This article is from the February 1996 The Mexico File
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by Alan Riding
Reviewed by Jane Perkins, owner of El Tecolote Libros in Todos Santos, Baja Sur
It has been said that to predict the future of a country, it is necessary to understand the past. This understanding of Mexico's past is Alan Riding's goal in writing Distant Neighbors.
Riding, in his foreword, states "Probably, nowhere in the world do two neighbors understand each other so little. More than by levels of development, the two countries (United States and Mexico) are separated by language, religion, race, philosophy and history. The United States is a nation barely two hundred years old and is lunging toward the 21st century; Mexico is several thousand years old and is still held back by its past."
After a general background, Riding covers topics of specific interest. In his section on farming, for example, he discusses the importance of corn to the life and history of Mexico. He explains, however, that between the steepness ot the terrain and the arid areas, overall only 15% of the land is ideally arabic. Since Mexico has traditionally been dependent on its agriculture it is understandable that it is necessary for farmers to literally scrape together a living.
In the chapters on the Indians of Mexico, the author discusses the difticulty in defining ~Indian." In reading about relationships between governments and Indians over the years it is clear that problems in Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla are of long vintage and ones that will not be easily solved.
While this book was written iii 1984 it is limited only by its inability to report on the last ten years. This limitation is more than balanced by the concise, readable discussion of the history of Mexico from Cortez to current times. This history is vital to understand the attitudes which control the political and economic life of today.
Alan Riding, a journalist with the New York Times, spent six years as Bureau Chief in Mexico City. lie was horn in Brazil and spent the bulk of his career in Latin America. In the debates on NAFTA in the last year, Distant Neighbors was mentioned in all recommended Mexico lists. The comments were that even though the book was published some time ago, it was still the best of its kind and well worth reading.
If I have criticism of this book it would be that he is quite hard on Mexico in his academic approach. For many of us. the very reasons that make our lives here so pleasant are the very reasons that cause Mexico to struggle in finding its way economically and politically.
For those interested in Mexican history, I would certainly recommend it as good information for understauding today's situation.