Monday, February 04, 2019

putting the bang in constitution


It was 6 AM. The explosions did not startle me awake, even though they were close enough to nudge me out of my sleep.

For a moment, I thought I was in in Beirut in 1980. Where your first reaction is fear that you are under attack -- a fear that morphs to compassion for others when you realize the bombardment is directed three blocks away.

For the past four mornings, the cohetes of the church's religious procession in homage to San Felipe de Jesús, patron saint of the barrio, has passed by my house. The mater of the cohetes has been using the antenna next to my house as a target. As a result, the rockets burst right over my patio. And I rather like the excitement. The feast ends tomorrow.

There has been all sorts of speculation amongst the tourist community about the bomb bursts in the early morning air. My favorite came last night.

A very earnest visitor from up north told me last night that she had figured it all out. Our local ATM is empty because the town is filled with Mexican tourists enjoying a long weekend at the beach. Today is Constitution Day.

My new acquaintance told me she had seen the procession going by with the priests and the man firing off the sky rockets. She put two and two together and came up with zero.

"The church is firing off sky rockets to celebrate the constitution."

I laughed appreciatively, thinking she had constructed an incredibly good historical joke. But, she was not joking, and was a bit offended at my reaction.

It is true that today is Constitution Day or El Día de la Constitución, to give it its full linguistic due. One of Mexico's few statutory holidays (there are only eight), this is the day set aside to celebrate the enactment of the 1917 constitution. It is a big deal.
Historians are unanimous that the Mexican Revolution was the greatest historical event influencing what we know as modern Mexico. But revolutions do not create states. That task was left to a congress of various revolutionary interests to draft a constitution that would memorialize the gains of the revolution.

There were a lot of reasons the Mexicans rose in revolution. And not all of the groups were happy to work with one another. President Carranza, the leader of the army who had overthrown the reactionary Huerta regime, had very definite ideas what should and should not be part of the constitution. Land reform was way down on his list.

So, he excluded the supporters of rival groups. That included the supporters of Emilio Zapata (he of the wild-eyed stare and enviable mustache). They were primarily interested in radical land reform. (Carranza would later arrange to have Zapata assassinated.)

The followers of Pancho Villa, who also supported land reform, were also excluded -- primarily because of Carranza's fear of an alternative power base in the north. (A subsequent president, Calles, arranged Villa's death.)

Carranza, as a relative conservative from a cattle-ranching family, thought he had control of the congress that would draft the constitution. He didn't. There were forces far more radical in the congress that drafted clauses not to his liking.

The congress was not working with a blank slate. The Reform Wars in the 1850-60s had laid the foundation for a number of the revolution's goals. That included a failed land reform program and a marginally successful reduction of the Catholic church's power in Mexico.

Land reform and Catholic suppression remained a goal of the congress. But they also considered other causes of the revolution -- foreign ownership of industry and property, foreigners meddling in politics, abuse of re-election, and economic disparity.

The 1917 constitution created by the congress (and memorialized by a 100-peso note issued two years ago; President Carranza is on the right with the John Brown beard) radically altered the way Mexicans thought about governance, the Catholic church, and the activity of foreigners within its borders. Among other things, the constitution --

  • Established a system of free, mandatory, and secular education, thus restricting another traditional role performed by the Catholic church
  • Set up the foundations for land reform through the ejido system
  • Declared all mineral resources in the subsoil belonged to the state
  • Provided for liberal labor rights
  • Placed ownership of all property in the hands of the government and restricted foreign ownership of property near borders or on the coast ("Private property is a privilege created by the nation.")
  • Increased the restrictions on the Catholic church beyond those of Juarez's constitution -- including the seizure of church buildings
  • Empowered the government to expropriate property -- from the hacienda owners, and particularly property owned by foreigners
  • Prohibited the reelection of any official -- especially, the president
  • Guaranteed the right of persons to own firearms in their home

The final product was a repudiation of many of the liberal principles Benito Juarez had championed during the Reform Wars. But this was a different time.

So, you can see why I found it too be a good joke that someone would believe the Catholic church would celebrate the enactment of the 1917 constitution. One of the constitution's purposes was to strip the church of its secular authority.

A subsequent president, Plutarco Calles (the same guy who ordered Pancho Villa's assassination) would so stringently impose anti-clerical laws that some members of the church rose in a rebellion. That was known as the Cristero War -- a rebellion that had strong support in our home state of Jalisco.

The constitution enacted in 1917 is still in existence -- with a few major amendments.

So, that is why our little beach villages have been filled with tourists this weekend. Most are celebrating this major step in the development of the Mexican state just as Americans celebrate the Fourth of July or Canadians celebrate Canada Day -- by lugging the family to the beach for good food and a lot of sand.

And that does not need any Beirut-style sky rockets. 

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