An overview of “Middle America”. Notes on the land of maids and gardeners and some of its controversial shifts

Luis Alberto Velasco Ruiz[1]

 From “Nacotitlán” to “Afghanistan”:

Bonfil, one of México’s most prolific and sensitive anthropologists wrote not so long ago that concerning our country, society was in fact the “initial obstacle to be surpassed in order to attain imaginary achievement” namely, “superar la desgracia de haber nacido en Nacotitlán” (to overcame the misfortune of being born in Tackyland –vulgar-) (1992: 17). This means that our moral and social eneven value hangs on racial and ethnic determinations. Since late 80’s, the former statement has been well related to México being the first export power of “maids and gardeners”[2] to the north. The more than ten million expatriots occupying the north became a huge topic and migration started to be fashioned “on everyone’s lips”. However, not even stereotypes remain still. For instance, I recently came across an article entitled “Like it or Not: Mexico is America’s Next Afghanistan”. Nothing new, a country eternally stuck halfway between “tradition” and “modernity” could easily lead to a confronted social apparatus flooded in corrupted governmental policies, drug trafficking, violence and unbearable socioeconomic gaps. Most Mexican people may have started thinking: “This must be already normal to the eyes of worldwide beholders”.

It now seems that México’s international image is not only recognizable through “silly” clichés nurtured by films and food, but as the American newly “infection focus” that risks of spreading out to different continental geographies. Many politicians and scholars actually identify nowadays México with the Colombia of Escobar from two decades ago; the “colombianización” of México has been seriously discussed in international panels and conferences. Thus, a couple of questions are thrown into the air: is México a country that rearranges its image at the expense of its people’s blood? Is this new bitter territorial circumscription what now defines our “national” status?

The aim of this paper is to gradually inquire (as a first step to taking to pieces) old and recent ideological stagings (capable of reseting spatialities and social values) in order to evaluate the possibility of (re)assembling an inclusive project within the Mexican national space, with the help of some instances from the newly geopolitical surroundings of a state in clear warfare.

Let us start with a quite interesting one.

Centroamérica: The invisible southern face of another (in)visible south northward:

“México is not part of the so-called Centroamérica”. As Mexicans, we all know it by heart since our firsts geography lessons at elementary school (hand to hand with an adequate training on “national history” and civism). Fervently attached to a strict geographical canon, we keep reproducing this criterion as the self-conviction that we pertain, along with the United States and Canada, to the “civilized” corner of the Americas: the North America.

Contrary to the claims of many nations having lost territory throughout history, we have not developed this supranational sentiment of loss (or maybe we did but is now blurred into the past). In some way, we may feel a kind of regret for the loss of half of our northern land, but our alleged “search of the lost territory” unfolds itself as an unfounded economic balance face to the wealth that natural resources (gold and oil) have latterly provided to the American administration. At a certain point, Mexican chauvinist middle classes are “grateful” to impoverished population driven to migration, since for the sake of the strong ongoing presence of latinos, especially Mexicans, in the southern fringe and in the huge metropolises of the United States, “Americans are somehow paying back for the formerly sized territory”.

In the case of Central America instead, we pretend that their issues do not take part of our particular realm. There seems not to be a consciously discerned or “affirmative” dominance in daily life over Central American countries (even though central and southern “regions” of the country share together the same “civilizing matrix” as part of the former so-called “Mesoamérica”). To put the matter into a metaphor: hegemony comes with oblivion, along with a sort of unawareness or ignorance about their national fate, unless when it comes to trans-migrants crossing our country on top of “La Bestia” (the train – risky in all ways- that most of this people have to climb on, as a means of transport to the north), as a forced interlude step on their way to the “other side” (the United States).

A former student of mine, a “return migrant” with several experiences, told me once: “when Central American people are about to be deported from the United States, they prefer to pretend and to say they are Mexicans, not to be sent to their countries but hopefully to México”. On the other hand, there is a constant risk in crossing nowadays a country like México, stuck in a bloody narcotized war and controlled by a complex trafficking network. And besides this, while “scrolling” all the way up from their countries, migrants are said to face even more shameful situations when encountered to the Mexican border patrol as well, namely, “put through their paces” in order to be able or not of showing an alleged belonging to the “Mexican nation”, such as being forced to sing the national anthem or rather linguistic traps that speak about what Gellner (1996) denominates as “local dialectal idiosyncrasy”; for instance, when tricked with phrases such as “tienes el zipper abajo” instead of “tienes el cierre abajo” (you have the zipper down), knowing in advance what particular understanding will they have depending on their Spanish dialectal differences and national membership.

Nevertheless, once on the “other side”, both Central Americans and Mexicans are reclassified as “third world” countries’ migrants, generally used as “cannon-fodder” and pushed to learn the “semantics” of the high culture that barely “hosts” them, or in other words: how to be “socially acceptable, industrially operational human beings” (Gellner, 1996: 110); for the key to appropriate this high culture is the most valuable possession, a precondition, not [only] to employment, but to legal and moral citizenship. One can say to this concern, that they usually come from states where, contrary to what Gellner (1996: 110) stands for when saying, “the state is a protector of a culture and not a faith”, most of their nation building projects and/or cultural homelands were not fully recognized and hence, this caused them to be voluntarily or involuntarily deprived of their “membership” to their political unit.

All of the above signifies that the “quality” of citizenship may be easily traced and mapped in space through the geopolitics of everyday life’s prejudices and clichés. However, we have that trans-nationality surprisingly arises not only on the cosmopolite upper layers, but also where the extremes touch each other: within the richest and the poorest uncomfortable margins; for both hold long scale spatial shifts and attain to keep connection with meanings on local dialectal idiosyncrasies, in contrast with “mainstream” middle layers, for whom basically the only chance turns to be learning the standardized educationally transmitted culture, mentioned above. At this point, there is no need for what Benhabib (2005: 68) warns as “a postmodernist skeptical claim on the instability of identity categories”, but an inquiry on how stretchable can any identity be depending on the need to mold itself as an ideological strategy in the vis-à-vis.

“Middle America: The Five ‘Nations’ of Mexico”:

According to Casagrande in an article published by the American Geographical Society in 1987 (in turn issue of a former book entitled Focus on Mexico: modern life in an ancient land), México’s diversity can be broadly classified into what he called “Five Nations” (or regions?). Even though the aim of the author was to highlight “the growing importance of Mexico to the United States and the extreme lack of knowledge most Americans have of their southern neighbor”, it can be considered as a much more sensitive mapping of the geopolitical landscape (from abroad) as it sheds light beyond its mere administrative units or its overall physical geography.

The Five Nations were depicted as follows: Metromex comprising Mexico City, the federal district and the surrounding state of Mexico; Mexamerica in the north; South Mexico along Mexico’s southern boundary [the so-called “México Profundo”]; New Spain in the colonial core across the center of the country; and Club Mex, tourist enclaves along the Mexican coasts.”

“‘Todo México es Cancún’ (all of Mexico is Cancun)”: the hegemonic in-between

According to the prior classification, Cancún forms part of the so-called “Club Mex”. In fact, -designed in 1968- the “Proyecto Cancún” was the first ex-nihilo “integrally planned tourist center” (CIP for its Spanish acronym) in Latin America, and conveyor of an innovative urban planning.

The overwhelming success of this pioneering tourist spot (planned and built under “fordist” criteria) drew to consecutive emulations as part of the constitution of an ever-growing worldwide “periphery of pleasure”. During its golden age, “todo México era Cancún” (all of México was Cancún), which at some level implied, for upper middle classes, the Mexican reinterpretation of the “American way of life”, “un Miami con sabor a México” (A Mexican taste Miami), whereas for the marginalized layer of migrants, an “easier” alternative to the “American dream”.

According to Hroch (2009), region conveys “community consciousness” while nation unfolds “identity” as a kind of membership. The case of Cancún is quite particular to this respect. What can the “spatial commitment” of a former empty filled in only 40 years be? A locality that has been grafted, as a tourist enclave, in a region grounded on deep ethnic particularities (Smith, 1989) as the “Península de Yucatán”, seems to have generated an opposite image and ironically a needful relationship as well, towards the Maya ethnic core (or any indigenous migrant who fulfills the canon), from which it strictly takes profit according to its particular interest on the market of cultural heritage and tourism.

Hence, one of the hypotheses I would like to build on concerns the recent identification of “locals” as Caribbean people. When being Caribbean it all comes down to the sea. From a particular point of view, this can bee seen as a way of unmarking oneself from “territorial constraints”, by building a relationship, a sort of “imagined community”, with “overseas” cultures that usually tend to appear blurry in our own clichés, with which there is no actual contiguity and therefore, no territorial constraint for a further commitment as political units.[3] Notwithstanding, to put the matter differently, the above can be defined as a form of identification led by neglecting what one thinks it is not. Could Cancún, seen as a “hegemonic in-between”, truly have an identity of openness when it is clear that its “foreigner” elites and middle classes still long for a remote homeland? Is there a possible existence of a micro-nationalism at the ex-nihilo-city scale? Is the Caribbean “one and diverse” (ex pluribus unum)?


Project selected bibliography:

Benhabib, Seyla (2005) “El Derecho de Gentes, la justicia distributiva y las migraciones”, en:  Los derechos de los otros: extranjeros, residentes y ciudadanos. Barcelona. Gedisa.

Seminar indicative bibliography:

Gellner, Ernest. “The Coming of Nationalism and its Interpretation: the myths of nation and class”, in: Gopal Balakrishnan (ed.) (1996) Mapping the Nation. London & New York. Verso. Pp. 98-145.

Hroch, Miroslav. “From National Movement to the Fully-formed Nation: the nation-building process in Europe”, in: New Left Review (1993) Num. 198. March-April. Pp. 3-20.

Smith, Anthony D. “The origins of nations (Abstract)”, in: Ethnic and Racial Studies (1989). Vol. 12. Num. 3. July. Pp. 340-367.

Complementary bibliography:

Bonfil-Batalla, Guillermo (1992) Pensar nuestra cultura. México. 2ª ed. Alianza Editorial.

Web sources:

“Like it or Not: Mexico is America’s Next Afghanistan”


“Mapping Stereotypes” Website


Middle America: The Five “Nations” of Mexico:



Velasco-Ruiz, Luis Alberto (2012) Vers une justice spatiale de l’eternel paradis éphémère. Approche géocritique au réaménagement territorial d’un coin néocolonial du Caraïbe mexicain nord (2001-2011). Projet de Recherche. Master TEMA.

[1] Social Anthropologist. Graduate Student at Eötvös Loránd University – École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. Erasmus Mundus Master TEMA.

[2] Taken from the “Mapping Stereotypes” website.

[3] This case brings some other instances into debate: a “Mediterranean identity” for the case of seaside middle-eastern countries in warfare (like Syria) for which identity has recently also reveled as part of a media construction, and an “Adriatic identity” for the case of intercultural European tourist spots like Istria, for which it has been convenient to self-promote a non problematic identity intending to forget an uncomfortable past in opposition to the wrapping Croatian continental territory.

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