The house we’re renting here in Ajijic is located on the corner of Avenidas Lázaro Cárdenas and Revolución. You can imagine how pleased that makes me, especially when I learned that Cárdenas was the best, most committed, of the Mexican presidents to come out of the 1910 Revolution. When I learned that Cárdenas was responsible for nationalizing the oil industry in Mexico in the 1930s, kicking out the British and American fat cats, I couldn’t help but be amused by the photo above–with Cárdenas’s name juxtaposed with the name of one of the snazzy gated communities, filled with ex-pats of whom many are probably from the American and Canadian oil industries, across the street from our house. The other photo shows the street signs on our house.
While in Ajijic, I have been reading Alan Riding’s Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans, written in 1989. Riding was for many years the bureau chief of the New York Times’ Mexican office, in the days when American newspapers still had international bureaus. While now a bit dated–and in our current political state, extremely depressing, since Riding just assumes that America in the 1980s is still the model of democracy to which all nations should aspire–the book gives the author’s insights into the Mexican character in enlightening and persuasive passages, if one would now perhaps consider them provocatively stereotypical. His grasp of Mexican political history is excellent, and he writes easily and with dispatch about the complexities of Mexican personalities and institutions that are so baffling to many Americans.
In Riding’s book I first came across references to Cárdenas (1895-1970) and his radical and astonishing reforms in the 1930s. A mestizo with Tarascan Indian blood, he came from the southern state of Michoacán; early on he aligned himself with the revolutionaries who came to political power in the 1920s, and fortunately for him, he chose the right ones to whom to give his loyalty. He became a well-respected military general under Plutarco Calles, dictatorial president and founder of the reigning political party, the Partido Nacional Revolucionario (PNR). As Calles’ hand-picked successor to the presidency, Cárdenas was expected to toe the party line while Calles continued to maintain control, the usual situation in Mexican political life. Instead, as Riding writes, “…his style was not empty demagoguery, as Calles would soon discover.”
Eventually, in 1936, Cárdenas sent Calles into exile in the U.S. and began a conscious campaign of land reform, empowerment of the workers and peasants, and–most dramatically–the nationalization of the Mexican oil industry. He spent enormous amounts of time among the campesinos, often riding on horseback into the remotest of communities. He identified strongly with the peasants and workers, and personally lived a modest life, neither smoking nor drinking.
Among his other radical moves, Cárdenas:
–nationalized the railroads, and created a “workers’ administration” for its operations
–created the first Department of Indigenous Affairs, and remained committed to aiding the horrific conditions of Mexico’s Indian population, creating agragrian collectives, or egidos, that allowed for use of common lands–one of the original impetuses for the Revolution
–fought for women’s suffrage, although women did not get the vote in Mexico until 1953
–ended capital punishment, a statute that remains in place to this day
–supported the Republic during the Spanish Civil War, and welcomed more than 5,000 political Spanish refugees when the fascists took over Spain. He also gave Leon Trotsky refuge once Trotsky fell out of favor under Stalin’s regime. Trotsky said of Cárdenas, despite being far less leftist than he, that his government was the only honest one in the world (Trotsky, of course, was ice-axed to death by a Spanish Stalinist, in 1940 in Mexico City). A statue in Madrid and a street in Barcelona honor Cárdenas for these efforts against fascism.
–most amazingly, completely handed over the power of the presidency to his successor after his term ended, and after serving as Secretary of Defense during World War II, retired to his modest home on Lake Pátzcuaro, in his home state.
He continued to fight for indigenous causes, and even served in the 1960s on the Russell Tribunal investigating war crimes in Vietnam. One of the only Mexican politicians not to become rich while president, Lázaro Cárdenas remains a revered figure in Mexican culture. Streets are named after him everywhere, including in this little town of Ajijic, now so beloved of the ex-pat community. I’m glad I became curious enough to want to know who this interesting person was for whom a street crossing one named Revolucion would be named.