Book Review: The Life and Times of Mexico
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Author: Earl Shorris
Reviewer: Stephen Keim SC
In 1943, when Earl Shorris was just seven years of age, his father drove, every Saturday morning, from their home in Douglas, Arizona, across the border to the town of Agua Prieta, Mexico. The purpose of the journey was to fill up the family’s old Packard automobile with cheap Mexican petrol.
While the car was filled, the young boy walked up and down the main street of the town, exploring. He found bullet holes in the buildings and he found an old man who sat outside his front door in the dust and sun of the desert.
A friendship, or at least a conversation, eventually, developed and The Life and Times of Mexico, first published in 2004 is the result of a life’s work and study by the author and that conversation.
The old man imparted the fact that the bullet holes were the result of the “great general, Pancho Villa ”, whose attack on Agua Prieta on 1 November 1915 had been defeated with careful planning and the support of the United States and its President, Woodrow Wilson.
The old man told the story of that battle. He described “the searchlights; the machine guns; the dying men crying out, begging for water, praying, asking for their mothers to come and hold their hands and bind up their wounds”.
The old man told stories but he also imparted advice for anyone who wanted to understand Mexico. He said “look at an old country, long and short: neither the history nor the moment will do”. He said: “Everything is everything. Examine each almost invisible hair along your beloved’s cheek. Mexico is memories, resonances: you cannot know too much”.
And he said: “Begin with the wars but, even before that, look where you are standing. This is Mexico: begin with the land”.
Apart from three days at a planning law conference in Wellington, New Zealand, I have only been out of Australia, once. In January, 2012, our older son, S., was getting married To B. in the colonial city of Queretaro in the state of Guanajuato in central Mexico. So, we went.
Four and a half weeks in Mexico, three days in San Francisco, and two stopovers at LAX. That is my travelling experience.
Before 2012, based on many conversations with travellers, I considered that the saying that “travel broadens the mind” was the inverse of the truth.
Now, with all of that experience behind me, and speaking strictly for myself, I have confirmed but also refined my views on the effects of travel. The problem is with the Romantic mindset that I take with me every time I leave my front door. I was always going to love Mexico. The food vendors on the streets and at the open air markets ; the operators of the small hotels in which we stayed; the magnificent churches; my first taste of tacos el pastors at El Tizoncito , on Tamaulipas Street, Condesa; the kids who sold us small packets of lollies or cigarettes, one at a time; the soldiers playing cards and eating chips at the military checkpoints on the road to Cuernavaca; the teashop on Michoacán Street; the coffee shop named after Vincent Van Gogh; the taqueria with cardboard walls in Tulum, Quintana Roo on the Yucatan Peninsula; the micheladas : beer with lemon juice in the bottom; and the cop I chatted to about how much his job paid, in the middle of a playing field, also, at Tulum.
I loved them and it, all. And, so, I have this romanticised view of Mexico. I think everyone should visit Mexico. And the next time I travel overseas, it will be back to Mexico. But five weeks is nowhere, long enough. It will be for a much longer time.
And, somewhere, deep in the intellectual part of my brain, I know that the villages in Tuscany and Provence, about which my best friends speak in glowing terms, would probably appeal to me just as much if I took time out to visit them. But, in the real part of my brain, the emotive part which guides my life, I know that only Mexico, with its cenotes and its charming Mayan villages in Yucatan and Quintana Roo and its tianguis , is worth the trouble of lining up to go through customs and immigration.
You can see that travel altered but did not broaden my mind.
I did try my best to find a better appreciation of the country I was visiting. I read a book written by an American in 1908 and another by an Austrian, half Jewish, French writer written in 1951, to help me get below my surface impressions. That reading just added to the force of my Romantic outlook and made me love Mexico, even more.
And, for most of the three years since I returned, I have been reading The Life and Times of Mexico. No one in our house knows how The Life and Times of Mexico got here. One of our friends, obviously, thought that one of us would benefit from reading it before we headed off across the Pacific but no one can remember who that was. For some weeks after we returned, it lay on a table near me and, eventually, I started reading. The old man of Agua Prieta had me hooked, immediately, and I have lovingly returned to it whenever that quiet unaccounted for moment has presented itself.
On the morning of Boxing Day, 2014, I lay in bed and read the last few pages of the acknowledgements.
Having written much scholarly work about Mexico and several novels about aspects of its history, and, himself, having become as old as the old man of Agua Prieta had been in 1943, Earl Shorris was still having conversations in his head and seeking guidance from the old man about how to put his knowledge on paper. He needed a structure for the work that was to be the culmination of those decades old conversations.
And then it came to him. Mexico was a person just like the old man of Agua Prieta, himself. And the story of Mexico would be the story of the person that Mexico is.
And, so the 744 pages of The Life and Times of Mexico became the story of a person, “the Republic writ large” .
So, using terminology from Nahuatl , the language of the Aztecs, the first part of the book is called Tonalli, the centre of vital power located in the head. This deals with history and philosophy.
Book Two is called Teyolia, the centre containing the soul, located in the heart. This discusses literature and art, family, character and imagination.
Book Three is the Ihiyotl, the spirit or breath, in which the author deals with economics, education, politics, corruption, race and, most of all, survival.
The last book before an important appendix is the Tonalamatl, where Earl Shorris looks at prognostication. What does the past and present, all we have seen and learned, mean for Mexico’s future.
And the Appendix, which does not have a Nahua name is comprised of two interviews. The first is with La Maestra, Ifgenia Martinez , a university professor of economics, a concerned activist and thinker of the left in Mexico, who has been at the heart of many of the most important moments of Mexican political history over the last sixty years. Her influence and importance to the recent past and future of Mexico is increased, not diminished, by the fact that she has, more often than not been on the losing side in those moments.
The second is with Jose Chim Ku, a Mayan village community leader from the village of San Antonio Siho, lying among the cleared jungle and failed henequen haciendas on the border of Yucatan and Campeche states. His is a story of finding your opportunities at home and finding your fulfilment in serving your people, often by way of advocacy with those who should be representing and supporting their communities but who often fail to do so.
The future of Mexico depends on what can be achieved by people like Sra. Martinez and Sr. Chim Ku.
When you read a 700 page book over three years, you can forget an old man of Agua Prieta, sitting on his chair in the dust of the desert, no matter how important he is to the book’s creation.
It is not as if I have not had plenty else to think about.
The Spanish in Three Months which accompanied me and helped keep me awake on that first long haul flight to LAX is still by my bed. I still dip into it, regularly. I am still on those early pages. I still struggle to remember enough Spanish to complete a simple greeting to impress my Colombian/Australian friends who visit and clean my workplace at night to make it look clean and schmick for the morning.
And Mr. Shorris, himself, is sufficient often to distract the reader from the old man of Agua Prieta. His is not an academic history, though his scholarship is broad and deep. He turns up in The Life and Times of Mexico, sometimes, at the headquarters of the Zapatistas of Subcomandante Marcos in remote Chiapas ; at a hopeless failure of an amateur bullfighting attempt in a rainy field adjacent to a provincial abattoirs; in the home of a family eking out a living, making and selling tacos at outdoor markets in Mexico City; or being slipped in to witness and record the planning and discussions during the final stages of the nine month student strike at the National Autonomous University of Mexico shortly before it was forcibly ended by Federal Police in February, 2000.
Mr. Shorris did more than fulfil an unsaid promise to write The Life and Times of Mexico. Crucially, he has lived and been part of those same life and times.
If the history of Mexico was not true, no one would believe it. It is composed of twists and turns which would be rejected by the producer before the screenwriter could get them out of her mouth or on the printed page.
Mexico had an independence struggle from 1810 to 1821. It started as a radical movement, including intellectuals, peasants led by the hero priest, Father Hidalgo leading to ragtag armies and cruel martyrdoms. The victory was consummated by Agustin Iturbide , a former Royalist general, who briefly became the first emperor of the Mexican empire. The contradictions by which the independence struggle was resolved led to several decades of instability and warring between groups of liberals and conservatives.
Mexico also had a revolution. It started almost exactly one hundred years after the independence struggle; also lasted for approximately a decade; and evolved through a series of alliances and betrayals into an extended civil war. Not unlike the independence movement, the spoils of the revolution fell to factions who were, perhaps, the least revolutionary in outlook and disposition.
Between the two great struggles, Mexico had the great Indigenous President, Benito Juarez , who promised to end for all time the bloody factional battles of the previous decades. Mexico’s great opportunity was curtailed by an invasion, at the behest of English bondholders, by a French army, who installed the brother of the Austrian Hapsburg emperor, Maximilian I , as the second emperor of Mexico.
Juarez was forced to withdraw to Mexico’s newly made border with the United States of America. Maximilian, meanwhile tried to be progressive and kind, and, thereby, lost the support of the conservatives who had conspired with the French to put him in power. The French also abandoned Maximilian and withdrew their troops.
Juarez fought back, winning battle after battle. Maximilian made a foolish last stand; was caught trying to escape the siege; and died by firing squad on the Hill of Bells at Queretaro. So, the better part of Juarez’s presidency was lost fighting a bitter war rather than building a strong and peaceful Mexico.
Two decades earlier, Mexico had fought a singularly unsuccessful war against the United States and, through the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, lost the 525,000 square miles previously held north of the Rio Grande. The heroes of that war were the Boy Heroes , a group of cadets who died defending their military college at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City against the invading US troops. One of Los Niños, Juan Escuta, threw himself, wrapped in the Mexican flag, from the ramparts of the castle to stop himself from falling into the hands of the enemy.
So, Mexico has heroes and won and lost battles to celebrate from its long series of tragically bloody struggles.
Perhaps the most celebrated event of modern Mexican history did or did not occur on 9 December, 1531, the day that a vision of the Mother of Christ appeared, speaking in Nahuatl, the local Indigenous language, to an a poor Indigenous man, Juan Diego , on the Hill of Tepayac, in what is now the Villa of Guadalupe, a suburb of Mexico City.
After Juan dutifully reported his vision to the archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumarraga, and a couple of further miracles were performed, Our Lady of Guadalupe had successfully woven together the Indigenous traditions of a Mother Goddess and the Catholic traditions brought with them by the Spanish conquerors to produce a cult like devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe which has, inter alia, made the basilica built at the site of the vision the most visited Catholic site in the world.
Shorris narrates the strange history of what is now Mexico in anything but chronological order. A sense of intimacy infuses every part of the narration. Those more recent events like the Presidential election that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI) finally lost in 1999, after 71 years of electoral and social dominance, to Vicente Fox, when Shorris was present at the count and declaration of the poll in a PRI stronghold in working class Cuernavaca, gain that sense of intimacy from the author’s presence at and witnessing of the events in question.
But the events of 1521 when Hernan Cortes led a small ragtag group of Spaniards and a coalition of local Aztec rivals to capture the Aztec stronghold of Tenochtitlan and kick start the Spanish conquest of the Americas is told with the same degree of personal detail of the main actors as to create the same sense of immediacy.
And Shorris never relents in his quest of understanding the ideas and beliefs that drive the events he describes. He describes Mexico as a mestizaje society in which Indigenous ideas and the imported ideas of the conquerors both continue to influence events and strive to be accommodated in Mexican hearts. He describes the great tragedy of both Spain and Mexico that Spain successfully avoided a Reformation and never felt the benefit of the influx of new ideas that came with the Renaissance.
But one product of this historical heritage is that, when inequality led to revolution, the prime actors had a paucity of ideas and philosophy to drive and give meaning to their actions.
It is a rare visitor to Mexico who does not cross the border or arrive at Benito Juarez airport in the capital without some passing knowledge of the life and works of Frieda Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera.
And the obligatory visit to the Palacio des Bellas Arts , located next to Alameda Central Park, soon reminds the visitor that they have read, in the past, about Rivera’s famous murals and those of his colleagues, David Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco.
A visitor who is vaguely interested in art would also be familiar with the work of Oaxaca born Zapotec artist, Rufino Tamayo, and his younger and more modern colleague, Francisco Toledo, also from Oaxaca and also of a Zapotec heritage.
Among the writers, the first time visitor to Mexico might be lucky to have read or even heard of Nobel prize winner, Octavio Paz, and would run out of recalled names, very soon thereafter.
In Teyolia (Book Two), The Life and Times of Mexico surveys and discusses in detail the art, the literature, the journalism, the cinematic works, and the sculpture of Mexico. Every form of art and literature is considered. Shorris recounts the intellectual life of Mexico. The study is exhaustive. Pre-conquest art and literature is treated seriously as are modern works written in Indigenous languages.
But The Life and Times of Mexico seeks more than completeness in the retelling. In accord with the urgings of the old man of Agua Prieta, the quest is for knowledge and understanding. Shorris searches for that which signifies Mexican art and he seeks this in sculptures that were buried by both soil and time and in modern literature written in the last century. And he seeks, in the writings and the artworks, the type of understanding and interpretation that he, himself, is seeking in the quest on which he, himself, has embarked.
It is not surprising that, in Ihiyotl, in discussing the economics, politics, education, corruption, race and future of Mexico, the history, philosophy and intellectual endeavours of Mexico would be reprised, albeit, often on a smaller scale, more focussed on the struggles of the individual.
In Book Three, the ever presence of the great northern neighbour, which defeated Mexico in 1847 and took a huge portion of Mexico’s northern territory at that time, becomes more visible.
The economic dominance of the United States and its propensity for military intervention casts a shadow over Mexican politics; the Mexican economy; and the lives of all Mexicans, at all times.
Mexican sovereignty took a body blow almost as severe as that contained in the Hidalgo-Guadalupe Treaty when NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, came into effect on 1 January 1994. Its transformation of parts of Mexico into a maquiladora (assembly line) society has intensified and the lack of tariffs on US primary products has forced even more of the rural population off Mexican farms and into Mexican cities.
The treaty, a result of American influence and Mexican politics, continues to influence Mexican politics and economics on a day to day basis.
It was not until I had been reading The Life and Times of Mexico for several years that I became interested in knowing Earl Shorris other than the young boy who spoke to the old man of Agua Prieta and the learned man who knew about and loved Mexico in equal proportions.
Earl Shorris died, aged 75, on 27 May 2012.
He was much more than I had imagined from reading The Life and Times of Mexico. He was everything I could hope for in my authors to reinforce my prejudices. In addition to all that study and knowledge of Mexican and Latin American art, history and literature, he spent a lifetime fighting injustice, materialism and plutocracy in the United States.
He had established a lasting legacy in the Clemente Course in the Humanities , a project that makes study of the humanities accessible to prisoners and others cut off from traditional pathways by disadvantage and poverty.
As I read the links about Mr. Shorris’s life, I felt that I had found and lost my own Old Man of Prieta in the one moment.
I comforted myself with the knowledge that my visit to Mexico preceded his death by a few months. For a short time, we had shared a love of Mexico, the person writ large.
There is much in the story of Mexico that, as well as being ironic and unbelievable if it wasn’t true, that can lead to sadness and pessimism.
But there is much that encourages hope for the future.
The Life and Times of Mexico contains the stories of many of what the book refers to as social doctors: teachers; nurses; healers; advocates. People devoted to making the lives of others better and more joyful.
And adversity produces greatness in some. On 2 October 1968, the Mexican government, 10 days before the start of Peter Norman’s Olympic Games, the Mexican government turned its troops on to protestors in the Tlatelolco District of Mexico City. Three hundred students died and the government managed to suppress the story of its own wickedness for many years.
But, as The Life and Times of Mexico relates, a French born journalist and writer, Elena Poniatowska , went out, while blood was still in the streets, and started interviewing and investigating. In 1971, she published The Night of Tlatelolco, which was the only book published for twenty years which dared to contradict the government’s sanitised account of the events.
And, in 1989, a major telenovela star, Maria Rojo , born the same year that the young Earl Shorris met the Old Man of Agua Prieta, starred in Rojo Amanecer (Red Dawn), a movie that also challenged the government’s version of the events of Tlatelolco on 2 October 1968. Her performance meant that the victims of the massacre would always be remembered and the government could be challenged.
In September 2014, about a 100 students from a rural teachers college in Guerrero State travelled to a nearby town to protest government educational policies. 43 were kidnapped by local police on the orders of the local mayor and handed over to a criminal gang and tortured and murdered.
Mexico is in revolt against its president, Pena Nieto, as a result of these events.
The Person writ large in The Life and Times of Mexico can put up with a lot. But there are times when that person says “Enough”.
Mexico is at its best and most hopeful on those occasions.
By the time I finished reading the acknowledgements of The Life and Times of Mexico, another birthday and Christmas had intervened.
Those who know and love me had brought me many books.
Among them are Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo and Carlos Fuentes’ Where the Air is Clear, both novels published in the 1950s.
Both are much praised and very influential. Both have featured in The Life and Times of Mexico.
As the seven year old Earl Shorris found in 1943, some conversations go on forever.
Stephen Keim SC