Mexico’s First Lady among the best dressed… and that’s about it for now


Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Mexico’s First Lady among the best dressed… and that’s about it for now“, published on March 22nd, 2013. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

In a recent online article, Vanity Fair mentioned Angélica Rivera –wife of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto–among the top-10 best dressed first ladies in the world. The piece was innocent enough and not unlike the lighthearted articles usually included in this publication. And yet, the article caught wildfire and was highlighted in Mexico’s mainstream media and newspapers, as if making the list was an incredible achievement and a coveted award.

Why is this? My best guess is that since Ms. Rivera has been out of the spotlight since she married and campaigned with Peña Nieto, the President’s PR team grabbed ahold of what they could to give her some sort of national print exposure. If this is the case, staying true to her past as a telenovela star, it seems the most we should expect from her in the coming years will be a pretty face in a pretty dress and a lovely TV smile.

The first 100 days of Peña Nieto’s presidency have come and gone and any political analyst would likely conclude that, whether you agree with his politics or not, the President’s team is doing a good job of portraying him as a hands-on leader who gets the job done. In recent weeks he’s made headlines by pushing forward a much-needed Education Reform, a Victims Protection Law and new Telecom policies.  Getting rid of Elba Esther Gordillo, the leader of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (National Teachers Union—SNTE), certainly boosted Peña Nieto’s numbers as well.  And while I would not argue that the first lady’s role should be as relevant as the elected official’s, a look back at Rivera’s track record after the first 100 days in the Presidential residence of Los Pinos, reveals a blank slate and missed opportunities.

Traditionally, Mexico’s first lady is awarded the honorary position of president of the Sistema Nacional para el Desarrollo Integral de la Familia México (Integral Family Development National System Advisory Board—DIF).  Rivera accepted the role just a couple of weeks ago, having remained in the shadows up until then.

In Mexico’s history, the role of first lady has had its ups and downs, but in general, civil society does not expect the wives of Mexican presidents to be protagonists. In fact, most people tend to forget them a couple of years after their husbands’ terms end. But Rivera is not your run-of-the-mill first lady and if Peña Nieto’s team is intelligent, they will know that this time different rules apply.

Unlike other Mexican first ladies, Rivera was famous long before she became Peña Nieto’s wife, due to her career as a Televisa actress. Her nickname, “La Gaviota,” refers to a character she played in the telenovelaDestilando Amor.” When she married Peña Nieto, the public perceived it as an arranged marriage, thought out by the big heads in the PRI party and the telecommunications giant Televisa, to create the perfect candidate to return the PRI to power. After series of public gaffes, the public perceived both Rivera and the President as incompetent, shallow (but very handsome) puppets of the powers that be. After their marriage, social media went crazy, portraying Rivera as a bimbo who’s only positive attributes where her looks. Old pictures of her wearing a bikini inspired a series of jokes and memes.

As a former pop celebrity with a Barbie doll façade, Rivera is and will be under much more pressure and public scrutiny than her predecessors. Selling her to the Mexican public and the world as “one of the best dressed” just makes it easier for PRI detractors to continue accusing the couple of being a PRI-Televisa precooked dish, served specially for a dumbed-down, but hungry for junk food, citizenry.

In its article, Vanity Fair placed Rivera among good (and very stylish) company, including Queen Rania of Jordan and U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama. But whereas Obama has taken a leadership role in the U.S. by advocating healthy living and exercise and Queen Rania’s education and social work has arguably made her even more popular than King Abdullah II himself, La Gaviota’s past as a model, actress and failed singer, is not something a lot of first ladies would brag about.

If harnessed correctly, Rivera’s stardom could actually catapult her to a new role as a promoter of Mexico’s social well-being. Look at Shakira’s and Ricky Martin’s incursions in nonprofit causes in the region. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that fame is a great catalyst for driving the social agenda in Latin America—and arguably the world (greetings, Bono). But it seems that with Rivera, the PR team that created the Presidential match-made-in-heaven has not yet picked up on this potential.

If the Atlacomulco and Azcárraga puppet-masters want to ensure their investment works and the PRI remains in power longer than six years, their strategy has to be bullet-proof. Among other things, if they really want to make sure that people buy this “new” PRI that’s got its act together, they can’t allow Mexico’s low expectations of Rivera’s performance as first lady to come true. A pretty dress will only get you so far.

Mexico: No Country for Old Tourists?


Here is a link to an article I publishd on AQBlog, titled “Mexico: No Country for Old Tourists?” on March 15th, 2013. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

Mexicans are used to hearing this: “in spite of the violence and insecurity, the Mexican economy is booming and attracting foreign direct investment.” After a recent visit to Monterrey, even Thomas L. Friedman wrote for The New York Times about this in “How Mexico Got Back in the Game,” providing a positive outlook on Mexico’s ability to compete in the global market. Then again, macroeconomics is just part of the story.

Yes, Mexico is becoming an attractive place for U.S. and Europe to invest. The commercial and technical factors to take advantage of are there. However, our current competitive position vs. China and other manufacturing countries should not downplay the fact that drug-related violence is directly affecting certain hotspots in the country. While the flow of foreign direct investment may continue and even flourish, both the reality and perceptions of violence in Mexico are damaging tourism. Brand Mexico is tail-spinning and losing value when it comes to vacation destinations. This should matter to a country that the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) called the eighth most visited nation in the world in 2007.

Cities like Guanajuato, Los Cabos, Manzanillo, Puerto Vallarta, Cancún, and Acapulco depend on capital influx from foreign and national visitors, especially during vacation seasons like spring break and summer. Yet, Acapulco is set to register an all-time low for tourism this season. Congresswoman and Tourism Commission Representative Karen Castrejón Trujillo recently told the press that up to 80 percent of Acapulco’s hotel reservations that had been blocked earlier in the year have been cancelled since six Spanish tourists were raped while vacationing there. Only 300 of the original 5000 foreign visitors forecasted for this season (already an all-time low), will brave the trip. Imagine the implications for local businesses there. And even worse, isolated but high-profile cases like the violence in Acapulco or the border town of Reynosa are hurting the whole country’s reputation, just like the Zapatista guerilla conflict (which was contained to a couple of cities in the southeast of Mexico) did in 1994-1995, when foreigners were afraid to travel anywhere in the country because “they’re at war.”

Now, the Tourism Ministry is doing an exemplary job of trying to sell the Visit Mexico brand all over the world, but no amount of marketing will overcome the bad press about a crime situation perceived as widespread and out of control. There is no way that a beautiful ad highlighting the rich culture, cuisine, landscape and many more things the country has to offer, will supersede warnings like the one the U.S. Department of State issued on November 2012, telling vacationers, “we won’t tell you not to go there, but if you do, you’re on your own.” It’s no wonder South Padre Island in Texas is recording an all-time high domestic tourist season this year.

Friedman may be right about our ability to attract FDI, but is it enough of a consolation prize if investors are willing to send their money into Mexico just as long as they don’t have to visit it?

Mexico’s Supreme Court Ruling a Step Toward Greater Tolerance


Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Mexico’s Supreme Court Ruling a Step Toward Greater Tolerance“, published on March 8th, 2013. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

If there is one thing Mexico’s men are famous for, it is the celebration of being macho. We see this everywhere: In telenovelas, the butch and handsome male protagonist becomes the hero only after he conquers the lovely señorita by wooing her with his macho chivalry. It is common to hear traditional male fathers telling their sons “real men don’t cry.”

A number of consumer products also cater to this very innate part of the Mexican heterosexual male’s existence through marketing, which might be considered as sexist in other cultures. The macho element also permeates humor; viewed through the optics of U.S. culture it no doubt be deemed much more than politically incorrect. This is not a matter of right or wrong, but rather a plain and simple recognition of who we are as a culture today.

On March 6, however, Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN) took a decision that could lead to a shift in the way Mexican machos coexist with homosexuality, which today is regularly mocked. Mexican insults such as “maricón” or “puñal” (derogatory terms for “gay male”) are thrown around in colloquial talk with as much disdain as the word “pansy” in the English language. But the Supreme Court decided that such expressions are not protected by freedom of speech and can be subject to lawsuit on the basis of moral harm.

The split 3-2 judicial decision is probably an accurate proportion of how Mexican society would view the subject. Some view this as a step toward inclusion and tolerance. Others see this as unnecessary ruling and censorship of what has traditionally been acceptable humor.

The approved ruling states that “Homophobic expressions, that is, language consistent in inferring that homosexuality is not a valid option, but rather a condition of inferiority, constitute discriminatory manifestations. This includes the use of such terms in humorous use, given that through them, intolerance toward homosexuality is incited, promoted and justified.” The ruling goes on to acknowledge that these expressions are part of common use in Mexico’s culture by stating that, “while these expressions are strongly embedded in Mexican society’s language, practices by the majority of a population cannot validate violations to fundamental rights.”

As with most countries and cultures, gender diversity is slowly but surely (granted, more slowly than us progressive thinkers would like) moving forward.

The antigay sentiments and comments common in previous generations are less present with youth today, even if the male macho is still a predominant figure in our culture. But the SCJN’s ruling, if harnessed correctly, can be a powerful boost toward a more open and tolerant society. If really enforced, this ruling could create a huge shift in approved TV content for example, which is a powerful vehicle in our culture. Today, many humor programs make fun of LGBT individuals by portraying them as inferior and/or exaggerating stereotypical effeminate traits, thus teaching that these expressions are acceptable in society. With the ruling, this type of humor could hold TV companies liable and perhaps motivate them to change their content. In an ideal scenario, this would extend to TV companies that shield themselves from responsibility by stating, “we give people what they want to see.”

While enforceability of this ruling in everyday social interaction and situations proves complicated, the institutionalization of hate humor in printed media and television can be affected. This is, in a way, something similar to the shift made with regard to cultural acceptance of smoking. When did smoking stop being cool? Many would say it was when we stopped seeing it as acceptable in TV and later in social occasions. Even if it takes a couple of generations to accept, typifying homophobic slurs as hate speech is a celebratory step toward social inclusion and tolerance in Mexican culture.

*Arjan Shahani is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He lives in Monterrey, Mexico, and is an MBA graduate from Thunderbird University and Tecnológico de Monterrey and a member of the International Advisory Board of Global Majority—an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of non-violent conflict resolution.