Monday, February 19, 2007

A Mexican parable

Or, Santa Madre de Dios! I read Mark Singer's excellent article in the New Yorker about the three Mexican fishermen who were adrift in the sea for NINE months and whose boat floated all around the ocean almost all the way to China, from San Blas, Nayarit, in the central Pacific coast, where it originally departed. If you look at a map, it is flabbergasting. They drifted to the other side of the world.
The story is obviously illuminating in terms of human drama, of human resilience and the will to survive, but what is even more illuminating to me was that it is a typical story of Mexico. Had Octavio Paz been alive, he would surely have recognized it as a perfect parable of the Mexican character.
Reading about the saga of the three poor fishermen, who survived in great part because they were fishermen and they knew how to catch fish, I did not for a moment doubt that their story was true and their motives for sailing simple: to make an honest living. However, as Singer reveals, when they were found and the media found out about them, the first reactions of joy and swollen national pride quickly turned into deep distrust. All of a sudden, people were not convinced that these three guys were who they were. Skepticism set in, closely followed by cynicism, and this is why to me this is a deeply Mexican story.
Mexico is a country of distrust. Nobody trusts anybody. You start from the assumption that you are being lied to and cheated on: by your fellow man, by the man who fixes the soles of your shoes, by the government, by the gazillionaires who own half of the country in cohoots with the government. You cannot really trust your neighbor, you certainly cannot and should not trust the police, the law is basically for shit, the country is so mired in corruption that you may actually think there is a corrupt gene in every newborn Mexican baby.
So when you come back alive from nine months at sea, after the warm welcome wears off, the cynical, bitter distrust sets in. You were dealing coke, you ate the two other people who died, you are lying, etc. Singer mentions that the fishermen arrived in the middle of the most contentious presidential election in Mexican history. But why was it the most contentious? Because of distrust. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador threw his giant tantrum (and many, many Mexicans believed him) on the basis that the results could not be trusted.
As Singer narrates the story, some classic elements of the Mexican character stand out. It is possible to simplify what defines it in two words: ingenuity and fatalism. These two traits are what keep Mexico buoyant and sink it at the same time. The fisherman aptly named Salvador, a Bible-carrying Oaxacan, was probably the reason they survived. He was an ingenious, resourceful, and instinctive improviser. However, as Singer points out in this enlightening passage:
Salvador hewed rigorously to the theological interpretation of shipwreck and deliverance, unwilling to entertain, evidently, the implicitly heretical notion that it was actually his own inventiveness, courage and resolve that had kept all three fishermen alive.
Precisely. One important Mexican trait: perhaps because it is fated that we're all going to die eventually and there is nothing anybody can do about it, Mexicans seem to be constitutionally incapable of planning ahead, but absolutely genius in the improvisation department. What is not taken into account will work out somehow, with a lot more complication and drama that is actually necessary, but where is the fun (and the suspense) in a clearly delineated strategy? If you take the elements of fate and of chance out, it may mean you are somehow responsible for what happens, and we have trouble wrapping our minds around that concept.
Perhaps because we don't plan and we don't prepare, and we bullshit our way through any situation, another equally important Mexican trait is we don't believe in ourselves. Or we don't believe in ourselves enough. In this we are diametrically opposed to Americans, who believe in the individual as the first agent of his own destiny and toot the horn of heroic individuality at the slightest provocation. Not us. We believe it is God or chance or fate, but just as we fear responsibility, we give ourselves no credit. Thus, we always think we are worse than we actually are.
Maybe that is why, in moments where national honor is at stake, such as the Soccer World Cup or the NY Marathon, we go through a ritual of grossly engorged national pride which is always coupled with the dreadful, knowing anxiety that we're certainly going to blow it. We have no faith in ourselves. We win, a wild paroxysm of joy erupts; but when we lose, the criticism is always vicious, the national engorged pride turns against the losers with a vitriolic vengeance, with the painful notion that we knew all along we were not good enough and we did not even deserve to be there. The Mexican team is berated (little mice, chokers, achicopalados, etc), guilt is usually blamed on the lack of proper preparation, we go back to confirming that we're not at the same level with the rest of the world.
However, gosh, as these three survivors show, we seem to be at quite the same level if not better. We seem to be capable, by our genius for improvisation, and because of our tolerance for heaping amounts of authority abuse and/or indifference, to be stubbornly resilient and truly heroic. Think of all those people who cross the border and survive the desert and then survive the harrowing conditions of being an illegal worker in this country, with no money and no language, etc. Still, you will not find a Mexican, even if his or her ordeal is the stuff of legend, calling CAA asking to sell their story.
Of course, as I read the article, I thought what everybody and their mother must have thought: this is a great idea for a movie. And of course, I had been long beat to it by two dangerously religious hucksters who promptly contacted the fishermen and ripped them off. Allow me to quote:

A report... placed the value of the deal at $3.8 million. When I asked Kissack about the incongrous sums, he said "Don't believe what you read." Indeed. One didn't have to scrutinize the contracts' fine print to recognize that the castaways' putative future millions would be "net profits" -- money that they would start to see, presumably, around the time McDonald's sold its ten-millionth Three Fishermen Happy Meal. In the meantime, each man would receive a cell phone and a two-thousand-dollar monthly allowance for five months.
Right. My movie idea includes the two hucksters, because that is where it turns sour and disgusting, like it love it. But this is my point, these three unschooled fishermen would have never thought for themselves of the idea of selling their story for millions of dollars, even though at sea they surmised that they had gone farther and survived longer than anybody else in history. Here they were, risking their lives at sea for $20 dollars a day, and now their story was so much more valuable than an entire lifetime of underpaid, dangerous work.
Which brings us to the crux of the matter. The poverty. The lack of schooling. Singer makes little of the fact that the three guys abandoned school for work. He ascribes it to wanderlust, lack of attention, indiscipline. I think it is much more complex. Poor Mexicans simply do not see the connection between education and progress. And it's not because they are dim, but because they look around them and where is the progress? In Mexico the only people who seem to improve their lot are the ones who are already born rich or the ones who run for the border. For everybody else, society is not upwardly mobile, or if it is, it is so in extreme slow motion and with impossible obstacles.
However, Mexicans see the value and utility of work, as devalued as it is in Mexico, even if it is only to afford a roof over their heads. Ambition, born of a strong belief in individuality, is not a natural trait, and in fact it is viewed as proud and arrogant. Parents, unschooled themselves out of dire need, don't see the point of school. Just imagine what these three guys could do with some more schooling.
Life in Mexico is cheap. That's why three men could go out on a boat without a permit, without lifesavers, without an oar, without asking questions and without informing anybody. Because, really nobody cares about the poor in Mexico and they know it. The government is there mainly to rip them off and make their lives miserable with petty bureaucratic mazes. Yes, it will provide insufficient schools, it may give peremptory healthcare but it does so like a grudging handout, and does not really offer options. If you are born poor, this is your lot and you don't matter.
And what happens after the parades end, and the money runs out and the media go home? The three fishermen take up drinking. Why? Because it must all seem absurd, it must be extremely hard to readapt (and I doubt there are squadrons of mental health professionals assessing them or offering help) and they are back to square one. Back to the land of no progress.

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