35. A disease called Malinchismo

Reflections of a foreigner who wants to be Mexican on Mexicans who want to be foreigners; or on how Malinchismo is just concealed classism.

During the latest global diplomatic offensive of Mexico, conservative commentators acted like panicked parents at a school interview. Whether it was hosting the summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), talking at the United Nations or meeting with the presidents of Canada and the United States, there were grave concerns if AMLO would behave. This was partly party-political posturing, but one could feel a genuine concern about him talking wrong to the masters. In this optic, Mexico taking a stance of their own or even making suggestions to other countries was seen as at best an embarrassment in front of superiors.

    This nervousness about Mexico or Mexicans is typical for the Malinchista attitude that is so prevalent amongst the upper and aspiring classes. Malinchismo – preferring or taking the side of outsiders against Mexicans – is a fascinating phenomenon that is relatively unique to Mexico within Latin America. While international events offer a good opportunity to study the phenomenon, in this essay I will argue that the most important aspects of Malinchismo are social and don’t require any foreigners at all. We will first further discuss the nature and origins of the concept, before turning to how it politically functions in today’s society, and what we can do about this.

For those fellow foreigners, the root of the word Malinchismo (applied: ‘he/she is malinchista’) is the name of ‘la Malinche’, the indigenous woman who helped the Spanish general Cortes during the colonial conquest. In the most direct sense, somebody is thus malinchista when they side with stronger foreigners against the interests of Mexico. This original form is still observable whenever Mexico has a conflict with Spain. Various Mexicans were amused by the Spanish refusal to grant Mexico’s request to apologize for the conquest and the treatment of indigenous people in 2019. Even more hilariousness happened when the former president of Spain joked that since our president should be thankful for his Spanish last name, as well as the gift of the evangelization that colonialism brought. At home, this is accompanied with revisionist takes on history and indignation when Colonial symbols are questioned or removed.

    While this pure form still exists, in this text we are more concerned with what one might call ‘micro-malinchismo’. This is when one expresses a disgust with all things Mexican and an admiration for foreign symbols: real of feigned ignorance on Mexican products or holidays; constant comparisons on what is better in the U.S. (and never comparing to other neighbors); instinctive preference for imports and obsession with American sports teams; feigned interest in ‘Mexa’ culture only when abroad, etc. It should not be confused with a true self-critical stance, which doesn’t come with a preference for stronger foreign countries. Neither is it related to some kind of anarchist anti-nationalist stance, since these same people can still hate poorer migrants. In some cases Malinchismo can be hard to distinguish from a genuine desire to live abroad, and overlaps in certain aspects, such as interest in other languages. One could argue that the difference is the disdain for the native.

Where does this come from? The standard explanation I hear is that just like the word itself,  the attitude goes back to colonial times when the Mexican grew an inferiority complex towards foreign masters. It is good Mexican tradition to blame various cultural institutions (including corruption) on these times, often poetically a la Octavio Paz, but while there is a core of truth this reading appears to be somewhat naïve. If the root goes back to colonial times, we should look more at the imposed pseudo-caste system than the conquest itself, which Mexico shares with other Latin countries without a similar complex. Malinchismo is not a simple postcolonial inferiority complex, because that would require identification. While this might have been true in the past, the real Malinchista explicitly does not identify with Mexico, but with powerful Northern countries on whose side they try to be. Today it is a social and political phenomena: the rejected is not oneself, but the other, lower Mexican.

Malinchismo is a socially conservative (and as I will later argue, fascist) attitude, which both has social and political functions. Socially, Malinchismo is an extension of classism in a majority poor country, where those of historical upper-caste decent (or illusionary aspiration) look down on lower class Mexicans as an entirely different people. The rejection of both indigenous and popular customs and goods is de facto a rejection of working class culture; while the embrace of foreign brands, holidays and culture is a form of distinction from the former. It is not identification with a shameful past, but with the transnational capital class and their success. Their glory is held in sharp contrast to a people who are perceived as backwards and whose job is to work and shut up. This attitude was baked into the very core of the neoliberal economic policy of the last thirty years, which pursued growth through the prostitution of the nation’s resources and workforce to foreign capital. Malinchismo grows from identification with the overseer, not the slave. It is built on hate, not shame. Hate for what an acquaintance who insists on being nicknamed after his favorite American city once called ‘naked savages under the nopal tree’. Hate for a rejected Mexico, like in the desire of the ever resurrecting Gabriel Quadri to eject Oaxaca and Chiapas from the republic.

Politically, it performs two functions. First, in times of the Fourth Transformation malinchismo doubles as political opposition, where the rejection of Mexico’s government becomes identified with a distaste of the nation’s course as a whole. On the one hand, they want us to lose on the international scene whenever possible, and get aroused by negative opinion pieces or cartoons in foreign press. On the other hand, the Right is ashamed of things they historically never cared about, from sports to healthcare infrastructure. The rejection of Mexican identity as a form of protest can take many forms. What to think of the many White Mexicans who suddenly started spending money on tracking their ancestry to ‘escape socialism’ to Spain or Portugal. This is especially amusing, because both are currently governed by socialists – please don’t ruin the surprise by telling them.

    A serious function of Malinchismo is that it helps to stop social change by arguing that Mexico is incapable or undeserving of such changes. Self-hate provides an excellent rhetorical tool that allows one to agree with policies in principle, but reject them in practice on the assumption that they might work in other countries but not in Mexico. As many intellectuals have done, one might even pose as progressive for years with this stance, while carrying water for conservatives all that time by rejecting policies. This ranges from unemployment insurance and democracy itself, to youth employment programs or raising the minimum wage. Of course there are pitfalls and dangers in policy transfer, but exactly why we cannot do a particular policy these NFL fans usually cannot explain. I hear it often has something to do with our lower education y asi. A while ago I wrote an essay demonstrating that many of the 4T social programs are already local variants of policies that have existed for years elsewhere, yet the idea persists that Mexico cannot do what other countries can. This often goes hand in hand with broadening the Malinchismo to Latin America as a whole, and a deep ignorance of the social policies and progress that have been achieved elsewhere in similar countries. Note that the same idea is never applied to neoliberal recipes, which apparently are more fit for us savages.

So how do we deal with this societal disease? Not by embracing some blind nationalism where we reject listening to the advice of any foreigner – imagine the hypocrisy if I would argue that. The problem with Malinchismo is not with the foreigners, but with Mexican elites. While it can manifest itself as some form of inferiority, it more often is part of a proto-fascist attitude where one tries to follow a stronger master and despise the ‘weak’ neighbor. Often the fascist himself is part of this stronger group, but in this case I am talking about a sucker-fascism where one collaborates against their own group to score points with an external master. During the second world war, a surprising number of foreign and conquered groups offered help to Germany.

    The correct response to Malinchismo is thus not more hate or exclusion, but acting from strength and a positive identity. In international relations, this means sheering on Mexico’s recent diplomatic offensive and leadership. While I will admit that our foreign policy was rather weak in the first years of the Fourth Transformation, during the pandemic Mexico developed itself as a regional humanitarian leader. Domestically, the counter to Malinchismo as hidden classism is a positive valuation of Mexican products and traditions, in particular those of the broad working class. It means developing social and economic policies that give more dignity to our humble majority, both in work relations, old age or family life. Yes, literally copying policies from abroad is unwise given our society differs in key factors (high informality, for example). But this is not because there is something inherently wrong with Mexicans, and these policies can be adapted and fine-tuned to our context, as they have been to so many others. You have to take yourselves serious as more than just pawns in the game of multinationals, but as citizens and owners of a country with enormous potential. Let my columnist colleagues huff and puff whenever Mexico decides to nationalize its resources and step on the toes of foreign masters, the people deserve it. We end with the advice of another friendly foreigner, J.J. Rousseau in his book Emile:

“We naturally think lightly of the happiness of those we despise. It need not surprise you that politicians speak so scornfully of the people, and philosophers profess to think mankind so wicked. The people are mankind; those who do not belong to the people are so few in number that they are not worth counting. Man is the same in every station of life; if that be so, those ranks to which most men belong deserve most honor” (1763, book 4).