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I hope Reforma’s lawyers and Professor Dresser pardon my use of this important column, but I feel it gives the context in which the Ni-Ni’s are drowning, going under.

Mexico: A Plutocratic Country – Denise Dresser
Reforma: Denise Dresser
Translated by Janine Rhyans

Each time that Forbes publishes the list of Mexican multi-millionaires, the country should start thinking. Each time a rich person appears on the list who has made his fortune pillaging Mexico, we should ask questions:

How has this person accumulated so much wealth?
Is it because of their extraordinary business talent, or because of the political connections they were able to build?
Is it because of the innovation they have inspired, or is it because of the rentismo [milking businesses as cash cows, to provide guaranteed income with little investment] that they have made the most of?
Has this person created his or her fortune due to the good products and services offered to the consumer, or did this person rise to the top by exploiting the consumer?

The Economist magazine asks these same questions to understand why there are so many emerging markets with powerful plutocrats and entrepreneurs who are always looking for the best slice of the pie, and not how to grow the pie.

The principal reason is because of the widespread phenomenon of rentismo. A way to charge more for something that should cost less. A form of abuse, exploitation, and fraudulence that occurs in markets that are imperfect, poorly regulated, monopolized, with little or no competition. In Mexico, rentismo occurs through collusion among businesses to maintain elevated prices. It occurs through the lobbying of laws that protect the entrepreneur and not the consumer. It occurs each time Telmex, Telcel, Elektra, Televisa, Compartamos, or whichever bank, or whichever service provider charges us above the price they should. It occurs when the Mexican government gives concessions, awards licenses, and privatizes public goods without imposing rules for their use. It occurs when the government is at the service of those they should regulate.

This creates crony capitalism; a capitalism of accomplices. The type of capitalism that The Economist describes on an index of 23 countries in which rentismo – permitted and supported by the government – is a structural problem. It lists the sectors most susceptible to rentismo, such as casinos, coal, banking, the infrastructure and gas pipelines, petroleum, gas, chemicals and other forms of energy, bridges, airports, real estate and construction, mining, and telecommunications. Industries vulnerable to monopolies, concessions, and government involvement. Sectors prone to corruption, according to Transparency International. These are areas managed by magnates in Mexico.

These are economic environments in which multi-millionaires have grown in a phenomenal way. In the developing world, their wealth has doubled relative to the size of the economy and amounts to 4 percent of GDP compared with 2 percent in 2000. Emerging markets, like Mexico, contribute 42 percent of global production, but 65 percent of wealth via crony capitalism.

Mexico is in seventh place on that index that reflects the corruption, cronyism, favoritism, regulatory protection and poorly executed privatizations. Mexico is behind Hong Kong, Russia, Malaysia, Ukraine, Singapore, and The Philippines. According to the index, Russia is on the list because of how the oligarchs appropriate natural resources. Mexico is on the list because of Carlos Slim and other like him, who are allowed to be the country’s plutocrats.

The index is an imperfect guide, but it illustrates the concentration of wealth in opaque sectors compared with what happens in competitive sectors. The index reveals much that needs to be done and what Mexico – little by little – is already doing with the law of Economic Competency, with the declaration of predominate businesses that the Federal Telecommunications Institute has made, together with efforts to limit the practice of rentismo, and with reforms to the judicial system. What is clearer is that global investors are becoming pickier, more demanding and less willing to invest in countries with opaque markets and bad governance.

This is a rubric where crony capitalism – built on a dysfunctional legal system – continues to limit the country’s potential. According to the World Justice Project, Mexico is number 79 out of 99 countries regarding functioning of the rule of law. Because the corruption continues. Because judicial reforms have not been completely adequate, and their impact needs to be measured. Because the judges are still for sale, and sentences can still be bought. Because the plutocracy prospers in a country that continues to exalt its existence.

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Before becoming a finalist (not the winner) in the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award, I tried to pitch my collection of short stories to some five university presses and publishers. Only Cinco Puntos Books, I think, took the effort to read my book proposal.

The exercise was very worthwhile in any case, since I was forced to think about my own writing and describe it.

For those of you who might be interested in this process, or in a context for reading my stories, or in Mexico generally, I include portions of the book proposal, in a kind of question–answer format, for ease of reading.

What is the collection about, in a nutshell?

Along the lines of Quinones’ True Tales of Another Mexico, my manuscript called Foreground – a collection of twenty-seven short stories – focuses on a Mexico where cataclysmic events erupt, where war, mob hysteria, sudden dark preoccupations, collapsing structures, and anarchy lie just below generosity, intelligence, humor, and stubborn patience.

My stories reflect two Mexicos. In the first, modern freeways connect major cities, with their Costcos and Radio Shacks. But beside the highways, beyond the shopping centers, advanced health centers, tourist hotels and beaches, across the mountains, covering the entire country, there is a parallel world of human, horse and burro paths, still used, which connect villages, milpas (corn patches), memory, hunger, love, loss, and war. This is the deep indigenous landscape of the Mexican psyche from which comes the vocabulary of poetry, song, food, folk medicine, and art – a landscape as essential to Mexicans as the forests of New England were to the Transcendentalists. This landscape is vulnerable to extinction by modern institutions, both legal and illegal. Big media, government, business monopolies, and the church point away from deep landscape, while using its customs and images for their own narratives. The state does not invest in its human capital. Farmers give up and move to urban poverty. Rural and urban youth turn to the drug cartels, or cross the border to the North, in both case at great risk.

These two Mexicos – deep culture and modernizing culture, and the tensions that build between them – form the background tectonic rumble, as I write my stories about the good, intelligent, generous, and hard working people I live among.

What about research?

Since this is not a non-fiction book, I choose to re-define the word research, as it applies to my work. Non-fiction, it seems, acquires a body of knowledge, through research, in order to explore an area of interest. A fiction work begins with the storyteller’s story, which may be triggered by something experienced or read. After the story has been told, then the research commences, in order to strengthen the credibility of the tale.

As for the first step in my process, as in Boccaccio’s Decameron, I tell my stories to someone. I write them at a wobbly coffeehouse table, surrounded by university students (not the plague), in the presence of my Mexican writing partner – each week. I read them to him immediately, then often embed them in a framework story later. That is the second step, layering time, place, and narrator.

A third step is listening to my Mexican writing partner. I have suffered his wisdom at all points, for a long time. If a there is a unique flavor to my stories, it is because of what I have learned from him, from his confirmations and re-directions. It also helps to have studied Spanish for twenty-five years, with very special people, reading the local and national Mexican press, and opening myself to the knowledge of Mexican friends, especially those in Michoacán.

What have reviewers said about the stories?

Fred Hills, a former Editor-in-Chief of McGraw-Hill and subsequently Vice President and Senior Editor at Simon and Schuster, who had edited Raymond Carver and William Saroyan, worked with Vladimir Nabokov, and published the Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll, read five of my stories and wrote these ringing words:

“Sterling Bennett is a beguiling and gifted writer, a virtuoso who intrigues and fascinates, like a poet whose work suggests more than can be fully grasped or absorbed in a single sitting, or a single reading. The world he evokes is a strange and sometimes enchanting place, but also dark, bewildering, even unfathomable. Where one cannot easily walk away from this writer, where he is clearly a considerable talent.”

On the other hand, the person that advanced me to a finalist position in the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award wrote the following less ringing note to his/her fellow judges,

“Historical search stories triggered mostly by old parchments, manuscripts, letters, records in libraries or family drawers when someone dies. Most shorts, in a 19th Century style of writing. German, Mexican, French stories about the diaspora in Mexico after WWII. Much flashback about WWII, structured as straight narrative about past events, little embellishment. Layering of metaphysical on these events feels unearned to me, definitely sentimental, but the events themselves are mesmerizing.”

I have to give this critic credit for having found me out as moonlighting in the 19th Century. Except that my style itself is a little more modern. It is true, though, that my approach was partially formed by a career of teaching 19th and 20th century German short story writers: Tieck, Kleist, Keller (Swiss), Droste-Hülshoff, Goethe, and Mann. From Goethe’s “Novelle,” 1828, I take the idea of the Wendepunkt, the turning point, and the concept of eine sich ereignete unerhörte Begebenheit, a unexpected unheard of event – often also the moment of transition between predictable order and chaos.

What about your voice and style?

Being my own graduate student, in this case, I would define my voice and style as the following: the unique choice of image, cadence, sound, sentence structure, juxtaposition, speed of flow; and plot – where I see the storyteller (inside me) moving like a snake through a field, choosing his path with a kind of revealed inner logic. Then there is the dimensionality of words – as in the story “The Hair and the Heart,” when Miguel Angel and Claudia make love on floating vegetation, hidden by rushes from the entire Purépecha town, with “… warm dark water seeping up through the reed bed…” touching their bodies. With the background question, from the very beginning of time: How many young lovers have done that along the shores of lakes? The formation of character; and, finally, the right painterly strokes in description, so that the reader can complete an image and see it fully with less information. Luis Alberto Urrea does this with great skill in The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

I add humor, irony, a sense of plot and action. I populate various stories with family names (as does Luis Alberto Urrea in The Hummingbird’s Daughter), usually uncles and grandfathers, partly in efforts to re-invent family, partly, – I suppose – to fill the yawning silence on the male side. I like to think that my stories contain universal themes, and that the events I describe – often discordant with habits of reason, order, and predictability – are events that happen everywhere, and to all peoples, with local variation. And that a good yarn can deepen and humanize a view of another people, and thus inform as well as entertain.

What would you say to the timeliness and appeal of your stories?

I have always thought the U.S. served as the spiritual backyard of the German imagination. Mexico may serve the same purpose, though a darker one, for the U.S. imagination. Most Americans know something about Mexican language, beer and beaches. Far fewer have a grasp of Mexico profundo – the foundation of generosity, intelligence, humor, and patience. Many equate Mexico with danger, a perception that repels, but also attracts. Americans need to know about their neighbor to the south: about its cultures, histories, languages, and what’s going on right now, and how Americans are involved: the drug wars are fueled, for example, by U.S. consumption of drugs and the U.S. sale of weapons to the drug cartels. They need to know, for example, that at the end of the Mexican-American War 1846-48, Mexico was forced to concede (the U.S. occupied Mexico City) 55% of its prewar territory to the U.S., including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and parts of Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. Many Mexicans remember this historical fact, while few Americans do. The overflow of Mexico into the U.S. is an old and continuing process (see John Ross’s book The Annexation of Mexico, 1998). Poverty and the leadership’s lack of interest in providing jobs and education drive the courageous and hopeful toward the U.S. border or into the hands of the narco-cartels, who will supply jobs.

Who would you say you are writing for?

I have always written with the idea of sharing my stories with an audience. I have read to live audiences for something like the last thirty years. It is very hard to answer whom the storyteller is writing for, in the moment of writing. The only analogy that comes to mind is the compulsive liar, who fabricates seamlessly, for almost anyone. The storyteller’s audience, then, is anyone who is listening.

Who will buy this book?

Well, clearly the paper book publishers decided no one would buy it, at least to the extent that they the publishers would make any money. In a sense, this may have been a good thing for me, in a time of changing fortunes for paper book publishing. It would appear that eBooks are the future or, one could argue, the present. E-publishing removes the skeptical or uninterested gatekeepers. The potential for audience – the whole point of writing, in my opinion – greatly increases, if the writing is good and readers recommend it to other readers; and if the proper links are placed, which direct new readers to the site. The stories, I have decided, should be free. In the meantime, the only English language publisher in Mexico has picked up and published my novel Playing for Pancho Villa, a novel expanded out of my short story “Mr. Leibniz and the Avocado.” Playing for Pancho Villa was available for purchase in Mexico as of February 2, 2013 (www.editorialmazatlan.com) and will be available in the U.S. market in April, 2013, wherever books are sold, Amazon, Kindle etc.

Who would read the stories as a eCollection?

People who like a short, complete, well-written, yarn; retirees sniffing out Mexico; travelers; expatriates in Mexico, who are beginning to look more closely at where they are living; readers with limited time (most of us); readers beginning to focus on Mexico because of the Bicentennial (Independence 1810) and because of the hundred-year anniversary of the Mexican Revolution (1910); and because of growing fiercely politicized immigration issues; students, at all levels, of Mexican social and political affairs. Anyone with a Kindle, lying on their side, reading for a few minutes before sleep pulls down their lids.

Who else writes stories (novels) about Mexico that you would recommend?

Well, I would include Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter, for its wonderful voice and writing; its compelling images of end of the 19th century Mexico. Every writer runs across another writer who he or she thinks is threateningly good. Urrea is that for me. I recommend him highly.

Then there’s Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, but especially the collection of short stories El Llano en Llamas (The Burning Plain), which takes us down into México profundo as unerringly as an hungry burro going home; I know of no one – Mexican or otherwise – who can match his vision and language, when it comes to very deep Mexico. Nellie Campobello’s Cartucho comes close to it. Not to be missed is Cate Kennedy’s Sing, And Don’t Cry: A Mexican Journal – a passionate and loving observation of life and lives in rural Mexico.

Who are other expatriates writing from Mexico?

This is the specific group for comparison and includes: John Reed, Mexico Insurgent, 1914, a work that is Homeric, accurate, and beautifully written. This is a wonderful book. Not recent, but timeless.

Then there’s B. Traven, especially his story “Macario.” His writing answers the question: Can an expatriate write about the deep culture of the country he or she is living in? I think the answer is yes.

Daniel Reveles with his Tequila, Lemon, and Salt honors the Mexican village and its characters, with great generosity.

I highly recommend C.M. Mayo’s (the 1995 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award winner) collection of short stories Sky over El Nido, especially the remarkable stories there: “The Wedding” and “Rainbow’s End,” which show the collision between Mexico profundo and Mexico imaginario. And, of course, her novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, with lines like: “… in the night the crows flew to Mexico, to feed on dead soldiers. In the day, they digested the flesh.” Writers and historians should make regular visits to her blog at madammayo.blogspot.com.

Last, I would include Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, stories, from Mexico, edited by C.M. Mayo, 2006, especially the story “The Green Bottle,” by Ricardo Elizondo Elizondo, which echoes the grinding hopelessness (and beauty) of Juan Rulfo’s El Llano en Llamas “The Burning Plain.”

Thank you! This has been a wonderful fake interview.

You’re welcome!

[To read the stories, go to the sidebar on this blog and pull down “2011 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award finalist collection “Foreground.”] Two sample chapters out of Playing for Pancho Villa are also near to top of the list on this blog.

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I bring you good news. Essential, deep Mexico is alive and well—I will get to that in a moment—even though the country has once again certified a new president who did not win on a level or even honest playing field.

The opposition, the Movimiento Progresivo (the Progressive Movement), calls it an imposition. Enrique Peña Nieto is now new President of México. But this is the Mexico known by some as méxico imaginario. That is a reference to Bonfil’s book México Profundo, where he contrasts the two Mexicos: the first, méxico profundo (Deep Mexico); the second, méxico imaginario (Imaginary Mexico).

What is the difference between these two Mexicos?

In Imaginary Mexico, modern freeways connect major cities, with their Costcos and Radio Shacks. But beside the highways–beyond the shopping centers, the advanced health centers, the international banks, the tourist hotels and the beaches–across the mountains, covering the entire country there is a parallel world (méxico profundo) of human, horse and burro paths, still used, which connect villages, milpas (corn patches), memory, hunger, love, loss, and war.

This is the deep indigenous landscape of the Mexican psyche from which comes the vocabulary of poetry, song, food, folk medicine, and art. It is a landscape as essential to Mexicans as the forests of New England were to the Transcendentalists. It is a landscape that is in danger of becoming extinct because of modern institutions both legal and illegal.

Big media, government, business monopolies, the Church, and the government institutions that serve these (in this case, the Federal Election Institute and the Federal Electoral Court) point away from deep landscape, while using its customs and images for their own narratives.

The state does not invest in its human capital. The “elected” leaders pass laws that allow the wealthy to offshore their capital gains and practice tax avoidance. Trade agreements like NAFTA allow lucrative grain dumping on the Mexican market. Corn farmers give up and move to urban poverty. Rural and urban youth turn to glue sniffing or to the drug cartels, or cross the border at great risk, because here there are few jobs and severely limited openings in publicly financed education.

When election time comes, huge amounts of laundered money finance the ruling elite–to keep the chusma aturdida (the unruly mob) at bay. The poor and uninformed sell their votes for food or household items and follow the misinformation disseminated by the two big television monopolies.
These two Mexicos–deep culture and modernizing culture–and the tensions that build between them form the background tectonic rumble behind everything that happens in Mexico.

But Deep Mexico carries on, as if invulnerable to the machinations of dictatorship, autocracy, and monopoly. How do I know this? Because I walked to the Mercado Hidalgo today to buy chiles. I stood before piles of chiles –fragrant pequín, de árbol, guajillo, habanero, mulato, ancho, cascabel, pasilla, tepín, puya, chipotle, mulato, and manzana (fresh cascabel). All these weren’t there, but they looked like the ones I saw. A handsome stout woman with only one front tooth explained the names of the ones she had (I did not retain the names, some were not familiar) and what they were used for, how hot, how to prepare them, their flavors, and the ones she preferred for the blond easy-to-cook Peruviano bean and the black slow-cooking black bean, for this rich mole and that. I was looking for chile de árbol but ended up buying five different kinds. She made little packages of the different types, then put those in a large plastic bag. I paid her 38 pesos ($2.50). I put the chiles in my small LLBean backpack, beside my three packs of Radio Shack AAA batteries. And then I walked back to the center and climbed the 203 steps to my house.

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