except Maximilian", the Hapsburg prince imposed by Napoleon III. The Tlaxcalans and other native peoples subjected to Aztec assaults and sacrifice probably did not feel greatly loved by Cuauhtémoc. And Cárdenas was a principal architect of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), to which Shorris attributes many of Mexico's woes.

Shorris is at his best with vivid reportage, in which the smells, sounds, colours and textures of Mexico spring to life, from the patter of a prostitute in Mexico City to the rhetoric of venerable Maya elders. He is acerbically on top of his material when he describes the social and economic issues that loom over Mexico's future, and relentless in attributing the nation's problems to its ruling class and the unjust policies of the US, known to Mexicans as the Colossus of the North. He exposes the political ineptitude of President Vicente Fox, whose achievement in toppling the PRI in 2000 has not been matched by delivery on his promise to expose the nasty secrets of Mexico's dirty war. Nevertheless, just a few years ago, nobody would have dared forecast that a former PRI president (Luis EcheverrÍa Àlvarez) would be twice charged with crimes against humanity (for massacres of students and bystanders in Tlatelolco in 1968 and Mexico City in 1971). Impunity may not have ended, but it has at least been questioned.

Shorris's is not the only introduction to Mexico available, nor is it always the most dependable. But no other book is so full of the ordinary - and so often extraordinary - people who hold the future of this great country in their hands.

Ian Jacobs holds a PhD in Mexican history from Cambridge University.

The Life and Times of Mexico

Author - Earl Shorris
Publisher - Norton
Pages - 780
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 0 393 05926 X

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