Caciques everywhere (Part I)
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.