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Evelyn Waugh's Excellent Mexican Adventure
Robbery Under Law
The renowned author, Evelyn Waugh, is hard to figure. His novels are alternately amusing, serious, and grotesque. Best known perhaps for Brideshead Revisited (1945), he was prolific and wrote both fiction and non-fiction. Born in 1903, he converted in 1930 from Anglican to Catholic. Robbery Under Law, the Mexican Object-Lesson, was published in 1939. He was still young on the eve of World War II. While no one then or now for that matter requires an excuse to visit Mexico, what motivated Waugh was the ongoing mistreatment of the Church and its representatives. Both Juarez and Maximilian, Waugh asserts, robbed churches, vilified them, and then set a grab-happy precedent for years to come.
Why the Church? Unfortunately, Mexico's power structure is an inscrutable mosaic consisting, in addition to socialists, fascists, monarchists, warlords, foreign entrepreneurs, and rich industrialists, the Church. Waugh was into it. Adamantly against Vatican II, he was a diehard traditionalist, difficult to believe in a man whose writing was often intensely irreverent. In addition, Mexico, as a nation, dates back, among other events, to the 1531 epiphany in Guadalupe, during which Mary appeared to an Indian peasant and instructed him to build a church on the very spot. The peasant, christened Juan Diego, protested, stating reasonably, that he was without power or influence. He also suggested, politely, that it would be advantageous to contact a Spaniard rather than himself. Nonetheless, the church came into existence and Mexico, according to a certain version, became the nation that emerged virtually all around it.
Not surprisingly, Waugh's take on Mexico is idiosyncratic. As such, it is that much more interesting to learn what it is that he zeroes in on. To be honest, his portrait of Mexico is periodically unflattering. Upon reflection, however, it becomes apparent that his criticisms are usually constructive. Mexico has endured a great deal of oppression and distraction. It never quite achieved the greatness that was once the general expectation. Invariably, it got bogged down by internals and externals. Worse still, its repression of the native population was an example of naked aggression that cannot be reconciled to notions of humanity as currently conceived. Already in the 1540s, there are complaints that Indians speak Latin and are so learned that they teach in Europe. From here on Whites will develop clever methods to create a fixed hierarchy. Those to whom the land truly belongs will reside eternally at the very bottom. This is SOP for thieves: steal and then criminalize the victim.
Or is Waugh just another bastion of English righteousness? After all, nationalization of industries, confiscation of private estates, the disillusionment that empowered Zapata and Villa, military dictatorships under Generals Cardenas and Cedillo, and the discovery of oil and how to exploit it are easy enough for the non-English to denounce. Who does not know the score? Waugh himself points out that it is the peasantry who identified government officials as "well dressed people who arrived unexpectedly in motor-cars to steal something." Nobody fools anybody. Tragically, lawlessness is no path to glory. All the same, hindsight implies that it was just as well Mexico never became Spain transported in toto to the New World. It had and has an entirely different destiny.
Waugh is worshipful of the Church, but not its apologist. He tells how the clergy, too, abused Indians. Horror stories abound. The question arises as to why they never enable Indians to collect the rent that is long since past due. The best answer is that few concern themselves with a sociological problem that, eventually, gets too academic to produce results. The extermination of the indigenous population was and remains the original sin of the Americas. All one can say, feeble though it is, is that for now it pays to recall that beatings and tortures went on in monasteries where atrocities would otherwise have been least expected. Still, Waugh allows the impression that Mexico is always at her worst when anti-religious. In the late 1930s, for example, Villahermosa peasants caught praying, in flagrante delicto, in a church ruin, were murdered by troops. The accumulation of acts of anti-clericalism became intolerable. Outraged, Waugh declares that "it was the Church who saved the Indians from slavery and established their fundamental equality and identity with their conquerors." Maybe not entirely but fair enough.
Waugh remains more stimulating than convincing about text and sub-text when dealing with all things Mexican. He knows how to defend the underdog, and is at his best doing so. And he uses his particularly Roman vantage point to criticize Nazis, in addition to much else, for bonding to "pre-Christian deities". His solidarity with Miguel Hidalgo's El Grito, the 1810 proclamation leading to Mexican independence, is also genuine. But Waugh, too, seems ultimately to have abandoned Mexico to the prevailing winds. Seventy years later it is as if Mexico, like many other nations, will never crawl out from under. If the news media is to be believed, it is weighed down by so much crime and economic despair that neither Church nor State combined or separate can save it. Needless to say, no travelogue, however erudite, is going to be decisive either.
One of two neighbors to the U.S., Mexico has to be given special consideration. Waugh was a great writer. A few month's time spent in Mexico City and surroundings gave him enough material to readily produce a very readable book from many standards of literary measurement. To be sure, there are other ways for Americans to grapple with the question of Mexico than to plow through three hundred pages of an Evelyn Waugh essay. Nevertheless, no matter what, the continuation of a do-nothing policy that concentrates on night-goggled patrollers, desperate border crossings, and lurid headlines from border towns is a losing proposition. It is self-evident, it seems, that to win overseas and lose Mexico at home would be a colossal error.