“We are all equal before God and are created in his image and likeness,” our sacred books and clergy say. “We have the same rights and obligations under the law and enjoy the same opportunities and benefits,” preach our leaders, government legislation and laws. These and similar words are heard all over the world, and the world struggles to make them true. Many believe them and think their societies conform to egalitarian ethical, religious and legal systems—in spite of the fact that reality constantly shows them the contrary.
The social and economic gaps between human beings would seem to have always existed. History is a showcase of regimes controlled by elites who dominate and possess everything and everybody, many of whom have barely enough to live. With the advent of modern democracy first, and the state as economic mediator later, some of the more advanced countries achieved a relative equality among their citizens, creating and expanding their middle classes by way of education, employment, a dignified wage and social benefits for almost everybody, with choices, justice and liberty mediated by law and respect. But in many other countries, this has not been the case.
We live in a global capitalistic system that, in order to survive, concentrates the wealth in a few hands while many others are impoverished, although the state may intervene to compensate to some extent. This economic and commercial situation occurs not only within countries but also between countries. Further, the system engenders perpetual recurring crises that allow the wealthy and their corporations and institutions to maintain their dominant position while the poor are sacrificed.
It is thought that socioeconomic inequality can be mitigated by economic growth, adequate laws and goodwill, but in countries like Mexico a small and impenetrable social group dominates everything, hogging income and political and economic privileges without affording the least opportunity to the rest of the citizenry. Although the laws and political and even religious discourse speak of equality and the fight against poverty, in reality the reverse is true, thanks to the impunity that protects the powerful and permits rampant corruption and misappropriation of public property. Punishment is not possible because that sort of justice only applies to the weak and is twisted to favor those who can afford it or control it for their benefit.
In addition to this circular dynamic between corruption and impunity, the members of the Mexican elite work to close the doors of social advancement for the rest of the population. They and their families openly and subtly despise those who are not like them. Their expensive houses, tastes, travel, schools and especially their European ethnicity all establish a gap impossible for others to bridge, including, of course, the very poorest: mestizos and Indians who have been marginalized for centuries, who themselves are convinced of their inferiority.
Those who still believe that effort and merit are the keys to social and economic success live blaming their failure on being born in the wrong social group, while the enormous inequality, injustice and impunity foster collective frustration, rule by the law of the strongest and violence—the latter now dominated by organized crime and the military and police forces allegedly fighting it. Thus Mexico advances little and retreats much in its effort to mitigate the poverty of more than half of its 120 million citizens who work in unproductive, informal jobs at diminished salaries. Popular among the ways to escape from such a terrible reality is migration to urban centers and to the United States.
Mexican immigrants to this country don’t understand well the dynamics of inequality that exist here. Upon obtaining employment, they feel valued because they are earning a salary never before achieved, but they quickly realize that it does not buy what it would at home because everything costs more here. Although in theory many have joined the middle class, complete with cars, housing and services, it is often difficult for them to integrate because they don’t know the customs and dominant cultural forms of this social stratum. So, partly because they don’t know English and the social and institutional systems, formal and informal, they take refuge in the culture they left behind. The inevitable results are discrepancies, inequalities and conflicts, both with the system and with those who live here.
Their employers, co-workers, children’s teachers and school authorities, neighbors, social service agencies, medical personnel and all those who, directly or indirectly, have something to do with these immigrants find it difficult to deal with these often enormous differences, despite the best of intentions and good will. Thus, for better or for worse, the inequality remains and will only begin to diminish with the passage of time, possibly after generations.
Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher, native of Puebla, Mexico and longtime contributor to the Point Reyes Light. The Spanish version of this column is available on our website.