Mexico – The Foreign Pioneer

MEXICO is a microcosm—an epitome of the planet. It contains mountains and valleys, lakes and plains, a vast coast line and extensive deserts, rich mines, oil wells, coal measures, agricultural and grazing soil, tropical lands, temperate zones, snowbound hills, volcanoes and hot medicinal springs. In a word, in order to become the most thriving country on the Western Continent it needs only money to provide water and communications. Meanwhile the lack of these entails economic misery and political disintegration. There is money in abundance but in virtue of an oversight of the legislator it is ear-marked for the wealthy foreigner. In vast stretches of territory a sufficiency of moisture, whether from rainfall or artificial irrigation, would make all the difference to the inhabitants between downright poverty and material well-being. And as the rainfall is too meagre or too violent and irrigation has not yet taken its place, poverty and all that that implies have for generations been the lot of the people. This is especially true of some of the northern States in which thou-sands of square miles of potentially fertile soil produce nothing for lack of water. The State of Chihuahua, for example, which is far greater in area than Holland and Belgium has, we are assured by statisticians, only some sixty-five thousand hectares of land under cultivation, and most of this would have been as it was a few years ago—a barren steppe—were it not for the skill and labour and capital of the pushing outlander. In the great State of Sonora where most of the soil differs in no essential respects from that of Southern California, hardly five per cent of it is under cultivation. And yet it shows the same characteristics and the same potentialities as that for the growing of fruit and the production of cereal and leguminous food stuffs. It is only the stamina of the men who inhabit the respective countries—one set well fed, well housed and well paid; and the other hungry, ignorant and diseased—that makes the difference. And it can be unmade only by remedial measures against which the outlander has set his face. Like the mines, the coal measures and the oil wells, such lands are Nature’s promises which the hand of man alone can redeem.

Irrigation, although by far the most urgent need of the population in those arid territories of the North, is by no means their only requisite for self-support. Ways of communication are another. Lack of waterways and roads has from time immemorial formed the crux of the economic, political and cultural plight of Mexico. If the sense of national unity is weaker than it should be in that Republic to-day, one of the causes lies largely in the circumstance that owing to the impossibility of communications, the various ethnic elements held only rare and fitful intercourse with each other. A similar condition of things cut up the kindred branches of the ancient Hellenic race into isolated regions. In spite of the fact that Mexico in 1910 possessed a larger number of rail-ways and a greater mileage than any other Latin-American State, her people have sometimes to quit the Republic altogether and travel thousands of miles through foreign lands in order to reach some remote town or district in their native country.

For ages this inaccessibility of one part of Mexico to the inhabitants of another part kept the various sections of the population effectually isolated, hindering the fusion of races, the elimination of the less cultivated languages, the extinction of dialects and the growth of a strong national spirit. It compelled a considerable percentage of the people to support life on serpents, bugs, worms, lizards, locusts, slimy insects and kindred loathsome things while others were well provided with corn, beans, bananas and fish. Relative plenty in one place was attended by waste, while scarcity in another caused famine, disease and death. And to-day it is computed that agricultural produce grown thirty miles from the railroad is not marketable. Rail and carriage roads constitute, therefore, the complement of irrigation, the one being only partly effective without the other. And both necessitate more capital and skill than the Mexican people with hardly any millionaires among them could provide. For the country is such that roads there unless constructed with the solidity of European and North American engineering are likely to be washed out by frequent destructive floods while bridges must be uncommonly well made to keep them from being bodily swept away in like catastrophic fashion.

When the foreign yoke was first shaken off by a band of half-breeds, Mexicans of Spanish stock and friendly Indians, there were no foreigners but Spaniards in the country. And these—their number is variously computed at from five to seven thousand—had displayed as little initiative as the Indians in developing the mineral and agricultural riches of the country. For centuries they had had unmatched opportunities which they employed only to plunder the natural resources to the full extent of the technical appliances of the day. For the behoof of the common people they did little but build churches. For three hundred years after the Spanish Conquest no subjects of any European State except the Spaniards—and even of these very few—were admitted into the land. Two years after the attainment of independence a law was passed by which the State protection of non-Mexicans was restricted to those who professed Catholicism, which was still the only recognized religion of the Empire.

In the very same year’ that this inhospitable law was enacted another bill of a different kind was passed. The imperial Government recognising the inability of the natives to acquit themselves of the various duties of progressive peoples with-out help from outside, decided to invite immigration from abroad. The objects were to develop the dormant resources of the country, awaken confidence, obtain loans and equip the Republic for a worthy place among the nations of the earth. By this decree lands were offered to immigrants, who were dispensed from paying taxes for a period of six years and from paying duties upon agricultural implements and other foreign merchandise up to two thousand dollars. One can imagine the feelings of the English-speaking Protestant, Baptist, Methodist and other non-Catholic new-comers on learning that the Government which thus bestowed on them large tracts of land situated hard by unruly Indian tribes and held out to them various other inducements to settle there, must conscientiously decline to protect their lives or property. It is fair to add that neither that Government nor those which succeeded it for a quarter of a century or more sincerely desired to see an influx of non-Catholic foreigners into the country.

Thus nearly every new Administration realising the need of an energising spirit, incarnate in foreign settlers, inaugurated its career by making a bid for enterprising capitalists, thrifty farmers, skilled technicians and generally immigrants possessed of the material wealth, moral fibre and business enterprise in which the population of Mexico was deficient. But owing to the distrust which the native almost everywhere in the world displays towards foreigners, every inducement offered was bracketed with a deterrent. Thus under the Empire, sturdy farmers like the English, the Scotch, the Dutch were warned away if their theological beliefs happened to differ from those of the Vatican, and when the Empire made room for a Republic, the legislature invested the Executive with power to adopt “precautionary measures for the security of the Confederation” against foreign immigrants.

In sooth the Mexican administration has never until quite recently been quite at ease when dealing with settlers from abroad. If these were pushing, eager for innovation and impatient of time-killing formalism, they were set down as politically dangerous. If they were weak and lazy, as were some of the settlers of Latin race, they became a burden to the Treasury. If their faith was heretical, they were an abomination to such governments as that of Iturbide. If it was orthodox, they were odious to the Revolutionists and Constitutionalists of a later date. In a word, the foreigner might be likened to the travellers captured by the brigand Procrustes of ancient Greek fame who never by any chance fitted the couch prepared for them and had to be adjusted by their host to the dimensions of the everready grave.

The pages of the Statute Book abound in enactments which convey a fair idea of the fluctuating status of foreigners in Mexico. Hardly was the country an independent community when a law was passed forbidding them to purchase land with-out a special authorisation from the State legislature or the Federal Congress, whereas other countries—with a few exceptions such as that of pre-war Finland—dispensed with such restrictions. A few years after the declaration of independence a clause was introduced into the Constitution prohibiting the purchase of land by any outlander unless he first became naturalised.

Porfirio Diaz’ advent to power constituted a land-mark in the history of Mexico’s attitude towards immigration. Encouragement to foreigners was the corner stone of his policy. They became a privileged order in the State. They revere his memory accordingly and still wistfully yearn for a return of the paradise lost. Mexican historians affirm, on the other hand, that if Diaz transformed the Republic into a paradise for those outlanders who were building up the finances of the nation, he made it a hell or at any rate a purgatory for the native who was expected to bear and forbear and was shot down or banished if he displayed the slightest symptom of active discontent. It is alleged by that President’s admirers that this severity was a political necessity. If so, it was unfortunate not merely for the victims but also for the country and for the Dictator’s reputation. He has, it is true, been apotheosised by the grateful foreign element to whose dancing he accommodated his music. They belaud him for having preserved exemplary order in the Republic. But his own countrymen anathematise him because, according to them, the only order preserved was purely mechanical depending upon downright coercion while the principal object for which he established it was undisturbed tenure of power for himself and his friends. At all events the natives whenever they were, or were suspected of being, unruly or restless received short shrift, the innocent being mowed down together with the so-called guilty, while the fortune-hunter from abroad was a superior being in whose favour the laws were stretched or violated to suit his needs or his convenience. Indeed if Mexican history is to be trusted, some of these protegés of Diaz resembled that pious member of the upper class who once asked: “Why ever did God give bones to the fishes, seeing that we, his favoured creatures, cannot eat them?”

The unbiased historian is thus forced to the conclusion that until General Obregón became President none of the governments that had theretofore watched over the destinies of Mexico contrived to strike the happy medium between the two extremes represented by Don Porfirio and D’on Venustiano respectively. The former neglected or sacrificed his people for the sake of the foreign element, whereas the latter some-times denied common justice to that foreign element in the name of his fellow-countrymen but without benefiting these. Both Presidents exhibited courage in working out their respective policies to the consequences of which they ultimately succumbed, both régimes dying of political apoplexy. But still greater courage is required by him who would assume the prosaic and commonplace function of meting out simple justice to each of the elements, native and foreign, and brave the resentment of each. And that is the attitude of General Obregón.

To scrutinise the ordering established by former Presidents, therefore, in the hope of finding examples of statecraft there, would be like going to a member of Diaz’ rural police for a description of the beauties of the Mexican landscape.

The foreign element which has experienced such varied treatment still forms the abiding feature of international interest in current Mexican history. Indeed the future of the Republic is so closely bound up with the aspirations and strivings of those professional wealth-creators and their respective governments that the two have become well nigh indissoluble. They resemble the famous wooden horse introduced into beleaguered Troy by the wily Greeks as a boon and a talisman but which was filled with armed enemies of the doomed city.

It cannot be too often repeated that the benefits which Mexico has received for those adventurous fortune-seekers are valuable and perhaps imperfectly appreciated by the country of their temporary adoption. It was their labour that drained swamps, reclaimed vast stretches of desert and imparted to them the agricultural value which they possess to-day. As Holland may be said to have been recovered and preserved from the sea by the exertions of her hardy sons, so a certain section of Mexico has been snatched from the swamp and the wilderness by groups of foreign pioneers who drained this region and provided that one with water by constructing dams, culverts and canals. These benefactors were not the natives. The Mexicans and their governments have accomplished hardly anything in this direction, have in fact undertaken little or nothing for lack of money or initiative. During the revolutionary epoch they even squandered considerable sums in flashy enterprises, pulling down what others had built up, and grudged the requisite funds for the redeeming of arid land. There are laurels to be culled on a field of battle which never grow in fields of rice, cotton or sugar cane. And several of the men who formerly rough-hewed the destinies of the nation were ambitious to figure in the limelight of a national theatre. They hungered after plaudits and triumphs or power or pelf. The prospect of unostentatiously benefiting the bulk of their fellow-countrymen without having their services blazoned abroad had no attraction for them.

To English-speaking pioneers, therefore, Mexico owes much of what has been achieved for her in the way of land-reclamation. These men staked their money, devoted their time, applied their skill and labour to this task of making part of God’s earth better than they found it, and while enriching themselves benefited their fellow-men. Their qualifications were enterprise, capacity for hard work, perseverance and thrift. Their incentive was not a State subsidy, not a bribe in any shape or form, but a desire to receive a large return for their labour, and to some extent also the instinct of their race to behave like the steward in the Gospel story and, instead of burying the talent confided to them, to augment it and leave themselves and others the better for the trust. Beyond these conscious motives and semi-conscious instincts there was seldom any stimulus and hardly ever an unworthy one. And General Obregón has always been ready and eager to acknowledge the debt of gratitude which his country owes to these individual pioneers and to encourage their enterprise by every legitimate means. But wealthy companies and powerful associations belong to a different category and some of them have lived up to the proverbial description that they have no conscience to be scared, no soul to be saved and no body to be whipped.

Take the oil wells, for example. Mexicans argue that when the credit account of the American oil companies has been made up to the last item and all the benefits accruing to the nation from their activities have been duly recorded, the master fact remains that they entered the Republic solely to make colossal fortunes and without the faintest trace of altruistic motive. This is not a reproach but merely a circumstance which deprives them of the benefit of their plea of altruism. And to these colossal fortunes there are no bounds except those which Nature set to Mexico’s resources. The appetite grows on what it consumes. They want all that can be extracted from the country—Mexicans allege—and hold that they are therefore entitled to protest against the laws, object to the Constitution, veto official acts of the Executive and aid and abet disaffected natives who are plotting against the Government. Does this attitude, do the riches which they have speedily acquired, it is asked, entitle them to such influence over the internal ordering of the Republic as no Mexican citizen ever wields? How little thought these corporations take of the lot of the natives may be gathered from their wistful yearning to see embodied anew in a government after their own liking the odious maxims of the Diaz régime under which the native population was treated as manure for the growth of foreign culture and prosperity.

Thus the dispute between the foreigner and the native resolves itself into the contention of the former that he enjoys an indefeasible right—which he is warranted in enforcing—not merely to exploit the mineral wealth of Mexico but also to establish there all the conditions which he deems necessary to the successful pursuit of this legitimate object. Hence the legislation of the country must be accommodated to that and a mechanism devised by which the Government which represents the principal foreign elements shall be at once the judge and the executor of the appropriate measures. Hence the demand, not yet hall-marked by the State Department in Washington but voiced by influential politicians and strenuously advocated by the Association for the Protection of American Rights in Mexico and the American Association of Mexico, that the Constitution of 1917 be repealed and a treaty concluded with the United States which will confer upon that country the rights and privileges of guardianship and bestow upon Mexico all the boons and blessings at present enjoyed by Cuba.