aren’t the people the government?
Elections and Protests, Part II
December 14, 2004
by Nancy Davies <email@example.com>
The other morning the woman who kept a shop across the street from us failed to wake up. Her nephew Constantino came over to tell us of the unexpected death – Concha was only 59 – and how the family would proceed.
This is our first neighborhood death in Oaxaca, so at the market I joined the line of women buying flowers, borrowed ten pesos, and began to fill gaps in my knowledge such as white flowers are preferred; and the name of the deceased, who all this time I had been thinking of as Dolores, was really Concepción, and one of the other two surviving sisters is Dolores. Well, you may suppose that all this has nothing whatever to do with elections and protests.
The most important condition for a functional democracy is that people take part. I stole that sentence entire, from Ian Buruma’s discussion of Iraq in the The New York Review of Books Dec 5, 2004 issue. Some hints of busy Mexican participation have appeared in news articles in La Jornada, the left-leaning daily, saying that Lopez Obrador, current mayor of Mexico City, might form a new coalition party of the Left in order to run for the presidency of Mexico next year. This must be partly because the current left-leaning party (the PRD) has been shattered by scandal and won’t be credible, and partly because maybe the PRD wouldn’t nominate Lopez Obrador anyway. We recently met a man who is very Left, a good guy, who believes so. He also believes that Mexicans despise gringos.
That could be true. But barring our bombs on their doorsteps and the murder of their children, I guess for most Mexicans it’s a function of intellectualism, i.e., one has to be fairly smart and well-read in order to properly hate gringos. Not even those who understand the concept of neoliberalism, and the destructive behavior of Presidente Vicente Fox, put two and two together – at least not on a daily basis. People are likely to like anybody who’s likeable, in the course of ordinary affairs. Constantino doesn’t seem to have any grievances; post-election he has assured us in very kind terms that the government is not the people. Whoa! Thanks anyway, but why isn’t the government the people? Or, why aren’t the people the government?
What causes this incredible disconnect, not only among Mexicans but surely among United States citizens who voted for Bush?
The metal doors of Concha’s shop stayed closed, and the adjacent metal doors of the house of Constantino’s family remained open. People come to support the bereaved. It’s a sizeable house, which seems to have grown over the past hundred years like buttons sewn onto a madwoman’s dress. It’s occupied now by six, not eight adults, one being deceased and one working in Texas. So the line-up is the old grandmother, then the mother of Concha, two surviving sisters of Concha, and an uncle Santos, whose wife is not apparently any of those named above. In addition to the accretions of brick rooms with metal doors around the patio, there is also a space for Santos’ workshop, and a rented room or two. I mention that because one renter was away – mourner number six –, and was represented by her son and daughter-in-law who drove in from another town to assume her role until she returned.
The first night Constantino played the guitar, accompanied by a woman cousin and also by a boy who is the son of Constantino’s sister. They sang and played hymns, and finally the priest showed up. That had been a problem, because Concha was laid out quickly, without the final sacraments. She was already displayed in the living room in a coffin which looked carved from a block of white styrofoam, surrounded by white flowers in funeral urns, and those in turn surrounded by white candles. The important fact was that Concha’s bier was surrounded by her family and friends who all urged, begged, prayed and implored, repeatedly, that God welcome her to heaven.
Finally the priest arrived and did his thing. The next day the church mass took place, and the family and neighbors, carrying white flowers, followed the hearse on foot to the local cemetery.
Beginning at eight o’clock at night, the praying and reciting of the rosary at the home of the deceased lasts an hour. At the conclusion of prayers all the guests sit at long tables, and everyone receives a cup of hot chocolate into which they dip sweet bread. It’s ritualized, in a way I can only describe as a Do-It-Yourself Funeral. A home funeral. The house is, like we say, humble, the people are humble, their clothing is humble, their kitchen is humble. Their dignity is considerable. And the ritual mourning continues in that manner for nine days.
So what I want to know is, How do Mexican families maintain this kind of “self-government”? I call it “government” because it is totally by consensus, based on historic ways of behaving, but open enough to accommodate a couple of gringos who, by watching the other mourners, stood and sat and stood and sat while the rosary was recited. On a subsequent night the gringa was appointed to stir the hot chocolate, to set the cups on the table, to serve tea to those who preferred tea. To listen to the same hymns and same guitars and eat the same sweet bread and stand and sit and sit and stand during the rosary, while family and friends nagged the Holy Mother. This is clearly an hierarchical arrangement: God and the Virgin reign at the top. However, everybody alive and visible participates equally in governance at the base.
The words of their favorite hymn are, as best I can translate, the love of God does not depend on skin color, race, or wealth. Jesus loves everybody the same. Or one might say, we are all equal. Several of the bereaved family know our gringo politics, but this was of course not a political moment. The family accommodated those who went off and took a nap, those who went out to smoke, to throw back a shot of mescal, or to just avoid the praying. Santos hovered in the patio politely clad in a white shirt with his jeans, and never uttered a reverent word. Yet he clearly participated, and I saw him in the afternoon carrying home huge bags of disposable cups for the chocolate.
I don’t believe I’ve ever seen an American family so well “governed”. That’s the advantage of old customs and rituals, I suppose, but also the advantage of accepting ebb and flow in all things. Nobody was coerced except the deceased.
The most important factor, as Buruma pronounced, is that people take part. Furthermore, in most Mexican ceremonies I’ve witnessed, whether it’s a wedding, a baptism, or now a funeral, the important thing is that the greatest possible number of people should take part. A friend invited is expected to invite three others. In the USA if you bring an uninvited guest to a sit-down meal you’re violating a profound commitment to exclusion; here, the host is appreciative. Because the more the people participating, the more confirmed everyone feels, that one has support in what one undertakes, one is part of a community, and all provide mutual reification. I even got to carry down to the garbage truck the next morning’s wilted flowers and crumpled cups.
The state government may or may not like participation, but here’s a clue: the governor removed the state offices from the Palacio Gobernmental to an area in a residential colonia twenty minutes distant by bus. The House of Deputies followed suit and their building overnight became a theater for children’s puppet shows. When the government was actually located in the center city, the streets were often blocked by protest marchers – maybe the teachers, maybe taxi drivers, maybe campesinos or students. In a stroke, blocking the streets where commerce and tourism must prevail has become a thing of the past. The government has vanished, and so have the protesters and petitioners. Some time in the future new government buildings will be constructed, elsewhere. Meanwhile, not even participation at a distance remains.
The dark side of participation is, of course, the recent Mexican lynching, or any lynching or battle (same thing: wielding death) wherein the group supports and comforts the individuals, our brave troops, who do bad stuff and produce violent deaths. Participation, as we know to our dismay, doesn’t automatically make for good outcomes. The magnitude seems not to be the issue, either, since good and bad participation take place on every size level, from families and gangs to entire nations. Nor do rituals and customs make the difference, since fraternity initiations are certainly embodiments of ritual and custom even when they cause death.
Participation is a foundation of democracy. Clearly if the government makes itself invisible it fears participation.
OK, then, what governs good participation distinguished from participation whose results are not good? What to make of electoral participation where many (regardless of fraud) chose the wrong guy?
Is electoral participation what we, caught in our own belief in liberal democracy, should be grateful for, or can we point to some other form of participation which might be a better model?
Stay tuned for Elections and Protests Part III.
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