By John Pint
Having lived in Mexico for many years, I have come to believe that the
word “ley” has a very different meaning here from the concept of “law”
I grew up with as a child. In certain countries, The Law is thought of
in positive, and almost reverential terms. The Law is a beacon of
justice, the sine-qua-non
for order in society. It has the solid support of the great majority of
people and in most cases is considered fair and impartial. If you come
to Mexico with this definition of law engraved on your mind, you may be
surprised or even shocked at what we might call “the more casual
approach to law and order” which you will encounter here and you may be
tempted to blame what you see around you either on lawlessness or on
I contend that neither explanation really gets to the heart of the
matter. First of all, when it comes to enacting good, sensible laws,
Mexican legislators are second to none. As far back as 1824 Mexican law
prohibited slavery (39 years before the U.S.) and its constitution
guaranteed freedom of the press, but the country’s Constitution of 1857
is a truly inspiring document. It starts out by saying that anyone born
in Mexico is free and that any slave who merely sets foot on Mexican
soil immediately recovers his or her freedom. It goes on to guarantee
freedom of speech and the right to bear arms; it declares that all
Mexicans are free to embrace the profession they prefer and that no one
can be forced to work without just retribution. This Constitution is a
truly inspiring document that reflects the aspirations of all mankind
for a more beautiful world. It’s well worth reading.
As for more recent legislation, take a look at Mexico’s environmental
protection laws. They are among the best in the world, even though,
paradoxically, the pollution of air, rivers and lakes in this country
might fall among the worst in the world. How could this be?
At this point, it’s customary (among both foreigners and Mexicans) to
shout “Corruption!” to explain why so many of those well-crafted laws
are not being followed. But this is an overly simple reaction to a
complex question: what does “law” mean in Mexico?
First of all, the law was brought here by an invading army of
Conquistadores. It was Spanish Law and it was imposed on non-Spaniards
at the tip of a sword. Even after a large population of mestizos was
generated by those Spaniards, The Law was still culturally, religiously
and racially biased. For example, by law:
Only a full-blooded Spaniard could carry arms
• Only a full-blooded Spaniard could ride
• Only a full-blooded Spaniard could
become a lawyer.
• Only a full-blooded Spaniard could
teach in a university.
Anyone else (meaning 99 percent of the population) was confined to
“vile occupations” and was obliged by law to dress in white shirts and
trousers, straw hats and sandals. It was even against the law to eat or
grow amaranth in Mexico because this unusually nutritious pseudograin
(it contains no gluten) had been considered sacred by the native
peoples. And on top of all this, anyone not born in Spain was forced to
pay a “head tax” simply for being an Indian, a mestizo or a criollo (a child
whose parents are both Spaniards, unlucky enough to have been born in
the New World).
In a word, Spain carried the caste system to the worst extremes and
took colonialism to unbelievable lengths.
Since Spaniards comprised only a minuscule fraction of Mexico’s
population in those days, “The Law” meant repression, injustice and
discrimination for just about everybody.
With independence from Spain in 1821, Spaniards lost their position at
the pinnacle of the caste system and criollos took their
place as the new elite. They lived in haciendas surrounded by the
humble homes of hundreds of Indians and mestizos who did all the manual
work. While independence may have been a blessing for the criollos, the huge
majority of the people living in Mexico were virtually enslaved to the
owners of the haciendas, plantations and mines, thanks to clever
systems which kept them in perpetual debt and thanks to The Law, which
forced them into bondage.
In the book “La Comida en Casas de Techos Altos” (Food in Houses with
High Ceilings) by historical researcher Maru Toledo, there is a
transcript of an oral interview with eighty-year-old Don Isidro, who
talks about meeting Emiliano Zapata and describes the nearly impossible
life of the campesinos before the Revolution. As a seventeen year old,
he was required to rise at two or three in the morning and walk twelve
kilometers to bring in and feed the oxen with which he had to plow the
fields at first light. “And if one of us didn’t appear at sunrise, he
got no food for all the rest of the week…and what was he going to eat?
What was he going to eat? We hated the hacendados (hacienda owners)
with a great hate… and then one day the government (under Zapata)
arrived and opened the stores, which were brimming with corn. ‘Come on,
ladies, take what you need,’ shouted the Federales…and they forced the
hacendados to give us ejidos, plows, yokes, carts, everything we
needed, and after that, life was beautiful because now all the people
could work for themselves.”
The life of a plantation worker before the Revolution was even worse.
According to John Kenneth Turner, Yaqui Indians working in the Yucatán
sisal fields were “beaten bloody every morning at roll call, forced to
work in the blazing sun from dawn to dusk on little food, locked up
every night, and beaten again if they failed to cut and trim at least
2000 henequen leaves per day.” He says that at least two-thirds of
these Indians died within a year of their arrival on the plantation.
Once again, plantation laborers were forbidden to run away and miners
were forbidden to strike for decent living and working conditions,
always in the name of the law. In the book Death by Government,
Political Scientist Rudolph Rummel estimates that between 1900 and
1920, various Mexican governments killed over 1.4 million people
through slave labor, executions, and in other ways, not including
individuals who died in wars or rebellions. Despite its shortcomings,
the Mexican Revolution brought an end to all this.
It could be argued that there exists another law, an unwritten set of
Rules for Good Behavior, which is actually responsible for the basic
social order practiced in the smallest and most remote ranchitos of
this wonderful country, but that is another subject for another day.
Meanwhile, next time you feel likely complaining about that guy who
just ran a red light, think back on the 400 years of injustice most
Mexicans had to put up with “in the name of the law.”