'Manana Forever?': Why Manana Never Comes in Mexico

Reed Johnson
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Mexico must shed a slew of historically ingrained, counterproductive practices in economics, politics and culture if it someday is to take its place among the world's leading nations.

Manana Forever?: Mexico and the Mexicans

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Length: 320 pages
Author: Jorge G. Castaneda
Price: $27.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-05

Mexicans, like their Spanish forebears, love to quote proverbs as a way of underscoring eternal truths and imparting folk wisdom to younger generations.

Jorge Castaneda cites one of these popular adages not once, but twice, in his timely, perceptive new book, Manana Forever? Mexico and the Mexicans, to illustrate what he believes are some of the cynical, corrupt and backward-looking attitudes that are preventing his countrymen from living up to their vast potential. The saying is, "El que no transa no avanza" — "Whoever doesn't trick or cheat gets nowhere."

And that's only the start of the damning evidence that this former foreign minister of Mexico, visiting college professor (Princeton, Berkeley) and senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace assembles in persuasively making his case that Mexico must shed a slew of historically ingrained, counterproductive practices in economics, politics and culture if it someday is to take its place among the world's leading nations.

"This is not a book about the Mexican national character," Castaneda writes in his preface, disavowing the approach of such famous cryptologists of the Mexican "soul" as Graham Greene, D.H. Lawrence, Octavio Paz and Sergei Eisenstein. "It seeks to explain why the very national character that helped forge Mexico as a nation now dramatically hinders its search for a future and modernity."

At a glance, greatness would seem to be the logical destiny of a country blessed with the world's 12th-largest economy, an abundance of natural and human resources, a rich ethnic history and close proximity to a gigantic trading partner north of the Rio Grande.

But, Castaneda says, for generations Mexico has squandered these advantages.

It has done so, he asserts, by cultivating a political culture that shuns direct confrontation and the open, sometimes-bruising, free exchange of ideas and opinions that is democracy's lifeblood. Its ruling class, with a few notable exceptions, hides its true intentions, and its internal conflicts, behind an elaborate, ritualistic charade of outward courtesy and euphemistic rhetoric that mainly serves to preserve the status quo and postpone serious debate on pressing problems.

Similarly, he writes, the country's business elites — with telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim, the world's richest man, perched atop the modern Aztec pyramid of crony capitalism — conspire with politicians to keep their iron grip over monopolies or quasi-monopolies in critical industries such as oil, media and telecommunications.

"Risk aversion," he stresses, is the economic equivalent of the "conflict aversion" that taints Mexican politics, and it's causing Mexico to fall further behind rising powers such as China and India as well as regional rivals like Chile and Brazil. Whenever foreign companies try to elbow their way in as potential competitors, Mexico's corporate denizens exploit old-time fears of the Other, playing up images of outside powers threatening to contaminate the fatherland and enslave its workers.

Castaneda concedes that such anxieties, historically, have been understandable in a country that was founded on the conquistadors' brutal conquest of America's indigenous people, and later invaded by the French and the U.S. Army.

But today, he insists, these phobias have become a huge liability to ordinary Mexicans' improving their material lot. He cites public opinion polls to demonstrate that, for all the cross-border chatter about U.S. discrimination against Mexican immigrants, Mexicans themselves are collectively far more xenophobic toward immigrants than their U.S. counterparts and have largely opposed granting admittance or basic rights to foreign workers.

The book's tough-love tone is supported by Castaneda's precise, systematic mustering of hard facts from scholarly studies, public opinion surveys and the like. His authorial manner suggests a lawyer arguing before an international tribunal, and the book sometimes reads more like an indictment than a native son's amicus brief.

But if the tenor of Manana Forever? occasionally veers toward the Inquisitorial, Castaneda, a frequent contributor to the L.A. Times' op-ed pages, also takes pains to brighten his dark narrative with considerable wit and humor, as in the title of his first chapter, "Why Mexicans Are Lousy at Soccer and Don't Like Skyscrapers".

The paradox, and tragedy, of these stumbling blocks to progress, the author says, is that Mexico has, in many ways, become a middle-class society and a representative democracy, "albeit an imperfect one."

In recent years, extreme poverty has declined, and income inequality has diminished. Home ownership, college enrollment and Internet use are on the rise. The murder rate, although swollen by narcotics gang warfare, is considerably lower than in countries such as El Salvador, Russia and South Africa.

What hasn't improved is respect for rule of law and taking responsibility for the difficult obligations that a middle-class democracy demands of its citizens, in return for greater freedom and better living standards.

Although Manana Forever? offers a precise critique of that dilemma, it supplies little in the way of workable prescriptions. It doesn't suggest any real alternative to an all-out embrace of the fully globalized, free-trade economic model. Nor does it propose any methods for streamlining Mexico's bloated constitution, which is addled with scores of amendments that are merely sops for special-interest groups.

Even so, this important book, by an exceptionally shrewd, sophisticated and deeply knowledgeable analyst, deserves a place on the short shelf of classics about modern Mexico that includes Alan Riding's Distant Neighbors. And it holds out a glimmer of hope that it's not yet too late for genuine reform. As Castaneda puts it, "The nation's traits have changed over time, as its citizens adapted to constantly evolving external and internal circumstances; they are not set in stone."

From 2004 to '08, Reed Johnson covered Mexico, Central America and South America from the Los Angeles Times' Mexico City bureau.






3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.