- Historic Sites
In the bright mestizo tapestry of Mexico’s thirty centuries of civilization, the Indian, the Spanish, and the modern threads interweave—and tangle
April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
Perhaps his Catholic faith (or the remnants of an Aztec fatalism) will enable him to accept the ravages of urbanitis with some forbearance. His religious fatalism certainly contributed to his “what God wills” (“ lo que dios quiera ”) acceptance of three hundred years of colonial tyranny; yet I strongly suspect that Catholicism no longer has the tight hold it once had, notwithstanding the weird penitent displays of devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12, when thousands of moist-eyed believers crawl for miles and miles on bloodied knees to honor the gaudy effigy of their patron saint in the basilica in Mexico City. Although more than ninety per cent of the population professes to be Catholic, it is the women who go to church, informally serving as their husbands’ surrogates in religious matters. (My father, who doggedly claimed to be un buen católico all his life, attended mass about once every five years and quite frequently told risqué stories about priests and nuns.) In this connection, a most crucial current problem is the collision between the Catholic church and civil reformers over population control, the lack of which is threatening Mexico, like many other Latin American countries, with disaster.
Mexico has been officially anticlerical since 1857, when Benito Juárez promulgated laws which forced the church to divest itself of enormous property holdings. But with the complicity of Porfirio Dfaz and his conservative clique, Catholicism continued as a major force until President Plutarco Galles (in the late 1920’s) clamped down on the church and ordered strict enforcement of all anti-clerical measures. To make his point quite clear, he summarily ordered the public execution of a recalcitrant priest who belonged to the militant clerical order. All parochial schools and colleges were abolished, nuns and priests were (and still are) forbidden to wear clerical garb in public, many churches were closed, and all government functions were shorn of any religious observance, thus effecting a separation of church and state more complete than that in the United States. With the single exception of Avila Camacho, no Mexican President has ever publicly attended mass during his term of office. Indeed, less than five years ago, President Dfaz Ordaz pointedly declined to attend the religious celebration of his own daughter’s wedding, attending only the civil ceremony.
Aside from Mexico’s notoriously liberal divorce laws, there is a considerable laxity in all kinds of legal and administrative procedures, the ambiguous language of the Napoleonic Code providing great latitude for judicial accommodation. Though the courts seem solemnly dedicated to the enforcement of even the most minute letter of the law (government bureaucracies can be maddeningly persnickety about insignificant formal requirements), most Mexican lawyers know that the wheels of justice can be lubricated with generous applications of mordida ( mordida means “bite”—as in “put the bite on him”). As in most Latin countries, paying mordida to government officials is accepted without any particular outrage from the general citizenry. During the early sixties, when the mayor of Mexico City ordered the police to quit taking bribes from traffic violators, I heard a cab driver bitterly complain that he was now forced to pay more mordida than ever before. “ Qué chingadera! ” he grumbled. “In the old days I simply paid the cop five or ten pesos and he’d let me go. Now he has to arrest me and take me to court, where I pay fifty pesos and also lose a half day waiting for my case to be heard. I’d rather bribe a poor cop who needs it much more than a rich, fat judge.”
Although it is difficult to measure official corruption with any degree of statistical certainty (bribes are seldom recorded in public ledgers), some old-timers feel that mordida is now less prevalent than it was when the military ruled Mexico, the generals having had more agile and magnetic fingers than the police. From 1880 to 1940, with the sole exception of Francisco Madero, every President of Mexico was a general; and the most profitable ministries and top-echelon offices were reserved for military cronies and in-laws who generally appointed more knowledgeable civilian braintrusters to do the actual work. Yet in spite of their glutinous hold on the treasury, the get-rich generals have gradually lost their power during the past thirty years. In 1954 a civilian President suddenly “retired” 265 generals in one swoop, a delightfully flamboyant gesture which incidentally tended to support my father’s long-held belief that the Mexican army had more generals than privates.