Interview with Beldon Butterfield, author of Mexico Behind the Mask

By Jade Arroyo

Beldon Butterfield is a writer and historian of Mexico who now lives in San Miguel. He presented his new book Mexico Behind the Mask in December 2012. In the book he explains in a dynamic and comprehensive way the general history of Mexico as a country and its close relationship with the United States. This book is geared toward Americans who want to understand Mexico better. He gave a special interview to Atención and talked about this new book and his career.

Jade Arroyo: Tell us a little about yourself and your career.

Beldon Butterfield: I was born and raised in Argentina, and at the age of 15 I was sent to the United States. I came to Mexico in 1962 with Time/Life International. I have lived most of my life in Mexico City and Guadalajara. Now I live in San Miguel de Allende.  So far I’ve publish three books, The Crystal Bull, The Line/La Línea and Mexico Behind the Mask, which was released in January of this year.

JA: Where did the book’s title, Mexico Behind the Mask, come from, and what does it mean?

BB: It comes from The Labyrinth of Solitude written by Octavio Paz. It’s about what most Mexicans are aware of in their past history but would rather keep hidden from the rest of the world. To quote Octavio Paz, “The impression Mexicans create is like the Orientals, hermetic and indecipherable.” He also said, “Mexicans instinctively regard the world around them as dangerous. The reaction is justifiable if we consider what Mexican history has been and the society Mexicans have created.”

JA: What is Mexico Behind the Mask about?

BB: It’s about Mexico’s tangled history, from the early arrival of the Aztecs to their fall at the hands of Hernán Cortés. It’s the story of the Mexican Revolution and the disastrous agrarian reform laws that followed, and the trajectory of Mexico’s standing as one of the wealthiest countries in the world to its status, until recently, as a member of the third world. The book includes contemporary events related to immigration issues, the drug war along the border, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

JA: Why did you choose the painting “Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda” (“Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park”), by Diego Rivera, as the cover illustration for your book?

BB: I wanted to emphasis the significance of the calavera catrina figure in the Rivera mural from his point of view. It signifies “a parody of vanity,” vanity being one of the curses of the Porfirian era (1876–1910), as well as the death of one Mexico and the birth of a new one resulting from the Mexican Revolution (1910–1929) and, more recently, the slow death of postrevolutionary Mexico and the beginning of a new Mexico from about 1985 to the present.

JA: What is the main idea you want to communicate with this book?

BB: Mexico and the United States are like Siamese twins: the heads may disagree but the bodies have to learn to live with each other. Another theme would be that between neighbors, the United States and Mexico, current events require an understanding of the past.

JA: Where do you think the mistrust between both nations comes from?

BB: Simply put, the United States invaded Mexico in the 1830s, 1846–1848, 1914 and 1916. Mexico has a long memory. After all, the United States annexed 50 percent of its national territory. The United States, on the other hand, resents having over 11 million illegal Mexicans in its national territory.

JA: From your point of view, what do you see as the future relationship between Mexico and the United States?

BB: Mexico is changing despite the continued opposition of political forces that want to maintain their unchecked power of the past. The Unites States understands that Mexico is an important part of its future, especially in the area of trade and as a manufacturing base. After all, they share a 2,000-mile border.

JA: Why would an expat living in San Miguel want to read Mexico Behind the Mask?

BB: I have lived and worked in Mexico since the 1960s, and over time I have come to realize how little Americans know about the host country they live in.

JA: Do you think your personal circumstances of being an expat living in Mexico and your own cultural baggage give you a different point of view?

BB: Why do you think I got published? Yes, I think it gives me another insight. I believe credibility is everything. One of my strongest endorsements is the statement made by the former ambassador to Mexico (1993–1997) James Jones, and I quote: “The author has combined Mexican history with his own experiences across many years living in Mexico. A well-informed book, especially as it pertains to my time in Mexico as ambassador.”

JA: Where can your book be found here in San Miguel?

BB: It can be purchased at La Tienda in La Biblioteca and is part of the Biblioteca’s collection.

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