In the Americas, few countries are as expert in the business of magic as Mexico. Romance, illusion, cocaine -- fantasy is Mexico's growing export, more important than burritos or the eager hands of its migrant workers.
Last week's midday murder of Paco Stanley, Mexico's beloved comic and TV talk-show host, forced millions of Mexicans to recognize reality: Mexico has become a violent, criminal society. Over and over, Stanley's bullet-ridden minivan was shown on TV.
Within a day, Mexico City's attorney general announced that Stanley (in whose face were embedded 26 rounds) was in possession of cocaine at the time of his death. Suddenly Mexicans were forced to wonder if Paco Stanley's real life was more complicated than his TV persona.
The disjunction between reality and illusion is not only a Mexican problem. While the U.S. Border Patrol has tried to stop Mexican peasants from slipping into San Diego, American teenagers have developed a taste for a style of professional wrestling known in Mexico as lucha libre. Luchadors specialize in sequins and bluster and high-risk acrobatics. And while some American nativists may still worry about Spanish becoming our second language, the more important language coming from Mexico is a surreal grammar of love. Or haven't you noticed? "Days of Our Lives" is suddenly starting to look like a Mexican telenovela with nuns and magic and the demonic -- all part of the drama of love.
On the other hand, watching soaps on Televisa, Mexico's largest television network, is like watching Swedish TV. Some years ago, a senior executive at Televisa justified the absence of brown faces on the screen by wondering, Who wants to see unattractive people on television?
Especially before cocaine was found on the corpse, Paco Stanley's murder sparked a very public argument about who was to blame. Some attacked the ineptitude of Mexico City Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano, the nation's foremost leftist, expected to run for president next year. Others attacked the ruling party, the PRI, notorious for its ties to organized crime.
The discovery of the cocaine changed everything. Suddenly the popular Mexican habit of blaming someone else for the problems of Mexico was undercut by the possibility that the victim was also responsible.
But who could say? Perhaps, one Mexican friend said to me, the drugs were planted on the body? By week's end, many Mexicans were safely back in the realm of uncertainty, where rumors drift like ghosts.
From Monterrey, economic powerhouse of Mexico, where capitalism's value for Mexico is daily evident, a professor phoned. Few intellectuals in Monterrey are much concerned with the television dramas of Mexico City, the professor said. Most Monterrey intellectuals, in the Mexican capital of capitalism, are either Marxists or right-wing Catholics.
What else is new in Monterrey? I asked.
The rich kids and the poor kids are dancing together in the clubs, the professor said. Democratic decadence. And they are all taking cocaine because they think it is modern and it will make them more American.
It's an old habit on both sides of the border. Mexicans blame Americans for moral contamination. Americans imagine that Mexican drug lords have infected their innocent teens. The latter view, I think, has led recently to a gringo romanticism for Latin toy boys, apparent in the sudden popularity of Ricky Martin.
There he was, staring at us last week from the cover of "TV Guide": Martin, dusty blond and cute, is the sort of neighbor many Americans wish we truly had in Latin America, the ideal boy next door, nothing at all like the pockmarked Latin drug lords we otherwise fear.
Sixty years ago, grandpa dipped into "Tia'wanna" to find cheap sexual fantasy. Thirty years later, American hippies went into the desert of northern Mexico, looking for a brujo who might dispense the secrets of the enchanted mushroom.
More recently, American intellectuals, as well as middle-class readers, have grown fond of "magical realism." The bestselling Mexican novel in the United States was a novel called "Like Water for Chocolate." Lovers kiss and butterflies come out of their mouths. Old Indian women float.
Twenty years ago, after a Mexico City appearance of Gabriel Garcma Marquez, I remember seeing long lines of Germans and Americans, waiting for the autograph of the master illusionist. I wondered, then, why magical realism had become the easiest way for Europeans and Americans to read Latin America.
The fact is that more and more North Americans are becoming like Latin Americans -- seduced by magic away from reality. To that extent the border between fiction and nonfiction, North and South, is blurring.
Las Vegas, our capital of mirage, is the fastest-growing city in America. Televisa, the largest Spanish-language broadcaster in the world, specializes in blond.
Last Tuesday, Paco Stanley's fans came to his funeral. It was a scene out of Nathanael West. Gravestones were overturned by the grieving mob. Family and relatives were pushed by the crowd. At one point, the crowd nearly overturned the coffin.
Outside the crypt, the crowd chanted, demanding "justicia." Inside, a television camera had been installed so that the nation could bid its beloved comic a last goodbye.