A ghost to challenge a myth

The tragic tale of Rubén Jaramillo lays bare Mexico’s ‘miracle’ years of orderly growth under the PRI


Rural Resistance in the Land of Zapata: The Jaramillista Movement and the Myth of the Pax-Priísta, 1940-1962
Tanalís Padilla
2008, Duke University Press
284 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

JUSTICE is not an idea one associates with Mexican politics. To think that a poll published in the Universal newspaper at the time of last October’s electoral campaign in the southern state of Guerrero suggested that 44 per cent of Mexicans intend to vote for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in mid-term congressional elections this coming summer is almost to think the unthinkable.

Many people both inside and outside the country continue to associate the party that ruled Mexico for seven uninterrupted decades until 2000 with corruption, vote-buying, clientelism and, when push came to shove, murder.

Lest we forget, it is the same PRI now winning warm words from business journalists and investors – for backing planned reforms to the oil-monopoly of Pemex that open the door to US investment in Mexico’s cherished symbol of independence and for supporting efforts by the current president to extradite Mexican criminals to the US – that made such a bloody mess of Chiapas by giving paramilitaries the moral authority to wage a brutal low-intensity war against indigenous people; that stole so many elections that it is impossible to count them; that murdered, “disappeared” or tortured hundreds of students with absolute impunity at Tlatelolco; that engineered the Cold War repression of an entire generation on the Left and fought a dirty war against its own people; and that gunned down in cold blood some of the country’s greatest social champions, not least Rubén Jaramillo. Indeed, the list of past anti-democratic and criminal abuses under the PRI is simply too long to ignore.

What makes Rural Resistance in the Land of Zapata such a powerful work of scholarship is that it demonstrates how Jaramillo can stand as a reminder of this treachery by what was, for a large part of the 20th century, nothing more than a cartel of gangsters posing as politicians. On May 23, 1962, the prominent agrarian leader in the state of Morelos, his pregnant wife and three sons were arrested without a struggle at their home by a senior officer in the Mexican army. A few hours later, their bullet-ridden bodies were found near the Xochicalco ruins near Cuernavaca.

Xochicalco massacre

Jaramillo was perhaps most important figure since Emiliano Zapata to occupy that pantheon of heroes advocating social justice for campesinos that Mexico is so good at producing and can be so proud of. His shocking death at the hands of government officials – the so-called “Xochicalco massacre” – was the culmination of a long struggle for land and community autonomy that had lasted from the 1940s until his death. Against the backdrop of the Cuban Revolution and the possibilities for empowerment it offered, the massacre was seen by the state as a decisive blow against a movement whose survival and radicalisation gave real hope to rural people.

Jaramillo had fought with Zapata and retained an absolute faith in the latter’s ideals and methods – not least armed struggle in the mountains when politics failed, as it so often did – incurring the wrath of local caciques and the federal government. Like the stories of old, in 1942 a group of campesinos led by Jaramillo responded to management’s abuse of power at the Zacatepec sugar co-operative by unearthing the rifles they had preserved since the Mexican Revolution and fleeing to the hills. There followed two decades of intermittently armed and political struggle – repeatedly frustrated by the co-optative, fraudulent and repressive tactics of the PRI.

As Tanalís Padilla points out, as a result the Jaramillista movement gives the lie to the golden age myth of peaceful modernisation under Mexico’s “perfect dictatorship” in this period. The author writes:

“Although he was a powerful symbol among Morelos’s organized campesinos, the legacy of Jaramillo has not yet registered within the accounts of Mexico’s midcentury history. Traditionally hailed for its political stability and rapid economic growth, the period between 1940 and 1968 actually witnessed a steady progression of social unrest. Sparked by material demands, such struggles rapidly turned into larger political clashes – to which the state invariably responded with force. The Jaramillistas are representative of this process.” [p.7]

Padilla points out that movements such as the Jaramillistas challenge convential notions that the army massacre of civilians in 1968 in Mexico City was a key turning point for the postrevolutionary regime (synonymous with the official party) and hence force us to rethink the so-called “miracle” of sustained and orderly growth under a supposedly nationalist government. This growth, in fact, occurred at the cost of worsening income distribution and, in particular, the decline of living standards in the countryside. Just as the PRI’s Mexico was manufacturing industrial millionaires who could smoke their cigars with confidence alongside their counterparts in the US, it was also manufacturing rural poverty.

Perhaps the basest element of the PRI’s treachery that this book exposes consists in its appropriation of the symbolism of Mexico’s revolutionary heroes as part of this process. It is almost hard to stomach the fact that the party transformed Zapata into a symbolic resource deployed to their own ends as they hid, and stole from, behind the flag.

The product of their abuse, however, was extensive social protest – but this was often skilfully concealed by official history and a deeply inadequate press and only recorded in the revisionist narratives of activists and public intellectuals. Padilla writes:

“The history of the Jaramillistas confirms the picture these revisionist scholars have drawn concerning the PRI’s authoritarianism and demonstrates the party’s scant commitment to the principles of social justice.” [p. 14]

Nor is the effort to draw attention to the mythologising of the PRI a matter that can be consigned to ancient history – be it official, revisionist or post-revisionist – for, as Padilla points out, what happened in the past has implications for our understanding of current developments in the wake of the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s. She writes:

“Although Mexico’s revolution – which took place decades before the Cold War – and the state that emerged from it significantly tempered the violence that characterized other Latin American countries, there has been a sustained battle against leftist elements. It was this process that, not only in Mexico, but throughout Latin America, paved the way for the imposition of a neoliberal system which has precipitated a drastic deterioration in the standard of lving for the majority of the population.” [p. 15]

Popular resistance to abuses by the Mexican state and its failure to live up to the social commitments enshrined in the constitution continues to bedevil the bureaucrats – whether it takes the form of masked indigenous cadres in Chiapas or vociferous chilangos filling Mexico City’s zócalo in protest at the questionable outcome of the 2006 elections.

Padilla’s illuminating work reminds us that, despite the PRI’s stranglehold on power and the persistence of some of its practices, the resistance it faced from Jaramillistas and others throughout its rule reveals how impossible it is to exert total control over a people and how abuse never goes unchallenged.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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