The Structure of Sentiment and the State in Mexico: The Nayarit Riviera


Ciara Kierans and Michael Mair 

This blog site continues to be concerned with emotions and state power. More particularly, it is concerned with how the passions enter the political in divergent formations of capitalist modernity and the practices which underpin them. Structures of sentiment vary and are contingent on particular trajectories of political economy, colonialism and localisations of modernity and ‘development’. This post concerns Nayarit in Mexico – its politics, people and statecraft.

For all its material riches, Nayarit in Mexico is not a rich place. Wages are low, often well below USD5000 a year. It is difficult to make a basic living through fishing or by picking fruit in the orchards. A few bottling plants aside, there is little factory or industrial work to be had. Nor, despite being a destination for tourism, is there much money to be made there either. The down at heel towns of Nayarit’s coast are a draw for those who cannot afford the comparative luxury of a more cosmopolitan Puerto Vallarta. As a result, Nayarit is popular with working-class and lower middle-class Mexicans who head there from Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest urban centre, only a few hours away, in search of a cheap vacation. North American and European travellers, a few surfers aside, are thin on the ground with more regular visitors availing of the low price of land to build homes and establish sealed-off colonies that largely operate in parallel with, rather than connecting into, local communities. For the majority, maintaining a regular income is a struggle. For a minority, however, including politicians, property developers and business owners, the situation is quite different. They are doing well, often extremely well. With an eye on ‘unspoiled’ beaches ready for development, large American and Canadian resort companies are slowly buying up land all along the coastal road heading north. Supported by local politicians, who help by driving through road expansion and other infrastructure projects (of which the road along the coast is just one of the more obvious examples) that make the process of development easier, these companies are involved in displacing the existing residents to make room for a richer class of tourists and settlers. Once displaced, economic livelihoods are disrupted and meagre earnings become more meagre still. Those who have been deemed obstacles to development quickly find themselves on the margins of the new regional economy.

The situation in Nayarit in many respects parallels that of the country as a whole. Contrary to popular perceptions, Mexico is far from a poor country. Designated an ‘upper-middle income’ country by the World Bank, it has considerable natural reserves: petroleum, silver, copper, gold, lead, zinc, and natural gas, making it a leading energy and materials exporter with substantial deposits still to be tapped. It is also a major producer of manufactured goods, an industrial giant, one of the biggest car manufacturers by volume in the world, with capacity growing fast as a result of government subsidy and investment by companies attracted by Mexico’s low labour costs. Combined with extensive air, sea and road networks that link the country to lucrative markets in North America, Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia, these resources make Mexico the 15th biggest economy in the OECD.

Home to several major empires prior to the Spanish invasion and a major centre of economic activity continuously thereafter, Mexico has always had wealth built on complex trading ties with the rest of the world, ties which have in turn shaped the world in many areas: music, art, film, architecture, fashion, food, literature and also politics – the Zapatistas, for example, leading global anti-WTO protests from the 1990s on. The second country to ban slavery, after Haiti, in 1802 and to offer a haven for slaves escaping its slave-owning northern neighbour through the 19th C, Mexico’s politics has often been progressive and outward looking. That political ethos, though diminished, retains an emotive force today. The roots lie deep. As Diego Rivera’s astonishing murals in Mexico City’s Palacio Nacional show, murals which exemplify the richness of an explicitly historical, sociological, analytical but also public art form that flourished in Mexico in the period directly after the revolution was won in 1920, Mexico’s Pre-Hispanic centres of knowledge and learning, as well as of trade and crafts, were the rival of anything in Europe in the equivalent period. When the Conquistadors arrived in Mexico City, they found a society that was, if anything, more sophisticated culturally, politically and economically than the one they had come from. The universities the Conquistadors established across Mexico from 1551 onwards could perhaps be seen as attempts to convince the locals that the invaders were not the uncultured barbarians they may have felt themselves to be.

Today, however, Mexico’s complex and cosmopolitan past has given way to intensified social and cultural differentiation, accompanied by profound inequalities, starkly exemplified in states like Nayarit. In Mexico, though one of the richest countries in the world, half of that wealth is concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest 1% of the population – themselves extraordinarily wealthy even by international standards. Half of the population, some 53 million people, live in poverty. Access to a future, to wealth, property, resources and life chances has been, as we were frequently told in Nayarit, stitched-up, fixed in advance. The question of who has done the stitching up and the fixing is a complicated one, however, and it is important to avoid treating Nayarit’s woes as nothing but the outcome of the onward march of market actors. Corporations are certainly not a benign influence in Nayarit but invoking them singularly fails to account for the shape, direction and scale of the problems the region is witnessing and has witnessed. Where corporations are moving in, that movement has been facilitated and enabled by others. The ground has been prepared in advance.

Mexico’s state is conspiratorial and its activities evoke a wide range of emotional responses – anxiety, doubt, fear, puzzlement, cynicism and radical disconnection – with a pervasive sense of betrayal. This is a very particular structure of sentiment.

Speak to the people of Nayarit about what is happening in their region, and the conversation quickly turns to the story within the story. Nothing, you learn, is what it appears to be – there’s always something going on under the surface. Masters of what Paul Ricoeur called the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, discussions about local change analytically dissect hidden agendas of a politics and a form of statecraft that is deeply and reflexively conspiratorial. Mexico’s state, you learn, is conspiratorial through and through and its activities evoke a wide range of emotional responses – anxiety, doubt, fear, puzzlement, cynicism and radical disconnection along with a pervasive sense of betrayal. This is a very particular structure of sentiment. In the long-term, outrage is of course difficult to sustain – even when your President has invited someone who has collectively labelled you ‘thieves’, ‘drug dealers’ and ‘rapists’ to your country – Trump’s August visit – and then refuses to criticise them when they take up the offer – Peña Nieto, one of the most despised Presidents in Mexican history, simply remained mute. Confronted with such things, such destabilising things, the question turns to what was really going on – because nobody could do that. Surely. And the analysis begins. This structure of sentiment, and the emotional repertoires it allows for, are closely bound up with – indeed are often the sought-for outcome of – the work of the state and the emotional regime crafted through and by it. In this case it has served to lock people outside politics, estranging them from it and creating despair about the possibility for anything better. They know these are processes which do not and will not benefit them, except inadvertently or by mistake. Better, therefore, to steer clear. This provides the conditions in which resorts will take over the Nayarit coast. Poor Mexicans will have to find somewhere else to go.


Published by EmotionalStates

Roy Coleman: Lecturer and Researcher at University of Liverpool, UK.

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