My friends and family in Mexico speak of their country these days as if it were the victim of some cosmic ill fortune. Waves of bad news pummel the country day after day: narco-violence, kidnappings, earthquakes, a global economic crisis, and a swine flu pandemic that in April turned the world’s third-largest city into a ghost town.
The other day a well-traveled writer friend who lives in Mexico City conjured a mystical reason for her country’s misfortunes. She spoke darkly of the Mayan culture’s coming “sixth sun.” We are approaching Mesoamerican end times: The Mayan calendar ends its 25,625-year cycle on the winter solstice of Dec. 21, 2012. According to ancient Mayan texts, we are approaching the end of the 13-year “period of darkness” between the end of the Mayan Fifth Sun and the beginning of the uncertain Sixth, an interim during which dramatic realignments of consciousness will, or will not, prepare mankind for a golden age.
With that cosmic abyss looming, my friend and other Mexicans have adopted a triage mentality. To take on all of the country’s struggles at once would be not only maddening, but unproductive. That’s one reason that the continuing swine flu pandemic, which threw the country into hysteria last April, had subsided to a nagging concern by July, when I flew into Mexico City.
As I shuffled through customs, I was told to fill out a questionnaire asking whether I had a fever or a cough. Fortunately I had neither. A woman in a black-and-white military uniform with the unenviable job of collecting the questionnaires stifled a yawn when she took mine. As I exited, a man in a white lab coat sat behind a desk next to a thermal scanner that detects fever. His desk was backed into a remote corner of the airport, where it seemed no one had strayed for weeks. His head bobbed toward the desk as he struggled to stay upright and awake.
The only other signs of the pandemic were government-funded cartoon posters exhorting travelers to cough or sneeze into their arms or a tissue—but never the hands!
As I headed toward the city’s zocalo—the massive plaza at the city center—I saw few people still wearing surgical masks. To help quell hysteria, the government had passed out more than 6 million, which sold out at the height of the scare. I spied a news vendor with a surgical mask inexplicably dangling around his neck as if it were some kind of good-health talisman. The only people who seemed to be taking the masks seriously were tourists. A European couple passed by snapping photos, trailing two sullen, embarrassed teenagers. They all wore masks.
My Mexican friend made a sour face. “They are totally overreacting,” she said. Studying public health in college, we learned that these masks do little to prevent influenza virus from infecting you—the virus is small enough to pass through the porous masks. Still, I felt a slight panic when I saw the masked family. I could understand their fear after months of hysterical headlines. According to Mexico’s secretary of health, 415 people had come down with swine flu in July—a huge dip from the peak of 2,969 cases in May, but still something to consider. To date there have been 16,600 confirmed cases and 146 swine flu deaths in Mexico. The numbers are dwarfed by the United States, which has the most confirmed cases in the world at 40,617, with 263 deaths. There were twenty-four deaths in Texas.
My friend glanced over at me. “Don’t worry,” she said, brushing off my panic with a wave of her hand. A bigger concern for her, and for many other Mexicans, was the country’s ailing political system. On July 5, the country’s old guard—the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI—won a majority in the midterm elections. Until 2000, the authoritarian PRI had run the country for 70 years. Mexicans seem to blame the PRI for most of their country’s problems, but voters there also suffer from a dearth of viable alternatives.
I reported the presidential election in 2000, which saw the historic win by Vicente Fox and the National Action Party, or PAN. Many young Mexicans brimmed with hope after the PRI was toppled. Older Mexicans were more cautious, and more cynical. “The rich always get richer, and we stay poor no matter who wins,” an old man who shined shoes in the Reynosa Plaza told me. Being young myself at the time, I shared the younger generation’s enthusiasm and hoped it meant that new leadership would finally begin addressing Mexico’s endemic corruption and crushing poverty.
Almost a decade later, the old PRI party bosses are back with a new slogan: “Proven experience, new attitude.” The most likely hope for reform, the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, had its worst showing in 18 years. Three years ago, PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador nearly won the presidency. Many Mexicans still attribute his loss to PAN candidate Felipe Calderon to election fraud. Since then AMLO, as many Mexicans refer to Obrador, has traveled the countryside preaching to loyalists, but offering few workable solutions for the myriad problems facing his country.
The PRI’s most recent sweeping win shocked President Calderon’s PAN party and the PRD—a shock that still ripples through the countryside. In the small town of Tepoztlan, an hour west of Mexico City, the PRD lost the mayor’s race for the first time since the PRI was toppled in 2000. Political activists from the PRD and other parties have united in opposition to victorious PRI candidate Gabino Rios Cedillo. On a recent Sunday morning, cars mounted with loudspeakers circulated through Tepoztlan encouraging citizens to rise up against Rios. One commonly aired accusation is that Rios paid voters from 500 to 1,500 pesos (approximately $50 to $150 in U.S. dollars) each for their support.
Rios, the owner of a construction supply store, is also rumored to have provided roofing materials to the most impoverished voters (only to take them back after he won).
The losing PRD candidate, Jose Maria Medina Bocanegra, alleged that ballot boxes had been tampered with and that some valid ballots had not been counted. The PRD and other parties asked the federal election committee for a recount. “We are asking the government for a clean election this time,” Medina told me. Medina said he would like to see peaceful change, but many are too angry to watch and wait while the slow wheels of Mexican bureaucracy turn.
I decided to return to my friend’s mystical explanation for Mexico’s problems. According to the ancient Mayan texts, Mexico and the rest of us are transitioning between worlds. The post-2012 world of the Sixth Sun is up for grabs. It could amount to apocalypse or a huge leap forward. Either way, it will be, the prophecies say, no more and no less than what we choose, now, to make of it.