Book Report

Distant Neighbors, a Portrait of the Mexicans, by Alan Reading.

Distant Neighbors, a Portrait of the Mexicans, by Alan Reading.VintageBooks (division of Random House, Inc.) 2000. N.Y. 417 pp. $15.

This book, first published in 1984, was given to me 12 years ago, and re-reading it today, I find it even more of a classic, addressing the paradox of close neighbors ( Mexico and United States ) who do not seem to understand each other at all! Reading it, I can not see that relations between our two countries are any better than when the book was first published.

Distant NeighborsThe forward in this latest printing sums up the book’s premise in a sentence, “ ...Nowhere in the world do two countries different as Mexico and the United States live side by side,”

Whenever you cross the border to Mexico, you first realize that there is a great disparity in wealth;  There is just so much poverty, but of course, our differences do go so very much further than this.

We are separated by language, religion, race, culture, and by a history; theirs going back into pre-history with cultures and events that have influenced them so greatly, even today, while our history as a nation, is still raw and new. The United States is barely 200 years old (We seem to ignore and do not count the millenniums of history of our first residents as part or their rich history). Mexico, on the other hand, has a colorful, often violent history going back thousands of years, and those past events still have a huge impact on Mexicans’ lives today. The Mexican people remember history, and are greatly affected by their past. It still influences their day to day lives and their philosophy.

In 18 chapters, an “afterward”, ( only in the 2000 printing), bibliography, and index, we quickly cover centuries of important history. The author begins with his statements of how far apart Mexico and the United States are. He points out that in his opinion Mexico’s powerful, arrogant, and often-overwhelming northern neighbor does not understand Mexicans, and we also understand so little of the vast differences in all of these points of separation: language, religion, culture, race, and philosophy.

The author expands on his premise mostly with brief histories of each reigning civilization beginning with the Olmec, then the Maya, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, and of course the Chichimecas (barbarians), coming from northwestern Mexico, (the legendary Aztlan). This warring people became the powerful Aztecs who grew stronger and much richer in less than 100 years, and it was the Aztecs who made their temples on the island of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. In 1502, Moctezuma became the High Priest and Emperor, and then of course, this rich and beautiful capital was discovered by Cortez. What he must have thought! The author uses Mexican history to make his point, and it was not a history I had ever learned until college. He shows how each succeeding powerful civilization in Mexico has influenced present day life and Mexican philosophy.

The legends behind the flag, and very important legend of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, and the predictions that became changers of historical events is fascinating.

I found the Mexican philosophy of “ ni modo”, which means tough luck, or no way to be more understandable by the author’s statement that “....disasters...are not major disappointments, because they....are (all) unavoidable.” This fatalism and acceptance of violence and defeat, are difficult for Americans to fully understand. Samuel Ramos wrote (the Profile of the Mexican and his Culture, 1930), “ ...Until now, Mexicans have only known how to die...time for them to acquire the knowledge of life,”

As a young nation of immigrants from all over the world, (taking the country from the natives who were already here, and who do have a history), it’s been said that the United States is a melting pot, or, some writers have likened it to a tossed salad. True or not, we do not have a common history as does Mexico, or even China; a history that would continue to influence us as a nation. Instead, however, part of the U.S. strength may well be our diversity, and the enrichment each ethnic group of immigrants has bought to our table, and our weakness, the sparse knowledge of history of other great civilizations, past and present.

This book traces Mexican history briefly, and according to the author, it was each different ethnic group, in power for centuries or millenniums, and finally of course, the Spanish Conquest, making the mighty Aztecs a defeated people, but which mixed Indian blood with Spanish blood, and changed the face of Mexico forever.

Hopefully, those who determine U.S. elementary curriculum will someday decide to include more history of our neighbors to the north and to the south of us. Perhaps this is as equally important as learning about our own history, and European history. The world, past and present, is a wonderful and rapidly shrinking place.

Distant Neighbors can be found on, and I have one copy at El Caballo Blanco book store in Loreto.