Former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda spends four months out of the year teaching in New York, and when he looks toward home his optimism mixes with worry.
In Manana Forever? Castaneda tries to encapsulate the paradoxes and promises of his country. He writes that Mexico will achieve the benefits of modernity "only if its soul ceases to be a burden for its people, if its character and culture become instruments of change, and no longer of immobility."
But that's not to say Mexicans haven't accomplished anything.
"Roughly since 1996," Castaneda tells NPR's Neal Conan, "economic stability — financial stability — has made it possible for the country now to become a majority middle-class society."
That fact, he says, surprises many Americans — and many Mexicans too.
"We continue to have a very negative view of ourselves in Mexico," he says, "continuing to believe that this is a country of a few fabulously wealthy individuals and an enormous majority of poor people."
It may have been the case in the past, he says, but it's not the case anymore. According to Castaneda, today's large middle-class society has become incompatible with the radical, extreme Mexican individualism that helped the country weather five centuries of adversity.
Castaneda says that while the "rabid" individualism inherent in the Mexican psyche surprises many, there's a long list of ways in which that mentality manifests itself in Mexican culture.
"We have no class-action suits in Mexico," he points out. "We have no high-rise residential buildings in Mexico — poor, middle class or upper class, Mexicans don't like to live in common apartments. ... We're terrible at team sports. ... But we're good at individual sports. And perhaps most significantly, we participate less in all sorts of associative practices."
To put it simply: Mexicans don't choose to join groups. Castaneda says that's because, historically, the Mexican state imposed itself so overwhelmingly upon civil society that it was impossible for people to organize.
"So Mexicans began — from the very beginning, from the Conquest practically, when they weren't really Mexicans — to find individual solutions to collective problems," he says.
Take emigration as an example: "With the exception of El Salvador and Ecuador today, Mexico is the country in the world that has the largest share of its population living abroad," Castaneda says.
In other words, Mexicans prefer to find individual solutions to collective problems by leaving.
But individualism isn't Mexico's only problem. Mistrust of the government — which is connected to that individualism — is another factor. So when Mexican politicians do wrong, Castaneda says, the populace largely reacts with hands-off cynicism.
"Mexico's tremendous aversion to conflict and confrontation and competition," he says, "almost obliges Mexican society not to confront its politicians, not to confront its elites, not to confront its leaders, but simply put up with it."
He says institutional change has helped Mexico move toward modernity, in spite of its national character. "The advent of rotation in power since 1997 has made a huge difference in corruption at the federal level."
But changing attitudes at the bottom could do even more for eradicating corruption. It's a more obscure goal, but Castaneda says he thinks it's possible thanks to what he's learned about Mexican nationals who moved to the U.S. in the past 10 to 15 years.
"They do change," he says. "Not only do they change; they transmit their changes back home."
Thanks to that, attitudes and conceptions are slowly beginning to change in Mexico as well.