Life in the shadow of an empire

How do we cross the fictive frontiers imposed between a beleaguered empire and the peripheral nations it fails to rule?

Ballet Folklorico de Mexico at The London Coliseum UK in 2015 [Getty]
Ballet Folklorico de Mexico at The London Coliseum UK in 2015 [Getty]

On May 11, I joined a number of friends attending a performance of the 64th anniversary of Ballet Folklorico de Mexico at Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. 

Founded in 1952, Ballet Folklorico de Mexico is the brainchild of Amalia Hernandez(1917-2000), a world-renowned choreographer whose lifetime achievement is this spectacular staging of various song and dance traditions from the pre-Columbian, Hispanic, and revolutionary eras of Mexican history. 

Coming to Mexico City and watching this show after the ever nastier tones of the US presidential election in which Donald Trump has verbalised and personified the systemic mendacity of North American racism towards Mexicans and other people, a sharp contrast emerges between two overwhelming power of representation and marks the varied manners in which nations live in the shadow of an amorphous empire.

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Racialised delusions

In the United States, as these days best captured by Donald Trump and his followers, Mexicans and other people living in the US beyond its racialised delusions are the bete noire of enduringly nasty white supremacist fantasies.

Trump speaks of mass deportation of Mexicans, of building a tall and long wall on the southern border of the US, and of banning Muslims from entering the country in a manner that betrays the white supremacist racism that has always informed US imperialism – and he just utters it more bluntly. 

Such bigoted portrayals of Americans of a different descent than Trump and his racist supporters are deeply rooted in a hateful ideology dominant in the US that wishes to belittle, denigrate, and demonise various segments of its own society to rule them more ruthlessly by the maddening logic of abusive capital and its unending need for cheap labour.

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But beyond Trump’s racist delusions, nations continue to live their lives on uncharted territories.

To combat the terror of US imperial racism at home and abroad, nations need to stage themselves from the depth of their despair to their most sublime aspirations.

Staging the nation

The musical charm of Ballet Folklorico de Mexico is justly staged to celebrate the continued history of a nation’s visual and performing arts.

But if such just and sweet celebrations are not to become mere eye-candy tourist attractions and thus gloss over much nastier realities, then they will have to be seen in conjunction with other forms of public staging that is not on any official stage but right in the streets and alleys of Mexico City.

Just over two weeks before I came to Mexico there was a massive demonstration in Mexico City against femicide and other forms of violence against the Mexican youth, about which Vijay Prashad wrote a detailed account for the Frontline in India.

“On April 24,” Prashad reported, “thousands of demonstrators marched to the Angel of Independence monument in Mexico City from the municipality of Ecatepec. People from all kinds of backgrounds marched with signs that had the requisite dose of humour and anger.”

“Revolution en la Plaza, en la Casa y en la Cama” (Revolution in the streets, at home and in bed), announced one woman, while another wrote on her pregnant belly: “Quiero nacer sin violencia” (I want to be born without violence). A resonant chant went, “Ni sumisa, ni obediente. Soy libre, loca y valiente” (Neither submissive nor compliant. I’m free, crazy and brave).

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump [Reuters]

To combat the terror of US’ imperial racism at home and abroad (the two categories are now entirely meaningless to this amorphous empire), nations need to stage themselves from the depth of their despair to their most sublime aspirations.

The Zapatista movement shines a bright ray of hope on Mexico as their kindred souls do in Kobane and Palestine, sustaining a similar vision of liberation for a world devoured by state-sponsored violence, greed and corruption.

One has to come to Mexico and look at the emancipatory movements in Rojava and Palestine from the Zapatista’s perspective and the map of our hopes will look entirely different.

A nation in defiance

The plague of ISIL in the Arab world has its counterpart here in Mexico, too. The Mexican drug cartels partake in Christian iconography almost identically as those mercenary thugs in Iraq and Syria sport their Islamist symbolism.

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What I see here in Mexico is a nation in defiance against its own odds. Its corrupt politics, its drug cartels, and the under- and unreported systemic violence that bruises its souls are kept in balance by the sheer determination of a nation to live with dignity and teach the world grace.

Its hidden treasures, as in the magnificent Diego Rivera murals, are protected not by armed guards but by the rambunctious urbanity of its crowded markets teaching humility to its wide pretentious boulevards. 

For Mexico as a nation, its drug cartels are a US problem, a narcotic market created by the supply and demand logic of the selfsame predatory capitalism it so adores.

US corporate brand junks – Starbucks and McDonald’s galore – pour into the magnificent rambunctiousness of Mexico City through the same porous borders that drugs flow up through into the US.

Mexican drug cartels are the functional equivalents of US corporate greed and operate through the selfsame maddening logic of predatory capitalism.

Donald Trump is not an accident. He is the very logic of US imperial thuggery carried to its rhetorical ends.

But nations are not entirely defenceless against the US imperial politics and the barbarity it occasions. The example of Mexico shows how nations resist this ugly imposition by their creative and critical prowess far beyond the limited banality of a McDonald’s joint here and a drone attack there. 

Faces in the mirror

Beyond the monumental vacuity of the globalised marketing of the commodities and brands it sells to sustain itself in power, from its military machinery to its material rubbish industry, this culture has nothing to offer the world.

No art, no industry, no ethics, no morality, no philosophy. Nothing. The US and its military allies form an amorphous empire with no hegemony – nothing to convince anyone of anything but the banality of brute violence.

Donald Trump is not an accident. He is the very logic of US imperial thuggery carried to its rhetorical ends. He does with ghoulish vulgarity what Barack Obama has done (and Hillary Clinton will do) with sleek salesmanship.

How do Mexicans resist that banality? Not just by staging in their opera house a loving tribute to their myriad traditions of delightful songs and dances, or else pouring into their street protesting against corruption and violence.

They celebrate life in every pleasant moment of their civilized gatherings – eating, drinking, and merrymaking – and there and then, they teach themselves to anticipate their own better angels. Millions of Bernie Sanders’ supporters from one end of the US to another are the kindred souls of these Mexicans, yet trapped in their own corrupt and rigged “democracy”. 

How do we cross the fictive frontiers imposed between a beleaguered empire and the peripheral nations it wishes but fails to rule? A friend in Mexico City gave me a masked marionette of a Zapatista woman as a souvenir and shared with me the story often told when the Zapatistas are asked why they cover their faces.

“Look into the mirror,” they respond, “that’s who we are!” 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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