Mexico Loses Its History

Mexico City

On the eve of the Bicentennial of its Independence from the Spanish Crown and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, this republic is awash with patriotic colors. The official countdown to the twin Centennials begins on Mexican Independence Day September 16, the nation’s maximum patriotic holiday that celebrates the uprising of the country priest Miguel Hidalgo in Guanajuato on that day in 1810.

Although Hidalgo’s rebellion was a flop, uncorking a geyser of blood (the priest himself was dragged before the Holy Inquisition, gunned down by a firing squad, beheaded, and his head hung from a public building), Mexico finally won its liberation from Spanish domination 11 arduous years later in 1821.  Thousands of local and national events over the next year will commemorate Hidalgo’s flawed insurrection (at least 100,000 killed) and the even more bloody  Mexican revolution a hundred years later in 1910, which is thought to have cost more than a million lives.

But a funny thing has happened to Mexico on its way to the dueling Centennials: it seems to have lost its history.

This August 24 when sixth graders returned to their classrooms, many were stunned to discover that nearly 30 pages (pgs 147-173) had disappeared from their history textbooks.  The missing pages discussed the European Conquest of Mexico and three centuries of colonial rule.

The textbook revision has generated an uproar in this history-obsessed country.  Mexico is largely mestizo, genetically mixing the Indigenous with the European, and the elimination of teaching the Conquest and the Colony “mutilates our identity” in the words of  Olac Fuentes Molinar, the former under-secretary of basic education for the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP.)

Diminished attention to the conquest of between 12.5 and 25 million indigenous peoples (only 1.5 million survived to be counted in the first census taken by the Crown a hundred years later) is seen as a blow at Mexico’s pluri-cultural roots.  The disappearance of colonial history and the cruel indignities the indigenas suffered under the Spanish yoke further depreciates the role of Mexico’s Indians and flies in the face of the country’s traditional anti-colonial trajectory.

Such revisionist history is “Eurocentric,” says Hugo Casanova of the National Autonomous University’s (UNAM) Educational Investigation Institute.  “Our children will never know the complex, painful origins of our nation.”

The Secretariat of Public Education insists that it’s all a big confusion.  Only 7,000,000 revised history books (out of a total of 27,000,000) will be distributed to primary school students this year, explains sub-secretary Francisco Gonzalez Sanchez who, as the SEP’s point man on basic education was charged with overseeing the text book revisions.  Sections on the Conquest and the Colony were previously incorporated in fourth grade text books but now are being rewritten and moved to sixth grade curriculum and will be ready by 2011 – just in time to miss the twin centennials.

Nonetheless, when the revisions are in place, Gonzalez Sanchez promises that Mexico will have “the best text books in history” (sic.)  Historians are aghast at the SEP’s gaffe.  But the loudest protests have come from students who have not yet received their eviscerated books three weeks into the new term.

Sub-secretary Gonzalez Sanchez acquired his sinecure in 2006 through flagrant political nepotism – he is the son-in-law of National Education Workers Union (SNTE) Czarina Elba Esther Gordillo.  With 1.3 million members, the SNTE is the largest labor organization in Latin America and Gordillo has considerable clout in the administration of rightist president Felipe Calderon of the National Action or PAN party.  A former honcho of the once and future ruling party, the PRI, Gordillo broke with her old cronies in crime in a power squabble prior to the 2000 presidential election and threw her weight to Calderon’s predecessor Vicente Fox.  From her satrapy at the SNTE, “La Maestra” (sometimes known as “La Ticher”) mobilized her followers to commit wholesale ballot box fraud in the much-questioned 2006 elections that boosted Calderon to power.  In return, Gordillo was handed the SEP to run as a semi-feudal family enterprise.

Under her son-in-law’s “Integral Basic Education Reform” (RIEB), history now plays second fiddle to math, science, and technology.  But even the teaching of science has been tampered with, charges UNAM biologist Edna Suarez who is writing up a “report card” on the revised textbooks.  One example: Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution marks its 150th anniversary this year, is assigned just two paragraphs in grade school science texts, the same as ascribed to an explanation of daylight savings time.  Suarez observes that Darwin’s theory is downgraded to just one possible explanation for the origins of the human race, a supposition that invites the teaching of creationism.

The Calderon administration’s focus on math and science runs contrary to the national character.  Mexicans are addicts of their nation’s history.  Sometimes it seems as if the past is more present than the present here and the future is just a word bandied about by politicos to plant false hopes in the hearts of their constituents.  “History is the foundation of our collective memory,” writes anthropologist Manuel Hermann. The revised history books are an exercise in “disremembering.”

Arnaldo Cordoba, an historic leader of the Mexican Communist Party, isn’t surprised by the PAN-fried history texts.  “History has no value for the right,” he wrote in a recent La Jornada (a left daily) op-ed.  “The Conquest and the Colony should be the PAN’s favorite epochs but they’ve discarded them…probably because of printing costs.” By removing accounts of these two vital periods, “the PAN wants us to believe that our history began with Iturbide,” counters Alfonso Suarez Del Real, a leftist ex-deputy affiliated with Calderon’s fiercest critic Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), himself a history buff.

Agustin Iturbide was a “criollo” (Spaniard born in Mexico) who led the Army of Three Guarantees that finally won liberation from the Crown in 1821 and promptly crowned himself emperor. He was hung by a furious mob three years later.

Mexicans of all walks of life, from senators to street sweepers are constantly revisiting and revising their country’s history, sliding it under the microscope, examining little known texts and debating their most arcane clauses.  Antiquarian bookstores clustered in the old quarter of the city do a land office business in dog-eared volumes that record the nuances of the Conquest and the Colony.  Each Friday night, dozens gather at a crumbling building on Tacuba Street in the Centro Historico to discuss history’s lessons for the current political imbroglio.  Such study circles, inspired by partisans of Lopez Obrador, have spread into neighbors throughout this megalopolis.

On a recent rainy evening, Edna Orozco, a National Autonomous University history professor was elucidating the exploits of Francisco Villa when he overran Mexico City at the apogee of the revolution in 1914-15.  “My papa put me up on his shoulders so that I could see Pancho Villa when he rode in with his Dorados,” 95 year-old Melesio Escobar told the gathering.  “Villa was a giant! The presidents now are dwarves!” (Felipe Calderon barely stands five feet.)

Felipe Calderon and his co-religionists are the lineal descendants of 19th century Conservatives who aligned themselves with the Catholic Church, the Crown, and the land-owning class and squared off against Zapotec Indian Benito Juarez and his secular Liberals.  Now the neo-conservatives are charged with teaching a history that lionizes their traditional enemies like Juarez and the wild-haired Hidalgo and those ruffian bandits Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.  “The PAN wants to get rid of Hidalgo and his leprous, naked Indians,” comments Paco Ignacio Taibo II, a writer who approaches Mexican history from the left.

As if to confirm Taibo’s thesis, arch-rightist philosopher-historian Gabriel Zaid recently wrote a daily Reforma (a PANista paper) op ed entitled “The Assassins Who Gave Us A Fatherland” which depicts Hidalgo and his confederate Jose Maria Morelos, also a defrocked priest, as a pair of killers.

Under Calderon’s predecessor Vicente Fox, a similarly traumatic revision of secondary education textbooks was undertaken and in classic neo-liberal style publication was privatized.  Santillana, the publishing arm of the Spanish media conglomerate Grupo Prisa (publishers of El Pais), marketed a popular seventh grade text, “The History of Mexico” in which the European invaders were pictured as bringing civilization to the natives. The book also champions the Catholic Church and its missionaries for delivering the heathens to Christ.

Fox’s fans at Santillana and the SEP even included a chapter on his own place in history that concludes abruptly: “his crucial six years in office came to an end with the development of incipient democracy and so Vicente Fox passed into histo—” (sic.)

History is, of course, written by the victors and in Mexico this means whichever party won the last election. “Every time a new party comes to power, it wants to change history,” complains Patricia Espinosa, the ex-director of the General Archives of the Nation and a devout PRIista who rejects the PAN’s skew on Mexican history.  Indeed, the PRI used free government textbooks to burnish its own image during seven decades at the helm of state, extolling its contributions to the nation’s development and well-being.

But like the PAN, the ex-official party was sometimes blindsided by the arrogance of power. In 1992, Secretary of Education Ernesto Zedillo, later president, was forced to recall and shred 10,000,000 revised grade school history texts because the re-write suggested that the military had played a role in the massacre of hundreds of Mexico City students in 1968. Subsequent revelations have established beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Army engineered the slaughter. In the revision of the revised text, Mexican history ended in 1967.

Paco Taibo protests the political manipulation of history by the SEP.  Schoolbooks are often assembled by bureaucrats and bourgeois historians for whom history is an abstract in which the people don’t count.  Taibo advocates “secularization” and  “democratization” of the writing process that would involve teachers and parents and social activists.

Not only the Left is up in arms over the SEP’s revision of Mexican history.  The Catholic Church has a rich history of conflicts with the Mexican government over its depiction in history texts.  Under depression-era president Lazaro Cardenas, “socialist” education flourished, to the Church’s and the nascent PAN’s enormous displeasure. Indeed the PAN gained political relevance in its successful battle to have the word “socialism” expunged from the text books.

The Church fiercely opposes sex education and textbooks that speak of abortion and birth control are burned by anti-abortion zealots like Pro-Vida. Now the Episcopal Council of Bishops (CEM) is furious because public school textbooks allege that Hildago and Morelos were excommunicated by the Catholic Church, a well-documented turn of events.  But Father Hugo Valdemar, spokesperson for the Mexico City diocese, argues that both defrocked priests confessed their sins and accepted the Host before they were put before a firing squad and decapitated.

Besides denouncing the SEP for kidnapping the Father of the Country from the bosom of Holy Mother Church, Valdemar kvetches that the Catholic Church is being excluded from the celebration of the Bi-centennial.

Taibo insists that, like the textbooks, the Bi-centennial is being “deMexicanized.”  The popular author has unearthed a catalogue of 1800 projects scheduled for the celebration, about three and a half events a day – although the deep economic crisis that has left 80,000,000 Mexicans below the poverty line may modify extravagance warns Calderon’s current Bicentennial CEO Juan Manuel Villalpando.

The preamble to 2010 unfolded this September 5 with the lighting of the Bicentennial Torch.  In a schlocky knock-off of the Olympic Games, athletes carried the flame from the Monument of the Independence up the elegant Paseo de Reforma to the National Palace where it was blessed by the President. Now the Flame of the Bicentennial will travel to 31 states before it returns to the capital in September 201. The twin celebrations will be most intense between Independence Day September 15th-16th and November 20th, the 100th anniversary of the declaration of the Mexican revolution.

Amongst the events scheduled for this patriotic orgy are multiple military parades, the refurbishment of historical buildings, the re-naming of streets and parks for the Heroes of the Fatherland, and the construction of a safe site for the General Archives of the Nation which are currently moldering in an old prison of ill-repute, the Lecumberri Black Palace, built by dictator Porfirio Diaz on the eve of the revolution to house his political prisoners.

Many of the Bi-centennial projects listed seem to have more to do with commercial opportunism than the celebration of the Patria.  Nayarit state resorts will sponsor a beach volleyball championship.  Nayarit will also be the site of a Guinness Book of Records gathering of country brass bands (“Bandas de Guerra.”)  The state of Tamaulipas is planning a potato festival and Chiapas a graffiti competition.  The Secretary of Labor will issue a coffee table-sized book “The History of Labor” and the Secretary of Finances will hold a “fiscal fair.”  Manzanillo will do its part with the inauguration of a cruise ship port and Mexico City is building a “bi-centennial” Metro line.  Neighboring Mexico state will hold a world frontennis tournament and Chihuahua is hosting an NBA exhibition game to celebrate the War of Independence and the Mexican revolution.

Some of the events seem wildly out of sync with what the Centennials are all about.  The state of Oaxaca will hold a yearlong celebration of the tyrant Porfirio Diaz, a native son, whose iron-fisted 34 year-long rule ignited the revolution.  Chihuahua will honor the Creel dynasty that controlled Indian lands the size of the kingdom of Belgium.  The Catholic Church will illuminate a giant Christ in Torreon Coahuila and publish a book on the miracles of Our Lady of Ocotlan Jalisco to celebrate the Bicentennial.

At the nadir of the worst economic plunge since the Great Depression with millions out of work, Felipe Calderon is spending billions of pesos on the big fiesta.  Villalpando is reportedly negotiating with SpecTak, an Australian entertainment juggernaut that bedazzled the world with its costly fireworks display at the Sidney Olympics, to supply world-class pyrotechnics.

Last spring, Calderon laid the cornerstone for a monumental Bicentennial Arch at the foot of the Paseo de la Reforma, a boulevard in which Porfirio Diaz invested heavily for the 1900 centennial.  In fact, Diaz spent so much on fireworks and monuments and new pants for the poor that social budgets were depleted and the dissatisfaction of the downtrodden at being excluded from the party triggered a revolution.

Today, a hundred and two hundred years later, the misery of the people has never been alleviated and social unrest is similarly stewing.

So goes the old song and dance: Those who do not know their own history are doomed to repeat it.

JOHN ROSS’s 500-page “El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City” will be published by Nation Books this November.  “Iraqigirl” (Haymarket), a diary of a teenager coming of age under U.S. occupation that has been called “an Anne Frank for our times”, is in the stores.  Ross will be touring with both books this fall and next spring.  For possible venues write


JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to