“Mexico must open its windows but protect its roof”

Posted: November 16, 2011 - 09:01 , by Elizabeth O'Grady

Mexican statesman and writer Dr. Carlos Fuentes has been opening windows onto his country’s politics and culture since the 1950s. Author of numerous books and essays, he has taught, lectured and received awards and recognition worldwide.

Monday night Dr. Fuentes spoke to an audience of over four hundred at the Institute for Contemporary Culture’s sixth annual Eva Holtby Lecture on Contemporary Culture. Complementing the ROM’s upcoming exhibition Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World, Dr. Fuentes’ talk focused on contemporary Mexico.

The past, and its influence on the present, was a recurring theme. Dr Fuentes gave an overview of Mexican history, its many Native groups and the Spanish Catholic Conquistadors, and related, “Every Mexican seems to carry his or her past with him: when I walk in the Zócalo [main square], I feel I am walking on the ghost of the ancient Mexican city [of Aztec Tenochtitlan]”.

That conflict-ridden history has left a legacy both positive and negative on the contemporary nation, with its “freshly minted” democracy, its population of 110 million, half of whom are under 30, its narcotracifantes (drug lords), migrant workers, and local oligarchies: “We have a strong culture but a weak infrastructure. Can we bring the values of our cultural continuity to bear on our economic and political instability?”

Fuentes sees potential for development by increasing human capital through education, micro-credit and citizen initiatives, as well as in the recent political upheavals around the globe. “It’s an epic transformation. Young people will decide the kind of society they want. I don’t know what will happen, nobody does, but something will…So we come full circle to the origins of Mexico. Mexico has the face of an unfinished creation: the creation of our world coincides with the unceasing creation of our men and women.”

This is where “opening the windows while protecting the roof” comes in. “Mexico needs to retain its national values in this internationalist world…We are living by values set by God knows whom. Usually we have globalization with SPOOKS. We need the participation of Mexico, France, East Asia, many people and cultures, and with labour included. I hope for a civilization that is based on human values.”

For the second half of the evening, Dr. Fuentes answered questions from Dr. Jennifer Jeffs, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian International Council, and then from the audience.

On writing his first novel (La región más transparente): “The book of the Mexican revolution had been written. But I asked myself why there was no novel about this great teeming city of ours, which at the time had 5 million people?”

On the war on drugs: “I suggest we send users to hospitals not to jails: permit drugs not prohibit them.”

On the upcoming election in Mexico: “Mexico has many strata of society. The people will soon clash with the monopolies. The July 2012 election will be decisive: either we go the right way–or the wrong way.”

On the Maya people: “We are a mestizo [mixed European and Native] country, which is a boon for our country and the world…Aspects of the Maya carry many resonances with contemporary Mexico. In the Yucatan all the nannies speak Mayan, so people are growing up learning the language. When this exhibition opens bear this in mind: You are seeing a culture and a language that are still alive.”

Dr. Fuentes’ humour, mexicanidad [Mexican-ness], erudition, and humanity earned him a standing ovation from the crowd.

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