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The Geography and Dynamics of Modern Mexico
By Richard Rhoda and Tony Burton
Sombrero Books, B.C., Canada, 2010
A Review by James Tipton
I have several long shelves that hold books about Mexico. This is, after all, my home, my country, and I want to know as much about it as I can. On top of those shelves is a short shelf, some favorites that I refer to often. Today I squeezed those short-shelf books a bit closer, and slipped in Geo-Mexico: The Geography and Dynamics of Modern Mexico, by Richard Rhoda and Tony Burton, a remarkable and very readable study of the 11th largest nation on earth (in terms of population) whose “ecological and cultural richness and global importance” often are not recognized.
And, write Richard Rhoda and Tony Burton, geography itself “is also often under-appreciated, equated with memorizing the names of countries, capitals, mountain ranges and rivers. ‘Real’ geography is much more exciting! It focuses on the interactions between individuals, societies and the physical environment in both time and space. Geography looks at the processes behind these interactions and how human activities have helped define them. It also seeks to explain similarities and differences between places.”
Rhoda and Burton have also provided “More than 100 original maps, graphs and diagrams” and “Over 50 text boxes highlight illustrative examples and case studies.”
Some of these text boxes are a lot of fun. For example, in “Mexico’s place names” we discover that the meanings of suffixes derived from indigenous (mostly Nahuatl) words include:
-apan = in/near water or river
-calco = in the house of
-huacan, -oacan –place where they have
-pan = in/on
-tepec = hill
In a chapter on population, we discover that Mexico is the most population-dense country in the Americas: 55 people/square kilometer compared to USA at 31, Bolivia at 8, and Canada at 3. We learn that Mexican life expectancy in the 1930s was only 37 years, compared to 75 years today. And we learn that (fortunately) fertility rates have plummeted from eight children on average per woman in the 1950s to 2.1 on average in 2010.
In a chapter on indigenous people, again in a text box, we learn that Mexico abolished slavery in 1829; and in those 36 years before the US abolished slavery, more than 4000 US slaves fled south to Mexico. Incidentally, “About 85% of indigenous households are below the Mexican poverty line and over half live in ‘extreme poverty’. Over one third of houses lack electricity and over half lack piped water.”
In a chapter on religion we find that although “the population remains predominantly Catholic, allegiance to the church has declined steadily since 1970. In 1970 96% of the population five years of age and older identified themselves as Roman Catholic. By the 2000 census the figure had fallen to 88%.”
Regarding the future? A lot of hope. The Mexican government program Oportunidades “is one of the most-studied social programs on the planet.” Through nutrition, health care education, and some financial assistance, this program helps families overcome poverty. Through financial incentives to the family, Oportunidades encourages children to attend school, and after completion of each grade, the family is rewarded with additional incentives. Only 4% of the administrative budget of $3.6 billion dollars goes toward administration. Five million families are helped (about 1/4th of all Mexican families), mostly in marginal communities. “In eleven years what has been achieved? Enrollment in junior high schools has risen 30% for 14-year-olds. The graduation rate from high schools is 23% higher.” Exciting!
Richard Rhoda and Tony Burton, both residents (or former residents) of Mexico, are well-known for their writings about Mexico (too extensive to list here.) This joint effort, Geo-Mexico: The Geography and Dynamics of Modern Mexico, is a “must have” book for those of us hooked on this magnificent country.