Books: Has Mexico Been Americanized?

"Invaded." That's the word former NEWSWEEK correspondent Joseph Contreras chooses to best sum up what is happening to Mexico this century in his new book, In the Shadow of the Giant: The Americanization of Modern Mexico. A sweeping overview of Mexico's relationship to the United States, Shadow explores facets of Mexican society—from its newspaper industry to its expat communities to its diseases and its drug trade—to unearth evidence of how proximity to a behemoth can impact a nation in the midst of its own trying transition.

As a former NEWSWEEK Mexico City bureau chief and Latin America regional editor based there until 2008, Contreras is in a strong position to shed light on the ever-complex relationship between these two nations. As the son of a Mexican immigrant to the United States who struggled with his own Hispanic identity as a young boy in Southern California and as a "gringo" in Guadalajara, he's even better placed. Contreras deftly intertwines these two perspectives to offer a unique view of modern Mexico in the NAFTA era, and a fine primer on how relations between Washington and the Mexican capital could play out during the Obama administration.

The author uses his keen journalistic eye throughout to present evidence of the Americanization of Mexico. It's not just the Wal-Marts and Burger Kings, it's the use of "bye" in phone calls, the infiltration of frozen margaritas, the provincial student who candidly admits to him that she laughs more when watching a U.S. sitcom than a Mexican comedy program. In describing his interviews with presidential candidate Vicente Fox in 1999, Contreras notes "how times had changed" since his first Mexico stint. There was a Mexican politician speaking to foreign reporters in English, something a politician from previous generations would have considered unthinkable.

In the mold of a good journalist of old, Contreras opts to leave the intellectual perspective of Mexico to its intellectuals. Instead of writing what he doesn't know, Contreras calls on the cream of the Mexican intelligentsia, Jorge Castañeda and Lorenzo Meyer among them, in order to round out his observations. His conversations with Castañeda, in particular, are insightful because the former foreign secretary discloses how the standard anti-American political talk—long a favorite with the capital's chattering classes—was ditched during the Vicente Fox presidency. "We abandoned the anti-American rhetoric totally, and we tried to transform it into a rhetoric of cooperation but at the same time really pursue an agenda based on Mexican interests," Castañeda explains.

Contreras's own original insights are valuable throughout, however. One of the book's strongest observations is just how Mexico has changed vis-à-vis itself, not just with regards to the giant up north. Since 1994, when NAFTA came into effect—and even more so since 2000, when the 71-year-dictatorship of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, came to an end—Mexico has been abandoning many aspects of its past as it tries to forge a new, democratic future. Contreras describes the Mexican newspaper business that modeled itself after U.S. journalism in order to fight the established order (which effectively meant toeing the party line) and create the concept of editorial independence. He visits the migrant towns in the state of Zacatecas to investigate how mass departure from the homeland has effectively created ghost towns, while also noting the way Fox and current President Felipe Calderón have chosen to praise migrants as a fundamental part of Mexico, rather than disavowing them like their predecessors had done.

Contreras's exchange with Emilio Azcárraga Jean, son of late Televisa president and media magnate Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, perhaps best reflects Mexico's struggle with its own past as it wrests with the imposing shadow of the United States. Whereas Azcárraga the elder, who died in 1997, had done much to conceal the fact he was born in the United States, his son in 2003 said that if it would help the company's expansion north, he would not hesitate to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. The plan to expand into the U.S. market had been the elder Azcárraga's vision; his son, no longer shackled by the anti-Americanism of the PRI years, would do whatever it took to achieve it—even if that meant selling out his nationality.

It's in capturing these two Mexicos—the one of past and the one of the present, both in the shadow of a giant—that Contreras excels. Whether it's examining the contrast of northern Monterrey with the capital and another secondary urban city, Guadalajara, or juxtaposing the Mexican attitude toward Cancún (originally intended as an exclusive vacation spot for Mexicans, it apparently does little to lure Mexican visitors today) and colonial San Miguel de Allende with that of the expat, the author draws the reader into a Mexico that is as bewildered by U.S. influence as it is grateful or, at times, resentful.

Contreras believes that Puebla's main square—with its 17th-century cathedral, splendid fountain, floodlit facades and its McDonald's, KFC and Domino's Pizza outlets—offers the most stark contrast between traditional Mexico and its Americanized present and future. It is home to hundreds of Roman Catholic churches even as Mexico's default faith is under threat from evangelism and other beliefs. It is at once an academic center and a tourist haven. It is located in one of the country's poorest states—which is governed by a seemingly irremovable PRI dinosaur, Mario Marín—and the area is among the top exporters of Mexican workers to the land up north.

Somewhat ironically, what might give Shadow its most formidable punch is the fact that Contreras succeeds where by most counts he shouldn't have. The original version of this book, published in Spanish, hit shelves in 2006. This U.S. version was released in March. In our Internet, headline-a-nanosecond age, much of what Contreras wrote is already history. The booming Mexican newspaper business he describes as evolving out of the U.S. model is currently suffering like its counterpart up north, and the drug trade has long consumed more than just Monterrey, which he describes. The health problems he writes of—HIV/AIDS and obesity—have been at least momentarily overtaken by swine-flu fears, while the issue of migration is now being talked about in reverse terms. Due to the global economic crisis and lack of work in the United States, migrants are now heading home to Mexico.

But Contreras's insights will likely stand the test of time. Because even though the landscape may have altered slightly since he wrote about it—and since he first observed it back in the 1980s as a reporter—the fundamental dynamics of the relationship between the United States and Mexico remain the same. "[Policymakers in Washington] prefer to treat Mexico as the international equivalent of an appendage that is always ready to service certain indispensable needs of American society when it is required and can be disowned whenever it suits U.S. interests," writes the author. "That handy appendage attached to America's doorstep will continue to absorb and imitate the values, vices, lifestyle, and language of El Norte for the foreseeable future without any realistic hope that Washington might one day accept Mexico as a full partner."