Caciques everywhere (Part 2)
José Ángel Navejas
This coming May will be three years since I received my PhD degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. By itself, this would be unremarkable if it weren’t for a few facts. To begin, there’s my lack of legal status. I am an undocumented (not DACAmented) man from Mexico. Moreover, by the time I crossed the border in 1993, it had been years since I had left formal education in my native country. Or rather, the Mexican educational system had abandoned me when I was only 12 years old. In a country where high school is compulsory only on paper, this is also quite unremarkable and in fact expected of young people coming from the working class, like me.
What is remarkable, I think, is the way an American public university gave me a chance to reinvent myself. It gave me the tools to dissect and understand the forces responsible for my uprooting and displacement. And, in doing so, it empowered me with my own story, helped me find my own voice. An extraordinary discovery for a member of a population traditionally seen as a horde of voiceless shadows, and which I write about in my autobiography Illegal.
What is remarkable, also, is realizing the latent potential of certain stories, the force they carry. The challenges they pose. The way the stories of ordinary folk can strike terror in the hearts of people in high office. Take, for instance, the case of Ron DeSantis, a powerful man in panic, a man whose faith and knees shake and tremble when faced with stories. Not guns, not bullets—it is words alone that terrorize the sleepless nights of Florida’s Governor.
Because it was in college where I first learned about liberal ideals, I have been watching in horror DeSantis’ attempt to dismantle what to me became nothing short of a sanctuary—the American public university. Besides wanting to reduce American history to the size of his brain, in suppressing African American studies, DeSantis is nearing a figure that’s haunted Mexicans for centuries. I am referring to the cacique, an almighty individual with absolute control over every aspect of society, including its culture, its politics and its economy, what kinds of conversations are acceptable in polite company and which ones are taboo.
It goes without saying that Mr. DeSantis’ actions regarding the AP content on African American studies is outright censorship. It is meant to rob individuals of their personhood and hence deny them their collective history. Something similar happened to me growing up in Mexico, where the history and experiences of most of the population never made it into the textbooks. Sure, we were indoctrinated in the grand national narrative, and learned about Sumer, Greece and Egypt. We learned about us being discovered and civilized by Spain, and how we eventually became independent.
However, about the actual lives of people, those around me who worked in construction and factories and in the informal economy, those who kept disappearing, like ghosts at dawn, into the vast expansions of the United States—that we never learned anything about. Now I know some of the reasons: it’s because the story of the working class has never been considered a worthy subject for Mexican textbooks. What’s worse—as a social group, working-class Mexicans have historically been denied access to books, libraries, high school and college. Either that or they are systematically ignored after they’re forced to drop out of school for financial reasons.
The number of children who, like me, are abandoned by the Mexican school system every year is staggering. Even though high school is supposed to be compulsory, the dropout rate at the lower-secondary level (7 to 9 grade) remains high. Some studies suggest it could be as high as 50%, and of those who go on to high school, less than 60% manage to graduate. Thus, given its weak school system, it is not surprising that, during its participation in testing, Mexico consistently ranked at the bottom of the Pisa survey performed every three years by the OECD and whose goal is to measure the academic achievement of children in its nation members.
In a developing country with an almost universal literacy rate and plagued by economic crises, this probably wouldn’t be too shocking. Except that Mexico likes to brag that it had the first university in the Americas—over 500 years ago! And, thanks to its annual book fair (FIL), Guadalajara, my native city, is regarded as the literary capital of the Spanish-speaking world.
Why, then, so many dropouts?
Raúl Padilla, the founder and director of the Feria Internacional del Libro, is a man of many shades: enlightened if seen from abroad and darkened for those in his vicinity. For decades now, the figure of Padilla has dominated the horizon of every major decision regarding middle school (secundaria) to higher education in Guadalajara and the state of Jalisco: how much money schools and universities receive, how many students are accepted each year and how many are left out. In short, Padilla basically decides the fate of tapatío youth, and that of the entire state of Jalisco.
For the foreign observer, Raúl Padilla is a sort of a cultural icon, an esteemed figure who counts France’s Légion d’Honneur and the Princess of Asturias awards among some of his accolades.
To his fellow citizens, however, Padilla is a contemporary cacique, a power-hungry individual whose origins can be traced to the birth of the Guadalajara Student Federation (FEG) of the 1970s. A student-led organization, the FEG is best known for its use of violence. The members of the FEG, some of them as young as thirteen, learned from an early age that the organization granted them a certain degree of impunity. And, during school election season, it was not uncommon for many to ditch the classroom, kidnap city buses and snatch supplies from mom and pop shops to consume at parties and pass out at big rallies. In order to intimidate rivals, some of the older students carried brass knuckles, knives and guns.
Raúl Padilla, one of the undisputed leaders of that group, has carried the combative spirit of his early years to the very present. As director of institutions that take in large sums of public money, such as the University of Guadalajara, Padilla has often faced significant opposition and has been accused of misappropriation of funds. Over time, however, he’s always managed to come out triumphant, regardless of the gravity of the charges or those bringing them up. Throughout his tenure as director of the University of Guadalajara (1989-1995) and until the present, Padilla has had quarrels that have, at times, gone beyond the political with at least three State governors of different parties. One of these governors, Aristóteles Sandoval, was assassinated after his term in office ended.
And yet, Raúl Padilla is considered a cultural champion worldwide, mainly because of the great success of the Feria Internacional del Libro, a massive book fair second only to Frankfurt’s and frequented yearly by the world’s literary elite. Despite its glamour, the FIL hides a truth that, as a native of the city, is to me one of Guadalajara’s greatest shames—the number of preteen children performing tricks, cleaning windshields, selling chewing gum and spewing fire, like little dragons, out of their mouths at busy and dangerous intersections.
Shouldn’t these children be in school?
But see them—they’re out on the streets, trying to earn a few stinky pesos, performing for the foreign intelligentsia stuck in traffic on their way to their cosmopolitan literary meeting at the Feria Internacional del Libro.
In spite of its good intentions, the development of Mexico’s educational system throughout the 20th century left a lot to be desired. After the Revolution of 1910, the philosopher José Vasconcelos is credited with establishing the nation’s first public school system (SEP) which, well, has left us with all those kids selling chewing gum and candy on the streets. Shortly before that, Justo Sierra, another one of the great minds of the era, was able to reopen the National University of Mexico, which had been closed for decades. A great achievement, considering that it took place under the dictator Porfirio Díaz, who would rather have a large peasantry and a small number of landowners.
A champion of freedom and equality in theory, Vargas Llosa has aligned himself with the economic interests of Raúl Padilla, a savvy businessman who’s managed to turn a city with low levels of readership into a cosmopolitan literary destination. Already a thriving business in 2010 when the Peruvian author was awarded the Nobel prize for literature, the FIL has firmly consolidated itself by hosting the Vargas Llosa Biennial Novel Award, one of the most prestigious ones in the Spanish-speaking world. And thus, another cycle of pre-Columbian cosmology comes full circle—in Mexico everyone knows their place and the natural order of things keeps occurring as they ought to.
The Feria Internacional del Libro that Raúl Padilla presides, however, is only part of his original idea to marry the concept of business and culture. His most ambitious project, the Centro Cultural Universitario (CCU) is still under construction in one of the most exclusive areas of the city. An article by Reporte Indigo states that in the period of 2001-2020, investment in the CCU had already reached almost MX$5 bn. Out of that, about MX$1 bn had been taken directly out of the UdeG budget, where Mr. Padilla still exerts total control even decades after retiring as the institution’s president.
The CCU complex, which when complete will feature luxurious living spaces as well as hotels and boutiques, is still under construction by the same architectural firm that designed the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. Meanwhile, statistics show that, for at least the last 10 years, the great majority of students (up to 65%) who have applied for entrance to the Guadalajara public university system have been and continue to be rejected. Thus, despite Padilla’s shiny annual book fair and huge cultural complex, one thing is abundantly clear—in Guadalajara, the idea of reading and, especially, the idea of access to reading still hasn’t sunk in. It is a city where reading as a pleasant, challenging and potentially rebellious activity has not been inculcated. My native city is a place where the majority of the population cannot afford to buy books. A city where public libraries (also controlled by the UdeG) see and understand themselves more as private museums. Rather than institutions at the service of the citizenry, public libraries in Guadalajara are an homage to architecture and solemnity. As recently as 2016, after a speech and an official ceremony celebrating the 25th anniversary of a public library in downtown Guadalajara, the esteemed author and director of the branch, Fernando del Paso, proudly took his picture with the recipient of the first book allowed to be checked out of the library.
What’s also clear is that Raúl Padilla has created an enlightened cultural emporium with global appeal. Or rather, the illusion of it. The number of preteen children working on the streets, the teenagers being lured into drug trafficking or prostitution, those who still can’t pass the high school entrance exam—yes, they must pass an exam to earn a seat in high school!—, and those who will never see the inside of a university classroom are all living proof that the FIL, as well as every other project conceived by Mr. Padilla, is nothing more than a beautiful mirage—the manicured creation of a local cacique. And what does Vargas Llosa make of those kids smashing their faces against his window? Perhaps just another unexpected surprise in his trip to “wonderland”, as he once referred to Guadalajara.
A fairy tale—exactly how both Padilla and DeSantis wish to present their respective societies. That’s their vision and their myopia. Whether it be systematically excluding local youth from higher education or banning a more complete history of a multiracial society, the dangers these men represent cannot be underestimated.
As these two caciques have shown, not occupying the highest office in the land barely hinders their ability to inflict pain, both on individuals and entire societies. Padilla ran for governor of Jalisco and lost, and DeSantis may never occupy the White House. And yet, the damage they’ve already done is likely to be long-lasting, and it is ongoing.
Raúl Padilla and Ron DeSantis pose a threat to fundamental values that none of us should be denied—the right to an education, the right over our own bodies, and the right to our own stories.