Other Discussions on Mexico

In Praise of the True Mexico

I recently returned from the University of the Americas in Puebla (UDLA), Mexico, where I was the guest of the student body. I was deeply touched by the reception I received and the interest displayed in my talks at the Second Congress of the Americas, co-sponsored by UDLAP and the Hoover Institution, and at the UDLAP Model United Nations. Both were extraordinary events. At the same time, the establishment of a Stanford at UDLAP was announced. Stanford students will share rooms with Mexicans (an excellent arrangement) and this will I hope lead to UDLAP students coming to Stanford. All this is the culmination of my long efforts to establish a relationship between Stanford and UDLAP, where I was a visiting professor forty years ago. The task is not yet finished, the next item being to persuade Stanford's Model United Nations (SMUN) to take part in UDLAP's Model U.N.

This was part of the plan I envisioned when, over fifty years ago, I was asked to establish Stanford's Latin American program. The Stanford base was Bolivar House, so named in honor of the Spanish American Liberator, about whom I regularly taught courses in Spanish and English. Many former Bolivar House students from several countries held a joyful reunion here last October.

It is difficult now to imagine the obstacles we faced. Professors of French and German hated each other, and both despised Spanish. Moreover, most Spanish professors looked only to Spain, to which they paid pilgrimages from World, dismissing Latin America and its culture as unworthy of attention. With enormous effort, my generation made Latin American culture respectable. We remember with pain the hostility, indeed the intrigues, of some faculty members opposed to Latin American studies or to interdepartmental programs.

Later another, still unresolved problem came from a different quarter. As part of the overall design, we created the Casa Espanola, a residence with, as Resident Fellow, a Mexican Assistant Professor of Spanish, a very cultured lady and a superb pianist. Then, without a word to me, the university administration abolished it. As the administration took a sharp turn to the left. Affirmative action led to the appointment of minority representatives to university faculty and administrative posts. One of them was Cecilia Burciaga, who was generally liked and respected. Zapata House was created to fill the void left by the Casa Espanola.

These were the days of the Cold War, and I read Pravda in Russian every day to try to figure out what the Soviets were up to. I was surprised by an editorial honoring a revolutionary artist, who had shown his scorn for the capitalist system by destroying works of art at a San Mateo bank. I knew nothing about this episode, proof that in Moscow they knew more about happenings on the Peninsula than I did.

Then I saw the name of the artist: Tony Burciaga. He and his family moved into Zapata House, where he took the title of Artist in Residence; the administration told me he had no official title. He was popular among chicanos. My only regret was that the house had an evident bias which we had avoided; Marxists and conservatives had mingled in friendly discussions at Bolivar House and at the Casa Espanola.

When the left dominated on the campus, it promoted fierce hostility to the Hoover Institution. As a mugwump, I sought to promote polite and informed debate between the two groups. I was distressed when Tony Burciaga painted a series of murals ridiculing Hoover and its Fellows, infuriating them and frustrating my attempts to encourage a dialog.

I wrote the Stanford Daily a letter on the danger of politicizing universities. I had just returned from Morelia in Mexico, where the Zapatistas had taken over the university and terrorized people. They invaded the hotel where I was staying; the management could not stop them. I spoke with some of them; they were an ignorant, indeed primitive bunch.

The response came a few days later in the Stanford Daily. Tony Burciaga wrote a letter insulting me and accusing me, generally viewed as a liberal, of McCarthyism. As part of affirmative action, Spanish departments were appointing individuals with Spanish names, often chicanos. Burciaga went to the Spanish Department and got a number of chicanos to sign the letter. The university administration was embarrassed, and the general reaction was one of disgust. This was for me the reward for decades of hard work building up the department. I broke all ties with it. It had lost the scholarly standing which we had established. Stanford is now about the only major university where a student may obtain a Ph.D. without knowing Latin, which is like studying engineering without knowing mathematics. The French Department still requires Latin and/or Greek.

The stress on the chicano "culture" is an insult to Mexico, which has an impressive culture. However much Mexicans defend their compatriots in this country, they have little respect for the chicanos. Especially grotesque is taking zoot-suiters as a symbol. They are ridiculed by Mexican comedians like Tin-Tan. Americans remember that they took the jobs of Americans who had gone off to war; there were fights between U.S. sailors and zoot-suiters in Los Angeles and elsewhere. If, as I hope, UDLAP students come to Stanford, they will be sickened by the realization that this is the image of their culture. Emiliano Zapata is an interesting figure, unfortunately known to most Americans through the Hollywood prism. A scholarly and sympathetic study of him would be most welcome, but not the trivial use of him by student revolutionaries. In my discussions with UDLAP students, I found respect for him and outrage with the corruption of Mexican ruling groups. but the Zapatistas like sub-comandante Marcos are generally viewed with indifference or disdain.

To put things in perspective, Zapata House must be renamed. One possibility would be to rename it simply Mexican House, or Hispanic American House, which would indicate a welcome for all Spanish-speaking students. I follow closely the shifts in these terms, and now "Hispanic America" is making a comeback as Mexico, indeed all of Spanish America, draws closer to Spain. This is evident in the Congreso de la Lengua Espanola, held this week in Zacatecas, Mexico. Let me finally stress that I strongly support certain Mexican-chicano traditions like the posadas, and I applauded the protests against the ridiculing of the Dia de los Muertos by students who "celebrated" Halloween, i.e All Souls' Day, by partying at the Stanford Mausoleum. That display of bad taste must also go. So must the Zapata House murals. Asian students recently agreed to remove some attractive murals from their house because they omitted some groups. The Zapata House murals, painted by a paracaidista (parachutist), simply insult senior scholars respected internationally, even by those who do not share their ideas. The Asian students show better manners.

Ronald Hilton, Professor Emeritus (hilton@stanford.edu).

More on Puebla

I am adding more strings to the Puebla guitar. In my last Puebla memo, I mentioned that Governor Bartlett is the center of a controversy. Here is the other side of the story: As usual, when I was at UDLA, the students were pleasant and kind. When I arrived at the huge Mexico City Airport, I fell UP some concrete stairs and was reduced to a wheelchair. Paola Jeannete Vera Baez came to my aid and provided the horsepower necessary for me to circulate at UDLA. She also works in the public relations office of Governor Bartlett, and she has just sent me a pile of books. Most were reports by the Governor's office. I have deposited them in the Government Documents section of Green Library, and I am asking Librarian Charles Eckman to acquire whatever he can to make possible study of the state government, typical of the Mexican system. They will be of interest especially to political scientists.

In addition, Paola has sent me three small but attractive volumes, LECTURAS DE PUEBLA. It is a well-annotated anthology about the history of Puebla from the earliest times. It features a large, pull-out reproduction of a contemporary general staff map of the 1863 siege by the French army. However, the Mexicans celebrate as their national holiday (May 5) the 1962 victory of General Ignacio Zaragoza, which was unfortunately but a prelude to defeat. The text of LECTURAS DE PUEBLA tells the story straight. The books (with a foreword by Governor Bartlett) were published by the State Government and presumably are used in state schools. I am asking Green Library to acquire them, and I suggest that interested departments, especially Spanish, use them as a text for those planning to go to Puebla. They could also be used in a course for students at Stanford in Puebla, so that they could make an on-site study of the history of the city. Paola could tell how to obtain the books; Puebla bookstores surely carry them. Perhaps Paola could serve as a guide.

Finally, the eruption of Popo would make Puebla an excellent place for geologists and environmentalists. I hope the eruption will an eruption of their interest. Under my watch, geologists like Charles Park played a significant role in our Latin American program. We had a cult of former Stanford President John Casper Branner; a plaque in the Branner Geology Library commemorates an exhibition I organized in his honor. Most of my geology friends are either dead or emeriti. I will try to establish contact with their successors.

Still More on Puebla

One more string to the Puebla guitar: religious studies. This occurred to me while reading the excellent book by Peter Lester Reich, MEXICO'S HIDDEN REVOLUTION: The Catholic Church in Law and Politics since 1929 (University of Notre Dame Press), by Peter Lester Reich, who received both a Ph.D. in Latin American history and a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley. He is now Professor of Law at Whittier Law School.

Puebla, "the City of the Angels," is a microcosm of the Mexican religious mosaic. The great cathedral is testimony to its Catholic heritage. One of the sights of the city is the hiding place of nuns during the anti-clerical Mexican revolution. Now the state government and the Church are hand in glove; the Mexican flag occupies a place of honor in the cathedral. The large congregations are proof that Catholicism is very much alive there, although, as in Spain, it has lost its monopoly. There is a social pecking-order among the various Catholic sub-groups. The Franciscans are especially beloved by the poor, among whom the flame of faith burns brightest. The Mormon presence is strong; its well-dressed, well-behaved missionaries exude competent success, and their social work is appreciated. There is a strong Lebanese presence. The greatest tension is created by the revival of the Quetzalcoatl cult, especially in the Cholula area, which I described in my memo "Another Rancho Santa Fe?" Our Hoover-UDLA golondrina, Paul Rich, is an expert on the Free Masons, who traditionally have been active in Mexican politics and religious life. The religious set-up is quite different from that in the United States and Europe, and we thank Professor Reich for his contribution to giving us the historic background of these observations, which are a footnote to his general book about Mexico.

Studies of a society should include religion, or lack of it. Notre Dame Press is helping to save us from the academic (but not theological) sins of omission in this area. LOUIS MASSIGNON: the Crucible of Compassion (1996) by Mary Louise Gudem of the university's Romance Languages Department is a biography of the French Orientalist who worked to bring about an understanding between Christianity and Islam. American universities neglect the study of the Islamic world, which has a powerful presence in Latin America. Only in Mexico City does the Jewish colony, resident mostly in the Polance area, exert a strong influence. In an effort to win its support, the PRI candidate for mayor of Mexico City accused the leftist candidate Cuauhtemic Cardenas of being anti-semitic. Jewish influence in the Western world generally is concentrated in the capitals. In Puebla, this is a non-issue. I note that, in Stanford University BULLETIN, the entry "Religious Studies" contains sections on "Asian Religions," "Christianity," and "Judaism," but none on Islam. There is a variety of fascinating courses, including "Sexual Politics in the Ancient World" and "Sex, Body, and Gender in Medieval Religion," but nothing on poor old Mohamed. Perhaps they talk about him under polygamy. Or perhaps age is dimming my sight.