It’s not a coincidence that the great Mexican novel, Pedro Páramo, is about a cacique. Pedro Páramo has power over the lives and deaths of the impoverished inhabitants of Comala, the small town where Juan Rulfo’s novel takes place; described as “a living rancor” and “pure evil,” he is both mysterious and cruel, ordering the murder of the father of the woman he has fallen in love so that he can have her for himself, immediately. When she descends into madness and dies—while Comala happens to be celebrating its yearly festivities—he takes celebrations as a personal offense, and swears revenge against the town.
I will cross my arms, Páramo declares, and Comala will starve.
The Diccionario de la Real Academia, the official Spanish-language dictionary, gives three definitions for cacique. First and foremost, cacique is “the governor or chief of an indigenous community or town.” The other definitions replace “indigenous” with concerns about misuses of power, defining the cacique as “a person who wields an abusive power within a community or a group,” or as “a person that in a town or in a region exerts an excessive influence in political affairs.”
Etymology helps tell the story: the word first came from kassiquan, used by the Arahuaco indigenous people in the Caribbean Antilles to mean having or sustaining a household. But just as household patriarchs tend to become community chieftains, we find the household expanding to include a community or group: in texts like the Popol Vuh—the ancient Mayan text telling the mythical stories of the K’iche’ people of what is now Guatemala—the word cakchiqueles names the political chieftains of the region. The Spaniards picked up this usage, and we first find it in Spanish in one of the travel diaries of Cristóbal Colón, but they made it the catch-all term for all indigenous political chiefs, and it began to signal disapproval. Thus, according to the Spanish point of view, indigenous governors or chiefs were abusive, excessive, and illegitimate by definition.
We have a harder time recognizing our own caciques. In a very short but powerful political treatise, The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, an eighteen-year-old French philosopher by the name of Étienne de la Boétie (1530-1563) argued that all forms of servitude contain some dose of voluntary participation. We all know that no army could hold down an entire country, after all; yet the army manages to represent and hold authority. Servitude takes the form of a chain, Boétie says, but we are a link in it: while the link above us pulls us up, we pull the one below us.
I have never read a more exact and abstract description of how power is exercised in México. Except, perhaps, for the moment when Pedro Páramo orders his subordinate to get rid of Susana San Juan’s father.
I’m beginning to like again how you operate, boss, Fulgor replies; It seems that your spirits are rejuvenating.
Daniel Cossío Villegas, one of Mexico’s greatest historians, coined the phrase “personal style of governance” to describe how Mexican presidents conducted themselves, how they exercised their near absolute power. But it didn’t just apply to the president; as he pulled the chain beneath him, the personal style pulled on each in turn. Power passes hand to hand, body to body, links of a chain. It reminds me of an anecdote that I read somewhere from the time before the Mexican Revolution, that I always think about; a powerful politician asks a friend of his what would he like to receive from him:
I don’t ask you to give me anything, the friend says; whenever we happen to meet, in public, just hug me effusively.
When the Mexican Revolution ended in the 1920s, the PRI (under two previous different names for the same party) began an unbroken period of one-party rule which endured until the presidential election of 2000. During those 80 years of uninterrupted control, since the PRI’s presidential candidate always won the election, each outgoing president had the unofficial—but very real—power to appoint his successor. It was called “dedazo”: pointing with a finger who the anointed one would be, rewarding the subordinate whose turn it would be to become the top link in the chain.
Every year, the day in which the president delivered his speech of the State of the Union before Congress used to be called “The President’s Day”. The speeches could last up to seven hours, and they were broadcasted live on national television, and they were also reprinted in full in the main newspapers. After this ritual, the president rode an open car, during which he was cheered by people along the way who waved flags and spilled confetti, and once he arrived to Palacio Nacional a ritual called “besamanos,” or “to kiss hands” took place, in which politicians and other people from all over the country waited for their turn to greet the president in person and pay their respects. In 1974, Luis Echeverría established a record by shaking hands with over 3000 people.
Carlos Salinas de Gortari became president in 1988. After coming to power in a highly contested election, during which the Ministry of the Interior announced that the computing system had gone down—presumably because of some sort of fraud—the opposition party staged a protest in Congress.
I don’t see them, Salinas de Gortari famously declared; nor do I hear them.
During a campaign rally for re-election as mayor of San Blas, a tiny town in the state of Nayarit, Hilario Ramírez Villanueva admitted that he liked money a lot. But who doesn’t? he demanded. Did I steal from the city council? I did, I did steal. But only a little, since it’s very poor; I only took a swipe, only a swipe. But what I stole with this hand, I gave to the poor with the other one, my friends.
The crowd gave him their hand: he received resounding applause and won the election.
In a national presidential debate, during the most recent election, Jaime Rodríguez Calderón—“El Bronco,” an independent candidate who temporarily resigned as governor of the state of Nuevo León in order to run for the presidency (he came in last)—formally proposed that the punishment for stealing should be to cut off the thief’s hands.
When pressed by the moderator to clarify whether he meant it literally, he said that of course he did.
The power of the contemporary caciques is not just symbolic. It’s charismatic domination—in which the strongman is both revered and feared—made possible by the way the institutions have traditionally operated. It’s a widespread phenomenon; in the cultural world, groups form around a leader whose ideas must never be questioned by the rest of the members of the group, while magazines (or publishing houses) come to depend on the income provided by ties to the highest levels of government agencies or the biggest and most powerful private corporations. And as almost every Mexican woman would attest, most Mexican men have a cacique inside them, a cacique who knows when to bow its head and when to assert himself, violently, if need be.
The most basic features of the cacique is the association between power and virility, and the most basic political unit is the household. It’s a truism that we’re one of the most macho countries in the world.
Our recent election has brought a great deal of new hope, seeming to signal the end of the old system put in place after the Mexican Revolution. But it’s an illusion to hope for change to come from the top, that we will be lifted up by the chains of the caciques above us; the rule of the caciques is as cultural as it is political. To expect a new strongman to reverse our fortunes is what led to the centuries-old situation that Mexico has found itself in. The ageless Pedro Páramo will cross his arms, and Comala will starve.
Years and years went by and he was still alive, always there, like a scarecrow standing in front of the lands of the Media Luna.
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