Gentrifying Mexico's 'Bronx'
With Power Shifting, Backbenchers Mind Their Manners
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
MEXICO CITY -- Hold the raspberries: The Bronx is dying.
The loudest and rudest back-row section of the Mexican Congress, where
legislators have long hurled sometimes boozy insults and jeers, is known
by the name of
the New York City borough that Mexicans, for some reason, think represents such behavior.
For years, whistles, hoots and howls of "Fatso!" "Liar!" "Pinocchio!"
and "Yellow-bellied chicken!" have echoed from the back benches of the
Chamber of Deputies. Legislators had no real function anyway, working in a body that for decades was just a puppet of the supremely powerful president. So, many
found heckling from their desks more entertaining than napping.
But now Bronx cheers are giving way to Manhattan manners in a Congress
that suddenly finds itself taken seriously. Recent elections have unlocked
Revolutionary Party's 71-year full nelson on political power and created a more balanced system in which Congress and President Vicente Fox have to work
together. Once-ignored legislators now find their telephone calls returned and their neighbors impressed. A top Fox cabinet member invited lawmakers over for a
movie and popcorn to court them. Lobbyists who used to focus all their efforts on the president now schmooze with members of Congress.
Puckering up and making raspberries no longer seems appropriate, and
the bad boys of the Bronx are now debating bills using words longer than
four letters. It is as
if Yankee Stadium suddenly were hosting the ballet and the mustard-stained guys in the bleachers were asked to help with the choreography.
"There's more of a debate of ideas now; people are asking more questions,
getting more answers," said Eddie Varon Levy, a congressional leader in
Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Levy said Congress still has its occasional shouting and heckling, but the organized jeering of the Bronx is dying because "many people
are more involved, they're learning and they want to reason their votes."
Critics have long pressed for a more professional Congress. Under the
current system, legislators cannot be reelected to a consecutive term.
That gives them no
incentive to represent their constituents, the critics say, leaving those people beholden to party elders who have the power to pass out jobs and favors.
But in Mexico's shifting balance of power, more powerful rank-and-file
legislators no longer have to scream to be heard. Fox has been courting
them because he
needs their support to pass two pieces of legislation critical to his administration: the most radical change in tax structure in years and a historic Indian rights bill that
has been likened to U.S. civil rights legislation of the 1960s.
With all the attention, lawmakers have not felt the need lately to scream
or dress up in Babe the pig masks, as one legislator did during a state
of the union speech by
then-President Ernesto Zedillo. And they have not pulled the kind of stunt Fox himself did in 1988 when he was a member of Congress, addressing the chamber
while wearing sheets of paper over his ears to mock the large ears of the PRI's Carlos Salinas de Gortari, then president-elect.
Lately there have not even been any fistfights, flour-throwing or egg
antics. A female Bronx member once presented a male legislative leader
with a basket of eggs. In
Mexico, the Spanish word for eggs is also slang for a delicate part of the male anatomy. The woman said, essentially, if you don't have them, you can have some of
mine. The chamber howled.
Francisco Peralta, a former judge and PRI legislator from Tabasco state
from 1994 to 1997, wrote four books based on his experience as a Bronx
member. He said
he arrived in Congress hoping to do good work, only to discover that the party leaders wanted him to simply follow orders. Peralta said he was happy to see the old
system dying because, while sometimes very funny, it "denigrated the chamber and compromised the process."
Still, Congress has not completely abandoned its more colorful means
of communication. When Fox delivered his inaugural address in December,
he faced shouts
and jeers from a large number of PRI legislators. Leading the chanting, pointing an accusing finger at Fox, was Eduardo Andrade, a veteran PRI legislator from
"Now it's different; it still can be effective when somebody expresses
his point of view in a noisy way," Andrade said. "But there's no Bronx
section anymore. It's
more nebulous and ambiguous now. Sometimes I scream, but not always."