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Killer nun

12 March 2019

This being International Women’s Month, maybe it’s time to look at some of the more important, but neglected, historical figures in Mexico, written out of the official history (or at least rather obscured) for no reason other than their gender.  Like “Madre Conchita”, Concepción Acevedo de la Llata, nun, terrorist, political prisoner, and philanthopist.

Born in Queretaro in 1891,she entered a convent at 19, and was mother superior of her convent at 24.  With the passage of the “Calles Laws” which took the Constitutional restrictions on religious activities to an extreme, her convent was closed, and she moved to Mexico City where, with the Churchs closed by the Priest’s stike of 1928, she began preaching her own unofficial services, and — under the guise of private religious discussions — was active in plotting Cristero strikes against the government.  One of her proteges, Juan Torral, a cartoonist and free-lance journalist, would assassinate president-elect Obregón in 1928.

Obregón’s assassination has left a number of “what-ifs” to Mexican historians.  His first term had started with a counter-revolution (Carranza had prevented the Obregón, the overwhelming favorite of the electorate, a chance to run, and had tried to hang on to power when his term ended, leading to a coup, followed by the short interim presidency of Adolfo de la Huerta), and ended with one, when de la Huerta became the figure-head of a counter revolution when Obregón had selected Calles as his candidate to succeed him.  Although his fame came as the self-taught general who’d consolidated the Revolution, Obregón had openly questioned the country’s dependence on military rule, and — perhaps raising more questions about the direction Mexico might have taken had he served a second term (the rationale being that he’d never had a full first term) — was that the self-made millionaire was a Socialist.  Moreover, having seen the violence that grew out of the overly-strict interpretations of limits on religious activity and clerics, he was openly negotiating with Father John Burke and United States Ambassador Dwight Morrow, the unofficial go-betweens for the Vatican and the Mexican clergy in an attempt to work out an peaceful settlement.  Had Obregón lived, Calles might not have taken control of the party for the next several years, and the Mexican economy may have moved in a different direction.

But, all that is speculation.  Madre Conchita was the “intellectual author” of an event which did change the course of Mexican history for better or worse.  In the aftermath of the assassination, justice was, well… rough.  She was arrested, tortured (how much is hard to say) and sentenced to 20 years.  Sent to Islas Marias, the recently closed prison colony off the coast of Nayarit, she married a fellow prisoner, and, was paroled in 1940.

In an attempt to rehabitate her image, she became the head of a foundation meant to improve the social conditions of Otomí people, raising money for an orphanage and making a show of donating her car to be used by Otomí mothers needing to visit local heath clinics.  From time to time, she would lecture, or allow herself to be interviewed, or write (or at least have appear under her name) defenses of the more conservative views of the Catholic Church, and of the right to religious dissent.  She never, however, spoke of her role in the Cristeros, going so far as to deny even having even met with them.

By special permission of Pope Paul VI, she was buried in her nun’s habit in 1978.


Surveillance and the soccer-mom

10 March 2019

Forwarded, and to be forwarded:

Many of you know that I have been helping out for the last few months at the Benedictine Monastery, the site that Catholic Social Service’s Casa Alitas  (DONATE HERE... my note), which has had the opportunity to operate out of in its mission to receive asylum seekers, provide them a safe space to land, food, clothes, supports, etc. until they can get to the sponsors who are receiving them in various cities across the country. This hospitality process, I might add, costs the government and US taxpayer $0, and is funded by the love, sweat, tears and good hearts of the Tucson community and beyond.

The other night, I was leaving later in the evening, having spent hours after the intake process to updates room assignments, travel information, reset the room for the next day, etc. I was tired. I was headed home about two hours later than I had promised my family, and I was feeling stressed and guilty about the fact that it was yet another night that I had to lean on my partner to do dinner, homework, and the nighttime routine of getting our kiddos down for the night and ready for the next day.

As I stepped down the long hall toward the exit, I heard loud raised voices and quickly realized a makeshift soccer game was in progress between three boys. They were about 8 or 9 years old, laughing and lost in their game. For a second, I nearly pulled on my mom voice to scold them about kicking a ball in the hallway, the realized that a) there was nothing they could harm in said hallway and b) they were probably having the first bit of fun they had had since being in detention. I continued down the hall through their game and said nothing, smiling at them instead.

As I got further down the hall, I heard them kick the ball- not a real soccer ball, but a smaller rubber ball- and knew it was headed my way. I saw movement as the person up ahead of me moved to intercept it, and realized that it was their mother. She was laughing and smiling, as lost in the game as they were, and I realized that she was experiencing freedom along with them. How many of us mothers hear the constant “mommy, play with me!”? She was playing with them, and happy to be doing so.

I could hear the ball getting closer to me, and she sped up, sticking her leg out to shift the ball’s course. We both glanced down together at her leg- her to direct it where she wanted the ball to go, me to make sure that I wasn’t going to trip over it (though it wasn’t going very fast).

That’s when I saw it. The ankle monitor, hanging off of her delicate, capri-clad leg. It looked so foreign, so out of place, that I couldn’t wrap my head around its presence. We both stared at it, and it looked like she was also having trouble understanding why it was there, as if she had forgotten about it, if only for the length of a hallway soccer game.

Then she seemed to remember, and she jerked her leg back. The ball went past me, out of her reach, and she stumbled over to to it. I could tell she was embarrassed.

But I was also embarrassed. I wish I could explain to this young soccer mom why or how she was so dangerous as to require 24-hour ankle monitoring. There is no good answer for that, and I think we both knew it.

I kept the smile on my face, seeking out her eyes to let her know that she had no reason to be ashamed. But she never looked up, never looked back my way, determined not to meet eyes. I was the one who sat there, ashamed.

That shame followed me to my car, on the drive home, and all the way to the my home, where my own children greeted me with, “Mommy! Come play with us!” as they sought to evade bedtime.

It sits with me still, and I really can’t figure out a way to expel it. So I hope that my efforts, and all the efforts of those who are working to confront this shameful reality, these murderous and deadly border policies, will move us to a world where soccer moms don’t wear ankle monitors, and we stop pretending that refugees are the ones who should be ashamed.

Who are they?

7 March 2019

For International Women’s Day, the Government websites have switched the usual logo, featuring Morelos, Juárez, Madero, and Lazaro Cardenas with a few other heroes of Mexico’s transformative history:


Left to right:

Sor Juana… 17th century poet, scientist, and theologian who argued for the right to an education for women.

Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez:  one of the original conspirators in the Independence underground of 1810, who risked her life to warn Padre Hildago that their plot had been uncovered-

Leona Vicardo: a romantic favorite.  A criollo heiress to a mining fortune, she flirted with Spanish officers to gather intelligence during the war of independence, was active in disseminating pro-independence propaganda through underground publications, ran guns to Morelos and helped draft the first Mexican constitution.

Elvia Carrillo Puerto:  radical feminist active in the 1910-20 Revolution, responsible for women’s suffrage in the Yucatan.

Carmen Serdan:  She and her brothers took up arms against the Porfirian dictatorship, holding off a police and army siege until she was the last person standing.

The Painter, the Peso… and the saint.

5 March 2019

My friend, Deacon John Donaghy posted the other day that it was the Feast of St. Katherine Drexel… I knew that she’d been from a wealthy family, but was kind of curious where that wealth came from.  The Mexican peso, among other things.

A high-society heiress giving it all up to become a nun is, in a way, a romantic story, but those millions (or today’s billions) she turned her back on to serve the Indigenous and African-American communties for 60+ years, comes with an even more romantic back story… involving art, revolution, Texas and money.

The future saint’s grand-father was Francis Martin Drexel … artist, rogue, adventurer… and the George Soros of 19th century America.  Born in the Austrian Alps, on the borders of Lichtenstein and Switzerland, he somehow managed as a teenager to get mixed up in an anti-Napoleonic underground, and had to flee to Switzerland when he was 17.  So far, the typical romantic background for a 19th century artist.  Perhaps, though, being in Switzerland, he learned a few banking tricks, or at least knew some bankers (after all, he was a portrait painter).

Like so many 19th century failed revolutionaries, he emigrated to the United States.  He married into a prominent Philidelphia family, and immediately… like any good romantic figure… to get himself in all kinds of trouble with his conventional in-laws.  A murky lawsuit over a slander by his brother-in-law about his wife forced Drexel to pay out a large settlement, and to go on the road to recover the sizable (for an artist.. in other words, respectable but moderate) fortune he’d made as a successful painter of Philadelphia’s elites.

He managed to return from a tour of South America (painting, among others, Simon Bolivar) with a sizable (for the time) $12,500 nest-egg (about $350,000 in today’s dollars), by no means a “starving artist” income, though for a man with growing family (he’d father six children in all) and married into “respectablablity” not enough to just sit back and indulge his artistic whims.

Portrait of a South American Official (1829). Drexel University Collection

So… in 1835, it was time for another foray into Latin America, this time, Mexico.  Which perhaps was as good as any time for a painter to be there, but with a government falling apart, no real banking system to speak of, and rampant speculation in recently seized church properties and land in Texas (especially after the war for Texas independence broke out the next year) created a bouncing peso on the currency market, and… perhaps having picked up more than just art techniques during his time in Switzerland… currency speculation, for Drexel, became an art in itself..  One he’d perfect upon his return to the United States in 1837, just as Andrew Jackson had forced the closure of the Bank of the United States (then headquartered in Philadelphia).

Jackson may have been the hero of the “common man”, but the growing U.S. economy needed money … and Drexel knew how to make it.  Besides, while he was out of the country, his clients had turned to the growing number of other Philidephia area protraitists… Thomas Sully (1783- 1872) and the “ubiquitous Peale family”.  WIth no national bank, and local banks issuing their own currency, Drexel turned what he’d learned from dealing in a peso that changed value by the day (and depending on where one was in Mexico) to the confused currency situation in the United States, quickly becoming the go-to source for western expansionist projects.  Including the railroads.  Which killed him:  he fell getting off a train and got run over in 1863,

The bank still exists, and the Drexel family are still filthy rich, though some… like Catherine (her religious name was Katherine) paint a different picture of the very rich and portrait of American wealth, and taking advantage of Mexico.



Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds

28 February 2019

Is AMLO really a leftist, or is he a traditionalist, an authoritarian, or … something else?

A few days ago, MexFiles posted on the sausage-making that went into the National Guard bill… initially attacked (not without merit) not just by the various opposition parties, but by some on the broad leftist Morena front as well. The oppostion on the left felt betrayed that AMLO campaigned on a “Hugs not drugs” response to rampant criminality but proposed, and pushed mightily, for a military controlled National Guard.  Did he change his mind, or have the realities of governance in a complex country faced with new challenges change his mind?

Vanni Pattiná(a research professor at the Colegio de México´s Centro de Estudios Históricos looks delves deeper into the seeming condundrum of a utopian leftist campaign, and the hard realities of governance. 

Originally published as “López Obrador y la cuarta transformación: más allá de lo caricaturesco” (El País Edición América, 26 February 2019).  My translation.

That Andrés Manuel López Obrador is a polarizing figure is a given. Even before winning the 2018 Presidential election, and even moreso now, his statements and addresses are not always translated into policy. In these first few months as leader of the nation, with some justification, the twists and turns and abrupt turn-around from his speeches, have led to heated debate in this country.

Civil rights were substantially expanded during his tenure as head of the Mexico City government but have seemed to have disappeared from his agenda. More importantly, his recent statements about the central role of the traditional family as a brake on the expansion of crime seem to suggest the adoption of a rather conservative social agenda. These are just some of the examples of the abrupt changes of direction or of the apparent incongruity that have marked both the electoral campaign and the first months of López Obrador’s tenure as Chief Executive.

A good part of the Mexican commentocracy seems to attribute these incongruities to the new President’s personality, saying he is incoherent or erratic or even authoritarian with a scant appreciation of democratic values or practices. However, there are two factors, related to structural causes, that would help understand this problem in a somewhat deeper way. In the first place, it is necessary to take into account the different ideas of what is the “left” as conceived by the president, party activists, members of the cabinet and Morena voters . Secondly, it is necessary to understand how applying campaign promises collides with the operational the Mexican state and its institutions.

As to the differing definitions of the left, we can take the classic definition of Norberto Bobbio* as a reference, López Obrador would be defined as being on the left, since the redistribution of wealth is indisputably at the center of his program. . However, as various observers have claimed, he is a socially conservative leftist leader: not a particularly surprising position in Mexico, where movements that could be defined as leftist, such as that led Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution, allowed for the ideological coexistence between a radical egalitarianism and a conservative vision of society. John Womack**, probably one of the deepest scholars of Zapatismo, began his famous book about the revolutionary leader stating it was just a story about peasants who didn’t want to move (literally) and that’s why they revolted. As Héctor Aguilar Camín points out, in his commentary on the new translation of the book, not wanting to physically move in the face of the expanding modernizing Porfirian hacienda system, also implied cultural and social resistance to the process of modernization. In that sense, López Obrador is in a tradition where left and political modernity can be split without apparent contradiction.

Coupled with this, among the president’s supporters and the voters, redistribution of wealth is not the only factor defining the left. A core part of López Obrador’s movement is identified with a broader progressive agenda, which includes civil rights, a less hierarchical value system and less paternalistic political practices. The tension between these concepts of the left, united by the question of inequality and separated by different visions of society, generates unresolved and continuous tensions. Far from trying to reduce them, the leader of Morena seems on the contrary to accentuate at times his social conservatism, speaking with some success in some regions of the country, which seem to communicate a more moderate cultural perspective.

The second thing to consider is that inconsistencies in the discussion and policy proposals of the fourth transformation*** are related to the limits the state’s institutional weakness imposes on realizing certain campaign proposals. I don’t think there any doubt that López Obrador has a different vision of the relationship between State and society than that of his predecessors, a perspective that also affects the security problem. If the images are worth something, and in politics they are, one should not underestimate the fact that one of his first acts as constitutional president has been to meet the parents of the 43 students of the Ayotzinapa normal school, murdered by organized crime in collusion with the municipal authorities of the State of Guerrero in circumstances still to be clarified. It is a strong signal, which marks a different sensitivity to the problem of violence in the country and its harmful effects on society and its most vulnerable sectors.

The problem is that despite his good intentions, López Obrador is confronted with institutions whose level of weakness and decomposition it seems even he was unaware of when taking the reins of the state machine. In fact, if we look at Mexico beyond its capital [where he headed the government], we can not avoid seeing the difficulty with which state, federal and local institutions operate in vast regions of the country. Here, far from the capital, a dysfunctional federalism — encouraged during the democratic stage undertaken by the country after the year 2000 , in conjunction with the disappearance of the party-State — the persistence of patronage and caciques [local political/economic bosses] have systematically eroded the consolidation of a functional state. If we add to this the presence of organized crime, which over the last decade has increasingly undermined the ability of the state to exercise its functions in the territory, we can see that, in terms of institutional consolidation, the situation is much more complicated.

It is probable that some of the recent decisions, such as the creation of a National Guard, apparently inconsistent with the electoral campaign proposals, or the decision to create super-delegates, showing scant sensitivity to the existing federal institutional framework, respond, in reality, to the need to reinforce the political coordination capacity of the center over the regions and to regain control of the territory lost during the last six years. It is true that López Obrador’s obstinate demand that the National Guard be under military supervision, in a country in which there have been multiple proven violations of human rights by the Army while performing internal security tasks, generates legitimate befuddlement. However, whether López Obrador is correct or not, it is undeniable that these public policy proposals aim at recovering some basic functions of any modern state, such as the control of the territory and the coordination between federal entities and central power, in a context of great complexity, and confronting the challenges that low institutionality and the pervasive presence of organized crime pose. Political movements on the left have a more utopian outlook than those on the right: therefore, the impact of reality, when they become the government always generates rumblings, criticism and disenchantment.

As can be seen, the problems described here are knotty ones, difficult to resolve, which will continue to exert an important influence on the speeches and policies of the current government. I think it is legitimate that observers, journalists or citizens underline, even with vehemence, the cacophony that sometimes marks the discourse and the implementation of the policies of the new executive. This is a crucial task in any system that is defined as democratic. Yet, if as Albert Camus said, “banality is the worst enemy of information”, we have to demand a more rigous analysis of the causes of our problems. The challenges facing this Administration and the country itself require attempts to reflect on the situation and, above all, knee-jerk reactions.

*Italian political theorist and socialist (1909 -2004) who argued that the “left”believes in attempting to eradicate social inequality, while at the same time arguing for separation of powers and limits on state power

. **English language edition Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, Vintage Paperback 1970. New Spanish language translation by Francisco González Aramburo, Fondo de Cultural Económica, 2017.

*** The implication is that Mexico had three previous transformations in its political structure: Independence, the Juarez era reforms, and the Revolution. López Obrador’s program is said to the the fourth.



Mike Pence: resistance is futile. Mexico: oh yeah?

26 February 2019

Mexico and Uruguay have been at odds with the United States government in their non-recognition of the self-proclaimed Guaidó Administration as opposed to the elected, constitution (de facto and de jure) Maduro Administration.  While both countries have left-leaning governments, neither is claiming the present administration in Caracas is perfect, or even moderately competent… only that, given deep rifts in Venezuelan political culture, it would not be remiss to negotiate a solution.  Not being a student of Uruguayan foreign policy, MexFiles cannot comment on the rationale for that country’s position, but when it comes to Mexican policy, the official line is that we are following the Estrada Doctrine.

As developed in the early 1930s by then Foreign Secretary Genaro Estrada, Mexican foreign policy has been based on three simple principals:  non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other nations, the peaceful resolution of disputes between nations, and the inviolability of state sovereignty. These three principals were the first applied in the League of Nations, when Mexico faced off the “Great Powers” as the lonely defender of the rights of Ethiopia against Italian aggression, of Austria against the German anschloss and … when the European slaughter-house went into full operation in 1939, demanding respect for its own rights under that third principal (inviolability of state sovereignty) to protect their diplomatic corps as they silently rescued tens of thousands of civilians they were willing to take under the Mexican wing.

Following the war, in the United Nations, Mexico was a leader in the “non-aligned movement” … taking no sides in the East-West “cold war” although continuing to provide refuge for victims of both U.S. and Soviet aggression.  The Civil Wars in the Central American Republics were largely settled through Mexican diplomatic efforts at negotiations… imperfect solutions, but well in the Estrada tradition.

Even though the Fox Administration, under Foreign Secretary Jorge Castañeda, in a craven attempt to mollify the United States over their “immigration crisis” panic, repudiated the doctrine, Mexico still proclaimed its neutrality in 2002 when, having a seat on the United Nations Security Council, it refused to back the U.S. led invasion of Iraq, despite both U.S. and British attempts to subvert the Mexican U.N. Mission, and to sway public opinion in Mexico.  President Fox was forced to give a national televised address… from his hospital bed (he was recovering from back surgery) … assuring the nation that Mexico would not be involved in Iraq.  But it did accept refugees from that country.

And, now, Venezuela.  Yes, Mexico is accepting refugees from that country, in quite large numbers.  Without full statistics on the economic status of these Venezuelans, from observation, it appears most are middle-class or upper-middle class people (not the rich people in Miami), who may hate the present government, but are less political exiles than victims of the changing economy and the hard times imposed by US led economic sanctions.  Full disclosure:  being mobility limited. I informally employ a Venezuelan émigré plant manager who has extremely right-wing politics, which may color my own perceptions of the large Venezuelan community here).

At least here, we are not unaware of conditions “on the ground” of that Venezuelan middle-class.  But, we are a country that, like Venezuela, despite abundant natural resources (including oil… Venezuela, like Mexico, also is a major mineral producer, especially gold) but suffers from appalling levels of inequality.  Naturally, our left is sympathetic to what the Bolivarian Republic has attempted, with more than some success, to do to foster equality, but more importantly, Mexico… having suffered more than its share of “interventions” and having gone through seven years of civil war following a botched U.S. attempt to impose a leader more aligned with their policy (the Revolution following the imposition of Victoriano Huerta cannot be described as anything other than fratricide)… has no more reason to listen to Mike Pence than Venustiano Carranza had to listen to Woodrow Wilson when he insisted it was his duty to “Teach [us] to elect good men.

So… Pence is resorting to implied threats:

(Rafael Croda, “EU a México: no puede haber espectadores, hay que reconocer a Guaidó” Proceso, 25 February 2019).  My translation:

Nice little country you got here… be a shame if anything happened to it…

United States Vice-president  Mike Pence, called on Monday for Mexico to recognize Juan Guaidó, the self-proclaimed president of Venezuela, as the legitimate president of that country, and asked Mexico to join the struggle of the Venezuelan people “To recover their freedom”.

Speaking at the meeting of the Lima Group in Bogota, Pence said that in the face of the political, economic and social crisis that Venezuela is experiencing, “there can be no spectators.”

The United States, he added, “urges every nation in the hemisphere that loves freedom, including Mexico, Uruguay and the nations of the eastern Caribbean, to join us in recognizing the interim president Juan Guaidó and his government and to join the struggle of the Venezuelan people to recover their freedom “.

Mexico and Uruguay have defended a position of neutrality during the Venezuelan crisis and have launched an initiative to promote a dialogue between the political opposition led by Guaidó and the Maduro regime, only to be rebuffed by the self-proclaimed interim president.

Pence said in the meeting of the Lima Group that world leaders should know that “the time has come” to stand up for Venezuela in its “fight for freedom.”

He added that nations backing the Maduro administration (including Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua) should “reconsider” that position, in light of last weekend’s violence  when the Caracas government prevented humanitarian aid from entering the country.

“Reconsider your support for the tyrant, unite with the nations of the world that are close to the Venezuelan people,” said the US vice president, adding that, otherwise, the pro-government nations would be further isolated from the world.

That last quote sure sounds like a threat…

Greater profit through “segregation technology”

25 February 2019