Net Zero

6 July 2011 | Share: FacebookTwitterTumblrDiggE-mailGoogle BookmarksYahoo! BookmarksStumbleUpon

The narrator of Carlos Fuentes new novel Destiny and Desire is a severed head—the “thousandth severed head so far this year in Mexico”—a casualty of a nation imprisoned by its own greed and violence and paralyzed by its uncomfortable and debilitating relationship with Europe and the US. This is Fuentes ennui and the story is told with grandfatherly imagination and almost wearying narrative control. (Having gone to see Fuentes, along with his English translator Edith Grossman, speak at the Free Library, I am struck by the way that Grossman projects Fuentes’ English voice and cadence into the text. Remarkable artistry.)

Fuentes’ characters—and the main one is Mexico itself—are all stuck. One, the owner of a chain of whorehouses, dies as he is tormented by his favorite prostitute (and second wife); another leaves the country for the iconic European Grand Tour only to never actually leave; another, a schizophrenic young woman, keeps trying unsuccessfully to steal airplanes from the airport in Mexico City; another, a prisoner in an underground jail, refuses to be set free just so that he can maintain his power over fellow prisoners; and finally, the narrator himself, a promising young lawyer, beheaded by the forces of nonsensical narco-violence that have cost some 30,000 lives.

Isn’t this, too, the ennui of urban America? Yes, amid the urban resurgence—there is a Mexican resurgence too, more on that below—most old American cities are paralyzed by economic, political, and fiscal forces outside their control; by blind and willful ward politicians who seek control over ever-withering fiefdoms; by the constant American instinct to flee; by poverty, addiction, and mental illness; and by narco-violence (community-wide suicide, it seems). In Philadelphia, our nascent growth is indeed threatened by these forces. It is no surprise that Philadelphia grew while Ed Rendell was governor: he sent hundreds of millions this way to prop up schools, transit, and human services, and to improve the built environment. Governor Tom Corbett just made those hundreds of millions disappear, and there isn’t anything we can do.  “Philadelphia is among the many things Corbett is not interested in,” writes Tom Ferrick on Metropolis today. In other words, he says, we’re screwed. (Actually, and most poignantly, it is the poor, as everywhere during this belligerent time of class warfare, who are screwed most of all.)

But that’s not the only reason why. If Rendell gave this city a chance, foreign-born immigrants made the most of it (truth be told, and to prove I listen to both sides of the argument, they probably also drove down wages, hurting the poor). This is simply how American cities grow. Chief among those immigrants, particularly in South Philly, were Mexicans. Now, Damien Cave of the New York Times, whose work on Mexico City’s underground rivers I cited recently, reports this morning that net immigration of Mexicans to the US is zero. “For the first time in 60 years,” says former Penn and now Princeton demographer Doug Massey, “the net traffic has gone to zero and is probably a little bit negative.”

At the heart of the story is the Mexican resurgence:

Over the past 15 years, this country once defined by poverty and beaches has progressed politically and economically in ways rarely acknowledged by Americans debating immigration. Even far from the coasts or the manufacturing sector at the border, democracy is better established, incomes have generally risen and poverty has declined.

If we ignore the sloppy writing—a “country once defined by poverty and beaches” (¿is this the Times best understanding of Mexico, didn’t Carlos Slim bail out the paper?)—this is a critical piece of journalism, for it exposes several fundamental shifts in our world: the Mexican economy is surging as ours is still withering and as a consequence, at long last the wage gap between Mexico and the US is narrowing (in Mexico, six years ago, all I heard were complaints about few jobs and low wages); educational opportunities are growing in Mexico (and perhaps shrinking here); and the US is encouraging legal paths to immigration.

Is Mexico poised to be the next Turkey, or Brazil? Is Carlos Fuentes, dean of Mexican letters, hopelessly behind? Indeed, not. One of the book’s antagonists is the entrepreneur Max Monroy (perhaps a spoof of Slim), who shovels easy credit and consumer goods into the open mouths of hungry Mexicans; impressively, and perhaps surprisingly to Fuentes, factories and schools have followed. And meanwhile ours wither and no one dares listen to the cries.

Filed under: literature, immigration, Tom Corbett, Ed Rendell, Mexico, Carlos Fuentes