National Geographic : 1996 Aug
EMERGING MEXICO Bright with Promise, Tangledin the Past BY MICHAEL PARFIT t is New Year's Eve in Reality, Mexico, and the rebel kids are dancing. The band plays marimba music over the murmur of a generator; people make their own power in Reality. The dancers-all Tojolabal Indians-are like teenagers everywhere: They giggle and flirt and then dance together shyly, but in Reality some are militantes, trained to carry arms for the rebellion. They are among several thousand Zapatistas, a group of rebels from all over the southern state of Chiapas that has helped focus the mood-and maybe the future-of the huge, emerging nation of Mexico. Like their oddly named town, La Realidad, these kids are symbolic. Desperate, poor, reeling from setbacks but still determined to win their cause of land reform and representative government, they are like most of Mexico. And, like Mexico, they may appear to be just dancing, but actually they are poised, waiting for a momentous change. Tonight the people of La Realidad expect word from their charismatic leader, who wears a ski mask and bandoliers of bullets and calls himself Subcomandante Marcos. Will there be more violence? Will there be peace? Across Mexico people are waiting. Driven by the decay of the old political order, by the pressure of financial disaster, by modern links to the outside world, and by a gradual building of agitation at all levels, change seems inevitable. But its direction is unknown. Will there be economic collapse and civil war, as some fear, or is this tension a necessary prelude to the emergence of a revitalized Mexico ready to fulfill its promise as one of the great nations of the world? At the end of a hard century, Mexico is struggling. This country, 756,000 square miles of deserts, forests, highlands, volcanoes, endless seashores, and trembling earth, populated by 95 million people, is classified in the jargon of world economics as a "developing nation."* Mexico's people are poor-they have a per capita income of $4,000, compared with $25,800 in the United States. In many places, including large parts of its cities, living conditions are squalid. Drug trafficking is increasing. Pollution is legendary. Politics are in turmoil. And, though the country is a partner in a dramatic new experiment in trade, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico has been battered by the recent devaluation of its cur rency. The gap between rich and poor is widening. The poor-both the cramped residents of the teeming cities and the indigenous peoples of the forests-are grow ing restless. Even the relatively small middle class has conducted protests and work disruptions. Everyone, it seems, wants something new. THE AIR OVER MEXICO is as hot and turbulent as the land below. I've spent a lot of time in it recently, flying my small Cessna from the bustling north to the old colonial heartland in the center, to the Mexico City sprawl where one-sixth of this nation lives, to the strife-torn jungles of the south, learning about both the turbulence and the emergence of Mexico. My first view was of its human geography. The patterns people have left over the past 500 years of living and working on this land tell a single story: Across a geogra phy shaped by fire, flood, and blowing sand, Mexicans have woven a complicated tapestry of village, city, and farm vastly different from the disciplined landscape to the north of the border. In the U.S. and Canada, geometric boundaries make a checkerboard on the land that looks printed by machine. But in Mexico every field has its own shape and *See "A Traveler's Map of Mexico," a double supplement to the September 1994 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.