When noted historian and journalist Andrew Paxman abandoned Jack Kerouac and the United States for Gabriel García Márquez and Latin America, the stage was set for his eventual move to Mexico.
The co-author of “El Tigre: Emilio Azcárraga y su imperio Televisa” (Emilio Azacárraga and his Televisa Empire), spoke recently with The News about his life and work.
A native of London, Paxman hitchhiked around the United States and Canada under the influence of American beat writer Jack Kerouac while an exchange student at the University of Delaware in the late eighties.
However, when he read García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in a class on the modern novel, he found a new guru.
“García Márquez so captured my imagination,” Paxman said over coffee at a Cielito Querido Café in the Del Valle neighborhood.
Later, while traveling through Mexico ostensibly on his way to García Márquez’s Colombia, he became very frustrated with the slowness of the train he was taking to Mexico City. A Mexican stranger struck up a conversation with him and took Paxman to his home for lunch.
“Just a random stranger invited me to his home for lunch,” Paxman said. “Right from the start I found Mexicans to be very friendly.”
This new-found friend took him to the bus station after they ate with his family. Paxman was so impressed with Mexico City that he came back and lived with a Mexican family that let rooms to students.
The author found both English- and Spanish-speaking friends in the Youth group at Union Church in Las Lomas neighborhood.
In the early nineties Paxman worked for a couple of years at The News, doing arts coverage and features during what he called the newspaper’s golden years. At that time there were 20 reporters and 10 editors, according to Paxman. It was an exciting time to be a reporter in Mexico as there was much modernization under the administration of Carlos Salinas de Gortari and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was in its formative stages.
“The government mantra was ‘modernization,’” Paxman said. “It was a fascinating experience being a young reporter.”
One of the changes was clamping down on taxi drivers who would claim their meters were broken so they could charge whatever they wanted for fare. Others included cleaning up the electoral process and the government no longer paying the transportation expenses for reporters who traveled with the president. Since then, Paxman believes, there has been some backsliding.
Paxman’s fascination with political economy and his desire to explain the why and how of things to readers led him to pen a biography of Televisa magnate Emilio Azcárraga. Written with Claudia Fernández, it was the top-selling nonfiction book in Mexico in 2000.
Paxman did not get any cooperation from Televisa for his project, but after layoffs was able to find plenty of ex-Televisa executives who were willing to talk to him.
Paxman, who has a PhD in history from the University of Texas at Austin, has since gone solo to write on a biography of Tennessee farm boy William Jenkins. Jenkins moved to Mexico and became the richest man in the country and the industrialist gringo Mexicans most loved to hate. That book, titled “En busca del Señor Jenkins Dinero, Poder y Gringofobia En Mexico” (In search of Mr. Jenkins Money, Power and Gringophobia in Mexico), will come out in Spanish in Mexico in November and in English this spring.
Paxman’s third book, on which he has just started work, takes telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim as its subject. Slim used to vie with Bill Gates for the moniker of the world’s richest person from 2007 to 2014.
Paxman, who teaches journalism and history at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in Mexico City, said he has chosen magnates as the subjects of his books because much history can be explained by studying them.
The Aguascalientes resident said that a lot can be learned through looking at crony capitalism and the interdependence of the government with major industrialists.
In 1920, 80 percent of Mexicans were illiterate and in order to fulfill the promises of the Mexican Revolution, the government needed industrialists as much as the industrialists needed it, according to Paxman.
“Business needed government to soft-pedal the 1917 constitution,” Paxman said.
Some of the things that industry wanted played down were labor rights, redistributing land and nationalizing some industries, Paxman said. The interdependence between industry and government will be a major theme in his biography of Slim, according to the historian.