Sam Quinones
"Telethons, Talk Shows, and Dead Dinosaurs: The Unnoticed Moments of Mexico's Transition to Democracy"

October 31, 2001


Sam Quinones at the Graduate School of Journalism

The Unnoticed Moments of Mexico's Transition
Ivan Carvalho, Graduate School of Journalism

On October 31st, journalist and author Sam Quinones spoke before a group of 50 students and faculty at North Gate Hall. In his talk, "Telethons, Talk Shows, and Dead Dinosaurs: The Unnoticed Moments of Mexico's Transition to Democracy," he highlighted some of the changes in Mexican society that contributed to the loss of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional in the July 2000 presidential election.

Quinones argued that while many observers have cited Vicente Fox's presidency as the beginning of a new era, really Mexico has long been undergoing a transformation. "By the end of my first year [as a journalist in Mexico] in 1994 I felt I was watching history in the making," said Quinones, 42. He stressed that this history was not defined by a single dramatic event, like the fall of the Berlin Wall, but was rather a gradual loosening of the PRI's grip on power.

Many important moments in Mexico's transition to democracy did not generate headlines, especially in the American media, Quinones said. In his view, the U.S. press typically focused on a handful of Mexican issues: for example drug trafficking, immigration, and trade relations. Quinones drew upon his seven years as a freelance writer in Mexico to offer what he perceives to be some of Mexico's pivotal transitional moments.

First, Quinones described the 1997 rise of telethons, fundraisers led by company and charity workers for causes such as helping handicapped children. He stated that these telethons were a challenge to the PRI's traditional role as the sole provider of Mexican public services.

Sam Quinones

Another of Quinones' examples was the emergence of political talk shows. Quinones explained that in 1995 former president Ernesto Zedillo decided to lower restrictions on the media. Soon after, Quinones noted, there was an increase of dissent on the airwaves. In particular, radio shows started playing Los Tigres del Norte's, "El Circo," a song that criticized Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a former PRI president who had been linked to a corruption case. It was an instant hit and was accompanied by a cottage industry of paraphernalia including caricature masks of Salinas. Quinones said that this overt criticism of the PRI was a sign, however small, that Mexican society was changing.

Quinones also mentioned the shift in plot lines of the country's wildly popular soap operas, telenovelas. He explained that the one party state had long used them as a propaganda tool--portraying a world focused exclusively on Cinderella stories that had little to do with the social reality of most Mexicans. But in 1996 stories concerning the drug cartels, migrant workers, and even political corruption began to emerge. This was important because it offered people a glimpse of real life problems and raised questions about whether the PRI was addressing them.

Quinones also discussed some of the keys to the PRI's longevity in governing Mexico. The party was able to survive, he argued, because unlike other one party regimes it did not rely on a core ideology. Rather, it sought to buy off or co-opt interest groups. "The PRI was like Tammany Hall but on a national scale," said Quinones, referring to the corrupt Democratic political machine that ran Manhattan in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Often, he said, the PRI looked the other way so long as people kept voting for it. As an example he told the story of a cult town, Nueva Jerusalem, run by an ex-communicated priest who claimed to have contact with the Virgin of Guadalupe. The town was permitted to exist outside of Mexican law, he said, because the villagers consistently voted overwhelmingly for the PRI.

Quinones also touched on Mexico's impressive run in the 1998 World Cup soccer tournament in France. "Before there was an intense fatalism in society," he said, observing that many people believed that the outcomes of events, political or athletic, were predetermined. But with the national team's solid showing, Quinones detected a change in people's outlook. This was recognized by the Vicente Fox campaign, Quinones said, in their adoption of the slogan of the national team: "si se puede."

In the question and answer session Quinones reiterated the importance of Ernesto Zedillo's loosening of media controls in the mid-1990s. He also suggested that former Mexico City mayor and presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas had the same problem as the PRI of not being able to update his platform to address the changing times.

Sam Quinones

Further description of Quinones' experiences as a writer in Mexico can be found in his recently published book, True Tales from Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino, and the Bronx (University of New Mexico Press). For more information on Sam Quinones, visit


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