Book Review: The Life and Times of Mexico by Earl Shorris

If you are a repeated visitor to Mexico and you are interested in a historical, social, political, cultural, artistic commentary, then this comprehensive, 700+-page tome by Earl Shorris is a must read.   Shorris’ insights into why Mexico works the way it does is rooted in its experience as a Spanish outpost in the New World, an inherited conservative legal system rooted in a Latin judicial system, and Olmec creativity and Aztec stratified hierarchies that adapted to conquest.  There is so much going on in this book that it can be at times overwhelming and dense.  It took me over a month to read it, but it was well worth the investment of time.

If I were a psychologist, I might draw the conclusion that today’s Mexico is a bi-polar country, torn between its indigenous and Spanish heritage, and the tension of identity that this creates.  Shorris talks about the metiszo or mestizaje, the Mexican who is the blend of Spanish and indigenous parentage, and the self-love/hate relationship that that promotes and promulgates.  He discusses why it was so easy for the red-bearded Cortes to be embraced as the Quetzalcoatl, and how the Aztec emblem of the double-eagle which was also the coat of arms of the Spanish crown, became common symbols that were embraced by the conquered.    When I toured the Ex-Convento Santa Rosa in Puebla recently, there was a clay sculpture that embodied this history.  The base was adorned with Spanish soldiers and Aztec warriors, depicting the conquest of New Spain.  At the top was La Malinche and Cortes, arms outstretched to heaven, holding a baby that represented the blending of the two and the future of the country.  La Malinche was Cortes’ mistress who served as his translator and betrayed her people.  These figures could be the Virgin Mary or the Virgin of Guadalupe and God, bringing forth the Baby Jesus who would become the saviour.

There remains in Mexico today a social class system based upon heritage.  Criollos are those of “pure” Spanish descent.  The mestizos are the mix of Spanish and indigenous.  The indigenous, or indians, are usually darker, rural and less educated, with less access to social services and opportunities.  Skin color can define a person’s opportunity to succeed and advance.  The social movements that have turned to street activism are the result of a closed system where democratic principles are difficult to actualize.   As Mexico seeks to expand it’s international partnerships with other nations, it will begin to break loose from the domination of its northern neighbor.

NAFTA, economic opportunity, immigration, the economic engine of Monterrey, Carlos Slim Helu (owner of Telmex and one of the richest men in the world), the 70-year “presidency” of Porfirio Diaz, the political leadership decisions to create Mexico as a labor market rather than a manufacturing/production market, the 1910 “revolution” and implications for democracy, and the incredible literary and arts contributions made to the world by Mexican writers and painters are all discussed in this extraordinary book.

When I read Shorris’ perspectives about the dream imagery of the ancient Mayans, Aztecs and Zapotecs that have influenced contemporary artists, I understand how my friend Pantaleon Ruiz Martinez in the village of Teotitlan del Valle is bringing forth the soul of his people to convey floating people, animals and symbology on canvas.

There is so much more than what I have touched on here.  Please pick this up and settle in for a good read.  You will love and understand Mexico so much more for it.

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