Mexico and Her Critics
JCG-1 Calle Lancaster #25 Colonia Juarez Mexico 6, D.F. April 8, 1966
By Joseph C. Goulden, Jr.

Mr. Goulden is 1965 Alicia Patterson Fund fellowship award winner on leave from The Philadelphia Inquirer. Permission to reprint this article may be sought from The Managing Editor, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 400 N. Broad Street., Philadelphia 19101.

From the Hollywood viewpoint “Marriage on the Rocks” was a harmless situation comedy, 100 minutes of antic confusion as Frank Sinatra, pretty girls and assorted other characters whisked through the divorce and marriage mills of a dirty, nameless Mexican border town. As guide they had a drunken mayor (Cesar Romero), who warned of the horrible consequences faced by anyone who drank the water. Not a great work of cinematic art--simply something to send patrons chuckling from the theater.

But Mexico isn’t laughing. And her official reaction points up the raw-nerve sensitivity of Mexicans to criticism which reflects on their development of the past half-century, and also the differing standards the Mexican government applies to internal and external critics of the nation, its people and their way of life.
Officials of the border state of Chihuahua (in which is located Ciudad Juarez, busiest of the divorce towns that cater to Americans who want to shed their mates in a hurry) protested to the Federal government that the Sinatra film was “degrading” to Mexico. The Cinematography Bureau of the powerful Secretaria do Gobernacion (Interior Ministry), which scrutinizes all movies before, approving them for showing here, agreed with Chihuahua. It said the picture, entitled “Segunda Luna do Miel,” or Second Honeymoon, for Latin American audiences, presented a “false image of a filthy border town where quickie divorces and marriages are performed by a shabby mayor.” The censors ordered deletion of all scones “offensive to Mexico,” about 50 percent of the footage, in effect killing the movie insofar as Mexican audiences are concerned.

Next, another Gobernacion agency, the Department of Migration, sent an order to its consuls and border point officials declaring that under no conditions were entry papers to be given Sinatra. The chorus formed rapidly. The Mexican Association of Radio Announcers said it was considering a boycott of Sinatra records by its disc jockey members. “Sinatra Insults Us, but Has Big Investments in Mexico,” headlined Ultimas Noticas, an afternoon paper. Ultimas Noticas claimed Sinatra owned a “private night club and casino” in Baja California, and a luxurious beach house in Acapulco, the latter in violation of a Mexican constitutional provision (often evaded) that bars foreigners from buying property within 50 kilometers of the seacoast. Pepe Romero, columnist for The News, noting that Mexico is the second-largest foreign market for U. S. films, said Hollywood should learn “that it is not good business nor good friendship to include in... films insulting character portrayals, or off-the-cuff dialogue, which will offend those who pay their four pesitos to see it.” And Romero criticized Hollywood’s “utterly ridiculous misconception and ignorance (of)...Mexico’s cultural, historic and artistic background.”

El Universal quoted Sinatra’s reply to the ban: “Evidentemente creo que alguien on el pais vecino no tiene sentido del humor” – I think evidently someone in our neighbor country doesn’t have a sense of humor.

In matters concerning national pride, Mexico indeed is humorless, and in contradictory ways that are baffling to the newcomer. The only defenses given Sinatra were backhanded ones: That he was unaware he was hurting the feelings of his “buen amigos” in Mexico; that he proves his fondness for Mexico by his frequent visits to Acapulco, and by benefit concerts for children (Ultimas Noticas, however, said the latter were a “tax dodge”); and that once the “misunderstanding” was corrected he’ll be a welcome visitor again. There was a total absence of comment, however, on whether there was a factual foundation for Hollywood’s depiction of border morals and sanitation.

The Sinatra incident is parallel to a dispute last year over the book, “The Children of Sanchez,” by Oscar Lewis, the American anthropologist and sociologist. Lewis’ book, too, was denounced as “degrading” to Mexico because of its clinical study of Mexico City slum life, and comments of his interviewees, all slum dwellers, on the Party of Revolutionary Institutions (PRI), the dominant political group here.

A certain dichotomy is found in both controversies that brings out a contradiction in the meaning of “freedom of speech” in Mexico. A portion of the Mexican press regularly castigates the ruling establishment – the functional government, state and federal; the “Familia Revolutionaria,” or Revolutionary Family, the amorphous power group that is at the epicenter of Mexican political and economic life; and PRI, the mechanism through which the Familia Revolutionaria rules. Perhaps the most persistent critic – and undeniably the liveliest – is Siempre (Always), a Life-sized weekly magazine that serves as a sounding board for the Mexican left. Its regular contributors include Lamarzo Cardenas, president of Mexico from 1934-40, and Vincente Lombardo Toledano, long prominent in labor and communist affairs. Both men are leaders in the Mexican leftist bloc. And, whatever gibes that Hollywood might direct at Mexico in an occasional film are constrained when measured against the normal fare of Siempre readers. For example, the March 30 issue of Siempre, on the newsstands the week of the Sinatra tempest, depicted a buxom senorita in scanty revolutionary garb, happy in the lap of a fat-cat type wearing striped pants and spats. “La Revolucion Prefiere a Los Banqueros” – the Revolution Prefers the Bankers – read the caption. A few months earlier the same cartoonist, Carrenos, showed a diamond-festooned banker wearing the crossed pistol belts and sombrero he had stripped from a quivering, elderly revolutionary, and standing atop a safe to admire himself in a mirror. (In the event Carrenos’ point isn’t clear, the Mexican left is now engaged in a sweeping campaign to convince the public that the Mexican Revolution has slipped into the hands of bankers and industrialists at the expense of the welfare of the masses, of which more will be said later.)

Inside pages of Siempre are savage in their denunciations of Mexican society--the poverty that still exists 55 years after the Revolution; the continuing foreign economic presence, despite stringent constitutional and statutory bars aimed at preventing a continuation of the imperialism of the Porfirio Diaz regime (1876-1911); the wage-price disparity that cripples economically much of the working class. Typical of the cartoon layouts was a recent sequence by Ruis, whose forts is biting irony, entitled “Mexico, El Pais do los ‘Peros’” – Mexico, the Land of the ‘Buts.’ Ruis wrote, “All the foreigners who visit Mexico say it’s marvelous, although their final comment is always the one word, ‘but’.” And Ruis proceeded to tick off some of the “peros” that separate aspiration and reality of the Mexican Revolution, circa 1966, as the leftists and a substantial number of other Mexicans see them:

“Mexico produces coffee for exportation, PERO, that which we drink is synthetic and with foreign trade marks ...and costly.”

“The petroleum is ours, PERO, the (state-owned) industry is a nest of rats.”

“In Mexico there is absolute freedom of the press, PERO, there is not one decent newspaper.” (A questionable claim.)

“In Mexico democracy reigns, PERO, all the elections – like the bull fights – are rigged.”

“Our constitution is one of the most advanced in the world, PERO, the government is not in proportion.”

“Mexico produces a stupendous tobacco, PERO, it’s exploited by U. S. monopolists.

“Mexico, champion of international rights, PERO, El Senor Freeman (U. S. Ambassador Fulton Freeman) controls the international airport.” (A reference to visa barriers which the U. S. puts in the way of would-be visitors from Mexico whom it considers politically unreliable.

Another recent Siempre cartoon showed a campesino attempting to water a puny plant labeled Mexico. But there was a knot in his hose, corruption.” Another campesino, standing in front of his earthern dugout in Northern Mexico, assured an interviewer he indeed has heard of “Los Hijos do Sanchez,” the slum dwellers of whom Lewis wrote. “Our rich relatives in the city,” he called them.

Why does Mexico react so vehemently to adverse comments by foreigners, and tolerate more penetrating critics amidst its own citizenry? And what is responsible for what appears to be hypersensitivity to exposure of shortcomings (such as continuing poverty in some segments of society), the existence of which is obvious and admitted?

The Mexican Revolution, because it is still a “new” revolution even at its 55th birthday, remains in the formative stage of trial and error. Gaping holes continue in Mexican life, some of them because of the lingering of pre-Revolutionary mores (casual toleration of official corruption and the omnipresent “mordida,” or “bite,” as a price for doing business or obtaining certain governmental permits, for example); others because of operational errors committed by the Familia Revolutionaria, (confusion and backfilling in the land distribution program, and a willingness to impose the expense of industrial development on workers via a stagnant salary scale). The Mexican sees these things; he knows them for what they are, and he accepts them as part of the price of living in a dynamic society – and particularly the “official” Mexican who his rank in the government or in PRI, or his counterpart in private business. But he is not mature enough, politically or as a nationalist, to condone discussion of these faults by outsiders. The Mexican fools, hotly and sometimes justly, that foreigners are expressing superiority every time they point out flaws in his country. “One does not criticize a half-finished building, or an incomplete painting, said an executive of an industrial firm in Monterrey. “One permits the architect and the contractor to complete their work before one passes judgment. We are still constructing our nation. Think, first of all, what we had at the first of the Revolution. Discuss first of all what we have accomplished, not what remains to be done.”

Comments on Mexican poverty, squalor and venality are also an adverse reflection on the ruling PRI and can be put to use by political opposition (meaning within the party structure, as there are no meaningful opposing elements elsewhere) as evidence that PRI and the Familia Revolutionaria are not doing a good job. The Mexican Revolution, as did its predecessors and antecessors elsewhere in the world, made sweeping promises as a tactical means of gaining support in its early stages. As does every nation, Mexico contains naive and idealistic elements that believe, to the letter, in revolutionary manifestos and political platforms, and think that they should be executed. Because all of the promises have not been fulfilled, the Mexican asks, “Why?” And the opposition within the Revolution is able to cite the authority of t outside impartial experts” when a foreigner --and especially a man with the credentials of an Oscar Lewis – writes about Mexican conditions. (When the conservative newspaper Excelsior, however, notes editorially that 23 of Mexico’s 34.6.million citizens lack a supply of pure water, there isn’t a ripple.) In the instance of Sinatra, Mexicans felt they were ridiculed by a “friend” who professed to enjoy their country’s hospitality, but who used its people and its laws as playthings, laughing behind his hand all the while. Mexico has spent millions of pesos in the last decide to renovate the major border cities – Matamoros, Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Juarez and Tijuana – and to make them something more than red-light districts surrounded by trinket shops and crooked cops. Then Hollywood casually and jocularly informs the nation that the border remains a chain of cesspools.

Another factor contributing to Mexican sensitivity is the now direction the country is taking in international affairs. President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz (GDO, in Mexican headlinese), in the 16 months he has been in office, has sought to widen Mexico’s influence in Latin America, and especially in the Central American states just to the south of its borders. In explaining the Sinatra film ban Gobernacion, spokesman repeatedly brought up the point that “Segunda Luna de Miel” was being screened in Guatemala – at the expense of Mexico’s dignity, and to Hollywood’s profit. So miffed was Mexico on this point that it spoke of making diplomatic overtures to other countries to ban the movie within their borders.

Why, then, does Mexico permit a free rain to such critics as Siempre, the voices that reach a broader spectrum of the nation than an occasional American movie or book? Part of the answer is found in the Mexican Political Constitution of 1917:

Article 6: The expression of ideas shall not be subject to any judicial or administrative investigations, unless it offends good morals, impairs the rights of third parties incites to crime or causes a broach of peace.

Article 7: Freedom of writing and publishing writings on any subject is inviolable. No law or authority may establish censorship, require bond from authors or printers, nor restrict the liberty of printing, which shall only be limited by the respect due to private life, morals and public peace.

A constitution, however, is no stronger thin the accepted practices of government that come into being under it, and in many respects the Mexican Constitution is enforced in a haphazard manner. For example, the Constitution specifically prohibits the operation of private schools by religious orders that offer classes in religion; such schools, however, flourish in Mexico City because of the crowded conditions of public schools. Various persons offer a plausible explanation for the latitude of freedom of speech afforded such men as Cardanas and Lumbardo Tolodano through such media as Siempre:

Cardenas, despite his ideological differences with the incumbent Familia Revolutionaria, remains an authentic hero of the Mexican Revolution, with broad popularity among the Mexican masses. He fought, at one time or another, under Emiliano Zapato, Francisco (Pancho) Villa, Alvaro Obregon and Plutarco Elias Callas, a military who’s who of the Revolution. It was during his regime that Mexico nationalized foreign oil holdings, and the telegraph and much of the railroad system. And, in 1936, by sending Callas a former president, into involuntary exile, Cardenas established the still-existent principle that a Mexican president, however powerful he may be while in office, may not interfere with the incumbent. The Mexican Constitution prohibits any president, provisional or full-term, from ever holding the office again; Cardenas bridled at signs that Callas’ supporters sought to preserve for him an ex-officio grip on national affairs. For these reasons Cardenas, although out of the presidency for a quarter-century, still wields a considerable force in Mexican politics. And revolutionaries of his generation and ideological bent, even when they look at modern Mexico in historical perspective and realize the reasons for the direction the country is taking, are uneasy at seeing their child (the revolution) in the hands of man who have different ideas on its upbringing. Their presence is a powerful counterbalance: Did it not exist, the Mexican Revolution might have “mellowed” even more than it has. The incumbent Familia Rsvolutionaria is constantly aware of the following commanded by Cardenas – or, at a minimum, of the internal political chaos that could be created by unhappy cardenistas if they chose to become more than a polite and subdued loyal opposition.

Freedom of speech perhaps is a minor sop to toss such men. Yet, considering the volatile ingredients still present in Mexico, freedom of speech for Lazaro Cardenas seems an inexpensive safety valve for the established order to provide in return for internal stability, and all the more so because of the iron grip which the Familia Revolutionaria has on the electoral process.

Received in New York April 15, 1966.

©1966 Joseph C. Goulden, Jr.

Mr. Goulden is a 1965 Alicia Patterson Fund fellowship winner on leave from The Philadelphia Inquirer. Permission to publish this article may be sought from The Managing Editor, Philadelphia Inquirer.