It occasionally bothered me that I had lived for a number of years in Mexico and had published several books, none of which were about the country in which I was living. Indeed, I had spent 2011-14 sweating over a long, fairly complicated cultural analysis of Japan. Recently, I was asked to give a talk to the sales personnel at the book chain Gandhi, in Mexico City (Mexico’s equivalent of Barnes & Noble), about my work, and in the question-and-answer period that followed one member of the audience asked me how it was that I hadn't written about my adopted country. I felt somewhat guilty.
"You're right," I replied; "I have no excuse. After all, I've been here for nine years. Maybe next year I'll move to Tokyo and write a book about Mexico."
Ha ha. Everybody laughed. But it may not be all that funny, and the question, as in the past, nagged at me. It might have been that I felt I had nothing new to say about Mexico, about which so much has been written. I mean, was I seriously going to rehash Cortés, sincretismo
, Lázaro Cárdenas, and the emergence of the modern state? It didn't really appeal.
And yet, thinking I had nothing new to say didn't stop me in the case of Japan (and as it turned out, I was wrong); and in that case, I couldn't even read the language. So what was the problem? I kept scratching my head until, quite by accident (or synchronicity?), I happened to see a Kevin Costner film called McFarland, USA
, released in the United States early in 2015. While not a documentary, the film is a true story, about a football coach named Jim White who accepted a position at the local high school of a dreary, 100%-Hispanic town in the Central (San Joaquin) Valley of California in 1987. He hated it, and took the job only because he had no other options. His students typically got up at 4:30 a.m. and worked as fruit and vegetable pickers—backbreaking labor for miserable wages—after which, at around 8 a.m., they went off to school. All Jim White wanted was the American Dream: to get out of this low-paying job and move up the socioeconomic ladder. The tension in the story, and its central theme, revolves around the Mexican/Chicano vs. US value-systems, i.e. warmth (the traditional Hispanic family structure and culture) vs. power (the go-go world of US capitalism).
But this tension, I realized, was an old theme for me, going back to 1981: The Reenchantment of the World
, a study of the collapse of the magical tradition in Western Europe and the concomitant rise of modern science. Much of my book on Japan, for example, is an exploration of the conflict between the ancient Zen craft tradition and the imposition of modern US values that had eventually turned the country into an economic powerhouse at the cost of driving the Japanese people somewhat crazy (hence the title, Neurotic Beauty
). Was Mexico so different? As the film ended, I recalled the words of Porfirio Díaz, that Mexico's problem was that it was tan cerca de los Estados Unidos
, i.e. too close to the United States, and also a study by Professor William Vega at the University of California, Berkeley, which revealed that the rate of mental illness among Mexicans living in the US was almost exactly twice that of Mexicans living in Mexico. The theme of modernity vs. tradition is a very rich one, representing a conflict with no easy answers, and which is not likely to get resolved any time soon. Was it perhaps time for me to be examining it in a Mexican context? Had I finally found the topic of my "Mexico book"? Let me, then, talk a bit about the Costner movie, and the questions that I think it raises.
Of course, "Mr. White" is a rather ironic name for an American who moves into an all-Hispanic town, and in fact his students take to calling him "Blanco." Everything is alien to the White family: the language, the food, the entire way of life. Upon arriving at the house they have rented, they find a mural painted on the wall of the living room, of a beautiful indígena
woman, a Mother Earth archetype, holding out a platter of fruit and vegetables and surrounded by flowers—a symbol of nurturing, sustenance, female wisdom. White's reaction is, "Paint store, first thing tomorrow!" Going to the only diner in town, they don't know what chorizo is, or what enchiladas are, and play it safe with tacos, which they presumably are familiar with from Taco Bell. And so on. It's as though they are walking across the surface of the moon.
White, in any case, discovers that while the football team is basically useless, not having won a game in decades, the school has a number of kids who can run like the wind, and so persuades the principal to launch a cross-country running team. In a series of endearing adventures, he whips his charges into shape, until they actually win the first annual cross-country state championship. (In real life, White coached his teams to victory 9 out of 14 times between 1987 and 2001.) He also gets the boys to start thinking about college, so that they don't have to remain pickers for nothing wages all their lives; and in fact all 7 of the boys (on the 1987 team) went on to graduate college and become teachers, coaches, policemen, and so on—solid middle-class jobs. The dirt-poor Chicanos, with White's help, thus make it into El sueño americano
, the American Dream.
The impact White has on these kids is actually quite significant. For what was the alternative to the American Dream, if not stagnation, poverty, or worse? As one of the other teachers says to White, pointing to the building next door to the school, "That's the town prison. Handy, no?" But a few months later, she comes to White's office to read him a poem written by one of his runners, José Cárdenas (who later became a writer for the Los Angeles Times
"We fly like blackbirds through the orange groves/floating on a warm wind./When we run, we own the earth;/the land is ours./We speak the birds' language,/immigrants no more./Not stupid Mexicans./When we run, our spirits fly./We speak to the gods./When we run, we are the gods."
"Welcome to McFarland, Blanco," she says to White.
White takes the boys to the ocean for the first time in their lives, and he gives them a sense of pride. "You kids have the biggest hearts I've ever seen," he tells them. And they begin to see themselves that way as well, and to open their minds to the wider world.
It's all very moving, and perhaps a bit too romantic—the film was made by the Disney Corporation, after all—and falls into the very successful Hollywood category known as the "White Savior" genre. Kevin Costner is hardly new to this role, having played it brilliantly many years ago in Dances with Wolves
, in which he protects a branch of the Sioux Indians from an American Army intent on destroying them, and from which he deserted. (In the wake of the film, the Sioux Nation adopted him as an honorary member of the tribe.) The criticism of this genre is that it is patronizing: in order for the "natives" to be saved, a white male (usually) figure has to come in from the outside and organize/liberate them, since (the implication is) they would not be able to do this for themselves. (See also The Last Samurai, Avatar
, and a whole host of American inner-city schoolteacher films.) However, a crucial element in most of the White Savior films is that the Savior himself gets saved, gets liberated in the process. Thus at the same time that Jim White's students enter the American Dream, he himself finds reason to reject it in favor of the lifestyle and values of traditional Mexican society. To my mind, this redeems the film (as well as White), and highlights the conflict of traditional vs. modern cultures. Let's look at a few examples from the movie.
-The mural of the Great Mother painted on the wall, which White said he would paint over. When he finally gets around to doing it, several weeks later, entering the room with two buckets of paint, his younger daughter tells him, "Don't even think about it." Clearly, the image has begun to percolate through the family's consciousness. (Compare this with the Starbucks computer-generated logo of the Great Mother archetype, which is nothing more than an empty corporate image. Sad to say, many Mexicans have bought into this trendy US lifestyle, sitting in cafés that have spread across Mexico like a cancer, hypnotically staring into their laptops, and drinking bad, overpriced coffee. Progress?)
-The town embraces the White family. A neighbor gives Jim a chicken. The Díaz family has him over to dinner, stuffs him with enchiladas, and gives him food to take home. "You are not family unless you eat with them," Sra. Díaz tells him. (Do even 10% of US families eat together anymore?)
-Over and over we see the town engaged in group rather than individual activities, such as a combination car wash and tamale sale, that the White family is drawn into.
-The town makes a quinceañera
(coming-of-age party for girls) for Julie, Jim's older daughter, which overwhelms him, emotionally. "Gracias por todo," he tearfully announces in Spanish, to all who attended the event.
-Meanwhile, Jim comes to the attention of a rich white high school in Palo Alto, which offers him a coaching job. One of his runners finds out (from Julie, who is not happy about this), and confronts him about it: "Were you going to even tell us?" he asks, "or were you going to just run off into the sunset with those country club kids? We all get it: This is America. Gotta go bigger. Nicer place, better pay; everyone's always gonna go for the better everything. There ain't nothing American Dream about McFarland."
Jim says to his wife, regarding the job offer: "This is the situation we've always dreamed about." His wife replies: "Think of everything the town has done for us. They have protected Julie like family. You think we are going to find that in Palo Alto, or anywhere else [in the US] for that matter? Nowhere I've ever lived has felt this much like home."
-Then come the state playoffs, and Jim leads the opening cheer for the team—in Spanish: "Uno, dos, tres, McFarland!" he cries. After the match, he tells the recruiter from Palo Alto that he won't be taking the job. Jim White lives in McFarland to this day.
The psychologist Fritz Perls liked to tell the story of a Mexican farm worker who swam across the Rio Grande in search of work. Come Christmas, he swam back to visit his family, who wanted to know all about life in the mythical United States. "Well," he tells them, "the gringos are actually very nice people. There is only one thing that gets them angry: they don't like to be reminded that they are corpses."
And so the flip side of the White Savior, who breaks open a closed, dead-end life for his students, so that they can enter the American Dream, is that Jim himself becomes disenchanted with that super-individualistic, alienating dream, in which people are turned into the walking dead. He becomes, in other words, a human being.
Of course, a lot of Mexican life gets omitted from this picture. My neighbors across the street from me in Mexico are cold and rude, and used to toss their garbage off their balcony down to my front door, until a series of hostile exchanges put an end to it (more or less). In terms of being supportive as regards success, a Mexican friend told me that the society is like a pot of crabs: if one of them manages to get to the top and tries to climb out, the others pull him back down. (One of the runners' fathers in the film reacts to his son's desire to go to college by telling him, "No one needs a book in the fields".) Reviewing McFarland
, the New York Times
wrote that places like McFarland are often "nightmares of crime and dysfunction," and that the film is really "a slick and safe Disney version of a fascinating and complicated reality." If the movie expresses an important truth in terms of a conflict of values, it also papers over the dark side of traditional societies as well.
As for the American Dream: it works, in this film, but by and large it is a con, as Mexicans coming up to the US (legally or illegally) eventually find out. There is the study by William Vega, mentioned above, which surely says a lot about how psychologically damaging US culture is for Mexican immigrants. And what jobs are available to them, in any case? I am reminded of that song from West Side Story
, "America," in which the Puerto Ricans say that now they are free—"to wait tables and shine shoes." It goes on:
"Skyscrapers bloom in America/Cadillacs zoom in America/Industry boom in America/Twelve in a room in America!" (Etc.)
In fact, it turns out that a rather heavy reverse migration has set in, such that between 2005 and 2010, 1.4 million immigrants moved back
to Mexico from the US, and 90% of these voluntarily. According to Alysa Hullett, an American reporter living in Oaxaca, these folks are lonely and miss their own culture. One immigrant she interviewed in Washington State complained that it took him eight months to meet his neighbors, whereas in Mexico City, “the whole street piles into one house for dinner.” Clearly, things have changed. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey discovered that 65% of Mexicans say they would not
move to the US if they had the means and opportunity to do so.
Surely, values must have a lot to do with this. At around the same time that Jim White was coaching his cross-country team in McFarland, Kevin Conway, owner of one of the largest farming operations in the San Joaquin Valley, was telling the American anthropologist Daniel Rothenberg:
“We’re in business to make money and bankrupt our competitors. That’s why we exist. We don’t exist for the benefit of the farming community. We don’t give a damn about the farming community. We don’t believe in promoting agriculture in general, so that all may benefit. We believe in promoting our label.”
A pretty good summary of the American ethos, it seems to me: life is about me, myself, and I; about making money, and not much else. This is the stark reality that the Mexican immigrant encounters.
As Rothenberg documents it in his book With These Hands
, Mexican workers come up to the United States with images in their head of the country as a type of paradise: they are going to make a fortune up north and then return home and live like kings. It’s not a total fantasy: material life has improved for many towns in Mexico, as a result of migrant labor. But what most migrants typically get caught up in is a system of brutal exploitation—among the worst faced by the American working class. They often live in shantytowns, work 14 to 16 hours a day, make very little money, have their wages stolen from them, and are frequently subject to severe physical violence. Over the years there has been a lot of legislation attempting to curb these abuses, but as Rothenberg notes, given the “floating” nature of the farm labor system, these laws are very difficult to enforce.
There is also a heavy social and psychological cost in terms of value systems, according to Rothenberg. In Michoacán, Rodolfo Gutierrez, a student at a local university, told him: “I know a lot of guys from here who’ve gone north and returned really different, really cholo
. They change—their personalities, their ideas, their clothes—their whole way of being. When they come back, they don’t show their parents the same respect.”
Also in Michoacán, Alberto Mosquera, a priest-in-training, said of the migrants that they “often lose their sense of community obligation. Their goals become individualistic and their attitudes become characteristic of North American culture. The men invest in their homes, but not in their community.”
The larger picture is that the imposition of neoliberal economics, and the American Dream, on traditional societies—whether we are talking about India, or Mexico, or Japan—allows a certain sliver of the middle class to rise to near-elite status, but at the expense of the rest of the population, and this then tears at the fabric of those societies. During the first two years of President Peña Nieto's sexenia
(2012-14), 2 million more Mexicans fell below the poverty line, and Carlos Slim's personal wealth is equal to something like the combined wealth of the bottom 17 million people. This is the real upshot of the "meritocratic society," that the gap between rich and poor gets greater, not less, despite all the hype. Social mobility is largely an illusion, and certainly in the United States, which has nearly the lowest rate of social mobility among all the industrialized nations in the world, if not actually the lowest.
As for tradition vs. modernity, Oxford professor Terry Eagleton has this to say in his brilliant essay, The Illusions of Postmodernism
"'Traditional' or pre-modern societies have a great many merits which our own set-ups lack...On the whole they have a richer sense of place, community and tradition, less social anomie, less cut-throat competition and tormented ambition, less subjection to a ruthlessly instrumental rationality and so on. On the other hand...they are often desperately impoverished, culturally claustrophobic, socially hidebound and patriarchal, and without much sense of the autonomous individual. Modernity has precisely such a sense of free individual development, with all the spiritual wealth that this brings with it; it also begins to hatch notions of human equality and universal rights largely unknown to its forebears. But we also know that this is the more civilized face of a barbarous uncaring order
, one which sunders all significant relations between its members, deprives them of precious symbolic resources and persuades them to mistake the means of life for the ends of it." (Italics mine)
All I can conclude, at this point in time, is that too much traditionalism—what anthropologists call "hypercoherence"—leads to stagnation, and too much individualism and enterprise leads to chaos and alienation. Balance is finally the issue, which is one thing I took away from McFarland
. In terms of values, Jim White was living at one extreme, his students at another. The collision of the two ways of life modified both, for the better. The real question is what this might mean on a larger political scale. For surely, to have nearly half the country stuck in poverty, while a small elite pursues the American Dream, can in no way be called "balance." It is, in fact, a disaster, and confronts us with a question that I, as a foreigner who has made Mexico his home, think about quite often: What would true success for Mexico be, and how is it to be achieved?
©Morris Berman, 2015